Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

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#5 Album of 2014 – Beach Slang – Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?


(feat. track – “Filthy Luck" [spotifyfrom Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken?)

Over on PropertyOfZack, we’re running our annual Artists To Watch feature tomorrow. To quote from my future self:

[Beach Slang] has released two EPs to date. Each one of them, each of the eight tracks, is perfect. The sound – Replacements and Hold Me Up-era Goo Goo Dolls melodies, sandblasted with reverb borrowed from the nu-gaze revolution – is custom-designed to tickle that sweet spot at the center of the Venn diagram where hipsterized indie-punk and crewnecked teenage scene-punk meet. Even the backstory – risen from the ashes of faded underground heroes Weston, a terrifically unlikely second chance – screams "LOVE ME!”

I’m not sure what else needs to be said. I fell hard and fast for Beach Slang from the first peals of the electrifying triplet that opens “Filthy Luck,” the lead track of debut EP Who Would Ever Want Anything So Broken? It echoes, in sound and in spirit, the punchy lead-in of the Replacements’ “Hold My Life,” and it sets both the tone and an impressively high bar, one which they then proceed to leap with bewildering ease for three more tracks and then another four times on the just-as-good follow-up Cheap Thrills On A Dead End Street. Their lyrics, though downmixed until just another brick in the wall of feedback-y reverb, are endlessly quotable. The songs combine classicist composition with just enough edge to catch you off guard if you let your attention wander. I got to see the band live this fall and they were just as dynamic, just as fist- and heart-pumping as on record, a triumphant, sweat-soaked tornado of a band. They’re everything I want out of their kind of music.

There’s a reason every indie and punk website has Beach Slang marked as their “next big thing” this year. For once, I’m on the same page as all of them.

#6 Album of 2014 – Antartigo Vespucci – Soulmate Stuff / I’m So Tethered


(feat. track – “I’m Giving Up On U2 [live at Shea Stadium]” [spotify link to studio recording])

I’ve been a fan of Chris Farren’s main gig, Fake Problems, for quite some time. Indeed, I would venture that most of the band’s fans are long-timers, due to the fact that they haven’t managed to release anything since 2010, when a nasty label situation basically buried that year’s Real Ghosts Caught On Tape long before its expiration date. But the ensuing years have clearly been productive ones; while Farren kept himself publicly busy doing whatever it is that a Punk Celebrity does (apparently making t-shirts and talking about Lost?), he was also writing a batch of seriously impressive songs. Farren re-emerged into the musical world this year with the surprise release of two EPs by Antarctigo Vespucci, a partnership with Jeff Rosenstock*, and it’s not a stretch to call them his best work to date.

Soulmate Stuff combines the the understated empathy of the Weakerthans, the raucous synth-party vibes of the Rentals and the sputtering brio of 90’s Alt Nation flameouts like Superdrag’s “Sucked Out,” Tripping Daisy’s “I Got A Girl” and Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” – awesomely copacetic source material that makes for a little marvel of a listen when splooshed together. Farren takes lead vocals through most of the EP; the ease in which he slides from nervous nebbish to Springsteenian font and back gives the album an emotional arc that never feels forced. Alternately, I’m So Tethered hones in on the band’s more upbeat side, four tracks that bounce from “go;” the differing approaches each feel wonderful in their own way.

The duo back up the exceptional batch of songs with near-perfect production and arrangement choices. The handclaps, squawking synths and fat, fuzzy single-string guitar leads that imbue Soulmate Stuff with verve all feel natural – almost inevitable – at the places they’re found; Tethered introduces saxophones to the sonic party, and closes with a jaunty number full of barely-disguised synth presets (“Come to Brazil”) that feels like kin with Vampire Weekend’s “Unbelievers.” The grand impression you’re left with is something akin to hearing Farren and Rosenstock flit away an afternoon in a sonic playground, having the time of their lives – the childlike joy and mischief aren’t just palpable, they’re the very essence of Antarctigo Vespucci.

I don’t know when we’ll get new Fake Problems material. Farren is promising that it will be soon, or at least as soon as the band finds a partner that makes sense. I won’t hold my breath on that prediction – mostly because I no longer feel like I have to. If Antarctigo Vespucci becomes priority #1, well, I would have no problem with that; frankly it’s hard to imagine Fake Problems doing anything better (and that’s no dis to them). Antarctigo Vespucci’s debut EPs are pretty much everything I want from music.

[The streaming clip up top is from the group’s first live performance, at Shea Stadium (the DIY Brooklyn venue, not the no-longer-extant edifice in Queens.) I had the privilege of being in attendance, and the show was as fun as it sounds.]

*I never really did get into Bomb The Music Industry!, the longtime project that Rosenstock packed in in 2013, but perhaps that’s something I need to go back and revisit now.

#7 Album of 2014 – Allison Weiss – Remember When


(feat. track – “Remember When” [spotify])

Allison Weiss’ 2013 LP Say What You Mean made my “Best of the Rest” list last year; in fact, it was one of the last albums cut from my longlist as I narrowed it down. The songs were certainly strong enough to crack through, and Weiss is as dynamic a performer – both on record and live –as they come, but production that sanded down the points it should have sharpened made for the album’s ultimate undoing.

Remember When, a five song EP released by Weiss this year, has no such issues; indeed, the production choices here (by bandmate and partner Joanna Katcher, who deserves to be recognized by name for her stellar work) are spectacular, across the board. The title track breezes by on galloping drums and rich, warm guitar tones with just the right touch of fuzzy delay; the spare, fingerpicked solo electric guitar and layered harmonies on Weiss’ gut-wrenching reinterpretation of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” compliment the fragility in her voice and the emotional ambivalence of the lyrics with precision. Even the simple reverb-heavy, demo-quality recording of closing acoustic blues strummer “Take You Back” works, because the arrangement and style suit the song so well. Weiss’ songwriting is so strong that all that’s really called for is production unobtrusive enough to let her talent shine through; here though, the production actually lifts the material.

Of course, even produced as well as it is, Remember When wouldn’t rank if it wasn’t for the quality of the songs, and this is Weiss’ most consistently strong batch to date. Yes, it’s only five tracks (with one being a cover to boot), but all five place among Weiss’ finest. Weiss has a very distinctive way of addressing the standard tropes of love and loss, a certain empathy that’s hard to describe outside of the effect that it has on you, a magnetism that pulls you into the songs characters (if they are even characters) and gets you inside their heads, as though you were experiencing the longing, the resignation, the trepidation right along with them. Sure, that’s what lots of songwriters aim to do; Weiss just happens to be one of the few who gets it consistently right.

Indeed, “consistently right” pretty much sums up Remember When in one pithy phrase. Remember When is an understated but fully realized joy of a record.

#8 Album of 2014 – Twin Forks – Twin Forks

#8 – TWIN FORKS – TWIN FORKS [spotify]

(feat. track – “Plans” from Twin Forks [spotify])

If you follow me on Twitter, odds are you’ve seen me fly the “Death To False Americana” flag repeatedly over the last three to four years. Coming from the perspective of someone who fell deep into the No Depression-shaped hole of the late ‘90s (in retrospect, clearly the least embarrassing of all possible late ’90s scenes), the current crop of Mumfordcore acts have consistently rubbed me in the wrong way. I think the concept of “authenticity” is a mostly a bugaboo, but when you’re dealing with a style of music that’s so strongly rooted in notions of the authentic, at least fake your sincerity well, you know? It’s been a real joy to see this new wave collapse in on itself, to see the Lumineers and Of Monsters And Men and their ilk revealed as the one-hit-wonders I always believed them to be. 

Embracing Twin Forks, then, the Americana project fronted by longtime Dashboard Confessional bandleader/songwriter/haircoiffer Chris Carrabba, comes with no small pang of agita. When I spoke with him in 2013 Carrabba insisted that his intentions behind the decision to shift focus from his ever-more-past-date emo mainstay to this new venture are pure, that they are merely an outgrowth of his natural desires and interests as a songwriter. Still, if the move wasn’t opportunistic, it has been at least quite conveniently timed.

Is Carrabba, in some sense, getting a “scene kid pass” from me? I suppose there’s an element of that, sure; then again, you’re not going to catch me raving about Oh, Honey or Young Rising Sons or American Authors anytime soon, and I spent too many nights at Angels & Kings with all of those folks.

And in fairness, this sort of music is territory Carrabba began to explore back in 2011 on Covered In The Flood – where he recontextualized the work of John Prine, Justine Townes Earle and Guy Clark, among others – and, to some extent, as early as 2007’s The Shade Of Poison Trees (released under the Dashboard imprimatur). If the timing of his pivot towards Americana seems calculated, it at least appears that the music itself has been in his blood all these years, lying dormant.

Indeed, it must be in his blood; I don’t have any other explanation for how else he could have delivered such an exquisitely crafted batch of songs, one that fulfills every promise of the band’s early EPs (the best of which are incorporated here) while expanding the project’s range to include more ruminative fare amongst the mandolin-and-handclap driven rave-ups. I honestly don’t think that it’s a stretch to say Twin Forks is the strongest batch of songs Carrabba has collected on one album since 2002’s The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most; it’s certainly the most consistent. Meanwhile, his voice, always an underrated marvel, has acquired just enough tarnish over time to add a weathered quality to his quieter moments without diminishing his ability to belt it out in the least. As such, Carrabba consistently gets the most out of the songs – I can’t imagine anyone doing these better.

Twin Forks, purely as a collection of music – removed from all the arguments and contexts and cultural detritus that can clog the journey between listening and enjoyment – is as pleasurable a listen as any album of 2014, one that I kept coming back to, and kept finding surprise in. It’s earned its way onto this year’s Top Ten, whether I like it or not.

#9 Album of 2014 – Foxy Shazam – Gonzo

#9 – FOXY SHAZAM – GONZO [spotify]

(feat. track – “Tragic Thrill” [spotify])

Way back in 2010, Foxy Shazam’s self-titled album ranked as my #1 album of the year, an album I characterized as “a celebration of the gloriously-over-the-top,” combining “Queen, Meatloaf, 70’s arena rock, 50’s rock-n-roll, a smidge of 80’s synthpop and blue-eyed soul, a drip of gospel, [and ]the slimmest remnants of chaotic post-hardcore” into something “so wildly original that only the most hyperbolic statements even begin to capture its essence.”

That’s a hard thing to follow up. The band’s 2012 release, Church Of Rock and Roll, made the classic mistake of attempting to recapture the magic. The album wound up being nothing so much as a weak caricature; the sequel to the self-titled’s impossibly out-sized ambition, either failing to reach such heights or, worse, reaching them but in a way that felt clown-like, more garish than gigantic.

GONZO reverses course entirely; the band scraps all pretense of production, writes a series of songs with smaller, uglier ambitions, books studio time with infamously barebones producer recordist Steve Albini, and launches the resulting composition into the world with no warning and little fanfare. It’s an approach that ultimately felt self-defeating; and yet, nothing could be more appropriate for this little album that couldn’t. GONZO is a chronicle of being beaten up and beaten down, a product of fear and exhaustion and not a little desperation. As frontman Eric Nally revealed to me in an interview, GONZO is a concept record revolving around his father’s struggles with sanity, a struggle his father has slowly lost; for Nally’s part, it sounds as if it was written and composed by a man fearing for his own mind.

The result…isn’t great. Or rather, it is great despite the fact that It isn’t even good, at parts. And yet, those gnarls, those bits of shoddy craftsmanship, lack of care, the odd choices, the paranoia: all of them add up to a harrowing picture of a man at war with some seriously nasty demons. When the songs do work – like on the hard-charging, bass heavy rave-up “Brutal Truth” –  they hit like a hammer; when they don’t, like on the plodding “Have The Fun” and “In This Life,” they bellyflop with just as much violence. It isn’t pretty, but life doesn’t seem to pretty for Nally either, not right now. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Nally concluded our interview with the assertion that “there’s no way that anything could go wrong now, because we’re in charge. We’re beholden to no one. Foxy Shazam is its own thing, and I feel like we’re just… We exist. And there’s no denying that. We’re here to stay, and we’ll be here forever.” Six months later Foxy Shazam disbanded (ostensibly temporarily) without explanation.

[interview with vocalist Eric Nally]

#10 Album of 2014 – Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

#10 – SAM SMITH – IN THE LONELY HOUR [spotify]

(feat. track – “By Your Side” (Live on SNL) [spotify link to studio recording])

I read an article recently (which for the life of me I can’t find now – if you know it, please link me and I’ll update) which, in part, mused about what went wrong with Sam Smith’s critical reception over 2014. It’s something I’ve been wondering about as well. Coming into the year, Smith was the hot new voice behind Disclosure’s “Latch,” a massive hit in the UK – and in critical circles – which had yet to register a blip on the US pop charts. Smith himself was something of an enigma: a soaring falsetto that promised what we’d heard was just the tip of the iceberg, backing by all the right people, a man potentially on the verge of his big breakthrough.

Here we are only a year later, and he’s fading cracks like this:

Smith achieved all the success he was destined for and more in 2014, but somewhere along the way, he lost his cool – and along with it, the place he deserved in the year-end lists of any site with a whit of indie cred.

The shame of it is, In The Lonely Hour is an immaculate album: a mature study of all of love’s snares and dares, a concise ten tracks, gorgeous, superbly-crafted songs that breeze by on Smith’s effortless, marvelous voice. Unlike the aforementioned Michael Bolton, Smith never blusters his way through a song; indeed, while he never lacks for power, it’s the fragility in his voice, the way his falsetto flits upward ever so weightlessly, that makes him such a marvelous vessel for conveying precisely where love’s trusses and tensions lie. 

And yet, as good as the recorded album is, when I think of Sam Smith’s 2014, I always come back to his performance on Saturday Night Live, his de facto unveiling to American audiences (and, indeed, to me as well, who knew nothing of Smith at the time beyond “Latch”). Not the 11:55 performance of “Stay With Me,” which was pretty great in it’s own right, but the second performance – often home to weirder, stranger, newer or less-immediate material from the week’s musical guest – in which Smith, accompanied only by stately piano and a gently somber cell, lays waste to all of Manhattan with his lovesick quaver on “By Your Side.” It’s the most affecting single performance – on TV or live – that I had the pleasure of experiencing in the last year. 

If Smith had packed his bags and moved to a deserted island right after his SNL performance, we’d still be talking about him today as a marvelous talent, here and sadly gone. That the remainder of 2014 greeted him with continued success instead, changes nothing.

#11 Album of 2014 – Modern Baseball – You’re Gonna Miss It All


(feat. track – “Rock Bottom" [spotify])

Modern Baseball are kind of a funny case. I’ve been familiar with the band from their very earliest days – they’re friends and classmates of Zack’s, and we’ve been covering them at PropertyOfZack from the jump.  They seem like good people, the kind of kids that make you want to root for them. And yet, I have to confess that I was never fully on board with them musically. Their 2012 debut album Sports made some waves in the Philly basement punk scene, but I never got much out of it – it was too rough, too amateur, too hookless for me to latch onto. To be frank, I didn’t even really see much promise in them.

I think that’s why You’re Gonna Miss It All was a grower, not a show-er, for me, even as the band began landing steadily-larger tour slots and commanding media attention from outlets beyond those that consider them personal friends. It took me a while to give the album a real chance, to listen to it with truly open ears; it was only on the fourth or fifth play through, in as many months, when it finally clicked with me. 

I think part of the issue is that I was listening with an ear tuned toward either Philly pop-punk or the #emorevival, and while Modern Baseball have the relationships that tie them to both movements, their sound is something outside of both, and altogether much harder to pin down. It’s vaguely reminiscent of what might happen if the Front Bottoms had decided that it’s been too damn long since the last Weakerthans record and just went ahead and made it themselves. There are elements of indie-pop, and folk-punk, and half-twangy Americana. Hyper-thesaurused term paper dissemblances and plainspoken dormroom chatter intermix in a way that seems logical, and natural, like a dialogue between two halves of a whole college student. And, throughout, sweet melodies, often (smartly) soured, and shout-along lines aplenty.

You’re Gonna Miss It All isn’t an all-the-time listen for me; there are some bits that, even now, feel a bit too obtuse to be cracked open – and I fear that if I did there might be noting but dust inside. Still, there’s no longer any denying that these guys are on to something really, really singular and special. I don’t know when the next MoBo album is coming; but I do know that this time around I’ll be waiting for it with anticipation.  

#12 Album of 2014 – Moose Blood – I’ll Keep You In Mind, From Time to Time


(feat. track – “Swim Down” [spotify])

I’ll Keep You In Mind, From Time To Time is a shining example of a very rare phenomenon: it’s an album that could never top this list, even on its best day, and yet I would find it conspicuously absent if I didn’t include it in here somewhere. The full length debut from rapidly-ascending English emo-rock* quartet Moose Blood, I’ll Keep You In Mind is as deeply flawed as it is accomplished – often simultaneously. That friction makes for a fascinatingly compelling listen, one that kept pulling me back in throughout autumn, even as I was trying to figure out if I actually liked the album.

I mean, I think we can all agree that a lyric like ”she wears hats above her ears / oh god, I want her here“ is some Prince-level purpleness. And yet, if it sticks in your head for three weeks straight, like “Kelly Kapowski” will, well then vocalist Eddy Brewerton is clearly doing at least one of his jobs with exceeding competence, even if he’s straight-up ignoring the other one, no?

That’s just one small example, but it sums up the entire experience of listening to I’ll Keep You In Mind concisely and accurately. Even when they’re getting everything wrong, Moose Blood get it wrong so rightly. The baldly apoetic language-bombs; the solipsistic sadboy misogyny; the laser-targeted Your Favorite Weapon-meets-Deja Entendu composition; the show-your-work calculation of Brewerton’s lyrical references to Dashboard Confessional and Nirvana: I’ll Keep You In Mind tickles each and every early-00’s emo pleasure center like it’s running down a checklist, and while that might sound like a gross approach to the sensual arts (because it is!), it still feels awful good.

The result is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in an ill-fitting hashtag and sold to kids in crewnecks, and for the life of me I can’t figure out if I hate it or if I really, really like it. I think maybe the answer is “both.”  If anything, I’ll Keep You In Mind is a great demonstration of the principle that love and hate aren’t opposite ends of one line after all; rather, they are parallel lines, lines which often – but not always – move in concert. And if this list is a ranking of the albums I loved in 2014, well, the fact that I hated it too doesn’t wave my love for it away.

Besides, let’s face it – Nevermind still blows me away too.

*Label No Sleep Records’ website makes the laughable claim that the band’s sound “harks back to the glory days of Deep Elm Records and mid 90′s emo.“ I understand that right now #emorevival is the phrase that pays, but these guys are aping Brand New and Taking Back Sunday and Armor for Sleep, not the Promise Ring. Moose Blood are clearly reviving an emo, but it sure isn’t that  one.


Starting today, I’ll be counting down my Top Albums of the last year, one each day until we hit #1. 

As I’ve done for the last few years, I’m jettisoning the traditional “album” approach and will be considering each artist’s entire output for the year. In an era ruled by digital releases, SoundCloud demos and artists who often see no reason to hold songs back just for the sake of selling them as a collection, it’s the only approach that makes sense to me. Sure, many artists still work on a traditional release schedule – it’s just that I don’t see any reason to penalize those who don’t. If I could listen to it this year, it should count, regardless of how it’s been packaged. And indeed, nearly half of this year’s list contains EP’s, 7"s, singles, demos, or other output outside of the traditional LP format.

That’s not to say that those packaging decisions aren’t important – in fact, there are a few entries on this list that rank where they do specifically because they evidence craftsmanship in their sequencing and their curation. Making a great album is a larger task than releasing a handful of great singles, and there’s a particular joy in listening to an album that holds your interest from front to back and compels you to pay attention. That joy is certainly a consideration; it’s one, among many.

Finally, as usual, I couldn’t hold myself to only 10 entries on this year’s Top Ten list. So without further ado, here comes #12!

Makeup for the Silence – Best of 2014 Mixtape

Makeup for the Silence - Best of 2014 Mixtape

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been doing this as long as I have, and yet here we are for the fifth year in a row* with the annual Makeup For The Silence Mixtape.

The 2014 edition of my yearly mixtape feels darker, tetchier and more ruminative than last year’s compilation. Partly that’s deceptive: this year’s picks are angrier in their loudest, brightest moments, and more quiet when soft and sweet. Indeed, 2014 was my most blissful in recent memory, full of both personal joy (getting married) and professional success (my first print features in a decade), But as they say, energy flows where attention goes, and the tracks here that demand the most attention rage loudly enough to nearly eclipse the more subtle sweetness in between.

Only nearly, though. Part of the challenge of making the yearly mixtape is in the curation – there were more than 200 songs that made my running Top Tracks Of 2014 longlist**, and paring them down is some combination of making a CD-length document that actually flows as a well-sequenced album would without excluding anything absolutely essential to the year. I spend far more time than any human should working toward hitting the sweet spot each time out; hopefully, I managed it here.

The “no big radio hits” rule wasn’t really an issue this year (sorry Taylor); while I felt like 2014 was much more of a singles year than an albums year for me personally (more on that soon), it wasn’t because of anything on pop radio, which had a seriously down year compared to 2013. I feel like we’re headed toward an interesting intersection – it’s clear to me that the pop-EDM bubble has burst, and there’s definitely renewed interest in music made with traditional instruments, but nobody seems to quite know what to do with them yet (other than sample saxophones, ubiquitously). In the past that’s led to tremendously interesting and diverse years for pop music (think 90-91), but for some reason this year’s casting-about turned up little in the way of interesting experiments – at least not in the Top 40.

And yet the 23 tracks here barely tap the surface; there was tremendous breadth, if not depth, just below. This year’s mix features a pair of refugees from collapsed bands, each digging out of the rubble and starting anew in their own way; two tracks from the best band in the world you’ve never heard of; four minutes of guts-searing #emorevival; and four more of glorious, gossamer #softshread. It’s all in there, Frankensteined together into one rather dapper monster, if I do say so myself.

Enough talk. Download***, listen, enjoy.

Makeup For The Silence – Best Of 2014

  1. Free – Brent Walsh
  2. Royals (Remix) – T-Pain ft. Young Cash
  3. Tongue Talk – The Holidays
  4. Canyon Moon – Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
  5. Coming Of Age – Foster the People
  6. Unconditional Love – Against Me!
  7. Queen of Hearts – Darlia
  8. Don’t Die in Yr Hometown – Antarctigo Vespucci
  9. American Beauty / American Psycho – Fall Out Boy
  10. Exclusive Coupe – MYRONE
  11. Long Night – Guster
  12. Nervous Kids – Tigers Jaw
  13. Brutal Truth – Foxy Shazam
  14. Your Deep Rest – The Hotelier
  15. Dear Diary – Darlia
  16. Giving Up – Allison Weiss
  17. I Told You So – Dazy (The Girl) ft. Derek Sanders
  18. Tear The House Up (Edit) – Herve & Zebra Katz
  19. Digital Witness – St. Vincent
  20. Eyeshadow – No Devotion
  21. Erosion – Cymbals
  22. Come Alive – Rachel Taylor
  23. XO – Roy English

click image to download

Stay tuned, The yearly Top Ten will begin in just a few days!

*you can always find the complete collection of mixes which have appeared on Makeup For The Silence, as well as all the playlists I’ve contributed to elsewhere, right over here.

**if you’d like to get a headstart on 2015, feel free to follow my running Top Tracks Of 2015 So Far playlist on Spotify. It’s barren right now but that won’t last long.

***just like the past two years, there’s a Spotify version of 2014’s mix available, but also like those years, there are a handful of tracks on the mix which aren’t currently available on the service. I love Spotify’s convenience, but I recommend downloading if you want the real deal – otherwise, you miss out on a few great songs, and also the sequencing. If you’re a Spotify user, it’s easy to import downloaded files into Spotify, I promise.

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