I make so much fun of alternative rock only because it means so much to me, but it’s still a shock to look at the four albums I just happened to review this week and realize how indie-identified they each are, even the one that was released through Columbia. So it’s Alternarock Week by complete happenstance. Best regards to Gerard Cosloy, and I promise a broader selection is coming next month.
First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
(Columbia, 2014) [BUY]
Emulating their fellow citizens Robyn and Icona Pop, who’ve made their own considerable dents on the American pop charts, and the Knife, ditto for the American counterculture, this Swedish group tries its hand at Appalachian balladry. This is absolutely a disastrous idea in theory, and I can imagine it going wrong in more ways than one. However questionable the concept, though, they really do pull it off pretty well.
This album ought to explode any antiquated notions of authenticity held by those who value folksong’s genuine roots over its sincere charm. The Söderberg sisters have extensively practiced their enunciation, and regardless of how they speak in regular conversation, on record they sound exactly like down-home Southern girls with the slightest bit of drawl. They project with blissful, joyous clarity, chirping their corny little lyrics in a grand old tradition of popular harmony singing that rings over the music like a bell. Admittedly, their instrumentation is a little more embellished than your average folkie purist might prefer: they mix in violins and flutes and pedal steel for texture’s sake, the shuffling drums actually propel the music, and “Master Pretender” (a theme?) evokes latter-day Fleetwood Mac a lot more vividly than Haim. Mostly, from the emphatic acoustic strumming to the wordless singalong choruses, this is your average folk record. Just a lot more cannily crafted than usual.
They’re both too bland and too normal, with their slick mastery getting the better of them in the end. Yet it still feels like some kind of perverse accomplishment, and they’re keenly aware of the artifice in what they’re doing: “I could move to a small town/and become a waitress/Say my name was Stacy.” Neither of them is named Stacy, of course. Their names are Johanna and Klara.
EMA: The Future’s Void
(Matador, 2014) [BUY]
As different forms of that seemingly incurable malady known as Young Person’s Alienation Syndrome evolve over time, so too does hardcore lo-fi noise, so that, for example, experienced drone-rocker Erika M. Anderson’s bleak, fractured, industrial surface matches her 21st-century information-overload technophobia perfectly. She also gets paranoid about advertising, dead celebrities, and her own hatred of people in bands.
With its strummed acoustic guitars and occasional piano ballads, this album won’t explode on impact, but it will simmer and boil. Even to the ears of certified experts who’ve heard hundreds of freakout sessions like this, Anderson’s style hits hard, and though she’s always been abrasive, this is where she dumps her buckets of feedback all over her guitar and sets it on fire. No solos, no virtuosity, barely any chords — just electric screeches, hammering drums, and the sound of a powerful, expressive singer struggling to make herself heard through crashing waves of sizzling static. Anderson’s spooky vocal affectations recall the silliest kind of gothic pretensions; you can imagine her standing at the top of Mount Netherworld, clad in boots and cape, arms outstretched above her head as she closes her eyes and lets the three Muses speak through her. At first the music sounds unintelligibly muddy, too. But the secret is how determined she is to sing over her blazing wall of white noise. Play the record twice and the distortion turns exciting, adding harsh edge and chemical corrosion and delicate hypnosis to a set of well-written and often rather mesmerizing songs. “So Blonde” and “Smoulder” gleam especially bright in the mind’s ear.
Enraged and terrified, yet also irreverent and entertaining, she’s a rare breed, the artiste so driven she can get away with expressing her innermost feelings without regard for an audience. Indie-rock could use more of them, and every time a new one appears it’s like rediscovering the world for yourself.
How to Dress Well: What Is This Heart?
(Domino/Weird World, 2014) [BUY]
Philosophy student Tom Krell’s dim, blurry style of electronic bedroom recording has in fact gotten a lot more comprehensible over the years, but it’s still an arty, atmospheric swamp. A firm believer in the notion that cold, dispassionate background Muzak conjures up intimacy and soul, he never breaks out from his own sensual passivity.
Where James Blake, say, arranges his ambient-concrète pieces so as to emphasize subtle details in tone color and faint shifts in volume, Krell’s concrète-ambient arrangements highlight lightly muted dynamics and noteworthy repetitions of the tonic. He does include various percussion loops, and at times reaches an alarmingly constant pulse, but such drum effects are more often unobtrusively integrated into the compositional whole along with an assortment of keyboardesque sounds and amelodic background whooshes. Claims by infatuated fans that his work shares structural affinities with R&B as opposed to contemporary classical are probably inspired by his thin, quiet falsetto, as these affinities cannot be rhythmic or harmonic. Adding hazy mist to the edges, heightening the echo pedals, and dampening everything else, Krell has crafted his music so that its impressionistic crawl throbs with desire in a childishly open, creepily sublimated show of feeling, hiding the lust in his voice with achingly sincere moans and sighs.
The basic tenet of this music is that its soft lack of focus achieves a fuzzy, comforting, oceanic, impressionistic form of spiritual rapture. It’s a neat idea in theory.
Jack White: Lazaretto
(Third Man, 2014) [BUY]
Admired among a certain type of traditionalist gatekeeper for his willingness to rock out, his gift for the tuneful vignette, and especially his syncretic creativity in playing with very limited musical forms, Jack White has officially made the jump from punk to generic roots-rock. Although it makes sense for him to change his voice now that he’s split up with his band, this followup to his rather more inspired solo debut rarely settles into a groove.
The Rolling Stone article about White calls him a “Rock & Roll Willy Wonka,” and that feels fitting to a point. Where with the White Stripes he put his name on a self-consciously primitive garage-rock of strikingly minimalistic power, solo he sacrifices force for range, mixing up all sorts of indigenous and sometimes antiquated popular genres from classic blues to hard country to rockabilly in his chocolate factory and producing exceptionally novel flavor combinations. This album amasses boogie piano, acoustic slide guitar, harmonica, harp, electric keyboard, a fair amount of fiddle, and of course bluesy guitar licks into an all-encompassing style of received Americana, and it’s original for sure. But nothing about this synthesis much deviates from the bland feelgoodism of country-rock radio, which he’s evidently trying to crack. The title song is a lot of fun with its circular riff churning away, and “Would You Fight For My Love?” channels the angry melodrama he’s always enjoyed. But mostly his reimagined blends don’t mesh quite as well as usual, his melodies strain at a relaxed cheer he has no aptitude for, and his voice sounds cracked, aggravated. As he struggles to reach the formal control that was once his signature, you have to wonder whether his conservative instincts are getting the better of him.
For a long time he’s been trying to break new ground within the tight parameters he sets for himself. Either because he still loves those parameters deep down or because of his reactionary taste for anything modern, he just doesn’t have his heart in his efforts to escape.