Category Archives: FEATURES

Kristin Hersh: Metaphysical Graffiti

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Five years in the making, Kristin Hersh releases a double album that stands alongside her best

“People think that I make a bunch of shit up, but I only write non-fiction. The books, the songs. My drummer in 50FOOTWAVE, Rob, asked me one time, ‘Do people know that your songs are all literally true? ’Cuz if they did, they might lose a lot of respect for you.’”

With a wheezy laugh, Kristin Hersh—yes, that Kristin Hersh, she of Throwing Muses, her rowdier 50FOOTWAVE project, the immortal solo collaboration with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (“Your Ghost”) and published author of Rat Girl and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die (two of the finest memoirs about the indie-rock era)—alerts me to a seemingly funny aspect of her art that’s actually dead serious.

Hersh is a diarist capable of evoking towering emotional vistas and yet seemingly incapable of telling a lie, or even a tale. She’s a storyteller in the Truman Capote or Susan Orlean mode—a realist more in touch with the ebbing and flowing of human foibles and frailty than a novelist or fantasist. This makes Hersh’s work both harrowing and healing in equal measure—a razor’s edge ride through the realities she’s survived but with a comfort-food aspect to its truths. She’s lived through this; you can, too.

On Hersh’s ninth solo record in what can only be described as an incredibly prolific career—Wyatt At The Coyote Palace (Omnibus Press), a double-album of dizzying depth, breadth, beauty and darkness—this truth-teller’s aspect of her work is thrust forcefully into the spotlight. Its songs can easily be taken as a conceptual allegory—a twisting tale of isolation and damage, love and loss, the joy of discovery and the erosion of the thin tethers of humanity that keep us connected to one another and those we love—but it’s also a very real portrait of her son Wyatt and his passing fascination with an abandoned building and the coyotes who took up residence there. Wyatt is on the autism spectrum—a difficult subject that Hersh is nonetheless remarkably open in discussing—and his obsessions and attachment to what Hersh says he calls the “beautiful, elegant math” of both music and life are the elements that make the story heartbreaking and inspiring.

“He’s like a story that’s unfolding,” says Hersh. “He tends to look at life through a lens rather than living it. He says he keeps finding the math. I trust the story that he is, and so when I discovered the ‘coyote palace,’ I thought it was just because he was bored. When I bring all four of my kids into the studio, they just want to die, you know? It’s me playing the same guitar part over and over again, and usually they just go to sleep. So I think he discovered the coyote palace out of sheer boredom, and then I noticed the flashing in his eyes, that he was on fire with it. All I did was follow him around the palace, the coyotes who lived in it. And showed it to him. Of course, being the good mother I am, the ceiling fell in at some point, and the trauma of that event triggered the end of his love affair with the coyote palace. At least we weren’t in it at the time.”

The album and corresponding book document her son’s temporary life-focus on the abandoned building and its canine inhabitants in a way that’s both uniquely Hersh-ian and yet all-time beautiful. The packaging binds the two inextricably to one another—a detail Hersh finds amusing, because while CDs tend not to be that valuable to anyone anymore, “A book is still considered a nice gift, so I like the idea of all of it together as, ‘Hey, here’s a present.’”

The record’s mostly acoustic guitars veer back and forth between Nick Drake intricacy and punk-rock jaggedness, its 24 songs caught between descriptions of tough love and gritty city streetscapes and the occasional bright glimpses of tomorrow that poke through the darkness, with the book’s zigzagging narrative nicely accounting for the spaces in between.

It’s been a long, hard road that Hersh has travelled to get to this place, but she seems to have found peace with it all, just the same.

“I have a huge heart, and my heart is just so broken right now,” she says. “I’m never really going to live on this earth, but I can live in my music. I can make it all right. There’s no sad in me with music. There’s nothing but—it’s an overused word, but it’s true—beautiful. ‘Water in the desert’ beautiful. Necessary.”

—Corey duBrowa

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Mike Mills: Not Going Back To Rockville

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R.E.M.’s Mike Mills returns with a foray into classical music

Robert McDuffie is a star. The violinist has been the featured soloist with major symphonies around the world. He plays a $3.5 million violin made in 1735. He has enough clout to commission work from Philip Glass. As a kid in Macon, Ga., he sang in church choirs with his high-school pal Mike Mills, who went on to a different kind of stardom as bassist/pianist/vocalist/songwriter for R.E.M.

The two kept in touch, and not long ago, when McDuffie was looking to commission new music, he floated the idea that Mills write a classical piece. Mills’ first reaction?

“‘This guy’s crazy,’” says Mills from his home in Athens, Ga. “Actually, I found it very intriguing. I knew right away it would be a pretty big challenge, but I thought it was something worth considering.” The result: Mills’ Concerto For Violin, Rock Band And String Orchestra. Mills’ father was a dramatic tenor who sang opera, and the family listened to classical music at home. Mills had a bit role as a street urchin in a performance of Aida when he was nine. His adult relationship with classical music has been less immersive, although he has followed McDuffie’s career and goes to the Atlanta Symphony occasionally.

Mills approached the project as a rock songwriter rather than as a classical composer. “I tried to view it as writing five or six songs, like I would have done for R.E.M., except I had to come up with the main melodies, which would normally have been Michael (Stipe)’s purview,” he says. “To me, melody is always the most important part of a song, and I knew since there would be no lyrics involved here that melody was going to be absolutely essential. So I just worked really hard to come up with the best melodies I could.”

The concerto is full of dramatic moments. It begins with a bass melody, played by Mills, that McDuffie quickly picks up and turns into a wild violin solo. The prominence of the drums, played by Patrick Ferguson, provide a rock ’n’ roll bedrock, as do electric guitars (from John Neff and William Tonks), but McDuffie’s lightning violin lines and the grandeur of the string orchestra (played by students from the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University) identify more as classical.

Writing for a lead violin was another challenge. Mills composed the melodies on a variety of instruments, but he had to imagine how they would translate to the instrument. Arranger David Mallamud was crucial in this role. “There were a lot places a violin could go that I was not familiar,” says Mills. “A lot of bowing techniques that can make a difference, a lot of glissandi and other things.”

R.E.M. fans will immediately recognize one segment, when Mills starts playing the familiar circular piano figure of “Nightswimming.” It also incorporates the oboe part that Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones arranged for the original R.E.M. recording. McDuffie and Mills had performed “Nightswimming” a few times before as a standalone, and McDuffie suggested using it in the concerto. It’s one of the more somber moments in a piece that’s lively, wild and fun.

While some rock songwriters seem to turn to penning a classical opus as a bid for highbrow cred (here’s looking at you, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney), Mills isn’t too worried about pretentions. “Of course, that is something to be aware of,” he says. “Two things I’ll say about that. One, I’m not completely unfamiliar with classical music. I certainly grew up with it; it’s been around me all my life. Another thing, when you listen to the concerto, it’s fun. There’s nothing stodgy about it; it’s playful. To me, it’s to be enjoyed rather than respected.”

Mills and McDuffie were interested in bridging the distance between their respective worlds of rock and classical music, and Mills dismisses the notion of lines between lowbrow and highbrow in music in general. After all, the Minus 5, the Scott McCaughey-led band that includes Mills and former R.E.M. bandmate Peter Buck, recently released an album that commemorates the Monkees, who were sometimes unjustly derided as the Prefab Four.

“Let me hasten to say, one of the highlights of my musical career was playing guitar with Micky Dolenz on ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ and ‘I’m A Believer’ at a live show earlier this year,” says Mills. “Again, what we’re trying to go for here is just to break down those walls. To say that there are elements of any fields that we can enjoy no matter what your musical origin or musical taste is, especially if you don’t approach it from a snobby point of view. I think a lot of people write classical music thinking they only want to appeal to classical music fans. But this was done with the goal of appealing to as many types of music fans as possible.”

—Steve Klinge

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Sleigh Bells: Down The Rabbit Hole

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Sleigh Bells’ fourth LP was guided by Infinite Jest and Yeezus

If you see a terrible review of Sleigh Bells’ fourth album, Jessica Rabbit, check the byline carefully. Derek Miller, the sonic architect of the band he shares with vocalist Alexis Krauss, is threatening to review his own LP.

“I could eviscerate each of our records and just completely discredit them. I could also make cases for why they’re singular and really inspiring. I should write the worst review of my own record and just publish it,” says Miller, laughing at the thought.

Not that Miller isn’t happy with the album, which is, by far, the duo’s most adventurous, dense and varied. Jessica Rabbit is still explosive, still built on hard riffs and thunderous drum-machine beats, but it pushes farther at the edges, venturing into sweet electro-pop and bruising hardcore while adding dense sonic layers and disorienting tempo shifts. Whereas Treats, the Brooklyn band’s 2010 debut, was hook-heavy and singsong catchy, Jessica Rabbit is complex and challenging.

“Some people are going to fucking love it; some people are going to fucking hate it,” says Miller. “I enjoy both reactions, as long as they’re both considered. As long as the person on the other end is passionate about it, I can handle it.”

Sleigh Bells is all about extremes. Early songs like “Infinity Guitars,” “Tell ’Em,” and “Crown On The Ground” were stark and immediate. Part of the band’s original concept was for Krauss to sing in a detached, unemotional voice that would contrast with the visceral power of the tracks. “We called it, jokingly—I’ll probably regret saying this—the dead-baby-doll voice,” says Miller. That timbre quickly evolved, however, and especially on Jessica Rabbit, Krauss occasionally shifts to abrasive yelling that verges on unhinged.

Miller is in a very different place now than when the duo created Treats. “I probably would get in a fistfight with that dude if I met him today,” he says. “I don’t like where I was when I made that record. I was reeling from a tragedy and I was getting fucked up a lot. With Treats, by and large, there was just a black cloud hanging over me the entire time. Reign Of Terror as well. Had it not been for Alexis, I would probably be in the ground.”

Miller began to get himself together at the end of the Reign Of Terror touring cycle in early 2013, and “was much more present” during the making of and tour for Bitter Rivals.

A scan of song titles on Jessica Rabbit suggests that the black cloud is not forgotten: “Throw Me Down The Stairs,” “Hyper Dark,” “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” and, perhaps most succinctly, “Unlimited Dark Paths.”

“Yeah, there are quite a few ways that you can destroy yourself,” he says. “But I try to counter those things. I try to create a balance so it’s not just a straight downer the entire time because that’s not how I experience life. It’s not all sunshine and flowers. But now it’s OK for me to address those things without feeling awful.”

On Jessica Rabbit, that balance often comes abruptly. “Unlimited Dark Paths” jumps from a minor to a major key at the end, and the video ends with a banner that declares “Keep Faith.” “I hope it leaves you with something soothing and hopefully inspiring after a little bit of punishment,” says Miller.

Tempos shift radically and unexpectedly in the middle of songs; harsh synth lines juxtapose with electric guitars. Kanye West’s 2014 Yeezus album (Miller’s favorite of the decade thus far) and tour prompted Miller to experiment with the arrangements on Jessica Rabbit.

“It was just incredibly inspiring and had a profound effect on me,” he says of seeing West’s Yeezus performance. “More than anything, it made me believe in myself. I left really believing in any and every idea that I had, and I was willing to execute the wildest shit that I could think of. A track like ‘Rule Number One’ arrangement-wise would have been really different had I not heard Yeezus. Some of the arrangements on this record are a little more challenging and frustrating. I enjoy that.”

David Foster Wallace also inspired Miller. “I finished Infinite Jest for the first time in 2012 or 2013,” he says. “Without even getting into the book itself or David Foster Wallace, I couldn’t believe the amount of work it would take to complete something so considered and so focused and so long. It’s 1,076 pages. It made me feel really lazy, and that’s a good thing. I realized I wasn’t working hard enough, so I just really tried to step up my game in every way, shape and form. I just busted my ass on this record. Lyrics were never a thing that I really considered; they were just something that needed to be done because a song needs lyrics. Infinite Jest changed that for me as well. I felt like I was ignoring this whole other facet of a record that you could engage with.”

Miller is proud of Jessica Rabbit, but he’s already rethinking it. For one of the first live performances of “Hyper Dark,” Miller overhauled the song. “I went and started fucking with it,” he says. “I bounced a bunch of new stems, made a new intro to it, cleaned up some of the verse parts, wrote new guitar parts, etc. I’ve never done that before, and I really enjoyed it.”

Not that he’s going to act like Kanye West with the ever-evolving versions of The Life Of Pablo and revamp Jessica Rabbit. But he could still write that scathing review.

“I wanted to make the best thing that I had ever made, and that was it. I don’t feel that I have; I do feel like I failed a little bit. There are about five or six tracks that I still love deeply, but I already have issues with about two-thirds of it. This is not what I should be saying to our fans right now. I should be saying it’s the greatest thing in the world! I tried; I did my best.”

—Steve Klinge

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This Wild Life: Into The Great Wide Open

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This Wild Life makes love songs for the disconsolate

This Wild Life—the duo of Kevin Jordan and Anthony Del Grosso—didn’t plan to be acoustic rockers. “We started off as a four-piece band with me on electric guitar and Anthony on drums,” says Jordan. “It slowly evolved, or devolved, into the two of us playing guitars and singing harmonies. It started when I did an acoustic version of ‘Ripped Away,’ one of our full-band songs, at a show. People liked the timbre of my voice, when I wasn’t shouting to be heard over the sound of the band.

“We wrote songs on acoustic but never played them outside of our bedrooms. When we decided to be an acoustic duo, we had to learn how to play standing up with a guitar strap. It was a slow transition.”

This Wild Life shows became known for the emotional intensity Jordan and Del Grosso create with two guitars and two voices. On record, they flesh out the arrangements with drums, bass and string, arrangements created with their producer, Copeland’s Aaron Marsh. On Low Tides, their current outing, they move from simple folk strumming to cinematic pop. “We wanted a stripped-down sound, but Aaron told us the songs might be more captivating if we layered them up a bit,” he says. “We decided to see where the big, open arrangements took us.”

The album’s intimate songs are delivered with an expansive assortment of acoustic and electric sounds that intensify Jordan’s candid lyrics and the duo’s burnished harmonies. “The feelings we put in the songs are difficult to get off your chest,” he says. “You have to deal with the repercussions you get when writing about people in your life and worrying how they’ll react to it. So far, people appreciate the sincerity and openness of what we sing about, even when it’s brutally honest.”

—j. poet

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LVL UP: Slanted And Enchanting

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With album number three, LVL UP continues to give you indie rock

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in August, and Dave Benton is at his Bed Stuy apartment with fellow singer/guitarist Mike Caridi. Their band LVL UP only has a few more pre-production checklist items—video shoot, festival appearance—before kicking into full-on promo mode for Return To Love, their terrific third LP and first for Sub Pop.

It’s relatively close to where the band got its start—just an hour’s drive from SUNY Purchase—but in a similar sense, it’s a world away. More music fans, more places to gig, more industry. And the album’s growth moves in tandem: Return To Love is a confident, driving set of power pop in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel’s blown-out acoustic fuzz and Nada Surf’s riff-driven harmonies. By comparison, 2014’s Hoodwink’d—released on the band’s label, Double Double Whammy—was more of a pop-punk/indie-rock affair akin to early Pavement, while 2011’s Space Brothers was essentially a compilation of lo-fi, GBV-esque jams recorded in fits and starts at school.

“I think Purchase allowed us to build some sort of confidence in our set,” says Caridi, who has spoken of the school’s DIY scene as an incubator in the past. “There was a really positive and supportive community there, which made it easier to start going out and playing in NYC on weekends.”

The album was recorded with longtime friend and collaborator Mike Ditrio over 20 days at Park Slope’s Seaside Lounge. Even though it was their first time in a proper studio, the only pressure came from LVL UP—not its new label.

“When we talked with everyone at Sub Pop, we told them we’ve always been very hands on,” says Caridi. “We’ve done the recording ourselves, working with our friends, releasing on our own label. They really respected that, and let us have that same control while helping bring it to a larger audience.”

It’s an outlook they try to bring to Double Double Whammy, which currently boasts a strong roster of indie-rock buzzmakers like Frankie Cosmos and Free Cake For Every Creature.

“We handle the bands the way we want a label to handle us,” says Caridi. “Or at least we try the best we can with the resources we have.”

“I think being in a band has helped keep the label grounded, never dark sided,” says Benton. “I think a lot of those big indie labels, they seem like big companies and they do make a lot of money, but at the end of the day they’re started by people like us.”

—John Vettese

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Beach Slang: Teenage Fanclub

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Beach Slang finds perfection in the sounds of adolescence

After 15 years of writing and playing with Philadelphia punk-rock favorites Weston, James Alex took a break to consider his next move. He went back to art school but never stopped writing songs. Two years ago, he showed one of his new tunes to bass player Ed McNulty and drummer JT Flexner at an impromptu jam session.

“The right-away-clicking-thing was unique,” says Alex. “There was no idea for a band. I just wanted to hang out with my friends and turn some songs into records. When we actually piled into a room and played together, we knew it deserved to be more.”

He called the band Beach Slang. Its visceral playing and the desperate honesty of the songs he wrote struck an immediate chord. In a year, the guys went from local favorites to an international touring unit. The title of their second album, A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings, sums up the band’s approach. “A British journalist asked me to describe the sound of the band. I said, ‘A loud bash of teenage feelings,’” says Alex. “As soon as I said it, I knew it was meant to stick. The teenage thing is a mash of optimism and angst, conviction and open-mindedness. It’s breaking rules, it’s freedom, finding your voice, being terrified, being heroic, falling in love, sneaking cigarettes. It’s glorious and a fucking mess. It’s perfect.

“I read this interview with Charles Thompson/Black Francis/Frank Black,” says Alex. “He said something about attacking the guitar and primal screaming until he had an ‘eargasm.’ That’s my approach—going at the thing until you have that weirdo moment that stops you. Then you know you’ve got something worth chasing. I make very few decisions with my head. They mostly just charge from the gut. There’s a reckless urgency that’s wildly necessary to what Beach Slang is.”

—j. poet

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The Wytches: Fly By Night

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The Wytches’ eclectic second album breathes (and runs) deep

We’re speaking with Kristian Bell, singer/songwriter for the Wytches. We’re discussing the U.K. band’s sophomore release All Your Happy Life and its overt influences, from hardcore punk to dark metal. We’re also talking about the myriad wonders of Paul McCartney’s Ram, the Monsters Of Folk project, Australian psychedelic septet King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Alice Coltrane’s outstanding third solo album, 1970’s Ptah, The El Daoud, which Bell’s been listening to a lot lately. In sum, a conversation that ranges among all the components of the Wytches’ heady brew, a mix of styles and reference points that are all the more impressive when you consider how young a band Wytches is, individually and collectively.

All Your Happy Life is both an extension of the Wytches’ clangorous thunder and a rewarding progression beyond it. Annabel Dream Reader, the band’s 2014 debut, received solid notices, with many reviewers noting the deep well of dark late-’60s psychedelia from which the music drew. Yet that description clearly touched on only one aspect of the music (the Wytches themselves cheekily suggested “surf doom” as an alternative). Though it often sounds as hard as their first record, All Your Happy Life is more expansive musically and in terms of production.

“I’ve always loved albums that move among different styles,” says Bell. “It makes for a more interesting record. On Annabel we went for a heavy garage sound.” (Bell, along with Coral’s Bill Ryder-Jones, co-produced that record.) “But we wanted to layer the music on this one live in the studio. We made a conscious decision not to stylize it much beyond using basic amp settings.”

Over two sessions in 2015, Wytches recorded at The Chapel in Lincolnshire with Tim Morris, and Toe Rag with Luke Oldfield. The material from the latter, including the pounding “Ghost House” and “Can’t Face It,” works familiar sonic territory, but the Chapel sessions with Morris yielded lighter, more spacious music, of which “Crest Of Death” and lovely album-closer “Home” highlight some of the softer, spacier influences in the band’s approach.

The shifts in tone and approach have caught Wytches some flak from less flexible listeners who’d prefer their metal relentlessly heavy, but Bell and Co. are committed to mixing up their approach as they continue making music.

“We all have really opposing tastes,” he says, “but there are a few preferences we all share, like hardcore punk: Blacklisted, early AFI, that kind of thing. ‘Can’t Face It’ was our take at a hardcore gang-vocal, all of us gathered around one mic. It was very nostalgic, like something I would have done at age 14. Some people do want the music to stay heavy and energetic, which I love too, but I always like it when bands switch up after their first record. There’s a lot of trippy music happening now, in both England and America, all kinds of unexpected and unorthodox methods you can apply. We played with King Gizzard in Liverpool, and it was so great to watch that crowd. Older fans standing next to 14-year-old kids, everybody enjoying it. No one has to feel weird.”

—Eric Waggoner

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Warpaint: The Un-Breakup

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There was talk that Warpaint might be over, but instead the band decided to stay together

“If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy,” Dale Carnegie once observed. And such wisdom isn’t lost on Warpaint bassist/vocalist Jenny Lee Lindberg, who only two years ago had toured so rigorously behind the group’s last eponymous album that she actually began to doubt she would ever record another.

“We were pretty spent,” she says. “And there was definitely talk of, ‘Maybe we don’t want to do this’ or ‘Maybe we should take a really long break.’ And, at the end of the day, that’s not what anybody really wanted. But it’s easy to threaten that when you’re tired and burnt out, and you just want to go home and chill out.”

Doubts dispelled, Warpaint—which also includes vocalist/guitarist Emily Kokal, co-singer/guitarist Theresa Wayman and drummer Stella Mozgawa—has returned with its third release, Heads Up, easily the band’s most adventurous. Co-produced with longtime associate Jacob Bercovici (who had helmed the quartet’s self-issued 2008 debut EP, Exquisite Corpse), it boasts sonically inventive numbers like the jazzy, jittery “Above Control,” a gothic-stark “Today Dear,” the Joy Division-ish “The Stall,” a bouncy, buoyant “New Song,” funky R&B march “So Good” and a skeletal “Whiteout,” awash in ethereal three-part harmonies. And the women hit such a milestone by getting busy, workwise—just not with each other.

“We took a break, maybe about a year off, and we all went and did our own thing,” says Lindberg, who wrote, recorded and toured a bass-heavy solo album called right on! under the lower-case moniker jennylee. Simultaneously, Kokal worked with folk-rocker Paul Bergmann, Mozgawa cut sessions with Kurt Vile and Andy Clockwise, and Wayman formed her own spinoff combo, BOSS, with Hot Chip’s Sarah Jones and All We Are’s Guro Gikling. “And I think that was really good for us, because when we came back to Warpaint, we were all very refreshed and inspired. And we had to learn things by not working with each other, which came in nice and handy when we finally returned to recording.”

Camaraderie was never a problem. “We’ve been good friends for a long time, and Emily and Theresa grew up together, and I met them when they were 19,” says the 35-year-old Lindberg, whose sister—actress Shannyn Sossamon—was one of Warpaint’s founding members (she later dropped out). “And it’s ridiculous how much we hang out— if there’s something going on, we’ll all go together, and we definitely go get dinner a lot or just coffee. As a band, we’re all really close.”

Thus, working alone proved startling at first. But they soon got comfortable composing material in their separate home studios, an approach that shaped Heads Up, when the members—instead of jamming together, like they usually did—brought their own material into Warpaint’s main House On The Hill studio in downtown Los Angeles for collaborative tinkering.

Lindberg—who had grown more confident as a singer, courtesy of her side project— came up with the seriously spooky bass line for “The Stall” at the home she shared with her video-director ex-husband Chris Cunningham and their pet labradoodle. She brought the riff in for her comrades to hear, and Mozgawa immediately started thumping the beat, while Kokal added impromptu vocals. Then Wayman plugged in guitar filigrees to the finished mix. “So it was really challenging for her, because it was about knowing when to leave space,” says Lindberg, “and when not to.”

On “So Good,” Wayman and Lindberg switched instruments. “Don’t Let Go” began as Lindberg’s simple vocals-and-acoustic-guitar demo—“Then the girls put everything else on in the studio, and we all sang it together,” she says. And “Don’t Let Go” was a ghost from Kokal’s past, a dirge she recorded at 18. What did Warpaint learn from the experience? “After making my own record, it was a lot easier for me to take a step back and let things happen naturally, without having to control them,” says Lindberg. “Because there’s four of us, we’re always having to agree and be on the same page, and that can be tedious in itself, and it also takes up a lot of time. But it was great because—at the end of the day—we were all on the same page. And I didn’t feel like I had to speak my mind and express myself, because this is all I have.”

—Tom Lanham

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EZTV: Easy To Love

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EZTV explores record-geek rock both old and new

“The stuff we’re interested in now is kind of the threads of music that didn’t get picked up,” says Shane O’Connell, bass player for EZTV. “Emitt Rhodes was obviously following a certain kind of Paul McCartney thread, and I feel like that lineage kind of stopped with him. Bands like that, where they picked something up but never really caught on, is the stuff we’re interested in.”

Although O’Connell’s comments make it sound like EZTV is some sort of archival project, that’s not the case. Yes, the trio of O’Connell, guitarist/principal songwriter Ezra Tenenbaum and drummer Michael Stasiak are self-proclaimed “record geeks and recording geeks” who tend to mention cult artists such as Lee Hazlewood, Bert Jansch and Tucker Zimmerman as points of reference. And High In Place, the trio’s excellent second album, is full of the kind of ringing 12-string guitars, gentle melodies and gauzy harmonies that will appeal to fans of vintage power pop (and to Jenny Lewis and Real Estate’s Martin Courtney, both of whom appear on the record). But the album sounds timeless rather than time-bound, classic rather than classicist.

“I’m sort of someone who gets into a couple albums really hard and am maybe not too adventurous,” says Tenenbaum. “I was listening to this Chris Cohen record that Captured Tracks put out and really liking it. And I was showing Michael some of the songs I was writing, and he said, ‘Oh, this sounds like Big Star or Teenage Fanclub.’ I was like, ‘Really? It does?’ So it was almost by accident. Checking out these things and discovering, ‘Wow, maybe this is more in the subconscious than I think.’”

“There’s definitely records out there that are Record Collector Rock,” says Stasiak, who worked at Other Music, the beloved but recently shuttered East Village record store. “I don’t think we’re one of those bands. I feel we dabble as much as we can within a certain set of precepts. A good, great pop song, you can do it in any style. When you boil it to its essence, it’s just some chords, a rhythm and a lyrical melody. If that’s good, if that’s solid, people will just like it.”

—Steve Klinge

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Merchandise: American Gothic

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On its sophomore LP, Merchandise channels the darkness of 2016

“In their obsessive concern for the health of their political leadership, they were miraculously able to ignore a far greater threat to their own well-being.”

That line is taken from a J.G. Ballard short story—the same British science-fiction acolyte who penned The Atrocity Exhibition (which inspired Joy Division’s song of the same name) and Crash (a novel that so moved Siouxsie Sioux that she wrote “Miss The Girl” for her side project, the Creatures)—entitled “The Secret History Of World War 3.” This dystopian fantasy set in the mid-’90s imagines a U.S. Congress so desperate for command and control that it passes a constitutional amendment in order to bring an aging Ronald Reagan out of political retirement, only to watch his health falter at the precise moment when his country needs him most—becoming “a corpse wired for sound,” an immobilized vessel providing only symbolic guidance for an ailing, aimless nation. Written in 1990, it could just as easily have been penned today for all the Donald Trump absurdity it anticipates.

Ballard’s story also happens to be a key catalyst for the Tampa, Fla., band Merchandise’s sophomore album, A Corpse Wired For Sound. Or as singer/songwriter Carson Cox puts it, “Lyrically, the album is dealing with some weird literary themes we’ve never really addressed before. And Ballard was such a moral writer; he seems like someone who would’ve been insulted at the way government, society and religion—essentially every aspect of institutionalized life—would say one thing and then do another. Everyone called our last record our ‘end of the world record,’ but that already happened. We’re in weird new territory, somewhere after that. The state of the world is so miserable right now. And I always wanted to be a musician at the end of the world.”

Musically speaking, Merchandise—Cox, plus core members Dave Vassalotti (guitar, electronics), Pat Brady (bass) and new drummer Leo Suarez—has evolved into a hybrid of goth’s finest hour (think the Mission, Bauhaus and its various baritone-voiced offshoots) spliced with the dreamy textures often associated with groups such as Ride or Cocteau Twins. Where the band once kept true to its Floridian punk roots by recording early efforts in a closet, the new album is a more proper studio affair, featuring tracks produced in Italy, Berlin and New York City in addition to its home turf. With Maurizio Baggio helping to sculpt the resulting maelstrom into a more fully formed whole, Merchandise emerges as more of a British-sounding nocturnal concern than its earlier incarnations, with the first single, “Flower of Sex,” stomping aggressively toward you with drums that hit like medieval battering rams and phased guitars storming through the track like a noisy summer squall.

“End Of The Week” churns in a similarly sinister fashion (with Cox crooning Burroughs-indebted stream-of-consciousness through a white-hot metallic screen), while epic closer “My Dream Is Yours” suspends all drumming until the three-minute mark before pummeling listeners into a puddle. The sounds are towering, the impact is visceral. Which is a considerable achievement when the album’s peripatetic roots and long-distance collaboration model between band members are fully taken into account.

Having left Tampa for a time, Cox’s residencies in New York City and Berlin afforded the album a street-tough ruggedness that Merchandise had never achieved. But these experiences have also gilded that edge with an intellect and curiosity that was always lurking just beneath the surface.

“I was reading Henry Miller when I was living in New York,” he says. “You can walk down those streets where he lived even now. But growing up in a weird place like Florida, seeing that stuff on TV or reading about it, there’s a huge barrier between you and the lives they lived. You can’t imagine yourself doing it. You have no access to it. If anything sticks around long enough, that style—no matter how personal—becomes fashion. I don’t think anyone my age had any cool experiences with music or art growing up. We started out corny as fuck, which is why irony is such a big thing, I guess.”

Ironic or not, in a year this dark with foreboding, Merchandise gives the impression that it very much means it.

—Corey duBrowa

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