by Jon Hunt
In this week’s We Will Rock You, we take a look at brand new albums by local bands Night Moves and 2012 Picked To Click Top Tenners Wiping Out Thousands.
Night Moves, Colored Emotions
Night Moves’ rise – from new band to self-released album to hotly-tipped next big thing – has happened quickly. If one were being a jerk (and I am), one might say it happened Howler quickly. But unlike Howler (who I still think are about 60% talent and 40% baseless hype, if I’m being kind), there’s a reason for Night Moves’ rapid ascent, and it’s found in abundance on their debut record, Colored Emotions. It is this: this sounds like their third record, rather than their first (which it is). You know, the record that comes after the amphetamine-fueled first album and the totally misguided second – a refinement of sound, a sharpening of songwriting, a renewal of purpose. Colored Emotions ain’t perfect, but no way does it sound like someone’s straight-outta-the-starting-gate debut, and that precocious maturity goes a long way to explaining Night Moves’ immense popularity.
So what’s it sound like? People keep name-checking Gram Parsons, but I think that for a lotta critics, that’s their only country touchstone, cause it doesn’t sound remotely twangy like that (seriously, guys: buy some country records). In a lot of places, it’s straight-up indie, especially on the faster songs like the opener “Headlights” or the sprightly “Family Tongues.” There is a certain echoey western thing happening on songs like “Country Queen” (which sports a truly gorgeous melody) or the sleepy “Old Friends” – but its surrounded by ’60s-quoting psychedelic-tinged stuff like the bouncy “Only A Child,” which is laced with electric piano and feedback, or the Hammond-driven “Horses,” which could almost be a Left Banke song, or the gorgeous, wobbly, Mellotron-drenched “Classical Hearts.” If anything, psych is the main touchstone, though it’s so much more refined and less scattershot than, say, an MGMT or Animal Collective (who are basically all about being scattershot) – in fact, it’s almost baroque in places.
The songwriting and arranging are so, well, mature – god, I keep using that term, and that sounds like they’re a bunch of senior citizens or something, but it’s pretty much the only word for it. Young songwriters so often rely on simple structure and repetition and stock-in-trade chord structures (Howler, I’m looking at you again – sorry!) but this thing is almost totally devoid of those things. You know what it reminds me of a lot, songwriting-wise? Buffalo Springfield’s Again (their second record, not their third – okay, my metaphor fails, but you know what I mean), which was the same kind of patchwork quilt, but was the work of already mature songwriters (and several of ‘em, too!) who’d been through the folk circuit for years and knew what the fuck they were doing. Listen to the cycle that goes “Horses” > “Classical Hearts” > “Colored Emotions” and tell me that doesn’t remind you of a young Young or a still-vital Stills in places in terms of how the instruments twine together, or the way the melodies and harmonies stack (though in no ways is it a throwback – this is still defiantly, richly, wickedly modern, dammit). Mature. For sure.
Much like with Bon Iver’s albums, Colored Emotions lives or dies on what you think of singer John Pelant’s distinctive voice. I’d call it a yelp but its so much more subtle than that. It’s adenoidal, sure; throaty and war-whoopy in places, tender and aching in others, but always right at the very top of his register. If I might namecheck someone desperately unhip, I might even say he reminds me (at times! Just at times!) of a younger, pre-fame Jon Anderson – yes, the guy from Yes, but I don’t mean that remotely pejoratively, believe me. I like it – your mileage may vary, of course; but unlike Bon Iver (who, as you know, I just can’t stomach, vocally), Pelant’s voice is a rich instrument.
If the album has a downfall – and it is slight – it’s that a slight somnolence creeps into a few of the songs, when the draggy, trippy psychedelics turn momentarily into over-refined dullness in a few places. It happens, I think, somewhere in the middle of “Only A Child,” for example, which I think could have benefited from some roughness and a bit of stomp, and it happens again somewhere smack dab in the heart of “Old Friends,” which loses focus in a wash of slide guitar and banjo. But these are minor quibbles – for the most part, Colored Emotions is a multicolored patchwork quilt of an album with a rich, deep spate of influences and refined, mature songwriting characterized by remarkable melodicism and some great psychedelic arrangements. Hopefully their second album will sound like their fourth album and they’ll avoid the ever-present sophomore slump, eh? One can but hope.
Wiping Out Thousands, This Came First
This Came First, by 2013 Picked To Click top-tenners Wiping Out Thousands, is a really, really fucked up album. I mean that in a good way, natch – it’s genre-defying in a really interesting way; a strange amalgam of styles that never, thankfully, settles into cliche or falls back on Ye Olde Genre Saws to make its point. The copy I got claims it’s “electroclash,” but it doesn’t have the emotionless distance that (frequently) characterizes that genre. Lead singer Alaine Dickman sings (or doesn’t sing, at least half the time!) with a warm, childlike voice that reminds me of Björk at her least oblique, which lends a quirky, playful quality to the often throbbing, pounding, electronic sounds. Nor does it ever fall into the Nine Inch Nails “darkness” trap, which is refreshing – there are dark moments, here, and brooding bits, but it never sounds like a Parody Of Itself, or like some kind of “should be played at Ground Zero on Goofy Goff night” record. Sometimes, it sounds like Primal Scream during their mid-’90s heyday. Sometimes it sounds like Art Of Noise, or like the music that plays in the background of the disco scenes in the ’70s TV version of Buck Rogers.
You see what I mean? It’s hard to categorize, really, or describe using the usual tropes. Normally when describing an electronic album I’d reach for the Kraftwerk comparisons, drop a healthy dollop of “robotic” or “mechanical” or “icy,” mention a few songs and then head for the hills, but I can’t do that here. Because right in the middle of a particularly “mechanical, icy” bit, like in the sexy/strange/messed-up “Hips,” a Duran Duran rhythm guitar will suddenly intrude, and Alaine will coo or squeak in a weird way, and all the mechanical will disappear right out of it and it’ll sound, you know, human. Really, really interestingly human.
Musically, it’s all over the map. Sometimes it pounds brutally like an industrial group from the late ’80s, like it does on opener “More Than Five Million” (which, lyrically, sounds like it came from a poem that doesn’t fit the music – which is also strange). Sometimes it pings and pongs like a Peaches song, like it does on the less-dark-than-it-should-be “Feed.” Sometimes its hypnotic and enveloping and deeply trippy, like it is on the mostly-instrumental “Follow Me Into The Wake.” And sometimes – not often, but most interestingly, perhaps – it’s pretty and a little sad, as it is on the penultimate “Beach” and the gorgeous, enormous, apocalyptic set closer “As We Sink A Foot Deeper Into The Earth.” And somehow this all sounds perfectly stitched together, in a way that makes total sense – it’s not the least bit schizo, or nonsensical. It’s just idiosyncratic and unique, you know?
The album’s one imperfection is that the songs occasionally feel like they’re a little, well, long. I mean, it’s partly an electronic thing – you’ve developed a hypnotic groove, you wanna keep that groove going for a while, you know? But a lotta these songs feel almost like pop songs, and then sometimes they feel like they go on for a little longer than they want to and might need a little bit of judicious pruning. My call: somewhere near the beginning. They frequently seem like they take a little while to get going. Which again: I get that you’re trying to develop a hypnosis. But a little less hypnosis, a little more kick-me-in-the-ass right up atop, you know?
It hardly ruins the album, though, or even dents its impact. I’m less interested in how long these suckers are than in how interestingly they ply a genre that has become ever mired in cliche and over-twee-ness. This Came First is a heavy album, to be sure, but it’s not a dark one or a cold one or a cliched one – it’s damn fun, easy to listen to, and one of the strangest (and best!) records to become hugely popular this year. It’s a unique and interesting musical statement that definitely is far more than the sum of its influences.