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In the past week, not one but two indie folk greats have released new albums.
The first being Sufjan Stevens with his sixteenth studio album The Ascension. This comes just a mere six months after his album Aporia was released back in March. Stevens who has been an active mainstay in the Indie Cult music scene has featured plenty of synth and electro-pop on this album and creates some eerie melodies. Not in the eerie sense of his 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, where Stevens was coping with the death of his mother, but more as running through a misty forest while being chased by an unseen monster.
Pitchfork gives the album a 7 rating out of 10 and cites the Stevens wrote the album after escaping from his longtime Brooklyn dwellings and moving up to the Catskills of New York where he bought a tractor and spent time on the album.
Even though he has been active since 1995, Stevens received notoriety for producing the soundtrack for the 2017 coming of age film, Call Me by Your Name.
Stevens released his first single, “America”, for the album on Aug. 3 and the rest of the album on Sept. 25.
Next new album release for the week being Fleet Foxes with their fourth studio album, Shore. Shore is a breath of fresh air from their 2017 album Crack-Up, featuring a modernization of their iconic folk sound that epitomized the indie folk scene.
Far more lighthearted and sunshiney, Shore is exactly what the doctor called for in these dark times of the COVID-19 Pandemic where Pecknold spent his time writing the album in his Califorinia home.
Pitchfork gives the album an 8.3 rating and is personally my favorite out of the two but both are worth giving a listen to.
Submitted by: Chloe Serena, News Director
Somerville Theater - February 22nd, 2020
No strangers to rocking in unusual places, Athens southern rock legends Drive-By Truckers brought down the house at Somerville’s historic movie theater with a massive 25 song set. The sold out show was a strong showing for the band, who had not been through the Boston area proper since 2017 - not including some dates at the Cabot Theatre in Beverly last year. The Truckers released their twelfth album The Unraveling in late January 2020, which carries the politically aware songwriting canon of band leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley by focusing on the turbulence in the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Seven of the new album’s nine tracks made the setlist, matching an equal number to DBT’s breakthrough 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera. New tracks like “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Grievance Merchants” saw the band channeling all of their frustration at the current state of the country into their performance, no doubt exacerbated by the recent controversy involving the presidential impeachment trial. Hood got a few chances to slow the pace down and let the band jam with stream of consciousness spoken word songs including “A World of Hurt” and “Days of Graduation”. On less somber crowd favorites such as the blistering rockers “Sink Hole”, “Where The Devil Don’t Stay”, and “Marry Me”, the band was met with raucous applause that kept the audience on their feet for much of the set, despite the theater setting. At one point later into the second half of the show, Patterson Hood eagerly declared that he intended on giving the audience a proper Saturday night out and vowed that the band would keep playing until curfew - which was well received by everyone but parents with children in the audience. Hood’s promise would end up holding true, with the show running over two hours and cutting off right at the 11 o’clock limit. The extra room produced by some outgoing audience members resulted in many of the floor seats becoming abandoned in favor of getting up close and personal with the band during the final two songs of the night, and trading handshakes with Hood and Cooley. Not many bands can claim to have the energy to play with such ferocity and stamina night after night on tour, but for the well seasoned Drive-By Truckers, this was simply another Saturday night doing what they do best.
Submitted by: the J-bird
Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven
Middle East Downstairs – January 16th, 2020
In what has been a January tradition for decades, David Lowery stood center stage at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge’s Central Square to lead both of his musical endeavors, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, in three hours of eclectic genre-bending performance to a sold out crowd. For many musicians, the idea of fronting two entire sets every night on tour is a daunting task, but for Lowery this is par for the course when not working as a mathematics and business professor at the University of Georgia or being a pronounced voice in the movement for more sustainable artists rights.
The collection of small music clubs on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Brookline Street has been a Boston area home for Lowery’s musical appearances ever since Camper Van Beethoven’s early tours booked to the late TT The Bear’s next door in the mid-80’s. Naturally with over three decades of history between the bands and the venue, the crowd was a wide ranging group made of local college students to aged punks and hippies. It had been almost guaranteed that this show fell on the same night as a Patriots playoff match over the past ten years, but the performers were clearly not upset about the football team’s recent season elimination.
Camper Van Beethoven took the stage first, with their original lineup intact sans Cracker’s Coco Owens on drums who was pulling double duty on the tour. Despite their usual inclination of witty banter they ended up ripping through a blistering nonstop set of deeper cuts from their earlier discography. Only one song was included from their post-reunion albums, while their self titled release saw the highest representation with four selections. Camper’s offbeat college radio hits such as “Take The Skinheads Bowling”, “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, and “Eye of Fatima” anchored the energy of the set well, but it was between these tunes that their musicianship really shone in the form of several medleys. Lesser played punk inspired songs such as “The History of Utah” and “We Saw Jerry’s Daughter” were woven together seamlessly in a mix of six songs that eventually culminated in the crowd favorite “SP 37957” – itself a medley of traditional Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” with a touch of original CVB weirdness. The second half of the set showcased Camper’s Virgin era records with material almost exclusively picked from Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie. “Summer Days” from 2013’s La Costa Perdida saw the band easing into a hazy recollection of warm weather that stood in stark contrast to the freezing and windy night outside, culminating in a crescendo of violin led prog rock to cap off their set.
Cracker’s turn on stage similarly saw them reaching back to their earliest material while focusing on the laid back country side of their catalog as David Lowery had strained his voice on a previous night. Two thirds of the set were dominated by tracks from their first two releases - 1991’s self titled debut album and 1993’s platinum certified Kerosene Hat. In recent years, core members David Lowery and Johnny Hickman have added steel guitar player Pistol and keyboardist Paul McHugh to round out their traditional four piece rock sound, which was demonstrated to great effect on the opening cover of Jerry Garcia’s “Loser”. 2006’s Greenland saw representation in the form of a country-influenced reworking of “Where Have Those Days Gone”, which was re-recorded for 2014’s Berkeley To Bakersfield - which saw additional representation with two more songs in the setlist. 1996’s The Golden Age also saw some deep cuts with the fast rock rave-up “Let’s Go For A Ride” and followed by slow ballad “I Want Everything”, exemplifying the diversity that Cracker’s catalog has to offer. Johnny Hickman got his time to lead the band on the recent crowd favorite “King of Bakersfield” as well as bringing down the house with his precise guitar licks on the slow burning closer “Another Song About The Rain” accompanied by excellent interplay between Pistol and McHugh. Lowery finished the show with a solo acoustic performance of “Big Dipper” and thanked the crowd for continually making it out to the Middle East for over three decades; an admirable testament of fan appreciation.
Submitted by: DJ Justin Rogers (The J-Bird)
Leprous are an interesting band, to say the least. After years of shifting lineups and promising demos, the Norwegian group finally solidified and released an impressive debut in 2009 in the form of Tall Poppy Syndrome. This album’s sound consisted of an intriguing blend of death metal, jazz and classic prog which more closely resembled Ihsahn’s solo material than anything else. This makes perfect sense, as the group's founder, vocalist and keys player, Einar Solberg is the brother-in-law of the Norwegian metal legend himself, and they would gain prominence in Europe as Ihsahn’s live backing band and consistent opener during the early 2010s. Leprous of course used this newfound momentum and released two phenomenal prog metal records back to back with 2012’s Bilateral and 2013’s Coal.
Bilateral saw the group honing their songcraft and learning to balance the fine line between melody and fist-pumping heaviness over 10 engaging pieces of great sonic variety. It is one of the few gilded recipients of popular review blog Angry Metal Guy’s 5.0 perfect score and for good reason. Coal was similarly strong and further showcased the group’s artistic evolution by presenting catchy and engaging hook-centric songs that each evolved and climaxed perfectly; all while maintaining their careful blend of aggressiveness tunefulness. At this point in time, Leprous had cemented themselves as modern prog metal mainstays and the collective prog metal community waited with great anticipation for their next masterpiece.
2015 gave us The Congregation, which many fans viewed as a disappointment. The band still retained their signature songwriting style which had been honed over their short discography but featured simpler “verse chorus verse” song structures and an ever-growing reliance on Einar Solberg’s angelic falsetto to produce sufficient ear-wormy hooks. I personally view it as the strongest Leprous album, as it offers a delicious salmagundi of the band’s ever-present pop-sensibility and their prog metal roots, and leverages the sparse sinister moments to create gargantuan climaxes. Seriously, the pinnacles offered by the penultimate moments of “Slave” and “Moon” are legitimately amazing, but I digress. I can certainly see how this shift in style could come as striking to long-time fans, but it felt consistent with the group’s logical sonic progression.
It makes perfect sense then, that on 2017’s Malina, Leprous threw away all notions of being a prog metal band and released an indie-pop record, but a damn good one at that. It utilized the aforementioned elements and intricacies of the band’s sound and appropriated them for the context of a very direct rock album. The album reeks of solid craftsmanship and makes great use of Solberg’s vocal prowess and the then-new addition of a dedicated cellist to create deserved moments of clarity amongst radio-ready hooks and soul-searing climaxes. As to be expected, many fans of the original, metal-friendly Leprous were once again disappointed. Gone were the heavy Norwegians that embraced the darker side of prog, replaced with an impressive group of musicians who instead placed their focus on songcraft and utilized the vast soundscape of their former genre to do so. If anything, 2019’s Pitfalls fits firmly within this context and produces reasonable results.
As with all of their releases, Pitfalls is expertly written and performed. Each song oscillates between mellow verses and powerful choruses that build toward a characteristic emotional zenith. However, the sonic palette of Pitfalls is markedly more subdued than their other records, even in comparison to Malina. Many of the songs are built around straightforward percussion loops, complete with sparse synths and an elegant cello for Solberg to rest his seraphim melodies upon. These softer sections generally give way to bombastic guitars and louder dynamics which either land a stunning hook or hit home a poignant climax.
Yet, despite the relatively simple song structure and instruments on display, each track is filled with subtle instrumental flourishes that reward repeated listens. Take single “Alleviate” for example; the song opens on a simple synth loop, which soon gives way to a mellow vocal melody. The track gradually builds, adding hushed percussion and restrained guitar flourishes until the final chorus erupts with Solberg’s impassioned falsetto towering over appropriately punchy guitars for a stunning climax. The song resembles a contemporary pop-piece far more than the prog metal Leprous of yore.
Many of the 9 tracks on Pitfalls follow this permutation in one way or another, but many also forgo the thrilling climaxes that marked the band’s earlier work. For the most part, they’re executed with a song-writing maturity and grace which speaks to the band’s experience. “I Lose Hope” uses this formula for a moody synth ballad, accented by engaging cello lines and interesting vocal harmonies. “Observe the Train” is markedly similar but comes across as a little bland. Despite being well-written and performed, these tracks don’t quite produce anything especially alluring over their runtime. On the other hand, “Distant Bells” utilizes this new Leprous blueprint possibly greater than any other track. Like any great piece of climax-focused music, it expertly leverages its sizeable length to deliberately build towards yet another immense sonic apex, easily the strongest on the album. This track stands as a testament to the possibility of their new sound and the pairing of the band’s signature “ah’s” and “oh’s” with their novel appreciation of sonic texture makes for an album highlight.
“By My Throne” and “At the Bottom” fall a bit closer towards traditional alt-rockers, but have a jocular, Leprous spin. The former weaves in and out of dense cello/synth lines underneath dramatic vocal melodies, punctuated by luscious guitar licks. The latter is also quite strong and accomplishes something similar, with Solberg’s aforementioned falsetto deftly maneuvering a constantly shifting rhythm section. It also comes packaged with a considerable musical climax, so I can’t really complain. “Foreigner” doesn’t fare quite as well. Incredibly straightforward, it manages to tick every box of standard alt-rock cliches. The clunky chorus on display “it’s a fight to stay alive, it’s a fight against myself” seems to drone on endlessly despite the track’s sub 4-minute length.
That leaves us with opener “Below” and closer “The Sky is Red” which—ironically enough—showcase the two aural sides of Leprous beautifully. “Below” is a great example of a chorus-focused track that clearly borrows from the group’s heavier past while maintaining the songwriting chops they've developed over time. The track’s use of cello is particularly stunning and certainly elevates its anthemic chorus. “The Sky is Red” is fantastic for an entirely different reason, as it could stand in for nearly any track from their metal era, but most closely resembles something from The Congregation. The cut is driven by an odd-time guitar riff that beautifully ebbs and flows across its 11-minute runtime; weaving deftly through ravishing verses, dazzling hooks and a truly malevolent ending that perfectly takes advantage of the track’s build and prevailing motif. To put it bluntly, it features the classic Leprous sensibilities and executes them in a wonderful fashion to make for a clear frontrunner on the tracklist.
While Pitfalls is undoubtedly a finely crafted album, the sense that Leprous could be applying their impeccable talent and years of hard-earned experience to something more outstanding cannot help but permeate the release as a whole. While there are true standouts that employ the band’s latest sonic developments to great effect, I still don’t believe these cuts manage to eclipse past hits such as “The Price” or “From the Flame” in that regard. The band has consistently been at their best when merging impressive technicality (half of the members are former session musicians) distinctly off-kilter grooves and heavier timbres with pop sensibility in a masterful way that placed them at the forefront of modern prog. With the exception of the one actual prog-metal track, none of the material on Pitfalls manages to fulfill that promise.
What makes this discussion all the more difficult is the fact that Pitfalls as a record is wholly compelling. Metal—and specifically prog—has a long and storied history of gradual to sudden changes in artist’s signature sound over time and Leprous have made that transition far more gracefully than Opeth’s Heritage or even The Contortionist’s Language. For many groups, the criticism that their older material is stronger than whatever comes after their natural artistic evolution feels lazy, but with Pitfalls, the band practically proves this point with “The Sky is Red.” The lone track that relies on their older style feels stronger than the rest of the album.
In taking a quick look at the writing credits for this record, the band’s resident operatic demigod Einar Solberg is attributed solely to penning every number with the exception being “Distant Bells.” Here, the problem arises. Solberg has always been the group’s primary songstress, but over the course of their career, he has slowly taken on more and more of that responsibility. While not necessarily a bad thing, Pitfalls is practically a Solberg solo album. This makes a great deal of sense, as nearly every track is structured primarily around his vocals. Unfortunately, it seems the group has ultimately suffered from this creeping change, as despite being quite strong in its own right, Pitfalls is arguably Leprous’s weakest release since Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Pitfalls is a solid record with an exceptional listening flow, packed with adroitly assembled tunes that sound immaculate in a pristine mix. I enjoy this album immensely and I’ll be sure to catch the band live whenever they play anywhere in my greater vicinity, but their 2019 release ultimately fails to live up to the incredibly high standards of the Leprous catalog and leaves behind the lingering sense that a collaborative prog metal release would be assuredly more potent.
Final Verdict: “The change won’t be radical, it’s gradual”
Favorite Songs: “Below,” “Distant Bells,” “The Sky is Red”
Submitted by: DJ Sam Graff
Royale Boston - October 29, 2019
In a departure from her recent metal and doom inspired albums, Chelsea Wolfe’s stop at Royale Boston in support of her new album Birth of Violence was an atmospheric and intimate exploration of her earlier acoustic roots. Never one to remain conceptually stagnant, this solo acoustic show saw her bolster her current stripped back presentation via a single other band member on electric guitar, keys, and synth loops. The lean stage presence allowed for some seasonally appropriate decoration - moody candlelight and sculptures of antler-like driftwood surrounded center stage, flanked by dead tree candelabras. Each song featured a carefully considered lighting accompaniment, often bathing Chelsea’s flowing white dress in swaths of cold blues, earthy reds, and fractured mirror ball dots.
While half of the set was made up of material from Birth of Violence, long term fans enjoyed the helping of cuts from earlier releases going back to 2010’s The Grime and the Glow. Despite pulling from ten years of material, the set list had a remarkable sense of cohesion owed to Chelsea’s strong and distinctive songwriting. Later into the set the audience was treated to a ghostly cover of the late Roky Erickson’s “Night of the Vampire” and a faithful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, which Chelsea admitted she had only been performing for a few nights prior (it should be mentioned that much of the music played during soundcheck was from country musicians such as Townes Van Zandt). Other deeper cuts from her own catalogue such as opener “Flatlands” and encore “The Way We Used To” drew great applause as well - two of the rare times the audience raised the volume of the venue beyond the intimate level held for most of the show. It isn’t often that artists and their audience meet on such a unified wavelength, but Chelsea Wolfe’s recent acoustic expedition was a gothic celebration for both sides of the stage.
Submitted by: DJ Justin Rogers (The J-Bird)
Peter Hook & The Light
Paradise Rock Club - October 26, 2019
Peter Hook & The Light took the stage at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on October 26 for a massive three-set show exploring his back catalogue of material with Joy Division and New Order. Despite Joy Division’s seminal 1979 release Unknown Pleasures turning 40 this year, two thirds of the show was focused on playing two later New Order albums from their initial run of releases. Both Technique (1989) and Republic (1993) refreshingly had new life breathed into them through this live context, free from much of their heavy reliance on programmed synth sequences from their original recordings.
At 63, Hook looked and sounded in fine form, clearly relishing every minute on stage and trading smiles with his son Jack Bates, who trades off bass and rhythm guitar duties. Most middle aged performers are not playing concerts twice as long as people half their age, but this astounding night at the Paradise was clearly par for the course on a tour already booked nightly for several weeks. Peter clearly has been enjoying himself in the years since leaving New Order, and at no point during the two billed albums did it seem like he was performing out of obligation rather than passion. In a tribute to his late bandmate Ian Curtis, the third set began with an abrupt mood change away from the upbeat New Order material and into a set of six Joy Division cuts spanning from both their studio albums as well as a few singles. As Joy Division had famously disbanded before their first American tour, this was a highly unique opportunity for fans of Hook’s former group to hear the closest approximation to the intensity and energy that Joy Division has been known for in their short time as a live unit. Regardless of where the audience fell on the spectrum of punk and dance material, the applause for these songs that have been with fans for decades was a deafening testament to music’s power to touch people. In an age where many artists are coming back out of the woodwork to perform largely forgotten cult classic albums, Peter Hook is a shining case of an artist proud of his legacy and intent on breathing new life into his work.
Submitted by: DJ Justin Rogers (The J-Bird)
Ma - Devendra Banhart
Houston born and Venezuela raised folk singer Devendra Banhart released his tenth studio album, Ma this fall. His voice unmistakable voice and creative mind is highly recognizable in his newest work. It can be argued that Ma, is his most cohesive work to date, with whimsical high notes and tunes in songs such as “Carolina” and “Taking a Page”. Banhart’s guitar finger plucking abilities shine through, showcasing both his instrumental and his vocal abilities. This album is sweet and comforting to bop around to.
Submitted by: Chloe Serena, DJ and News Director
Metronomy Forever - Metronomy
Out of left field comes Metronomy’s new album “Metronomy Forever.” Their last studio album was recorded in 2016. This 3 Year Hiatus has proven Metronomy to be masters of modern electronic music. Not to be confused with EDM. This STRFKR & MGMT styled Band is a blast to listen to. From creative textures to killer vocals, Metronomy has created a truly special album. This album has created a bit of noise on the NACC Chart with peaking at 10 on the Hot 200. Right up there with (Sandy) Alex G, Pixies, and Jay Som. Personally I think the best track on the album is “Wedding Bells” with awesome synth tones, catchy chorus, and a super fun beat that will get anyones feet moving without being too cheesy like some modern artists. They’re currently on tour and are going to be in Boston @ Royale in February and I’m so looking forward to it! If you’re a fan of anything electronic, this album has it all!
Submitted by: Braeden Hale, DJ and Music Director
Only the Blues - Dylan Moon
Only the Blues, Dylan Moon’s debut album, is bound to surprise and delight. The technical and creative proficiency of the record are that of a seasoned musician, sounding as if Elliot Smith had had the opportunity to grow older, softened a little, and decided to come out of retirement with a psych-folk record in his bedroom with an analog drum machine. The production is impeccable (and all done by Moon himself), and the interchange between chord and rhythm is nothing short masterful, reminiscent of psych masters such as Love. Although currently with less than 3,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, Only the Blues is a nearly perfect debut in both production and composition and appears to be the start of a promising career. Suggested tracks: Death Warmed, A Witch, Song for Jerry, Lines
Submitted by: Hayden Stinson, DJ and Program Director
Dreamo - Teen Body
Yes, dream pop/shoegaze is a crowded genre with an inundation of Galaxie 500 rip-offs. Teen Body, however, provided a refreshing source of indie comfort in their sophomore record, "Dreamo." The Brooklyn quartet managed to craft that dreamy pop sound with a clever blend of subtle shoegaze and catchy guitar hooks. The album title is fitting--according to the band, they coined its name from a close friend who described their sound as a mix between dream pop and emo, hence, "Dreamo." I personally agree. Give a listen to tracks like "Fell off" and "Validation" for an upbeat, catchy rock sound, and ponder about lifes mortal coil with the title track "Dreamo" or the deep and mysterious "Dead drop."
Submitted by: Teddy McNulty, DJ and General Manager
Run Around the Sun - Sacred Paws
Sacred Paws has hit the ground running with their second studio album titled, “Run Around The Sun.” Released on May 31st, 2019, at the end of the Semester from Merge Records, comes an upbeat, jam-band, post punk sound that really gets your head moving and your feet dancing. With an incredibly diverse band composition, Sacred Paws boasts talented guitar, bass, trumpet, drummer and a great vocal duo, courtesy of the uplifting Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers. Personally, my favorite tracks are Almost It, What’s So Wrong, and Brush Your Hair. All of these songs do sound relatively similar, but that’s what adds to the atmosphere Sacred Paws creates in this wonderful, happy, little album.
Submitted by: Braeden Hale, DJ and Music Director
Modern Mirror - Drab Majesty
The third release and most recent release from L.A. neo-goth post-punk duo Drab Majesty is enchanting, catchy, and dark at the same time. Fusing the understated melodic proficiency of its first two release with a fuller and more mature production value, this album is a gem for old and new fans alike. The band’s presence is alluringly androgynous, the drums are undeniably 80s, and the vocals are chilly (with a dash of underlying romanticism). While “Ellipsis” is the standout lead single, the entire album makes for a cohesive and refreshing listen for fans of the darker side of the 80s. Fav tracks: “Ellipsis”, “The Other Side”, “Out of Sequence”.
Submitted by: Hayden Stinson, DJ and Program Director