NEW (to all of us) MUSIC FRIDAY with some of 2020's hidden gems and missing links.
We are going ALL around the spectrum. It starts LOUD (hint: the first three) but brings you home with a gentle cascade downward.
DRAIN - California Cursed [LP/CD](Revelation/The Orchard)
Santa Cruz, California could become your new hotbed for Hardcore. The fierce, fast, and furious Drain leads HC further into its newest all-consuming iteration with songs that burrow into their riffs and then use the stops/starts for unpredictable changes in tempo. The result is "California Cursed" which comes at you at both full bore double-kick thumping Punk and a steamroller slow grind whose vibrations could snap your neck. In addition their echoes of punchy 80's bass and 90's metal open the doors for Rock/Alternative radio to discover (or just daypart) the blistering "Army Of One" - a track which gallops through Thrash, finds that head nodding dot-dot-dash rhythm of Rage Against The Machine and fuses it with the slam dance circle mayhem of Suicidal Tendencies. Also, "Character Fraud" finds a stop-time chorus and double-pick switch that will blow your mind. “California Cursed” is the opening chapter of a whole new dynasty.
GULCH - Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress [LP/CD](Closed Casket Activities/The Orchard)
If Drain is the band leading the charge of metalheads to Santa Cruz, fellow SCers Gulch is the one who will blow the roof off of the house when you get there. Like Drain, Gulch is freakishly good at turning on a dime (and savagely clearing their throat.) "Cries of Pleasure, Heavenly Pain" follows the Black Flag-ish punk snap straight into jaw-dropping Metallic mayhem. Gulch's vision is one of stomach-churning horror. The scream is unholy at times. The drums veer from tribal to skull-penetrating. When the guitars and bass play all together it is the equivalent of standing in front of a whirring jet engine. "Lie, Deny, Sanctify" sounds like Flag playing with Slayer. "F-ing Toward Salvation" is the 1:50 primal scream release you have been craving all year. As a whole, "Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress" is like hitting yourself with Thor's hammer - prepare to be frightened and exhilarated.
NUVOLASCURA - As We Suffer From Memory And Imagination [LP](Dog Knights/Zegema Beach)
Hardcore had quite the year in 2020. For those not craving the escapism of Pop or richly textured Dance music, the mixture of blunt force and near-Prog-ish twists and turns from Nuvolascura makes a bracing alternative to everything else out there. Thirteen short, jagged screeds that cannot be avoided once you start the album. Voices screech above a nearly non-stop metallic blast. Jack Shirley's production does a brilliant job at separating their sounds so that it is more multi-layered than (Punk Rock) monolithic. There is no accounting for Erica's raw emotion. Every throat-slicing yowl is coming from a place of her absorbing some gut-punch of agony. "Pixel Vision Anxiety" is a standout from a band you are sure to be hearing much more from in 2021.
RATBOYS - Printer's Devil [LP/CD](Topshelf/Redeye)
The Chicago Folk duo moves into Modern/Punky Pop/Rock with an album that recalls the best parts of the early Nineties (Julia Steiner's Juliana Hatfield-ish coo) and further modernizes Pop/Rock to fit into the popular sound of 2020 (Bully, The Beths) with their own formula of clever instrumentation and hooks. "Printer's Devil" works its true magic by never showing its hand. With other bands, you quickly get the sense of their verse/chorus/verse style and they just hammer out hooks. Steiner and Dave Sagan let their songs percolate ("Victorian Slumhouse") and slowly develop (the slow burn Seventies Pop of "Listening" tags on a beautiful guitar-laden coda and while the grand finale title track is constructed around a rumbling ancient synth.) Ratboys position themselves as ones to watch in 2021.
NATION OF LANGUAGE - Introduction, Presence [LP](self-released)
Given their Brooklyn lineage and the out-of-place title, it would be so easy to link this trio with two dozen other bands eager to bring back the 1981 genesis between Post-Punk and Electronic Pop. However, "Introduction, Presence" rises above the rest by wearing its influences on its sleeve (OMD, early Human League, and Depeche Mode) while writing songs that outside of their synth-ian sound that could be Car Seat Headrest. The gurgling "Automobile" and pulsating "On Division St." carry the Pop torch perfectly with minimal instrumentation and maximum hooks. The New Order-ish "The Wall & I," the Cure-ian "Indignities" and the very Human League "Friend Machine" (which slips in a very cool vocal pre-chorus and run that could be their signature in the future) play to their purist tendencies without sounding too close to their inspirations. Nation of Language's icy Synth-Pop is the best thing to come out of Brooklyn in a while. As well-organized and written as their "Introduction" is, given the current upswing in Synth/Goth Pop their next album could be a monster.
BAXTER DURY - The Night Chancers [LP/CD](Heavenly/PIAS)
If I could choose anyone to narrate my most vivid dreams - it would be the velvet rumble of Baxter Dury. The son of Ian does just as much with sex and drugs - even if the Rock N'Roll is turned down to a lizardly lounge-y undercurrent that oozes up neatly around his stories. These sordid tales are as biting as ever as the detached backup singers and dubby bass create a unique give and take ("Carla's Boyfriend.") Like his guest spot in the sensational "Tastes Good With The Money" with Fat White Family, Dury holds his words back so elegantly (the scintillating "Samurai") that you always want him to speak more even if you cannot anticipate what he is going to say next.
I'M GLAD IT'S YOU - Every Sun Every Moon [LP/CD](6131/Redeye)
Less Emo and far more emotional, the Redlands, CA quintet I'm Glad It's You gives you a textbook lesson in weathering loss - without really raising their voice. While touring in 2017, the band lost their friend and videographer Chris Avis. After canceling a tour and taking a break, they returned to write about the lengthy process of healing. Beneath their emotional (not Emo, yet again) Rock, pianos color the songs in the places where the pensive, soul-searching lyrics and vocals cannot. The album's centerpiece, the heartbreaking "The Things I Never Said," illustrates that loss follows you everywhere. Then when you find the escape you crave from the music and memories, what once comforted you - only turns this new world upside down. With J.Robbins imaginative production, each song adds a new musical facet (the Mellotron on "Death Is Close") while never growing ornate or distracting from their painful message. A real heartbreaker.
EMPTY COUNTRY - Empty Country/Andi [LP/CD/CS](Get Better/Big Deal/Deathwish)
Joseph D'Agostino is Empty Country. "Empty Country" and "Andi" show a world outside of his previous tenure in Cymbals Eat Guitars. Being outside of the confines of a band has freed D'Agostino to explore more harmonies (the jangle and pull of "Marian") and more comfort with recording (the demos on "Andi" show D'Agostino overwhelming the technology and getting a red-line emotion that has not been heard since the days of four-track recorded intimacy.) The lyrics of "Ultrasound" swerve between poetic stretches and painterly collections of real-life. His more personal songs (especially in their demo form on “Andi”) capture the vicissitudes of life almost too well. “Ultrasound” is a Mats-ian rave-up, while “Untitled” grows from its Elliott Smith-ish tender opening into a swarm of electric guitars squalling. D’Agostino is a gifted songwriter who has given us an immaculately recorded album and his demos to prove it.
FOUR AMERICANA RECORDS WORTH RECAPPING FROM 2020
HONEY HARPER - Starmaker [LP/CD](ATO)
JAIME WYATT - Neon Cross [LP/CD](New West/Redeye)
The Lavender Cowboy trend continued into 2020 with sparkling releases from its newest practitioners. The soothing Honey Harper album neatly straddles the lines between dramatic Pop and traditional Country. While "Starmaker" followed in the footsteps of Orville Peck, Harper mines the kaleidoscopic visions of Seventies Country allowing steel guitars to sound like streaking comets in the sky and pianos to twinkle like stars in the twilight. The elegant "Green Shadows" and the blissful hope-tinged "Tomorrow Never Comes" are among the best singles of the year.
While Jamie Wyatt's second record comes from a place more bleak than lavender, "Neon Cross" is her tale of redemption. Recovering from addiction and finally finding her identity make riveting confessions, but Wyatt maintains a charm and a sense of humor that keeps the reveal from pushing you to shed tears in your beer. Most importantly, "Neon Cross" showcases Wyatt's versatility across the Country/Americana spectrum as she takes some wild chances (Dax Riggs' "Demon Tied To A Chair In My Brain" is reframed as Western swing) and swings for the fences (the galloping title track and the autobiography as Honky Tonk swagger of "Make Something Outta Me.")
LILLY HIATT - Walking Proof [LP/CD](New West/Redeye)
BRENT COBB - Keep 'Em On They Toes [LP/CD](Ol' Buddy/Thirty Tigers/The Orchard)
The two breakout Americana singer/songwriters of 2020 both escaped the shadow of their past and found ways to retake storytelling from the cliches and common tropes. Hiatt and her tense vibrato managed to smooth out tales of the hateful ("Don't you hate when people say/It Is What It Is" on "P-Town,") travel as a metaphor for loss ("Little Believer,") and hope in a hopeless world (the album's standout "Brightest Star.)" With the non-Country production of Lincoln Parish, Hiatt's best asset is her ability to keep herself in the story but maintain the perspective of an omniscient narrator. A handful more hooky songs with choruses like these and we are sure to see Hiatt breakthrough commercially in the future.
Georgian Brent Cobb has not made a bad album yet. However, his 2020 album was plainly stated and put together with the ease of a Seventies Waylon album. Songs develop out his acoustic strum without any real notice. The effect is that as Cobb's stories simply keep unfolding and Brad Cook's deep production never lets you lose focus on his relaxed voice and clever lyrics. These songs are all "rocking-chair" paced and given Cobb's gift for hooks would be Kristofferson-ish hits in the hands of others. "Shut Up and Sing" and "Soapbox" would be Top 20 on the Country charts in the right hands. The Hank Williams-ish prowl of "Good Times and Good Love" (co-written with Luke Bryan) and the melodic almost Don Williams-esque "This Side of The River" are also career highlights. His smooth voice makes the understated but Bluesy "Dust Under My Rug" and the anti-political "Soapbox" (with Nikki Lane) favorites that actually get better with each listen. Ten songs that simply tell it like it is without any posturing or attitude. "Keep Em On They Toes" is as intimate as having a front-porch conversation with Cobb.
THE PROMISED SOFT CONCLUSION
KEELEY FORSYTH - Debris [LP/CD](The Leaf Label UK)
With her deep vibrato, Forsyth wraps raw emotion and a chilling detachment around these songs of romantic exploration. While "Debris" covers some heavy ground (her downward spiral into depression,) it feels like a late-night phone call where both parties are somewhat assuaged just from listening to the other voice. Snatches of strings, synths, and guitar color her songs to make them either more soothing (the single "Start Again") or more dramatic (the Scott Walker-meets-Nina Simone drama of "It's Raining.") However, her almost-operatic voice and presentation make it far more of an experience than another solo artist making their debut. "Debris" is imbued with a sense of hope even as Forsyth draws on these sketches of a lost inner world. Some will want to bill Forsyth as another Nico (similar to the bleak "The Marble Index" but less Teutonic,) "Debris" is assured and completely unlike any other album you will hear this year.
We will be back next week with more reviews and mayhem. Happy New Year from all of us at TBONES to all of you!
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