Album of the Week: Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog
Philadelphia indie rock act Hop Along has creative versatility beyond their contemporaries. The band amplifies the singer-songwriter aesthetic with powerful sounds glistening with genuineness. It’s a mix of folk, ‘90s alternative, punk and power-pop that soothes the senses. Their fourth album Bark Your Head Off, Dog came out on Apr 6 via Saddle Creek Records and is a testament to their musical evolution. There’s a certain fearlessness in each song.
What makes this album different from Hop Along’s previous releases is the involvement of string instruments. The violin throughout the album is a fantastic addition. Frances Quinlan’s vocals combine with guest backing vocalist Chrissy Tashjian (from fellow Philly act Thin Lips) for amazing harmonies. Frances’ brother Mark is the anchor on drums while Joe Reinhart provides perfect chords on lead guitar. Bass guitarist Tyler Long keeps it all together with solid bass lines backing everything up.
Usually when a band shifts towards acoustic instruments, a drop-off in emphasis is expected. Hop Along maintains their trademark intensity in their new album, proof of how talented they are. There’s also a fine balance between the electric guitar riffing and the stripped-down tones. The variety of volumes makes for a captivating listening experience. For further examination, give a gander to my top tracks off of the Album of the Week:
“Prior Things” is a gem that’s also a prime example of the string instruments’ resonance; the violin gives a dose of artistic beauty while Quinlan’s lyrical melodies are stunning. Starting off with a somber vibe, “Not Abel” progresses into a forceful jam due to the chorus emloying those harmonies mentioned earlier. Reinhart’s techniques in “How Simple” are impeccable: he rips a solo halfway through that’s a wonderful addition.
Folk music, when done right, has an exuberance that stands on its own. There’s an organic quality that’s infectious and people will start to dance while basking in a joyous atmosphere. Brooklyn’s Spirit Family Reunion thrives on that feeling. They can play anywhere and provide a memorable experience to an attentive crowd. As part of the Westerly Sound concert series, they’ll be taking the stage at the Knickerbocker Cafe on Apr 14.
I had a chat with co-founder, guitarist and lead singer Nick Panken about loving Creedence Clearwater Revival, managing changes of membership within the band, hundreds of people singing a chorus to a different song than the one Spirit Family Reunion is playing and hoping to put out a new album later in the year.
Rob Duguay (Motif): Spirit Family Reunion began as a collective started by you and Stephen Weinheimer at a bar you both used to work at in Brooklyn. Which bar was it and what would you say was the spark that started the musical bond between the both of you?
Nick Panken: We worked at a bar that’s in the lower east side of Manhattan called Pianos. Originally, the musical bond was that we’re both fans of Creedence Clearwater Revival. We basically put together a group to play as a house band so we learned a bunch of creative covers. That’s how it originally started.
RD: That’s cool how it started out of a mutual love for CCR, I’m a fan of them myself. There’s definitely a noticeable influence in your band too, especially with how the harmonies are and the amount of energy in the music.
RD: The band has had a bit of a rotating cast of musicians that at one point included Providence musicians Dylan and Noah Block-Harley. How do you manage the changes within the band? Do people weave themselves in and out?
NP: I wish I had a better system (laughs). I don’t really know, it always seems to work itself out. We’ve had a few times where we had a lot of tour dates during a really busy year and we had to make sure we had a crew that’s on board to tour a bunch. Other times when we were doing shorter tours for more local shows, a lot of folks would hop on and play with us. I think at this point there’s probably around a dozen folks who have played in the band at one point or another.
Sometimes people hop back in and hop back out. It makes it a little complicated in terms of consistency but it’s also fun that we can keep it fresh with different people bringing different things to the band.
RD: I know a few other bands that have a similar structure where people come and go while having a core group of people. I’ve always wondered how it’s handled with different musicians coming into the fold. Spirit Family Reunion has performed in houses, music venues and festivals all over the place. When you play music to an audience, do you have a preferred setting?
NP: It doesn’t really matter to us. If we know we’re going to be playing someone’s living room, we’re not going to bring the full drum set and the amplifiers. As long as we can organize the instrumentation in a way that’s appropriate for the space and what kind of sound we need to project, I think the only thing that’s important is having a captive audience. Also, generally speaking, the smaller the space then the easier it is to connect with people. We were on this European tour this past summer where we played on some pretty big stages, as big as any stages we’ve ever played.
Some of them were at festivals and some of them were at normal clubs, but one of the most fun shows we had was in this little cafe outside of Hamburg, Germany. It was a beautiful room, everybody was sitting in chairs and we played totally unamplified for a couple hours. The room was full of people singing to songs they didn’t know (laughs). It was a pretty joyous atmosphere.
RD: That sounds awesome. From touring Europe versus touring in America, do you notice any differences between the folks that come out to see you guys play?
NP: While in Europe, the fans might interpret what we do as kind of exotic. Our style is purely American with it being an extension of our country’s music and culture. People are excited in Europe and it seems to be a little bit different to them because of where it’s coming from. It also depends on which country you’re in, there’s a whole different culture. If people are willing to dance or if they’re good dancers, or if they want to clap along to the song – on-beat or totally way off-beat – getting used to what an audience is going to be like in a new country is definitely a real thing.
I remember this one time we were either playing in Denmark or Holland at this festival, and they were really enthusiastic and they really liked us. It felt like we were connecting with them, and we came on stage for the encore, and Stephen started shaking the tambourine to the song. The crowd started clapping along to the beat and then together they started singing the choruses to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” We fell over cracking up on the stage because nothing like this had ever happened to us and it was totally random. I’m pretty sure that song does not start with a tambourine being shaken.
RD: No it doesn’t.
NP: I have no idea what that was about but that would never happen in America.
RD: It seems like it was a wild experience. How many people would you say were doing that?
NP: It was probably a few hundred people there who were doing it. It was pretty funny.
RD: After the show in Westerly, what are the plans for the band during the summer?
NP: I’d like to get back in the studio this year. We have a new record that’s completed that we’re trying to figure out how we want to release it. I’m hoping to put it out later this year, but it may or may not happen. We’re kind of moving at a different pace these days than we have been in the past. It’s nice to take that space in time to spend the energy on other things or on writing new material. At some point, we will be putting a new record out and hopefully we’ll be playing some more shows.
Album of the Week: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – Dirt
Very few bands these days have a way of taking the senses to another world. Both visually and musically, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan from Toronto have the ability to do that while becoming one of the most inventive acts of the decade. They refer to their style as “Noh Wave,” which is a pun on Japanese Noh theatre and New York City’s No Wave scene of the early ‘80s. Their third studio album, Dirt, came out on Mar 23 via the Canadian indie label Paper Bag Records, and it consistently brings out thunderous riffs and beats. It also marks a transition for the band in terms of membership as well.
In June 2015, founding member and lead vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood left along with guitarist John Ancheta. With their departure, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan brought into the fold vocalist Joanna Delos Reyes and guitarist Hiroki Tanaka. The change made them into a dynamic entity of aural excellence. Reyes’ voice is magnificently powerful while Tanaka, bass guitarist Brandon Lim, drummer Alaska B, backing singer Ange Loft and keyboardist Brendan Swanson come together to form a battalion of sound. Their complex rhythms and structures make the new album into a gem that excites and energizes.
To say Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is unique is a vast understatement. They all wear facepaint and, along with being a touring rock band, are also a theatre group that specializes in performance art. It’s an amazing amount of artistic versatility that’s absolutely impressive. This band is doing things that no one else is conceiving and the originality is refreshing. For an in-depth look, check out my top tracks off of the Album of the Week:
An excellent representation of the complex rhythms and structures is “Beast” – Tanaka’s guitar techniques dominate and the electricity is contagious. Alaska B’s machine gun drumming is evident while listening to “Yandere,” a fast-paced introduction into a forceful jam that’ll invade the eardrums. “Hungry Ghost” will put you in a trance with the harmonies from Reyes and Loft.
This incredible act will be performing a sold-out hometown show at The Garrison in Toronto on Mar 29, but their only New England appearance on this tour was a few days ago at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA, on Mar 25, so you missed it if you weren’t there. Let’s hope they roll through the region soon because, with their visuals and sounds, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan must be incredible live. Until then, grab a copy of Dirt. It’s not your typical kind of rock music, but that’s what makes it so great.
In an age where the meaning of pop music is changing with the seasons, Sylvan Esso is putting an extraordinary spin on the style. The duo from Durham, NC, consisting of producer Nick Sanborn and vocalist Amelia Meath, bring complex beats and deep melodies to the table. It’s catchy music that will put you in a good mood once you start listening. With New York City beatmaker Suzi Analogue kicking off the night, Sanborn and Meath will be performing at The Strand Ballroom and Theatre on Apr 4. It seems like a prime time to check out a band that has caused a buzz since their latest album What Now came out last spring.
Sanborn and I had a chat ahead of their show about switching from folk to pop, the new music video Sylvan Esso put out, everything coming together at the right time and the difference between creating something new and imitating it.
Rob Duguay (Motif): Before Sylvan Esso started, both you and Amelia were in different folk bands. You were in Megafaun while Amelia was in Mountain Man, and you also had a solo project called Made of Oak. Sylvan Esso’s music is in the electro-pop style, so what made you and Amelia want to make the transition to a different kind of music?
Nick Sanborn: This is going to sound weird, but there wasn’t really a transition. We both have always loved pop music and, when we started making things together, it was the natural thing that made sense for us to create. We started cutting a remix of a song from Mountain Man and that came out as a combination of what the two of us were interested in. From that, it became the template for what we would make afterwards. Amelia was having a great time in Mountain Man and singing with Feist,s but she always wanted to do something that was a little bit more accessible.
She wanted to maintain the flexibility of the music she was doing before, but she also wanted to do it in a style where more people could find it. We’ve both been fans of all kinds of pop forever, but we’ve bonded over a shared love of Aaliyah, Rihanna and all sorts of music like that.
RD: Back in January, Sylvan Esso put out a music video for “PARAD(w/m)E.” The video takes place in a very rural backwoods town. Where’s the location where it was filmed?
NS: It was filmed in Vaughn, New Mexico.
RD: What made you and Amelia pick that location? Was it through whomever directed it, or was it both of your decision?
NS: Amelia was actually the creative director or the whole video. She’s done a bunch of our music video treatments, so that was all her idea. When she wrote the treatment for this video, it took place in the desert. We ended up having to change that because we don’t live in the desert and we didn’t have a ton of time to go somewhere that was like a desert. Our friend who directed it, Dan Huiting, was shooting something else out there in New Mexico and passed through that town and immediately thought that’s where we should shoot the video.
It was one of those magical things where everything just worked out. It perfectly fit the treatment that Amelia had written and the crew was available for this tiny window of days when we were also available. It all came together in less than two weeks.
RD: That’s awesome.
NS: Yeah, it happened really quickly.
RD: Did Amelia play a part in directing the choreography as well?
NS: She didn’t choreograph it. John Mark is a fantastic dancer and choreographer, and he handled that part of the video. The dancers were all local, which was really cool. We didn’t fly any dancers in, they were all from Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
RD: How did you get the word out locally to get the dancers involved?
NS: There’s an interesting arts collective there called “Meow Wolf” that is made up of a ton of different creative professionals. They have a gigantic installation in Santa Fe that’s their headquarters. They did a ton of outreach trying to find a crew of dancers, and it was all done through their network.
RD: You mentioned earlier how you and Amelia like a lot of pop music. From being in a pop duo, do you feel critical at all when it comes to mainstream pop music? Do you think a lot of pop is homogenized where a lot of it sounds the same, or do you think otherwise?
NS: I think both of those things. When any art form at any point in history that reaches a certain critical mass, which is “pop” by definition, you’re going to have a lot of great music and a lot of other music that’s kind of imitating things in the hopes of being noticed. Just like every other period of time, we’re living in one of those now. There’s obviously banal stuff you hear on the radio, but I also think radio is finally taking chances on cooler, interesting and less overt music. At the Grammys this year, they didn’t reflect my personal taste, but I thought the nominations were really exciting.
To see someone like SZA get so many nominations, even though she didn’t win, bodes well in the present tense for what people are actually listening to.
RD: SZA has been rising very fast.
RD: I remember her playing small clubs all over the place, including Providence, and then all of a sudden she’s doing all of these big tours and stuff with Kendrick Lamar.
NS: Yeah, it’s incredible.
RD: Yes it is. Sylvan Esso are going to be touring a lot this year, so other than the upcoming show in Providence, which city are you most excited to perform at?
NS: There’s a bunch of places I’m excited to play. On the leg of this tour that we’re currently on, it’s exciting because it’s places like Providence. It’s cities that usually get stepped over in favor of a bigger city that’s an hour or two away. We’re doing only those cities this time so it really is the most rewarding as someone who grew up in one of those cities. I grew up in Madison, WI, and I moved to Milwaukee which got consistently passed over for Minneapolis and Chicago when I was a kid. This is our favorite kind of tour with doing these kinds of shows.
I’m really excited for our two-night stand in Milwaukee this summer, which sold out faster than I think any of our other shows did, which is really cool. We’re playing Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA, on Mar 31 and I’ve never been there before. We’re also playing [at the State Theatre] in Portland, ME, on April 2, and I’ve never played in Maine ever so I’m really excited about that. I have family up there so I’m really hyped. We’re going to be all over the place this year.
Last year, 2017, was busy for Providence alternative rock trio Tiny Diamond. Multi-instrumentalists Mia Dady, Piera Leone and Jess Texieira released the band’s second EP Light Codes on Jun 9 and Leone also became a mother for the first time on Aug 27. Due to Leone’s parental obligations, they took some time off for a few months while the Ocean State’s music scene missed their presence. Thankfully, they’ll be returning to the stage at the News Café in Pawtucket on Mar 30. It promises to be a much-anticipated return for a band that has a unique approach and style.
Their most recent EP shows a different tone from the band’s self-titled debut that came out in Apr 2016. It’s a primary example of an act’s artistic evolution while also sticking to their roots. Varied musical dimensions are heard in a stunning array of songs.
“We went with Mikey Bullister and he recorded us at Newcastle Sound in Barrington,” Leone says on the making of the EP. “We had the ideas for everything and we had a big say in the mixing and the mastering.” Dady adds, “He had great ideas in the studio too. He would want to add extra guitar tracks, which was something that we weren’t really used to. He had a lot of great input.” Leone continued, “We decided that the three of us wanted to contribute two songs each of us had written. Then we kind of picked them from there, but we didn’t really have an idea of a theme.”
“Musically, I’m headed in a more of a rockin’ kind of direction versus when I was starting out as kind of a folk musician,” Dady said of the evolving of the Tiny Diamond’s music. “I’m trying to add more distortion and more effects to my guitar while slowly getting louder. I think the other songs that were written picked up on that vibe and rolled along.”
The experience in the studio also contributed to Dady, Leone and Texieira trying new things out. “Having the ability to do multi-track recording and being able to know that I can play bass in one song and switch with Jess to drums on another was greatly beneficial,” Leone pointed out. “Last time we recorded, we recorded once live and this time we layered it and it felt more complete.”
With the band’s return to performing live, they also have goals to reach in the future. Leone said, “We have enough songs to have a full-length album.” Dady said “It mostly comes down to money” of the realistic hurdles that lie ahead, “We want to get out on the road eventually.” Leone said of the past few months, “We had a little tour last year and that was really fun, we got to play two shows in New York and Connecticut and that was really great.”
As March nears its end, Tiny Diamond will be embarking on a new beginning. Head to the heart of downtown Pawtucket to see the new elements Dady, Texieira and Leone are bringing to their band’s already interesting sound.
Interview: Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females
Screaming Females from New Brunswick, New Jersey, have been one of the leading bands in independent music for over a decade now. Their punk sound is intensified by Marissa Paternoster’s bombastic voice and impeccable guitar shredding. King Mike on bass and Jarrett Dougherty on drums create tight rhythms that serve as the fantastic foundation to the band’s songs. The trio released a new album with All at Once back on Feb 23 [named our Album of the Week shortly after], and it has what it takes to be one of the top releases of the year. On Apr 8, Screaming Females will be taking the stage at AS220 for a wild time with Philly punks Hirs, Baton Rough sludgemasters Thou and local vocals Assembly of Light Choir opening things up.
Paternoster and I had a conversation ahead of the show about the new album, focusing on instrumentation, the rise of women-fronted rock bands and what has changed the most about the band over the years.
Rob Duguay (Motif): In February, Screaming Females put out their seventh album All at Once. One thing that’s noticeable about it is that it has more tracks than any of the other previous albums with 15. Is there anything in particular behind that or was it just having a bunch of great songs that the band wanted on the album?
Marissa Paternoster: We went in with the intention of not cutting any of the songs, but we also had a feeling that some of them might be getting cut. When we were all done, we had a moment with Matt Bayles, who produced it, about which songs might be better and which ones to take out, but we decided to keep them all on the album. All of the songs paint a great picture, so we came to a consensus pretty rapidly to not remove any of them. There wasn’t a long talk about whether or not some songs were absolutely going to be cut. We very rarely do that whenever we record anything for an album, I think we did it on our debut but that was probably the only time.
RD: It’s interesting because the band’s previous album, Rose Mountain [also our Album of the Week], has nine songs on it and this one is a lot longer. A few of the songs have the presence of a keyboard that sounds like a church organ. Was that something that you, King Mike and Jarrett Dougherty wanted to incorporate for a long time or was it a spur of the moment decision?
MP: That keyboard is a ‘60s-era model so it’s pretty much just an organ. I have one at home that I play with and use for writing songs and stuff. It made sense to use one while we were tracking the album in Seattle. Matt found one for me and we used it. We’ve always wanted to have a great deal of instrumentation in our songs, but time never permitted us to do so. We spent a month tracking the album, so we had some time to mess around with the songs for an organic feeling, and that’s what happened.
RD: I think it sounds great on the record.
MP: Thank you.
RD: You’re welcome. It’s been mentioned that going into the studio the band wanted to capture the spontaneity of their live performances, which can be a hard thing to achieve. Was there any difficulty with getting that right or was it relaxing with you, Mike and Jarrett letting it loose?
MP: I would say on this record that the focus wasn’t really on capturing our live show and the energy. We were definitely more focused on making a studio album with different instrumentation and tones, along with using parts of the room to get different drum sounds. In our previous albums we’ve focused more on being a great live band, that’s why we made the Live at the Hideout record a couple years ago. We’ve tracked all of our records live, but this one is definitely the one where we had more time to perfect songs, use different guitar tones and let Matt work his engineering magic with Pro Tools and stuff. He’s great to work with, so we trust him to make those decisions on our behalf. Within our discography, we’ve wanted to make this one a complete studio album rather than have it capture us performing live.
RD: Over the past few years, there have been a lot of female-fronted rock bands starting out. Bands like Sheer Mag, Bully, Cayetana, Charly Bliss and Downtown Boys come to mind. Are there any female bands that you feel inspired by and you hope to perform with?
MP: Yeah, we’re going to be on tour with a one of them actually. Hirs are like a grindcore band from Philadelphia and we’re gonna go out on the road with them and a band from Baton Rouge called Thou. They’ve been playing shows and making music forever. They’re really radical people who have a really important message, and they also happen to be a killer band.
RD: I’ve listened to Hirs a bit and they sound amazing. This year, 2018, marks 13 years since Screaming Females got their start while playing basement shows in New Brunswick, New Jersey. What do you think has changed the most musically with the band over the years and what do you hope the future is for the band?
MP: I think we’re a lot more comfortable with being in a band with each other, making music with each other and talking about music. Someone will bring an idea that they have and we’ve been playing music for so long that we appreciate each other’s judgment. We don’t think that any of our ideas are too precious so we can bounce them off each other to see what we all think of it. I’d say that’s probably the biggest change, we’ve never really made any rules for ourselves so we just do whatever that interests us and is fun to play.
To say that 2017 was a wild year for music is a vast understatement. As a reaction to the current administration in the White House, various musicians took a political stance to oppose the views of a president with questionable values. Ranging from singer-songwriters like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to major bands like the Foo Fighters, there were numerous acts that wrote songs about the current political and social landscape.
The music world was also shaken by the passing of legends Tom Petty, The Tragically Hip’s Gordon Downie, Chris Cornell, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Gregg Allman. This year has shown that music can still be a reflection of the times, despite how scary these times may be.
In Providence, the local music scene has seen people from various ethnic backgrounds and different orientations starting bands. Whether it’s hip-hop, punk, metal, folk or anything in between, it’s adding a glorious dose of diversity to a community that prides itself on being so. The music scene has also been resilient despite the closing of a few venues: RIP Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Aurora and Firehouse 13. There are a lot of questions being asked about the sustainability of the city’s music, art and culture, and we’re still waiting on the answers. With all of this being said, here are my Top 20 Albums of 2017 (Because 10 Wasn’t Enough).
20. SydeSho – SydeSho the Maestro (self-released)
Providence native Oliver Arias, also known as SydeSho, is a blast from the past in terms of hip-hop. He can breakdance like a maniac and he can spit rhymes with the best of them. His debut album SydeSho the Maestro that came out in March had him teaming up with producers Cognate and F.L.E.E. the Maestro. It’s a stellar album that celebrates hip-hop’s roots with a respectably modern spin. Tracks like “Get Up” with vocalist Becky Bass, “Excuse Me” and “Better Than Yourz” featuring fellow emcee Big Scythe prove that mumble rap is whack and the real style is coming back.
19. Weaves – Wide Open (Kanine/Buzz/Memphis Industries)
There’s something awesome about rhythmically tight and quirky alternative rock. It possesses an honesty that other genres can’t hold a candle to. Weaves from Toronto hit this on the head with their sophomore album Wide Open released in October. Jasmyn Burke has a uniquely soulful voice that has stunning range: “#53,” “Walkaway” and “Law and Panda” are prime songs off this record that are abundant with melody and energy.
18. Pile – A Hairshirt of Purpose (Exploding In Sound)
Indie rock act Pile has such a distinct take on music that it’s hard to pin them down to classification. They can sound like a post-punk act at one point, then they’ll go full-on noise, and finish a track off by venturing towards math rock. Their versatility is what makes this act from Boston so great and their sixth album A Hairshirt of Purpose that hit record store shelves in March could be their most brilliant release yet. It’s unapologetically intense while providing an electrifyingly awesome listening experience. Turn it up loud and listen to songs like “Hissing for Peace,” “Texas” and “Leaning on a Wheel” to get amped.
17. Ron Gallo – Heavy Meta (New West/American Diamond)
Moving to a new city can change an artist. They’ll adapt to new kinds of music and then they’ll put their own spin on it. Philadelphia native Ron Gallo went through that transition after the Americana band he was in, Toy Soldiers, broke up and he moved to Nashville. He got into the garage rock scene there and released a badass debut album with Heavy Meta in February. Wakefield, RI, native Dylan Sevey plays drums in his band. “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me,” “Kill the Medicine Man” and “Please Yourself” are definitive scorchers.
16. Alexandra Savior – Belladonna of Sadness (Columbia)
A breath of fresh air came from Portland, OR, artist Alexandra Savior when she put out her debut album, Belladonna of Sadness, in April. Subtle jazz elegance adorns the album from start to finish while walking the line between dream pop and psychedelic. She’s only 22 and the future looks very bright for her if she keeps it up. Coolness flows from each song on the record and the senses will be hooked. Try out “Mirage,” “Shades” and “Frankie” and you won’t be able to stop listening.
15. Ho99o9 – United States of Horror (999 Deathkult)
Usually a fusion of hip-hop and punk can be quite lame, but in 2017 anything was possible and the Los Angeles-via-Newark, NJ, duo of TheOGM and Eaddy proved that. Ho99o9 (pronounced as “horror”) released one of the most important albums of the year with United States of Horror in May. The album confronts oppression, police brutality and racism head-on. It’s a powerful record that musically hits like a stack of dynamite blasting through a brick wall. “Street Power,” “Sub-Zero” and the title track are incredible.
14. Toad and the Stooligans – Very Handsome (self-released)
The year 2017 saw Providence hip-hop band Toad and the Stooligans become one of the top up-and-coming acts in the local music scene with the release of their debut album Very Handsome in September. It blends syncopated harmonies and jazzy rhythms while riding a groove that takes over the senses. You can either rock your body to it or relax while taking it all in. Tracks like “All Things Considered,” “Part Time Lovers” with Bianca Sings and “Statements” really shine.
13. Land of Talk – Life After Youth (Saddle Creek)
Toronto musician Elizabeth Powell went through a reinvigoration before she released Land of Talk’s third album Life After Youth in May. She went on a hiatus that lasted four years and then she came back to put out a wonderful record. There was no rust and Powell’s songwriting is pristine. This album will put you under a spell. “Yes You Were,” “This Time” and “Inner Lover” are jaw-dropping songs that each has its own special quality.
12. And So I Watch You from Afar – The Endless Shimmering (Sargent House)
When an act returns to their roots, it can be a beautiful thing. And So I Watch You from Afar went back to what made them fantastic in the first place when they unveiled their fifth album, The Endless Shimmering, in October. The experimental instrument prog rock act from Belfast, UK, got rid of the chanting that was present in their two previous albums and they stuck to unbridled shredding. The production of the record is excellent as well. “Mulally,” “Three Triangles” and “Dying Giants” melt brains and rev things up.
11. At the Drive-In – At the Drive-In – in-ter a-li-a (Rise)
After 17 years since a band’s previous release, there’s a hard choice what the comeback can be: It can be disaster or it can hark back to the band’s glory days. The latter happened when post-hardcore legends At the Drive-In soothed the masses with their fourth album, in-ter a-li-a, back in May. Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s voice still has impeccable range and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez consistently proves why he’s one of the best guitarists alive. Plug in to “No Wolf Like the Present,” “Governed by Contagions” and “Holtzclaw,” and prepare to unleash some rage.
With all of the social and political turmoil that went on in 2017, it’s only fitting that Providence punks Downtown Boys put out their biggest release yet with Cost of Living in August. The band’s third album has a Clash-like essence that screams for revolution. It also musically punches bigotry, racism and ignorance in the face until all the teeth are on the ground. Victoria Ruiz is a fearless frontwoman and Joey La Neve DeFrancesco shreds on guitar. “A Wall,” “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” and “It Can’t Wait” will energize you while also making you think about society as a whole.
9. Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder (Arts & Crafts)
Kevin Drew and his wide ranging collective known as Broken Social Scene put out their best album in years back in July. Hug of Thunder is a stunning album with so many gems that it should be re-formed as a crown. There’s a distinct amount of force that’s bound to capture your attention – and, if that doesn’t do it, then the orchestral songwriting should do the trick. Tracks “Halfway Home,” “Vanity Pail Kids” and “Gonna Get Better” are too amazing to be ignored.
8. Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon (Memphis Industries)
Dutch Uncles are a very cool alt-pop act from a small town in England called Marple, and not a lot of folks know about them in the United States. It’s puzzling because their fifth album, Big Balloon, that came out in February is so brilliant that they should have a bigger fan base. Their sound is ideal for anyone who digs new wave, post-punk and math rock. These cats have prog tendencies as well. Listen to “Combo Box,” “Oh Yeah” and “Hiccup” and you’ll know what I mean.
Indie pop act Roz and the Rice Cakes put out the best album to come out of Providence this year. The trio of Roz Raskin, Casey Belisle and Justin Foster has grown so much musically and their versatility knows no bounds. Their third album, Devotion, was released in October to feverish anticipation. It lives up to the hype through sheer originality and artistic progression. “Revolving,” “Open Eyes” and “Do You” are rhythmic jams that latch on to the ears.
6. Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues (Entertainment One)
One of the best hip-hop acts – ever – returned to form this year. The Wu-Tang Clan put out their seventh album, The Saga Continues, in October and it’s astounding. Mathematics and RZA co-produced the record while the crew of Method Man, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa and Cappadonna put down some of their best rhymes in years. There’s also an assortment of special guests including Redman, Sean Price and Killah Priest among others. “Lesson Learn’d,” “If Time Is Money” and “Pearl Harbor” are fine examples of fantastic hip-hop.
If 2017 put any band through the ringer, it had to be Death from Above from Toronto. Sebastian Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler got rid of the “1979” part of the band’s name and they also got grouped in with the alt-right against their will because Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is a fan, and Keeler ended up making a public apology for him. They also put out their third album titled Outrage! Is Now in September, and it’s the tightest album of the year. Each song is compact, fast and intense. Dive into “Freeze Me,” “Never Swim Alone” and “NVR 4EVR” and get your mind blown.
After eight albums, Los Angeles garage rock phenom Ty Segall finally put out his ninth under his own name in January, with Steve Albini producing. Segall goes back to the T. Rex-esque brand of rock ‘n’ roll for which that he’s loved. He also doesn’t let up when it comes to the volume, either. If you ever find yourself in need of a musical weapon to combat a neighbor’s bad taste in music, this album is it. Songs like “Break a Guitar,” “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)” and “Thank You Mr. K” are highly recommended to be listened to as loud as possible.
3. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Anti-/Arts & Crafts)
Japandroids have to be one of the hardest working bands today. Guitarist and vocalist Brian King and drummer David Prowse tour relentlessly, and their Vancouver-bred rock sound is so damn good. They released their third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, in January, and it shows maturity and growth in their music. Like their other albums, there’s a hard-hitting, honest aesthetic that’s unrivaled. “North East South West” is an ode to their continual touring, “Arc of Bar” is a rejoicing jam and “In a Body Like a Grave” is a triumphant anthem.
Technically, this can be considered to be a local release due to Ted Leo’s residence in South County, Rhode Island, but, regardless, his first solo album that came out in September is magnificent. There are classic pop leanings that compliment his class mod punk style. It seems as if Leo is trying to embrace the aging singer-songwriter role while also maintaining his punk roots. The artistic conflict breeds genuinely poignant music that has Leo pouring his heart out. “You’re Like Me,” “Can’t Go Back” and “Lonsdale Avenue” will excite the nerves for different reasons.
Annie Clark has become a symbol for individualism through art, and her fifth album, Masseduction, that hit the charts in October is the pinnacle of it. Her project explores various dimensions to achieve a sound of its own. There are groovy electronic beats, sick guitar riffs and intelligent lyrics that make this latest addition to St. Vincent’s catalog her best yet. The album also examines our society’s obsession with sex, drugs and power, and how it affects humanity. Get down with “Pills,” “Fear the Future” and “Savior,” and realize that this is the best album that came out in 2017.
Calgary post-punks Preoccupations have come a long way since changing their name from the controversial “Viet Cong” in 2015. Their 2016 album under their current name garnered a ton of positivity from critics and fans, and, in turn, brought them to the forefront of today’s post-punk and new wave scene. On Mar 23, they’ll be releasing their third album, titled New Material, via the indie label Jagjaguwar. The band shows artistic expansion in their new album while staying true to their distinct style. There’s a fine balance of synth and bass guitar providing the structure for a hypnotic sound.
There’s a pulse throughout the entirety of New Material that runs like an engine in a hot rod. Matt Flegel’s vocals walk the fine line between low and high pitches, almost as if the qualities of both Ian Curtis and Morrissey’s singing were combined into one. The synth presence is more accentuated versus the band’s previous album due to Scott Munro’s techniques. Mike Wallace’s drumming is the spark that sets everything off. Munro and Daniel Christiansen unleash their guitars in stellar ways to complete the sonic arsenal.
It’s always a breath of fresh air when you can notice a band’s influences through their music but the band isn’t a complete rip-off. Originality is just as important as embracing the past. Preoccupations pull that off by having an approach that harks back to the golden age of post-punk, and, at the same time, keeping things fresh. It’s a brilliant take on tones and rhythms that flows blissfully to the ears. Dive deeper and read up on my top tracks off of the Album of the Week:
An excellent representation of the balance between the synth and bass guitar is “Solace,” where Flegel’s bass guitar has a deep resonance that melds nicely with Munro’s electronic sheen. “Espionage” has Wallace serving as the musical firestarter on drums; there’s a forceful intensity that’s apparent from beginning to end. Aural supremacy is epitomized in “Antidote” with all of the band’s elements coming into play to seamlessly create a fantastic song.
Interview: Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius
Indie pop act Lucius has evolved since their beginnings at the Berklee College of Music in Boston during the mid-2000s. Their 2013 debut album Wildewoman put them on the map with a fusion of folk and ‘60s pop. Then they moved from their home base in Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 2015. Recently they’ve been involved in Roger Waters’ Us + Them World Tour along with releasing the acoustic album Nudes on Mar 2. On St. Patrick’s Day, they’ll be performing stripped down versions of their songs for a sold-out show at the Columbus Theatre in Providence’s West Side.
I had a conversation with Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from the band about the new album, being on the road with an originator of theatric rock, being in the studio with Nels Cline, covering a song by a contemporary act and their plans for their next release.
Rob Duguay (Motif): Lucius’ new album Nudes seems like it’s delving into the band’s folk roots. Is that what the band was going for or was it simply an idea for doing an acoustic album?
Holly Laessig: One of the best parts of our set for us, along with the audience, is that during every show we try and do a couple of songs completely broken down. Sometimes we’ll even just have a couple microphones and an acoustic guitar, or even sing a cappella. It’s one of our favorite things to do while performing live. While we were part of Roger Waters’ current tour, we wanted to give something to our fans to stay connected with them, to let them know that we’re still here and to give them something special to hold on to in the meantime. We did some writing and put a couple of new songs on the album, along with some rearrangements of some of our old songs and some covers as well.
RD: With the rearranging of the songs, did it take any adjusting at first to go from the synth-backed songs to making them acoustic? Or was it seamless?
HL: I think it was pretty seamless. We’ve done so many different iterations throughout our touring, including morning radio sessions where there’s only enough room to have two acoustic guitars and one drum. We’ve done the “Tiny Desk Concerts” for National Public Radio and we’ve broken down songs in various ways according to our boundaries that are set for us. We’ve done all of our songs in so many different versions, and, every time we write, it’s with a vocal and a piano or a vocal with an acoustic guitar, so it starts pretty simple. It’s easy to strip everything away and we enjoy it.
RD: You mentioned touring with Roger Waters, who you also did a rendition of the folk standard “Goodnight, Irene” with him on the new album. What has it been like being on the road with Roger? It must be a wild experience.
Jess Wolfe: It’s been amazing. Being a part of something like what Roger is currently doing where the music is embedded in all of our DNA, we have this nostalgic attachment to these songs and seeing it come to life every night is incredible. The way it affects people and how relevant it feels is huge at a time like now where things are so unpredictable. It feels really important to be a part of something like that.
Roger is also very conscientious about how the visuals are portrayed with the music and with us that’s already something that’s part of our own experience as well. He’s kind of the guy who invented that, so it’s incredibly inspiring. He created the theatrical element of rock ‘n’ roll in the way that we know it.
RD: The influence he’s had on the both of you is very noticeable, especially with how Lucius presents themselves on stage. For example, the way you both dress identically, and even when you have your keyboards set at a certain angle. Nudes also has the band collaborating with Nels Cline, who is notably the lead guitarist for Wilco and an avant-garde jazz musician. How was it doing a song with him? I hear he’s a friendly guy.
JW: He’s very friendly and he’s a good friend of ours. We’ve been fortunate to perform with Wilco a bunch of times. When we were in New York recording the album and we wanted to have beautiful guitar experimentations, he immediately came to mind. We contacted him and luckily he was in town and the timing worked perfectly. He just came to the studio and we did it, it was awesome.
RD: I’m a huge fan of his so it must have been amazing to work with him. One thing that really struck me about the album, because I didn’t expect it, was the version of “Eventually” by Tame Impala the band did. It’s a stunning rendition and it had me amazed. What inspired that when there were so many other songs the band could have covered?
JW: We’re huge fans of theirs and that record, Currents, is something [to which] we were listening on repeat while writing. That song is just so beautiful and a lot of times, because we’re singers, the both of us gravitate towards the classics, nostalgic music and oldies. With that going on, it was important to us that we did a song done by one of our contemporaries. That was the first song that we thought we could cover and fit in well with the album.
RD: I love how different it is and how perfectly it fits with the vibe conveyed by the original.
JW: Thank you.
RD: No problem. This acoustic tour that Lucius is currently on goes until the end of March. Afterwards you’ll be back on the road with Roger Waters. So what else does the band have planned?
JW: We’ll be going back into the studio to work on the next record before we head to Europe with Roger for three months.
Album of the Week: Carissa Johnson and the Cure-Alls – Talk Talk Talk
Carissa Johnson is a musician who has been injecting rock music with a refreshing dose of originality for the past few years. Her blend of ‘70s punk, power-pop and melodic modern flair has put her at the forefront of Boston’s legendary music scene. She also hits the road with her backing band known as the Cure-Alls often, and they’ve gained loyal followings throughout the United States. Johnson and her band, featuring drummer Nick Hall and guitarist Steph Curran, recently self-released their third LP, Talk Talk Talk, on Mar 10. It’s an album that’s a hard-hitting display of lyrical honesty and musical amplification.
For a mostly DIY record, Talk Talk Talk has a very professional sound quality. That’s due to the production skills of Doug Batchelder and Benny Grotto along with Jay Frigoletto taking on the mastering duties. Every track on the album is rhythmically tight while being not too long and not too short. It’s music that’s ideal for the rock enthusiast who can’t stand it when a song is longer than four minutes. There are plenty of memorable riffs, courtesy of Curran and Johnson’s bass guitar lines that meld perfectly with Hall’s beats.
Johnson, Curran and Hall’s artistic ascendancy goes to show how good the local music of New England has been recently. Talented acts from all genres, and some that fuse a few together, have been popping up on a monthly basis. It varies from established vets starting new bands to kids in their late teens graduating high school and wanting to take on their city’s scene. The high concentration of bands and musicians in such a small region of the country is astounding. To see how this trio takes their rightful place in this burgeoning community, let’s dabble with my top tracks off of the Album of the Week:
Curran’s riffs are best exhibited in “After All” – they capture a pristine tone that’s magnificently electrifying while not being overly distorted. “Home” is fast-paced and fun with a hybrid of harmony and vigor; what makes the track even more enjoyable is a cat’s meow finishing it off. Starting off acoustically into an emotional spark plug is the best way to describe the gem that’s “Two Weeks.”
Johnson and the Cure-Alls’ next show is with Los Angeles electro-psych rock duo War Twins and fellow Bostonians The Stampede at the Thunder Road Music Club and Rock ‘n’ Roll Bistro in Somerville, MA, on Mar 26. They’ve played Providence a few times, so be on the lookout for when they’ll be coming back. Before you see them live, make sure to grab a copy of Talk Talk Talk and turn it up: It’s a bold take on rock that definitely shreds.