It’s almost over. I’m not sure if I’m referring to the world or the year but in any case, it’s almost done. Like most, I’m hopeful for the new year but I’m keeping one cynical eye open. I do want things to change, I want to be able to see bands live again, I want to talk to musicians face to face, I want to eat a late-night burrito after being out until the wee hours. Well, maybe not so late but you understand. Life away from others all the time is dreadful, but we must distance for obvious reasons.
One thing that we still have though are new things – or old things that are presented to us again. That brings us face-to-face with The Coathangers self-titled (Suicide Squeeze) debut. Well, it’s the reissue of the band’s first album with some bonuses. It’s fully remastered and gives us all a look and feel on the band’s early days. No, it’s not bad, and better than most. I can dig it.
There are moments on occasion when excitement can’t be contained, and with a new release by Son Lux, I don’t think anyone could be blamed for it. The trio of Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang, share the new release Tomorrows II (City Slang), which is part II of its three-part body of work, which follows Tomorrows I which was released just a few months back in August. Releasing Tomorrows in three parts surely allows the group some wiggle room to translate its ideas concisely and effectively. It does so in grandiose fashion with the utmost humility.
Lott, Bhatia, and Chang all contribute so much to Son Lux’s unique compositions and movements, and while it may come across as a low keyed affair, it’s amazing technically. Lott’s vocals, augmented by the musical backdrop are for the most part tender, fragile, and on the brink of falling apart. His lyricism for the most part is melancholic reeling through an emotional abyss with hopeless abandon. It’s not always gloom and doom though, the beauty within the music can be found at just about every turn. The emotive piano notes on “Warning” match Lott in evoking the sadness from his words but it’s majestic as the light touches of percussion are scattered throughout. Other sounds are filtered through the song and convey a sense of relief, giving the track a bit more texture. But it’s “Molecules,” with it’s intentional yet scattershot percussion doesn’t detract from everything else happening throughout the song as strings bleed in and out, and the plink of pianos are well-positioned.
Now while Son Lux is a challenging listen no matter which direction it moves in and out of, “Prophecy” is quite the surprise. The song straddles pop culture as best it can while running concurrently within the band’s aesthetic. This is as close to a mainstream number the trio will ever get close to and it’s perfect. The bass line leads the track as instruments like backing soulful harmonies, soft jazz-like guitar lines, and strings all embellish and build around it. Easily a favorite track through its wondrous enchantment. “Apart” comes in at a close second as far as pop songs are concerned listeners may find its rhythm pace challenging although it’s something we should all come to expect. The wind instruments and flow in and out of the background, executed wickedly, filling in spaces where it’s needed and the way the song ebbs and flows is stunning.
The band has the advantage of traveling between genres, not fitting within each yet comfortable alongside them. I’m drawn in again, this time with “Live Another Life” where the group melancholia runs rampant here, commanding, no, demanding for listeners’ full attention. Here Lott’s vocals, or rather his lyricism, reek of exhaustion. The band builds around his words, never faltering, as the music slowly crescendos until it pauses, and the strings breathe life back into it! The thickness of the cello is wrapped by Lott’s overdubbed vocal harmonies before it’s inevitable end.
Son Lux closes with the atmospheric instrumental “Borrowed Eyes” in under 2-minutes. The song is vibrant, and to be honest, I would have preferred if it lengthier. The sweetness around it is infectious. But there’s nothing missing.
I keep thinking about Tomorrows II after it closes, and I’m left wondering if the music is derivative. I think that yes, it is, only that Son Lux is derivative unto itself. In terms of the band, I’m thinking visually. The group creates music like the film, Inception. It warps to fit the need of sound, not the speed of it.
Chicago’s Joan of Arc has gone through a number of incarnations with its membership, the one constant being guitarist/vocalist Tim Kinsella since its inception back in 1995. While the group has been consistent with all its band members since 2012, I never expected any new material to come to fruition, but as Joan of Arc has surprised everyone with Tim Melina Theo Bobby (Joyful Noise Recordings), the group’s final bow. Throughout the years the band has confounded listeners brandishing the skewed pop and noise amalgamation, and here things aren’t much different, albeit more refined.
We should all question if “refined” is the proper term we should use for the album, named after its members which also include Melina Ausikaitis, Theo Katsaounis, and Bobby Burg because it’s much more than that. In the past, Joan of Arc could get away with doing a number of different things which utilized acoustic and electric instrumentation, and occasionally experimenting without form or structure, yet always holding onto the ability to bend time and space within its music. Here though, the band does what it does best; whatever the hell it wants so long as the final product is enticing. And Tim Melina Theo Bobby is all of that.
From the opening “Destiny Revision, the sleek notes strummed and picked on guitars are sweet and sorrowful backed against thick bass notes and light percussion that’s almost mechanical, with a layer of noisy melodies that bleed in and out. Tim’s voice is inviting as the dynamics of the song are purposefully restrained. It’s not trivialized with noisy bombast, opting more for a breeziness. Captured in full effect and noted. The band follows it with “Something Kind” and begins with what could be interpreted as a simple melody as Melina’s stoic vocal delivery doesn’t give a hint of where the track ends up! Her words are compelling and this is where Joan of Arc becomes vibrantly explosive, cueing in a no-wave like experimentation into a well-tuned machine of pop goodness as dynamics shift and the rhythm section manifests its inner beast. Guitars play off one another with dissonant notes illuminating the way. The group clearly doesn’t play by any rules penned out for it, never sticking to one formula but always identifying as JOA.
This isn’t more evident than on “Karma Repair Kit” where the band alludes to delivering a more acoustic-based single, but it quickly transforms into something grandiose as spacy guitars drift off in the background. The music is atmospheric, tense & loose at the same time. The band lets it all go here bridging that gap between experimentation and acoustic pop & jangle. There’s an edginess to it and it’s difficult to not fall in love with it. The band shows its playfulness with “Land Surveyor,” conceptualized around keyboard notes that are quite endearing while the band builds a cascading waterfall around it. It’s an instrumental piece that’s missing nothing. We even find the band buoyantly high-spirited on “Feedback ¾.” The 80s-like synths incorporated will tend to do that, occasionally tossing in a Reggaeton beat, although even they may not be aware of it. It’s trippy and heady all the while remaining catchy. “Cover Letter Song” reads like Tim Kinsella’s resumé, which I’m sure it is, as he lists off all the places he’s worked while pursuing musical dreams. All this over the electronic edginess of synths and keyboards again, adding to the proverbial “everything but the kitchen sink” aesthetic of the band’s workmanship of songs. Is it kitschy or tongue-in-cheek? You decide. Of course I enjoy it!
The band moves in mysterious ways as “Rising Horizon” plays on. Lightly somber, quietly soothing, and completely majestic as Melina allows her voice to be carried off by the waves of instruments. It’s captivating like nothing else on this release and willfully endearing. As the album comes to a close with “Upside Down Bottomless Pit,” the band plays on, seemingly allowing each instrument to follow its own direction and mood. Guitars don’t volley off one another, they move separately although the bass gravitates towards one as drum patterns repeat loosely. Yeah, they give us what we want, like an upside-down bottomless pit.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, Tim Melina Theo Bobby has left quite an impression, one that’s impressive in the group’s ability to challenge listeners. 25 years later, the band has accomplished quite a feat of remaining viable and topical. They’ll be missed but we still have this release, which is one of the band’s most realized works to date.