Fuzzy, bass-heavy, and replete with unresolved chords, “Ladder” offers us a sharp, 2020s update on one of indie rock’s foundational sub-genres. In addition to its somewhat awkward name, shoegaze is a kind of betwixt and between category in that while it was never entirely in fashion it subsequently has never entirely gone out of fashion, either.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Lena Bruland is who we’re hearing from here, in the guise of her musical project EERA. With “Ladder,” Bruland seems inherently to understand what’s largely overlooked about the appeal of shoegaze, which is that for all the fuzz and reverb and distortion, most shoegaze songs have a backbeat holding them up. (Remember what the backbeat is: rock’n’roll’s defining rhythm, which stresses the second and fourth beats of a four-beat measure.) Here, the backbeat provides the structural solidity behind the song’s idiosyncratic chord patterns, as well as the propulsion underneath the droning guitar that plays here with a muted fury that never fully unleashes, sounding like someone playing extra-loud but in a room down the hall.
For all the sound happening around her, Bruland sings in a semi-blasé tone as the verse melody alternates between extended same-note repetitions and unexpected intervals; the short, insistent chorus, one phrase repeating, finds her in her lower register, sounding nearly like a different singer. The guitar arrives soon enough to sweep us back up into a backbeated wall of sound that seems to include some wordless male vocals but this could also be an interesting aural illusion. Crank it up and see what you think.
Born in Norway, Bruland is based in Berlin. “Ladder” is a track from her forthcoming album, Speak, due out in December on Just Dust Recordings. Her first album, Reflection of Youth, was released in 2017. You can check her out on Bandcamp. MP3 via KEXP.
A keen bit of melodic, reverb-y rock’n’roll from a reunited shoegaze pioneer.
Once the youthful leaders of Britain’s burgeoning early-’90s shoegaze movement, the band Ride went dark in 1996, thanks to compounding acrimony between their two guitarist/vocalists, Andy Bell and Mark Gardener. But with age, often, comes perspective; in 2014, the band began playing together again. And now arrives the first recorded material from Ride in 21 years.
“Charm Assault” is a keen bit of melodic, reverb-y rock’n’roll, the noise inherent to Ride’s signature sound hinting at itself around the edges, but adroitly restrained. The verses are guided by a chiming, flowing guitar line; the chorus, punctuated by time-signature shifts, acquires a psychedelic vibe. At 2:37 we veer into an extended if unsettled break—50 seconds of subdued, droning guitar over an impatient high-hat that hadn’t otherwise made its presence known.
The song is also an unexpectedly pointed piece of political protest. The band is addressing the noxious pandering that led to Brexit but may as well be talking on behalf of caring and tolerant people the world over:
Your charm assault
Has scarred the world
It looks so ugly
As your lies begin to unfurl
That’s a somewhat optimistic take, of course; so far in this country, anyway, the people taken in by the “charm assault” (which hasn’t really been too charming) seem incapable of seeing either ugliness or lies when it comes to the words and behaviors exhibited by their preferred leader. But there has been much unfurling in any case.
“Charm Assault” is from the forthcoming album Weather Diaries, the band’s fifth, due out in June. MP3 courtesy of KEXP.
Muddy, soaring Swedish shoegaze
“Nothing Ever Lasts” starts cranked to 10 (or maybe 11), equal parts commotion and grace, and never lets up. I like how much the song accomplishes, dynamically, despite the sonic onslaught. In and around the foundational wall of sound, there is freight-train percussion below, a minimal, anthemic synth line above, and Matilda Bogren’s buried but endearing vocals.
Even with her voice mixed down, as the genre usually demands, Bogren steals the show for me, with a few astute moves. First, note the unexpected deviation in the verse—the way the she finishes the first two lyrical lines with an unresolved upturn (first heard around 0:24). In my experience, this kind of shoegaze or dream pop or whatever we might call it is happy enough enshrouding a sing-song-y melody in mud and volume, pushing aside the need for any further songwriting tricks. So that caught my attention. And check out, too, how crisply she manages to enunciate the last syllables of each line in the verse, despite how muffled the words. I may be easily amused but that’s kind of fun.
And then, one more subtle device arrives, first at 0:46: the repeated use of a wordless vocal tag (that is, the “ah-ah-ahh/oh-oh-ohh” part). This, again, strikes me as unusual for the genre. Normally, when a band opts for noise on top, melody below, there are actual words it seems to want you to strain to hear, or not hear. I find the “ah-ah-ahh”s in this context not only charming but a little cheeky.
Echo Ladies is a trio from Malmö. “Nothing Ever Lasts” appears to be their second single, and arrived as a 7-inch last week via the Swedish label Hybris. Thanks to indefatigable Powerpopulist blog for the head’s up.
photo credit: Ebba Ågren
How interesting to find “You’re Not Really Here” closing off an album as otherwise clamorous as WL’s debut, Hold.
Spacious and oh so deliberate music from a band that happens to know a thing or two about dense noise and churning rhythm as well. Which of course, to me, makes the quiet, ruminative stuff all that more compelling—how interesting to find “You’re Not Really Here” closing off an album as otherwise clamorous as WL’s debut, Hold. It’s almost as if the ambient noises you can hear in the background at the beginning of the song are the band’s guitars cooling off, audibly, the way an automobile engine makes those clicks and clacks after you’ve shut it down.
And yet, interestingly, this song was the first thing the group ever wrote, when as yet a duo, and singer/bassist Misty Mary’s vocals on this track were recorded at that first meeting/rehearsal with guitarist Michael Yun. The din was yet to come. But it is very much Mary’s voice that seems to be the secret weapon tying the music’s dynamic range together. Airy but precise, it is a voice as much at home getting enveloped by harsh waves of distorted guitars as it is floating more vulnerably above the minimal backdrop presented on “You’re Not Really Here.” I like that she enunciates her consonants and doesn’t seem to lose her speaking voice in the process of singing; listen for instance to how she fully sings the “r” sound in the word “here,” in the titular phrase that closes each verse. There’s something dreamy about its concreteness, if that makes any sense at all.
Despite its skeletal start, “You’re Not Really Here” does in fact acquire some evocative instrumentation, most notably the organ sound that presses forward at 1:38 (is it actually an organ? a cool guitar effect? don’t know), which lends a magisterial, classic-rock aura to this meticulous and haunting dirge.
WL—which can be pronounced “well” or, simply, “double-you ell”; the band is noncommital—is Mary, Yun, and drummer Stevie Sparks, who has worked regularly for various Danger Mouse productions, and has drummed as well for Daniel Lanois and the Avett Brothers, among many others (often using his given name, Steven Nistor). Both Yun and Sparks are originally from Detroit, while Mary came to Portland from Big Sur. Hold was released digitally and on cassette last month. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it via Bandcamp.
Buzzy, reverby gorgeousness.
A masterly slice of buzzy, reverby gorgeousness, “Kill For Love” is half Jesus & Mary Chain/New Order mashup, half resplendent dance-club shimmer. There are bleepy, twittery synthesizers, scronky guitars, a rigorous (but seemingly handmade) drumbeat, instrumental melody lines, and a fuzzed-up soundscape. On top of it all we get the subtly radiant voice of Ruth Radelet, who sings without pretension and with a wonderful touch of smoke.
Overall the song seems built on a series of simple gestures that read aurally as elegant. An example is in the drumming, and how the song begins with a distinct, pulse-like pounding, which unconsciously draws us in with its heart-related sonic imagery. At 0:49, an insistent high-hat adds a metallic blur, out of which a number of new background sounds emerge. This is not complicated but it is incisive. More songs would be this relatively simple if they knew how; it’s kind of like that old saw about how I would’ve written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.
Chromatics is/are (so difficult to select the right verb form in this case) a Portland, Ore.-based band that began as a punk-rock outfit in Seattle in 2002. Personnel changes led to a major reboot in 2007, with the album Night Drive, on the Italians Do It Better label, which introduced Radelet as vocalist and Johnny Jewel as the band’s mastermind. Kill For Love, released in March, continues in this mode. You can listen to the entire album, blended together without breaks between songs, via SoundCloud. If nothing else, be sure to check out the opening track, which is a splendid if unexpected reworking of Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey (Into the Black).”
MP3 via SoundCloud; thanks to Pitchfork for the head’s up. And actually I was first alerted to this song via Matt Pond’s Twitter feed, so thanks to him too.
Ever since My Bloody Valentine there have been no shortage of bands choosing to wallop our ears with washes of noisy guitars while teasing those same ears with muffled vocals, but not enough of them–either in the original shoegaze era or in its current “neo” phase–have bothered mixing a strong melody into the sonic assault. The duo calling themselves Ceremony, on the other hand, while making themselves inaccessible Googlistically speaking, have decided to put the â€œpopâ€ back into noise pop.
Ever since My Bloody Valentine there have been no shortage of bands choosing to wallop our ears with washes of noisy guitars while teasing those same ears with muffled vocals, but not enough of them–either in the original shoegaze era or in its current “neo” phase–have bothered mixing a strong melody into the sonic assault. The duo calling themselves Ceremony, on the other hand, while making themselves inaccessible Googlistically speaking, have decided to put the “pop” back into noise pop.
Springing from the same Fredericksburg, Virginia trio–Skywave–that ended up giving birth to NYC’s A Place to Bury Strangers, Ceremony are loud, no question. But right away see how they take the noisy, rapid-fire beat and use it to as a framework for a melody both leisurely and tuneful. The first hint we get is the lilting–in fact, rather Cure-like–instrumental theme that emerges from the beat at 0:16. That’s an ear-friendly hook before the singing even starts. The vocals, when they arrive, are buzzy but not buried; you can not only understand a good number of words, but the singer–either Paul Baker or John Fedowitz (both are listed with the exact same credits: vocal, guitar, bass, drum machine)–sings like he wants to be heard; he’s got a portentous baritone, but he enunciates, while singing a catchy little tune when all is said and done. Rather audacious of him, especially on a song with this straightforward refrain: “Take my heart and my life/’Cause someday you’ll be my wife.” Borrowing a bit from a recent post by Michael Azzerad, one might argue that in a loud and angry age such as ours, using this particular aural toolbox to deliver an unironic, non-violent message of love and connection is more subversive than any effort to be just noisy.
“Someday” was released on a 7-inch single in January, and will appear on Ceremony’s
debut second full-length album, Rocket Fire, to be released next month. Both releases are on Killer Pimp Records, which also hosts the MP3. Thanks yet again to the indefatigable Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
A bracing blend of majesty and wistfulness, from its direct and poignant title straight through to an unexpected appearance by a harmonica in the outro. (The harmonica is surely one of music’s most wistful instruments.) There’s enough fuzz and noise along the way for shoegaze fans to appreciate but not enough to overwhelm the song’s simple but effective melody (note how the long descending line of the chorus sounds nicely late-December-ish), not to mention the octave harmonies in the vocals. (I love me my octave harmonies–that is, when the harmony vocal is the same note but one octave higher or lower.)
This band surely aims for a big-hearted sound, and yet more than ever, it seems, there’s a fine line between a band with big heart and a band with a shallow heart. Somehow. The fact that these guys are touring with the curiously popular Owl City doesn’t help the “big heart” case but listening with my ears (a good practice), I find something splendid in this smartly-paced piece of expansive, electronic-tinged rock. And that harmonica surprises every time.
Paper Route is a quartet from Nashville; their debut full-length CD, Absence, was released on Universal Records in April 2009. “Thank God The Year Is Finally Over” is from a free Christmas EP the band released in December. MP3 via Spinner. (The entire EP is available as a zip file here.)
I have mixed feelings about all the neo-shoegaze one is likely to hear as an active listener of new music here at the end of the century’s first decade. While inherently attracted to one characteristic feature of such music–the combination of loud washes of noise with compelling melodies–I am inherently put off by another characteristic feature, which is the muddy vocals. To the rescue comes the L.A.-based quintet Darker My Love, which here offers the first without the second, so I’m all over this one.
Thus “Talking Words” is both gigantic-noisy and kind of sweet-poppy at the same time, even as the sweet-poppiness is disguised further by the band’s psychedelic tendencies. (But, truly, many of the original psychedelic bands of the ’60s were nothing but pop bands in disguise as well.) Guitarist Tim Presley, who shares writing and singing duties in the band with bassist Rob Barbato, has the high, slightly strained tones of a classic power pop singer (think John Wicks from the Records, or Chris Stamey from the dBs); despite the underlying growl of guitar, Presley is never anywhere but at the center of the mix, often buoyed by some lovely Beatlesque harmonies.
“Talking Words” is from 2, the band’s (duh) second CD, which was released last summer on Dangerbird Records. The free and legal MP3, however, is new, via NME, in advance of the album’s UK release next month.
Breezy and melancholy is a seductive musical combination, trickier to master than it may at first seem. The big problem when aiming for both pretty and glum at the same time is avoiding glib pastiche; in this day and age when knob-twiddlers rule the world, it’s easy enough to combine disparate moods and sounds and harder than ever to make it sound a convincing whole.
“It Hurts Me All the Time” blows right past any difficulties from the get-go: first comes that extended intro mixing sprightly synths and low-level dissonance, and then (eventually) the decisive opening lines: “You could never love me/The sky is black above me,” sung with pitch-perfect doleful-sweetness by Tim Batke (one of three Batke brothers in this five-man band). Scored or sung the wrong way, lyrics like that might set off the twee alarm, but not only is Batke’s voice burnished with a subtle throatiness one might not expect from a soaring pop tenor, get a load too of that clanging guitar noise going on as a backdrop to the bubbling synthesizers accompanying him–a visceral signal of the song’s mixed message. And then there’s also the smooth, repeated synthesizer theme that’s more or less an instrumental hook for the song–a pretty line aired with an eerie, organic fragility; a line which, as well, carries with it a distinct echo of Joy Division’s famously melancholy “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which further undermines the sweetness.
“It Hurts Me All the Time” is a song from the CD Feel.Love.Thinking.Of., the Edmonton band’s second album (not counting last year’s remix album), to be released next week on Friendly Fire Recordings. MP3 via Friendly Fire.