Sharon Van Etten and more...
Sharon Van Etten’s dramatic personal backstory often overshadowed the work on her gripping and poignant third album, Tramp. Interviews leading up to the album’s release focused less on her songs, and more on her escape from a long and terrifying abusive relationship. But many of her songs spring directly from that experience, and Etten’s openness about her past reveals a desire to heal both herself and others through her art. Tramp contains a multitude of warring emotions—sadness, strength, anger and inspiration—that careen together throughout the sparse, yet powerful arrangements of these songs. “Serpents” burns with a fierce and creeping energy as feedback-laden guitars and rumbling drums lift Etten’s soaring and world-worn harmonies high above their angry din. And “Give Out” gracefully devastates through its depiction of the cycles of ambivalence, fear and regret that often take hold in abusive relationships. As a whole, Tramp provides a courageous testament to the possibilities of moving on and getting better in life, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness in the hands of such a talented artist as Etten. Robert Alford
In a time when ‘80s throwback post-punk and shoegaze has been done so well (the Horrors) and rated so highly (Cloud Nothings), it’s perplexing that this gem of a record wasn’t rated higher than it was. Weep hold this album together with throbbing, early-Cure reminiscent drum and bass grooves and fill the frame with lush keyboards, noise pop guitar and unhinged vocals. Thought the music stays within pop’s limits throughout, the slower tracks manage to channel the gothic romanticism of the Sisters of Mercy with beauty and aplomb. Also, the lyrics never let up the note-perfect embrace of darkwave sceneas on “It’s So Late”: “Cameras see you, photos fade away / The dreams I had were for another day.” With every song being potential single-bait, the record doesn’t flow as ideally as possible, but the ‘80s never really were as easy as other band’s imply. Andrew McDonald
There were expectations for a new WHY? record, to be sure. After the meditative sighs of Eskimo Snow, fans wondered if the new record would properly follow-up 2008’s Alopecia (i.e., if Yoni Wolf would return to rapping in his self-deprecating, middle-class, white man way). Yoni did, and Mumps, etc. has everything we could have asked for from a new WHY? record: hook-filled refrains, rhyme packed-verses, a full-band sound, and ironic lyrics about misplaced sexuality and mild depression. (“Girls used to fawn over my locks to kill, but now the curls are gone and I’m on minoxidil/I’m in decline but women like be jockin’ still.”) And yet, and yet, Mumps, etc. was met with either silence or misguided derision (looking in your direction Pitchfork). Bewildering? Yep. What else can we ask of the Brothers Wolf? Frustrating? Sure. Mumps, etc. is a great record with one or two aloof tracks. Maddening? Hell, yes. WHY? deserve more than the blasé reception the indie music circles gave them. They deserve a higher brand of recognition for their efforts. They deserve a place in every suburbanite’s music collection and a spot on every music critics’ Top 10 list. Then maybe Yoni Wolf can pay for all those prescriptions he needs to keep the WHY? fountain flowing for a long time to come. Scott Elingburg
Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs
Based in the urban wasteland of Los Angeles, the music of Chelsea Wolfe filters the supernatural confluence of influences that birthed the sprawling metropolis through a distinctive lens. Her brand of singer-songwriter fare is often called “doom folk,” a style leaning toward the gothic outskirts of metal and folk. As such, she is as well adapted to covering Burzum’s “Black Spell of Destruction” as she is the public domain’s “You Are My Sunshine.” Following 2011’s amazing Ἀποκάλυψις (Apokalypsis), which featured a plugged-in voyage through droning atmospheres, death growls, doom metal, and beyond, Unknown Rooms proves she is equally capable of acoustic subtlety, retaining her overwhelming sense of impassioned dread in open aural plains as much as in the ornate cathedrals she’d previously constructed. Framed as a collection of “orphaned” tracks that either didn’t fit on or were never intended for her first two albums, Unknown Rooms nevertheless feels like a work of substantial design. The sparser sonic density allows the core of her genuine, poetic songwriting to come into crystal clear focus. Her voice irradiates heart and sacrifice, an utter inability to bullshit, while her string-laden, acoustic guitar driven arrangements show a tasteful sense of creativity beyond her earthly years. Alan Ranta
C Spencer Yeh follows up his superb debut single “In the Blink of an Eye / Condo Stress” with a fresh and unpredictable avant-pop album full of fat basslines, crispy wah-wah guitar, sonorous vocals, and little squiggling synth and horn decorations. “Blink/Condo” seemed to draw from a similar well as Gang of Four, Eno, and John Cale. Transitions includes several hypnotic originals with one or two covers, including Stevie Nicks’s “Rooms on Fire”, which Yeh does without a trace of irony, re-imagining it as a goth-synth piece. I’ve played half a dozen of these songs continuously throughout 2012 and such is the elusive quality of the recording that it is yet to pall. Yeh conjures sounds akin to Arthur Russell, the early solo records of Brian Eno, even Robert Wyatt and Slapp Happy. His lyrics are enticing and mysterious, satisfying yet sketchy enough to keep their exact meaning tantilizingly out of reach. The oblique and mysterious. Transitions even rehabilitates the line “on a dark desert highway”—for which we should all be grateful.
This hugely accessible record is quite a distance from Yeh’s wild, textured, drone experiments as Burning Star Core and his work with Comets on Fire, Tony Conrad, John Sinclair and many others. Except thatTransitions is informed by the same restless imagination that has previously seen him use such tools as treated loops, computer patches and violin across a range of formats including radio, cassette, eight-track and vinyl. Quite how it, and the earlier single, have received so little interest is beyond me. Maybe he should change his name to the Black CS Yehs. D.M. Edwards
Tiempo De Lujo
While a handful of ‘80s college rock veterans have returned in the oughts and early ‘10s (Dinosaur Jr, Mission of Burma, now Redd Kross and Big Dipper), none have had as stealth a return to form as the Young Fresh Fellows, who followed 2009’s I Think This Is with the equally strong Tiempo de Lujo (“time of luxury”). Recorded in an afternoon, one gets the feels that the Fellows—bassist Jim Sangster, drummer Tad Hutchison and singer/guitarists Kurt Bloch and Scott McCaughey—enjoy the freedom that being off the radar affords, but goofy garage numbers like “Tad’s Pad”, “So Many Electric Guitars”, “Love Luggage” (a charming rewrite of the Hombres’ “Let It All Hang Out”) and a handful of McCaughey’s more somber-minded tunes (the closing “Broken Monkey”, “Life Is a Funeral Factory”) deserve a wider audience. In a world where nearly everyone and everything fights for your attention, the Young Fresh Fellows make a virtue out of being unassuming. Stephen Haag