I really hate "on pace" arguments. Like saying "Miguel Cabrera is on pace for 162 home runs" after one game. Or "The Diamonbacks are on pace to have the worst run differential in major league history" after 20 games. (Okay, that one might actually be accurate...) But I think the one I'm about to make has a lot of merit (and it's not about baseball):
2014 is one pace to be a better year for music than 2013.
In fact, it's probably over halfway there, and we're barely a quarter of the way into the year. There's already a nigh-unassailable AOTY candidate and another half-dozen or so other top-10 contenders, any of which would have made the cut last year. If this "pace" continues, there will be almost too much good music to properly catalogue this year. (Here's hoping.) So, in the event that this is indeed the case, I thought I'd take some time to spotlight some of my favorite releases from the first quarter or so of the year. Let's start with the obvious...
The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
This one is "on pace" to be the AOTY. It'll take a Herculean effort from another band (The Gaslight Anthem? A new challenger appears?) to dislodge the best bar band in the world from the top spot. After a bit of a hangover following keyboardist Franz Nicolay's departure (2009's Heaven Is Whenever, an album that—unlike most hangovers, thankfully—grows on you), THS retooled and are back in a big way. The "retooling" consisted of the addition of second guitarist Steve Selvidge, who has worked with, among others, whiskey-rock stalwarts Lucero. The interplay between Selvidge and founding guitarist Tad Kubler is at the heart of Teeth Dreams—see standout track "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"—which is the group's most dynamic and confident release yet. I can't wait to see it live. (August 4th!) I'll have much more to say about this one at a later date.
"I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You":
Hospitality – Trouble
If Teeth Dreams is a more focused distillation of The Hold Steady's musical ideology, Trouble is... well, nothing like Hospitality's perfectly pleasing Brooklyn indie-pop 2012 debut. ("Friends of Friends" is quite possibly the apex of the form.) Although traces of that band are still extant here ("I Miss Your Bones," "It's Not Serious"), the band instead explores a decidedly moodier and more meandering sonic territory here. "Going Out" features frontlady Amber Papini cooing over a sultry, slinky bass line and syncopated percussion, while the '80s movie synth score of "Last Words" eventually gives way to a guitar solo straight out of the Mark Knopfler-circa-"Love Over Gold" playbook. (Seriously.) This was an exciting change of direction for the band, and a release I look forward to exploring over the rest of the year.
Phantogram – Voices
This one went from being a blip at the edge of my radar to a gigantic phallic presence smack-dab in the middle of it after experiencing their sublime live show a couple weekends ago. (A surefire "Show of the Year" contender.) I hadn't experienced that much energy at a show since... well, since the Naked and Famous show two nights previous, but that's just circumstantial. As for the album itself, there's not a dud or dull moment to be found among the 11 immaculately-arranged, perfectly-produced earworms. Guitarist Josh Carter shreds, keyboardist-vocalist Sarah Barthel wails, and together they craft a vibrant, textured dancescape that will get your feet a-twitchin'. Just try to stay still while listening to "Black Out Days," or not fall in love with Barthel while listening to, well, "Fall In Love." Stick any of the 11 on a party mix and you'll be good to go.
Dum Dum Girls – Too True
Speaking of danceable, atmospheric indie-[insert genre here] with female vocals (like GOB Bluth, I've definitely got a type), I was quite pleased to discover L.A.'s Dum Dum Girls this year. While I can't comment on their first two records, Too True bears more than a passing sonic resemblance to personal favorite Metric (told you I have a type), if perhaps a little rougher-hewn and darker around the edges. Too True's first three tracks are a burst of jangly guitars, robotic rhythms, and brooding verses that bloom into slyly-sweet choruses. Two perfect examples are "Evil Blooms" and "Rimbaud Eyes" back-to-back at tracks 2-3... just killer. The album loses a little momentum as it progresses, but at just a hair over 30 minutes, you barely have time to notice, making the record a perfect bittersweet bite to accompany a short jaunt.
Desert Noises – 27 Ways
This band took me by complete surprise. They'd been on my radar for a little bit, but I had it in my head they were some dusty, mellow indie-folk act. But then, I also thought for a number of years that Sleater-Kinney was some sort of feminazi alt-country act (this skit probably didn't help)—turns out they were an awesome punk rock band that I'd been missing out on. (All Hands on the Bad One for the win.) So, while Desert Noises did *not* spawn half of Portlandia like Sleater-Kinney, they're also not a shitty Wilco clone either. Turns out, these dudes fucking wail. Their guitarist breaks solos off like Russell Hammond—just listen to "Angels" to hear what I mean, a slow-burner that ignites in the second half with a solo that's just incendiary. (No good YouTube link, unfortunately.) "Shiver" is another gem of a jam, a barreling uptempo number with earthy percussion, group vocals, and, yep, another sweet solo. "Out of My Head" (below) is a more straightforward indie rock number, but a good gateway. C-c-c-check 'em out. (Hashtag thanks Ashley!)
"Out of My Head":
That's it for the major contenders, but there's plenty more good music to get to, so we'll do a lightning round for my next five favorites:
Despite massive personal life upheaval, Against Me! is back with another lean and mean set of punk rock snarlers. Less "produced" and WAY more personal than their recent material, True Trans Soul Rebel is a welcome return for a band I thought might've been done for good. I look forward to seeing Laura Jane Grace and the boys next month ... Speaking of prodigal punks returning, it'd been much too long since the last Lawrence Arms record, and Metropole did not disappoint—the duo of Kelly and (especially) McCaughan are secretly two of the best songwriters around, and their record has equal parts pugnacity and pathos ... Modern Baseball is another new band I recently got into, and they feel like a band that, with You're Gonna Miss It All, is at that "Your Favorite Weapon" stage—talented songwriters not yet sure how to leave behind their pop-punk beginnings. I'd be curious to see if they have a "Deja Entendu" in them ... As a rule, I tend to be averse to the whole "introspective, low-key dude with a guitar" scene, but dammit if Sun Kil Moon's latest, Benji, didn't charm its way into my rotation through sheer earnestness alone. No irony here, just heart, sleeve, and strumming that goes from playful and sweet to suddenly heartbreaking ... Finally, if you've been looking for prog-pop record of the year, I've got you covered—the band is The War on Drugs and the album is the (aptly-titled) Lost in the Dream. It's a hazy mix of shimmery synths and massive guitar riffs—think Brothers in Arms by way of ELO. (Yet another record that's filling the Knopfler-sized void in my musical life.) Impressive stuff.
Finally, I want to end with a strong song of the year contender—Drive-By Truckers' "Grand Canyon." Its simple ascending/descending chords and unadorned lyrics belie a beautiful, powerful meditation on, well, it's not so hard to figure it out yourself. This couplet had me reeling the first time I heard it:
"We drove across the wastelands until we finally reached the sea /
and I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be."
and I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be."
There's no video, but it doesn't really need one. Give it a listen.
That's it for now. I think I might try to crank out a book or movie review here pretty soon, or maybe you won't hear from me until year's end. Who knows? But I hope you check out some of these bands, and don't be shy about recommendations yourself. Until next time...