Since his 2007 breakthrough album, Spiderman Of The Rings, Dan Deacon has assumed numerous roles. He’s a staple of Baltimore’s Wham City art collective — and a classically-trained composer and film scorer. On stage, he’s a mad scientist tinkering with colorful electronics — and a ringleader encouraging his wild fans in absurdist dance-offs. Likewise, his music delivers both exquisite bliss and full-on beat-heavy cacophony. But no matter the setting, Deacon’s unfettered sense of humor and his masterful ear for sonic textures unify his various music sides in endlessly exciting ways.
Now, after several records written for larger ensembles, Deacon has gone solo once again with his latest, Gliss Riffer. In some ways, it’s a return to what he’s best known for: exuberant and densely-stuffed electronic dance music. And while singing has always played some part Deacon’s songs, Gliss Riffer showcases his voice more fully. You can hear that immediately in the lead single, “Feel The Lightning,” and in “Learning To Relax” — where Deacon changes the pitch or timbre of his voice to sometimes sound female — like a duet with himself. It’s a big pop-infused sound that easily got fans flailing with awkward abandon on the dance floor at Rough Trade in Williamsburg.
The Philly-based power punk band Swearin’ is one of the groups that was born after the break-up of P.S. Eliot, a much-loved indie rock band from twin sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield. While the Crutchfields have gone their separate ways — Katie with her solo project Waxahatchee, and Alison with the noisier Swearin’ — both share an honest lyrical sentiment with songs that reflect on restlessness and crumbling relationships.
Swearin’ plays rebelliously fast and fuzzy songs meant to be cranked up loud, but with smart lyrics about youthful detachment and personal troubles that should be heard. But where, the four-piece’s first self-titled record felt shifted towards Crutchfield’s point of view — especially on songs like “Kenosha” or “Just” — the songs on the its just-released followup, Surfing Strange, redistribute the voices more evenly between Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride — and even bassist Keith Spencer on “Melonoma.”
In songs like the opening basher “Dust In The Gold Sack,” Crutchfield takes lead with a softer, impossibly melodic tone above the squalling feedback. Yet the very next song, “Watered Down,” it’s Gilbride’s shout front and center. Ultimately, Surfing Strange is another fine collection of honest and cathartic songs that shows Swearin’ musical and lyrical progress.
Sure, it can be easy (if wrongheaded) to dismiss bands with absurd, punny names. But Joanna Gruesome (a sly nod to Joanna Newsom) is the real deal. However, unlike Newsom’s ornate, melodic harp music, the Welsh band’s debut Weird Sister is crammed full of noisy and punk-infused grunge. I caught Joanna Gruesome twice last year at CMJ and each time was a blast to the senses. Almost a year later, at Shea Stadium, the band not only proved that last fall’s hype was for good reason, but also showed how much better its live show has gotten in that time. These songs are meant to be heard live, and loud.
With “Sugarcrush” or “Anti Parent Cowboy Killers,” Joanna Gruesome can be an urgent and exuberant blast of frenzied attitude. Yet with “Wussy Void,” Alanna McArdle’s breathy vocal melodies add a trace of pop buried just under surface of those searing guitars. For me, that mix between melody and dissonance is a perfect combination.
Back in early March, Baltimore synth pop band Future Islands played its new single, “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. For most bands, a Letterman spot is a routine part of the promotion cycle. But thanks to the charismatic singing and facial expressions, and jaw-droppingly great, GIF-ready dance moves of Future Islands’ kinetic frontman Samuel T. Herring, everyone — including Letterman — was blown away.
The next day, the clip went completely viral.
Living in D.C. from 2005-2012, I got a chance to see Future Islands several times as they were coming up — including a Tiny Desk Concert performance I shot for NPR Music, still one of the biggest bass amps I’ve seen crammed into that cramped office space. So for fans like me — Future Islands’ not-so-sudden “overnight success” felt, instead, like a well-deserved triumph for a hard-working band finally getting noticed in a big way.
It also felt like a resurgent moment of edge and relevance for Letterman and his show, especially in this overstuffed and highly competitive environment where most (younger) eyes are trained elsewhere on the dial (er, Hulu). And while Future Islands is just the most recent act to ricochet to a new level after playing the talk-show circuit, let’s be honest: this joyfully meme-able video is the most I had heard anyone in my circles drop reference to Letterman in some time. And now that Letterman has announced he’s stepping down and retiring in 2015 — to be replaced by Stephen Colbert — that performance will stand out as one of the show’s all-time great music acts.
All of this was on my mind when I stepped into a crowded but giant warehouse space near the waterfront in Greenpoint to see Future Islands. I had not seen the band since I moved to New York, let alone since they kinda blew up. The show was some weird free sponsored event put on by Vans — at their so-called House Of Vans, a sort of event space-meets-skate park-meets-actual warehouse, filled out with free cheap booze and food trucks outside. It was an odd shaped room — many people were standing awkwardly and painfully on the skate ramps — and even odder scene-y vibe, to be honest.
Yet as Future Islands ran through songs from its fantastic 2014 album, Singles, as well as some older favorites from On The Water, you could feel the room connect and come together. There’s something so unifying and unpretentious in the way Herring sings — and windmills and gyrates and slinks and fist pumps and grooves — on stage. It’s super melodramatic, sure, but also, impossibly earnest, heartfelt and real.
The big moment for most, of course, was the single that made them TV stars, and that absolutely was a joy to hear live, with a crowd. But the real moment for me was “A Song For Our Grandfathers” — a ruminative and deeply personal song I keep returning to after that show. As those dreamy synths filled the air, as Herring croons the line “I feel safe,” I felt something akin to pride.
Future Islands is loosely something of a local band for people in D.C. and Baltimore, and while I’ve sorta known about and liked for many years, it was stunning to see them in that moment — playing to more people than I’ve ever seen them play to before combined. It was clear to me finally that Future Islands had arrived in a way that you didn’t worry about what would come next or begrudge the way they got there. In fact, I’ve never been more excited to see what’s next.
Channeling a happier Beach House, or perhaps an even-sadder Best Coast, the music of Alvvays presents a familiar juxtaposition: The Toronto band’s songs marry upbeat, lovely, occasionally messy surf-pop melodies with bittersweet words. Throughout Alvvays’ superb self-titled debut, Molly Rankin unfurls line after emotionally open line, painting a portrait of romantic discontent in the matters of love and relationships. In “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me,” Rankin perfectly encapsulates the conflict between youthful restlessness and a desire to settle down.
Then, in “Party Police,” she articulates the confusion that comes with trying to decode the thoughts of someone you love: “Walking through the trees, I never really know what’s on your mind / Is it ever me, or just someone you’ve left behind?” In those moments, Alvvays reveals something more resigned and heartsick than those crisp guitars and singable choruses would have you believe.
Music has always been an outlet for emotional escape for artists. And considering singer and guitarist Domenic Palermo’s past is riddled with tragedy, violence and despair that almost undid him, it’s no wonder his band, Nothing, inspires such blissful release. With its phenomenal debut, Guilty Of Everything, Palermo — along with guitarist Brandon Setta and the rest of the Philadelphia band — exorcises those ghosts with metal-meets-shoegaze songs like “Dig,” “Get Well,” or “Endlessly” that feel equally heavy and elusive.
And where one might find “Hymn To The Pillory”’s feedbacking squalor and pulverizing drums to be melancholy and oppressive, I hear an almost romantic beauty in those cascading waves of guitar static and dreamy voices. It’s the kind of loud and all-encompassing music that I want to get lost inside, and maybe find a little serenity in the sweeping noise.
For more photos, visit Flickr.
There’s a delightful playfulness in the words and music of Juan Wauters. Over three albums and a handful of singles, the Uruguayan-born singer for the Queens-based band The Beets wrote wistful and wryly observed songs set to a primitively played folk-meets-garage punk. Now, Wauters is striking out on his own with his solo debut, N.A.P. — North American Poetry, a record that feels just as raw and D.I.Y. in spirit as those Beets albums, but trades some of that fun, sloppy attitude for sweet folk tunes and an exposed voice.
Throughout N.A.P., Wauters sings primarily in English with snippets of Spanish casually tossed in, the way it might conversationally with a bilingual friend. Yet, like he did with the occasional Beets song, Wauters sings entirely in Spanish on “Ay Ay Ay” and the simple, slack-stringed acoustic track “Escucho Mucho.”
Wauters moved to New York in 2002 to live and work in a factory with his father in order to save enough to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. To cope with the initial isolation he felt, he turned to music. And with “Escucho Mucho” (or “I hear a lot”) Wauters addresses that anger and feeling of alienation as he overhears people around him. And even if you cannot understand what he’s singing without the aid of Google — or a very patient friend willing to help translate — based on his clever rhyme schemes alone, it’s clear Wauters’ songwriting is as idiosyncratic and introspective as ever.
When it comes to music of Washington D.C., Go-Go and early punk are probably the first sounds that come to mind. Still, GEMS — a new project from Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts of Birdlips — is one of several young bands helping to shift that perception (See also: Priests). The duo’s lovely music is haunting and hypnotic with crisp Beach House-like guitar melodies, throbbing synth pads and the Pitts’ dreamy vocals. And while it doesn’t yet have a full-length record out, the band’s EP, Medusa holds a lot of promise thanks to striking pop songs like “Pegusus” and “Sinking Stone.” This is a new band already confident in its live show, and bound to fill bigger spaces soon.