With Heavy Blog in the midst of making changes to the kind of content we publish and how we publish it (all of which will be made to you, dear readers, more clearly soon), we’ve decided to retire our recurring Unmetal Monday column in favor of more ongoing/mercurial coverage of unmetal genres like indie rock, alternative, EDM, and more. One of the side effects of this is that we no longer have a central place to write about new music and albums from these kinds of artists/bands in a more informal way, things we might want to talk about but not necessarily in long-form. In light of that and our tradition of combining certain metal releases into groups to form “Rapidfire Reviews,” we’re taking three recent or upcoming releases from the world of “indie” in the pejorative sense – i.e. bands that either would be categorized at large as “indie rock” or bands that at least came from that tradition and still have traction within those circles – and offering some quick takes on them. In what will hopefully be only the first of our Indie Rapidfire Roundups, editors Nick Cusworth and Scott Murphy offer their thoughts on three very different, yet all well-anticipated albums: Cymbals Eat Guitars‘s Pretty Years, Wilco‘s Schmilco, and Okkervil River‘s Away.
Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years
Three albums in, Staten Island by way of New Jersey indie upstarts Cymbals Eat Guitars have built up an incredibly solid catalog of music with a certain amount of commonalities and fundamentals of sound. Their previous album, 2014’s LOSE, was a brilliant combination of the band’s earliest signs of explosive bombast, ear-candy melodies, and winding riffs from their debut Why There Are Mountains with the more experimental and darker edge of their follow-up Lenses Alien. By now there is enough of a sample base to know pretty much what you’re getting into when listening to new Cymbals Eat Guitars album. By-and-large, Pretty Years delivers on those expectations and adds a few new wrinkles and twists, but it languishes a bit in the shadows of what came before it.
Lead single “Wish” certainly felt like something new and exciting for the band, a mixture of the band’s bubbling energy and vocalist Joe D’Agostino’s trademark swagger with a classic Springsteen-ian groove (squawking sax and all). The album as a whole is also awash in 80s sounds, from The Replacements feel of “Have a Heart” to the slow-dance waltz of “Shrine” and the anthemic surge of “Well.” Pretty Years, like its neon pink cover, is covered in a thick haze of nostalgia, like much of the band’s music. The main difference here is that this time around it comes off feeling a little too smoothed out, a little overly-polished. D’Agostino’s vocals feel almost downright restrained through much of the album, often preferring to float along more smoothly like on opener “Finally,” “Have A Heart,” and “Mallwalking.” The band has always drawn their strength from leaving the listener feeling like the band went all out and left it all on the field, but there are few moments that even attempt to match the heights of songs like “…And The Hazy Sea,” “Jackson,” or “Laramie.” Gone too are the riffs, huge lead-lines, and more adventurous guitar play that defined tracks like “Wind Phoenix,” “Shore Points,” “Secret Family,” “Warning,” and plenty more.
What we’re left with is an album of solid to very good jams and pop songs, but Pretty Years has all the feeling of an album with its edges sanded down and the quirks that made the band so endearing to fans in the first place subsumed by a glossy restraint. There is plenty to enjoy here, and it may very well continue to expand the band’s reach and fanbase. But it doesn’t feel special. Hopefully these “pretty years” end up being more of a phase rather than a sign of things to come.
Okkervil River – Away
As a New Hampshire native, it feels strange to classify Okkervil River as “NH via Texas” – lead singer/songwriter Will Sheff grew up in Meriden, NH before moving around and settling in Texas as an adult and aspiring musician. And even if U.S. geography and culture aren’t your forte, you can probably infer that these destinations provided Sheff with two vastly different backdrops, what with Meriden being a small, rural, unincorporated community close to the Vermont border and Texas being the second largest state in the country. But the band’s eighth record Away is indie folk applicable to all places; whether it be the sweltering plains of Texas to the serene NH forests, the album is still a perfect soundtrack for a beautiful, carefree day.
This can be easily attributed to the gorgeous, expansive instrumentation which easily drapes itself over any environment before steady immersion. Sheff admitted that after experiencing losses in his family and band roster, he realized he was “kind of writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new.” And you feel it – you feel the dusty, nostalgic instrumentals that are trying to feel laid back to hide the fact they’re in pain. This brilliant blend of lush, Destroyer-style indie folk with an underlying country personality akin to Sturgill Simpson makes for a listen that stays close to listener’s expectations while launching off from the familiar with some truly phenomenal ideas. From the acoustic slow-burn of opener “Okkervil River R.I.P.” to vibrant string arrangements on “Judey on a Street” to the infectious, hum-along woodwind melody closing out “She Would Look for Me,” there’s something to love about virtually every idea the band puts forth. Top all this off with Sheff’s more melodic, singing-focused take on the narrative vocals of Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon fame, and you have a wholly personal experience that never ceases to move the listener.
There’s but one complaint to levy at Away’s runtime. Oddly enough, the album feels a bit too long despite none of the tracks being disposable or overstaying their welcome. Even though “The Industry” feels a bit out of place with its coffee shop indie folk and could be feasibly axed, it still has a charming quality to it, and there aren’t any tracks beyond that which make sense to remove. This issue lends itself to the notion that Away is meant as engaging background music – a soundtrack which sets the mood and dazzles its listeners while not demanding their entire attention at all times. That’s due to its subtlety – instead of taking a heavy-handed approach at moving their listeners, Sheff and crew simply crafted poignant music which forces anyone in earshot to feel something profound.
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Wilco – Schmilco
Mentioning that Wilco are past their peak in a review of a new Wilco album has become an utterly walking cliche. With the band now having been out of their “Golden Age” far longer than in it – commonly regarded as their stretch from 1996’s Being There through 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, with Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in between – it’s probably about time for the fans and critics to accept that Jeff Tweedy and co. are unlikely to ever come close to that again. Which isn’t to say that the music they’ve released since hasn’t been without its merits. Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) both featured their share of solid jams, and The True Love often came close to matching the sounds and heights of “peak” Wilco. Last year’s surprise Star Wars featured Tweedy at perhaps his loosest and most experimental in well over a decade, though the whole thing possessed a slightness to it that negated it leaving much of a lasting impression. So perhaps the biggest surprise for the band’s follow-up to that, the very tongue-in-cheek and referential Schmilco, is how little Tweedy seems to care at this point about remaining relevant.
Schmilco is a fine album, in the way that sipping a beer and sitting on your porch for the afternoon with a warm breeze makes for a fine day. Comprised almost entirely of slower to mid-tempo acoustic ditties, songs kind of enter and leave without ever making too much of an impression or statement. They’re simply there, available to be appreciated and enjoyed if you decide to pay attention but seemingly content in simply existing as a kind of sonic backdrop. There are a few tracks that manage to make themselves known a little more than others, such as the pretty “If I Was Ever A Child” and the ragged “Locator,” but for the most part mentioning songs by name and highlighting them is kind of besides the point. Schmilco is more of a tableau or collage, forming a larger impression of something rather than anything immediately to hold onto. It’s not there to turn heads or make any kind of artistic statement.
Given that Tweedy actually named one of the tracks “Shrug and Destroy” though, it seems very likely that he’s as much aware as anyone of the relative feathery lightness of this album and is perfectly content with that. Well over two decades into his career under the Wilco moniker, Tweedy has nothing left to prove. Sounds like the perfect time to crack open a beer, sit outside, and simply enjoy things for what they are.