Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Double Double Whammy

Seven Weeks, Fifteen Songs

This post will mark the last of the coverage overhaul necessitated by the seven week hiatus from regular coverage. Records have been covered, music videos have been covered, and a song and a pair of music videos have received standalone posts. Below are the 15 songs that stood out more than any others over that seven week time period and come from all sorts of sources and elicit all sorts of responses. Whether’s it’s the characteristically driving basement pop of Radioactivity or the hushed melancholy of Florist, there’s a lot on display. So quit waiting, jump in, and find a new favorite song. Enjoy.

1. Radioactivity – Sleep 

Every project Jeff Burke‘s been involved in over the past decade has demonstrated the man’s a singular songwriter with an enviable gift. One of Burke’s more recent projects, Radioactivity (pictured above), has at least one Album of the Decade contender under their belt and continues to press forward with the kind of propulsive momentum that drives most of their songs. “Sleep” is a perfect example of that dynamic, a miraculous slice of basement pop that reasserts Burke as one of the genre’s all-time greats.

2. Birdskulls – Over It

Few labels are amassing a discography as consistently impressive — or prolific — as Art Is Hard. Birdskulls‘ “Over It”, one of the labels latest offerings, goes a long way in solidifying Art Is Hard’s status at the forefront of the DIY-leaning punk world. A song that perfectly marries basement pop with basement punk, “Over It” comes overflowing with memorable hooks, biting attitude, and worn aesthetics typical of a band destined for a feverishly loyal following. Leave it on repeat.

3. Honeyrude – Flowers

“Flowers” has been in Honeyrude‘s back pocket since 2015 but the band’s recent upheaval and re-release of the song as part of The Color Blue pays massive dividends in practice. Louder, cleaner, bolder, and more refined, “Flowers” is allowed to fully bloom, exceeding its early potential. It’s a gorgeous moment from a band that continues to impress, its shoegaze inflections perfectly suited to the band’s identity. Warm and towering, it’s likely to stand as the band’s career highlight for some time.

4. Strange Relations – Say You

One of the small handful of bands on this list with a long-standing connection to this site, Strange Relations have been furthering themselves with each successive step they’ve taken. The band recently opened for Charly Bliss in Minneapolis and unveiled a lot of new material, including the brooding, kinetic “Say You”, one of the set’s many highlights. Since their past release, Strange Relations have grown more aggressive, more ambitious, and into a more fascinating band. “Say You” is definitive proof.

5. Dead Stars – Pink Clouds

Several years into a remarkably consistent career, Dead Stars have established themselves as one of the most reliable bands currently mining a ’90s slacker punk influence to great effect. Even with a whole host of outstanding songs to claim as their own, “Pink Clouds” manages to stand out. Easily a career high point for the band, the hard-charging number surpasses the most tantalizing  heights of their earlier work while staying true to the ethos and identity that made them so memorable in the first place.

6. Walter Etc. – April 41st

Walter Etc. has spent the past few months putting out a small string of impressive songs with “April 41st” being the crown jewel of the lot. A laid-back mid-tempo basement pop number that embraces carefree relaxation, the song still manages to find an impressive momentum by playing directly to its lackadaisical tendencies. Near non sequitur’s and a comfortably dazed narrative elevate the song’s aesthetic to strange heights and the best thing anyone could do is let its calm, unhurried spell take over completely.

7. Basement Revolver – Tree Trunks

2017’s already been overly generous in terms of memorable ballads, churning out some of the decade’s best over the first 2/3s of the year. Among those gems sits Basement Revolver‘s gorgeous “Tree Trunks”, a shoegaze-leaning piece of minimalist post-punk. Pop melodies and wiry instrumentation combine to hypnotic effect, while the production of the song’s second half propel it to stratospheric heights.

8. Pinact – Separate Ways

After a three-year wait, Pinact are back and sounding stronger than ever on “Separate Ways”. Bridging the gap between basement pop and pop-punk in exhilarating fashion, the song clamps its teeth down on a surging sense of momentum and finds a way to guide itself to a triumphant finish. It’s easily among the band’s finest work and bodes extremely well for what their future might  have in store. Youthful, vibrant, vicious, and more than a little fun, it’s an unlikely summer anthem.

9. Paul Westerberg – Hawk Ripping At Your Throat

A mysterious song surfaced on Soundcloud a few weeks back from an artist’s page listed as “User 964848511”. Closer inspection revealed it to be Paul Westerberg, operating in the same lo-fi mode that defined the earliest work of his most famous band, The Replacements. Unlike that early work though, “Hawk Ripping at Your Throat” is characterized by a somber, almost foreboding atmosphere. Slow, creeping, and full of white-knuckle suspense, it’s a potent reminder of Westerberg’s legendary talent.

10. Lomelda – Interstate Vision

Lomelda‘s next album will be the project’s first for the impressively consistent — and consistently excellent — Double Double Whammy label. One of the first looks at that record came via the gorgeous “Interstate Vision”, a gentle mid-tempo number with a muted sense of grandeur and a near-cinematic sweep. It’s a lovely song that plays up the projects strongest aesthetic choices as well as emphasizing an unassuming mastery of songwriting. By the track’s end, it’s easy to wish it hadn’t come to a close.

11. SOAR – Fatigue

Last year, SOAR managed to make a strong impression with the material that they were releasing. It seems that their momentum has carried over into 2017 and allowed the band to grow even more emboldened as “Fatigue” — their latest — is as hard-charging and unapologetic as anyone could have hoped. “Fatigue” also plays up their pop sensibilities to great effect, while continuing to mire it in coats of both grit and attitude. It’s a charming track and deserves a whole slew of listens.

12. En Route – I Am the Problem

One of 2017’s most outstanding small releases came recently via En Route’s then is a song EP, another strong record from a growing line of projects working in the space that allows for a happy marriage between bedroom pop and basement punk. “I Am the Problem” was the song chosen to tease the EP and it was an incredibly effective choice as the song carves out a memorable identity for En Route. All of the decisions here, while understated, serve to elevate a legitimately great song from a new band worth knowing.

13. Baby! – If I’m Sorry

Baby! has been releasing a string of ridiculously enticing singles over the past few months and “If I’m Sorry” is the best of an extremely tantalizing lot. Equal parts sweet and biting, “If I’m Sorry” is another mid-tempo slice of quiet perfection from a band that seems to be gearing up for bigger things. Every song they’ve released has been utterly captivating and “If I’m Sorry” takes that facet of their music to new levels. Winsome, pensive, and oddly uplifting, it cements Baby! as one of 2017’s most pleasant surprises.

 

14. Madeline Kenney – Always

For more than a few years, Madeline Kenney has been carving out a place into today’s pantheon of emerging acts who have a genuine shot at their work being not only remembered but coveted after they’ve relaxed into retirement. “Always” is not only another strong indicator of that end goal but the strongest work of Kenney’s career to date. Three and a half minutes of arresting dynamics, clever arrangements, perfect production, and outstanding songwriting. It’s a song that’ll always be worth keeping around.

15. Florist – What I Wanted to Hold

Last year, Florist released one of the year’s finest EPs in The Birds Outside Sang and they’re already gearing up for the release of what looks to be one of this year’s finest full-lengths, If Blue Could Be Happiness. “What I Wanted to Hold” is the song kicking off the roll out campaign for the record and it’s a stunner. In keeping with the band’s best work, “If I Wanted to Hold” is a delicate, wintry number that’s enhanced by its own fragility. Sincere, vulnerable, and searching, it’s one of the year’s most breathtaking songs.

Seven Weeks, Ten Records

Before this week began, it’d been seven weeks since any of this site’s regular coverage had appeared. The first stretch of this week will be dedicated to amending the outstanding material that went uncovered in the interim, while the latter part of the week will feature the present week’s finest offerings. Below are ten standout records to have been released over the long hiatus, from EPs to compilations to full-lengths. There’s a whole host of incredible material shared between these ten records so stop hesitating and just dive straight into this post’s overflowing heart. Enjoy.

Great Grandpa – Plastic Cough 

Expert Eraser“, “Fade“, and “Teen Challenge” all earned feature slots on this site in the lead-up to Plastic Cough‘s release, each one suggesting a seemingly inevitable reality: Great Grandpa throwing their hat into the ring of genuine Album of the Year contenders. The day finally came, Plastic Cough was released, and that inevitability proved to be no joke. Plastic Cough is an absolutely ferocious record, gnashing its teeth at every hairpin turn and gloriously bombastic moment, only pausing to breathe on the gorgeous “Faithful”, a perfectly placed slow-burner that rounds the record out in breathtaking fashion. Plastic Cough is the kind of thrill ride that makes a mark deep enough to last.

Slaughter Beach, Dog – Motorcycle.jpg

Jake Ewald may get the most recognition for his work in Modern Baseball but what the songwriter’s accomplished in Slaughter Beach, Dog is equally — if not even more — compelling. Having already accumulated an incredibly rich and surprisingly expansive sound over the course of a full-length and an EP, Motorcyle.jpg finds Ewald leaning even more confidently into the battered folk trappings that heightened those first two releases. Motorcycle.jpg also skews a little more lo-fi and at times recalls Yankee Bluff, each poignantly bruised track vastly exceeding the aesthetics perceived limitations. It’s another impressive work from a musician worth watching.

Little Star – July Demos

Another one of the acts positioning Good Cheer Records as one of the finest upstart labels, Little Star has managed to turn a lot of heads in recent times, thanks to two sterling full-lengths. The project’s showing no signs of slowing down, even going so far as to release a small collection of demos last month, aptly entitled July Demos. The band’s earned comparisons to legendary acts (Big Star, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular among them) and it’s not difficult to see why those comparisons are being made, even from this small smattering of tracks. All four of the songs on display here are sharply written songs that convey a great deal of emotion in their quiet restraint. Spellbinding work.

Katie Ellen – Cowgirl Blues

Chumped may have been Katie Ellen‘s earliest claim to some modicum of fame but the songwriter’s not being reduced to the ashes left in the wake of that band’s departure, instead opting to venture out on an already promising solo career. Cowgirl Blues is Ellen’s first statement and it’s a bold one. The first two and a half minutes of opening track “Drawing Room” are comprised entirely of extremely light ambient noise, clean guitar, and vocals, as if Ellen is reasserting an individual identity. It’s a deeply effective moment that sets the tone for a record that’s not afraid to show off its bruises, scars, or self-awareness. Front to back, it’s one of the summer’s most captivating listens.

Milked – Death On Mars

Kelly Johnson is the songwriter spearheading Milked, graciously returning to the fold after Geronimo! took their final bow. For anyone who was concerned Johnson would step away from the eccentricities and unpredictable eclecticism that made Geronimo! so fascinating, put aside those fears for good. Death on Mars is as gleefully unwieldy and feral as Geronimo! at their fiercest (undoubtedly helped along by the drumming of Geronimo! bandmate Matt Schwerin). Death On Mars is a towering work that’s not afraid to embrace catharsis or melody even as it careens wildly from song to song, touching on everything from powerpop to hardcore along the way. An absolute triumph of a return.

Midwives – No

No will be the last record Midwives — who appeared in this site’s Best EP’s list in 2013 and 2015 and whose self-titled 7″ was one of the first reviews this site ever ran — will release. While it’s a shame that one of the upper Midwest’s best hardcore bands will be disappearing into the ether, at the very least they managed to go out on top: No is a culmination of everything the group’s accomplished since starting up nearly five years ago. It’s a growling, spitting, snarling beast of a record, unafraid to take prisoners in its sub-18 minute run-time. Bruising and feral, it’s only fitting that such a proudly deranged band would go out kicking, baring its threatening fangs all the while.

Dream Ritual – Summer Promo

Sometimes all it takes for a band to take off is three songs, which is exactly what Dream Ritual‘s offering on Summer Promo, a blistering post-punk EP that doesn’t leave any room for filler. Echoing everyone from Shellac to METZ and everyone in between, Dream Ritual manages to carve out their own distinct identity. “Noise”, “Oil & Canvas”, & “Sunlight Girl” all perfectly marry elements of modern day noise-punk with some of the genre’s earliest defining elements. Whether it’s the metallic-like production or the infusion of pop-leaning melody, it’s clear that Dream Ritual are students of the genre. Thankfully for us, their learning has resulted in one of the summer’s strongest EP’s.

Mike Krol – Mike Krol Is Never Dead: The First Two Records

A few years ago, this site named Mike Krol‘s Turkey one of the best records of 2015 and heavily praised the songwriter’s infectiously joyous live show. Krol had gained notoriety thanks to the cult following that he’d accumulated due to his first two records, Trust Fund and I Hate Jazz, both of which were long out of print by the time Merge announced Krol’s signing and released Turkey. Fortunately, for everyone, Merge has come to the rescue and reissued both of those seminal classics (this according to essentially anyone that owns either) and packaged them with all of the demos for each session. The whole thing’s an exhilarating look at an exhilarating artist and should be considered essential listening for fans of the basement pop genre.

Tunnel Traffic – MEESH

Tunnel Traffic’s MEESH occupies a space that’s always memorable: the record arrived from the artist via unsolicited submission and proceeded to impress at every turn. From opener “Lesson Learned” to the closing “Memorial”, this small release from Adam Hachey’s solo project made a sizable impression. Softer and a little sweeter than expected, MEESH is chock-full of mid-tempo folk-leaning numbers that expand the bedroom pop genre into something faintly unfamiliar. It’s quiet, it’s intimate, it’s unassuming, and it’s utterly spectacular. MEESH weaves an unbreakable trance over its listeners and commands their attention through a narrative journey that feels both direct and cerebral. It’s an incredible accomplishment from a songwriter whose work all but demands to be followed.

Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm (Deluxe Version)

Throughout work with WaxahatcheeP.S. Eliot, Bad Banana, and Great Thunder as well as through a variety of guest roles Katie Crutchfield has become a household name for a very particular sect of people, broadening that base with each successive release. Crutchfield’s latest comes via the Waxahatchee moniker, Out in the Storm. Everything that Waxahatchee has released to date has stood the test of time and remained as impressive — if not more so — as it was at the time of its release. Out in the Storm feels like Crutchfield’s reached another level entirely, combining more than a decade’s worth of knowledge, experience, and style into a mesmerizing, cohesive whole. A career high point for Crutchfield and easily one of the best records of 2017, Out in the Storm‘s definitive version also comes package with the demos for each song on the record, all of which are — like the record itself — well worth hearing.

Cende – #1 Hit Single (Album Review)

A lot of outside forces — from tour scheduling to a forthcoming move — necessitated a brief hiatus for this site. Heartbreaking Bravery remains a one-person operation (albeit, one supported by a generous community of like-minded people) so it can be difficult to keep pace when life gets hectic. That being said, it’s a project that’s always receiving attention, even if it’s radio silent for a stretch of time.

To that end, today will largely be focused on honorable mentions lists and a few abbreviated best-of’s for the material that was released during this most recent interim. A few releases will also get there own feature, like the item kicking today’s coverage off: Cende‘s outstanding #1 Hit Single which ranks among 2017’s finest offerings and stands as an exhilarating new chapter for one of today’s smartest basement pop bands.

Having already claimed this site’s Best EP of 2015 distinction, the anticipation for their full-length debut was considerably high. Propelling that anticipation to stratospheric heights by way of lead-off singles “Bed” and “What I Want“, had #1 Hit Single been anything short of masterful, it would’ve been a crushing disappointment. Of course, with the combined track record of the band’s members, that outcome was always far less likely than the inevitable: #1 Hit Single is a genuinely exceptional record.

Virtually everything on this record has been given an extreme amount of care and attention, the meticulous observation and clinical understanding of composition on every level elevates the record from simply being great to being a surprisingly understated genre classic. By taking their punk-leaning energy and suffusing it with classical underpinnings and some notably DIY leanings, Cende’s landed on something that feels fresh, familiar, and entirely their own.

“What I Want” standing as the perfect example of how the band’s marriage of punk, powerpop, hardcore, bedroom pop, and a variety of other sub-genres can not only exist harmoniously but congeal into a spellbinding whole. While that song’s unusually soft nature comes as somewhat of a curveball, the ensuing track puts the band back on an aggressive path that’s more attuned to their surprisingly vicious live show.

The back half of #1 Hit Single reaffirms everything laid out by its predecessor, encapsulating the band’s mastery over their craft and identity to an unavoidable degree. From the quiet insistence of “Void” — one of the strongest tracks on a record comprised of nothing but highlights — to the subdued melancholia of “While I’m Alive”, there’s not a false moment to be found. It’s a beautiful cap to a painfully honest and surprisingly poignant record about insecurity, uncertainty, and hanging onto shreds of optimism and resilience. Put simply: #1 Hit Record is the type of record you hold onto long enough to pass down to the next generation, hoping they do the same.

Listen to #1 Hit Single below and pick it up from Double Double Whammy here.

Great Grandpa – Fade (Stream)

Approximately 48 hours into the week and the world’s already delivered exceptional new tracks from Daddy Issues, Stillwave, Dent May, Tomten, Versa, Jason Loewenstein, Broken Social Scene, and PalmGreat Grandpa also released a song, following up their explosive “Teen Challenge” (one of 2017’s finest songs) with yet another jaw-dropping turn that should hike the anticipation even further up for the band’s forthcoming Plastic Cough.

Once again leaning into a ’90s alternative in a way that feels thrillingly alive rather than tired and rehashed, Great Grandpa have crafted another triumphant mini-masterpiece in “Fade”. Swinging from one wildly different section to another with an exacting prowess, the band seems to conjure up energy from perfectly executing hairpin turns and leaning into powerful moments with all their might. “Fade” is a wild, incendiary three minutes that suggests — as “Teen Challenge” did before it — Plastic Cough may just wind up being one of the year’s best records. As soon as “Fade” is over, the only thing anyone’s likely to do is go back and hit repeat. It’s another winsome moment for a re-emergent band poised to reach the next level of what looks to be an incredibly promising career.

Listen to “Fade” below and pre-order Plastic Cough from Double Double Whammy here.

Great Grandpa – Teen Challenge (Stream)

Last week there were great new songs from Wren, The High Curbs, Pat Keen, Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs, Interlaken, Cool Ghouls, See Through Dresses, Suntrodden, Dave Catching, Eerie Gaits, and KU that made their public debut. Great Grandpa also resurfaced with the incredibly impressive “Teen Challenge”, ensuring that a whole lot more people would be learning their name. In 2015, the band made some waves with the excellent “Mostly Here” but have been fairly quiet since that point. “Teen Challenge” ends that silence in spectacular fashion.

Coming in advance of their forthcoming Plastic Cough, the band’s forthcoming debut full-length, “Teen Challenge” is a pitch-perfect window into the band’s particularly enticing grunge-pop aesthetic. Muddied tones, sunny melodies, a wildly erratic bridge, and a breathtaking grasp of dynamics elevates “Teen Challenge” from simply being another piece of gloriously ragged ’90s revivalism into something that borders on a transcendental catharsis. One of the year’s more explosive songs, “Teen Challenge” is the perfect setup for what looks to be an astonishing record. It’s an insistent storm of feeling that resonates long after its played itself out.

Listen to “Teen Challenge” below and pre-order Plastic Cough from Double Double Whammy here.

Cende – What I Want (Stream, Live Video)

A week or two ago, a handful of great songs found their way out into the world. These included tracks from Terror Watts, Benjamin Booker, Soul Low, Jodi, Baby!, Crushing, Art School Jocks, Buildings, Spencer Radcliffe & Everyone Else, Lusid, and Lauren Ruth Ward. One of the tracks to make a significant impact came in the form of Cende‘s “What I Want”, which follows the gorgeous “Bed” as the release of the band’s forthcoming #1 Hit Song inches closer.

Masterfully composed and precisely executed, “What I Want” loses none of its drive but gains a tender sheen thanks to the backing vocals from Frankie Cosmos‘ Greta Kline. Cameron Wisch, Cende’s bandleader and principle songwriter, conjures up an airy atmospheric that Kline fills to perfection. When Kline’s vocals kick in for the first time, it’s a genuinely breathtaking moment, buoyed by a string arrangement that straddles the divide between sweet and melancholic beautifully, perfectly accentuating Kline’s contribution.

Following Kline’s verse is a bridge that demonstrate the band’s sheer talent, veering between power and innovation with ease. Staccato blasts are met with orchestral dissonance and the song transforms from a modest run into a seething behemoth before falling away to silence. It’s final segment, a volume swell that brings “What I Want” roaring back to life for a brief moment, is the final stroke of genius in what firmly stands as one of 2017’s most captivating releases, reaffirming that every second of “What I Want” is worth exploring.

Listen to “What I Want” (and watch the band run through the song at CMJ 2015) below and pre-order #1 Hit Song from Double Double Whammy here.

Bellows – Thick Skin (Music Video)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This series of posts reflects back on some of the best material to be released over the past few weeks. Each post with this heading is a part of this series. After this series has concluded regular coverage will resume. 

House of Nod Productions has earned a lot of praise from this site in the past and their incredible winning streak continues with their latest effort: a rapidly-paced clip for Bellows‘ outstanding “Thick Skin”. One of the many highlights that comprise the Oliver Kalb-led project’s most recent release, Fist & Palm, “Thick Skin” gains even more strenght in its incredible visual presentation.

Combining time lapses, archival footage of nature, nods to the French New Age movement, live captures, and some ridiculously impressive Edgar Wright-esque hyper-editing, the Rob Kolodny-directed clip underscores the swirling, colorful aspects that define Fist & Palm, Bellows’ most exceptional work to date. It’s been a monumental year for the project, which saw their visibility steadily increasing (and included a very gracious contribution to the A Step Forward compilation that marked this site’s 1000th post) and the project’s sound growing increasingly more refined.

“Thick Skin” capitalizes on that chaos with an extremely acute accuracy while still managing to ground the proceedings enough to keep the clip strangely relatable. “Thick Skin” is a constantly shifting whirlwind that never loses a sense of overwhelming poetry, even as it continuously expands outward. Maintaining a remarkably consistent tonality through something that relies that heavy on extremely varied imagery is no easy feat but Kolodny continues to make it seem effortless, coaxing an impressive amount of magic out of an enchanting tapestry.

Watch “Thick Skin” below and pick up a copy of Fist & Palm from Double Double Whammy here.

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.

LVL UP – Hidden Driver (Stream)

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Another Tuesday, another slate of astounding new tracks fighting for a feature spot. Little Kid, Soccer Mommy, Hypoluxo, Dinowalrus, The Westerlies, Pavo Pavo, Chris Farren, The Cut Losses, YJY, Slow Mass, The Alpacas, Luxury Death, Bring Prudence, and Touché Amoré (which features a lovely, unexpected turn from guest vocalist Julien Baker) were all in on the action. As ridiculously strong as all of those were, the bulk of the attention will fall to site favorite LVL UP‘s explosive “Hidden Driver”.

Coming on the heels of “Pain“, “Hidden Driver” continues the bold expansions that the quartet’s promised for the forthcoming Return to Love. Right from the onset, “Hidden Driver” is able to assert itself as a beast of a different sort for the band, deftly combining the aesthetics that define their compellingly rough-hewn demo collections and their polished studio work. As the song begins to pick up its ferocity, a synth line becomes increasingly prominent, giving the whole affair an extra touch of vibrancy.

Guitarist/vocalist Dave Benton anchors this contribution, providing a healthy dose of his enviable songwriting gifts and applying a sense of tenacious urgency in the process. Leaning heavily on the spiritual realm for the narrative, Benton gets off one of the most memorable couplets of his career with “God is peaking, softly speaking.” It’s a moment of contemplative euphoria that bristles with life, even as it stares down the barrel of mortality.

All of “Hidden Driver” comes across as one of the most focused things the band’s ever assembled, simultaneously drawing from established patterns and a willingness to explore the unknown (a trait that manifests in both the musical composition and lyrical narrative). The band’s rhythm section has rarely sounded as aggressive as they do in the song’s vicious main section, which culminates with some of the most effective guitar work of LVL UP’s entire discography.

As “Hidden Driver” ultimately dissolves into ambient noise, the anticipation for Return to Love grows stratospheric. “Pain” and “Hidden Driver” on their own have constituted two of 2016’s strongest turn-ins while both hinting at the breadth of the quartet’s broadening scope. If the rest of the record can live up to the precedents set by the first two glimpses, Return to Love will confidently stand as one of the year’s best records. All that’s left to do is wait and put “Return to Love” on repeat.

Listen to “Hidden Driver” below and pre-order Return to Love from Sub Pop here.

Told Slant – High Dirge (Stream)

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Today unearthed great songs from angelic milk, Heaven For Real, Mourn, Lion’s Den, TSP, Kwesi Foraes, notable videos from The Virginmarys (who almost earned this post’s feature spot by virtue of their clip’s sheer honesty), Whitney, Ty Segall, Mothers, Oh Pep!, and a genuine Album of the Year candidate in Attic Abasement‘s Dream News. It also brought Told Slant‘s breathtaking “High Dirge” out into the world.

After gifting the world with the chill-inducing “Low Hymnal” — still a very strong candidate for 2016’s best song — and the warm “Tsunami”, the Felix Walworth-led project has returned to provided another glimpse at their forthcoming Going By. Of the two songs that have been released, “High Dirge” falls more in line with the somber nature of “Low Hymnal” than the more celebratory sensibilities of “Tsunami”, embracing an otherworldly melancholy that goes a long way in making the song feel endearingly human.

From the startlingly realized scene that opens the track, “High Dirge” never once veers away from the small, every day moments that confirm we’re alive. Whether it’s freshening up in the bathroom or prying yourself open, there’s enough time for a host of questions to emerge. Some of them get tackled, some get ignored, pushed to the wayside out of either fear or despondence.

Walworth addresses, confronts, and reassures those moments with the simple refrain of “It’s a long life, it’s hard to get it right” towards the song’s close, a surprisingly hopeful upgrade from “It’s a long life, I can’t get it right.” “High Dirge” is the third song from Going By to thrive on Walworth’s naked openness, bravely laying everything bare for a clinical dissection that’s as unforgiving as it is insightful.

Yet, the song never nears a feeling of total loss or hopelessness, offering just enough positivity to keep “High Dirge” courageously stretching forward towards something better. While there’s an inherent heartbreak to that glimmer of hope, that same lightness also allows the song to stay grounded and painfully relatable. As usual, the stakes of the narrative are heightened by incredibly tasteful and deeply intuitive instrumental work (the banjo figures of Going By have been nothing short of perfect) that provides “High Dirge” with an impressive dramatic flair.

Ultimately, “High Dirge” feels representative for Told Slant’s current era and marks a high point for Walworth’s songwriting, which may very well be why it also claims the line that gives Going By its title: High dirge for the way that I am going by. That line arrives in the song’s gentle outro section, which underlines the steady uncertainty that serves as the crux of “High Dirge”.

It’s a beautiful tactic that strengthens one of the song’s most important unifying threads before everything fades into silence. One last moment of transcendence in a song that’s destined to be remembered.

Listen to “High Dirge” below and pre-order Going By from Double Double Whammy here.