Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

Tag: 2014 (Page 1 of 2)

If you are in the future, you are about to read my Top Twelve Albums of 2014

if you are in the present, we now return you to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress

(which is to say things are getting back to normal around here!)

((and don’t forget, you can find all my past Top Ten’s right here!)

#1 Album of 2014 – Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

 #1 – AGAINST ME! – TRANSGENDER DYSPHORIA BLUES [spotify]

(feat. track – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” [spotify])

Last year, I ranked Against Me!’s two song acoustic True Trans EP as my #3 Album of 2013. I’d never ranked anything so slight so highly before, and I have a hard time imagining something like that happening again, but those two little songs, even in their prehistoric state, rocked in a way few others had over the course of the year (or, indeed, many years).

As I noted in that post, I went and listened to the full Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which had just been released, as soon as I was finished posting. From the first notes of the hard-charging album-opening title track, I had a good feeling. By midway through the first listen, any fears I might have had – that the album would be overproduced, that the rerecorded tracks would lose some of their fire, that the rest of the songwriting wouldn’t measure up – were entirely allayed. By the time “Black Me Out” wrapped, it had already secured a spot in this year’s Top Albums. And here we are, almost twelve months to the day later, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues  still reigns supreme.

Unlike last year, when I was out on a limb with a weird little 7″ from a ready-to-be-forgotten band, there’s been a largely universal consensus on TDB’s greatness, a great understanding of the whats and whys that make it such a remarkable work, that rare combination, raw in-a-vacuum exceptional work mixed with with perfect timing and circumstance, context that only increases its meaning and power. There’s very little that hasn’t been said; indeed, where I normally have a couple pages ready to knock out without much thought. I’m struggling to come up with something I didn’t say last time around, something that a hundred critics haven’t laid out before me. Because Transgender Dysphoria Blues didn’t do anything to change my perceptions; if anything, it amplified them.

I had the pleasure of seeing Against Me! numerous times live this year. There was a time – when AM! were touring behind Searching For A Former Clarity – that I declared the band the best live act in the world. One decade and half a new lineup later, they’ve unexpectedly, miraculously returned to take that crown. Current drummer Atom Willard – known for hitting like a beast for Rocket From The Crypt and Angels & Airwaves, among others – hits like a beast for 90 solid minutes. Meanwhile, bassist Inge Johansson (Refused, (International) Noise Conspiracy), goofy and oafish onstage, plays with a palpably childlike joy. For her part, Laura Jane is as fired up as ever, though I swear there’s a glint in her eye now that was never there before – even when she’s coming from a place of anger, it’s a different place, somewhere more healthily situated, more tempered by perspective. (Guitarist James Bowman remains the band’s rock / secret weapon.)

So yeah, it’s a bit anticlimactic, but Transgender Dysphoria Blues is my Top Album of 2014 simply because nothing else could possibly be. Against Me! are the best live band, writing the best songs, recording the best recordings, rocking both the hardest and the most meaningfully. They’re the best band on the planet in 2014, and they made the best album of 2014. And they shall be honored thusly.

#2 Album of 2014 – Darlia – Assorted Singles

#2 – DARLIA – ASSORTED SINGLES [spotify]

(feat track – “Stars Are Aligned" [spotify])

If this were 1994, Darlia would be the biggest band on the planet; sometimes, in my head, it is, and they are. 

I honestly don’t remember the last time I’ve been knocked on my ass quite the way I was the first time I played Darlia’s debut single, ”Queen Of Hearts.“ Sure, there have been bands that I’ve fallen for from the first notes of my first play before – I was sold on the Gaslight Anthem’s The 59 Sound, my Top Album of 2009, from the opening vocals of ”Great Expectations,“ for one example – but this was something else, or rather it was something more. It was that same feeling, coupled with the sensation of being hurtled back into my own past, to the first time I heard Sloan’s ”Underwhelmed“ or Smashing Pumpkins’ ”Cherub Rock“ or Pearl Jam’s ”Animal,“ songs where I could feel my world shifting under my feet as I listened, thinking nothing could ever sound this good again.

Then they did it again, with ”Animal Kingdom*,“ and then again with ”Dear Diary,“ and then once more with ”Stars Are Aligned“ – for a band that has yet to release anything with more than three songs on it, Darlia managed to rocket four tracks into my pantheon in a single year. Indeed, if you listen to them as four singles off a hypothetical album, they track as if they had been A&R’d by a mid-90s major label – the cracking barnstormer debut, the slightly mellower second-tier second-single, the monster hit crowd-pleaser, and the killer deep cut that fans love.*Darlia aren’t just calling back to a sound that’s as deep a part of me as anything; they’re actually doing it better than most bands of the day did, and at times it literally leaves me breathless.

Now, I know vocalist Nathan Day hates when people call Darlia a grunge band; he confirmed as much for me during a recent opportunity to interview him. I don’t say it to be unkind. I think that Darlia are absolutely sincere in their protestations; they don’t spend time listening to grunge music (actually, Day doesn’t really listen to music at all – something you’ll be able to read more about soon), they aren’t retro-fetishists of some sort, and they don’t see themselves as marching to someone else’s drum. Of course, acts like Stone Temple Pilots were equally sincere (and, in retrospect, correct) about their own lack of connection to the "grunge” scene of their day; to not believe you’re of something is entirely different that to actually not be of it. Sometimes what counts (to the world at large) isn’t where you come from but where you arrive.

Indeed, what makes Darlia’s objections so ironic is that they’re the same objections that were leveled by the bubblegrunge wave 20 years prior. Protesting one’s presumed company is a strategy right out of the bubblegrunge handbook, along with things like 1) lyrics that occasionally misread the cryptic, abstract imagery of Cobain for evocative nonsense*** and 2) massive pop hooks that put anything in grunge’s seminal Scratch Acid-meets-stoner-rock wave to shame.

A third commonality much of that bubblegrunge wave shared was that band members were often thought to be cravenly, grossly desirous of fame (see: Corgan, Billy), a venial sin in the best of times, but a mortal one in that moment, when the ideal of hipster authenticity was the disaffected, heroin-nod cool of a Layne Staley or a Mark Arm.**** Day doesn’t seem to be concerned with putting up a front either, but times have changed – thirst is the new slack, and the odds of being burned for his ambition seem much lower than they were for, say, Gavin Rossdale. He makes no bones about the fact that he’s been plotting Darlia’s future for something like a decade. During our talk, he discussed intentionally avoiding the spotlight out of fear of becoming a here-and-gone sensation, stockpiling hundreds of songs while charting Darlia’s course to avoid the pitfalls of, say, YouTube stardom. Clearly, these are not the concerns of a man without a healthy dose of ego self-confidence or a fear of calculation.

So yes, the shoe indeed fits, even if it’s a fashion Day would never take off the shelf. And yet, ultimately, I’m not sure how much it matters. Much as acts like Pearl Jam and Silverchair greatly transcended the pigeonholes they emerged from, Darlia have the talent and potential to take their music somewhere singular. Indeed, their upcoming mini-album Petals veers off into new directions – shoegazey psychedelia, acoustic fragility – even while reinforcing their core sound. I’m excited for what Darlia might become, even as I know I’ll miss what they’ve already done. Will it hit me like a hammer, the way “Queen of Hearts” or “Dear Diary” did? Maybe not. And yet, if any band ever had a chance…

*Yes, technically “Candyman” was the second single, but b-side “Animal Kingdom” is twice the song, and this is my list so I get to make the rules!

** Alive,” “Evenflow,” “Jeremy,” “Black// "Smells Like Teen Spirit,“ ”Come As You Are,“ ”Lithium,“ ”In Bloom“ // ”Somebody To Shove,“ ”Black Gold,“ ”Runaway Train,“ ”Without A Trace“ // ”Photograph,“ ”Cup of Tea,“ ”The Freshman,“ ”Villains“ // ”Them Bones,“ ”Angry Chair,“ ”Rooster,“ ”Down In A Hole“ // ”Longview,“ ”Basket Case,“ ”When I Come Around,“ ”She“ // ”Selling The Drama,“ ”I Alone,“ ”Lightning Crashes,“ ”All Over You“ // we could play this game for hours.

*** I may be selling Day short here – after our interview, revisiting "Queen Of Hearts” revealed a clear meaning in what was seemingly gibberish, a massively important secret hidden in plain sight. I won’t give away too much right now; maybe when the time is right. “Oh, aurora borealis” indeed.

**** Cobain was secretly the most meticulous planner of them all, but he famously presented a too-cool-to-care public image – whether because he was an exceptionally unknowable chameleon, or merely that he was “first to market” with the pose, Cobain’s authenticity generally went unchallenged in his day.

#3 Album of 2014 – Myrone – Myrone EP

#3 – MYRONE – MYRONE EP [bandcamp/ ASSORTED SINGLES [soundcloud]

(feat. track – “Exclusive Coupe” [soundcloudfrom the Myrone EP)

Who is Hugh Myrone?

The simple answer is: I have no idea. I don’t even know if the name Myrone, which he records under, is his real name. I don’t know where he comes from. Until I heard his voice on a podcast this week (more on this later), I wasn’t even sure he was a native English-speaker – his interests, if not his roots, reach from 80’s euro-guitar prodigies to Japanese vaporwave and net-culture. He posted some Instagram photos and videos recently from NAMM, the annual music industry trade show that leans toward the shreddy and technically-proficient; naturally, his face is obscured. Prior to that, I couldn’t have even proved he existed in meatspace – he might as well have been a digital creation.

What I do know is that Myrone is making some jaw-droppingly great music. Mining a vein that has sat relatively untapped since the days when Shreddasaurs walked the earth, Myrone’s trademark #softshred (which I swear is going to be this year’s #seapunk) combines the technical wankery of a Vai or Malmsteen with an incredible ear for instrumental pop hooks. To that end, while his playing has a super-melodic quality that reminds me a little of Satriani, maybe the most apt comparison is to Eddie Van Halen – though their styles differ wildly, both put forward a technical prowess on the guitar which often overshadows the fact that, secretly, they’re super awesome synth composers. Bottom line is, Myrone can play, but so can lots of folks – it only matters because he writes such great songs.

And, oh man, how great they are! ”Exclusive Coupe,“ the second song Myrone released and the centerpiece of his debut EP, evinces an fully-formed aesthetic – pulsing synth bass, loping, stretchy guitar leads that occasionally break apart in a crystalline shatter of notes, deceptively killer synth hooks, and a sense of forward momentum and tight pop composition. (Either Myrone has been incubating his talent for years, or he’s a born genius… or both.) Later tracks collected on the EP find Myrone at play within that established framework, pushing up against the boundaries with the urban funk of ”61“ and the soaring shuffle of ”The Pump Master.“

His later Soundcloud singles do one better, breaking out of that framework entirely. ”Net / Knowledge“ is a gorgeous, play-over-the-credits power ballad. ”Kinda Epic“ proves that Myrone is an exceptionally skilled songwriter and sideman; even with vocalist Azeem taking center stage, it’s Myrone’s blistering, exuberant synth- funk composition that stars. ”Heating Up“ kicks on the afterburners, a blazing, high-tempo workout with a perfectly constructed tension/release chorus. Best of all is ”Virtual Island Paradise,“ a song I once described as “the background music from a Baywatch montage”  – except Myrone does it better than the real thing. It takes both skill and understanding to create something so deeply evocative of a specific time and place, and yet the song is so catchy, so endlessly listenable, that it never rings hollow the way period pieces often do. Myrone’s songs are full of the one thing that so much guitar-oriented instrumental music lacks: soul.

Late in 2014, Myrone connected with the developers of indie retro-racer Drift Stage; his soundtrack is set to be a key element of the gaming experience. One listen to “Drift Stage [Main Theme],” with its whammy-ed up, overdriven lead, should make it clear just how natural a pairing this is. I only hope that soundtrack composition doesn’t slow down his development as a writer; as naturally suited as Myrone’s music now is for a racing video game, I would hate to see anything artificially limit where, when and how he grows. Myrone’s music is my #3 collection of the year just as it exists right now; yet somehow, when I listen, what I hear most of all is potential.

So who is Hugh Myrone? I discovered Myrone just shy of a year ago, when an industry acquaintance – someone who has worked in management, A&R, publishing and more – began tweeting about some of his earliest work. And, see, that’s the rub. I could find out from that acquaintance who this guy is – but I’m not sure I want to. The #softshred legend he’s building; the visage of a guitar superhero, the kind that seemingly vanished from the earth decades ago; seems inevitably more fascinating than the reality of the man behind the mask. I’m content to just listen to the music and imagine.

#4 Album of 2014 – Bleachers – Strange Desire

#4 – BLEACHERS – STRANGE DESIRE [spotify]

(feat. track – “Shadow" [spotify])

I’m a longtime fan of Jack Antonoff’s work. Fun.‘s Some Nights checked in at #8 in 2012’s Top Albums; Aim and Ignite made 2009’s Best Of The Rest; and, frankly, I fucked up in not ranking the 2010 self-titled album by Steel Train – though that album’s marvelous lead single, "Bullet,” earned a spot on 2010’s Mixtape. (Not to mention that I can’t even count how many times I marked out to 2007’s “Kill Monsters In The Rain” live which, if you never had the chance to catch Steel Train in person, you owe yourself to at least look up on YouTube.) So it’s really sort of predictable that the debut album from his newest project, Bleachers, would wind up somewhere on this list. At the same time, though, there’s always a little, welcome rush when an old favorite manages not only not to let you down, but to exceed all expectations. In that sense, Strange Desire is a wonderful surprise of an album.

Strange Desire’s heavily ’80’s-influenced production – whether the gloss was inspired by the participation of Erasure’s Vince Clarke, or whether the material’s native gloss made Clarke an inspired choice to produce, we may never know  – is a new direction from a man who’s constantly moving in new directions. Steel Train metamorphosed from dank-stank hippie bummer jam dealers to strident Jerseycore enthusiasts; Fun. evolved from purveyors of pretty-but-painless orch-pop to beat-embracing, rule-rewriting anthemicists. Each album, a new guise (if not new guys).

And yet, what I find most interesting about Jack’s work is that, underneath the production du jour, each one of his record sounds distinctly like a Jack Antonoff composition. His choice of style, of genre, is merely an avenue to that sound – each one takes this already-extant set of coordinates and opens up a new avenue with which to explore it. Here, the big gated drums, dry reverb and clipped guitar jangles imbue the typically massive gang choruses with a goofy, self-aware charm; it cuts away all the know-nothing ego, loosing him to play with Queen-sized statements, dance like a Bowie with two left feet, somehow score a Yoko Ono cameo without coming off as pretentious in the least, and at long last, wail on his guitar like a motherfucker.

The end result is that Strange Desire, rather than feeling indebted to an era, sounds positively freed by it – wild, reckless. exuberant, joyful and life-affirming at every step. Of all the many looks Jack Antonoff has sported through the years, Bleachers might well be the clearest – and the best.

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

#5 – BEACH SLANG – WHO WOULD EVER WANT ANYTHING SO BROKEN? [spotify] / CHEAP THRILLS ON A DEAD END STREET [spotify]

(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

#6 – ANTARCTIGO VESPUCCI – SOULMATE STUFF [spotify] / I’M SO TETHERED [spotify]

(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

#7 – ALLISON WEISS – REMEMBER WHEN [spotify]

(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]

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