Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Album Review

Dentist – Night Swimming (Album Review, Stream)

Dentist‘s name has been appearing on this site for a few years now, suggesting they’re capable of the kind of longevity most bands covet. Night Swimming, the band’s most recent album, stands as their strongest — and biggest — moment to date. Operating in the intersection between power pop and basement punk, the band’s crafted a rich, engaging work that plays to their formidable abilities as songwriters.

“Upset Words” and the title track constitute the 1-2 combo that opens Night Swimming, making the band’s penchant for hooks. dynamics, and intuitive structuring incredibly evident. It’s a combination that also familiarizes the uninitiated with Dentist’s approach, which is to pitch their work at a low-key level, opting for the kind of songwriting that draws in listeners gradually and envelops them over time. The beauty of Dentist’s work is that it barely requires patience; all of these songs register as works of understated brilliance on first listen.

From front to back, Night Swimming operates within those guidelines and works its way to an enchanting whole. It’s the kind of record no one wants to stop playing or skip through, choosing instead to revel in the smallest details. The mid-fi production accentuates the material nicely, presenting Dentist as they are: at a crossroads between their DIY roots and the increasingly tangible possibility that their work could elevate them to a recognition that vastly exceeds their earliest ambitions.

Here’s hoping this is the record that guides them to that breakthrough.

For now, just lean back and enjoy one of the best basement pop releases 2018 will have to offer.

Listen to Night Swimming below and pick up a copy here.

Clearance – At Your Leisure (Album Review, Stream)

Few bands can maintain consistency at a high level and evolve within those parameters. We’ve seen some of the biggest bands fall pray to their own hubris in unsuccessful reinventions and some smaller bands discover confidence that they didn’t realize they had after expanding their ambitions and embracing plunges into unfamiliar terrain. While Clearance doesn’t tip towards either extreme, At Your Leisure firmly suggests they may be headed towards the latter.

The band’s earlier works earned them a lot of comparisons to Pavement and those comparisons were legitimate and justifiable (which isn’t always the case when that name gets thrown out). At Your Leisure finds Clearance presenting a more confident version of themselves, a look that pays immediate dividends. The arrangements are more nuanced and the records stands as their most cohesive effort to date. While their past work still merits applause and investment, they’ve clearly hit another level.

Leaning significantly harder into jangle pop sensibilities, Clearance still holds their slacker punk roots firmly in place, allowing them to ground an incredibly winsome effort. Every song on At Your Leisure is one that’s allowed — and encourages — a patient growth, something that’s reflective of the band’s own evolution. While there are some head-turning moments scattered throughout the record (the chorus on “Destination Wedding” being the first of a handful), there’s never a cheap attempt at something designed for immediate, attention-ensnaring impact.

By utilizing a meditative pace and allowing their songs to breathe, Clearance unearth a way to provide an overarching texture on At Your Leisure that’s both fascinating and relatively uncommon. There are peaks and valleys throughout the album, to be sure, but they all act in the service of a greater whole rather than as a way to elevate an individual set piece. “Had A Fantastic” is the only track that comes close to breaking that form, which is likely why it was released as an advance single; the song’s urgency and insistence inject a significant amount of life into the record but can easily stand as a self-sustaining track when removed from the record and placed on a mix — yet it still provides the pacing of At Your Leisure with a necessary kick that benefits the material that comes before and after its appearance.

None of the tracks on At Your Leisure are dull and every facet of the release seems to have been provided with a fair amount of thought. All of those elements work in its favor, allowing the record an intoxicating appeal as a legitimate record. Not a singles collection. Not a greatest hits. Not a record that was padded out. Not a record that was designed to serve a purpose beyond its existence. At Your Leisure is a true version of the classic record; a welcome curiosity in a shifting landscape that’s all but eliminated its ilk. That alone is worthy of praise. Fortunately, for everyone, the music more than backs it up.

Sit with this one. Give it room to breathe. Get lost in its spell. Then do it all over again and get inspired to make a record the way a record should be made.

Listen to At Your Leisure below and pick it up from Topshelf here.

Two Weeks, Three Records

In nearly every two week run this year, it seems like there’s been a record that’s posed a legitimate threat to crack a handful of year-end lists. It’s been true from literally the opening seconds of 2018, which saw the surprise release of Jeff Rosenstock‘s exceptional POST-. While there have been a few lulls in select spots, that intensity’s remained and fueled a great year for music. A trio of records that emerged over the past few weeks have the kind of potency to either crack those lists or carve out a spot as a well-hidden cult favorite. All three are worth hearing. Dive in below.

Ovlov – TRU

The three advance singles that teased Ovlov‘s unexpected comeback album, TRU, all netted featured positions and seemed to suggest the band was operating in rare form. Turns out, that suggestion only scratched the surface of what turned out to be a monumental effort from the recently reunited act. The finest Ovlov record by some margin, TRU is a towering behemoth that could only exist through the lens of a band that’s kept finding ways to survive themselves. An examination of impulse, longing, and mental health, TRU bristles and seethes at an unmatched velocity, anchored by the burden of knowledge.

Scintillating from start to finish, buoyed by a series of inspired moments, TRU is tethered together with a narrative through line that makes it feel overwhelmingly whole, even in the face of its persistent ruminations on incompletion. While the band still finds life at the intersection of grunge, slacker punk, and basement pop, the way they’ve reshaped that musical identity on TRU is commendable. Wielding an expanded palette, a seemingly limitless scope, and a desire to improve, Ovlov have created what’s easily one of 2018’s finest records. Additionally, TRU acts as a very welcome reminder of a singular band’s extraordinary talent.

Pipsy – Users

Giddy, scrappy basement pop gifted with dream pop and powerpop sensibilities, Pippy’s Users was an incredibly welcome find what had been proving to be an otherwise desolate patch of new releases. The kind of record that makes sifting through an endless amount of dreck worthwhile, Users is teeming with the liveliness that can serve as its own adrenaline injection. Full of hooks, the record never eases off its acceleration pedal, resulting in a ragged, irresistible collection of distinctly crafted basement pop.

Sean Henry – Fink

It’d been apparent from Fink‘s advanced tracks that Sean Henry had tapped into something a little more otherworldly than usual, swinging from one contemporary reference point to another but refusing to offer tidy reconciliations. A record that’s intentionally opaque, Fink weaponizes its musical palette and allows it to convey emotional heft in lieu of easily idenitifiable narratives; the musical equivalent of Shane Carruth’s absorbing Upstream Color. A record that’s content to soak in the dirt and the grime of the world, wallow in its own carefully guarded desperation, and reluctantly admit to slivers of hope, Fink finds Sean Henry operating at a new, fascinating level. It’s a journey worth the misguided shortcuts, scratches, and tangles. Every bruise is worth earning in Fink‘s fucked up wonderland of folk-tinged, psych-damaged, punk-learned basement pop.

Bent Denim – Town & Country (Album Review, Stream)

When last week’s chapter of releases came to a close, a handful of exceptional records found release, including the latest from site favorites Bent DenimTown & Country. The duo’s previous release, the Diamond Jubilee EP premiered on this site last year and went a long way in establishing the project’s tonal and overall consistency. They’ve yet to make a bad record and have kept on an ascending trajectory in terms of quality (something that every band strives for but few can ever achieve).

Town & Country is a gentle creature, showing signs of curious affection and minimal affectation, the duo settling into a comfortable confidence with their identity they’ve established. Each song finds Bent Denim leaning into heartrending ambient pop numbers that have flourishes of a multitude of other genres but never seem to exist outside of they very distinct and specific niche they’ve crafted for themselves.

On the opening stretch of Town & Country, any single one of the first handful of songs could be enough to reduce a listener to tears if it hits them at the right moment. That’s the inherent power buried inside Bent Denim’s music, it’s a subtle, magnetic pull but once it finds an object to entice, the effect is overwhelming. Each of these songs is imbued with so much tenderness and empathy that it’s next to impossible not to find yourself moved at any given moment.

Creatively, the record’s as ambitious as anything in their sterling discography, finding new nuances and new heights in exploring their own experimentation. Whether it’s something as simple as dramatically boosting the keys in the mix or as complicated as slightly tweaking the vocal layers on Town & Country, the choices don’t just work but serve a unified purpose. Through impeccable production and intuitive sequencing, Town & Country stands strong as the most complete of Bent Denim’s work.

Unfailingly gorgeous, tethered with meticulous through lines (in both narration and composition) and unified by a soft, weary delivery that still retains a sense of hope, Town & Country is another in a sting of gems from Bent Denim. One of the best ambient-leaning records of 2018, this is a record worth holding onto for isolated summer nights and quiet moments of introspection. It;s an album worthy of being kept in as many collections as possible.

Listen to Town & Country below and pick it up here.

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.

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.

Hermetic – Postscript (Album Review)

A lot can be released in a week’s time. Fortunately, that means there’s a lot of room for excellent material, like the music videos Lydia Loveless, Kamikaze Girls, Kino Kimino, Duncan LloydSløtface, White Reaper, Mise en Scene, TV Sets, Angelo De Augustine, Guerilla Toss, Thick, and Brightness made public. More than just music videos surfaced, though, and — as always — a lot of what cropped up came from unheralded or barely-known artists. Hermetic was one of those projects but Postscript, the project’s latest full-length, proved that they’re worthy of recognition.

A duo comprised of Eric Axen and Bart Newman, Hermetic find success on Postscript by meticulously mining a lot of aspects of post-punk, bedroom pop, and their various niche hybrid offshoots that tend to get overlooked. From Albini-esque production and tones to palpable nervous tension to the dynamic composition, Postscript never comes across as anything less than ridiculously historically-informed. Hermetic’s done their homework and it shows from the record’s surprisingly heavy opening track, “Fault-Finding Mission” which brings to mind both acts like The Wrens and an innumerable slate of shoegaze-leaning projects.

Following Postscript‘s ridiculously impressive opening statement are a cavalcade of tracks that throw a variety of punches, finding clever ways to land each blow. Hermetic rarely dips out of insistent mid-tempo mode throughout the course of the record and it creates an absorbing accumulative effect. Everything from the ambient swirl of “Relics” to the moody mid-song turn in “Withering” is elevated because of the record’s tonal consistency. Each track has something to offer and stands out on its own but they create a much larger whole together. It’s an outstanding release from a band that deserves a lot more attention. Hit play and leave it on repeat.

Listen to Postscript below and pick it up here.

Charly Bliss – Guppy (Album Review, Live Videos)

Reviewing a record that you’ve spent years becoming entwined with, falling in love with, and essentially establishing as a core part of your identity is a difficult prospect. It’s always nerve-wracking to attempt to do justice to something that’s become so personal. When it’s made by people that you’ve grown to love and even consider part of your extended family, it becomes a lot murkier. And yet, every single time Charly Bliss’ Guppy starts up, all of those thoughts fade away and the record rises up, bares its fangs, and clamps down with such a vengeance that it’s difficult to think of anything other than the music’s sheer, overwhelming power.

Guppy is a record I’ve been fortunate enough to watch evolve since its first permutation in 2015, which featured a handful of songs that didn’t make the cut for the official release (including “Turd“, which was released in advance of Guppy as a standalone single) and boasted a production that emphasized the low-end aspect of the band, providing it an immense punch. That Guppy has not only retained that punch but emphasized it by balancing out those levels is nothing short of miraculous.

To get to that point, the band weathered quite a few storms and put more notches in its belt than most people realize. The band first hinted that it might be more than your standard punk-driven basement pop act with the releases of 2013’s A Lot To Say EP, which was highlighted by its towering title track. Following that was the release of an astounding single in “Clean“, the invaluable addition of Dan Shure on bass, and the release of the Soft Serve EP, which — along with their scintillating live show — acted as the band’s calling card for a handful of years.

Soft Serve acted as my introduction to the band and I’ve never been so thoroughly dismantled and blown away by a band I’d never heard of as I was the day I clicked play on that record. It topped Heartbreaking Bravery’s EP’s of the Year list for 2014 and still stands proudly as my personal pick for the best EP of this decade and it’s very unlikely that anything will unseat it by the time 2020 rolls around. No band has every put me all in as quickly as Charly Bliss managed with just three perfect songs.

I didn’t know it at the time but that EP would wind up legitimately changing the course of my life. Eva Grace Hendricks, one of Charly Bliss’ two guitarist/vocalist/songwriter’s, joined the A Year’s Worth of Memories contributors roster shortly after Soft Serve‘s release and wound up being an instrumental part of my decision to relocate to Brooklyn for half of 2015. Our shared, vocal support of each other’s ventures meant a great deal to me at the time and still does today, as it stood (and stands) as the type of mutual support that Heartbreaking Bravery has aimed to establish since the beginning.

Enter: Guppy‘s first run, an astonishing demo that laid out the particulars and quickly overtook everything else in my listening habits. Any doubts that any of the members of Charly Bliss may have had at the time were wildly unwarranted; even at its most humble stages, Guppy was a behemoth of a record. For the next two years, the band would fine-tune different parts of the songs, the production, and they’d introduce new material that usurped a few scattered tracks that were initially grouped in with what would eventually become Guppy.

To promote the record, the band did everything right and still managed to hide a few tricks up their sleeve: touring America as the openers for Veruca Salt and PUP, releasing “Ruby” as an early single and following it up with a characteristically clever music video, unleashing the single greatest Audiotree session I’ve seen (no small feat), and finding ways to advance their jaw-dropping live show, from perfecting four-part harmonies to studiously analyzing old footage to look for subtle tweaks to potentially make. All the while, a handful of labels had taken interest and the band had a huge decision to make and took their time to make sure it was the right one.

Barsuk Records eventually won the rights to Guppy and all of the tenacity they likely poured into their campaign to secure the record should pay massive dividends for the label going forward. It’s a move that helped secure Guppy the vaunted NPR First Listen slot, replete with an effectively effusive write-up. Stereogum immediately awarded the record its Album of the Week honor and Pitchfork gave it the kind of score that’s a short step away from verging on their Best New Music territory (a rarity for the publication’s appraisal of this particular genre).

While all of the praise remains heartening to see and the critical analysis provided to the record was both thoughtful and thought-provoking, it’s difficult to tell if any of those reviewers grasped the magnitude of what this type of record can accomplish if it keeps being awarded effective platforms. It’s also difficult to tell if any of those publications had a handle on not only what this band can eventually become but what they’ve managed to become already. As mentioned above, Guppy is a record capable of obliterating critical thinking as it plays and then rewarding it to an obscene degree when it wraps, putting it in extremely select company.

From the energy-bolstering opening seconds of “Percolator”, Guppy lets its listeners know that they’re in for something that’s as ebullient as it is aggressive, finding a transcendental sweet spot between bubblegum coating and a shockingly dark undercurrent. Hendricks, from the outset, dives into a narrative that grapples with not only her own mortality but the self-awareness everyday interactions have come to necessitate. Spencer Fox, the band’s other guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, provides what’s quickly becoming his trademark: economical but dizzying guitar riffs that don’t sacrifice feeling for technique (or vice versa).

If people weren’t aware that Fox is currently one of the best guitarists in music, Guppy should go a long way in providing that (admittedly understandable) ignorance a remedy. While Soft Serve‘s “Urge to Purge” remains one of the best riffs of the present decade, Guppy is where Fox stakes his claim, something that becomes abundantly clear throughout the course of the record. Not only are all of Fox’s contributions spectacular but the work Dan Shure and Sam Hendricks (Eva’s brother) are doing as a rhythm section have allowed them to quietly become one of the most vicious tandems currently on the circuit.

While Fox and that rhythm section remain impressive throughout, Guppy‘s beating heart rests in Eva Grace Hendricks and that heart’s beating at a relentless pace. Hendricks anchors each one of these songs with a frightening determination and a mischievous joy. All of the come-on’s are equipped with a warning, every smile comes with a missing tooth, and every invitation comes with an advance apology.

In “Ruby”, Hendricks’ loving ode to her therapist, she rides a subway with blood on her hair. On “Glitter”, there’s the realization that a relationship’s shortcomings can sometimes be equally distributed across both parties. In “Scare U”, there’s the recognition of greed and the unapologetic desire to be in complete control.  At seemingly every turn, Hendricks comes to grips with the duality most goodhearted people constantly view as a struggle. By subverting these thoughts and latching onto something defiantly celebratory, Charly Bliss comes together to reclaim their own deeply damaged narratives as learning points, important mistakes, and necessities of personal evolution.

It’s in that context where each of the band’s decisions gains importance. They’re not just making music because they like to make music; they’re using it as a coping outlet. Every single snare hit, vibrato, and squeal comes loaded with personal meaning and they’re reaching those confrontations as a unit, drawing from each other’s strengths to pummel all of the perceived difficulties back into something that feels inconsequential in the face of what they’re doing together. Nothing is half-assed. This is the embrace of life vs. the acquiescence of  a life given over to being constantly haunted by past mistakes.

As that aspect of Guppy comes into focus, it’s legitimately hard not to be blown away on several levels. Chief among them, the strength this band’s gained through both familial experience and shared camaraderie. There’s no judgment present, just the willingness to take a sword to the throats of the dangerous things that threaten the well-being of their friends. If there’s a dragon to be slayed, Charly Bliss’ tactic is to conjure up a battering ram to force it into becoming a piñata and bathing in its blood as the ugliest contents come pouring out, greeting the event as a ritualistic party to share with all their friends.

Managing to make things even more impressive is the fact that the band’s doing this with what’s more of a whip-smart advancement of ’90s slacker punk & powerpop aesthetics than a faceless imitation. Sure, Guppy will get compared to Letters to Cleo, Josie and the Pussycats, and any other act that fits that mold- but (in addition to some possible casual sexism) that’s only faintly scratching the surface of what’s actually happening on this record, especially in terms of composition. That’s a victory all on its own and Guppy should go a long way in contributing to what looks to be a seismic shift in the way bands pull influence from that particular pocket of music.

Guppy is far from a retread and it’s decidedly modern bent helps secure it a spot as one of 2017’s essential releases as well as a bona fide genre classic. There are no standout songs among the 10 because virtually all of them rank among the best to be released this year. From wire-to-wire, Guppy is a breakneck record that revels in destruction and comes off as a staggering show of force. Everything from the dirty ditty-turned-guaranteed showstopper “Black Hole”  to the unrelenting blows administered by “Gatorade”, “DQ”, and “Westermarck” are enough to make anyone sit up and start paying the type of attention this band should’ve been receiving for the past several years.

As “Totalizer” races by with abandon and all of the requisite snark, cleverness, and thoughtfulness that have come to define Charly Bliss songs, it’s still difficult to think most will be adequately prepared for the record’s final breathtaking moment. “Julia”, Guppy‘s sludgy closer, is the heaviest track the band’s committed to record by miles. It’s one final reminder that the band’s not as cute as they appear at first blush and that Guppy, while a fun record on the surface, conceals a wellspring of damage that the band’s not afraid to confront. Full-throated, deeply felt, and ferociously delivered, Guppy is a basement pop record for the ages. Whatever troubles come, I have no doubt that Charly Bliss will be standing above the wreckage, breathing in the smoke and looking to start a roaring fire all their own.

Listen to Guppy below, pick it up from Barsuk here, and watch a collection of live videos that I personally shot of the band playing at six separate shows over the past few years.

LVL UP – Return to Love (Album Review)

LVL UP II

A great week was all but capped off by a tantalizing array of new material, including streams from Dark Blue, Teksti-TV 666, Black Honey, Alien Boy, Teen Vice, Acrylics, and Itasca. Neaux held down the fort for the music video format while excellent full streams from the likes of Static Animal, Anthony Jay Sanders, and betty becky came to light. Dillo Milk’s tremendous second compilation, Dillo Milk 2, rounded things out in memorable fashion.

As enticing as it was to go into detail on any of those entries listed above, this post was always going to belong to LVL UP. When Heartbreaking Bravery first started, they were the ideal example of the type of band this space was designed to celebrate. A scrappy, frequently overlooked powerhouse that earned critical acclaim and adoration in certain circles, had strong communal values, a distinctly DIY ethos, and a knack for intelligent, intuitive songwriting. The fact that they were playing basement pop — the genre that would arguably come to define this site’s coverage — almost became secondary to those other characteristics.   

Less than a week and a half elapsed from the first post to be published on this site before LVL UP’s was printed. Even if that mention was only a tangential one, it was designed to posit the band as reference point for feature coverage. Before long, they became an intrinsic part of Heartbreaking Bravery’s allotted feature segments. Very few bands have appeared in that capacity at a greater volume of frequency than LVL UP have managed to attain over their past several releases.

Hoodwink’d
, their outstanding sophomore full-length, topped this site’s best albums of 2014 list. Three Songs, the quartet’s most recent short-form release, ranked highly in the best EP’s of 2015 list. “Hidden Driver“, “Spirit Was“, “Pain“, and “The Closing Door“, the four songs to tease the just-released Return to Love, all earned features on their own considerable merit. With that kind of rollout campaign, a full review of Return to Love became an inevitability. Predictably, the rest of the record somehow found a way to surpass what were once thought to be unreasonably high expectations.

“Hidden Driver”, Return to Love‘s incendiary opener, sounded like it was all but ready to hurtle itself into an untested abyss when it was first unveiled. It’s an explosive work and it sets up the noticeably more aggressive nature of Return to Love, which asks a lot bigger questions than its predecessors. From the outset, Return to Love grapples with non-traditional instances of love and spirituality, something the band discussed at length in Loren DiBlasi‘s revealing MTV profile piece that went up earlier today.

In that interview, guitarist/vocalist Dave Benton (who penned “Hidden Driver”) posited God as a feeling, rather than as an all-knowing omnipresence. So, when the unforgettable chorus of “Hidden Driver” hits, the meaning becomes slightly more clear. It’s the first instance of a slew of moments that litter Return to Love in which the band confront the spiritual realm with the kind of bold decisiveness that powers the record.

Blur“, one of two songs to be revised from Three Songs for Return to Love, increases the velocity of the momentum and allows Mike Caridi to take over for a moment. Characteristically riff-happy and tethered to an enviable pop sensibility, “Blur” scales back from the otherworldly concerns of “Hidden Driver” to examine the minutiae of a fractured relationship and its lingering effects.

Only two songs into the record and LVL UP have already struck a delicate balance of external and internal questioning, providing an early hint that Return to Love is a record that’s defined by a commitment to exploring their own curiosity. Complementing that theme is the renewed emphasis on keys, which prove to be immensely effective and elevate the record’s frequently subdued nature, especially as Return to Love explores new musical territory.

A great example of that exploration comes in the form of the record’s third track, which turns the spotlight back to Benton. “She Sustains Us” is one of Return to Love‘s more definitive moments as it opens up the band’s sound, considerably expands their musical boundaries, establishes new tendencies, and examines the ideas of love and spirituality from a singular perspective while remaining subversive in the way those topics are typically approached. Beautiful harmonies flitter in and out of “She Sustains Us” and continues the the band’s tradition of adding compelling touches of overt femininity in their work.

The ensuing quartet of tracks constitute Return to Love‘s beating heart and have all either been revealed as part of the record’s introductory campaign or have been staples of the band’s galvanizing live sets for a year or more. “Pain” — a critical part of that run of songs and one of the record’s many standouts — sees Mike Caridi getting off some cutting asides while still managing to invoke a small semblance of lightness. The narrative of “Blur” is unapologetic in its casual brutality, wishing nothing but the worst for a person who harmed a loved one. Somehow, the spry nature of the music surrounding those biting lyrics keep the sentiment from becoming overly malicious.

There’s always been an underlying humanism and empathy to LVL UP’s work, even at its most detached. “Spirit Was”, “The Closing Door”, and “Five Men On the Ridge” all reap the benefits of that genuine, open-hearted approach which continues to stand in contrast to so many otherwise similarly-minded acts. All of those songs also ably demonstrate LVL UP’s acutely-realized atmospheric design (the plinking piano figure of “Spirit Was” being a perfect example) and their newfound heaviness (when the band comes crashing in at full force towards the start of the redesigned “The Closing Door”, the sudden impact becomes ridiculously powerful).

Five Men on the Ridge“, easily one of Return to Love‘s heaviest numbers, transitions the record into its final run of tracks with an impressive mixture of grace and relentless intensity. It’s a song that’ll be new to just about everyone that hasn’t been fortunate enough to catch the band live but it takes on new life in the context of the record. One of bassist/vocalist Nick Corbo’s strongest contributions to date, the song finally infuses Return to Love‘s line of questioning with a well-earned sense of dread; there are likely some big questions that are better left unanswered.

Corbo immediately follows that jarring moment of bleakness with one of Return to Love‘s most meditative pieces, “Cut from the Vine”, which finds the songwriter returning to a characteristic theme: the distinctly human connection to nature. It’s something that Corbo’s explored on previous records and discussed semi-frequently in interviews (as well as casual conversation). While all of the past instances of this recurrent theme in Corbo’s songwriting have been engaging, “Cut from the Vine” is truly exceptional.

With the slow-burn of “Cut from the Vine”, the record’s final Caridi track — “I” — is positioned perfectly. Return to Love‘s penultimate number restores a sense of urgency and elevates its immediacy, recalling the band’s past work with enough panache and untethered momentum to rank as one of Return to Love‘s most exhilarating offerings. At a brisk two minutes (not counting the fascinating ambient epilogue that features drummer Greg Rutkin’s distorted ramblings about a beach), it’s the record’s shortest song and its sharpest kick, all but cementing Return to Love as one of 2016’s fiercest highlights.

All of that said — meaning every single paragraph of this feature review — nothing could’ve been adequate preparation for Return to Love‘s bruising, doom-leaning, chant-laden finale, “Naked In the River with the Creator”. Corbo takes the reigns once again and steers the focus back to nature, love, and spirituality in one fell swoop. “Naked in the River with the Creator” was one of three songs on Return to Love that was initiated by the excellent Song A Day for A Week series and its final form is astonishing.

Nearly seven and a half minutes in length, “Naked in the River with the Creator” suggests that Return to Love still hasn’t revealed the extent of the band’s ambitions. Opening with the slowest tempo of the record, somber vocals awash in a gently haunting organ figure, the effect is genuinely startling. Even more startling is when the bottom drops out and plunges the band into a quasi-nightmarish trip into a metal-informed trance that evokes a state of possession.

The latter half of “Naked in the River with the Creator”, with its repeated mantras of chants like the opening “white river, black water, gaining purpose, moving stronger, ash rising, bright father, dogs running the earth’s daughter” becomes both deeply disconcerting and oddly chilling. As directly as the band confronted spirituality throughout Return to Love, “Naked in the River with the Creator” all but exists on a different plane of existence. It’s a shocking departure from a band not typically known for taking risks and the dividends it pays are enormous, fully positioning LVL UP’s Sub Pop as not only a genre classic but as one of the legendary label’s best releases in years.

All told, Return to Love is a document of a band determined to continuously better themselves, a new career high, and a bona fide statement release from one of this generation’s most consistently exciting acts. It’s a series of sustained, connected grace notes that never wavers, even as it openly acknowledges it doesn’t have all of the answers. Not a single second of its run time is wasted and each of the songs are memorable for a wildly varying list of reasons. LVL UP aren’t the type of band to be dissuaded from taking action by a daunting challenge and Return to Love is an assured, steadfast piece of proof.

To put it as succinctly as possible: it’s a masterpiece.

Listen to Return to Love below and pick it up from Sub Pop here.

Doe – Some Things Last Longer Than You (Album Review)

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Over the past several days, full streams from buster, No One Mind, Teen Brains, and Shameover have all been unveiled. While the previous two posts on this site dealt with some of the best material to also be released in that time, this post’s focus rests on what may be the crown jewel of that run: Doe’s incredible debut full-length Some Things Last Longer Than You.

In the lead up to the official release of Some Things Last Longer Than You, Doe have appeared on this site with increasing regularity. That’s no mistake. Both the song and video for “Sincere” were granted feature spots and the “Last Ditch” clip earned the same fate. Guitarist/vocalist Nicola Leel contributed an important piece to last year’s edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories that touched on a lot of the themes present in Some Things Last Longer Than You and the band’s continued to make all of the right choices at exactly the right time.

Heartbreaking Bravery was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of Some Things Last Longer Than You several months back and the record’s been in extremely heavy rotation ever since its arrival. After turning a lot of heads with the release of First Four, a compilation that collected their earliest recordings into a full-length format, Doe have been staring down extraordinarily high expectations for their first full-fledged debut.

Now that Some Things Last Longer Than You is finally here it’s abundantly clear that the band wasn’t rattled in the slightest and possibly even motivated by the challenge. The heights that the trio hit on the opening run of tracks alone are so stratospheric that the rest of the record would’ve had to collapse under their weight to prevent this record from being a career best effort. Fortunately, Some Things Last Longer Than You proves to be as consistent as it is ambitious and winds up as one of this year’s most powerful releases.

“No 1”, the record’s opening track, goes a long way in demonstrating the overwhelming amount of strength that the band’s accrued over their still-young (albeit already impressive) career. Utilizing the Sleater-Kinney instrumental approach (guitar, baritone guitar, drums), the band’s afforded a dynamic range that allows for the emphasis of hard-hitting moments. From Leel’s impassioned vocal delivery to the hard-charging, grunge-informed riffs of “No 1”, there’s not a single moment of the opener that’s anything less than intimidatingly tenacious, yet the song’s pop flourishes help infuse a lightness to the proceedings that renders it an unforgettable early salvo.

Following a similar palette, “Monopoly” goes a long way in accelerating the ferocious velocity of Some Things Last Longer Than You without undercutting its considerable impact. Additionally,  “Monopoly” provides the band with an opportunity to begin establishing the narrative focus of the record, which the trio seizes with relish. Some Things Last Longer Than You doesn’t take its time in presenting an outlook that casts a weary eye towards acute tendencies that are a result of skewed societal beliefs and expectations.

“Sincere”, one of 2016’s best songs, expands this narrative view in clear terms, bemoaning the lack of sincerity and, by extension, cutting down the tiresome projection of detached cool that’s become so persistent throughout several key communities. Apart from the scathing lyrical indictment, “Sincere” also provides more evidence that could support a claim that Some Things Last Longer Than You as one of this year’s greatest guitar records; the riffs scattered throughout “Sincere” and Some Things Last Longer Than You are incredibly inspired and have a formidable impact on the dynamic and atmospheric range of both the band and the record.

The heart of Some Things Last Longer Than You, comprised of a remarkable quartet of songs, is where the record begins to cement its chances at being an unlikely classic. “Turn Around”, “Respite”, “Anywhere”, and “Last Ditch” all contain a host of standout moments that continue to expand the scope of the record and demonstrate the band’s monumental growth — and understanding of their own identity — since their earliest releases.

While the latter track of that quartet was previously covered, the number — like “Sincere” — gains a tremendous amount of force in the context of the record. “Turn Around” and “Respite”, packaged as a tandem duo, are where the record hits upon the slowest sustained tempo of its entire run. Instead of devolving into something tepid and uninspired, Some Things Last Longer Than You uses that extended moment to bare its fangs and unleash with an enormous force that resonates throughout the remainder of the record. In slowing down, the trio also imbue Some Things Last Longer Than You with an unpredictability that elevates the entire affair.

“Respite”, the record’s centerpiece and longest song, prominently features the band’s increasing willingness to experiment with form and demolish genre barriers, even going so far as to cap the track off with an ambient outro that serves a dual purpose as a surprisingly delicate interlude for the record. In under a minute, Doe gift the listener a definitive example of their mastery over their craft on both a micro and macro scale. It’s a brilliant moment on a record full of them and while it may be one of its most unassuming, it’s also one of its most important.

That outro sets up the hyper-aggressive spree of “Anywhere” to perfection, lending the whirlwind attack a jumping board that provides it an extra, unexpected spring. Here, Some Things Last Longer Than You shows its true colors, revealing a core that’s saddened, frustrated, angered, self-deprecating, well-intentioned, occasionally tongue-in-cheek, and always more than ready to attempt a run towards affecting meaningful change, whether the scale is grand or personal.

Even in the moments that Some Things Last Longer You casts outwards towards the world at large, there’s an intimacy that grounds the record and suffuses it with the kind of heart that will go a long way in distinguishing it as both one of 2016’s finest moments and as a genre classic. “Last Ditch” is a great example of that dual worldview, a song that finds Leel crying out “maybe this will all just work itself out, until then I hope that it will slow down.” A line that carries an inordinate amount of personal meaning even as it applies to something far more universal.

The “On and on, I’m feeling helpless” closing of “Last Ditch” may feel a touch defeatist at first glance but a deeper look will also reveal the smallest preservation of hope for things to be different in the future. It’s a statement that sets up the ensuing “Before Her” beautifully, which finds the vocal lead switching from Leel to drummer/vocalist Jake Popyura (who co-writes with Leel and is a powerhouse behind the kit). “Before Her” also finds the band transitioning back to a mid-tempo pace that opens up the potential for the kind of grimy, skyward riffing that’s reminiscent of Dilly Dally‘s best work and pushes this record towards an intangible, transcendental feeling that hits a critical peak in its final stretch.

In its last two tracks, Some Things Last Longer Than You could have taken a handful of approaches but, in keeping with much of the record’s decision-making up to that point, opts for the most immediate, electrifying option possible. “Corin”, named after Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, delivers the record’s most vicious moment with unapologetic gusto, letting Leel absolutely shred her vocals in an outro that unexpectedly drops to half time as Leel throws herself further and further into a wild-eyed frenzy, repeating the mantra “no way, no way, no way, no way, no” and interjecting absolutely vicious screams as punctuation marks.

The entirety of “Corin” is an absolutely pulverizing moment from a record that’s not afraid to show its strength, once again demonstrating an impressive dynamic range that should find Doe’s audience gradually increasing in droves (especially after word of this record starts picking up a little). “Corin” also serves an important function in setting up Some Things Last Longer Than You‘s powerful finale, “Something To Tell You”.

In its final five minutes, Doe offer up the definitive culmination of the elements that leave Some Things Last Longer Than You standing as a towering achievement (and as one of 2016’s best records). There’s the recurring theme of impermanence in the record’s dual narrative — fully equipped with the desire to do something effective or productive with our given time — as well as the thoughtfulness of the songwriting, which remains punk in tone while still allowing for the implementation of the pop sensibilities that make Some Things Last Longer Than You as immediate as it is substantial.

That Some Things Last Longer Than You ends in ambient chaos shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s a fitting end cap to everything that the record’s worked towards and illustrated with gnarled panache. There’s an uncertainty that persists through the record right up until that noise-damaged ending that lingers long after the feedback’s faded away into the ether. As is the case with the record, it’s nearly impossible to shake. It’s also one last moment of quick, nuanced perfection that injects Some Things Last Longer Than You with an astonishing amount of purpose, even in its stubborn refusal to assert any type of measurable authority.

By the time it comes to its wracked ending, Some Things Last Longer Than You has delivered emotive blow after emotive blow, occasionally drawing back to protect itself from further damage along the way (while being very cognizant of the pre-existing damage that shaped its outlook). It’s a bruising, formidable record that draws strength from an unabashed honesty that’s become the hallmark of several of the best — and most memorable — records in recent memory. Some Things Last Longer Than You is an immediately effective record but its also one that rewards investment and paints a portrait of a band that’s hell-bent on finding deeper meaning, a trait that will undoubtedly serve them well in years to come.

Meticulously composed and teeming with unchecked aggression and greater meaning, Doe have offered up something that’s impossible to ignore. At every corner, there’s a breathtaking moment that continuously heightens the overabundance of impact present in Some Things Last Longer Than You. Whether the listener tethers themselves to the record’s multi-tiered narrative functions or to the artistry present in the artistry, they’ll walk away contemplating its awe-inspiring depth. In short: Some Things Last Longer Than You isn’t just one of the year’s best records, it’s a full-blown masterpiece.

Listen to Some Things Last Longer Than You below and pick up a copy here.