Ought: More Than Any Other Day

https://i1.wp.com/cstrecords.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/CST103_5x5_300dpi.jpg
.
Montreal quartet Ought came together during 2012’s “Maple Spring”, Quebec students’ demonstrations against a proposed increase in tuition fees inspiring front-man Tim Beeler to put acoustic folk poetry on the back burner and embrace instead the rebellious spirit of electrified rock & roll. More Than Any Other Day, the group’s exceptional debut album, certainly sounds like a rabble-rousing call to arms, at least from a distance: Beeler’s vocals mostly alternate between a hardcore-inspired bark and sing-spoken passages where he comes across like some half-crazed TV preacher, and he’s never less than a commanding presence, leading band-mates Matt May, Ben Stidworthy and Tim Keen through a series of organ- and violin-augmented post-punk workouts that wrap knotty, Cap’n Jazz and Lungfish-inspired guitar lines around angular Gang Of Four bass-lines and crazy Feelies rhythms. As tightly wound as they are loose-limbed – and paired with unpolished, often live-sounding production that perfectly compliments the songs’ restless, volatile energy – the foursome at times recall furious firebrands like the MC5, but despite the urgency of their sound a closer listen reveals that Ought aren’t actually trying to push any particular political manifesto onto their audience: “I retain the right to be disgusted by life/ I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight” Beeler rants on “Gemini”, conveniently covering all bases, and whilst the snarls and sharp edges might suggest the stereotypical “angry young men”, they’re actually more inclined to encourage you to pick up “a textbook, or a magazine, or a novel (any kind of reading material will do)” than tell you to riot in the streets. They’re dreamers at heart, searching for answers to the big questions but still finding time to appreciate the small things (“I am excited to feel the milk of human kindness/ And today, more than any other day, I am excited to go grocery shopping”) or to tell the old man sitting opposite them on the train that “everything is going to be okay“, and if – when, as on “Habit“, he actually sings – Beeler sounds so much like David Byrne that you can almost picture him staggering across a stage in an oversized business suit, his mix of dry wit and wide-eyed wonder owes as much of a debt to the Talking Heads chief as his voice. On the one hand, this is punk that isn’t afraid of being romantic or poetic; on the other, it’s music made by idealistic, arty souls who are quite prepared to jump into a mosh-pit or throw awkward shapes on the dancefloor. Whatever the circumstances or shared beliefs that brought them together, if there is a message Ought seem keen to impart here it’s that life is short and hard to get a handle on, and that we should spend our limited time on this planet doing what makes us (and those we care about) happy; More Than Any Other Day – more than any other rock record in recent memeory – puts forward a pretty convincing case that music, in all its messy, raucous glory, can help us to achieve those goals.
.
More Than Any Other Day is out April 29 via Constellation Records; check out “The Weather Song”  below and stream the whole thing via Pitchfork Advance.
.

.

Advertisements

Chad VanGaalen: Shrink Dust

Almost exclusively, the twelve songs that make up Chad VanGaalen‘s fifth album Shrink Dust shuffle forth into the world as fearful, fragile creatures: like a litter of kittens left abandoned in a well, barely strong enough to climb into the bucket you lower down for them, they greet the light blinking and shaking, fuzzy little wrecks as unsure of themselves as they are of the world around them. But just as those bedraggled little kitties would invariably let out a heart-melting squeak and transform your anxiety into pure joyous relief (“Don’t worry mister, it was touch and go for a minute there, but – look! – I’m OK”), VanGaalen’s creations routinely contain switch-flipping moments that force the listener to turn that frown upside down. Whether obvious – a grand chord change here, a clarinet or harmonica solo there – or almost imperceptible (a wolf-whistling pedal steel guitar or background swell of multi-tracked harmony vocals), these twists – here more than ever – are stunningly effective song-writing tools, and further evidence that the Alberta-based auteur is one of the best in the business today. He’s also one of the most underappreciated: by rights, an artist as accomplished in as many different fields as VanGaalen (he’s also a producer – most notably working with sadly missed noiseniks Women – as well as a film-maker, animator and illustrator) should have a Canadian national holiday named after them, but whilst globally successful countrymen like Bieber and Buble accumulate awards and obscene amounts of money, CVG remains something of a cult figure, toiling away underground without so much as a Polaris prize to his name. Not that such claustrophobic confines have hurt VanGaalen’s working process; on the contrary, his charmingly oddball pop – taking in pastoral psychedelia, acid-fried country, folk rock, scuzzy garage punk and more – feels safely rooted in something seriously substantial, as if being packed in mud and moss and gravel and grass had grown his dream inventions an actual physical body. It’s a clever contrast, this marriage of earthy noise and fantastically surreal lyrical imagery (“Cut off both my hands and threw them in the sand/ Watched them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs”), VanGaalen’s creaky Neil Young yelp and heat-warped sonics combining to glorious, otherworldly effect, but if these tunes often feel a bit like slightly botched experiments – runtish, mis-shapen – they are certainly happy accidents: not conventionally pretty, perhaps, but beautiful all the same in their own strange way. For whilst he’s plainly in his element spinning grim fairytales about sprouting tusks and spiny feathers or throwing his broken fingers at the sun those previously mentioned uplifts mean that these songs feed the heart and soul as much as the imagination, and if he never released another record, CVG could rest easy knowing he’d given the world something as gently reassuring as “Cosmic Destroyer” or as downright lovely as “Lila.” VanGaalen’s universe might be dark and full of monsters, but darkness can be comforting and monsters can be heroes too, and these are the bedtime stories we should be telling our kids. Check out “Where Are You?” (featuring animation by CVG) below, and be sure to grab Shrink Dust from Sub Pop on April 29.
.

EMA: The Future’s Void

Given the increased amount of noise (or rather, NOISE, as in: howling feedback, tortured screams, metallic bass tones, blast beats etc.) in music circa 2014 – creeping in at the edges of everything from punk (Perfect Pussy) and post-punk (Swans) to metal (Indian), hip hop (Clipping) and techno (Actress) – one might have reasonably expected the second album from Erika M. Anderson to be a much dirtier, much uglier record than it actually is: Anderson, of course, started out in West Coast noise scene darlings Gowns, and her debut as EMA – 2011’s Past Life Martyred Saints – attracted something of a cult following by playing to previously proven strengths, coating freaked-out folk and gothic blues alike in multiple layers of dark, abrasive scuzz. Whilst still seriously noisy, much of The Future’s Void (out April 8 via Matador/City Slang) utilises a cleaner, less blown-out sound palette than that of its predecessor, Anderson and her producer/ musical partner Lief Shackelford marching out of step with the pack to a combination of crisp electronic beats and real percussion, sparse piano lines and glassy synths that dazzlingly offset the fuzz and skree of the set’s more industrial elements. With many of its lyrics focusing on our relationship with technology, specifically our online existence and very public private lives (“I blew my soul out across the interwebs” sings Anderson on “3Jane“), the man/ machine musical accompaniment often makes The Future’s Void feel like some kind of cyberpunk concept album, part cautionary science fiction fable, part realisation that it’s actually too late: there are already “Satellites” everywhere, the only good celebrity these days is a “Dead Celebrity”, Big Brother really has been watching us all along and now he’s using our secrets to destroy us. It’s a scary world we’re living in, full of post-Snowden paranoia and reeking of uncertainty (even the album title is confusing: how can the future be incorrect if it hasn’t happened yet? Or does it mean that the future IS a void, i.e. non-existent?) and Anderson’s not afraid to admit it, but if she sometimes sounds a little downhearted (“Smoulder”, the hushed, Yo La Tengo-esque “When She Comes”), more often than not she just sounds plain fierce; above all, especially on tracks like the clanging “Neuromancer” and Linda Perry-like pop-grunge anthem “So Blonde”, she sounds defiantly human, a Sarah Connor for our times fighting for flesh and blood whilst begrudgingly harbouring a soft spot for the electronic enemy. That noise you can hear, over the war drums and the deafening chaos? That’s Erika M. Anderson, calling out the future; the future should be very afraid. Check out “Satellites” below, and stream the album in full via NPR.
.