Tag Archives: Album of the Day

Album of the Day: The Courtneys, “II”

The Courtneys are a rarity in contemporary surf rock. Where their counterparts—and, for that matter, their forerunners—are chiefly concerned with both brevity and blown-out instrumentals, The Courtneys are deliberate and unabashedly heartfelt. Underneath all the fuzz and reverb on their second album, The Courtneys II, are honest displays of emotion.

On the blissful “Tour,” the band is determined to remain optimistic, even during long periods of “slacking off and hitting the open road.” “If it’s in your heart, you’ll find a way,” they sing, “who you are and who you wanna be can take a long time.” Songs like “Virgo” and “25” use buoyant, punched-up slacker pop to explore feelings of isolation and the headaches of having a crush. And it’s not all growing pains and heartbreak; on “Lost Boys,” the trio schemes to find a vampire boyfriend with whom they can ride off into the sunset.

The Courtneys II arrives as the band themselves are on something of an ascent. In the three years since their self-titled debut, The Courtneys have signed with their dream label—New Zealand giant Flying Nun—and have netted slots opening for Tegan and Sara and Mac Demarco. In that context, II feels like a collage of moments, the band reviewing the highs and lows of their journey so far, with their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon.

Lauren Rearick

Album of the Day: Lawrence English, “Cruel Optimism”

A little bit of advice when listening to Lawrence English’s new album, Cruel Optimism: turn the volume way down before track three kicks in. Considerably louder than anything that comes before or after it, “Hammering a Screw” is a palate cleanser spiked with cyanide. It’s noise that’ll knock you out.

There’s a method to all this madness—English is making moody protest music with such new and old friends as saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, two key members of Swans‘ current lineup (guitarist Norman Westberg, percussionist Thor Harris), cellist Mary Rapp, and pianist Chris Abrahams. That’s the plan on paper, at least. Liner notes aside, it’s difficult to discern who did what here, as disembodied voices point the way to Popol Vuh (“Somnambulist”), church bells and chimes ring out through the night (“The Quietest Shore”), and muffled brass melodies slide across soupy winter atmospheres (“Exquisite Human Microphone”).

In many ways, Cruel Optimism serves as a compliment to the abstract score English and Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart performed as part of David Lynch’s contemporary art retrospective in Australia. Ominous but never overwrought, it’s as if the titular fog in John Carpenter’s 1980 film returned in the middle of the night and strangled the sun for the next 60 days. Or as English puts it in a press release, “the storm has broken and feels utterly visceral.”

—Andrew Parks

Album of the Day: Strand of Oaks, “Hard Love”

2014’s HEAL served as something of a reinvention for Philadelphia singer-songwriter Timothy Showalter. After a trio of independently-released ethereal folk records, Showalter took bold first steps to transition Strand of Oaks from a hushed whisper to full-on scream. Enlivened by stadium-style arrangements and thunderous guitar heroics, Showalter used HEAL to stare down his demons with unbridled energy and a brutally honest lyrical approach. “I know you cheated on me,” he sang on the title track, “but I cheated on myself.”

Showalter explores that forthright, lionhearted approach to storytelling even further on Hard Love. Equally inspired by Creation Records, Trojan dub compilations, and Jane’s Addiction, Showalter turned to producer Nicolas Vern (The War on Drugs, Spoon) and best friend/guitarist Jason Anderson to help combine those disparate influences into a cohesive body of work. Together they achieve a loose, hedonistic vibe. With strident, sing-along style vocals and unrelenting solos, second single “Rest of It” nods toward multiple musical genres without feeling forced or dilettantish.

The songs on Hard Love grapple equally with domestic issues, the near-death of his brother and, and his own impermanence, but instead of unraveling, Showalter chooses to celebrate his limited time on earth through rock and roll. The fuzzed out, synth-driven single “Radio Kids” bottles the pure teenage bliss that comes with hearing your favorite song on the FM waves, giving you a fleeting sense of courage and peace. Downtempo piano-ballad “Cry” pinpoints the devastating moment you realize that it’s you, not your partner, who are the source of the turmoil in your relationship. Frustration—with love, with family, with aging—crop up throughout the record, and Showalter speaks about them in matter-of-fact language. “You went away, you went searching” he sings at the start of the record, “You came back tired of looking.”

If there were times on HEAL where Showalter sounded lost, on Hard Love, he’s beginning to take control of his own life. Though it’s somber at times, the record is shot through with an underlying spirit of hope. Self-deprecation is replaced with honest contemplation, and whatever demons haunted HEAL have been put to rest.

Jeffrey Silverstein

Album of the Day: Palberta, “Bye Bye Berta”

Palberta’s seventh release, Bye Bye Berta, opens with “Why Didn’t I?,” a song built on sparse percussion and out-of-sync guitars that serve as a foundation over which the trio of Lily Konigsberg, Anina Ivry-Block, and Nina Ryser can harmonize. “Why didn’t I/ Say a thing like that?/ My Friend, didn’t I/ Say a thing like that?” It takes a full two minutes for the lyrics’ anxiety and insecurity to fully seep in and, as soon as they do, an irregular guitar scale moves in from the back of the recording, ending the song in a far different place from where it began. In that respect, the song acts as a perfect encapsulation of the album’s aesthetic: No track is too similar, but each is made up of distinct parts that build a complicated—but cohesive—whole.

Palberta met at Bard College and spent playing in and around Hudson Valley before ending up in Philadelphia. That transitory history colors the album; “Jaws” has an industrial quality that mimics the pace of a new city. “Bells,” the song that immediately follows, has a ringing, pastoral feel. New York City no-wave skronk is revitalized in the first half of “Trick Ya.” Bye Bye Berta is 20 tracks long, with most songs clocking in around a minute—in other words, it goes a lot of places but it doesn’t stay in any of them for too long.

Palberta are often compared to legendary acts like the Raincoats and Kleenex/LiLiPUT, but on Bye Bye Berta, Palberta seem more fascinated with movement and structure than either of those groups. Their sinister songwriting showcases individual musicianship while crafting something bigger and  much more harmonious. At times, it’s a challenging listen, but it’s by forging new paths that cult heroes are made.

—Maria Sherman


Album of the Day: Rough Trade Publishing, “Song a Day”

Over the course of the last six months, there has been a steady uptick in both the number of albums appearing on Bandcamp that are designed as fundraisers and the number of artists redirecting their funds to worthy causes. Rough Trade Publishing’s Song A Day is somewhat different: rather than releasing all of the music in one shot, fans who subscribe to the sampler (for just $20.17 a year), will get a new song every day for the first 90 days of the year, with all proceeds going to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The pair of songs available now on the sampler should be enough to convince—Kevin Devine turns in a tender, acoustic demo of his trembling “I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thanks,” and Delicate Steve’s pinwheeling “O for A” puts his emotive guitar playing front-and center, backed by a rhythm track that sounds like clicking clock gears. But the music released since January 1 is just as strong: Eleventh Dream Day’s “All in All” is a study in slowly-ratcheting tension, its opening couplet of, “Most of all, I prefer not to know the ending/ most of all, I know long walks will ease the pain” feeling particularly wrenching. Juliana Hatfield’s “Kellyanne” is a big, bright strummer with her plaintive voice weaving gingerly between acoustic guitar. Beauty Pill’s pared-down demo version of “Prison Song” is the perfect showcase for their brilliant, counterintuitive song structures, and a live version of Mono’s “Death in Rebirth” builds to a crushing, heaving conclusion. King Khan’s “The Mourning Song” puts political protest amidst a cavalcade of bleary JB’s horns, and Rachel Grimes’ creeping, piano-only take on “The Star Spangled Banner” feels shot through with regret and sorrow. That the compilation arrives one song at a time turns out to be its greatest strength: each day there’s something new to look forward to—a new song to help alleviate, in some small way, whatever may be ailing you.

J. Edward Keyes