Category: Alternative Rock


(Editor’s Note: I’m about to review an album by a band that one of my cousins is a member of. He did not play any of the instruments on this album and joined the band after it’s release, but he’s the bassist now. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I felt that needed to be brought up)

 

On Saturday, I move to NYC to begin my new job as an editorial intern at start-up media journalism company Baeblemusic. Primarily, I’ll be involved with the indie music scene in and around Manhattan whether this involves writing on topical industry news, reviewing a new album, or detailing my thoughts on a live show I’ve been assigned to cover in the city. Before I officially got the internship offer, I was on a bit of an album reviewing kick trying to catch up on things I had missed from 2011 so that I didn’t sound like a complete dumb-ass in my interview. I bring all of this up because I haven’t actually reviewed an album in a while, and I’ve never reviewed an album quite like this. Everything I’ve reviewed so far (and that are on my master album list) have made some sort of end of year, decade, or all time list from a major music publication like Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. Recently, a little garage band known as Stenders was brought to my attention by a relative in the form of their debut LP, the self-titled Stenders. Available to stream for free from their Bandcamp page, Stenders shows potential as a fun prog blues rock experience with such an impressive lead guitarist that I feel no shame in referencing guitar virtuosos like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Johnson because he’s that good. Unfortunately, the album is also a bloated mess  with arguably 7 tracks that could have been left on the cutting room alongside the distinct impression that this is a band reaching for an identity and coming up muddled and indecisive instead.

 

The album was primarily recorded by Sten and Anders Hasselquist (hence Stenders), two brothers attending UVA in Charlottesville. Sten was responsible for all of the string work as well as vocals and song-writing (alongside Becca Lauzon) while Anders plays the drums. The album is self-described as being “all-genre encompassing” (which isn’t especially accurate if you know plenty of modern indie rock genres that are absent, i.e freak folk, chill-wave, drone, etc) and while it is these overly broad ambitions that cause many of the album’s more unforgivable flaws (along side some other significant complaints), but there are still a number of things Stenders gets remarkably right. There are many modes that the band vacillates between whether this is 90’s alternative rock, jazz fusion, blues rock, folk rock, classic rock, post-punk (in the Joy Division sense of the word), and even heavy metal. When the band is exploring its blues and post-punk roots and especially the the free-form bliss of their jazzy instrumental numbers, it’s a surprisingly professional affair with tighter production than I’ve seen from some professional releases and as a classic rocker with an adoration of guitar rock, Sten instantly distinguished himself as a talented enough lead guitarist that he could easily front any modern garage rock revival act.

 

Some album highlights include the jazz fusion instrumental piece “21 Cm Line” which manages to come off like a long lost track from Live Dead where Ian Curtis had a say in throwing in some synth lines after deciding to give up Joy Division for a psychedelic jam band and ends on a guitar solo that channels Jimmy Page. On the album opener escape, Sten’s voice is a bit on the abrasive side as diction seems to take precedent over actual melody (or listener pleasure) but then his skillful blues guitar instantly makes you think of Carlos Santana. “Jammit” is another prog instrumental track which impossibly manages to be equal parts My Morning Jacket as Deep Purple. “Jazzy Shnazzy” is an almost absurdly delightful amalgamation of traditional night club jazz rock that smoothly transitions into a a more up-tempo but equally fascinating prog rock number. Anyone with a healthy respect for guitar driven rock will find something to enjoy here. I am willing to stake my journalistic integrity that my statement that he is one of the most promising new guitarists I have heard in ages is in no way related to the fact that I have a relative in the band (who didn’t record on this album). He’s just that good.

 

Unfortunately, Sten spreads himself too thin on this album by trying to do too much. As mentioned before, there is no true Stenders on this album. While I know what Stenders I prefer (the purely instrumental tracks and every note that springs forth from Sten’s guitar), the band itself can’t seem to make up its mind. Whether it’s exploring speed metal (and absurd fantasy pretentions) or shallow 90’s alt rock, the band pushes itself too far out of its comfort zone. To make matters worse, as mentioned earlier, Sten’s vocals are a serious point of conflict. It almost sounds as if rather than singing from his diaphragm, he is singing from his mouth to achieve his tones and it just results in a serious confluence of problems. Whether it is his pitch being all over the place, a nasally affectation on “Fire Eyes,” or an abysmal rendition of metal screaming on “Dragon Steed,” Sten’s vocals are the only aspect of the album as weak as its inconsistency. That’s a shame because on rare moments on the album (such as the end of “The Fight” or “Waves Roll In) where his natural baritone reminds the listener of a young Jim Morrison. If the same attention to detail that had been spent on the instruments had been given to the vocals (and the often awkward lyrics), this would have been a truly exceptional album.

 

Stenders is a band with more potential than this album seems to give them credit for. Even the best tracks could use some editing and many songs simply need cut, but you hear the foundations of something special and unique. In a world stuck full to the brim of post-rock bands, it’s nice to hear a band that can skillfully channel classic rock inspirations without coming off as cheaply derivative. It pains me to give the score that I’m about to give this band because there is so much to like. I could listen to Sten play guitar all day. Unfortunately, there is an almost equal amount of things to dislike. If Stenders can find its own voice, if they are able to discover just what it is that makes them a band we can cheer for, they’ll be a force to reckon with. They would also need to either spend a lot of time polishing their vocals or find a new vocalist. This was an album that could have been remarkable and was weighed down by too many problems to ignore.

Final Score: C+

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Evol

If you want to name a band that is incredibly divisive among the music community, you don’t really need too look much further than Sonic Youth. While there is some general consensus that Daydream Nation was a classic, the rest of their library generates a considerable larger amount of debate. Are they wildly experimental art rock/punkers that pioneered much of what 90’s rock and roll would sound like, or are they as the titular main character of Juno puts it, “just noise.” I feel like I probably fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes. While the grunge movement would not exist without the influence of Sonic Youth and its frontman Thurston Moore, there are times when the band descends into noise rock excess where any attempts at recognizable melody or recurring riffs are discarded in favor of incomprehensible layers of noise. Sometimes the noise works and adds the band its titular sonic effects, but for the most part, it comes off as sort of pretentious and boring.

At times on this album, 1986’s Evol, it’s almost like Thurston Moore had seen into the future, heard grunge, and decided to invent the blueprint from which grunge would rise and yet sound remarkably distinct from his copy cats. Through grunge’s signature use of heavily distorted guitars and disorienting reverb, Sonic Youth are able to fashion an instrumental and sonic landscape that is entirely their own. At times, they even experiment into more avant-garde territory especially on the tracks that feature Kim Gordon on lead vocals that stray even further away from either noise rock or alt rock conventions. At moments like that, you can see the genius that would lead to Daydream Nation. Alas, the highs still aren’t particularly high, and they don’t occur often enough, and when the lows hit, I kept praying for the album to be over.

“Tom Violence” sounds like it could have been a B-side for Daydream Nation. It was a great melding of their growing proto-grunge style with the distortion and reverb that is partially noise rock as well. “Green Light” was the best track on the album as it was entrancingly sonic in nature. Much like a great Radiohead track, I found myself incredibly lost in the dense instrumental landscape that the distortion effects had caused. “Shadow of a Doubt” features Kim Gordon on lead vocals where she displays her knack for breathy, almost ethereal vocals as well as exploring some uncharted territory for Sonic Youth which is a light electronic sound which really works in the context of the song. Tracks like “Marilyn Moore” and “In the Kingdom #19” were virtually pure noise, and I just couldn’t find myself engaged with those songs or other tracks that relied overly heavily on sheer walls of noise. There was no place for me to enter the song emotionally or intellectually and to engage myself with the music.

I’m admittedly not a fan of noise rock. So, perhaps, I’m not qualified to review this album. Yet, at the same time, I know the potential and talent they have because of Daydream Nation, and so, Evol is extremely disappointing in comparison. I hated Kid A and Person Pitch the first time I listened to them, and I love those albums now, so maybe this one will eventually grow on me, but for now, it stands as an unfortunately uneven undertaking that shows flashes of future genius without ever really tapping into what will eventually make this band the legends of alt rock that they’ve become. To all fans of Sonic Youth, please don’t hate. It’s just how I feel.

Final Score: B-

One of my favorite websites to casually peruse when I’m bored is TVTropes.org. It’s kind of like wikipedia for pop culture. It cleverly examines the various tropes or cliches of mediums with a bit of self-knowing humor and love for what it’s analyzing. One of the tropes is “Everybody Remembers the Stripper” which describes an incident where a minor and unimportant detail overshadow the rest of the work, like Jason Biggs having sex with a pie or the big reveal of The Crying Game. I’ll admit now that I suffered from a similar phenomenon concerning Icelandic musician Bjork. My knowledge of her was pretty much cemented solely in the fact that she wore a ridiculous swan dress to the Oscars. I had no idea, prior to yesterday, that she was also capable of making extraordinarily beautiful albums like her 2001 LP Vespertine.

Vespertine is what I imagine Kid A or OK Computer would have sounded like if Radiohead had a female singer and were intent on sexing you up. It’s ambient and electronic but so overtly sexual that you may feel like you need to take a cold shower when the album is over. From her sultry vocals to the up-front sexual imagery of the album, this album does the impossible which is turning cold electronic sounds into the soundtrack of lust and passion. Her voice/music is like sex distilled into its purest form. Songs like “It’s Not Up to You” with its string crescendos overwhelms you with its sonic power and emotional force. Other highlighted tracks include “Pagan Poetry” and “Aurora”.

If you don’t appreciate electronica or ambient music, then you probably aren’t going to enjoy this album cause that’s what it essence boils down to. If you can’t handle an album that may get you a little hot under the collar with its raw sexuality, then it’s probably not for you. However, I personally found it to be a revelation. Now, I can finally appreciate Bjork for her beautiful music and not her reputation as a crazy person.

Final Score: B+

Everybody who is a real music lover can remember the exact album that forever changed the way that they listened to music. This is the album that would ultimately redefine the limitations that they believed music to be hindered by. When I was younger (read “high school”), that album was The Beatles Abbey Road, although it’s originality and value has been tarnished by decades of rock bands trying to capture the sound of The Beatles without being able to capture the spirit or talent that made The Beatles so transcendent. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I would ultimately be exposed to perhaps the most important band to come along since The Beatles. This band of course was Radiohead, and it is their magnum opus Kid A that I have decided to write my initial blog post about.

It should be stated very clearly that when I first heard this album, I absolutely loathed it. It was in such direct confrontation with everything that I thought I understood about the way music was to be composed, played, and presented to the masses, that my brain simply couldn’t process the majestic undertaking that it truly was. But I forced myself to listen to it a couple more times, and then suddenly, I gained this amazing awakening about the true beauty and complexity of the album and the way that I listened to music would be changed forever. My biggest problem in enjoying this album was that I had been trained to listen for “singles”, to enjoy music that I only had to have pay attention to, not digest like a complex novel. When I simply listened to the music, allowed myself to become lost in the sonic waves that Thom Yorke and company set forth and freed myself from other tasks or distractions, I discovered an album that was beating with such energy and sheer beauty that I was in shock that I had disliked it so much in the beginning.

I literally get chills every time I hear the opening notes of the albums first track “Everything In Its Right Place” and am nearly hypnotized by Yorke’s passionate assertion that “There are two colors in my head.” From the nearly rock sounding “National Anthem” to the electronic masterpiece “Idioteque” which serves as my favorite track on the album, Kid A constantly serves as a guide on a fantastic voyage into the possibilities of music. If you have the ability to just sit down and listen to this album the way it deserves to be listened to, you are in for what is easily one of the greatest albums ever made and is without a doubt, the best or second best album of the 2000′s.

Final Score: A+