Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Mike Caridi

The 15 Best Songs of August

We may only be a week into September but there have already been a handful of notable releases to find their way out into the world this month. Those items will be appraised in due time and given the recognition they richly deserve but for now, it’s worth taking the outstanding songs of last month into account. While a dozen bands appear on this list, a trio of them managed to release two songs that hit harder than anything else. Normally, these would be whittled down to one specific inclusion but all three cases proved so impossibly deserving that it became impossible to not highlight both. So, take a deep breath and dive on into the 15 best songs of August. Enjoy.

Weaves – 53 + Walkaway

One of last year’s most breathtaking breakout acts, Weaves had been surging forward for a few years before the momentum carried them over the top. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that their momentum has slowed a bit, with the project’s two new songs suggesting that it may have even found a way to accelerate. Both “53” and “Walkaway” are towering testaments to the band’s formidable strengths, from their unparalleled grip on dynamics to the ability to conjure a larger-than-life feeling, this pair constitutes two of 2017’s absolute strongest tracks.

Rainer Maria – Forest Mattress

Re-emerging from some cruel shadow that kept Rainer Maria away for far too long, the band more than proved they’ve still got what it takes to craft an incredible record. Among Rainer Maria‘s most scintillating highlights was “Forest Mattress”, an incisive burst of pop-leaning post-punk. Arresting, melancholic, and even a little hopeful, “Forest Mattress” stands as a song befitting of 2017’s most welcome comeback. An invigorating return to form for a band that’s always deserved far more recognition than they’ve received.

Common Holly – Nothing

Simplistic, taut, and driven by an utterly gorgeous vocal melody, Common Holly’s “Nothing” was one hell of a way to turn a few heads. A beautiful piano figure, minimalist percussion, and a staggering amount of conviction combined to propel “Nothing” from a run-of-the-mill bedroom pop song to something impossible to ignore. Every second of this track managed to soothe, grip, and impress. It’s an extraordinary introduction to an artist that will be more than worth watching.

Abraham King – Spit

Abraham King’s “Spit” has all the hallmarks of a great basement pop track, with a few key distinctions that manage to elevate it to stratospheric heights. Whether it’s the production or the range of influences driving “Spit”, there’s something to admire in each one of the song’s turns. Instrumental arrangements and a vocal delivery that elicit an emotive response, a running time that feels all too brief, “Spit” finds an unassuming route to transcendence.

METZ – Drained Lake

One of the most blisteringly intense bands of this decade, METZ have never slowed down to smell the roses, instead opting to set the entire garden on fire and spray gasoline and throw molotov cocktails into the flames until they start threatening the nearest forest. “Drained Lake” is one of the trio’s most ferocious songs to date, while also somehow being one of the most melodic efforts of their discography. It’s weird, it’s twisted, and it’s perfectly METZ. Get out of the way or get reduced to a pile of ashes.

Lost Boy ? – Heavy Heart

A perennial site favorite, the Davey Jones-led Lost Boy ? has been growing more experimental in recent years. “Heavy Heart”, a song recently posted to Lost Boy ?’s soundcloud, takes that experimentation to new levels by fully embracing the sound that drove some of the most iconic movies — and movie soundtracks — of the ’80s. From an opening that establishes that familiar tone to a Wolf Parade-esque vocal delivery, “Heavy Heart” both intrigues and entices, acting as both a warm blanket and a surprisingly effective shot in the arm.

Washer – Dog Go Bark + Bass 2

Washer have found a way to be the model of consistency throughout the past several years. Never anything less than superlative and steadily, continuously improving, their forthcoming All Aboard appropriately contains the strongest work of their career. The last two songs to be released in advance of the record stand as a proof positive clam of support. “Dog Go Bark” and “Bass 2” both operate in similar strong structures yet sound so radically different, it’s nearly impossible to notice. This is Washer at their absolute peak, churning out songs that are as memorable as they are explosive. Get swept up in the fray and never leave.

Madeline Kenney – Big One

The last time a round-up of the best songs to appear over the course of a small hiatus ran on this site, Madeline Kenney‘s “Always” found itself snugly situated among the featured tracks. Kenney continues that winning streak here with the sprawling “Big One”. Operating as the calm in the eye of a storm, “Big One” sees Kenney asserting will and tapping into a deep well of personal strength. Bold, provocative, and spellbinding, it goes a long way in proving that “Always” was no fluke.

Weakened Friends – Hate Mail

While Kendrick Lamar may still be the most sought after musician for a feature spot for most of the music world, a certain pocket of ’90s-indebted slacker punk bands would likely give that distinction to Dinosaur Jr‘s J Mascis. Rarely has Mascis been utilized more expertly or made more sense as a guest than the legendary guitarist does on “Hate Mail”. Weakened Friends comes out swinging on this track, conjuring both the spirit of a decade past and enough determination and innovation to continue to nudge that sound forward. It’s a monstrous song with a beautiful assist and should find a loving home in the libraries of people who still make their partners mix tapes.

Mike Caridi – Two Dogs

LVL UP‘s Mike Caridi has quietly been releasing some excellent music as The Glow and issuing out some equally impressive songs on soundcloud. “Two Dogs” may be one of Caridi’s finest. Recorded over a year ago, “Two Dogs” retains Caridi’s songwriting signatures, featuring everything from a breezy vocal melody to being a little battered by noise. It’s light, it’s fun, and — most importantly — it sticks. As is always the case with the best Caridi-authored tracks, one listen never feels like enough.

Grouper – Children

Recorded for Ruins but separated from the final product, “Children” stands as one of the most gentle and moving songs of Grouper‘s career. Released in part to benefit the Silvia Rivera Law Project, Transgender Law Center, and the Trans Assistance Project, “Children” stands as a testament to the empathy fueling Grouper’s most notable works. Calming at first blush, the song takes on a more sinister bent as the narrative comes into focus, painting a drastic duality between tone and message. By the time “Children” has fully revealed itself, it’s impossible to escape.

Strange Ranger – Sophie + House Show

Strange Ranger has gone on a commendable evolution over the past few years, resulting in the project’s most sterling  individual efforts. “Sophie” and “House Show” the first two tracks to tease the band’s upcoming Daymoon. Both exude the kind of spellbinding melancholy that informed their best work and see the band’s grip on songwriting tightening to the point where their knuckles turn collectively white. “Sophie” is the calm and “House Show” is the storm but both offer an endless array of rewards. This is the sound of a band coming into their own, unafraid to gamble or take cues, and expressing a singular identity with an abundance of conviction.

 

 

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.

15 of ’15: The Best EP’s of 2015

Slight I

Now that all the visual retrospectives are out of the way and the best live videos have been accounted for, it’s time to move onto the records in earnest. Over the course of the next several days there will be “best of” lists for the following categories: music videos, odds and ends (demos, 7″ records, compilations, etc.), songs, and albums. There will also be an Honorable Mentions devotion that covers a massive array of material from the majority of those categories. Following those lists will be the second installment of the A Year’s Worth of Memories series, which will once again feature a murderer’s row of contributors that have been pulled from both the music and film worlds.

For now, we’re turning our attention to the EP’s that made the most formidable impressions over the course of the past 12 months. Well over 100 titles were considered and then boiled down to the 15 that you see below (this was such a strong year for EP’s that the top 5 are essentially interchangeable). Before delving into those titles, it’s worth noting that “best” in the case– as it is in all cases– is just a meaningless formality and the list below is a reflection of subjectivity. I make no claim to be an authoritative voice in these matters, just a person that genuinely enjoys music and uses a platform as a means to attempt to elevate some of the acts that truly deserve to have their names in greater circulation. So, without further ado, here’s 15 of ’15: The Best EP’s of 2015.

15. Idle Bloom – Some Paranoia

Sometimes all you need to do is offer to help carry equipment to be introduced to incredible new bands, which is exactly how I met Callan Dwan, who I would come to learn is not only Mitski’s guitarist but one of the guitarists for two other acts as well: Dogtooth and Idle Bloom. The latter– a shoegaze-obsessed post-punk act (or is it the other way around?)– recently released their Some Paranoia EP, which stealthily builds its momentum in a clever, multifaceted way; not only do the majority of the songs work their way into a cacophonous frenzy but so does the EP as a whole. It’s an exhilarating listen from a promising emerging act and boasts one of the year’s best riffs.

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14. ThinLips – Your Divorce

An extraordinary opening track can do wonders for any release. An effective opening track will set a precedent and a tone for the ensuing material on the record. Your Divorce‘s opener “Nothing Weird” is both effective and extraordinary. Brandishing a compellingly damaged form of lo-fi leaning pop-punk, ThinLips crafted a vicious, compact stunner of an EP that comes across like a warning shot. In a genre that’s increasingly weakened by diminishing returns from the artists utilizing reverential approach, it’s heartening to see the more subversive acts releasing material that feels genuinely vital.

13. Bad Wig – Bad Wig

Before Bad Wig was Bad Wig, they were The Midwestern Charm, an act that worked their way from a sound that fell closer in line to Ryan Adams to crafting a record that fit better alongside the likes of The Lemonheads. A few member changes and stylistic shifts later, they’d carved out a new identity under their new name. Their introductory act is ferociously ragged and maybe even a little audacious. Most everything else there is to be said about this brilliant collection of punk-tinged micro-pop gems can was covered in last week’s review.

12. Potty Mouth – Potty Mouth

A lot of bands found surprisingly bold ways to shift their sound but none caught me as off-guard as Potty Mouth‘s fearless swan dive into the polished, arena-ready sounds of their self-titled EP. Opening with the skyward stretching of “Cherry Picking” and only building momentum from there, Potty Mouth could very easily signal a new era for a band that was formerly known for reveling in their scrappier tendencies. Every song on the EP connects with a staggering amount of force, nicely correlating with the self-possessed determination found at the root of nearly every song in this collection. Potty Mouth is the kind of rallying call that echoes.

11. Midwives – Cowboy Songs

After releasing a fierce full-length debut back in February, Midwives managed to top themselves as the year was drawing to a close. The shockingly immediate Cowboy Songs dishes out punishment at a startling rate and bristles with real emotion. Things kick off with the vicious “Back in the Saddle” and never look back from there, each subsequent song in this seven and a half minute collection of deranged hardcore acting as a flawless showcase of the band’s brute strength. Cowboy Songs is filled to the brim with the kind of hardcore that thrashes around wildly and refuses to be tamed.

10. Geronimo! – Buzz Yr Girlfriend: Vol. 4 – Why Did You Leave Me?

While a lot of people were justifiably saddened over the losses of Ovlov and Krill, it may have been the departure of Geronimo! that hit hardest. Granted, for the vast majority of my life, they were easily the closest to my location of that trio but the sentiment remains. At the very least, the trio went out on top with their final bow: Buzz Yr Girlfriend: Vol. 4 – Why Did You Leave Me?. Characteristically unwieldy, the band’s final three songs ranked among the best work of a deeply impressive career, each (justifiably) landing a premiere at a massive publication. Fitting levels of recognition for an overwhelmingly powerful final effort.

9. Teksti-TV 666 – 2

One of the biggest surprises of the year for me personally, this blistering EP from Finnish act Teksti-TV 666 practically qualifies as an album by today’s standards (its runtime is over 22 minutes). Full of surging basement pop that’s not too far off from the best of The Marked Men, the aptly named swings for the fences at every turn without hesitation. Incorporating a several-member guitar attack that may rival Diarrhea Planet’s, the band finds new avenues to explore as the record careens headfirst towards something concrete. After the fireworks of “Tuhatvuotinen Harharetki”, the band never lets up and goes on exploratory tangents at will. Psychedelic flourishes, sludge breakdowns, and a serious amount of momentum carry to its status as one of the best of 2015.

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8. Slight – Hate the Summer

Hate the Summer prompted a few difficult guideline decisions for this list: was it ethical to include an EP anchored by a song that premiered on this site and would a tape release of the EP that included the entirety of an online single that this site ranked as last year’s best be eligible for contention? The answers, obviously, were “absolutely” and “yes.” The latter line of questioning was the one that was scrutinized the most for this list and wound up excluding Meat Wave’s formidable Brother from eligibility (nearly half of the EP pulled from a variety of the band’s other releases, rendering it more of a padded compilation than an EP). With Hate the Summer, the band’s not only expanded the scope of their work but they’ve tapped into something with the three new songs on display here that have the potential to lift this project to new heights of outside recognition. Overall, it’s an important early piece of the trio’s developing history and deserves to be heard as many times as possible.

7. Midnight Reruns – Get Me Out

A staple of this site’s coverage since its introduction, Midnight Reruns rewarded that attention by taking a huge leap with this year with their two strongest releases to date, beginning with this bleary-eyed EP. The Tommy Stinson-produced “Ain’t Gonna Find” sets things in motion and establishes the band’s manic basement pop sensibilities in the early goings, with Graham Hunt’s million-words-a-minute delivery emboldened by the characteristically fierce lead guitar work between Hunt and Karl Giehl. From that blistering opening number, the band takes a step back and sinks their teeth into more left-field territory like the rollicking “Ancient Creature”, which boasts the instantly memorable chorus couplets of “I am the sun, I am the sea/I am an ancient creature/I was born in Madagascar/I was raised by lemurs” and a bruising cover of The Mistreaters’ “The Other Man”.

6. Sheer Mag – II

Another year, another Sheer Mag list placement. Expanding on everything that made the band so great right out of the gate, II was a natural extension of its predecessor, driven by the wild energy of its phenomenal closing track, “Button Up“. All of the glam influences remain and the band likely owes a remarkably huge debt to Marc Bolan but it’s hard to care about influences when the music manages to be so ridiculously entertaining. People will talk about how ’50s pop seeps in around the band’s roughest edges but really, they should probably just stop talking and start dancing. Scrappy and deliriously fun, II‘s another triumph.

5. Diet Cig – Over Easy

No EP soundtracked more aimless drives for me this year than Diet Cig‘s endearingly jubilant Over Easy, which served a necessary reminder that sometimes the most important function music can have is a sense of joy. In the face of a horrifying year in the news, an onslaught of overly-serious releases, and a general downcast pall, Over Easy was a breath of fresh air; a pair of young musicians finding their voice. Every song on Over Easy is memorable not just for its irreverence but for its uncompromising energy and impressive levels of commitment. Warm weather anthems abound and guitarist/vocalist Alex Luciano gets to deliver one of the year’s most scathing kiss-off’s in the final track’s most rousing section.

4. LVL UP – Three Songs

In 2014, site favorites LVL UP topped this site’s Albums of the Year list with ease thanks to the overwhelming brilliance of Hoodwink’d, which was the most perfect distillation of the respective voices of the band’s three principal songwriters to date. Three Songs continues that trend in miniature, allotting a song a piece from Dave Benton, Mike Caridi, and Nick Corbo. All three bring a palpable sense of weariness to the proceedings, immediately rendering this LVL UP’s moodiest record. From the spiky micro-pop of “Blur” to book-ends “The Closing Door” and “Proven Water Rites”, there’s never a dull moment and the band, once again, leave their guts on the table before walking out the door.

3. Ernie – Dog Park

Occasionally, a single song can elevate an already-strong release to unthinkable proportions, which is exactly what happens with Ernie’s delightful Dog Park and its monumental centerpiece, “Sweatpants“. While all four songs contained in Dog Park are memorable and have an impressive host of great moments, it’s the frantic, hook-laden “Sweatpants” that brings the collection together and enhances its immediate surroundings. A surging jolt of relatable discontentment emphasized by a vicious undercurrent of basement pop aesthetics, “Sweatpants” becomes Dog Park‘s definitive moment and simultaneously becomes an unwitting microcosm of 2015’s prevailing sense of disillusionment before turning on that notion in defiance and letting loose a series of blows. Dog Park‘s status as one of 2015’s great releases is cemented in the process.




2. Tenement – Tenement

No band was written about more- or in greater detail- throughout the course of 2015 than Tenement. For nearly 10 years, I’ve been clutching at mostly empty air while damaging my lungs screaming at seemingly empty rooms to go listen to this band. 2015 was the year where everyone started listening. Of the band’s three releases throughout the past 12 months, their self-titled effort was by far the least discussed. Originally released as a limited-run cassette for one of their early tours, the trio decided to release it to the general public several months later, potentially realizing that it deserved a much wider audience. Focusing on the band’s underlying roots, country, folk, and soul influences without ever completely sacrificing their punk bite, Tenement‘s easily the band’s most easygoing collection as well as its most immediately timeless. Keep its open-road sensibilities in mind for your next long drive.

1. Cende – Cende

Capping off an extraordinary year for drummer (and occasional guitarist) Greg Rutkin (LVL UP, Slight, Normal Person, etc.) was Cende’s explosive self-titled debut, which was recently released online (the bandcamp lists the official release as January 1). The band’s been playing these songs out for a while and garnered heavy coverage from this site during its extended Brooklyn residency. An LP is due out in 2016 as well and, after this EP and the live previews, it’s already one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016. Taking cues from acts like Radioactivity, Cende has already perfected their blend of searing basement pop and unforgiving basement punk. Only two of these songs- including “Widow”, the opening track and one of the year’s finest- go over the 90 second mark and all of them boast hooks powerful enough to keep pulling the listener back, making Cende an endlessly replayable gift. It’s a monstrous release from a band refusing to aim for anything other than greatness and continuous improvement. Cende is one hell of a starting point.

2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 5

Johanna Warren I

Throughout the course of 2015 I’ve been fortunate enough to attend upwards of 100 shows, festivals big and small, and spend approximately half a year living in a city that hosted a mind-boggling amount of quality shows on a nightly basis. To that end, it’s probably unsurprising that I wound up taking over 10,000 photos this year alone. Over the course of the next few days, this site will be running seven volumes of the shots that stood out as personal favorites, whether that was due to their composition, sentimental attachment, or an intangible emotional or intellectual response. It’s been an honor to be able to take even the smallest part in the ongoing sagas of the artists in the photographs below and an additional thanks is due to the venues that allowed me to shoot (as well as the people who encouraged me to keep shooting).

Enjoy the gallery.

2014: A Year’s Worth of Memories, Pt. 1

I don’t know where to begin. In all honest, at this very moment, I’m at a complete and total loss. The support and kindness lent to me and this thing that I’ve created has been gratifying beyond reason and some of the responses to the things I’ve shot, written, and posted over the past year (and some change) have been overwhelming on a deeply personal level. When I first started Heartbreaking Bravery, I did it so I could write about the things I love and publish them more immediately than an outside editing process would allow. I did it to keep myself in practice with writing. I did it so that there could be another outlet, no matter how small, to lend a greater focus to marginalized artists. I did it to celebrate DIY music, to celebrate great publications, and to celebrate great writers. I did it so I could write about live music documentation and so I could analyze the contents of great music videos. At no point did I expect to gain support from the people behind the art I loved. I did it so I could explore something like the idea that Sasha Geffen- a writer that I greatly admire and a friend that I greatly appreciate- helped me develop on a trip to Kentucky; a year-end piece that focused on moments in music rather than relying solely on individual lists of top albums or songs. At no point did I expect the site- or the idea- to start expanding into what they have become.

2014 was an extraordinary year for music. I listened to more new music than I ever have in the past, met some extraordinary people, became aware of a lot more things that were happening across the DIY landscape, and saw some people I know and admire start succeeding on greater levels.  Today, it’s my absolute privilege to share with you the first portion of something I’ve been working on relentlessly for the past few months. Below is a compilation of musicians, label heads, music video directors, artists, and writers whose work I’ve admired from afar for lengths of time. Each of them has contributed a recollection of the music-related things that meant something to them throughout the past year. More parts of this series will be running throughout the week to grant the pieces the emphasis they deserve. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be hosting all of these pieces and am eternally grateful to each contributor. A quick note to them: each of you, whether you knew it or not, meant something to me before all of this insanity kicked off and you all now have my undying gratitude in addition to my unfailing admiration. So, without further ado, it’s my absolute honor to present: Heartbreaking Bravery’s 2014: A Year’s Worth of Memories, Pt. 1.

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Deserving of Gratitude

2014: the year my mom died, I got married and we released Tropical Jinx all within three weeks. Yes, really. It was the year of a lot of heartbreak and a lot of love. In May we found out my mother had stage four cancer, and a very short five months later we lost her to it. I wrote a eulogy two weeks after I wrote my wedding vows. I slept in hospitals for weeks. Music, whether I was listening to it, performing it, writing it, or interacting with its community, played a huge part in giving me strength and helping me through.

Things I’m grateful for in the year 2014:

“The Struggle”

In March, Ian (Little Big League’s drummer) and I (Michelle+Ian=MACHINE) turned twenty-five in front of exactly four people in a giant, brightly lit college auditorium. We debuted all of Tropical Jinx, played our entire discography in chronological order to two friends who’d come with us, and the sound guy and booker who watched us from two folding chairs in the back while smoking e-cigarettes. At the end of the show some old guy somehow affiliated with the school gave us our $500 check and asked if we had played two sets of one hour as the college had apparently requested in a contract that was never sent to us. I drank a can of high life in the van and maybe cried a little bit on the dark four-hour drive home while reflecting on what Max Stern from Signals Midwest and I refer to as a prime example of “The Struggle”.

Cleveland, in general

Everyone is always like—Cleveland sucks! Why on earth would anyone want to go there? It’s not even like we have some huge following in Cleveland. So why is it that anytime I tour, even if it’s five to six hours out of the way, I will play a show in Cleveland? And the reason is—Cleveland fucking rules! Every time I’ve gone to Cleveland I have had an amazing time. Even when we were sick and our van broke down in Cleveland we got put up in the craziest house I’ve ever seen. It looked like a sixties opium den. Lava lamps, fur rugs, and Soviet army hats were everywhere. We played Magic: The Gathering there for like eight hours while our van was getting fixed. Big ups to Jesse from Cherry Cola Champions! He is the nicest dude and has booked like every single one of our shows in Cleveland!

Also an awesome Cleveland person, Nina Holzer (who I know only by touring through Cleveland), always puts us up and is just everything you want in a badass, music-loving woman. Watching Bars of Gold play Brite Winter Fest in a filled-to-the-brims bike shop. These dudes have lived the struggle twice as long as I have and put on the most raucous show I’ve ever seen. Watching my friend get so drunk he tried to take a swig from a roll of duct tape before proceeding to fall asleep standing up during Bars of Gold’s set. Falling on my ass a million times while loading out of said bike shop in February on hard iced over snow, post so many shots of fireball. Happy Dog, where I got tater tots with a can of SpaghettiO’s and fried egg piled on top. What the fuck. You go, Cleveland.

People who spoke the fuck up

Meredith Graves from Perfect Pussy, Christian Holden from The Hotelier, Max Stern from Signals Midwest. Joyce Manor. Saintseneca. Fuck anyone who says you aren’t hard. How could anyone get upset with an artist who chooses not to work with other artists or promoters who were publicly accused of domestic violence and rape? Or for stopping a show because young, stoked girls at the front are getting pummeled by dudes twice their size, making them feel even more like they don’t belong there? The answer is —a lot, apparently.

I got socked in the face by a drunk front dude this year because I got all girls-to-the-front and wasn’t going to let two really aggressive moshers get in the way of supporting my friend’s band. And then I get hit in the face by the front man! This is a friend of mine, who didn’t apologize, because he thought I was punk enough or something and would think it was funny. Uh, dude. No! It means something when a front person says hey, let’s have fun, but look the fuck out for each other. Do you know how cool it is to watch people propelled to mosh around and crowd surf when your band plays live? It’s awesome! It very rarely ever happens at a Little Big League show, but every time it happens, I am so excited! I feel so fucking cool! I can’t imagine having the true good person-ness and lack of ego to say, hey, I can tell from here things are getting out of hand, cut it the fuck out. These people were just so impressively outspoken about what just seems so obviously right and fair, all the while under the spotlight of vicious online commentators and at the risk of losing what little money they probably make. Also, Azealia Banks! I just watched this interview and it is just so real and important and emotional. The way the two dudes in the interview condescend to her just drives me nuts. Just—bravo, thank you, and I’m sorry the world is so fucking horrible.

Albums, EP’s & Singles

Azealia Banks’ Broke With Expensive Taste, Spirit of the Beehive’s s/t, Mitski’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, LVL Up’s Hoodwink’d, The Hotelier’s Home, Like No Place Is There Is, Mr. Twin Sister’s s/t, Alex G’s DSU, Frankie Cosmo’s Zentropy, Perfect Pussy’s Say Yes To Love, FKA Twigs’ LP1, Crying’s Get Olde/Second Wind, Chad Van Gaalen’s Shrink Dust, Perfume Genius’ Too Bright, Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Hundred Waters’ Murmurs, Makthaverskan’s II, and all the Ovlov and Porches. singles that came out this year.

Touring with Foxing & The Hotelier

This was our last big tour before I moved back to Oregon to be with my family. There was a lot of anxiety waiting for the dust of a hard, second chemo treatment to settle and see if we’d beaten it or not. I cried a lot because I just felt so guilty being away from my family during such a hard time. But it was also just the best tour ever. The Hotelier and Foxing are the very best dudes and are so, so hard working and talented and real. We went to Typhoon Lagoon. We went night swimming in Ft. Lauderdale. Christian Holden is just my hero. JP from Rescuer and I talked hours into the night like little girls in Tampa and I got to feed his terrifying, giant pet pig an enormous zucchini.

Wedding Songs

When we found out my mother’s cancer was terminal, my family went to Korea for a last vacation and as a way for my mother to say goodbye to her country. Our plans were shot down. My mom became violently ill and had to stay in the hospital the entire two weeks we were there. I slept there, by her side, every single night. We were planning an emergency medical evacuation to get back to the states. I called my partner from the hospital. I asked him to marry me. I asked him because I knew it would make my mom hold on a little longer. Because I didn’t want things to end that way. I wanted it to end with flowers and macaroons and my mom watching her only kid get married. Because I was in love, and it would have broken my heart if we’d just waited and she wasn’t there when the day did come around.

I saw my mother’s face light up as I walked down the aisle to Smog’s “Mother of the World”, and walked away, hand in hand with my partner to Wilco’s “She’s a Jar”. Summerteeth has gotten me through every single break up of my life, and to be all shit, I am a jar with a heavy lid and to find someone that just opens you up and loves all of you as you walk together to a buffet table lined with Korean BBQ? That’s a great feeling.

-Michelle Zauner (Little Big League, Japanese Breakfast)

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Favorite Music Moment of 2014 — Ex­-Cult at MACROCK

Every April, I take a trip to Harrisonburg, Virginia for MACROCK. The independent music festival is a two­day event in the Blue Ridge Mountains that I coordinated with a team of my friends in college. (MACROCK was once associated with James Madison University, but no longer receives funding from the school and is now a DIY production.) In the past, I’ve lost my voice by the end of the weekend from a combination of singing along, drinking, and catching up with my friends who either still live there or made the same annual pilgrimage I did. This year was no different. I got to see rad bands like Ex Hex, Amanda X, and Charly Bliss for the first time at Clementine. I watched the totally silly madness that unfolds without fail in that town during a Diarrhea Planet show. I discovered teenage sister duo Skating Polly as they tore up the Blue Nile stage, trading off guitar, bass, and Kliph Scurlock’s drum kit. But Ex-­Cult was the band that made this MACROCK particularly exceptional.

When I first discovered the Memphis punk band last year, I became obsessed with their self­-titled record. It was unruly but focused, an album overcome with vicious hysteria but anchored by tight instrumental skill. I had seen them live once before — at 285 Kent in Brooklyn the previous October — but that was before I’d spent much time with their recordings. My best friend Marisa’s band, Vulgar, played some shows with them and hearing her talk about Ex­-Cult’s chaotic sets got me more than stoked to see them again at MACROCK. She didn’t get too specific, but urged, “You need to see them tonight.” Her word was good enough for me.

I skipped their official MACROCK show at Clementine for the after­show at my friend’s house, My Mansion. It was well past 2am when Ex­-Cult started playing, late enough that I had sobered up and reached the point of existing in a hazy blur, as is common by the end of MACROCK weekend. The room in which Ex-­Cult played (one that I helped paint an unappetizing shade of orange many moons ago), was tiny. There’s always a mattress propped up on the back wall, though it’s been known to make its way on top of the crowd, usually carrying some adventurous show­goer. But that was the vibe of MACROCK itself: A weekend-­long party for downtown Harrisonburg, one that kicks off Thursday night. And right in the middle of this city­wide party was an aggro band playing a small room around 3am.

It wasn’t warm outside yet, maybe in the 40’s or 50’s at this point, but it felt like I sweat more in that hour than I have in my life. I had no idea they would play for that long — Ex­-Cult was a punk band after all. I guessed 20 minutes tops. But Midnight Passenger was due out later that month and they must have played their entire catalog. The raucous corkscrew melody of “Knives on Both Sides” soundtracked bodies slamming against walls, “M.P.D.” riled up drunken attendees with metallic, discordant chord progressions, and one of my favorites, “Shot the Beehive” even had Marisa crowdsurfing. J.B. Horrell stared the crowd down with wild-­eyed sternness throughout, expertly shredding through garage-­psych solos without missing a beat. Chris Shaw growled out sinister lyrics with more violence and frenzy than
could ever be felt from their recordings. I was blown away. It may sound hyperbolic- but it’s true.

I know that it is because I don’t normally hang out in the middle of the crowd during punk sets. I’m skinny, I wear glasses, and just generally don’t enjoy close contact with other humans, even if half of those humans are my friends. But getting to watch Ex-­Cult was worth any sweat and bruises that might come from sticking around and getting into the thick of it. I was constantly squeezed in between roughly four other people, so much so that my bra came undone on its own from all the bending, pushing, and shoving. Everyone was going totally nuts as I focused on the utterly impressive and consistent musicianship of this band as kids constantly crashed into them for a solid hour.

Eventually I had to leave — before their last song or two — due to heat and dehydration. I stumbled outside, my hair completely damp, and I must have looked like a rat that just crawled out of a sewer. I collapsed outside on some concrete next to my friend to recover. All I could think was, “I can’t wait to see them again.”

-Tess Duncan (writer/editor, Wondering Sound)

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Ricky Eat Acid’s Three Love Songs

A package from Orchid Tapes showed up on my doorstep at the end of a very snowy and cold February.  Inside the box was a piece of hard candy, a bag of tea, a small thank-you note, and a copy of Ricky Eat Acid’s Three Love Songs on baby blue vinyl.  I had first become privy to Sam Ray’s electronic project at the advent of the new year; I was initially drawn in by the pulsating “In my dreams we’re almost touching” but soon found myself emotionally attached to his more melancholic compositions which favored the juxtaposition of faint piano melodies with washes of white noise and feedback.

I was fresh out of an upper-level composition and history class on electronic music and my discovery of Ricky Eat Acid allowed me to make the rare, immediate connection from the classroom to the real world.  I could hear hints of Hugh Le Caine and I noticed a very conscious use of space consistent with a minimalist approach to composition- but I could also listen to Three Love Songs without ever trying to dissect the nuances of its construction.  It was soothing and fluid and soon proved to be one of the rare albums that I could routinely get lost inside of.  I made do with the digital version while my physical copy was packaged and shipped but I carved out some listening time on the evening the album arrived.

Up until the needle dropped, Three Love Songs had primarily served as my soundtrack to the frigid Wisconsin winter that was exacting vengeance on my city, its drones and swells mirroring the stillness of frozen trees and the punishing gusts of wind they would occasionally succumb to. In an indoor setting, however, the album radiated warmth and revealed its true sense of polarity.  Alone in my bedroom with eyes closed to avoid any visual distractions or associations, Three Love Songs began to more clearly dictate an entire spectrum of emotions, from haunting uncertainty to elation to what can only be described as a consoling embrace.  I began to truly connect with the album’s intimacy during that span of forty-five minutes lying on my bedroom floor, and Three Love Songs consequently served as my musical compass of 2014, a personal reference point that has kept me grounded throughout one hell of a year.

-Sam Clark (founder, Dimestore Saints)

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HEY HALLWAYS “ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART FORGET”

Radiator Hospital toured out to California this summer- and while it was by far my best experience of the year- that is not what I want to write about. There’s too much, so let me focus on one part, which is the folks of the Bay Area and the art they produce. Maybe it’s a combination of the opposite sea’s salt and the genuine personalities of the friends I’ve made, but it all feels so real and true. A lot of these people probably have no idea, because in the grand scheme of friendship our ranks may be low, but I really cherish the heart-to-hearts I’ve had with some of them. Overcoming grief, self-doubt, and our own demons dominate many of the conversations we’ve had and they’ve truly split me open. And so, I was honored to play (the last show) at the House of the Dead Rat in San Jose. It was, by far, my favorite show of the five-week tour. Aside from Radiator Hospital, the show included Try the Pie, Joyride!, Pigeon Island, Wuv, and Tall Can. Surrounded by some of my favorite people and musicians, it felt like a dreamy haze.

At the end of the night, Jason Brownstein handed me a tape of his solo music. Jason’s one of those people I’ve mentioned above whose friendship and conversation I hold dear. We’ve discussed our fears of creating and pushing ourselves, something he even mentioned when handing me the tape, so I was wild about him releasing his solo music. Radiator Hospital put it on in the van when we left San Jose for Southern California and I immediately knew that it would be one of my favorite releases of 2014.

Jason plays in Joyride! and Permanent Ruin, but in June he quit his day job so he could write his first solo record in 6 years. Hey Hallways’ Absence Makes the Heart Forget is a collection of five songs that remind me of why I got into punk in the first place. You can hear the fear and conquering in every note and every word. Fierce guitars and melodic vocals envelope Jason’s thoughtful and self-aware lyrics. They question how he got to where he is, how he sometimes slips, and how he can move forward. In between songs are recorded pieces of conversations with his father, a seemingly complicated relationship perhaps addressed in the opener, “Proven Facts”. On side B is a 9-minute piece of lyric-less music that, for me, serves as a moment of self-reflection. The piece was recorded in 2011, two years prior to the tracks on side A but with the addition of his father’s voice. Side B says to me that we need the past to push us forward, to move us in the direction we want to go. Ending the tape on this note from long ago is a perfect nonlinear conclusion.

On the track, “Anything At All”, Jason sings the following:

Is it enough to justify spending all my time thinking about myself or how I got this mind or how to dispose of it or spending all my time trying to help somebody else? I’d rather wait inside, but I’m lucky to feel anything at all.

I think such thoughts every day. I go to therapy and spend a great deal of time on me, and sometimes I feel guilty for it. They could come off as selfish, these things we do, but they’re not. The music, the self-improvement, and the conquering of emotional pasts and presents are the things we need to get by in this life. Things aren’t easy in Absence Makes the Heart Forget and we are better for it.  Where there was once forgetting, there is now remembering. There are feelings buried deep that have resurfaced and there are new feelings where there was once old dark holes. Hey Hallways confidently unearths a plethora of emotions and creates a truly resonate release. None of these emotions are anything we haven’t heard before- they are the same old feelings most of us deal with daily- but Hey Hallways presents them to us in a refreshing way and I’m glad to call Jason a friend who sheds new light on dark days.

-Cynthia Ann Schemmer (Radiator Hospital, solo artist, managing editor, She Shreds)

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Releasing Zentropy

In January of 2014, LVL UP sat in a Holiday Inn somewhere in Indiana, after an 11 hour driving day doing 25 mph on a sheet of ice highway. The arctic vortex was in full swing, and sort of bumming us out, having cancelled what looked to be some really awesome shows with Pity Sex. Earlier that day Dave and I had posted the pre-orders to Frankie Cosmos’s Zentropy, the first LP we would put out as Double Double Whammy. Being totally unsure about how well the record would sell, we ordered a modest 300 records for first press. So, after having a really stressful and scary driving day in a white out blizzard, we finally got a chance to check our emails at the motel. Well, at some point during that day things had really snowballed (pun intended) for the Frankie pre-order- and to our complete amazement we had received 100+ preorders in less than 24 hours. From that moment on we knew that Frankie Cosmos would soon take over the world. That was a real standout moment in music for DDW!

-Michael Caridi & Dave Benton (Double Double Whammy, LVL UP)

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Women In Music 

I’ve been so inspired by all of the women kicking ass in this past year. The ones who kicked ass didn’t do it subtly and I think that has been my favorite thing about 2014. Also, Jawbreaker Reunion.

-Shari Heck (Cyberbully Mom Club)

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2014 in Six Parts

I stayed up until three in the morning, and I still can’t remember everyone I saw this year and everything I heard this year and I can’t figure out all of my feelings about this year. I’ve been listening to Liz Pelly’s voice memos for inspiration. I want to say something elegant and resonant, but I’ve been failing, so here are my disorganized musings.

1.

I used to be afraid of interviewing anyone, because I have lived my entire life under the impression that I have nothing interesting to say and that I ask weird questions. I have tried to take up as little space as possible in order to avoid bothering anyone else. I have often dreamed of disappearing.

Even though I have spent quite a bit of time this year working to unlearn a history of self-hate, sometimes I am still terrified to speak, so I wonder how I held conversations with Cynthia Schemmer and Meredith Graves and Katie Crutchfield without visibly freaking out.

Cynthia and Meredith and Katie are three of my heroes.

I still think about how Cynthia said that sometimes she’ll write an essay, then rip it apart and write it again, differently. I still think about what Meredith said about writing songs as a way to transform sadness. I still think about how Katie explained her writing process, how she takes forever to craft images.

Perhaps these conversations sparked a little bit of personal confidence. I realized that I am not insignificant. I realized that I am capable of forming friendships with women who inspire me. I realized that I can connect with others through honesty.

2.

I was wearing a black skirt and tights and boots the day I wandered through the rain into Queens to see Priests and Downtown Boys for the first time. Katie Alice Greer talked about how she feels like Downtown Boys are not afraid of anything.

I am afraid of everything.

During one of her speeches between songs, Victoria Ruiz said that we should no longer be bodies defined by borders but beings created by liberation. Perhaps this will sound hyperbolic, but I felt like part of a revolution. I felt electric. I felt inspired and empowered.

And I realized that I have a voice.

3.

I saw Neutral Milk Hotel. Afterwards, I could hardly speak.

4.

I thought about leaving New York while standing by the East River and freezing and listening to All Dogs.

I thought more about leaving New York while walking down a street that smelled like snow and pepper and dead fish and listening to Great Thunder.

I thought even more about leaving New York while walking back from the library as fast as I could and trying to stave off a panic attack and listening to Perfect Pussy.

5.

One night while cleaning up the kitchen, I put on Radiator Hospital, and I collapsed to the floor in tears, because I realized that I was living inside “Our Song“.

6.

“This would all be so much easier if I had nothing more to say”

Angel Olsen gets me.

-Caroline Rayner (writer, Tiny Mix Tapes, The Le Sigh)

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Discovering Girlpool

Last summer, at the suggestion of one of my professors, I decided that it was absolutely crucial for Charly Bliss to embark on our first tour. We all live in New York, so of course it probably would have made more sense financially to tour the East Coast, but I’ve never been one for practicality. Instead, we decided we would fly to Seattle the day after school ended and careen down the west coast in my best friend’s grandmother’s van.

Anyone who has ever booked a tour by themselves will tell you that it involves constant anxiety and the replies to your zillions of sent “Hey! We’re a band from New York and we would love to play with you in San Francisco/Olympia/LA…” e-mails are few and far between. When it came time to actually book our flights, I lied to the band, telling them that I was finished booking, when in reality I had only confirmed three shows.

It was right around then, after much Facebook band page surfing, that I discovered Girlpool. I can’t really describe it any way other than kind of magical, which sounds stupid, but is true. Digital interactions usually feel really blah, but finding Girlpool’s page reminded me of the first time I realized that I could look for music myself and not just listen to whatever my older brothers or my parents liked; subsequently gobbling up every Rilo Kiley song I could find and feeling like I had some special secret on my iPod as I rode the bus to and from middle school.

Listening to their music felt like that- like a secret. Like listening to someone’s diary, which is a songwriting cliche, but also true. In The Punk Singer, when Kathleen Hanna talks about her 1998 Julie Ruin record she says, “It sounds like you could hear a human being’s fingers all over it.” That’s what Girlpool sounds like. When I saw the obscure allusion to The Princess Diaries in their bio, I thought it was too good to be true.

A few months later, at the very end of our tour, we played with them at Pehrspace and I remember being really shocked by how the room was simultaneously silent and electric while they played. No one was checking their cellphone or anything, everyone was totally absorbed. The show happened to fall on the night that Cleo was graduating from high school and I still feel really honored that we got to be a part of it. We also played with SUSAN and Feels and I remember being awestruck the whole night. I didn’t even want to drink after the show, we just went and got milkshakes and talked through the night like forty times.

But really this is all exposition because my favorite moment in music this year was watching Girlpool open for Jenny Lewis at Terminal Five. Harmony and Cleo lived on my couch for a few weeks in October/November while they were in New York for CMJ, and as spellbinding as every Girlpool show I’ve ever seen has been, seeing them play for thousands of people, and opening for my all-time hero of all heroes, after having spent three weeks together watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, talking at length about being away from home for the first time, eating despicable amounts of Thai food… I guess, generally getting to know both of them for the two huge-hearted whip-smart g00fballs that they are, was really special.

While they were in the middle of “Alone at the Show” I tweeted “I LOVVVVEEE BEEEEINNNNGGG AAAA GIRRRRLLLL!!!!!!” from the balcony, and that’s exactly how I felt. As several witnesses can attest, Cleo’s parents included, I cried the whole way through.

-Eva Grace Hendricks (Charly Bliss)

LVL UP – Big Snow (Stream)

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What a day. There was no obvious choice for a feature until LVL UP’s “Big Snow” premiered over at Impose. On the surface, that’s a bland statement- but looking at the company that “Big Snow” joined today, it’s one hell of a testament to LVL UP.  In the single song department there were some legitimately great songs: Run The Jewels’ pulverizing new (Zach De La Rocha-featuring) scorcher “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)“, Dollface’s impossibly breezy indie pop gem “Churchyard“, Daddy Issues’ distortion-laden post-punk dirge “Ugly When I Cry“, and  a bracing new Crow Bait song- “Separate Stations“- that incorporates members of Iron Chic. There was also Dasher’s foreboding noise-punk minimalism piece, “Teeth“, as well as Vetter Kids’ “I’m Just Your Newest Bluest” which is a perfect representation of the band’s modernist take on classic 90’s emo and noise-punk. “A Million Random Digits” proved that …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are far from being done while Wedding Dress’ “Somewhere Darker” makes it clear that Wedding Dress are anxious to make their introduction to the world.

Cellphone also posited themselves as a band ready to make a notable entrance with an enticing and mysterious trailer to promote their upcoming Excellent Condition. Denmark’s Mimas returned to the fold in a big way with the characteristically impressive live-edit clip for “Kissinger’s Jaw” (fans of Exploding in Sound who aren’t well-versed in Big Scary Monsters would do well to take note of this one) and Tangerine released a delightful video for another indie-pop keeper, “You’ll Always Be Lonely”. Ex Hex got in on the action as well, releasing a knockout video for Rips highlight (one of many) “Waterfall“. For full streams there were stunners from The Grayces, Thurston Moore, and a mildly insane (and wildly heavy) split between Big Neck Police and Dog.

Everything hyperlinked in the two paragraphs above stands as both a great way to share music worth listening to and acts as a very long-winded way of saying that featuring “Big Snow” wasn’t a foregone conclusion- at least not until the riff kicked in at the :26 mark. It’s the third song to be streamed from a just-released split between LVL UP, Krill, Ovlov, and Radiator Hospital. “Big Snow” is a song that’s actually been featured on this site before in an admittedly roundabout way- it was the feature piece in the band’s Serious Business session that was featured on Watch This. Even with Hoodwink’d being one of this site’s top contenders (if not top contender) for Album of the Year honors, “Big Snow” manages to stand out as one of the best songs to spring out of the band’s discography.

Having just seen LVL UP take the roof off of Chicago’s Beat Kitchen (pictured above, more to come on that later), it’s allowed the cementing of some previously-held opinions in regards to how the band functions. First and foremost; this is a truly collaborative effort with everything working as a complement to its surrounding elements at an obscenely high level. Second, this music works best as a victory lap for the disenfranchised; it’s both a rousing call to action and a well-meaning embrace for the people who were told they’d never live up to their potential or lived on the fringes of culture. LVL UP’s never been one to shy away from the unconventional (or the irreverent) and that’s a trait that takes bravery to embody. “Big Snow” hints at all of these elements and includes a rare treat; every one of the band’s vocalists (Dave Benton, Nick Corbo, and Mike Caridi, respectively) joins in for one last rousing harmony run before that surging, blissed-out guitar riff rallies the song to its fade-out finish. If Hoodwink’d wasn’t already proof, “Big Snow” certainly cements what’s become an unavoidable fact: LVL UP are one of today’s best bands and they deserve all the accolades that are bound to fall their way.

Listen to “Big Snow” below and pre-order the split it’s on from Double Double Whammy here.

LVL UP – Hoodwink’d (Album Review, Stream)

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Ever since LVL UP let “Soft Power” loose on the world, it was clear that they were operating on another level entirely; a really good band achieving greatness. The three songs that followed- “I Feel Ok“, “DBTS“, and “Ski Vacation“, respectively- all continued to enhance the expanding promise of Hoodwink’d, the record they were previewing. Each of the four songs had a very distinct style, lending some additional credence to the individual members’ stylistic tendencies towards creating songs that work perfectly as standalone numbers but function best as a complementary package. To that end, it’s probably not surprising that Hoodwink’d feels like a career best-of retrospective, despite the fact it’s only the band’s second full-length.

When LVL UP started, their approach was to simply write good, short pop songs. It was a winsome trait that helped establish them as New York’s finest purveyors of outsider pop- and defined Step Brothers, their outstanding introductory effort. While Hoodwink’d still operates in similar territory (the title track is 39 seconds, after all), their sonic palette is broadened considerably and allows for a step up from the band’s previously lo-fi production tactics, which winds up providing the band with a greater sense of urgency. Frequently droll (and fiercely witty) lyrics collide with a sharp immediacy and a murderer’s row of spectacular melodies in just about every one of Hoodwink’d‘s 15 songs, simultaneously one of 2014’s most diverse and unified non-compilation records.

From the drum shuffle that kicks everything off in “Angel From Space” to the fuzz-heavy feedback that draws the whole thing to its close, LVL UP inject Hoodwink’d with the sort of brazen confidence that usually suggests a band operating at the height of their powers. Throw in a sense of subtle ennui (usually manifested in the vocal performances), a seriously impressive slew of impassioned arrangements, and a staggering amount of personality and Hoodwink’d becomes even more compelling. Importantly, it should heavily resonate with a few of this generation’s subsets by virtue of being an astonishingly accurate presentation of the aspects by which they’re generally defined. All of that is circumstantial, though, and would never have come into play if it weren’t for one inescapable fact: this is an astoundingly great record.

Virtually every aspect of the band’s early promise is capitalized on in thrilling fashion, with each member consistently turning in career-best performances all throughout Hoodwink’d. These are songs that feel completely of-the-moment but have a sense of an indefinable timelessness, hinting that this may be a record with the kind of longevity most bands spend entire careers trying to produce. Whether it’s the fractured basement pop of “I Feel Extra-Natural” (which is one of several songs to feature auxiliary vocal work from Elaiza Santos), the relatively downtrodden “Hex“, or the unease-and-resolve back-and-forth of “Medication“, none of the material on display feels even remotely esoteric. Moreover, LVL UP seem to have pinpointed a new propensity for absurdly engaging material that also heavily rewards investment. All of which is just to simply state, once again (and this can’t be emphasized enough), this is an astoundingly great record

From song-to-song, there are no weak links to be found. It’s a masterpiece in miniature, something that perfectly reflects the punk-leaning micro-pop songs that are responsible for the bulk of the record. Everything that LVL UP put into Hoodwink’d seems to serve several purposes with an unfailing consistency. Even examining the aspects of the record that most cast off as unimportant, like sequencing and mastering, it’s difficult to find any glaring flaws. Sure, the brand of music the band traffics in will probably always fall into critical acclaim more easily than commercial success but that’s frequently the price of artistic integrity- something LVL UP has in spades. Ultimately, what LVL UP have wound up with isn’t just a career-making exclamation point, it’s a record that may very well wind up being viewed as one of 2014’s most definitive entries into today’s constantly shifting musical landscape- and it’s an absolute stunner.

Listen to Hoodwink’d below and order it from one of today’s best labels, Double Double Whammy (who teamed up with Exploding in Sound for this release), here.