One great record this month has practically invented its own genre: megaphone-rock. In a few years, hopefully, young people all over the world will be using megaphones and bullhorns to sing through. As for the other great record this month, well I have to admit I overrated its predecessor. But that was still a good album, and the new one’s even better. Toldja he was gonna be a star.
Nonesuch, 2013 [BUY]
Having signed with Nonesuch and enlisted producer Dan Auerbach to Westernize his unmistakable technique, Omara Moctar launches his international conquest, winning accolades in Rolling Stone and other mainstream rock magazines. Whether appealing to guitar acolytes, world-music aficionados, or self-appointed historians who think West Africa is where American music was born, he’s become a star.
This album is much sturdier than 2011′s Agadez, but it’s not as tersely haunting, and it’s easy to see why those unfamiliar with the style might think all the songs sound the same. Also, as his shredding turns louder and more electrified, Moctar comes dangerously close to the red-blooded guitar-god posturing Auerbach has devoted his career to, a stance foreign in Africa. Nevertheless, no other album this year has rocked so hard. However frantic the music on top, at its core it harbors vast reserves of psychic peace, the kind of emotional resolve you respect from someone who has recently escaped a war-ravaged homeland. From a position of calm, of serene acceptance and direct melodicism, he builds up real tough-minded intensity: his backing band has gotten rawer and bluesier, and his heavy riffs thunder and rage, their lightning-fueled strum ripping through the rest of the mix. Often everything reaches such a level of breakneck compression that the guitar seems to spontaneously combust.
Very likely he’s just too uncompromising to ever crack the pop charts. But he can try, and aesthetes all over the world will love him for it. Let’s hope he goes on tour with the Black Keys next summer and builds up an American fanbase.
The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars
Sensibility/Columbia, 2013 [BUY]
On 2011′s muted, minimalist Barton Hollow, country duo Joy Williams and John Paul White crafted sensitive heartsongs about domestic partnerships. Now, having toured behind Adele and visited the White House, they beef up their sound for the arena market. Since arena-rock has come to dominate Nashville, they seem comparatively eclectic by preserving their roots in balladry.
In theory, the big, loud drum sound, roaring guitars, yearning vocals, and pathological aggrandizement lend accessibility to their bare-bones approach. But in amplifying the deep, earnest emotions behind the songs, their extra musical muscle has made them grotesque. Committed cornballs warbling to each other over acoustic guitar, they’re really just folkies who’ve learned to project. They beg “Oh Lord, don’t take my sinner away from me” in a pretty gospel hymn, angelically croon “Let me hold your hand and dance round the flames,” bellow “I had me a girl who taught me those things a young man should know.” They get uncommonly excited over run-of-the-mill American cliché.
It is a sacred quest to carry on the grand old folk legacy, and Williams and White do so by inflation: they can bang their drums louder, harmonize more beautifully, exaggerate their music more melodramatically than anybody. The tradition lives!
4AD, 2013 [BUY]
Professional critics’ darling Bradford Cox has finally made a conventionally accessible album, albeit a very strange one, and hey, it rocks too. Formerly avant-ambient-whatever, the band has now realized a smashing take on avant-noise, only never so experimental as to lose track of song structure, or humor, or youthful exuberance.
The most striking song here is “Leather Jacket II,” in which the band hits you with this huge, dense, screeching riff; it’s soaked in vinegary distortion and industrial clang, as though the guitar strings are splitting down the middle. Although the rest of the album is relatively more even, that riff sets the tone. It all crackles and shrieks, the grotesque amplifier effects only toughening the songs underneath. Unlike most white misfits attracted to the genre, Cox has little use for anger — his mood is more amused when he’s not simply declarative. But whether softly breathing his gleeful lyrics or yelling inarticulately through a megaphone, he turns each one of these twelve catchy ditties from simple punk to something weirder and more special.
For young, eager musicians, what really stands out is their confidence, the glee they get from experiencing their own masterful ability. If this also happens to confound the indie-rock scene, which misses their artier and less innovative music, that’s just a chance they’re happy to take.
Savages: Silence Yourself
Matador, 2013 [BUY]
Punk bands like the So So Glos, Parquet Courts, and countless others are attracted to their genre for its positive, immediate energy. This all-female London band is creepier, scarier, more ominous. Their album erupts with a speedy vitality that’s hard and impressive, but also portentous.
More than any of the canonical gothic postpunks they’re often compared to, the band’s heavy crunch recalls a nastier Pylon: muddy, chugging guitar cloaked around hardened but melodic basslines over a driving beat. It’s a tough, bitter sound, hammering out one militant manifesto after another without cracking a smile. But though I admire this record’s unyielding punch and riffy drive, the unsociable songwriting presumably meant to reflect the band’s alienation instantly alienates me. Jehnny Beth is the kind of operatic frontwoman who says “bade” when she means “bed” and “silénce” when she means “silence” (is that British?), and ultimately the violence in the music is left unaddressed, its anger pure and decontextualized. Such distancing effects can often prove invigorating. Many punk-rockers consider them necessary for provoking an intelligent response. But go overboard and you risk losing your audience.
They’re very serious. They believe the Modern World’s teeming Overpopulation and frenzied Corporatism distances people from their Real Emotions, and have made an album meant to jolt you back into an Authentic State of Being. As someone who finds Value in Superficiality and even Commercial Product, I Highly Disagree with their Aesthetic Stance.
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