by Jon Hunt
Why, people ask, have you not written a single negative review of a local record recently? Are you some kind of shill? Some kind of overly-positive, grinning freak clutching a copy of Free To Be…You And Me to your twee little chest and talking about how negativity brings down your karma, man? My answer: no and hell no (well, the bit about the karma, anyway – I do occasionally clutch Free To Be…You And Me to my chest). There have been some god-damn great local records this year. It’s that simple. If I stumble across one I hate, trust me, I’m gonna call it like it is (or just ignore it entirely, more likely – which probably means the tumble of positivity will continue unabated – to the naked eye, anyway, you will know different). In the meantime, friends and dear readers, let the cascade of awesome local rock continue!
Solid Gold, Eat Your Young
I was literally (well, virtually) the only person in town who didn’t buy into the Gayngs hype of a couple years ago. I say this not as a point of pride, but as a badge of shame – reasonable, sane people whose taste I respect and admire thought it was the best thing since penicillin, and to me it simply sounded like soporific frippery with zero emotional weight. I realized at some point that the problem rested with me, not with Gayngs (well, at least probably), and learned to live with it – at the same time admiring, if nothing else, the brilliant playing and singing on the thing, especially from Zach Coulter and Adam Hurlbut of the excellent Solid Gold. That band’s 2008 debut, Bodies of Water, was more my speed – an all-over-the-map amalgam of moody electronic indie and pure dance floor cool that I totally dug.
Their newest, Eat Your Young, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Sounding like the work of one band rather than several schizophrenic entities, it’s a far darker, bleaker affair than Bodies*; still sporting a touch of dance floor blood-n-guts but bolstered by smoother, darker, more supple sounds and a decidedly chilly and angular sensibility. Coulter’s ethereal voice is still a highlight – not as squeaky as Justin Vernon but operating in that same tonal range, floating over the affair in glorious harmonic blocks. Eat Your Young is a slow burn, starting with the folkish acoustic strumming of “Shock Notice” before settling into the moody “Six Days.” The danceable rock doesn’t hit until the Roxy Music-quoting “Nice Flight” (the best song on the album and hopefully a huge hit), and it only sticks around briefly: “All The Way Until It Stops” is an eerie Portishead-ish number, and the title track is an ominous, groovy thing that could have lived on an early Talking Heads album. The album rounds out with the sinewy stomp of “Elephants” and the pulsating weeper “In The Hollows.”
In other words: if you’re expecting more of the same from Bodies, don’t – this is far closer to Gayngs’ mellowisms, but with a ton more heart. Where Gayngs seemed to me to be a mere exercise in mood creation, though, a kind of “let’s get together and see how ironically smooth we can make this,” Eat Your Young seems possessed of some genuine emotion; a moody, slightly wistful darkness that reminds me a lot of post-punk-psych records from the mid-’80s (too mellow for the Bunnymen, but imagine a more electronic Church, or an OMD with a serious crying jag). It’s a lovely record, thrilling in places and hypnotic in others, and always highly melodic and listenable. A logical and fascinating evolution, frankly; a great step forward from indie-dance-pop into something more interesting/important than that. And far more, thankfully, than the sum of its parts. I’m calling it, even though I’m the last guy you should ask: better than Gayngs.
Over a series of ever-better EPs last year, BNLX plied leader Ed Ackerson’s new agenda: a welding of bone-crunching, head-pummeling punk to a kind of angular, electronic-fuelled post-punk sensibility and, as the EPs increased in number, the appealing melodicism of Ackerson’s former outfits, Polara and the 27 Various. So it should come as no surprise that their excellent full-length LP, self-titled but with a photo of Ackerson’s Boston Terrier Wiggy on the sleeve, is the most melodic of all, almost a return to Polara’s full-blown pop-isms, but with an ever-increasing Joy Division/New Order influence that creates a super-appealing sound, both accessible and experimental. But worry not: it still crushes heads where it needs to.
My favorite songs, natch, are the catchiest ones – I adore “Vibrant,” propelled by Ashley Ackerson’s Pete Hook bassline, a burbling synth and a terrific series of hooks. “1929” is a magnificent call-and-response that sports a terrific chorus (and I think it’s hilarious that after songs about 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999 someone’s finally thrown down for ’29 – the great depression thanks you, I guess?). I love “Everything Must Go,” too, which has those cool male/female octave vocals that the Go-Betweens used to ply to great effect, and the super-cool “Got Nothing On You,” which flirts with being – gasp – pretty in places. There’s still plenty of buzzy punk rock, here, too. “Devil You Know” almost careens out of control on an eastern-sounding snake-charmer riff, and “Message From HR” is the kind of shouty minimalist fuzz-fest that wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, a mid-period Ministry album. And “Mixtape” is absolute chaos; a noisy, fucked-up, all-over-the-place guitar destruction that sounds a hell of a lot like Sonic Youth in their ’90s mode.
My biggest complaint about the EPs last year was that they were too brief – they barely had time to create a mood before they were, you know, over. BNLX doesn’t have this problem. There’s a super-listenable flow to the thing: like Ackerson’s very best records (the Various’ Up, Polara’s first and last LPs) it knows perfectly how to create and sustain moods; when to lull and when to pummel. And there’s no fluff, either (apart from a couple of brief, funny bits that lead into a couple of songs) – this thing is rock solid top-to-bottom. BNLX is the perfect amalgam of the sour and the sweet – a melodic, hook-fueled record that also knows full well how to headbang like a goddamn mid-’80s punk rock kid on speed. And that ain’t no bad thing.
Katy Vernon, Before I Forget
As a member of the eternally underrated Camdens, Katy Vernon’s super-sweet soprano sat atop songwriter Scott Walker’s britpop-fuelled folkisms perfectly. What a lovely surprise, then, that her self-penned (and Kickstarter-funded!) solo material is in a completely different vein. Before I Forget, bolstered by Vernon’s ukelele playing, could come from an entirely different century, sounding at times like some unknown folk record from the 1920s, recorded in the Kentucky backwoods and discovered on a crackly old ’78 in your garage, and at times like Band-esque country folk. It’s a lovely, sweet record, with only a hint of nostalgic sadness underneath Vernon’s ebullient and very pretty songs.
One thing it doesn’t sound is remotely British, which is interesting, as Vernon is UK-born – Before I Forget sounds positively American, alternating between old-timey uke tunes (which I guess sound a bit music-hall-y, at a pinch) and twangy country with all the trappings (fiddles, echo-laden guitar, et al). I love opener “Peter,” a sprightly, harmonica-laden stomper, and the delightfully lilting “Wasting Time,” which reminds me a hell of a lot of LA songwriter Lorene Scafaria (whose music featured in “Whip It,” and who also wrote the Christ-awful “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” but don’t hold it against her). I also dig the twangier moments, such as the super-pretty “Grey Sky” and the sweetly heartbreaking “Wish You Were Here.”
As I mentioned, this is a happy record – not saccharine, or over-sweet, really, but happy. Even the saddest bits hold only the slightest ache in them, bosltered by hope and redemption – “Fade Away,” for example, talks about disappointment but offers a silver lining – “I have a voice,” she says, “don’t let me fade away.” If you’re looking for a weeper, look elsewhere. There’s nothing remotely wrong with that, though: not every record needs to be dark, or bleak, or hopeless. Before I Forget is simply lovely; a celebratory, timeless, old-timey romp yes, romp, you heard me), the kind that doesn’t get made anymore, really. If you’re looking for a great record for a sun-dappled fall drive, this is your monster, my friends.