In the spirit of Lou Reed himself, my first thoughts on hearing of his death were curmudgeonly; I was expecting Rolling Stone and The Village Voice to sentimentalize him, which would have been truly irritating. Better that the man who wrote songs about heroin addicts and failed surgeries be treated with his own style of affectionate irreverence than the vague hyperbole that is the vice of so much lazy rockcrit, right?
What I hadn’t realized was that said hyperbole is typically used as a critical last resort for writers not quite familiar enough with the music in question to craft a more appropriate response, and the fact is that everybody knows Lou Reed’s songs — “Sunday Morning,” “Sister Ray,” “Beginning to See the Light,” “Sweet Jane,” the list goes on. His death moved people because like many artists with long, messy, deliberately anticanonical careers, he inspired the kind of mocking yet absolute commitment in fans that leads people to think they know an artist intimately. He wasn’t just a mere rock legend, he was your weird old Uncle Lou, the guy who dressed all in black and would hide in the corner during Thanksgiving, not saying much. For those unacquainted with his catalogue, the first four Velvet Underground albums should be purchased immediately; I guarantee you will treasure them for the rest of your life. As for his solo albums, well, my favorite has always been 1982’s The Blue Mask, though I also love 1976’s Coney Island Baby. But the best way to bond with Uncle Lou is simply to work through the catalogue. This column is dedicated to noisy indie-rock in his honor.
Iceage: You’re Nothing
What’s Your Rupture? 2013 [BUY]
Famous for nihilist posturing and being relatively young for professional musicians, these Danes make hardcore punk, not death-metal: they’re intense in an engaging way. What exactly their bottomless fury is directed at, or whether it’s directed at anything at all, remains unclear, as they cultivate a certain air of mystery. It sure is thrilling, though.
Totally tough and severe, this band deserves their reputation for spitting out uncompromising punk bile. Yoking massively distorted, ear-piercing, metal-grinding, bone-scraping guitar to Dan Kjaer Nielsen’s dogged military drums, it’s all sharp, ripping, barbed-wire abrasion, its angry incomprehensibility hardly mitigated by Elias Bender Ronnenfelt’s guttural, accented roars (apparently in English, but who knows?). Although texturally dense, the album remains fast and harsh throughout, a cathartic declaration of emotion so frenzied it can barely be sustained over even fragmentary songform. As someone who looks to minimalist rock for possibility and coherence, however, I find their music a little narrow, diminished by unnecessary ideological purity.
Anyone who loves whomping guitar chaos will find this album electrifying, and I do too. Still, fury gets old quickly. Also, I can’t help but feel that what draws them to punk is the vaguely dangerous aura surrounding it, especially when you sell knives at shows. Surely they grew up as nice, polite, well-groomed European boys.
Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals
Mom+Pop, 2013 [BUY]
Having started this band as a miniaturist experiment, expert noize-poppers Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller have maximized their sound, and this is their strongest, feistiest, most undeniable album. The jury’s out on whether its arrant brashness will alienate their insular scenester admirers, who after all prefer their art tasteful and avant-banal. But they’ve hit upon such an exciting sound they’re ready to run over anything in their way.
Like many skeptical of indie microgenres, I had my doubts about how well this fusion of axe anarchy and singalong songform would wear once I’d fully digested its turbocharged energy and swaggering sneer. But this is no microgenre; it’s huge. Like a lot of modern electronic music, it’s a blatant show of pure aggrandizing power, and because of how catchy it is, it’s powerful indeed. These sugar-soaked poptoons maintain an ebullient standard of lighthearted melody, only they’re shot through with massive molten slabs of power-chord crunch and a veritable array of background shrieks and helium squeals. Their relentless distortion-smashing piledrives the beat to the max, packing extra rhythmic oomph into pop structures already at an impressive level of formal discipline. Meanwhile, Krauss’s raw high-pitched wailing croon shows off the girlish defiance of a true arena-rock goddess. And this is Miller’s most shameless parade of warped, staggering hooks yet.
From the textural abrasion and upbeat dynamism to the dizzy speed and tasty tunes, this is one of those classic pop albums whose inexhaustible playability can keep you sane and happy, only it’s also one of those cutting-edge guitar-rock albums whose sheer aggression gets your blood pumping. It’s a true formalist coup.
Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold
What’s Your Rupture? 2013 [BUY]
With nothing but two guitars, a bass, and a set of drums, a group of Texan exiles in Brooklyn twists around a basic band sound and promptly revs up a rock-solid collection of two-minute punk songs. Telling nonsensical stories and relating whimsical observations on the nature of North Dakota, they reach an incredibly warm, humorous tone with no loss of musical impact.
Everyone with an indie-rock degree is comparing this band to fellow jokester-punks Pavement, and I can’t object. However, that’s not to deny their own unique sonic signature. Andrew Savage and Austin Brown’s twin-guitar attack is thinner, flatter, janglier, altogether cleaner, and utterly tight and gripping. With the rodeo album cover capturing their style of momentum perfectly, these demented staccato riffs charge forward with the brisk clip-clop rhythm of a galloping animal. But their turbulent propulsion is still fully urban, queasily evoking concrete-jungle panic as the chugging guitars screech and slur. The resultant synthesis is rowdy and rambunctious, energizing and terrifying the two weirdo stoners on vocal duty, neither of whom sings very melodically: Savage mewls and whines, while the bemused Brown calmly runs off at the mouth, telling jokes that only he gets and muttering things under his breath. Through it all, though, they’re possessed by a sweet, goofy slacker humanism, which is how they allay their own anxiety as well as convince you they’re just regular guys having fun.
Riding a formal groove simultaneously familiar and novel, these instant neoclassics are so speedy and screwy that at first it seems they all barrel by in a rush, yet each proves instantly hummable anyway. Try to dissect this band’s music and you’ll just go careening off a cliff. Adjust to their screwy speed and you’ll be giggling at their punchlines.
Mikal Cronin: MCII
Merge, 2013 [BUY]
Having suddenly become sociable and outgoing, former grunge bassist and soulful dreamer Mikal Cronin fashions a vanilla pop-rock record, with big swooping choruses and yearning harmonies in all the right places. Not only does he write sincere romantic anthems, but they’re often rather memorable. Now if only they were recorded with the expertise of a professional road band.
For such an unabashed singer-songwriter, Cronin is uncommonly direct and accessible. He writes actual songs, with verses that logically proceed to choruses with sensible, decipherable tunes, and although I have on occasion mistaken him for Kurt Vile (same haircut, even), unlike Vile he’s a ridiculous cornball — his carefree melodic lyricism contrasting with the heartbroken resignation of his verse, this is essentially the king of feelgood California soft-rock that still gets played on golden-oldies radio. Sometimes he’ll throw in a guitar solo or two, but mostly chiming acoustic-guitar hooks with a rough electric overlay get coated in slick piano and violin, making for a fuzzy, glossy music of sunny cheer and casual vacuity. Its bright chord-strumming reaches a simple, friendly buoyancy, and I can imagine this album becoming quite pleasurable on a long drive, say, or lifting you through a hazy summer day. But listen enough to this mellow, bland, essentially unchallenging music and it’ll gradually start seeming too facile, too painless.
Cronin’s resolve to make genuine, enjoyable pop music without compromising his wigginess is admirable, but his taste in the former remains shallow. Does the world really need an heir to the once glorious, now tragically abandoned legacy of Dave Mason?