Unnatural Helpers: Land Grab

For their third time at bat, these grungy garage rockers have a hard time concealing their restlessness amidst a sonic jumble of Seattle hero worship, power pop dreams, and the existential right to rock.

Unnatural Helpers

Land Grab

Label: Hardly Art
US Release Date: 2012-09-25
UK Release Date: 2012-10-01
Label Website
Artist Website

In the giddy throes of the '90s alternative rock revival, few have benefited in the serotonin department more than me. With shameless Pavlovian accuracy, the mere mention of certain bands turn this here thirtysomething grumpus into a big softy. I'm a cash poor connoisseur of the period, practically a scavenger by unflattering definition, with an unhealthy attraction to what's on those scratched, smudged, and yet, perennially shiny plastic circles most decent people have had the good sense to unburden themselves of in the digital age. From the A&R labors of love that never quite made it to the rock stars that still fill arena seats, all of it still means more to me than anything should. Perhaps to justify my obsessions, I even started a modestly attended monthly club night at a friend's bar here in New York like some sort of sentimental yet scowling facsimile of Nick Hornby's Rob Fleming character.

Thankfully, the assembly line of reunions big (Afghan Whigs! Soundgarden!) and small (Bailter Space! Hammerhead!) have also brought forth a steady trickle of upstarts with glaringly obvious '90s influences. Some, such as Jesus And Mary Chain karaoke act Ringo Deathstarr, serve as cheaper over-the-counter generic alternatives to the lapsed patents of far superior forebears. Others, like Yuck, attempt to build on what came before. If nothing else, Unnatural Helpers at least try.

Produced by Kurt Bloch of The Fastbacks and (allegedly, more recently) Full Toilet, Land Grab marks this Seattle quartet's second full-length outing with Hardly Art, the homelier Sub Pop sibling with the great personality that shares the still seminal indie's distribution and publicity machine. A bit at times like hometown heroes Mudhoney without the grit and musk, Unnatural Helpers play that sort of peppy garage rock that comes and goes every CMJ and SXSW of late.

Despite the uncharacteristic ten-minute closer "Julie Jewel", a barn-burning jam drenched in kerosene horns and littered with combustible falsettos, the songs hardly ever brush up against the two-minute mark. Herky jerky scorchers like "Hate Your Teachers", "I Trust It Hurts" and "You're Right" demonstrate the band's fuzz pedal moshpit bona fides and align Unnatural Helpers with the Pacific Northwest's radical misunderstood misfit class of '91. Here, vocalist-slash-drummer Dean Whitmore most resembles Mark Arm, and though he never succumbs to mere mimicry, some appropriation of his spiritual predecessor's unhinged animalism wouldn't exactly hurt in places.

While those might be the most instantly gratifying cuts, the band have other dimensions on earnest display here. Not unlike quasi-labelmates Male Bonding, Unnatural Helpers clearly harbor some deep seated feelings towards Cheap Trick's brand of power pop, as evinced on "Walk" and the breezy "Stiff Wind". Even curiouser, the delightful "Waiting Girl" feels much like something Syl Sylvain or Johnny Thunders might have recorded for one of their post-New York Dolls outings, albeit more polished.

Bloch also worked with Unnatural Helpers on 2010's Cracked Love & Other Drugs, a record which also mixed raucous blasts of raw power with poppier moments. The balance, however, seems to have tipped more towards the latter with Land Grab, which some might succinctly summarize as progression. However, the titular implications suggest something much more urgent for a band three albums into a career. Looking critically at the countless also-rans of the '90s, legitimate existential questions are bound to arise. Are Unnatural Helpers on the way in or the way out? Land Grab makes a reasonable case for the group's right to exist, but not a wholly compelling one.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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