Heartbreaking Bravery

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Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Album Review, Stream)

A small sampling of some excellent records to find release were already given a few posts back but to not mention the records put out by Bambara, Pole Siblings, Big Buddy, Look Vibrant, Stimmerman, No Thank Youdné, and Breakfast Muff would be doing everyone a massive disservice. All of those records are worth exploring, as always, but the record that this post’s going to focus on is one that registers as a standout for a long list of reasons: Hop Along’s breathtaking Bark Your Head Off, Dog.

Hop Along, over the course of their history, have built up a fervent following that’s greeted the band’s music as if it were their own religion. Even a cursory run through their discography would help contextualize that response, as their catalog’s full of blisteringly intense and incredibly emotional pleas, statements, and revelations. The band seems to be constantly operating in a do-or-die mode, where literally everything needs to be put on the line and defended with every last ounce of vigor the members can muster.

They’ve already put out two records that many hold as sacred, in Get Disowned and Painted Shut, virtually guaranteeing any news of new material would be greeted as an event with a capital E. A cathartic live show built and shaped by years of intense touring and the band’s proven record in studio had everyone bracing for another towering record full of the life-or-death dynamics that have become the band’s established pattern.

To their credit, Hop Along took a massive artistic risk and subverted that formula to deliver the most measured and nuanced work of their career. More impressively, they found a way to retain the level of emotional catharsis that’s earned them such a devoted following. Bark Your Head Off, Dog is an incredibly ambitious record, with things like imposing orchestral arrangements scattered throughout its runtime.

From the record’s opening track, “How Simple”, it seems as if it’ll be business as usual for a while, with the band echoing the late-career work of Rilo Kiley (another band with notable ties to Saddle Creek) but it offers glances towards something a little different. Even with that lingering sense things might be about to change, the closing minutes find room for a vintage Hop Along moment with the repeated mantra of “Don’t worry, we will find out, just not together.”

It’s at that moment that the record — and the band’s slightly revamped dynamic approach — start to click into place. Across the rest of the record, they take small risks to arrive at maximum impact, keeping the listener on their proverbial toes, causing them to lean in and invest. As a tactic, it’s incredibly effective and the band uses it masterfully throughout some of the most impressive work of their career.

Bark Your Head Off, Dog is more than just one impressive arrangement after another, though, and Hop Along grants it as much — if not more — emotional heft than either of there previous two outings. There are times where the record goes beyond feeling personal and tips into feeling like it was borne out of necessity. Thankfully, for us, we can now reap the rewards of that need with what’s bound to stand the test of time and remain one of 2018’s most incredible records.

Listen to Bark Your Head Off, Dog below and pick it up from Saddle Creek.

Anna Burch – With You Every Day (Music Video)

The opening week of April 2018 featured a host of impressive music videos from the likes of Hatchie, Eleanor Friedberger, Winter, Freedom Fry, Hinds, Remember Sports, Now, Now, Buddy, West Thebarton, LANZ, Middle Kids, Frederick the Younger, Beach House, Ladytron, Therese Lithner, MOURN, Chris Crofton, Peach Kelli Pop, Kal Marks, Kirby Forest, Bodega, and SPAER. While all of those clips are worth a look, the one that made the strongest impression was Anna Burch‘s latest impressive visual, “With You Every Day”.

Burch has made a habit of showing up in this site’s “Best Of” compilations in its interim period, notching inclusions in everything from songs to music videos to records, thanks to the considerable strength of the material connected to Quit the Curse. “With You Every Day” continues the trend in kind, scaling things back to their most minimal and direct.

It’s a hyper-stylized performance clip that makes excellent use out of its palette and Burch’s magnetic charisma and multi-faceted talents (Burch co-directed the clip with Ben Collins). Invoking or echoing everything from Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense to John Hughes films to The Hives’ notoriously meticulous control over their own visual presentation, “With You Every Day” manages to provide a refreshingly distinct modernist take on familiar influences. It’s worth every view anyone’s willing to give.

Watch “With You Every Day” below and pick up Quit the Curse from Polyvinyl here.

Winter – Ethereality (Album Review, Stream)

April’s off to an exceptionally strong start on the new records front, with Rich Girls, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Pompey, Andrew Younker, Amen Dunes, Dreamend, Paul Cherry, Goodnight, Texas, and Paperbark / r beny all turning in notable efforts. Joining their ranks is Ethereality, the latest from shoegaze-leaning pop act Winter, a solo project that’s been releasing solid records for the better part of the present decade.

Even in the context of a commendable discography, Winter’s Ethereality is a standout effort. Ten tracks of pristine, genre-hybrid high-wire acts of a balanced grace, Ethereality finds Winter — spearheaded by and named for guitarist/vocalist Samira Winter — in rare form. It’s the kind of record that washes over anyone fortunate enough to be listening, imbued with so much warmth that at times it feels like a long hug from an old friend.

All ten tracks have a collection of beautiful moments wrapped into small bursts of a contented exploration. Yes, there are times when the narrative strands of Ethereality splinter towards unsparing self-examination, awash in the kind of tacit self-awareness that keeps them from becoming too overwhelming but even then, Winter’s careful to allow room for hope.

It’s that concept of hope, whether it’s present or distant, that anchors Ethereality and transforms it from a pleasant record into a notable one. Appropriately, the record’s songs are as close to dream-pop as Winter’s ever been over the course of a record and that decision goes a long way in providing the record with its pulse. Relaxed, aware, full of well-earned knowledge, and moments of genuine beauty, Ethereality is the happy sigh after a powerful moment of clarity. It’s nothing short of a triumph.

Listen to Ethereality below and pick it up on bandcamp.

The Best Full Streams of March 2018

The closing three weeks of March unearthed a handful of extraordinary records from emergent acts and proven entities. Five of the best to find release over that time are listed below, covering a spectrum that stretches from twee-laced indie pop to uncompromising noise/punk. All of the records on display here are standouts for one reason or another and uniformly deserve more attention than they’ll get (though some will undoubtedly have very strong and vocal praise). Dive in below and enjoy the swim.

1. Empath – Liberating Guilt and Fear

A basement punk supergroup of sorts, Empath have the unlikely and unenviable task of distinguishing themselves from the shadows of the acts in the members’ collective history. Liberating Guilt and Fear goes a long way in making sure that’s achieved. Blistering, fun, and unforgiving, Empath’s versatility and ability to combine patches that seem at odds make Liberating Guilt and Fear one of the essential releases of 2018’s first quarter. Unpredictable and brilliant, it’s an EP that’s not to be missed.

2. Major Murphy – No. 1

Major Murphy‘s been around for a handful of years now but the band seems set to make a bigger push than ever with No. 1, a gently kaleidoscopic work of art that deftly combines elements of psych, powerpop, and basement punk into a hypnotic whole. Exceptional composition and production always play well off each other but it’s an especially effective combination when, as is the case here, they work in tandem to create an additional layer of depth. In all, an extremely pleasant surprise.

3. Frankie Cosmos – Vessel

Over what’s already an illustrious and surprisingly expansive career, Frankie Cosmos (both as a solo project and in full band mode) have never delivered a disappointing record. While that sort of consistency is a testament to a rare brand of prolific talent, there’s still a sliver of room allowed for something like Vessel; a record that towers above the others and visibly stands as a career high. Combining new material and reworked versions of old staples, Vessel also manages to come across as a representational statement that’s primed to resonate for years to come.

4. Charles – Charles II

One of the avenues that places like Heartbreaking Bravery are afforded is the personal submission. Far more often than not, it’s a wasteland of mediocrity that’s intended audience strays far from this site’s sensibilities. Then there are rare occasions where something like Charles’ Charles II shows up and completely justifies the hundreds of hours spent sifting through that material.

One of the most astonishing basement punk records of 2018 so far, Charles II is a tightly-controlled explosion of an EP, calling to mind the legacy of acts like Four Eyes, Dogs On Acid, and Bent Shapes. Heartbreaking Bravery was built to celebrate, support, and promote releases like this one and anytime one lands in the mailbox, it’s not just a thrill, it’s a reminder of why this place exists. So stop reading this and just hit play already.

5. Trace Mountains – A Partner To Lean On

LVL UP‘s Dave Benson has been performing as Trace Mountains for a handful of years now and already has one record that’s considering something of a bedroom pop cult classic in 2016’s Buttery Sprouts & Other Songs. A continued critical and commercial ascension for Benson’s main vehicle’s ensured an additional layer of visibility and anticipation for any work bearing the songwriter’s name but A Partner To Lean On seems to have neatly avoided any pitfalls of that pressure.

Benson subverts all sorts of expectations on A Partner To Lean On, from leaning into a new embrace of synth-pop to wildly expanding the project’s ambitions while, impressively, managing to keep the record grounded. Like Frankie Cosmos’ Vessel, Trace Mountains’ latest is an enticing mixture of new material and reworked versions of old offerings. It’s a complete work and in the record’s pitch-perfect title track, Benson crafts another viable candidate for Song of the Year.

The Best Music Videos of March 2018

March 2018 packed a hell of a punch in nearly every major musical release category, with the notable exception being music videos. There were a lot of solid clips that found release but only a scant few that managed to cross the threshold into “genuine standout” territory. Three of those are listed below, covering an intriguing range of styles. One of the young year’s best lyric clips, one of the best tracking shots, and one one of the most tonally effective clips comprise this list. Watching the trio of videos is a short journey compared to several of these lists but one that’s extremely worthwhile.

1. Peach Kelli Pop – Drug Store’s Symbol of Happiness

The concept of Peach Kelli Pop‘s “Drug Store’s Symbol of Happiness” is a simple one but its execution is so meticulously detailed and flawless, the entire affair is considerably elevated. The staging, the imagery, and the song manage to coalesce into something that feels thrillingly complete. A song is sung, a camera follows, and little slices of life flicker away in the background. It’s just a few ingredients but sometimes that’s all a capable director needs to craft one of the most magnetic clips of 2018’s first quarter.

2. Snail Mail – Pristine

Snail Mail have been riding a richly deserved wave of critical acclaim over the past year, finding clever ways to get their material a boost and making sure their live show is a next to an unmissable event. Matador Records took notice and found a way to secure the rights to the band’s upcoming record, a smart move that’s already paying dividends with the charming and characteristically lo-fi lyric video for “Pristine”, which subverts and breathes life into what’s become a needlessly restrictive format in recent times.

3. Harry Permezel – Wax Man

Typically, an act leaning heavily into influences from around two decades ago will skew closer to the likes of Built to Spill and Dinosaur Jr than Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, or Heatmiser exercising their softer tendencies. Harry Permezel’s “Wax Man” falls squarely into that latter category and the clip that’s accompanying the song is all but a portal back into that world. It’s laced with nostalgia, beautifully crafted, and immensely effective in conveying the faded sensibilities of both that era and Permezel’s own music. All told, “Wax Man” is a journey worth taking.