By Peter Jarzyna
The Antlers, Familiars
You might know the Antlers for their infamously depressing debut album Hospice, which chronicles the slipping away of a terminally ill child. You might be afraid to listen to anything else they’ve composed out of the pure misery (and beauty, mind you) that first album unleashed. Friends, let your inhibitions go. Now several releases into their career, Peter Silberman and crew having developed a sound that is uniquely their own, lush with atmospheric horns and guitar-work, feathered with Silberman’s tenor cry, delivered as though he were deciphering an ancient spiritual tome composed within the deepest realm of his soul.
On Familiars, themes of mortality still abide, but are explored through new narratives, filtered through a film of somnambulant zen psychedelia: one major influence which Silberman has cited is Gaspar Nóe’s film Enter the Void, which examines death as “an orgasmic act of self-exploration” (Pitchfork). The other is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and on closing song “Refuge,” when Silberman asks, “When you lift me out of me / Will I know when I’ve changed?” it seems that he has at least reached some level of closure with the void, even in the midst of lingering questions.
How to Dress Well, “What Is This Heart?”
If there is one thing you need to know about the latest album from How to Dress Well, it is that it only gets better when used to soundtrack a bike ride. If there is a second thing you need to know, it’s that if it didn’t get better with a bike ride, you were probably bound to never like it in the first place. In his own raving review, Pitchfork-er Ian Cohen warned fans that they would be mocked for their love of this album and there’s certainly a truth to this: the roller-rink AM radio influences find a polarizing home within the modern R&B production typical of the artist’s work.
Furthermore, between the album’s cover and the quotes that surround its title, it’s not unforgivable to assume pretentious folly of Tom Krell even prior to listening. The outré (“pop, not populist”) R&B crooner with a PhD in Philosophy bears a mixed look of shameful melancholy, and existential exhaustion, and yes, it’s slightly pretentious, but it gets the message across: what follows is one man’s quest and questioning, expressed in a voice that is his own: “What is this heart” that wants the love it sees in honeymooning others, knowing full well that it will change soon after it’s found? “What is this heart” that cannot help but find love in loss, no matter the consequence? “What is this heart” doomed to swim through an abyss of questions, seemingly only sinking deeper into the answerless? It took total loss to get there, but inevitably Krell found a new way to defend his first album’s mantra that love remains: If this heart is something whose new days carry the weight of the last, then the future must be older than the past.
Spoon, They Want My Soul
Being known as the ‘most consistent band in indie rock’ is one hell of a burden, but Spoon bear it well. Over their 20 year history, the Austin, TX outfit has released a string of great and more great records. With 2010’s Transference, many acknowledged a bump in this road. Sure, the druggy krautrock paranoia felt like a disjointed and muddled departure from “classic” Spoon, but can we really blame them for a bit of indulgence?
Chalk it up as you want: They Want My Soul is a return to form, 10 succinct songs packaged with the punch of Britt Daniel’s signature rasp, growling out lines like “I don’t got time for holy rollers” (“Inside Out”). For further evidence of the snarl’s potency, look no further than Daniel’s response when asked about the album’s standout title track, indicating that he is calling out a range of soul-suckers, from “religious pretenders” to “educated folk singers”. On the other side of this indictment, a sense of desperation emerges: the near-perfect apocalyptic summer pop of early release “Do You” finds Daniel pleading that “someone get popsicles, someone do somethin’ ‘bout this heat.” Here’s to Spoon for reliably bringing us our popsicles when we need them most.
Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE
Nostalgia is a jangly guitar riff and an angst-scratched voice, and the New Jersey-based band Cymbals Eat Guitars know this. In their third album LOSE, the quartet waxes nostalgic nine songs in a row, even going so far as yearning for the good old days of blithely crate-digging for records on “XR”. At the album’s heart, however, is the loss of frontman Joseph D’Agostino’s best friend, who tragically died at the age of 19 just 7 years ago, when the band was taking off. This trauma hangs heavy throughout the record, and is communicated with a fresh take on punk that combines the anthemic rouse of Japandroids, the emo neurosis of Cloud Nothings, and the American-sprawling indie rock of fellow Jersey-ites Titus Andronicus. It all fuses into an enthralling experience of a truth we all encounter at one point or another: when it comes to nostalgizing, innocence is at once both the sweetest and most heart-wrenching subject.
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
Arrival—it’s a fickle concept. Some might call it a myth, while others search for a definitive manifestation for their whole lives long. Somewhere in the middle, a spectrum of folk know that arrival comes in waves and with relativity, illuminating the most profound changes of our lives with a glow that is often only recognizable in hindsight. The title of Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s fourth LP asks of arrival, but without a question mark, as though any definitive punctuation would distance the idea from the moment it is presented.
Instead of providing a binary answer, Van Etten meditates, waxes and wanes, singing of her love and her fear with startling degrees of clarity, gusto, and beauty. Opener “Afraid of Nothing” sparkles like chimes hung from the rear-view mirror of a cross-country bound car. Just try not to be floored by the thunder of “Your Love Is Killing Me,” as Van Etten repeatedly howls “You tell me that you like it” without annunciating any consonants, as though her mouth is held trembling and open in tearful agony. This is an album that took blood to make and takes blood to listen to, and asks its listeners to take an honest gauge on their love and fear, no matter how painful.