Exhilarating ’90s rock update
A concise, exhilarating update of Breeders-like ’90s rock, “Stay in the Car” revs up with no intro; two chunky guitar strokes and we’re right in it. At which point three compelling things happen simultaneously: idiosyncratic lyrics about a fascinating woman watched from afar; irresistible same-note-harmony vocals from Bachelor’s two bandmates, Ellen Kempner and Melina Duterte; and a sinuous, descending verse melody that feels at once inevitable and surprising.
While the first verse rocks with a spare thumpiness, unleashed guitars provide a drony wall of sound for the chorus, and then continue to make their clamorous presence known in the second verse (but only, it should be noted, after a 12-second bass solo). I especially love the atonal stabs we hear at, say, 1:00 and 1:16. And yet: the third verse gets an acoustic guitar accompaniment, and it too sounds exactly right.
Most of all this song shows how a smart and effective song can be built on the foundation of not very much. In real life one day, Kempner saw an eye-catching woman, dressed in red, with wild hair, emerging from a car in a parking lot, yelling back to the man behind the wheel to find out what he wanted in the store: this became the song. And then, via rock’n’roll’s mysterious alchemy, a potentially mundane and impersonal encounter turns deep and indelible. “She said, ‘Stay in the car and I’ll grab what you want”: the lyric becomes the chorus–becomes, repeated, with that protracted “Ohhhh,” slyly majestic, a thing you can imagine transforming into some sort of cultural touchstone. And not that it will, but that it feels in the moment of listening exactly that powerful. In any case, “Stay in the Car” seems to get better and better the more I listen to it.
Kempner and Duterte were each previously known as separate artists with their own projects, Kempner at the front of the band Palehound, Duterte performing as Jay Som. You’ll find “Stay in the Car” on Bachelor’s debut album, Doomin’ Sun, which was released at the end of May on Polyvinyl Records. Listen to it over on Bandcamp, where you can also buy it as a vinyl record, a CD, a cassette, or the digital album. MP3 via KEXP.
Brisk, melodic, ’90s-ish guitar rock
Something relaxes in me as I listen to “Vodka Ocean.” And it has nothing to do with the song’s lyrical content (about which more later). It’s the straightforward palette of traditional rock’n’roll—guitars, bass, drum. And maybe more than that: it’s the clarity of two distinct guitars interacting. That’s one of the sounds that the digital age has drained from our cultural commons and I don’t recall that we took a vote on this. You can hear it in the introduction, and during the instrumental breaks, the way both guitars find their own lead lines, working in a way that is at once complementary and also independent—it’s as if the guitars aren’t necessarily listening to each other but merely trusting that the other one is going to be in a sympathetic place.
And as I keep listening I detect an extra element buttressing the two-guitar attack, and probably rendering it all the more ear-catching, and that’s the bass. Urgent and creative, the bass functions nearly as a third guitar for all its melodic inventiveness. It even gets a fuzzed-out solo (1:55), not something you hear everyday.
Oh and as for those lyrics apparently the song grew out of an unfortunate bit of overindulgence at a music festival, after hearing that Frank Ocean had cancelled. Further details are probably best overlooked, but any band that can turn such an incident into a song this assured and engaging is worth keeping an eye on, says me.
Lost Woods claims inspiration from early ’90s indie rock and I am not only hearing that generally but I am finding myself thinking specifically, and fondly, of the trio Dada (known best for “Dizz Knee Land” but their 1992 debut was chock full of incisive tunes). “Vodka Ocean” is the third Lost Woods single; an EP is on the way.
Not only do are the musical instincts of Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws thoroughly interconnected, but their voices are so oddly similar that Hatfield has been quoted as saying that even she sometimes can’t distinguish between them on record.
Minor Alps is the duo of Juliana Hatfield and Matthew Caws—Caws the front man from the band Nada Surf, Hatfield the long-time indie-rock/alt-rock goddess—and this is a duo in the most intertwined sense of the word. Not only do their melodic, ’90s-based musical instincts seem thoroughly interconnected, but their voices are so oddly similar that Hatfield has been quoted as saying that even she sometimes can’t distinguish between them on record. On this song, the vocals are shared throughout, and the verses are sung without harmony, accentuating the indistinguishability. This becomes especially interesting given the subject matter, which is the awkwardness between two people spending the evening together, getting to know each other, but wondering how to instigate physical contact. Having both the male and female voice speaking the same thoughts underlines the poignancy of the insecurity. It is a small-subject song enlarged greatly by lyrical discipline and musical straightforwardness. The subtle but definitive opening is the shift in the last verse, which moves the problem from the local to the global, a songwriting technique that never fails to move me:
I can’t decide on the channel
I’m just flipping around, maybe you can choose
Maybe some kind of monster
Maybe I just don’t know how to reach out
I love the graceful blurring of meaning in the third line, as the narrator seems to slip from talking about what’s on television to what may be the state of his/her heart and mind and being. This is further insinuated by the last iteration of the chorus, as the song ends, when the lyrics finally leave out the words “with my hands,” and the relentless minor-key drive of the music arrives at both apotheosis and long-delayed resolution.
The debut Minor Alps album, Get There, came out on Barsuk Records back in October without causing as much fuss as it might have; critics liked it but it never rose to buzz level here in the only place that matters, the internet. (Please add dripping sarcasm to that last sentence, if you haven’t already.) Thanks to the ever-discerning Lauren Laverne at BBC 6 for the head’s up on the more recent availability of this song as a free and legal MP3. You can download it above, in the usual way; but note that this one plus six others are currently available as free and legal downloads via NoiseTrade, where leaving a “tip” for the artists is also encouraged. Note that four of the songs on NoiseTrade are not on the album. Alternatively, the fine song “Buried Plans” (on the album) is available as a free and legal download via Barsuk Records.
Tricky of a power trio to wrap its sensitive side into a thunderous song that appears to be about premature ejaculation.
Here’s a shot of adrenaline for you ’90s rock fans, full of loud crunchy guitars, gratifying melodies, slightly affected-while-trying-not-to-sound-affected vocals, sexually forward lyrics (“When you undo/My belt/I melt”), and some of that loud/soft oscillation that worked so well before smartphones took over (not that there’s a connection…necessarily…). In the bigger picture of things, “Melt” is timeless rock’n’roll—young men making their desire desirable via backbeat, melody, and loud crunchy guitars.
But notice the tempo here. It’s got a backbeat, yes, but a deliberate one. For all the mighty, bottom-heavy sound on display, “Melt” is nearly a ballad, albeit a loud and R-rated one. (Tricky of a power trio to wrap its sensitive side into a thunderous song that appears to be at least partially about premature ejaculation.) And yet this is not to be confused with those treacly so-called “power ballads” arena rock bands used to churn out back in the day. This is maybe just a slowed-down rock song, but with such brawny vitality that the crowd’s going to dance anyway. From start to finish, the sound is stout and bracing; the simple, declarative chorus is the definition of killer; and the guitar solo you have waited patiently for (2:46) is a concise, off-kilter triumph. For three minutes and forty-nine seconds you can pretend Bill Clinton is still president.
Heyrocco is a young trio from Charleston, South Carolina with one digital-only full-length release to date, 2012’s Comfort, which you can listen to and/or buy via Bandcamp. A full-fledged debut album is expected later this year.
Sure, it was cool when rock’n’roll was younger and new forms were emerging, but it is also cool now with nearly 60 years of rock’n’roll behind us for bands to comb through it all and decide what works as a platform for their own musical expression.
With its glistening union of purposeful guitar rock and a mellifluous soprano, “Gag Reflections” gives off a welcome aroma of ’90s alternative rock (Belly, anybody? Tanya Donelly?), and okay, here’s something that the Retromania crowd refuses to understand: how brilliant it is that today’s bands have such wide-ranging, decades-spanning musical language by which to be inspired. Sure, it was cool when rock’n’roll was younger and new forms were emerging, but it is also cool now with nearly 60 years of rock’n’roll behind us for bands to comb through it all and decide what works as a platform for their own musical expression. For laughs, browse the blogosphere and note how often writers disparage a band for “not breaking any ground.” By which they mean that a given piece of music doesn’t seem to sound “new.” And yet to judge “newness” based entirely on whether it’s a new form is not only short-sighted (there’s way more to music than form, and always has been) but entirely misses the point of rock’n’roll in 2012. End of rant.
Both solidly built and subtly quirky, “Gag Reflections” begins with an odd but incisive prelude—first we hear a double-time riff, with an air of Morse-code urgency about it, then Zahira Gutierrez enters singing only the song’s title, the riff continuing, building tension, and releasing, now, into a proper intro. And quite an intro it is, with a satisfying, all but anthemic guitar line (0:22), the kind of guitar line, indeed, that rock’n’roll songs were made to be built around. And yet here, this superb guitar line feels a bit hidden—less central than slightly left-of-central, and soon overshadowed by Gutierrez’s fetching, elastic voice, which is simultaneously inviting and mysterious. She is one of those singers who can appear to sing clearly while still concealing most of the words she’s saying. And so you lean closer in. The payoff arrives at the end of the chorus, when she abandons words entirely for that angelic “oo-oo-oo” we first hear at 1:12. I love that the song’s most powerful hook is a fleeting moment, almost an afterthought, after the lyrics have ended. I also love the even higher “oo-oo-oo” Gutierrez unleashes later on (2:44), and, then, the brief but compelling guitar noise the band puts out shortly thereafter.
Wild Moccasins are a Houston-based quintet founded in 2007. Their debut album, Skin Collision Past, was self-released in 2010, and then re-released nationally in 2011 on New West Records. “Gag Reflections” is a single released in mid-July on New West.