Music I Liked in January

In my year in review, I mentioned that I want to listen to more music in 2017. It’s been some time since I’ve kept up with current releases from bands I enjoy, but anticipating albums is a familiar experience for me. I’m happy to report that this subtle change to my “media diet” is a welcome one.

If you think about “rock music” quite broadly, as I do, then you’ll be glad to hear that, despite some premature reports of its death, rock is thriving. Or, at least as my Twitter friend Craig Manning puts it, rock is “happily enjoying middle age.”

I haven’t been immersed in the scene enough to have a dog in this fight, but critics I respect, including Steven Hyden, seem closer to the truth than bloggers who write articles with titles like “The Demise of Rock and Roll.”

Here are the facts as I see them: There have never been as many rock bands in as many different subgenres making as many good to great records as there are at this very moment. Check out the live music listings in your town, and you’ll see that the majority of the acts playing local bars, clubs, halls, and theaters play music that is at least tangentially related to rock. Should you decide to attend one of those shows, you’ll find that today’s best emerging bands often feature women and people of color, as well as lesbian, gay, and transgender musicians. Best of all, these bands are young — some of them are just a few years out of high school, and they epitomize the younger generation’s values.

What I especially like about Hyden’s perspective, beyond his appreciation for the diversity and depth of rock music right now, is his broad definition of the genre. He includes punk, emo, alternative, blues, alt-country, and bar-rock in his overview of the “rock umbrella.” It’s long past the time to retire “purist” attitudes that have plagued the genre for decades.1 If one thing is true about the misguided cries of rock’s death, it’s that a genre must evolve and adapt to survive in this culture. But so do critics.


Japandroids - Near to the Wild Heart of Life

Forgive me for the meandering preamble. Sometimes I can’t help but weigh in on issues that pass through my Twitter timeline.

Back to my original purpose: January has been a surprisingly good month for music! I’ve had a few albums in rotation, including two that were released last week.

Most of the buzz right now is around Japandroids’ first album in five years, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. Their aptly-titled sophomore album, Celebration Rock, is one of the most critically appraised rock albums of the decade, a frenzied and energetic collection that established Brian King and David Prowse as two songwriters well worth everyone’s attention.

The duo has been through a lot since that release, and it shows in their songwriting. The youthful energy is still there, but it isn’t as raw or rough around the edges as in their previous work. Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a less gritty album whose anger is subdued and channeled in new ways. A song like “In a Body Like a Grave,” a lyrical triumph, shows Japandroids looking at the crisis of middle age with newfound perspective:

And age is a traitor and, bit by bit

Less lust for life, more talking shit

But remember there’s heaven in the hellest of holes

And a drink for the body is a dream for the soul

Well, tell will time, but best be awares

That time is money and money swears

So break the bank like you’re breaking a building

Love so hard that time stands still

If your name is shame, though your love is loss

Swap the city’s lights for the southern cross

Gather the gang and make that night

An ultimatum to the universe, fuck or fight

From a mirror and crush, to the moment of

Your karma comes but your love will be lumps

It’s all in a lifetime, but here and now

Only God knows where and devil knows how

Of course, Japandroids still know how to rock. Lead single “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” sees the duo at their best, and “North East South West” at their most rollicking. These songs wouldn’t be out of place on some of rock’s most memorable records, but Japandroids’ take on classic song structures is always invigorating.

The band’s range expands on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, too, with ballad-like “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will.” Fans of Japandroids may worry about a stylistic change toward a softened aesthetic, but “True Love” is exactly what you’d expect from a Japandroids-style “ballad.” These guys are naturals in their new element, with rolling chords and drumbeats carrying the song easily between verses.

When you talk about this album, you can’t neglect “Arc of Bar,” a seven minute centrepiece that’s unlike anything you’ve heard from Japandroids. The use of synths, a first for them, fits nicely with their style as Brian King and David Prowse continue working their magic on instrumentals.

Overall, I think Japandroids have returned with an album that’s appropriate for this point in its growth as a band. It doesn’t hit you quite as hard in the gut as Celebration Rock, but there’s a quiet energy that will keep me coming back to it. Only time will tell if it’s “great,” but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to fill the void for now, and at that it succeeds.

Check out “No Known Drink or Drug” for a taste:

Cloud Nothings - Life Without Sound

I haven’t spent as much time with Cloud Nothings’ new album, but I like what I hear so far. I’m especially enthralled by “Enter Entirely,” a midtempo rock song about idly bearing witness to life as it rolls by:

And now the lights are turning on here

My mind has fallen

And taken everything it knows now

About belonging

There’s someone I would like to be if I could be but

The path is frightening

So when I fall away then I would like to see

I enter entirely

My world looks like I had only dreamed

Cutting up pieces of life and reality

What I like about Dylan Baldi, lead singer and songwriter for Cloud Nothings, is both the strain of his delivery and the way in which he moves between styles. One moment he’s angsty and urgent; the next, pensive and resigned. Out of context, the lyrics don’t quite measure up to how they’re delivered in the song.

In any case, I think “Enter Entirely” is their best work since Here and Nowhere Else standout “I’m Not Part of Me.”

Sorority Noise - “No Halo”

[TW: Suicide]

Sorority Noise’s new album, cleverly titled You’re Not As __ As You Think, isn’t due until March, but the first song released is a home run if you’re a fan of catchy emo rock that doesn’t hold anything back.

“No Halo” is about an emotionally distraught narrator whose friend has (probably) committed suicide. It’s not a song that’ll hit you lightly if you’ve ever felt responsible for a friend’s emotional state, so tread carefully:

So I didn’t show up to you funeral

But I showed up to your house

And I didn’t move a muscle

I was quiet as a mouse

And I swore I saw you in here

But I was looking at myself

The Menzingers - After the Party

Okay, this album isn’t out until February (literally, tomorrow), but I’ve been listening to a few tracks from it for a while now, including “Lookers,” “After the Party,” “Thick as Thieves,” and “Bad Catholics.” All four songs point to what’s likely to be a memorable album, and the first impressions of the internet are trending positive.

The Menzingers’ brand of uptempo bar rock, with songs about partying and Kerouacian romance, has been a reliable source of energy and comfort since I first heard Rented World in 2014. Lyrics from “Lookers” point to a band that has grown past youthful romance, but the raw energy and infectious choruses are still there. I especially like this verse:

You little Kerouac, always running like Dean and Sal

Always waiting on a freight train

Always looking for a story to tell

But that was the old you, you were such a looker in the old days

With gems like these that make me want to sing along, After the Party is sure to be in rotation for a while.

With three albums in a month from bands I enjoy, it looks like 2017 is off to a good start. I’m hopeful that it will be a good year for these genres, with more young bands making noise in the scene. 2016 was the year in which R & B, pop, and hip hop dominated year-end lists, and while I enjoy some music from those genres, I always come back to the genres I grew up with. These four releases tell me that there’s a lot more to look forward to.

If you have any recommendations of your own, find me on Twitter.

Further reading

I’ll update this section as I find more good articles about the stuff I mentioned in this post. I’m not including the articles I referred to above, but I recommend them too.

Near to the Wild Heart of Life is even more try-hard than its predecessor. It has no other choice. And it makes good on the motivational and aspirational component of Celebration Rock by completing a heretofore unexplored trilogy: Post-Nothing worried about dying, Celebration Rock dreamed about living, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is living the dream.

As you can probably see, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is the sound of an older, wiser, more weathered, and more grown-up Japandroids. On first listen, that fact might be disappointing to some longtime fans. Aside from the cigarette-lighter-ready “Continuous Thunder,” Celebration Rock was a ballad-averse record, and you get the sense that listeners liked it that way. I’ve already seen some people on Twitter get up in arms about the presence of acoustic guitar on this record. But the progression is fitting, especially since five years have now passed since Celebration Rock landed in our laps.

On After The Party, The Menzingers have created nothing less than a song cycle about the band’s life up until now, a reflective act inspired by the members all hovering around the age of 30, the unofficial gateway to adulthood. (Barnett is 29, and his bandmates are about two years older.) The characters in the Menzingers’ latest songs no longer have the freedom to hang out all night outside of convenience stores — Barnett and May now write about young men like themselves who are trying to put their hard-partying ways behind them, in order to preserve a more fulfilling existence as partners in long-term relationships.

  1. Hyden puts it this way: “The best rock artists implant these elemental sounds with a new, contemporary sensibility. This push-pull between tradition and modernity has defined rock from the beginning. For rock music in the ’10s, forward-thinking and inclusive millennials are systematically deconstructing the old white-male power structure that defined the genre for decades, effectively re-inventing rock in the 21st century as a form that’s more open and sonically malleable. For those of us who have followed rock for most of our lives, this latest evolution has been exciting to witness.” 

Written on February 2, 2017