by Jon Hunt
This week’s We Will Rock You takes a look at a trio of interesting EPs from local faves Communist Daughter, Zoo Animal and Greycoats.
Communist Daughter, Lions and Lambs (Grain Belt Records)
I may have mentioned, here and there (okay – everywhere, to just about everybody I know) that I’m not overfond of the “Beards ‘n’ Banjos” genre. It just seems so goddam sexless, you know? Where you hear redemption or “salvation,” I hear a bunch of privileged, corn-fed dinks who’d start crying into their organic chablis if someone played them Raw Power too loudly. James Taylor to the power of no erections, ever. I can’t understand where they’re coming from (I guess they’re a “reaction” to all the “loud music from the ’00s?” So – the White Stripes, then? What?) and I can’t understand (except that music fans on a whole have somehow collectively decided that turn that loud music down, you damn kids) why it’s popular.
That said: there have been some albums from that genre – the second Fleet Foxes record (the first was sure pretty, cough cough), the last Iron and Wine album, maa-a-aybe at a pinch the last Bon Iver LP (if only ’cause the last song sounds like Foreigner – come on, it fucking does) and some of the freakier freak-folk outta California that have managed to transcend the problems of the genre. In other words: they’re more than just wistful, aching, or prettily melancholy. They have something behind them: feeling, variation, oomph. Maybe a touch of darkness, too – the second Fleet Foxes album sounds like the work of a socially-awkward asshole, you know? And if they have the songs to back it up (far too often they don’t – you need more than just stacks of harmonies and acoustic guitars, dig?), then I’m all for ‘em.
Lions and Lambs by Communist Daughter is absolutely in that genre-transcendent wheelhouse. There are actual beards and actual banjos on this thing, and yet I adore the fuck out of it. I guess this is Johnny Solomon’s “addiction recovery album,” but lots of people have made shitty addiction recovery records (just ask original beardo David Crosby!) so it’s not just that. It’s that he manages to imbue this stuff with a drive and a power (borne, I guess, of real emotion), never falling into the “just pretty” trap and never afraid to actually rock a little if that’s what the shit calls for. And that kicks this album outta the folk genre and into a kind of hinterland between that and stuff like the National or Arcade Fire – stuff that actually pushes when it needs to and gets the hell out at the right time, too.
Listen to the astonishing “Ghosts,” for example – this song is enormous in places, with big echo-chamber guitars and heartbeat drums pushing it along like a bastard, but pulls back in others, all harmonies and tons and tons of angst. “I’m not old but I’m not young,” he sings, and he means it – he sounds like he’s got some city miles on him for sure, and the whole song has oodles of, dunno, atmosphere of some kind that makes it just god-damn gorgeous.
I also love “Heart Attack,” which has a killer horn chart (I love that folk-inflected bands have discovered the power of horns; that’s what made Iron and Wine’s last ‘un so great). It also has a great lyric and a perfect melody — but the aforementioned layer of real emotion (“I know you deserve a better man, but I’m the best you’ve got” – I love the self-flagellation, there) and quite a damn lot of actual rock power (the giant, stunning stacks of “Oh Yeahs,” sung with real verve) make it something special.
I know there’s some hope among the local cognoscenti that Communist Daughter will fill the holes left during Bon Iver’s “in between times” – that they’ll be the next big thing in that folk genre. I say: fine, but they’re so much more than that. Maybe they represent hope that music with beards ‘n’ banjos will amount to more than just a lot of pretty harmonies and quiet sensitivity. Or maybe they’re something new – a passionate, perfectly-dark hybrid between that and, you know, actual rock. And I’m all for it - Lions and Lambs is simply magnificent.
Zoo Animal, Young Bold (remixes)
Here’s the weird thing. I listened to Young Blood, Zoo Animal’s 2008 record that was the source of this nifty little 2010 EP of remixes (recently re-released by the band). And it’s good, really good. Holly Newsom is a great songwriter, and I adore that she fearlessly mixes her spirituality into idiosyncratic little songs buoyed by her unusual, somewhat mannered voice (which reminds me of Nataly from Pomplamoose – you know, that “catch-in-the-back-of-the-throat” thing that, if abused, can become overprecious – no danger of that here). If it has a downside, though, it’s simply that the arrangements don’t always hold up to the power of the songs themselves – they’re low-key, very homespun, quite, you know, beige, which is part of the charm, I reckon.
But the thing is, you throw the same basic songs in front of bright, energetic, mostly-electronic remixes by the likes of the late Lookbook, Josh Clancy and Nono and suddenly – BAM, something very, very like pop music. And a fascinating pop music, too, which sounds not at all unlike mid-period Bjork. Suddenly that idiosyncratic voice lives over a bed of pure color and becomes something beyond just interesting – it becomes fully righteous. Listen to how it floats over the frosty guitars-and-blips of “Kitchen,” for example, or slots marvelously amongst the transcendently major-key synth pads of “Hold Tongue.” It’s extremely cool stuff.
I’m not saying Zoo Animal should switch to an all-electronic thing. They’ve carved out a cool little niche for themselves with their honest, interesting music, and that’s great. I’m saying they should throw their stuff out there for reinterpretation or collaboration more often, especially if they’re gonna work with such interesting folks. Because Young Bold is cool even if you’re not a Zoo Animal fan, it’s great pop music on all levels.
Look: Greycoats are absolute masters of pretty melodies. They’re all over this too-brief four-song EP. Seriously, every song has multiple places where it soars – you know the way early Coldplay soared, before they started to suck? Like that. Gargantuan melodies that take off into the stratosphere on wings of fire. Massive hooks. Big arms-raised-heavenward stuff, honestly.
And they know their way around an arrangement. There’s not a moment on Helicline that doesn’t sound perfectly, tastefully placed there, from the pounding drums of “Leviathan” to the cool electronic handclaps and “woo-oohs” on “Prometheus, Glow!” It all sounds absolutely terrific – marvelously recorded, marvelously played, everything right where you want it, all the time.
What it lacks, and what keeps it from being astonishing – because the elements are there, I swear! – is a sense of abandon. Even in my description, you see it: Careful. Soaring. Tasteful. But there’s never a moment where you feel like something’s going to cascade out of control, no danger, all safety – there’s not pain amongst the pleasure, a magpie amongst the robins, you know? Like a perfectly-coiffed suburban lawn without the severed ear amongst the grass. Imagine some out-of-control fuzztone buried in “Hideaway,” maybe – just twinkling in the background, letting you know all is not perfect and pristine. Something. Anything.
That’s not to say Helicline isn’t great – it is. It is, if anything, too great, too manicured, too careful. It needs some roughness, some lack of polish to kind of rough up what sounds like a record of extreme studio craft. It’d lift it up into transcendent territory, where it might belong.