With all due respect to Mumford & Sons, it’s The Avett Brothers who deserve the bulk of the credit for returning folk rock to the pop masses. Long before “Little Lion Man” became a hit, the bearded pioneers from North Cackalacky were busy churning out nearly an album a year while blowing away concertgoers from Radio City Music Hall to the Alaska State Fair with their shout-along ballads and rollicking banjo anthems. The Avetts were 110 percent unique back in the mid ’00s. By infusing folk rock with emo pop’s naked emotionalism and Americana’s down-home earnestness, they brought a new look to a vintage style.
It’s been 14 years since the release of the group’s debut, Country Was, and three since the Rick Rubin-produced Magpie and the Dandelion, an album that saw the Brothers dip into classic rock waters, at times sounding like a hipster hybrid of The Band and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. But despite the subtle twists Magpie still delivered The Avett Brothers unique sound.
The same cannot be said of the newly released True Sadness. While Seth and Scott Avett’s trademark harmonies, warm and slathered in sincerity, remain front and center, the instrumentation and arrangements they are paired with are unlike anything else they’ve done. Where previous efforts were earthy, warm and spacious, this one is meticulously produced, electric and downright dense. Acoustic guitars mingle with cosmic synthesizers, while archaic country blues cling to slinky hip-hop grooves. We’re talking music with a folksy heart and an art-pop edge.
To prep fans for the brave new sound, Seth penned a letter and posted it to the band’s website. His thoughts are as unabashedly soul-bearing as the Avetts’ music. “True Sadness is a patchwork quilt, both thematically and stylistically,” he wrote. “Sonically, the album is as multidimensional as its makers. The same could be said of its long list of influences. So the quilt is sewn, in part, with the brightly colored threads of Queen, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmie Rodgers, Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails, Gillian Welch, Aretha Franklin, Walt Disney, Pink Floyd, Kings of Convenience, calypso of the 1950s and country of the 1930s.”
Yet for all of the music’s space cowboy-like vibrancy, a good chunk of the lyrics reveal a palpable sense of defeat and, at times, sadness. Even when drenched in melancholy the Avetts have always managed to sound heroic, but this isn’t the case with the aptly titled “Satan Pulls the Strings” and “Ain’t No Man.” Each are confessionals from men who have been humbled by failure and personal upheaval; Seth himself bears all on “Divorce Separation Blues,” a slice of country and western pastiche (replete with yodel) that looks back on the 2013 dissolution of his marriage.
Though his divorce is just one of many life experiences that informs True Sadness, it hovers like a spectre over what is The Avett Brothers’ most sonically daring and personal album.
Deerhoof and Kayo Dot Get Experimental
For those who enjoy their rock with a double side of weird, new joints from Deerhoof and Kay Dot are sure to satisfy your exotic cravings. Though Deerhoof are darlings of San Francisco’s longtime noise-rock scene, they relocated to the desert of New Mexico to bash out The Magic, a vivaciously ragged mix of punk, metal and garage rock played with all the manic excitement of 10-year-olds hopped up on a sixer of energy drinks.
According to drummer Greg Saunier, the band focused on “what we liked when we were kids — when music was magic — before you knew about the industry and before there were rules. Sometimes hair metal is the right choice.” This is certainly true of “Plastic Thrills,” a sleaze-rock jam originally penned for the HBO series Vinyl. Of course, this is the always eccentric Deerhoof we’re talking about, so you can expect the music to be injected with plenty of freaky quirks and ticks. Final verdict: The Magic is just a carefree, high-energy record that’s as fun as it is strange.
Kayo Dot’s Plastic House on Base of Sky is a radically different beast — though no less far out. Where Deerhoof’s The Magic looks to the simple and rowdy pleasures of vintage punk for inspiration, this Brooklyn-based ensemble’s latest is rooted in the abstruse compositions and cerebral angst of ’70s art rockers like Japan, Van der Graaf Generator and especially Nite Flights-era The Walker Brothers. Consisting of five extended cuts (the longest, “All the Pain in All the Wide World,” breaks the 10-minute mark), the album is a chilly labyrinth constructed from atmospheric synthesizers, mysteriously shifting rhythmic patterns and singer Toby Driver’s deep, moody baritone.
Plastic House on Base of Sky documents an exceptionally shadowy sonic vision, one Kayo Dot’s label, The Flenser, likens to “a hopeless dead and polluted world transitioning into artifice and mechanism and reacting by being self-destructive.”
The word dystopian certainly comes to mind, but despite all of its gloom, the music also contains moments of stunning beauty. It’s as if the ensemble knew they had to plunge the darkest depths to bring back the most dazzling gems.
Hot Hot Heat Say Goodbye With Final Album
It’s time we bid adieu to Hot Hot Heat. As Pitchforkreported in April, the Canadian act have decided to call it quits. “To be able to tour from 1999 to 2014 and play hundreds of shows a year was amazing,” singer Steve Bays said. “It changed all of our lives. It was the greatest experience I could ever imagine.”
Fans will be thrilled the quartet has dropped one more album. Recorded over the last several years, the simply titled Hot Hot Heat is a 10-track collection that sums up everything that made the group’s mix of alt-rock and new wave such an alluring proposition: it’s poppy, expertly crafted and bursting with dance beats.
Though Hot Hot Heat had been relatively inactive in the 2010s, (this is their first full-length in six years), the group’s influence on modern indie rock cannot be overestimated. In addition to helping spearhead the post-punk revival of the ’00s, their success paved the way for countless Canadian bands looking to make inroads in America. There are no plans for a farewell tour, but they did produce a touching video for the excellent single, “Kid Who Stays in the Picture.” Goodbye, Hot Hot Heat. You will be missed.
******The Mothers of Invention’s ****Freak Out! Turns 50
After celebrating the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde, rock’s first double album, in May it’s time to pay tribute to its second. Released mere weeks after Dylan’s masterwork (on June 27, to be exact), The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! stands as of one of the most outrageous releases in recorded music history. Highlights like “Who Are the Brain Police?,” “Motherly Love” and “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” still sound like alien transmissions from Planet Bizarro.
Claiming No. 246 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, the concept album pioneered an avant-garde and oftentimes foreboding mix of Spike Jones-style cartoon music, Dadaist blues-rock, electronics and political satire. Not surprisingly, Zappa’s brainchild went nowhere on the charts — but his peers were paying attention. Paul McCartney has noted on several occasions that the collage-like techniques employed by Frank Zappa and producer Tom Wilson inspired The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released the following year. Then there’s the multiple generations of far out musicians who have ravenously devoured the album’s bottomless well of freaky sounds. These include everybody from Phish and Primus to George Clinton and Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge. Happy anniversary, Frank!
Dream Poppers Puro Instinct Drop Their Sophomore Effort — Finally
In 2011 Puro Instinct, released a mesmerizing record called Headbangers in Ecstasy that dominated the blogosphere. It was a strange title seeing as how the music was neither heavy metal nor EDM. Rather, the duo of Piper Kaplan, 23, and her younger sister Skylar, 16, toed the line between guitar-based dream pop and chillwave basking in ’80s beach vibes. Their conflation of Hollywood glamour (the young women are native Angelenos) with Shaggs-style primitivism proved utterly seductive.
Jump forward five years (which translates roughly to 1,000 years in social media time) and the sisters have finally given us a follow-up in the form of Autodrama, and, boy, is it ever sublime. The Kaplans still drift through clouds of dream pop, but now those clouds hover over dancefloors where beautiful young people dance late into the night to the electro-pop sounds of Glass Candy and Grimes. Another pivotal change is the absence of the charming amateurism that informs Headbangers. A wee bit older and far wiser, the pair now possess a skill for songcraft that’s as subtle as it is exquisite.
Autodrama was a long time in the making in part because the Kaplans doubled as their own producers (and by doing so gladly embraced time-consuming perfectionism). They also had to put band activities on hold for a spell while Skylar earned her diploma from L.A. County High School for the Arts. But there also was the issue of their rapidly growing disdain for an entertainment industry that treats artists (female artists in particular) as cheap commodities meant to be controlled and sold. It forced them to unplug and readjust their perspectives on what exactly they wanted out of music.
“[Autodrama] is inspired by this whole rebirth of values within us, which is a result of us dying in 2011 and having to rebuild everything,” Piper told The Hype Magazine. “Everyone was telling us what to do, we were really young, and we were trying to take it to extremes to please everyone else. No more.”
As Autodrama reveals, Puro Instinct please nobody but themselves and their music is all the better for it.
Motörhead’s No Sleep ’til Hammersmith Turns 35
Any decent list of rock’s all-time greatest live albums is sure to include No Sleep ’til Hammersmith. The argument can be made that it’s Motörhead’s finest hour, and the bulk of their jean-jacketed fans would not disagree. After all, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (released June 27, 1981) stands alongside the immortal Ace of Spades as their biggest-selling title. In the U.K. it hit No.1; in the States, meanwhile, it became a cult classic worshipped by teenage longhairs like Kerry King, James Hetfield and Dave Mustaine, all of whom would go on to kick-start the thrash metal movement.
Exactly why No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is so perfectly brutal has a lot to do with how the band was constructed. Shaggy mastermind Lemmy Kilmister designed Motörhead for the live setting first and foremost. Coming together in 1975, the trio spent the next six years on the road, hammering out their singular brand of “loud, fast, city, raucous, arrogant, paranoid, speed freak rock ’n’ roll.” By the time they committed their live sound to tape in 1981 they were one of England’s hottest concert draws and 35 years after its release, No Sleep ’til Hammersmith has lost none of that amphetamine rush.