Three New Albums That Hold Great Promise for 2015
Last year had a woozy, sleepy sound to it. I think back on the albums that, in retrospect, seem to define 2014: the afternoon-nap nostalgia of the War on Drugs' 'Lost in the Dream,' the heavy, hallucinatory sex dream of FKA twigs' 'LP1,' Beck's quiet 'Morning Phase.' In a year of street protests, Ebola panics and disappearing airplanes, we listened to music well-suited to put us to sleep. The music was pretty, but the year was stressful, and the mood left me craving something to confront the anxiety head on.
In that vein, the last couple of weeks have been good for me -- weeks that saw the release of three loud records: Sleater-Kinney's 'No Cities to Love', California X's 'Nights in the Dark' and Viet Cong's self titled full-length debut. I can only hope these records set the tone for the year to come.
What we didn't have a lot of in 2014 was bands returning to form in a big way (Beck, for one -- and, Brian Eno. Who else?) But there's nothing like the energy of a well-timed, well-executed comeback -- like Sleater-Kinney's 'No Cities to Love,' their first album in nine years. The songs have sharp, clean teeth -- they're perfected executions of Sleater-Kinney's unique sound, which they developed over a string of albums in the late '90s. While not as ambitious musically as 'The Woods,' their last record before their nine-year hiatus, this is Sleater-Kinney cementing their myth, reassuring us that they still got it, in spades.
Lyrics are appropriately triumphant and personal. 'Hey Darling,' a love letter to fans about the band's years in limbo, is love at its realest -- at times accusatory, also apologetic, anxious to come clean: "Sometimes the shout of the room makes me feel so alone," sings Carry Brownstein. 'Bury Our Friends' is angrier, a song about both personal rage (defying critics and others define the band from the outside) and about banding together as a community of the angry. It's past time for a loud song that says something as simple and convincing as, "We're wild and weary, and we won't give in." (For an even closer look at the record, check out our review.)
California X is a fuzz-rock outfit from Boston following the script of fellow Amherst, Massachusites Dinosaur Jr., from the pop hooks to the noodle-y high-gain solos to the sudden doom metal free-falls. The music is derivative, and the lyrics are loopy, but selfishly, as someone who felt that 2014 lacked overdriven guitars above all else, I'm happy this record is out. There's something elemental about 'Hadley, MA,' a buzzed rock song about watching UFOs cross the sky. Look, I'm not looking for metaphors about Ferguson in this record -- just music to help me wake up and face this dispiriting world. Hopefully, we'll get fuzzy wonders from Speedy Ortiz and Swearin' this year, too. You've got to tip your hat to the bands that still drop the bottom out for a fat-ass Jazzmaster solo.
Like 'Lost in the Dream,' Viet Cong's full-length debut has obviously analogs in the 1980s. But where 'Under the Pressure' and 'Suffering' were palimpsests of 'Boys of Summer' and 'Rhiannon,' Viet Cong sonically recalls the first death-obsessed bands to tread into gothic and industrial: 'Closer'-era Joy Division, Bauhaus, Ministry. Their sound is thick and constantly forward moving, like NYC sewer sludge in a storm drain, composed of infinite, indiscernible things.
Lyrically, 'Viet Cong' is a cold, monochrome lens through which to see a doomed world. 'Continental Shelf' is the most lucid of the record's nightmares: "Fingertips in the fountain / Fondle liquid gold / Ice on the horizon / The skyline folding in." This is the perspective of the album -- looking on as the world bends mechanically toward destruction, like a promise being fulfilled. At times, the music is suddenly shot through with color, like sun rays peeking over that frozen horizon -- only to be quickly to be covered over again, giving way to the storm.
'Viet Cong' might be as soporific as some of 2014's best, but its dreams are haunted by the cold march of technological progress and the imminence of environmental destruction -- not altogether different from real life in 2015.