There’s a lot happening in the music world, and we here at Heavy Blog try our very best to keep up with it! Like the vast majority of heavy music fans, our tastes are incredibly vast, with our 3X3s in each Playlist Update typically covering numerous genres and sometimes a different style in each square. While we have occasionally covered non-metal topics in past blog posts, we decided that a dedicated column was warranted in order to more completely recommend all of the music that we have been listening to. Unmetal Monday is a bi-weekly column which covers noteworthy tracks and albums from outside the metal universe, and we encourage you all to share your favorite non-metal picks from the week in the comments. This week, we’ll be highlighting a few albums and tracks that struck our fancy over the past few weeks. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
Belle and Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems (Part III)
Enclosed within each of the three How to Solve Our Human Problems EPs that Belle and Sebastian have released in as many months is an ongoing letter to fans from erstwhile front man turned democratic bandleader Stuart Murdoch. Like the letters that accompanied the band’s previous releases, Stuart’s letter is thoughtful and a bit rambling, funny and meditative. HTSOHP’s missive frankly acknowledges that, despite the collection’s title, “this record isn’t going to solve your problems” and “[s]ometimes there is just a name, and there it is.” Stuart may be overplaying his charming modesty, though. It’s true: nothing contained in any of these releases, including this most recent, ever-danceable third collection will, in and of themselves, solve our individual or collective human problems. But, damn it, they may offer clues toward a life of genuine happiness.
At this point in their career, Belle and Sebastian have successfully moved out of the isolated bedroom and into the crowded, vibrant, human outdoors. Along the way, they’ve make a conscious decision to shun ironically detached “coolness” and, instead, have opted to champion earnestness, acceptance, self-love and, yes, dancing. From more a more cynical pen, Murdoch’s suggestion to “turn your travails into stories . . . cherish your misadventures . . . [y]ou’re human, after all” may sound simplistically naïve. But Stuart’s clear-eyed sincerity renders the message profound, and the self-assured confidence that comes from such Zen is evident across the songs within.
Musically, Part Three is a bit of a tasting menu, offering samples of the assortment of fluent sounds Belle and Sebastian have delivered post-The Life Pursuit and, particularly, across How to Solve Our Human Problems writ large. Dancehall bass sits comfortably alongside meandering ballads which are next to upbeat modpop. “Poor Boy” may the most unabashed pop-dance number in the entire collection, complete with sleek modern production and a cheeky message about outdated gender expectations. “Best Friend” is a charming and sweet portrait of strong friendship that evolves into romantic commitment (or does it?) and “There is an Everlasting Song” is destined to be in the band’s live set list for the long haul, a delicate and wise rumination on music, authorship, and finding inspiration is the everyday world around you. Throughout the five tracks, the music is lush, soft-edged, and generally a gorgeous accompaniment to the lyrical message, even if the production levels are a jarring departure from the band’s earlier catalogue.
And so here, for now, Belle and Sebastian leave us. Ever since the days of Tigermilk, Stuart & Co. have been helping us solve our most intimate problems: crippling insecurity, gender confusion, religious doubt, literate shyness. It’s been a blessing to have the band with us all this time even as there is some reluctant relief in realizing that their concerns have turned more outward and global. How to Solve Our Human Problems is Belle and Sebastian for the here and now: older and evolved, yes. But also more confident, content, and self-assured in their (read: our) ability to handle the problems of the world around us. I’ll dance to that.
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face To Face)
Indie darlings Car Seat Headrest have returned in a sense. Following 2016’s critically acclaimed Teens of Denial, Will Toledo and the band went back into the studio to re-record the album that first drew the band attention, Twin Fantasy (Mirror to Mirror). Originally recorded in 2011 when Toledo was operating as a solo project, the songs revolve around issues relating to a relationship Toledo was in at the time. While the original recording was extremely lo-fi, this rerelease has all the bells and whistles of the average studio album on a major label.
What’s so unique about the band is just how prolific they are. Since 2010 when Toledo was recording by himself, the band has released ten albums of original material. In 2010 alone, Toledo self-released 4 albums in consecutive months. While this album is essentially a remake, there have been significant changes to several songs. “Famous Prophets (Stars)” had six additional minutes added in. I would go so far as to say that this essentially equitable to new material.
Toledo also has a unique approach to his music. Most people have a certain assumption of what the term “indie rock” means. That usually means subdued vocals, quieter guitars usually with clean or slightly effected tones, and sparse drums and bass with fairly formulaic songwriting. While Car Seat Headrest certainly has its share of the sounds, Toledo rarely writes his songs the same way. There is a kind of progressive quality to his songs which usually contain several distinctly different sections. He also frequently has lengthier songs that generally aren’t the alt rock 3-5 minute jams. Songs on Twin Fantasy range from a minute and a half all the way to over sixteen minutes. All of them are incredibly engaging indie garage rock goodness.
While the songs may vary in length and sound, they all revolve around easily relatable topics. I have personally read critiques of Car Seat Headrest for writing songs that are “too gay” (Toledo is gay), but I find that incredibly offensive and completely misrepresentative of Car Seat Headrest’s music. What’s so foreign about young love, breaking up, or depression? Are these not things that everyone deals with in their lives? It’s completely beside the point anyway. Listen to Car Seat Headrest. They are easily the best thing going in modern indie rock.
Ought – Room Inside the World
Tim Darcy is the heart and soul of Ought, far and away one of the best post-punk bands working. With his literate, clipped and nasal delivery in the band’s first two records More Than Any Other Day and Sun Coming Down, Darcy cemented himself as a poignant lyricist and unique vocalist in the realms of indie and post-punk. Yet, as many of the best artists in his medium, doing something well forever is boring. The band’s third record, the gorgeous Room Inside the World, finds Darcy and his band exploring new and exciting musical avenues to flat-out spectacular results.
Where the band’s previous albums (especially Sun Coming Down) peddled a typically high energy, sharp interpretation of post-punk, Room Inside the World takes a lush, languid approach to songwriting, feeling more akin to the laid back, atmospheric bent of Parquet Courts and Scott Walker than, say, the more jagged landscapes of IDLES, Iceage, or Preoccupations. This less angular approach to the music works beautifully with Darcy’s less aggressive vocal approach, which could draw comparison (especially during “Into the Sea” and “Brief Shield”) to Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. On the instrumental front, the band explores a wider range of sounds than in any of their previous work. While that same crunchy punk guitar sound makes its presence felt in tracks like “Take Everything” and “Pieces Wasted”, the inclusion and emphasis on synths and hazy keys on “Into the Sea” and “Alice”, as well as the understated horns “Disgraced in America” add a fantastic shimmer to the band’s already great sound. But every good and wonderful thing the band tries finds its culmination in “Desire”, without question the best track the band has yet written, and an early contender for track of the year. The inclusion of choral accompaniment and horns during the second half of the track transforms an unusually transparent and effervescent post-punk ballad into a transcendent musical experience. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful in a way that band’s music has never been, and truly a highlight of the band’s career.
While the album most certainly isn’t perfect, and will be especially troublesome for those attached to Ought’s more lively earlier work, those willing to give this record a shot will find themselves transfixed by one of the best albums of 2018 thus far. A wonderful example of evolution and expansion done right. More of this always, please.
Snowpoet – Thought You Knew
Oh boy; it’s hard to finally write about an album you’ve been listening to non stop ever since it came out. Snowpoet is a UK based jazz ensemble led by Lauren Kinsella and Chris Hyson, both momentously musical figures. The latter is a multi-instrumentalist and the brain behind the honestly odd moments of composition littered throughout Snowpoet’s work; they catch you off-guard, like little drops of toffee in the soft, rich chocolate of the album (like the see-sawing effect on “Water Baby”, which at first grates on the ear but then blends beautifully with the rest of the strings on the track). The former is an extremely moving and talented vocalist whose voice is the key to unlocking this album’s appeal. Beyond the interesting compositions and effects used on the album lies her warm, soft and yet powerfully present timbre; it feels as if you’re in discussion with a good friend, resolute tones never once taking away from the gentleness they are affording you.
Take the opening track for example, “The Therapist”. It is intimate first for its subject matters and lyrics, seemingly describing a moving session with a therapist, but mostly for Kinsella’s intonations and expression. She conveys so many emotions in her inflection and the way in which she almost acts this character she’s signing about (possibly herself), embodying its emotions and reactions in the way she sings. Later in the album, this evocative quality is used even more directly, like on the semi-spoken word track “It’s Already Better Than OK”. Its frankly life-affirming lyrics are breathed with life through Kinsella’s elegant and agile movements through its heights and lows.
Thought You Knew is, at its core, a jazz album akin to GoGo Penguin‘s release which I covered in the last installment of Unmetal Monday. The guitar and piano tones are warm, rich and interactive. But on top of all of that, the unique vision of the two musicians fueling this project, whether via vocals or instrumentation, makes it stand way, way above the crop. It’s a frankly singular album which I look forward to carrying with me into the future; I am sure it will only get better with time and more listening.