silver torches – “if i reach”

– featured image courtesy of chona kasinger –

when he’s not touring with perfume genius or david bazan, erik walters perches at the helm of silver torches, a seattle-based outfit that traverses through an indie-rock heartland.  after unfurling their debut album, heatherfield, last year, walters and company will return with a follow-up, let it be a dream, on october 6th.

if heatherfield could be characterized by its crystalline guitar-based architecture, then it’s conceivable that let it be a dream will tack on a facade of synthesizers to this foundation.  lead single “if i reach” threads a brassy synth line through its introduction and choruses, adding a degree of majesty to a lyrical body strewn with ruminations on divisiveness.  walters is melancholic in delivery, his cadences buoyed by acoustic strums that crest into soaring refrains.

if “if i reach” is any indication, let it be a dream will be an indispensable resource come early fall.  listen in below.

 

alabama shakes – sound & color

out april 21st via ato/rough trade records
out april 21st via ato/rough trade records

alabama shakes becomes an entirely different entity when brittany howard opens up the peak of her vocal range on “future people.”  the quartet played things relatively close to the chest musically on 2012’s boys & girls and on the first chunk of their follow-up album, sound & color, but “future people” marks the band’s coming-of-age.  busting down such a significant barrier in such a simple, direct manner is in line with the bravado alabama shakes has displayed in the past, and it’s the kickstart they needed to begin cultivating their true, original sound.

boys & girls glaringly reflected the environment alabama shakes was bred from, but the album simultaneously underscored an incredible penchant for powerful songwriting; it just needed time to grow naturally and to be gradually coaxed out.  as always, howard’s lyrics are captivating and her vocals high-octane, but she exercises a bit more restraint on sound & color that allows for a wider long-term contrast.  she reins in her falsetto on the mostly-acoustic ballad “this feeling,” and this volume level lends itself well to the contemplative nature of the subdued subsequent track “guess who.”  gone is the propensity to bare all for as long as possible before quickly pausing to recover; howard now uses a plethora of vocal timbres – and benefits from new instrumental ones – to convey exponentially more emotions.

the extended vibraphone introduction on “sound & color” is the first indicator of the album’s expanded palate, though it initially presents as an anomaly, quickly displaced and overshadowed by the sonic familiarity of “don’t wanna fight” and “dunes.”  that’s why “future people” is so critical; not only does it signify howard’s vocal renaissance, but it lays the groundwork for the band’s inclusion of tangential sounds.  zac cockrell’s bass playing is felt heavily across the entire album, though his presence is most commanding on “future people,” where he squelches out subterranean notes with fervor, and the song introduces alabama shakes’ newfound use of the hammond organ as the primary chordal instrument in the band.

this gradual embracement of supplemental instruments (keyboards, mallet percussion, strings) as harmonic and counter-melodic sources allows each core member of the band more leeway to expand their own roles.  howard and fellow guitarist heath fogg can still churn out power chords like nobody’s business (“the greatest”), but sound & color increasingly finds them padding already-thick textures with arpeggios and scorching melodies, an extension of the interplay that existed on their debut.  steve johnson’s drumming is vastly improved overall; he dictates the structure of the numerous ballads that litter the album, the most important being the dynamic shifts in “gimme all your love,” and his command of syncopation and ability to manipulate beat placement gives songs like “over my head” a dimension that was absent throughout much of boys & girls.

sound & color is an incredibly self-aware album, one that shows that the shakes know they can’t afford to play it safe, even in the mainstream rock community that has feverishly absorbed the band and placed it on a pedestal.  rather than simply paying homage to their myriad progenitors, alabama shakes have instead found a way to incorporate a multitude of sounds and toe the line with innovation, though they have yet to put significant distance between themselves and commonplace revivalists.  archetypes of each genre visited are referenced, not exploited, but this collage feels steeped in familiarity at critical moments, relying on the blues tropes in “don’t wanna fight” and “gimme all your love” to both hold the album together and to drive it home.  sound & color ultimately may not be the band’s definitive offering, but it certainly lays the groundwork for a potential masterpiece.

7.3/10

cloud nothings – here and nowhere else

when i first heard cloud nothings’ tremendous third album, attack on memory, dylan baldi’s screeches of “i thought i would be more than this” resonated incredibly with my nineteen year-old state of mind.  the album soon became the soundtrack to my 2012, its raw dissonance juxtaposed with hook-laden gems like “stay useless” and “our plans.”  still, the overall darkness in mood of attack on memory, coupled with the increased abrasiveness of instrumentation, all but erased the breezy bedroom pop aesthetic baldi had cultivated on cloud nothings’ first two records, leaving the trajectory of their subsequent output open-ended.  on here and nowhere else, baldi arrives somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, resulting in the band’s most polished sound to date.

baldi’s detractors frequently cited his sub-par vocal delivery as the band’s main pitfall throughout attack on memory, and while opinions on the effect of his raw voice are entirely subjective, it’s worth noting that his voice is unquestionably at its best on here and nowhere else.  he’s in tune and more articulate, and songs like “just see fear” have moments of sheer melodic beauty.  at the same time, baldi is even more punishing and menacing than he was on cloud nothings’ last album; guttural screams emit towards the end of “just see fear,” and the repetition of the word “swallow” on “giving into seeing” sounds tortured yet purposeful.  overall, baldi the singer is very much in the foreground of the songs on here and nowhere else, putting emphasis on the last refined element of the band’s sound.

cloud nothings slimmed down to a power trio before heading into the recording studio, but the absence of a second guitarist seems to cause no problems.  jayson gerycz is an unstoppable force of nature behind a drum kit; in the early days of the band, his presence was almost comical at times, but his relentless technique mirrors and personifies the cacophony cloud nothings has perfected.  here and nowhere else doesn’t stop for a breather throughout much of its duration, with gerycz flirting with the front of each beat and bassist t.j. dukes dutifully following his example.  the songs largely return to a more structured pop formula that aided baldi’s ascension from anonymity; “patterned walks” is the only clear outlier, drawing on the expanded structure of “wasted days,” but songs like “now here in” and “psychic trauma” are upbeat and irresistible, with only hints of the post-apocalyptic dissonance that permeated attack on memory.

baldi’s prowess as a songwriter and guitarist has only grown over time; he handles all of the six-string chores on here and nowhere else, creating a thick, distorted tone befitting of the old punk bands he frequently name-checks in various interviews.  the final song on the album, “i’m not part of me,” might just be the band’s best to date, and it’s telling that they saved it for last.  from the outset of the first chord in his progression, baldi reminds everyone of his talent, fitting a subtle melodic line into the harmony.  his voice is comparatively calm for the most part, and his proclamation of “i’m not telling you/all i’m going through” seems to echo the ethos of the entire album: the dark undertones are still there, but they’re more reserved and less prone to explicit despair and self-deprecation.  here and nowhere else doesn’t quite match attack on memory in terms of raw emotion – few records ever will – but its songs continue to sculpt baldi into a fiercely formidable presence still very much capable of writing acutely polarizing and meaningful lyrics.

9.0/10