Lee Bozeman // The Majesty of the Flesh EP

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8.6 BEST NEW RECORD

Velvet Blue Music / 2017

Maybe one of the reasons Lee Bozeman has been preoccupied with the body over the course of his career as frontman and lyricist of Luxury is that he's felt its fragility. In the trailer for the forthcoming documentary about the band, there's camcorder video from 1995 of a battered young Bozeman laid up in a hospital bed following the horrific crash of the group's tour bus. At another moment in the trailer the band's drummer Glenn Black breaks down crying as he recounts hearing Bozeman's agonized screams as the hospital doctors went to work on him. Bozeman tells the story from a cool remove: "...almost immediately they started cutting into my sides - they were inserting chest tubes. It's a kind of unique pain that I'd never experienced before." But while the tour bus disaster might have acquainted him with the body’s capacity for pain, his new solo EP The Majesty of the Flesh dwells on another capacity: pleasure.

The Majesty of the Flesh is Bozeman's first proper solo release (all previous efforts used the moniker All Things Bright and Beautiful), and while the perennial comparisons to Morrissey and The Smiths are still apt, the EP's four diverse tracks have Bozeman operating far afield of Luxury's usual wheelhouse. "The Sound of the Orchestra" for example, builds upon a groundwork of metallic drum machine, and the gorgeous "I Am My Beloved" paints its sensuous portrait of courtship with insistent strings and a warm blur of finger-picked guitar.

An Orthodox priest now serving a parish in Waxahachie, Texas (the album cover is a shot of his green-and-gold vestments) Bozeman's meditations are vigorously Christian while being provocatively allusive - the aforementioned "I Am My Beloved" portrays the premature consummation of a marriage with metaphors that would make a florist blush: "And we married too soon/Couldn’t wait until June... The pistil is brittle, the sepal all bruised". Similarly, the EP’s bombastic post-punk title track has the artist raising a glass to Dionysian carnality ("Out in the woods in the heart of the night/Giving names to the stars in the sky/We ran in the nude/Barbarian mood!"), joyously extolling what the French call la petite mort.

But The Majesty of the Flesh’s high point is the lumbering, six-minute masterpiece “Nice Touch”, where Bozeman’s scathing assessment of the social, religious, and political landscape is wedded to the menacing groan of a saxophone and bass synth. He seems disgusted with contemporary society’s performative facade, with a world where deep convictions are donned and discarded as appearances demand (“They say that money is a nice touch/They say that outrage is a nice touch/They say that a Bible is a nice touch/You don’t need to read it, it won’t mean much”). The song's chorus is a reactionary spasm against that nihilism, a statement of hope in the sublime and the true: “But what do they know?/Maybe someone had a vision of God/What do they know?/Maybe I’m human, maybe I’m loved”. 

Bozeman finds traces of the divine in great art, too - on the same chorus, he sings “But what do they know?/Maybe someone saw Olympia”. That’s a reference to painter Édouard Manet’s famous nude, continuing the EP’s constant celebration of the physical. But it’s a celebration undercut by the body’s aforementioned fragility and its foregone doom. Even on the title track, a song about awakening anew to bodily pleasure, the coda makes its insufficiency crystal clear. The riotous guitar and drums fall away, replaced by an elegiac piano as Bozeman intones, “Oh, the majesty of the flesh... It’s an idol we made, a glorious mess” - followed by the only words there are left to say, straight from the Apostle Paul: “Who can save us from this body of death?”

Starflyer 59 // SLOW

 

8.1 BEST NEW RECORD

Tooth & Nail / 2016

Jason Martin inherited more than a line of work from his truck driver father - for 23 years now the Starflyer 59 frontman has been delivering albums with the dependability and reassuring regularity that are the profession's indispensable trademark. Now running his dad's company himself, Martin has had to become a "weekend warrior" over the last decade, ceasing live performances and working on music in his spare time. But being relegated to the weekends hasn't slowed the band's steady stream of releases, and certainly hasn't affected their quality. In fact, SLOW, the band's 14th installment, is another indication that Starflyer is at a creative peak, and the new album should gratify their hardcore fanbase while ushering plenty of newcomers into the fold, as well.

Starflyer 59 was one of the very first acts signed to the nascent Tooth & Nail Records back in 1993, and since then the band's prolific output has formed the long backbone of the label's catalog, their releases poking out like vertebrae every one or two years. The new SLOW is relentlessly nostalgic, and much of it finds Martin reminiscing on those heady days of the mid-to-late 90s when, as he sings on "Retired", "I used to be the MVP/I used to be at the center of the scene." The same song has Martin lamenting that, "...there's so much more to give/But there's so much less to live", and it's a sentiment that gets repeated over and over on the album - he's got an uneasy eye on the hourglass of his life, which was once so top-heavy but lately is getting harder and harder to knock over.

Martin isn't bitter about time's passing, he just wishes it wouldn't rush past at such a dizzying speed. SLOW's fantastic title track is the biggest departure from the established Starflyer sound - backed by a plodding slowcore beat straight out of the Low playbook, Martin looks fondly back at his life as a young husband ("Played some shows, and on the drives we thought of baby names"), then fondly again at his current state as a 43-year-old dad of three, wishing it would last forever: "My kids, they grow so fast/I want it slow/So slow".

Jason Martin has always been a musician's musician - in interviews he's even more enthusiastic about the nuts and bolts of songcraft than he is about lyrics - and SLOW's eight tracks are each immaculate pieces of work, tributes to his mastery. They're also tributes to the many styles Martin has cycled through in his career, as well as the sounds he loved as a kid. The album's first single, "Wrongtime", has strong Cure vibes, and though it's an open question when Martin will tour again (let alone play an arena), the darkwave jewel "Told Me So" has a soaring crescendo of crystalline guitar that seems tailor-made for big venues.

Other songs makes dark nods to the entropy at work in a hard-working middle-aged father's life, like "Hi/Low", where a huge, lumbering riff stomps through the center of the song and Martin groans, "The way it looks, I'm right on pace to fall apart like some weirdo". The same goes for the album's closer, "Numb", which ends the deeply nostalgic SLOW by questioning the deceptive sheen hindsight often lends to our memories: "Was it really better back then/Were there really less problems?"

In an interview with NPR leading up to the record's release, Martin made a similar observation: "You look back and think they were great times, and it's probably not true; you just remember the good stuff and shove the bad stuff in a special place. You give me another 10 years and I'll be talking, 'Oh, yeah, that SLOW era, those were such good times.'" That might be true for Jason Martin, but Starflyer 59 fans' memories would be working perfectly if they looked back on SLOW as one of the best albums the band had ever given them.

Even Oxen // Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights

 

9.1 BEST NEW RECORD

self-released / 2016

At the edges of the title track from Even Oxen's new album Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights, you can hear the rain as it beats down on the hood of Bersain Beristain's truck, where he recorded the song in a single take at 2 in the morning. It was a couple months ago in April, and the rainstorm rolling in was the first of a series that would flood his town of Houston, washing cars from highways and swallowing homes - semi-apocalyptic scenes strangely consonant with an album so fixated on the Book of Revelation. Yet instead of assuming the grimness so often associated with Revelation, Beristain explores The Apocalypse of John with wonder, adoration, and expectancy, creating a record that is remarkable not just for the audacity of its vision, but also for its purity.

22-year-old Bersain Beristain made his debut as Even Oxen last year with an uncompromisingly experimental self-titled EP, and the full-length Arrayed fulfills that promise and more, with a kaleidoscopic eight tracks that run from chamber instrumentals to tuneful freak folk to vivid experimental soundscapes. The first of those soundscapes is the album's brief opener "Our Messiah Flying with the Clouds Toward Heaven", which soundtracks the glory and terror of Christ's return with textured electric guitar submerged in a riptide of static, with dissonant squeals that recall the bracing ambient works of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.

"Our Messiah" leads directly into "Luma", a psych-folk gem that finds Beristain longing for that same return: "Jesus my Lord/If only the wait wasn't long/Or even if your Spirit would stay and sing me a song". The wild, double-tracked vocals, heavily strummed acoustic guitar and ultra-lo-fi sound here make comparisons to early-period Animal Collective easy, but it's Beristain's ear for unconventional but infectious melodies that really locates him in the lineage of Panda Bear and co.

Neutral Milk Hotel is another crystal-clear influence. The woozy love song "My, My, My" has Beristain cresting and swooping down the backs of his words, Mangum-like, while "Your Baileys of Water" barrels forward on urgent strums of speaker-blowing guitar that echo the more frantic tracks on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

If the axiom about technical constraints acting as creative fuel is true, it goes a long way toward explaining Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights' tremendous quality. Equipped with an ancient laptop that would lag and often delete portions of audio while recording, Beristain laid down half the album on his cell phone, laboriously emailing segments to himself, converting each one, and mixing on the computer. But for an album this low-tech, the sonic breadth is massive, especially on the nearly 12-minute avant-garde instrumental "The Dragon on the Shore by the Sea". Inspired by the scene with the woman and her child in Revelation 12, the track opens with a radiant bath of guitar and keys that's positively beatific, before transforming jarringly into an all-out aural assault that symbolizes the dragon's appearance and subsequent pursuit of the two. The percussion in this section - created entirely with a 5-gallon jug loaded with quarters - is brutal, and the song approaches the tooth-rattling intensity of recent Swans as it progresses, with chaotic blasts of feedback and a recorder wailing insanely in the background.

The aforementioned title track, recorded in the artist's truck during a rainstorm, ends the record. It's a raw acoustic paean that starts with Beristain lamenting his own depravity ("Never could I love a Gentile or Israel with these bones") before finding solace that "in your everlasting love/You held out your body and rose/Lifting me up to be arrayed above the seraphim lights with you" - and when he sings those last two words, "with you", his yowl is so impassioned and tremulous that you might think the tape was warping if you didn't know the recording was digital. Again, Beristain doesn't ignore Revelation's cosmic comeuppance, but it's clear that the parts of the book that fascinate him most are the mind-melting descriptions of God's glory, his holy throne room, and the ecstatic worship offered to him there. And amazingly, what he accomplishes with Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights is to bring a taste of that heavenly noise here to earth.

Wilder Adkins // Hope & Sorrow

 

8.0 BEST NEW RECORD

self-released / 2016

For music with such an easygoing sound, there is a taut balance running through Wilder Adkins' new album Hope & Sorrow. The artist's intricate finger-picked guitar dances gracefully over each track, and his lazy back-porch phrasing is eminently soothing, but it belies the tension at the heart of these twelve songs - between man and woman, between questioning and faith, between the steadfast love of God and the fickle love of man, and (of course) hope and sorrow. There's a sense of unresolve and mismatch that pervades the album - when he muses on fractured relationships with his father and brother on the title track, Adkins sings, "You are a poem that doesn't rhyme/But it is beautiful that way". 

Raised in Georgia, the now-Birmingham-based Adkins is steeped in the Southern landscape, and his songs glow with a pastoral affection that gazes not just at nature, but often through it, as a window into higher, invisible realities. As a lyricist, he's as much photographer as poet, snapping verbal Polaroids - a pail of ice, a cloud crossing the moon, cherry blossoms abloom in the backyard - and stringing them together with the accompaniment of his effusively warm folk music. 

Hope & Sorrow has a hypnotic glide to it that's reminiscent of Van Morrison, who Adkins grew up listening to. But while Morrison is known for elevating romantic love and mingling it with the heights of spiritual ecstasy, for Adkins, it's earthier and more concrete: "When I am married/There will be no magic words/There will be no transformation/Just a white-dressed girl". And while many artists are content to praise passion's intoxicating fruit (and maybe bemoan its nasty hangover), the track "Our Love Is A Garden" is a tender ode to the mundane labor of its maintenance. 

"Mecca" finds Adkins further exploring the tension between the spiritual and physical, as he gives up hope in sacred sites like the eponymous city, but finds it in moments like a shattering encounter with the Holy Spirit while in his mother's garden ("I was tangled up in vines/Sure that I would end up dead"). Other lines reference a resolute faith and a knowing distrust of the superficial: "There is no golden temple, and I have never heard you shout/But when I break the cinders open/The flames come pouring out".

The sprawling closer "Wrestle", which features members of the "East-West fusion" group Aradhna, sees the musician going electric for the only time on the record, and it's also where the tug-of-war undercurrent becomes explicit. Jacob's midnight combat with the angel of the Lord is the frame for Adkins' own struggle with the Almighty; at an impasse of faith, he resolves to stick out the night: "I won't run, I'll wrestle You." The track's second half is entirely wordless, and takes its time unspooling. And while conventional wisdom would recommend a building crescendo, Adkins wisely lets the music breathe in imitation of the song's thematic tussle, coiling itself tightly, releasing, then repeating again and again. The song, and the album itself, are reflections of a deep faith in God's goodness - that though we might fight through the night, that goodness will overpower us in the end.

Jordan Klassen // Javelin

 

8.1 BEST NEW RECORD

Nevado Music / 2016

Like a lot of people, Jordan Klassen had a rough patch in his twenties. And, like not quite so many other people, he channeled that internal chaos into music; starting in 2009 Klassen released a string of records which progressively sharpened his heart-on-sleeve lyricism as well as an ethereal sound he calls "fairy folk". 2013's Repentance, his label debut, was a thematic apotheosis as well as musical one - as the title suggests, it was the turning point in a years-long battle against depression, doubt, and existential angst.

That stormy decade behind him now, Klassen's new record finds him sailing distinctly calmer seas, but sorting through the driftwood of those past wrecks for clues to what exactly happened during those years, and why. Javelin is the sound of an artist excavating his own history - visiting a familiar nighttime spot, but returning this time with sunlight shining overhead. As he sings on album opener "Glory B", the goal is to "Hold your memory up to the light/Memory up to the light".

That need for fresh perspective informs everything about Javelin, all the way through to where and how the album was recorded; instead of tapping his usual collaborators at home in Vancouver, Klassen purposely stranded himself at El Paso's Sonic Ranch with a mountain of unfamiliar instruments and recording equipment. Alone, with absolute freedom and a personal mandate to push himself, Klassen emerged with a record that's unrecognizable to anyone familiar with his prior work, and one that sits in the sonic space between 90's new-age acts like Enya, and Paul Simon's Graceland. There are faint traces of his old sound on Javelin, but they're subsumed by a unitive pop sensibility that prioritizes rhythm and atmosphere over the narrative ethic of folk. 

As an entirely self-produced album, Javelin is impressive. The new-age aesthetic pervades but never overpowers, and Klassen conjures ear-tingling soundscapes with unorthodox instrumentation, like the cascading tropical riff on the joyous, African-influenced "St. Fraser". In lieu of an electric guitar on "Baby Moses", he runs an old synthesizer through an arpeggiator for a deliciously snarled solo, and on the same song - a baroque pop gem full of halting, seesawing strings where the singer compares his naive younger self to the oblivious infant in a river-borne basket - sparkling "My Girls" synths deck out the infectious chorus.

Klassen sees his mother, whose love of Enya was part of the album's stylistic inspiration, as its "patron saint", and her struggle with breast cancer (she's since recovered) is the subject matter of the album's most emotionally poignant track. A musician herself, she introduced him to the artform as a child, and on "Delilah", Klassen compares the biblical traitoress to the chemotherapy treatment that's sapped her strength. It's a metaphor as perfect as it is brutal: "I have seen you take the poison/Seen the hair fall from your brow".

The lyrics on "Delilah" are probably the strongest Klassen has ever written, but Javelin is nevertheless a record where the words are part of the sonic tapestry more than the primary focus - he uses them as emotional scaffolding rather than pulling a distinct narrative forward with them, and the lilting, reverb-draped vocals are often difficult to make out. Instead, individual phrases flare in the ear, like the striking, mystical wedding imagery on the luminous "We Got Married". Appropriate to an album about sifting through the past, many lines allude to intensely personal moments, disparate memories he's drawing together to form a more comprehensive map of the past. And while those moments might be superficially meaningless to us, Klassen's retrospective odyssey is intelligible thanks to the emotion in his delivery and the gratifying experimental pop the album is filled with. When he holds his "memory up to the light", it's a joy just to watch the colors dance on the wall.

The Oh Hellos // Dear Wormwood

 

8.2 BEST NEW RECORD

self-released / 2015

Brother-sister folk rock duo The Oh Hellos' 2012 debut Through the Deep, Dark Valley had a sound and an aesthetic so fully-formed it seemed like Maggie and Tyler Heath had been practicing the songs together since they were in elementary school (they hadn't). But the most shocking part was that the entire immaculate package was put together by the Heaths themselves, from writing to recording to performing to mixing and mastering. That tangible care and polish, along with the songwriting alchemy between Maggie and Tyler, spills from the very tops of their excellent follow-up, Dear Wormwood. Their layered, self-produced sound is somehow inimitable: Crystalline banjo overlays guitars, overlaying powerful drums, while fiddle and strings churn beneath it all. Before they swapped their suspenders for leather jackets, Mumford used to daydream about sounding like this.

Dear Wormwood's title is pulled straight out of The Screwtape Letters, and it's not the first time ol' Clive Staples has gotten a nod from the band - the gorgeous "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb" from Deep, Dark Valley referenced a scene from Narnia's Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This time, they've taken Screwtape's central conceit - letters written by a veteran demon to a trainee tempter - and repurposed it as framing device for the whole record. According to the Heaths, the LP is "a collection of letters, all written by a single protagonist and addressed to a single recipient", though they're cagey about specifics beyond that, though they also assert that Dear Wormwood acts as a second volume to the tale told in Deep, Dark Valley, picking up where its protagonist's story left off. Like that album, the narrative is loose, and even more so here because of the epistolary nature of each track. Still, there are clear themes threaded the whole way through, and an emotional arc that gives the yarn staying power for a listener who's tuned in.

Kicking off the album after a brief prelude, "Bitter Water" paints a lurid, can't-look-away picture of the addictive relationship at its center, with the protagonist's willful engagement despite full knowledge of the correspondent's homicidal intentions: "I am not a fool entire/No, I know what is coming/You'll bury me beneath the trees I climbed/When I was a child". That decadent status quo doesn't stay for long, though. Dear Wormwood hits all the beats of a break-up album, oscillating between tender nostalgia and acid barbs as the central relationship reveals itself as a clever inversion of the one at the center of Screwtape: instead of letters addressed to a junior devil from his senior, these are glimpses of a mortal having it out with his tormentor.

By the time the incredible title track rolls around, the hero is sprinting, fast, away from his torturer. But as all addicts know, it's one thing to run from your demons, and another to turn and face them. "Dear Wormwood" is a cry of open revolt, but even more importantly, of recognition. It's the moment when he finally unmasks the shadowy thing vandalizing his heart ("I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy"), and the chorus that accompanies it is truly stirring. It's a rib-rattling, pupil-dilating anthem on the level of Arcade Fire's best work like "Wake Up" and "No Cars Go", and stands as the band's new highwater mark, which is really saying something because they'd set some rather lofty ones already.

Dear Wormwood's closing track ends the story on a note of expectant hope, casting its eyes forward, to the Resurrection and the renewal of all things. It's clear that a divorce has taken place between the characters ("To and fro, I will not follow/Where you go, I will not also"), but the protagonist still dreams that the broken part he left behind will find redemption, too: "Will you leave your shaded hollow?/Will you greet the daylight looming/Learn to love without consuming?". The song's title, "Thus Always to Tyrants", is perfectly chosen, too. That reference, to a quote attributed to Brutus (often depicted as full of love for his friend Julius Caesar, even while participating in his murder) perfectly capture the tension within the main character. Namely, it's a relief to kill the mental persona that has been wreaking havoc in your life, but we still hold out hope that these wretched, deformed aspects of ourselves will be included in the comprehensive Healing to come.

Liz Vice // There's a Light

 

8.0 BEST NEW RECORD

Ramseur Records / 2015

Thank God for church choirs. Sure, they're a haven for singers who don't have a shot elsewhere, but without them we wouldn't have Liz Vice. Sitting in the pew at Door of Hope church in Portland, she heard the still small voice telling her to try out for the worship band. Though until then her singing had been limited to private venues like the shower, she was a hit at church and quickly started working with her pastor Josh White on extraecclesial activity through his Deeper Well Collective. In 2013, they recorded a ten-song LP she thought would be a quick diversion from her filmmaking career. Instead, the album resonated so powerfully and has gained such steady buzz that Ramseur Records snapped her up and re-released There's a Light nationally last week.

Part of that buzz comes from Leon Bridges, this year's retro-gospel golden boy, who's been vocal on social media about his love of Vice's music. There's significant common ground between Leon and Liz - both were unfamiliar with classic gospel until they somehow found themselves making it. And Bridges' backing band, White Denim, played a similar role to the one Josh White has in Vice's career, recognizing a serious talent and pushing to collaborate on a record together. 

White wrote and produced every song on There's a Light, and they have the same straightforward lyrical efficiency that defined his own solo album from last year. That's for the best, because Vice imbues them with such power that frills would just be a distraction. His work behind the boards recalls Jeff Tweedy's recent production for Mavis Staples, bringing a crisp indie rock jangle to the vintage sound. Vice's doesn't just stay in the gospel wheelhouse, though - There's a Light dips into several other genres including soul, R&B, and funk, and far from sounding like the greenhorn she is, she's eminently at-home in each one.

The slow-burner "Abide" kicks the album off with a bass groove so deep it's practically subterranean, and Vice's voice has a natural ease to it as she paints a picture of the church leaving its wordly hopes by the wayside for its imperishable hope in Christ. And on the next track, a thumper called "Empty Me Out" (which features an excellent Hammond organ solo in its last thirty seconds), the surrender is even more intense. She asks the Lord to scrape her heart out like a dirty dish to make more room for Jesus: "Empty me out, fill me with You/Lord, there is nothing I can give to You".

In a recent interview with NPR, Vice recounted the first time she soloed at her church: drenched in sweat, heart hammering and pores gasping, she realized, "This must be how James Brown feels." Her affinity with the Grandmaster goes further than that - "Truly Today" has a seriously funky Wurlitzer lick on it that would get the toes of a paralytic moving. The same goes for "Pure Religion", which is anchored by a dirty garage-blues guitar that sounds like a fifty-pound bumblebee. Nearly every track on There's a Light has one one of these distinctive hooks, and it makes for a record that quickly carves its way into your mind.

The whole thing was recorded on analog tape, which Vice makes rattle and fuzz when she really lets loose on the title track, "There's a Light". With bare-bones percussion and guitar, it smacks of early White Stripes, and Josh White wisely lets her voice make its own case. It pays off, and the song stands as one of the LP's most memorable moments. The other one is "All Must Be Well", where the organ, keys, and whole rest of the band pile up on the cathartic climax as Vice lets herself falls headlong into the peace that passes understanding: "On the Father's love relying/Jesus every need supplying/Whether living or in dying".

The particular grace that comes from facing mortality point blank and still trusting God is all over Liz Vice - she got a death sentence at fifteen when she developed an auto-immune disease. A kidney transplant saved her life years later, but when she sings, it sounds like she's always got a grin on her face, as if she's just been healed (watching an interview with her bears that suspicion out). That joy isn't rooted in herself, though. Rather, it comes from unshakable faith in the deep, deep love of God, which is something you can't fake, no matter how good it makes your music sound. 

Team Callahan // Afterglow

 

8.0 BEST NEW RECORD

Regular Bear Records / 2015

Astute listeners would be forgiven for double-taking on their first listen to Team Callahan: "Wait, where are these guys from? I thought it said Denver..." With a little digging, they'd learn that Nick and Kathleen Arnal are recent transplants from St. Petersburg, Florida, which explains what in the world these Coloradoans are doing making this sun-soaked sand dune surf pop. The husband-and-wife duo completed Afterglow before they made the move, and it's a chronicle of their first year of marriage and all its attendant joy, pain, and responsibility.

Musically, the record is cut from the same beach towel as Best Coast and Girls, with wild shoots of twanging riffs and tambourine rattles springing from a '60s pop foundation. "Point Doom" opens the record at full sprint, with a cyclone of surf guitar and an incandescent performance by Kathleen Arnal, whose affect recalls Cherie Currie's girlish swagger. She handles lead vocals on every Team Callahan song, and her dexterity and winning persona are what make their capable sound exceptional. She's a natural frontwoman with charisma to burn, and her huge tangle of blonde hair lends her something like Victoria Legrand's shaggy mystique.

That relation to Beach House isn't isolated - Afterglow has several tracks that seem to be channel their hazy, opulent dream pop. The most striking of these is the magic-hour melancholy of "Mammoth Cave" where, shut out of the boys' club, Kathleen wrings every atom of emotion from the lines, "I wanted to marry my best friends, but they didn't want to marry me/So I get my love from Jesus while I'm sippin' on green tea". Subsisting on divine love instead of frail human affection is a major theme on the record. Illusions of marital bliss on "Milk Glass" "turn to ash, fast/Thank God for eternity", and the same song fingers our age's spiritual starvation, skewering the soft nihilism that's in vogue: "He said that everything is nothing/That sentence doesn't have a start".

The Arnals' new marriage forms the backdrop for Afterglow, but these aren't myopic love songs. Instead, the insights are mostly practical and mundane - a grimy first apartment, sorting out insurance, and feeling like old people staying in while your single friends are out living it up. "You're a weekend hot shot/and I'm a weekend fool", goes the chorus on the riotous, shambolic gem "Weekend Hot Shot". It affectionately lionizes a friend as the hedonist king of the party circuit, but the bombastic handclaps and oo-oo-oohs are stopped short by the reminder, "We will get older, our good times much slower, and some day we will die."

That sentiment about the fickleness of "the good life" forms Afterglow's thematic backbone - like the firework on the album cover, youth burns brief and bright before snuffing out forever. Luckily, it's just a spark from a greater Light. The Exodus imagery on "Lions" pinpoints God's eternal inferno as the source of true happiness that's always worthy of pursuit ("Seek the fire in the desert/The big-hearted pillar in the sky"), and on "Fable", where Kathleen's words linger reluctantly behind Nick's softly pulsing guitar, she contends, "This world's a shadow of the next."

That new world to come, along with the redemption of the present one, is the focus of the eight-minute title track that closes the record. Like the album as a whole, "Afterglow" would be served by some judicious editing (with a runtime pushing an hour, a couple of the LP's songs don't justify themselves), but the cascade of harmonies in its crescendo are tough to get out of your head. Not only that, but the song's beatific picture of the Second Coming, with the "jealous rose risen on high", points to a near future where joy isn't always followed by grief, and heaven and earth are lit in permanent afterglow.

The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers // Heavenly Fire

 

8.3 BEST NEW RECORD

Ba Da Bing Records / 2015

The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers had their genesis in an LA living room, where church friends gathered to play old-timey gospel music together. They certainly tapped into something, because they drew other players in like a tractor beam. Eventually the music grew so big it leaked, then burst out of the living room and onto the stage. Now, after five years and a pair of EPs, they've released their debut full-length, Heavenly Fire, and it's an absolute barnburner.

The Gospel Singers' sound is deeply rooted in the past - they have special affection for American religious music of the '30s, '40s, and 50's, and it sounds like they've been stewing in compilations like Goodbye, Babylon til the spirit of the era's black gospel and Appalachian folk is deep into their bones. Even so, this traditional music is founded on the rock - indie rock, that is. That anchoring sensibility might not be immediately apparent, but there's a driving, kick drum-powered energy wedded to the traditional sound that brings it to hair-raising life. 

The other element that keeps The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers flying so high is the twin-prop combo of lead vocalists Will Wadsworth and Kim Garcia. On Heavenly Fire, Wadsworth plays crazed hillbilly preacher à la Brother Claude Ely with conviction, and Garcia brings hurricane-force passion to every line she sings. When she warns "I have walked on the edges of sane/Fear my honesty/Fear his reign" on opener "Little Light", you believe her on all counts. 

Songwriting is divvied between a number of individual members of The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers, so there's a unique lyrical flavor to each of the tracks here. But putting musical meat on those bones is a group effort, and the band brings a wealth of ingenuity and talent to bear on a wide variety of roots styles.

Scripture is the obvious and recurrent inspiration for many of these songs. "Stephen" canonizes the first martyr all over again with the accompaniment of a galloping Memphis rock-and-roll rhythm, and "MMLJ" takes its acronym title from the gospel writers with the memorable declaration, "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that's where I get water from." It's on these two tracks in particular where Heavenly Fire's unique recording method really shines - almost every song was recorded with the choir horseshoed around a single microphone tracking straight onto magnetic tape. There's a distinct warmth thanks to the analog setup, and because many of the parts are double-tracked, the sound is simply massive - the foot-stomps are like thunderclaps, the handclaps like cracking tree trunks. 

"Meet Me" is a sassy kiss-off to the material world in general, and romance in particular ("I don't need your love/I don't need your touch/I don't need your hand/I'm gonna walk with Jesus") before it morphs into a preemptive obituary, announcing death to everything but the Lord. The defiant tone continues on "No Apologies", where Garcia dares listeners to "Declare your doubt and mock me/And tell me Jesus, he is not the way."  The song is Heavenly Fire's biggest step outside of the ancient gospel style, with cues from The Black Keys' brand of Southern-fried blues rock. It's got the momentum of a freight train behind it as the choir wails, "We, we, we, we're gonna break every chain/We're gonna raise up our hands to the sky". 

The breaking of chains and shedding of burdens is the through-line of The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers' music. When asked in an interview where songwriting inspiration comes from, Wadsworth replied, "Honestly, pain is a huge inspiration. If I don't feel like I am crying something out and relieving myself of some kind of burden in a song, then I don't usually bring it to the band." Like so much of the music that inspired it, Heavenly Fire is suffused with that almost dangerous spiritual catharsis, and the result is intoxicating. Gospel was birthed from anguish, desperation, and ecstatic joy, and The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers prove that as there's no shortage of them in the world today, the music remains as riveting and vital as ever.

mewithoutYou // Pale Horses

 

8.7 BEST NEW RECORD

Run for Cover / 2015

"Do you believe in God?"

That was the first thing Aaron Weiss' father said to any new friend he brought over when he was growing up, the mewithoutYou frontman told Why?'s Yoni Wolf in an interview last year. Then he'd ask for their address and send them mailings from the Sermon on the Mount, the Torah, or the Qur'an. According to Weiss, his father never fully subscribed to a particular creed, but he was fixated on what God's existence demanded of humankind. He passed that fixation on to his son, too. Drawing on his braided-thread background of Judaism, Sufism, and now Christianity, it's been the through-line of mewithoutYou's output over the last 13 years.

Conventional wisdom until recently was that the mewithoutYou's discography was a straightforward progression from hard to soft - the harsh, messy hardcore of 2002 debut [A→B] Life gradually morphed into the full-on folk of It's All Crazy... in 2009. But the band shifted gears on 2012's difference-splitting Ten Stories, and now with the aggressive Pale Horses, the band's trajectory looks bent like a parabola. Pale Horses dispenses with the horns and accordion, stripping coats of paint from the band's sound for a return to the churning post-hardcore of Catch For Us the Foxes.

That move is accompanied by a change-up in the production room, too. Daniel Smith of Danielson recorded the band's last two LPs, and while the freak-folk musician was the perfect choice to highlight their acoustic elements, on Ten Stories he failed to do justice to the heady power of mewithoutYou's harder side on tracks like "February 1878". For Pale Horses, punk producer Will Yip's treatment pulls the drum and bass grooves to the fore again and captures the lightning-in-a-bottle of their more primordial energies.

Michael Weiss, Rickie Mazzotta, and Greg Jehanian (plus new addition Brandon Beaver) deserve huge praise, but Aaron Weiss has always been the ingredient that makes mewithoutYou exceptional. He's famous for his vivid, hyperliterate lyrics and a knack for existential couplets that stick in the mind like a splinter. They're delivered in an odd canter that makes listeners crane in to hear the murmurs nestled between a detached sing-song and throat-splitting screams. Those screams are back in full force on this record, too - the incredible "Red Cow" has one of Weiss' most arresting and unhinged performances ever.

Even a cursory listen reveals that Pale Horses is preoccupied with decline, destruction, and the end. The end of the world, sure, but also the end of a life (his father's), the end of celibacy (Aaron's - he recently wed), and the end of the band. It's fitting that the album opener sounds like a funeral march, or maybe a distress flare illuminating the night sky before drifting back to the ocean and extinguishing forever. Aaron's professorship at Temple University in Philadelphia conflicts with the demands of a full-time band, and he sounds surprised to find himself still performing in mewithoutYou: "A few more songs, a few mores lines. I thought I'd left that all behind".

On Ten Stories, Weiss externalized his contradictory philosophical inclinations into a tiger, an elephant, and a bear, then watched them play out in the aftermath of a circus train crash. Pale Horses dives back inward, and the relocated perspective reveals a mind steeped in Abrahamic religion but always second-guessing it. No one is spared this withering eye, especially not Aaron himself. He castigates his own tendency toward rigidity and black-and-white religious thinking - "I was the ISIS flag design" - but remains skeptical of utopian secularism: "how long before our tails are caught by our 'free' thought?".

That lack of faith in humanity's endless ascent and innate goodness shows up again on one of the album's more serene tracks, the gleaming "Magic Lantern Days". Technological power here is a looming menace, not a miracle - nuclear subs swim the ocean as "android whales", and Weiss ironically transposes a traditional Sacred Harp chorus to hallow the birth of the Bomb instead of the infant redeemer. It's one of several acknowledgments of the thin line between God's judgement and humanity's comeuppance at its own hands - or is there a line? As Weiss sings on album closer "Rainbow Signs": "G-d gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, is the H-bomb next time?"

That final track is the one place where the excellent Pale Horses really edges into new sonic territory. It's the heaviest song they've yet recorded, and the sludgy guitars tower like a sun-blotting mountain as Weiss unleashes an avalanche of apocalyptic imagery straight out of Revelation - seals are opened, continents are torn from their foundations, and the sky rolls back like a scroll. But its barely audible coda is the most piercing. Weiss' father died five years ago, but he appears in a dream where the two have merged and walk around together in Aaron's sandals, holding hands using Aaron's own hands, sharing a private joke we're never let in on. On an album concerned with so many different kinds of death, it's a modest nod to an afterlife, the one lived inside of us by those who have passed on.