I stood in the back room of New York's now-infamous Pianos (the club whose monthly residency launched a little act named Clap Your Hands Say Yeah earlier this year) armed with only a pint of Guinness, earplugs, and a healthy bit of skepticism. While the joint's newest resident, the Lolita Bras, has already been dubbed "a band to watch", the anticipation (not to mention size) of the crowd hardly showed it. Of the four Thursdays they played, I managed to catch the band twice. On that first night, I witnessed a sub-par, eleven-song set punctuated by regular alteration and tuning of equipment. Something was definitely missing: a spark of energy or motivation. The second time around, the band delivered a vastly different set. Singer Patrick Harmon had a new haircut; bassist Erica D'Andrea Gray wore a new dress; and guitarist Hugh Crickmore looked as though he'd tidied his facial hair. The crowd had swelled as well, and the guitars appeared to glint a little more under the stage lights. A Lolita Bras show is exactly the wrong event to take a date, a friend, a mild headache, or any other kind of distraction for that matter. The really, really good bits tend to be separated by vast swathes of average moments which can turn hope into frustration. Unless I missed something, the Lolita Bras is simply a nice group that plays nice songs to an equally nice crowd. For this reason, their residency might not go down as the dawning of a new day for New York's music scene (as some may have predicted), but simply as a series of enjoyable evenings. Like a mad scientist attempting to resuscitate Britpop's leading men, Harmon carries notes with an affected air and intonation. He channels singers like Morrissey and Robert Smith, singing forlorn lyrics that leave a trail of frayed thread as if through puddles of tears. (You get the picture.) The single "Her Own Conversation" is a charming pop song driven by a staccato riff, complimented by a playful guitar loop and a sappy, daydreamy series of lyrics that foretell an almost-love story. As Lolita Bras progress and develop their sound, "Her Own Conversation" may be surpassed by gutsier, thought-provoking sounds. But for now, the track just drags on that little bit too far. For some unknown reason a fifth member joined the band for the song's live performance. Apparently, the ringer's only job was to press the buttons on a keyboard very, very quietly. But this was hardly my main point of confusion. The quandary I puzzled over throughout both Lolita Bras shows was that of Hugh Crickmore. For a guitarist with obvious talent and the menacing smile of one about to unleash a wall of unfettered, screaming, alt-rock feedback, he remains remarkably restrained. Perhaps I've become accustomed to the overzealous performances of half-baked wannabe Hendrixes, but Crickmore left me actually wanting more. I even took my earplugs out (twice!) to goad him into bursting my eardrums. His restraint certainly made for a neat and tidy set, uncluttered by extraneous personality, but that's not always a good thing. Paul Frick, the ever consistent percussion man, presented wave after wave of varied drum and cymbal combinations, never upstaging his contemporaries and even toying with silence in an assured, professional fashion. Faultless basslines from the delightfully striking Erica D'Andrea Gray underpinned a tight but ultimately underachieving four and sometimes five-piece. The four-night showcase exposed Lolita Bras to the dedication required of burgeoning musicians. A likeable group, Lolita Bras plays honest, melodic, and emotive pop/rock that is entertaining. But so far it lacks the necessary stuff to take things to the next level. With a straightforward and uncomplicated approach to producing music they obviously enjoy making, it remains to be seen whether Lolita Bras are strong enough to evolve beyond "nice." Sure, I'd add them to my list of bands to keep an eye on, but with a question mark, not an exclamation point.
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
The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.
70. The Horrors - "Machine"
On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke
"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.
Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.
Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.
I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!
Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.
Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.