Category Archives: FEATURES

Grizzly Bear: Truth Or Consequences

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

GrizzlyBear

MAGNET plays 20 questions with Grizzly Bear in the hip wilds of Williamsburg where there are no wrong answers. By Jonathan Valania

It’s another blazingly hot and hip summer day in Brooklyn. Boomboxes, guinea tees, gold chains, water ice, open fire hydrants. It’s kind of like Do The Right Thing without the race riot. The girls walk by in their summer clothes. The boys walk by in their skinny jeans. The subway is redolent of stale urine and diesel. It’s high noon, and the sun is punishing and relentless. There are many things in abundance in Brooklyn—coffee shops, craft beers, beards—but shade isn’t one of them.  ¶  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t venture outside the igloo on a day like this, but today is special. The Bear has awoken from its three-year hibernation, grabbed the horn of plenty and started making beautiful music again. I always say there are only two things that get me out of bed:

A teenage riot. (Obligatory Sonic Youth reference. Look it up, son.)

A new Grizzly Bear album. (Actually, I never say that, but it just seems like the kind of thing that should go here.)

Said new album is called Shields (Warp), a fact Grizzly Bear kept a secret and teased well into late summer. That’s the kind of thing you do in the internet era: tease basic facts about your release. Basic facts that would have been given away for free in the pre-internet era will now cost you. Ironically, music is free (if you know where to look), but knowledge (which is not to be confused with information, a much baser coin) you will have to pay for with the most precious commodity in the Internet Age: your attention. And so the fan is strung along for weeks with cryptic hints on Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum about the when and what and why of once quotidian details like cover art and album title and release date. And, hey kids, be the first on your block to Tweet/Facebook/Reddit to the world and be King Of The Goddamn Internet for all of 10 seconds! Whoopee!

Determined not to have the new album leak in advance of the release date the way 2009’s Veckatimest did, the band’s handlers have taken to sending out watermarked streams of the new LP to journalists with a fake band name (the Toddies), fake album title (False Salmon) and, just to make matters even more confusing for the likes of me, fake song titles like “Mango Lassi” and “Toad To Nowhere.” What japes!

Upon accepting the Grizzly Bear cover-story mission—which was relayed to me via mail drop on a cassette tape that played once and then self-destructed Mission: Impossible-style, totally fucking up my tape deck—I followed my marching orders: Go to Brooklyn, don’t call us, we’ll call you. When the call came through, the instructions were as follows: Go to the underground parking deck at 110 Livingston St., stand next to the pillar by space number 57, and a chain-smoking man in a raincoat who looks like Hal Holbrook will tell you what to do. Turns out the first chain-smoking guy in a raincoat to approach me was not an agent of Grizzly Bear, but just the sort of garden-variety sick-fuck perv often found lurking in the shadows of these underground parking garages, which explains why he wanted me to get into the back of a nearby Chevy Impala and give him a Cleveland Steamer. Which I did, because I’m a nice guy. Plus, he reminded me of my grandfather.

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Guided By Voices: Factory Men

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

 GBV

Working-class hero Robert Pollard and his fellow “classic-era” Guided By Voices bandmates clock in with Let’s Go Eat The Factory, their first album in more than 15 years. By James Greer

Twenty years ago, I interviewed Guided By Voices for a different magazine. It was in an RV belonging to Ed Deal—Kim and Kelley’s dad—parked in back of a club in Columbus, Ohio, after a Breeders show. The whole band was there, crowded around my enormous early-‘90s vintage cassette recorder: Robert Pollard, Jimmy Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and Dan Toohey, who would soon become an ex-member due to his propensity for leaving long notes to Bob about various dissatisfactions with certain band practices. Bob did most of the talking, which will come as a great surprise to exactly no one who has ever met, seen, heard or read about him.

According to Ed Deal, who has a better memory than me, after every answer, Bob would ask, “Was that OK? Was that a good answer?” In other words, Bob was nervous, and in retrospect, sure: It was one of his first “real” interviews (even though the piece I was writing was very short). Anyone would be nervous in that situation. He had not yet released Bee Thousand, the album that would come to define, for better and worse, the public perception of Guided By Voices as masters of short bursts of melodic lo-fi rock with mostly incomprehensible lyrics. He had spent the previous seven years nursing grudges and making records that he wouldn’t let anyone hear, because he was worried they weren’t good enough. Was that OK? Was that a good record?

Twenty years later, sitting in a bar in the Oregon District of his hometown, Dayton, Ohio, Bob is anything but nervous. He orders two buckets of Miller Lite in bottles (a bucket is really just a six-pack on ice, so it’s not as much as it sounds) and slides onto a chair in the back room of the bar next to Mitch Mitchell, who Bob has known longer than he’s been in the band, which means he and Mitch have known each other for about 45 years.

“I have some conditions,” he announces, before I turn on the tiny little machine I brought to record our conversation. I don’t know how it works. It’s digital. Maybe it doesn’t work. I hope it works. (Update: It works.)

“I’m going to talk about whatever I want to talk about,” he continues. “I’m going to tell you exactly what happened during the making of this record. But you can’t use anything that would hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Turns out over the course of the next four or five hours and several buckets of Miller Lite, augmented by shots of tequila so big they come in tumblers (and should be illegal), Bob doesn’t say anything that would hurt anyone’s feelings.

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Cold Specks: Being Mindful

ColdSpecks

Cold Specks mastermind Al Spx revels in anonymity … while she can

Singing lines like “Don’t you wait on me/I’ll shoot you down,” her voice is enough to send chills down your spine. But once she steps offstage, the woman who calls herself Al Spx is famously shy and unfailingly distant.

“I created a stage name, and it’s allowed me to remove myself from any sort of emotional attachment to the songs,” says Spx, who records under the name Cold Specks, borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses. “Al Spx can take care of that. For me, there’s no personal element to the songs anymore, or if there is, it’s disguised.”

Two years after releasing I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, Spx is bored with most of the album. Touring is “physically and mentally draining,” and though she still performs the singles, she’s tired of feeling like a bad actress. So, she’s crafted a follow-up, Neuroplasticity (Mute), that’s even bleaker than the first, trading in the acoustic doom-folk of her debut for a richer, more expansive goth-soul that’s one-part sturm and three-parts drang.

“I made a conscious decision to write songs to perform, songs that weren’t necessarily about me,” says Spx. “I made a conscious decision not to play any instruments, because I wasn’t loving it anymore. I’m not too precious about the songs, so if I’m not a convincing player, I’ll just get someone else to do it better and focus on my singing.”

As Spx, she has no past and no present; she’s “just the girl who sings the songs.” Taking a short break between recording sessions, she claims Spx is “the nickname I’ve always had,” though seconds earlier, said was it “top-secret information,” and seconds later said it was “a way to save myself from myself.” In between, she says she “just needed a name,” that it’s “not very interesting,” that “I didn’t want my name attached to the project” and that “I don’t want it to define me.”

Apart from “no comment,” that’s all she’s ready to say. Thankfully, we already know she was born and raised in Toronto as the daughter of Somali immigrants, and dropped out of university to become a singer. Somewhere along the way, she heard the field recordings of Alan Lomax, possibly through Moby’s Play, and since recording her debut, she’s been shortlisted for the Juno Award, and guested on albums by Moby, Swans and jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who appears on Neuroplasticity.

We know the new songs were written in a cottage in Somerset in the winter of 2012 (“I probably didn’t choose the most ideal season to live there,” she says) and were recorded in Montreal, where Spx currently lives. That they were written on piano, and performed by her sometime band of “five English boys,” with an accent on portentousness, freeing Spx to deliver the songs with maximum undead theatricality. And for now, with the session about to begin again, that’ll have to do.

“We recorded Neuroplasticity over the course of a year, and I think the time I gave to the recording allowed for some growth sonically, thematically, vocally,” she says, comparing it to the 12 days spent in the studio for I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. “There was a lot of time spent avoiding surprises.”

—Kenny Berkowitz

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The Jigsaw Seen: Some Assembly Required

JigsawSeen

The Jigsaw Seen unloads on bad sportsmanship, royalty statements

You’d think Jigsaw Seen vocalist/songwriter Dennis Davison would be on cloud nine after his revered Los Angeles Kings won their second Stanley Cup in just three years. But no. He’s bellyaching this morning about Uruguay futbol star Luis Suárez biting an Italian opponent in a recent World Cup match, prompting snide newspaper headlines such as “Chow, Baby!”

“That’s not the way we played,” sniffs Davison, a former all-Maryland high-school soccer player.

But that’s all ancient history. The co-founder of Jigsaw Seen 25 years ago (alongside ace guitarist Jonathan Lea), Davison gets his exercise these days as a professional dog-walker. Strolling L.A.’s concrete canyons gives him ample time to do what he does best: write distinctively original lyrics and melodies that give off the mere whiff of former heroes such as the Bee Gees, Who and Love.

Unlike previous albums, Old Man Reverb, Jigsaw’s fourth set of originals in the past four years, has a unified sound running throughout. “We used a lot of baritone guitar on this album,” says Davison, explaining the Duane Eddy/Marlboro Man moves that inhabit the work. “It plays in a lower register than a normal guitar, has fatter strings, and it sounds like something between a guitar and a bass.”

The oldest song, says Davison, is “Abide,” which he wrote in the early ’80s when still living in Baltimore. “It’s kind of a spaghetti-Western thing that I was recording on my little four-track cassette set-up in the basement,” he says. “And I remember my father, just coming home from work, busting down the stairs shouting, ‘What is that song? It sounds like Frankie Laine!’ He was so excited.”

Highlighted by Lea’s brazen one-finger piano, Jigsaw explodes out of the blocks like Iggy & The Stooges on “We Women,” a song that might sound like a putdown of the ladies if you’re a sloppy listener. “I decided to write it in the feminine gender, and I’d sing it that way,” says Davison. “Kind of like Joan Baez’s folk-music stance. Who better to write something like this?”

And he’s not kidding. Davison is related to legendary British suffragette Emily Davison, whose final act to advocate women’s equality was to run in front of Anmer, the horse of King George V, during the Epsom Derby in 1913.

There’s nothing nearly so noble about “Idiots With Guitars.” It’s the death knell for “bedroom rockers” who clog up various L.A. pop festivals like wads of platelets blocking a soggy artery. “Learn to play/Then dream the day away/Every note you play is met with indifference,” croons Davison, neatly excising these self-appointed pop prodigies.

The Jigsaw Seen plays live only sporadically these days. Bassist Tom Currier is in New York, and drummer Teddy Freese lives in Italy. But that hasn’t prevented eye-popping statistics, according to the band’s recent BMI statement. “We got 750,000 plays on internet radio in one quarter! How can that be?!” says Davison. “All those spins and they send us a check for $100?”

As for Old Man Reverb, Davison thinks it’s an unbridled success, declaring, “I look upon it as a greatest-hits album with songs we’ve never released.”

—Jud Cost

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The Muffs: Big Whoop

Muffs

After a decade adrift, the Muffs get their melodic pop groove back

Kim Shattuck has always observed a private ritual when retrieving her mail. If the Muffs bandleader finds a check in her daily bundle, she’ll set it aside for a full month before opening it. Even early on—despite two stellar garage/punk efforts for Reprise, a self-titled debut disc in ‘93 and ‘95 follow-up Blonder And Blonder—those paydays were few and far between.

“By 1996, I was pretty poor, and I’d just moved to a new apartment that didn’t have a refrigerator, so I was all freaked out,” she says. “But I finally opened one letter, and it was $850 from ASCAP. And I was like, ‘Hooray! That’s my refrigerator!’ So now, any time I get a check that’s in that range, I always call it ‘refrigerator money.’”

Believe it or not, swears the 50-year-old Shattuck, said random payments have sustained her over the full decade between Muffs albums—2004’s Really Really Happy and the brand-new Whoop Dee Doo, a reunion with longtime backing members Ronnie Barnett (bass) and Roy McDonald (drums), who always maintained straight jobs.

“I’ve managed to make a living just doing the music,” she says. “It’s ebb and flow, but publishing stuff has kept me afloat.” Not counting, of course, her surreal European-tour stint playing bass for the Pixies last autumn, as replacement for the departing Kim Deal. The rocket ride paid quite well, was fun while it lasted, but crashed to Earth as spontaneously as it ignited.

Shattuck says she was never planning to stage a comeback. But she never officially pulled the plug on the Muffs, either. After working hard to create her sneering stage persona and melodic way with a power-chord hook—best exemplified by the bratty cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” on the Clueless soundtrack—it was almost as if she felt so unappreciated that she and her bandmates simply shrugged and walked away from their project.

“But I really like those guys, and we’re a team,” she says. “And a good team can get back together, even if they haven’t talked in years and years.”

It took former group percussionist Jim Laspesa to reunite the Los Angeles trio. Shattuck had happily settled into domestic life with her TV-exec husband, and was listening exclusively to jazz for long periods, as well as attending every Dodgers game she could, since the couple has season tickets. But Laspesa began inviting her to dinner parties, along with Barnett and McDonald, and communication lines opened again.

“And I had been starting to write songs again, and that came up,” she says. “And they were like, ‘Oh my God! Email them to us!’ So, we just kind of gravitated back together again.”

Shattuck produced and engineered almost all of Whoop Dee Doo. And she’s in fine raspy form, as the album kicks off with the scream-punctuated “Weird Boy Next Door,” then wends its way through Ramones-propulsive anthems “Paint By Numbers,” “Take A Take A Me,” “Because You’re Sad” and harmonica-embellished folk jangler “Cheezy.” The 12-track set closes with a Searchers-chiming ballad called “Forever” that—despite its earnest intentions—still manages to sound like a schoolyard taunt when this vixen snarls it.

It was awkward at first, says Shattuck, ditching her jazz mindset and rediscovering what makes a great song tick. Her first Whoop Dee Doo efforts were clunky, lumbering. “But my passion is writing melodic rock songs, and I am still definitely driven to do that,” she says. “So, I had to go back to my roots and see what inspired me originally. That was my goal—I didn’t want to get soft when I got older. So, this album is kind of all the inspiration of my youth.”

And don’t read too much into the snotty lyrics. “Basically, I’m not inspired to write words unless something’s eating at me,” says Shattuck. “Which kind of sucks, because it’s very painful. So, when I was writing these lyrics, I just turned my mind completely off and just let it come out. I’m not even sure how I did it—it was like automatic writing.” The record was finished in 2012, but put on hold after the Pixies offer came in.

These days, the Muffs mistress is spending her refrigerator money even more wisely. Instead of liquor and cigarettes, she prefers health food and a gym membership. “And I did actually join a yoga place,” she says. “But I, uh, only did it three times so far. I got so sore, I had to take some time off.”

—Tom Lanham

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Phox: Friends With Benefits

Phox

The tight-knit indie-pop upstarts in Phox grow up together

“We do everything at the last minute.” “That’s totally our thing” “That’s not Zach’s thing.” “It’s not my thing, but I’ve learned to adapt.”

MAGNET is in the six-by-five-foot green room at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., with Jason Krunnfusz, Zach Johnston, Matt Holmen and Dave Roberts, four of the six members of Baraboo, Wisc.’s Phox. The room is crowded, but the vibe cordial as these high-school friends banter back and forth, finishing each other’s sentences and mowing down their dinners.

The band’s conversational style reflects its music—it’s playful and thoughtful, serious in its ambitions, but seriously fun when all is said and done. With folk-like delicacy, jazz-like precision and a very indie sense of irreverence, the group’s self-titled Partisan debut is one of the best underground-pop records of the year.

“I don’t even really know how it works, to be honest, but it’s everyone participating with (singer) Monica (Martin) bringing the seedlings,” Johnston says by way of explaining how the songwriting process works. “It comes from everywhere.”

“In the past, we’ve given a lot of time to songs,” says Holmen. “The new songs, we were like, ‘Let’s just go with our instincts and just do it, just record them as they come out.’”

The result is a record with childlike awe and grown-up ambitions. This is music that never gets in its own way, with the conceptual and aesthetic complexity of the songs seeming effortless. On tracks like the evocative and ethereal “Laura” and percussive-yet-languid lead single “Slow Motion,” Phox walks the line between precious and precocious with finesse.

“We had to make a lot of our own fun growing up, so we made music and movies and a lot of the same things we do now,” says Johnston. “It kind of feels like a continuation of childhood, in a way, which also makes it a big joke now that people are paying attention.”

—Sean L. Maloney

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Orenda Fink: The Warmest Color

OrendaFink

We’re not of a mind to disagree with Orenda Fink’s sweet, death-obsessed dreams

Orenda Fink is known for her quiet, introspective songs and her unobtrusive approach to singing. Her music, both on her own solo albums and with Azure Ray (the band she fronts with longtime friend Maria Taylor), tends to be forlorn and unsettling, albeit imbued with an underlying belief in the ultimate goodness of existence.

“I suppose melancholy is the word that fits,” Fink says, speaking via phone from her home studio in Omaha. “I know people tend to glaze over when I say it, and I’m not fond of the term gothic either. I wish I could come up with something more catchy to describe my sound.”

Fink breaks off for a moment to grab a pile of blankets and toss them on the floor of the studio to soak up the rain that’s seeping in through the floor. “We had a tornado, a hailstorm and thundershowers just before the interview started. It was a surreal experience.”

The jarring weather could be some cosmic metaphor for the unexpected prism of emotions that’s reflected in the songs on her new album, Blue Dream. They were inspired by the death of her dog, as well as general meditations on the limitations of existence on the material plane.

“Losing my dog sent me into a deep depression,” she says. “I saw a therapist, who specialized in Jungian dream analysis. She told me that when you’re ready to deal with your dreams, something awakens in your subconscious mind and (dreams) come flowing out. I started having powerful dreams about my dog’s death and death in general. It was a crazy period. I started writing the album after that. The songs didn’t come specifically from the dreams, but I was in that zone between dreams and waking while I was writing. I’m inclined to have one foot in each world, even when I’m awake, but losing my dog erased the boundary between those worlds for a while.”

On the LP, Fink goes deep into the primal questions of death and the meaning of life. The lyrics are dark, but the music is bright and buoyant, although still played at the laid-back tempos that are her forte. “Bill Rieflin, who used to play with Ministry, played the drums in a light, un-Ministry like manner,” says Fink. “I thought his rhythms were too pop, but he said the lyrics were so sad, it would make a good juxtaposition. Ben Brodin, who plays with Conor Oberst, did all the guitars. I kept going, ‘It doesn’t sound like a dream.’ Then he’d go, ‘What does a dream sound like?’ I told him I’d know it when I heard it.”

The finished album is dreamlike and comforting, despite its preoccupation with mortality. “Although it’s about death, the record has a celebratory feeling for me,” says Fink. “The experience of making it helped me come out on the other side with a firm understanding that there is a life after death, that you can weep until you’re crying tears of joy and epiphany.”

—j. poet

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The Reigning Sound: Sweet Oblivian

ReigningSound

With his long-running, omnivorous rock ‘n’ soul outlet the Reigning Sound, Greg Cartwright seeks—and finds—new angles on old sounds

On Wednesday nights, Greg Cartwright holds court at the Double Crown, a nondescript neighborhood bar with a killer cocktail menu in West Asheville, N.C. For each weekly session, Cartwright pulls an evening’s worth of vintage country tunes from his own collection. “I do it because I want to share them with other people,” he says. “But just as much, I’m doing it so I can hear the records really loud.”

But alongside the country canon—Buck Owens, George Jones, Wanda Jackson—Cartwright likes to spin his salvaged classics. “I have all these oddball country records from the ’60s and early ’70s where they’re mixing country with R&B and soul and funk,” he says. “They’re totally weird records. They don’t properly fall into any genre. Some of them scratch a spot that nothing else will.”

For Cartwright, finding—or crafting—the black-sheep gem is the real joy of music. To wit, he’s not a collector, per se. “I’m not interested in records like they’re stamps,” he says. “I just want to look through a box of junked records and look for labels that look cool. Small, independent releases from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, things that look interesting and on the cheap. I want to look through those things, and pull out a record player, and I want to find something that fucking blows my mind.”

But that idea extends to the music he makes, too. “That’s what you want to create,” he says. “You want that thing that’s so inspiring to you not because it’s everything you expect, but because it’s everything you didn’t expect.”

With iconic garage-punk trio the Oblivians, with the Parting Gifts (his collaboration with the Ettes’ Coco Hames and Jem Cohen), with a legion of other one-offs and defunct projects, and, for the past 13 years with driving rock ‘n’ soul revue the Reigning Sound, Cartwright has chased various traces of American rock and pop to arrive at something singularly his.

Still, with his legacy perfectly well cemented among garage-rock aficionados and discerning vinyl-heads, Cartwright is still chasing the unexpected. The Reigning Sound’s latest album, Shattered, is the band’s sixth proper full-length, a follow-up to 2009’s Love And Curses, and its debut for Merge. (“I’ve never been on a record label this big,” says Cartwright. “I’ve never had so many people to email. I’m really enjoying it.”)

It’s also one of the most varied outings in the group’s deep catalog. Cartwright, the Reigning Sound’s sole constant, is joined on Shattered by the same backing crew heard on 2011’s Scion-sponsored EP Abdication… For Your Love: longtime keyboardist Dave Amels, as well as relative newcomers Mike Catanese (guitar), Benny Trokan (bass) and Mike Post (drums)—all of whom play together in New York soul combo the Jay Vons and bring a house-band chemistry and versatility to Cartwright’s new batch of songs.

But their distance led to a new songwriting approach, with Cartwright demoing songs to guide his sidemen, rather than jamming through rough sketches until a song emerged. “They’re super-good players … I can pretty much make a set list and they can go over it and have it locked down when I get to them,” says Cartwright. And so they did, entering Daptone Studios in Brooklyn armed with a fresh batch of just-learned songs and following Cartwright where he led.

“Sometimes when you just learn a song, you approach it in a way that you’ll never ever approach it again,” says Cartwright. “You haven’t worn the grooves into your brain. It’s still so fresh to you that you’re willing to walk out on a limb. Two months down the road, you won’t do that.”

But because he was charting the course, Cartwright could extend those limbs farther than before, digging into influences as disparate as Del Shannon’s lush and almost-lost 1967 LP Home & Away and the country-western oddities he spins at the Double Crown. And so on Shattered, the Reigning Sound jumps casually from R&B burner “North Cackalacky Girl” into strings-driven ballad “Never Coming Home,” and from the Southern-rock stagger of “Starting New” into the ripping Stax-meets-Sonics garage of “Baby It’s Too Late.”

Describing his ideal record-hunting find, Cartwright says, “Nothing about this is a new form of music, but somebody’s putting their own stamp on it.” He could just as easily be describing his own work—an in-the-margins blend of influences tailor-made for keen, seeking ears looking to be surprised. Blown away, even.

—Bryan C. Reed

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A Sunny Day In Glasgow: Dreaming In The Cloud

ASDIG

A Sunny Day In Glasgow communicates across continents to write its heaviest—yet most pop-centered—record to date

It’s no longer an aberration for artists to collaborate in the cloud, given the ease with which most of the world accesses high-speed internet. And A Sunny Day In Glasgow—collectively based in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia—creates the sort of impressionistic guitar pop that feels ripe for working in the ether. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing fine new album Sea When Absent (Lefse) across three cities and two hemispheres was ideal. In fact, the method was so present that it became a centerpiece of its narrative.

“You have to create a new language and a completely different process of how to do things,” says Jen Goma, one of two ASDIG lead vocalists. “You understand that your tools of expression are different, and then you undƒerstand that you’re telling a different story, because the story you’re telling is about doing new things.”

Goma adds that much of the lyrical content here is centered on distance, as well as the triumphs and failures associated with telegraphing ideas in the digital age where we can be “simultaneously everywhere and nowhere,” according to the band. “2014 is just an insane time to be alive. Sea When Absent is ASDIG’s story for the milieu, a fever-dream about the now—or maybe a lucid dream about the fever-now—and a future possible … set in pop-major.”

This might scan as art-school drivel were it not for the fact that it’s a remarkably cogent way of describing the sound of Sea When Absent, A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s third official album. (There’s four if you count 2010’s Autumn, Again, a leftovers LP from the Ashes Grammar sessions.) Since ASDIG’s arrival in 2006, when the roster was essentially just chief songwriter Ben Daniels, the band has been praised for its liberal take on shoegaze and synth pop, reconfiguring a sound that isn’t easily made new. That effect was enhanced by the home-recording methods employed on everything ASDIG recorded up until 2011, when the band contracted producer Jeff Zeigler to work in a recording studio for the first time.

Two years and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, Sea When Absent arrives with many of ASDIG’s trademark qualities intact, buttressed significantly by Zeigler and his studio prowess. But it also reveals new shades of the band. Sea When Absent is at turns the heaviest of ASDIG’s oeuvre and its most pop, bringing Goma and Anne Fredrickson’s vocals to the fore and allowing them to stretch in a way that at times recalls, perhaps strangely at first, R&B. The more centrist take on pop experimentation is a great look for the band.

Goma says that, while writing Sea When Absent remotely wasn’t ideal, the group learned its “new language” firmly enough to travel that road again as needed. Still, no matter how fluid our digital communications become, there will always be an advantage to working face-to-face. That, and fervent ASDIG fans might not have to wait so long for the next release. “I think we’d rather make something in 10 days instead of two years,” says Goma.

Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan was prescient on this point more than a decade ago: “Progress has a way of feigning ease.”

—Ryan Burleson

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Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Two Hands Clapping

CYHSY

Formally stripped down to a two-piece, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah synthesizes its talents

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah may forever be pigeonholed as one of the first “blog bands.” Its self-titled, self-released debut became popular through word-of-blog acclaim upon arrival in 2005—deservedly so, with jittery, catchy guitar-pop songs such as “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” “Is This Love?” and “In This Home On Ice.” The Philly/Brooklyn quintet, led by Alec Ounsworth, navigated the success well, but its second release, 2007’s Dave Fridmann-produced Some Loud Thunder, revealed that CYHSY was as interested in outsider weirdness as it was in indie-pop hooks. The record contains gems like “Underwater (You And Me),” but it suffered a seemingly inevitable backlash from the fickle blogosphere, as did 2011’s Hysterical.

In Hysterical’s aftermath, the band shed members and disappeared until late last summer, when the Little Moments EP arrived. That surprising set of four synth-pop songs set the tone for the vibe that threads through Only Run, the new Clap Your Hands album, which updates one of the EP’s songs as its title track. Ounsworth says that synths have always been a defining characteristic of the band.

“The fact of the matter is that Clap Your Hands was created as a synth-based project; that’s what it is,” says Ounsworth from San Francisco, where he’s in the middle of a solo tour of living rooms. “A lot of people are surprised to know that ‘Home On Ice,’ ‘Over And Over Again,’ ‘Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood,’ ‘Yellow Country Teeth’—these are all synth-driven songs. It’s funny to hear that some people say that, ‘Oh, now you’re venturing into synth territory.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s always kind of been.’ To me, I don’t really see a difference, including the last record and Some Loud Thunder. This time, we used synths about evenly, if not a little less than on some of the other records.”

Ounsworth laughs when asked who the “we” is in Clap Your Hands these days. “It’s mostly me,” he says. “I did try to work with other people. Even the guys who used to be in the band had a crack at these songs, but it was just unnecessary; a lot of the parts were just unnecessary. It’s not their fault; it’s just the way it happened.”

On Only Run, Clap Your Hands is essentially Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh, with a major assist from Fridmann, who mixed the album.

“It’s kind of always been the vision that I had for this project,” says Ounsworth, who has juggled other things, such as Flashy Python and his solo album, 2009’s Mo Beauty. “The truth is, the only reason it didn’t end up being this way the entire time was because it took off to such a degree and everybody felt fully invested by virtue of that. All of a sudden, we were a band-band, and that was never entirely the intention. On the first record, you notice we didn’t actually list who played what. Not to go into any details, but to me, this one’s not very different at all from how the other ones played out.”

Only Run contains Clap Your Hands’ strongest set of songs since that debut, with a higher concentration of revved-up guitars and catchy crescendos. Ounsworth’s David Byrne-like vocals can be divisive. Some listeners find them grating; others, gratifyingly unfiltered and sometimes unhinged. They’re harnessed, on Only Run, to melodies such as “As Always” or “Impossible Request” that hit an indie-pop sweet spot.

Ounsworth is happy downsizing Clap Your Hands. Although he will draft a rotating cast of players to tour, he’s also loving doing solo shows for small audiences outside of traditional venues.

“There came a point with Clap Your Hands where we were going out playing bigger shows, but I was feeling absolutely nothing,” he says. “Everyone around me was telling me everything was going so well, but I felt absolutely no connection. I don’t know if was entirely self-sabotage or something like that, but I felt that I needed to bring it down to a certain level that made sense to me. As much as a lot of people around me feel that it was self-sabotage, I feel more comfortable than I’ve felt in eight or nine years doing this. It’s kind of great. I feel enormously positive for the first time in a long time.”

—Steve Klinge

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