One eccentric couple band, one celebrated indie icon, one celebrated indie icon that happens to be an eccentric couple band, and a stray singer-songwriter. It’s Alternarock Week at Critical Catalogue Headquarters.
Yo La Tengo: Fade
Matador, 2013 [BUY]
Like Sonic Youth, this beloved Hoboken couple band makes wonderful bohemian-utopia music representative of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s marriage. Oddly enough, their album titles often neatly sum up their moods: before this was 2009’s Popular Songs, not to mention 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and here they’ve faded a little.
Essentially, this is just more of the beautiful, expressive jangle-rock they’re famous for, a distinctive style that at its toughest and most lyrical can arrest and captivate, transformed by the loving relationship that enables it. Where sex icons write songs seducing their fans, one reason Kaplan and Hubley have a committed audience is that they’re committed to each other. You can hear that on record in their longterm consistency, their relaxed comfort, the way they stay loyal to their melodic signature. Occasionally, though, they lapse into the overly tranquil, which is the case here. This album is short on guitar and long on string arrangements, mumbled harmonies, and pretty ballads. Only on “Ohm,” the upbeat garage-scorcher that kicks off the record, do they rock as hard as their fanbase knows they can.
With slow, subtle maturity, they almost sound too secure in their environment. Stability is nice in life, but translated to music it turns complacent.
My Bloody Valentine: MBV
Pickpocket, 2013 [BUY]
Here we have the musical equivalent of Harold Brodkey’s Runaway Soul: celebrated alternative-rock band crafts seminal, widely imitated yet utterly unique album in 1991, promises a follow-up soon, and keeps promising until the resultant album finally appears in 2013, sounding very similar to their previous tour de force, Loveless. Only unlike The Runaway Soul, the album gets good reviews, and rightfully so, as these guys are the original impressionistic indie hazemongers, and they’re back to claim their due.
With sharp yet fuzzy guitars boldly surging across huge waves of distortion ripping holes in the amplifier, with slow, freakish electric texture pounding and making the speakers buzz, this huge slab of industrial concrete is hard to absorb at first; it’s too thundering, too throbbing. It isn’t as scary or vivid as Loveless, and 22 years after the fact their fusion of soft and harsh no longer means what it once did. But give it time and shapes and forms reveal themselves alongside breathy vocals, often with knotty riffs firmly embedded in their swelling architecture. Its pulsating rhythms mimicking the beating heart, Kevin Shields’ warped guitars groaning and aching along with Bilinda Butcher’s high whispers, this is the sound of pure, inarticulate romanticism, filled with longing and resignation and childlike wonder.
Once again, this band has crafted a contained, engaging soundscape whose sheer aesthetic primacy could torture dozens of postrock experimentalists. It’s fairly intense, and also pleasantly peaceful. In short, worth the wait.
Adult: The Way Things Fall
Ghostly, 2013 [BUY]
Detroit techno wizards and art heroes, husband-and-wife duo Adult are masters of their self-invented scene, meaning the eclectic, glitzy sound most would hear as early-’80s revival is in this context the original result of creative obsession. Most of their stylistic contemporaries have disappeared since they first emerged in 2001, leaving them free to reveal the gleeful robot parody they always knew they were capable of.
Certainly this group has some electroclash bona fides, acid synths and bleeping noises and the like. What I hear above all is New Order — “New Frustration” and “At the End of It All” especially, but this album rides a winning variant on the “Blue Monday” groove from start to finish. Bouncing, dynamic percussion and rubbery staccato basslines hash out rigid, sped-up, up-and-down rhythms, having sped up their beat machine so that it burbles in time. High, tinny keyboard hooks play kitschy-simplistic melodies that naturalize the music’s automated motion. Nicola Kuperus sings minimalist, cognitively dissonant lyrics in a flat, monotonous, adorable drone. It’s all the sillier for its mock-serious overtones, powered deep in the mix by the kind of real human satisfaction control freaks get when everything is in its right place.
Whether actually alienated or just distant, they pursue a cryptically ironic replica of modern dance music and achieve the aesthetic detachment skeptics need to enjoy the genre. They’re loads of fun, pure one-dimensional cartoon and all the more exciting for it.
Laura Marling: Once I Was An Eagle
Ribbon, 2013 [BUY]
It’s no surprise that this English folkie should garner haughty comparisons to Joni Mitchell. When one likes a female singer-songwriter but can’t quite figure out how to describe her songs, Mitchell’s name is commonly accepted shorthand. Personally, I’d cite Janis Ian, Margo Timmins, and Josh T. Pearson: they’re all solemn and diffident.
Marling deserves recognition in that she could be the slowest and most subdued musician in quite a while, in any genre. A few of her melodies are appealingly straightforward, and upon close examination she does reveal herself to be vulnerable in a somewhat touching manner. Still, it’s an affected vulnerability for sure, and Marling’s inability to assert herself on record indicates less sweet intimacy than fussy anxiety. Strumming her leisurely, unaccompanied acoustic, only occasionally plucking out an arpeggio, she shyly chirps lyrics founded on pastoral symbolism and romantic cliché (“Little Bird,” etc). Deliberately holding herself to explicitly highbrow artistic standards, it’s no wonder she feels timid and self-conscious, no wonder her tinny vibrato is as thin and prone to parsimony as her guitar tone, no wonder she performs her songs so quietly, nervously glancing at her shoes all the while.
Admittedly, there’s conviction in her subtlety, a willfulness that’s rather impressive when you turn up the volume. But for something to impress you, you first have to notice it, and the fact remains that this album is very easy to forget about even while it’s on.