We’ve Got Five Years

Antisocialites, Alvvays, 2017

For my money, 2017 was an outrageous year for music. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s Lotta Sea Lice, and Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory were all released in 2017. And I’ve already published my thoughts about two other incredible 2017 albums, Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up and War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding. All of this is to say that my music world expanded tenfold as a sophomore in college, and five years later I’ve yet to experience another year-long barrage of albums that blow me away quite like that one.

Which album from 2017 have I listened to the most in the last few years now that they’ve all had the opportunity to live in my head for five full years? The answer is actually none of them. The 2017 album I’ve let run the most circles around my brain is Alvvays’ Antisocialites. Chalk another one up for the Canadians.

There’s a pretty simple reason I revisit Antisocialites so much, I think. I like it when people sing well, and I like it when guitars sound cool. That’s about as artful as I can be about this. Listening to music doesn’t have to be complicated. Alvvays deploys a combination of addictive vocal melodies and reverb-drenched guitar sounds to such great effect that you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a lot more going on song-structure wise than the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/chorus/out.

When People Sing Well

“I guess my voice sounds pretty close to a coyote or something.”

Bob Dylan

I think I’ve mentioned it a couple other times on this blog, but in the unlikely event you don’t remember every single word I’ve ever written, I feel very strongly that there is no connection between “good singing” and “hitting notes/staying in tune.” Bob Dylan’s self-proclaimed resemblance to a coyote is endearing to me, and I just read a passage in a book about soul music where the engineer for the legendary Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman” notes that Sledge was so out of tune during the sessions he thought the windows of the recording studio were going to shatter. If you had to hit notes perfectly and stay in tune to be a good vocalist, I am confident that rock music would simply not exist.

As it turns out, though, Alvvays has a lead singer, Molly Rankin, who does have an incredible voice in the conventional sense of the term. Rankin accomplishes a rare vocal feat: her songs have catchy, memorable verses, some of them even more memorable to my ears than her choruses. And I don’t mean sometimes. I mean that every single song on Antisocialites has a catchy, hook-laden verse that would rival most bands’ best choruses.

“Not My Baby” is a prime example of Rankin’s gift. The song’s de facto chorus “because I’m really not there/I’m really not there” is catchy, no doubt, but it’s the way Rankin sings “no need to turn around to see what’s behind me/I don’t care” or “no need to sit at home with the dial tone/’cause I don’t care” in the verses that play in my head when I think about the song. And in case you thought Rankin would only provide one memorable hook in the verses, she breaks out a second melody in the third verse when she sings “the night is like a fading radio,” and a third melody in the final verse when she sings “you sought an eye/so did I for an island.” That’s three separate catchy vocal melodies that are not the chorus if you were playing along at home. And the song doesn’t sound like it’s shifting modes the entire time, either. It’s simply drifting along in verse/chorus structure, but Rankin is so good at changing her voice around that she’s able to fit all that into a 4-minute pop song.

“Already Gone” might be even more impressive on Rankin’s part, seeing as there’s only one bridge, three verses, and no chorus. And still, Rankin provides four separate vocal hooks: the “main” one on “if there were an ocean”; a truly weird digression on “a vat of chlorine’s close enough I guess,” which is somehow in the same verse as the first hook; a third one during the bridge on “I arrived at the scene…”; and a fourth during that same bridge on “appetite minuscule/middle of the night, drain the pool.” And again, that’s a song that changes chords once. To pull all that off on such a simple song is uncommon to say the least, and very uncommon to say the most.

When Guitars Sound Cool

“It’s a guitar pedal. I know you like them. I’m not sure what they do, I guess they make the guitar sound cool.”

Nathan Fielder

Rankin’s voice definitely lends itself to a pop style, and the songs on Antisocialites themselves lend themselves to a pop style, too. So why is Antisocialites an “indie rock” album (whatever that means) instead of a “pop” album (whatever that means)? It’s the guitars, of course. They’re noisy, and they’re aided by a lot of really cool synthesizer work to essentially cover Rankin’s vocals in waves of fuzz. Waves is actually an apt descriptor right off the bat, as the opening track, “In Undertow,” evokes waves lyrically and sonically. The synths open the album, but for most of the song the synths and the guitar are creating one noise, and it’s hard to separate the two from each other. Eventually, the guitar takes over for a solo around the two minute mark, and the synth joins back in for a nice rave-up into the last chorus. “In Undertow” is likely my favorite song on the album, and the guitars have the most to do with that. Rankin’s voice set against clean guitars would be cool, but her voice set against the blown-out guitar is a far cooler juxtaposition, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album.

The guitars and synths take the lead on “Plimsoll Punks,” too. The guitar see-saws between clean arpeggios and fuzzy chords that change the tone of the song multiple times. This tone change happens most notably starting around the 2:20 mark, when a pulsating guitar is added to the back of one of the verses that was not there in the other verses. That leads to an angular solo around 2:45 that’s cut short by a strange 20-second synth interlude, until the full band jumps back in for the last chorus and outro. It’s a really cool song that could have just been fine, but instead is one of the best on the album with the help of a lot of noise.

The final guitar and synth show-off is “Saved By A Waif,” which opens on a church organ synth and then adds a Smiths-indebted guitar riff. The rest of the song uses so many different synth and guitar sounds that it’s hard to keep up. The guitar has some regular chord strumming, some feedback scratching, and some clean riffs, and that’s all in the first minute of the song. The synths, on the other hand, sound like a cheap toy keyboard during the first verse and then take on this intense ’80s sound only five seconds later. The dueling instruments make for the most upbeat song on the album, which is necessary on the heels of “Already Gone,” the album’s slowest track. Good sequencing.

Your Type

Like I said earlier, music doesn’t really have to be complicated. Antisocialites succeeds on the basis of a straightforward formula of really nice, talented vocals accompanied by hazy, atmospheric guitars and synths. There aren’t many tricks at play, and why should there be? 2017 was a year where artists I love made some of their most ambitious and complex music. Alvvays may have outdone them all in a mere 33 minutes.

Tropicalia

Acabou Chorare by Novos Baianos, 1972
Missing Out

If you’re reading this and you were living in America in 1972, I have horrible news for you. If you liked rock music, you probably thought you had it made in 1972. You got to have heated arguments about whether you liked the new Rolling Stones album better than the new David Bowie album. If you were a little more hip, you got to have heated arguments about whether you liked the new Lou Reed album better than the new T. Rex album. If you were a little less hip, you got to argue about whether you liked the new Yes album better than the new Jethro Tull album.

The horrible news is that every single music lover in the country of Brazil in 1972 listened to better music than you did that year. You could have been listening to Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges’ Clube da Esquina, or Caetano Veloso’s Transa, or Arthur Verocai’s self-titled album, or (most importantly) Novos Baianos’ Acabou Chorare. All these guys had been listening to the psychedelic and folk music being released in the U.S. and the U.K. and decided they could combine it with their country’s musical styles to make both styles more interesting. And they were 100% right. And you had no idea.

To be fair, how could you have known about these albums? And even if you had somehow found out from someone you knew that Brazilian musicians were doing laps around the American music scene, how could you have listened to the albums? The Brazilians had a pretty easy time listening to your music–it was a bit more difficult for the pipeline to work the other way. If you were 23 in 1972, you probably had to wait until you were around 50 to have your musical life altered.

The best news is that I, a 23-year-old in 2021, have to put essentially no effort into finding and listening to Brazil’s finest from 1972. It’s actually embarrassing how easy it is for me to listen to Novos Baianos. I can do it on my walk to class. Outdoors. On the same device that I can make phone calls.

The Tunes

I understand it’s not a novel concept to talk about how crazy music streaming is. But I think about it most often when I listen Novos Baianos’ Acabou Chorare. If you pressed me on it, I would say Acabou Chorare is my favorite album. It’s a painfully fun 80 minutes (it’s only 40 minutes but I usually listen to it twice). And it’s so insane that I get to listen to it all the time. Even more insane: I don’t even know how I heard about it. If you wanted to dive into a music scene outside the popular conversation in 1972, odds are it was because someone else told you to do it. It’s so dumb that you can just trip over the best music you’ll hear in your life completely by accident while just sitting around in your own house.

And Acabou Chorare is the best music you’ll hear in your life. I guess that’s probably not true for most people, but if you were only going to listen to one full album mentioned on this blog, I’d highly recommend you make it this one. Apparently Acabou Chorare translates to “No More Crying,” an apt title considering it’s the happiest sounding music imaginable. The acoustic guitars are awesome and jazzy, like in “Preta Pretinha,” where one acoustic solos over another one playing the chords under it. But the electric guitars are what set the album apart from all the other amazing Brazilian albums of 1972.

“Tinindo Trincando” is probably the best example of the album’s ridiculous guitar sound. The guitar is the first thing you hear, and it provides the energy for the song both at the start and throughout. Stop-and-start songs like this one are usually driven by drums, but the guitar dictates the direction of this one, and the playing is so good it sounds like everyone else is just following along. Ditto with “Mistério do Planeta,” where the guitar plays so many different chords under the wordy lyrics that it’s easy to forget there even are lyrics. The guitar is that good.

Speaking of the lyrics, they’re in Portuguese. I’ve tried several times to read translated lyrics while I listen to the music, but the translations aren’t direct and they don’t make much sense. But it truly doesn’t matter. The songs are immediate–they grab your attention from the jump and they create a world around them so you can imagine they’re saying whatever you want. It’s like a communal chant–the feeling you get out of the sounds is strong enough that you get the message in any language.

The album does a reprise with “Preta Pretinha,” which is both the second song on the album and the last song. This can be unnecessary from other bands, but Acabou Chorare works as a meditation on energy and happiness, and the reprise works so well because it feels like the band has to play the song again. They’ve built up too much excitement to let the album end at “Um Bilhete Pra Didi,” so they take a victory lap. The album begs you to listen to it twice in a row.

Wrapping Up

Music connects with audiences for a million different reasons, but I think bands probably feel the best when they connect with audiences because their music about being happy has, in fact, made them feel really happy. Acabou Chorare is pure musical escapism; no music I’ve listened to has achieved the same effect. Spotify has too many issues to count, but it’s a blessing that I get to escape to Novos Baianos’ psychedelic Brazil whenever and wherever I want. When music is as good as this, it’s nice not to take it for granted.

Alien and Yet Familiar

This post is about side projects. It’s going to seem like it’s about live music, but it’s really not. Were I a better writer, I would be able to figure out how to weave the two topics together more elegantly. I’m not a better writer though, so just remember this is about side projects.

I have seen a pretty good amount of live music in my life. Mostly rock shows, but other genres, too. I have watched all types of people put on all types of concerts, and the only thing I can say that was common to every single concert was that it looked exhausting.

Touring musicians play for anywhere from one to four hours, scream and sweat all over the stage, thank the audience, and then do it again and again and again and again for months. If I were a touring musician, I think I would last maybe a month before the whole thing felt like work instead of fun. I would quit so quickly. By contrast, there are artists who have been sleeping on a bus for 50 years and still find the energy to make thousands of other people happy every single night.

Here’s a good example of how “the road” would ruin me. About a month and a half ago, I went to Asheville, North Carolina with a friend to see a Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill. The plan was to see that show on August 17th, hang out in Charlotte, North Carolina for a couple days, and then drive to Baltimore on the weekend to see the same Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill again on August 20th. There was a heavy storm in Asheville on the night of the 17th, though, so the show was rescheduled for August 19th, the day before the Baltimore show.

My friend and I were determined not to waste either of our tickets, so we rearranged our Airbnb, saw the show in Asheville on the 19th, woke up early on the 20th, dragged our hungover carcasses into the car, and hoofed it 7 hours or so back to Baltimore. We were completely burnt out and delirious by the time we made it to my Baltimore apartment, but we got to the next show successfully.

You know who else had to wake up early and drive 7 hours or so from Asheville to Baltimore for the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill? Wilco and Sleater-Kinney! And they were actually playing the show. The whole thing struck me as insane. Our experience felt like a saga in and of itself, and it was just 5 percent of what those bands would go through on their tour. Not only did they not seem tired in the slightest on stage, they actually seemed to have way more energy than my friend and I did. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney actually watched the Wilco show from the side of the stage after their set, even though they had already been on tour with them for over two weeks at that point. Incredible. I would have been asleep on the tour bus.

I said about 450 words ago that this post was about side projects, and it still is. For the unacquainted, a side project is when a musician is still in their primary band, but puts out an album under a different name anyway. Normally artists don’t tour behind these projects. They are usually created between tours of the main band, or while the main band is recording a new project, too. They are also generally less successful than their main band’s albums in terms of pure sales. Unfortunately, fewer people hear them.

Here’s what I love so much about side projects: these musicians, frankly, have a more physically demanding job than any of us will have in our entire lives, and in between that they still find time to explore new creative outlets. Doing so can only mean that they love music so much that their job is also their hobby. I think that comes out in the music, too, and listening to side projects is a reminder that music is supposed to make everyone involved happy, and it’s pretty cool when it does.

Jerry Garcia, in his 30 years as founder and frontman of the Grateful Dead, made songs that quite literally inspired people to live their entire lives following a music act. What’s his favorite album he ever released? His Jerry Garcia Band side project album, Cats Under the Stars. “As far as I’m concerned, Cats Under the Stars is my most successful record–even though it’s my least successful record!” Garcia said. “I’ve always loved it an it just never went anywhere.”

That’s what the side project is all about.

Here are six side projects you should check out.

Martin Courtney- Many Moons (2015)

Main Band: Real Estate

Martin Courtney is a founder of Real Estate, who are known for their jangly, arpeggiated guitars. They’re almost uncommonly pleasant to listen to. Courtney keeps that trend up with Many Moons, which has guitar lines and layered harmonies that are every bit as good as Real Estate’s best songs.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vestiges”; “Northern Highway”; “Little Blue”

Lotus Plaza- Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)

Main Band: Deerhunter

Deerhunter is definitely a collaborative effort, but if someone were to ask whose band it is, the answer would invariably be lead singer and primary songwriter Bradford Cox. Lotus Plaza is not a side project of Bradford Cox, but rather a side project of Lockett Pundt, Deerhunter’s lead guitarist. Pundt takes a more direct approach on “Spooky Action at a Distance” than Deerhunter ever had to this point in their career. Deerhunter, along with a band soon to be mentioned, were the forerunners of the 2000s psychedelic movement, and their music was extremely catchy but also fairly esoteric. Pundt keeps the reverb and the interesting outros from Deerhunter’s catalog but creates a brighter and less nocturnal sound.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Strangers”; “Jet Out of the Tundra”; “Eveningness”

Deakin- Sleep Cycle (2016)

Main Band: Animal Collective

Here’s that other band that was a 2000s psychedelic pioneer. Animal Collective’s two most famous members–by far–are Avey Tare and Panda Bear, each of whom have had wildly successful solo careers outside of Animal Collective. Deakin is neither of those people, but for my money this is the best Animal Collective side project. It’s a perfect blend of acoustic folk music and psychedelic synthesizer atmosphere. The songs, most of which are over 6 minutes, seamlessly change shape and form, and they end up feeling much shorter than they are as a result.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Golden Chords”; “Just Am”; “Good House”

Dukes of Stratosphear- Chips From the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

Main Band: XTC

Is this a proper side project? I’m unsure. The situation is this: all the members of XTC created this album under a different band name in order to explore a different musical style than they usually did. I think that counts, actually. XTC makes very weird, very catchy new wave music, and Dukes of Stratosphear make very weird, very catchy psychedelic music. XTC said their idea was to recreate the psych records of the 1960s that they loved so much, and for the most part they used vintage recording equipment to get the sound as close to the 60s as possible. It worked and then some, as this is a perfect combination of 7 or 8 different psych-pop legends. Try to tell me “Brainiac’s Daughter” doesn’t sound like a lost Paul McCartney song.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vanishing Girl”; “Collideascope”; “Brainiac’s Daughter”

Loose Fur- Loose Fur (2003)

Main Bands: Wilco and Jim O’Rourke

Sorry to talk about Wilco so much. That’s two posts in a row. Next time, no Wilco (maybe). Anyway, Loose Fur is a cool side project from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, who is a multi-instrumentalist who’s been involved in a million different bands. He played instruments and helped produce Wilco’s most experimental and critically acclaimed albums “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” and Loose Fur is definitely in the mold of those two albums. The songs have a looser feel than the songs on those albums, though, which is fitting given the name of the band.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Laminated Cat”; “You Were Wrong”; “Chinese Apple”

Traveling Wilburys- The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)

Main Bands (Really Main Artists): George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison

I guess this is more of a supergroup than a side project, but I’m going to count it, because the existence of The Traveling Wilburys is proof of my argument that side projects are awesome because they show how much musicians love making music. All five of these guys had very lengthy careers at the time this album came out. The “newest” guy, Petty, had been putting out albums for over a decade. I don’t think anyone would have blamed any of these guys for hanging up their rock n’ roll shoes and retiring from the life completely. Instead, they made this album, and frankly they sound like they’re having more fun than they’d had in years. I can’t confirm that, but Harrison’s main criterion for adding a band member is he had to enjoy hanging out with them. They also gave each other fake nicknames: Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, etc. These guys should have been grumpy, over the hill old men, but that doesn’t sound grumpy to me. Long live the side project.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “End of the Line”; “Handle With Care”; “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”