Music Education

Industrial 101

I’ve had a long term suspicion that many people are interested in noise and industrial music but intimidated by where to start. “Heavy” music has a kind of adolescent fascination to it, with everyone racing to find the most brutal and unforgiving music so they can say they like it. I’m not above this, adrenaline seeking is an excellent pastime, but I expect many people get turned off from these styles by the machismo of that culture, which is a shame because there’s some nuanced and even beautiful music underneath.

However, there isn’t a lot of easily accessible information on how to get into industrial and noise music. The best I could find when I went through my noise phase was this Pitchfork article. While it does a good job of highlighting industrial’s roots in the queer community and addressing some of the style’s faults, it does little to give you an entry point, as it puts some of the heaviest albums available next to party music, with little guidance as to where to start. There is another guide published a few months ago, but I think it’s a little rigid in its definition of noise and lacks diversity, so I’m making my own.

I’m going to give you a number of different paths into industrial music that suit a wide variety of tastes. Look for the one that meets your listening habits best and give these albums a try. Start with the first bullet point and work your way down each list, as they’re sorted by accessibility.

Classic Album Review

Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest

Gillian Welch is the fake cover persona of a 300-year-old ghost who makes music. Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration, but Welch’s music truly feels like it has existed for centuries. She writes Appalachian folk music, with every song amounting to one woman and a guitar, but what she does with these sparse tools is truly enchanting.

Welch, in her one words, is “possessed with a dark turn of mind.” Her music reflects the cultural and economic devastation of Appalachia in the present moment but does so without ever resorting to topical songs or sociopolitical statements. She rarely references modern items, technology, allowing her music to exist in a temporal dead zone.

The album in question today, “Harrow and the Harvest,” is without question Welch’s best album. The guitar work is courtesy of long-time collaborator David Rawlings, a man described as a “guitar god,” in multiple different reviews. However, it is the songwriting, extraordinary even by Welch’s standards, that make this album stand out above her back catalogue. The songs are desolate, wistful, and preoccupied with death. This is a common feature of Appalachian music, but Welch blends it with a narrative skill not usually found in traditional music. Songs like “The Way it Goes,” tells the story of an ill-fated group of friends as they meet various unfortunate fates. Other songs chip away at the temporal barrier by telling stories from Welch’s early performing days.

However, the centerpiece of the album is without a doubt “Tennessee,” a song about lust and temptation that depicts the internal struggle between remaining in a happy community and following your own desires. The album strikes the hard balance between emotional detail and minimalism. The chorus has no narrative function, consisting of little more than a few mumbled vocalizations and a single stanza “It’s beefsteak when I’m working/ Whiskey when I’m dry/ Sweet heaven when I die.” However, through Welch’s subtle performance, she fills the song with innuendo, making it unclear whether the song is entirely metaphorical, about a mysterious and forbidden man or simply about a woman.

I’m not quite sure what the target audience is for an album like this, but I encourage anyone and everyone to listen to it. Welch is a criminally underrated artist. Too rootsy and traditional for Pitchfork but to raw and unfiltered for the Grand Ole Opry. Gillian Welch is keeping the culture alive.

New Album Review

Left at London- t.i.a.p.f.y.h. Album Review

Alright I think this is a first. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe Left at London is to date the only Vine musicians to breakthrough into conventional music success. Left at London, the stage name of musician and internet personality Nat Puff, has released her debut album after the viral success of her “Transgender Street Legend” EP series, and the song “Revolution Lover” in particular.

Puff first garnered attention for her viral parodies of Frank Ocean and Mitski, where she wrote full scale parody songs as a promotional mechanism. This new album features songwriting credits from Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest and Laura Les of 100 gecs. These influences are a pretty good approximation of where Puff is at; She sits at the crossroads of various styles of “Bandcamp music.” Unlike a lot of indie, she has a strong hip-hop influence, which is evident in many of the production aesthetics, but the songwriting and structure owe more to rock. The music is a little too low energy to be Hyperpop but the overall noise level mirrors that genre.

From this rather trendy pedigree, Puff struggles a little to carve out an identity, but her unique songwriting choices and ear for production make up for a lack of definition. The songs trend in the direction of “far too long,” a la monsieur Toledo, but she restrains herself to around the five minute mark on all but the album opener. The album is lyrically driven as a rule, with some songs like “The Ballad of Marion Zioncheck,” bending over into folksy territory. Her lyrics are emotional, generally preoccupied with mental health and inner turmoil, but written with just enough pretension to maintain interest.

The auditory aesthetics are perhaps the most compelling aspect of the music. Puff blends noise into songs without abandoning the conventional structure, making her music edgy and a little experimental while remaining more accessible than pop contemporaries like Black Dresses. Her voice is an asset as well, hanging in an unusually feathery contralto register than many women sing in, which contrasts both the bass of the guitars and the screeching treble of some louder passages. The result is that her voice cuts through the muck of the songs, allowing you to follow the lyrics without distraction.

While “t.i.a.p.f.y.” is a debut album, and a rather messy one, the music still shows great developing talent, and it features many memorable songs. Left at London is definitely an artist to watch in indie pop at the moment, and hopefully, her star will continue to rise.

Music Education

Witch House: Gimmick Or Genre?

I didn’t know what witch house was until very recently. I don’t like House, and the term “Witch House,” seemed to tell me everything: House music but spooky. However, the term kept coming up whenever I googled electronic bands, so I decided to look into it. It turns out that Witch House had very little to do with traditional House. I say “had,” because the genre was short-lived, existing briefly from 2009-2011, and actively tried to prevent any public interest in the genre. There was a mystery afoot, and I had to know more.

Unfortunately, the mystery was entirely artificial. Witch House bands use a series of naming gimmicks and tricks to make finding them by accident next to impossible, ostensibly to keep the style somewhat underground. The most obvious is making their band names next to impossible to google, with names like “///▲▲▲\\\” “ʄ≜uxmuℭica” “†∆†” and the legendary “.” I actually have no idea if those symbols will display properly, so look at the Rate Your Music page on the genre for examples if your computer can’t render Unicode characters. This is (in my opinion) very stupid, and once the term Witch House was created by the band Salem in a Pitchfork interview, effectively driving interest into the scene by making it possible to research, most major players denounced the style and moved on to other styles. It’s the kind of frustrating scene antics that make you want to just listen to Top 40 for the rest of your life.

However, buried under all of this, there’s an actually interesting set of musicians with some cool ideas. Witch House is, despite the name, a genre of instrumental hip-hop born from the Chopped and Screwed style of DJ Screw. Goth electronic musicians pulling from hip-hop was novel at the time, and the auditory aesthetic would go on to influence our current wave of…um…there isn’t a term for whatever the heck Special Interest and Boy Harsher are yet, but give them a listen and you’ll know what I mean.

So, to answer the title question, is Witch House a gimmick or a genre? Well, if we’re being generous, we might say it was a genre with a gimmick attached. The active refusal to enter the mainstream and the lengths some bands went to avoid publicity were an effective marketing strategy, as it drew in far more listeners than would ordinarily care. However, there was music at the core, so I’ll give you the copout answer: Porque no los dos?

Classic Album Review

Paula Cole Lives Rent Free in my Head

I’m sorry, this is going to be way too long an article over way too niche a topic, but this song has latched into my brain, and I think the only way to get it out is to write entirely too many words explaining why I’m so fixated on it. Paula Cole is an artist who’s likely unfamiliar to you, and I’m not going to encourage you to check her out, but you might have heard exactly one of her songs, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” It is a weird quasi-feminist attempt at…something, I’m not sure what. The song, despite its name, is not a country song. In fact, Cole’s music fits squarely into the Lilith Fair style. If you aren’t familiar with that term, I’m writing an article about the scene soon, so stay tuned, but for the moment, it’s effectively mid-90s feminist folk-rock. Think Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos, but most musicians under the heading were not as brilliant as those two. Case in point: Paula Cole.

“Where have all the Cowboys Gone?” is a song about a relationship, told from the woman’s point of view. It starts with sultry promises to do all of the cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and feminine activities if her masculine John Wayne will do the same. The chorus “Where is my happy ending, where have all the cowboys gone,” begins as a lament of the loss of “real men” who press their wives into domesticity and control everything. As the song progresses and her husband becomes distant and unfeeling, it becomes a lament at a lost relationship, revealing her faithful cowboy to be an emotionally isolated bro only interested in drinking with his friends.

So, why does this song bug me? Well, it’s so almost good, it so nearly works, but Cole seems to intentionally steer the song away from any resolution or point. The song starts as a light satire of women who long for family stability and an indictment of men who tether themselves to toxic tropes without putting in the work. It’s a little preachy, but okay, there’s a way to make that work, you make something like “Cowboy Take Me Away,” by the Dixie Chicks. But then, the song takes a hard turn for the sad, which is a choice that, in isolation, is not an issue. Songs about men who do the bare minimum are common, and the second section owes a lot to “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” which was released just a year earlier.

The problem is that Cole leaves out the punchline to both jokes. In a standard ‘I miss the real men’ song you’d throw in some tongue-in-cheek wink to the camera at the end indicating that the song isn’t taking itself too seriously and that the singer does not actually want a return to the gender roles of another century. In your standard men-are-trash song, you’d end the song with the narrator having a come to Jesus moment and leaving the man for dead (Sometimes literally). Cole opts to do neither; what results is a song that is only resolved by association. I’ve heard a couple dozen Lana Del Rey songs, so I know how this old Hollywood glamour song is supposed to function and can assume that Cole does not actually long for a man-child to mother. Similarly, I’ve heard a couple dozen country songs about a failing marriage, so I know that the woman is supposed to walk out the door at the end and leave that no-good man behind. Leaving out these assumed details makes the song feel like all set up for a payoff that never comes.

The only catch is that this is a song with a really strong setup. The spoken-word monologue at the beginning is great, the melody is extremely catchy, and her performance is so good that it took me like five listens to figure out that I didn’t like this song as a whole. Even the shifting meaning of the chorus would be brilliant if it weren’t in service of a song that never starts. This is to say, if we have any aspiring musicians in the audience who really want to fix a 25-year-old song for some reason, take a crack at this one, because you have a lot to work with (Also hit me up because I really want to hear a version of this song that works).

Okay, that’s 900 words in my word document, maybe now I’ve infected you all with whatever bug I caught by obsessing over Paula Cole, hopefully, I can sleep in peace tonight.

New Album Review

L’Imperatrice – Tako Tsubo Album Review

Alright, this one is from the boards. L’Imperatrice is a disco fusion group from France, who is bubbling under American success. Their new album “Tako Tsubo” has gotten some attention and Reddit and the like as a raw slice of European dance cheese. They are firmly entrenched in some of the most passe styles of pop from the ’70s. The two genre tags alternatively used to describe them are Eurodisco and space rock, two colorful genres that fuse surprisingly well on their new album.

With lyrics mostly in French and a focus on funk, this album leans towards “vibe music” rather than deep listening. It’s not strictly ambient, the music is not crafted exclusively for the background, but as I write this it’s raining beside me, there’s a cat on my desk and this album is making me feel like I live in a YouTube playlist thumbnail. The grooves are expertly crafted, so the vibes don’t wear out as fast as you’d think, but they definitely do wear thin eventually.

I do not speak French, so I’m working off what other people say the lyrics are about. Supposedly this is a feminist band with lyrics focusing on misogyny and violence. I say ‘supposedly’ because their English songs are pretty boilerplate disco and dance cliches. They may be better poets in their native tongue, but I assume most of you can’t really work with that. The music makes up for it though, so if you need some hi-fi Nu-disco beats to study/groove to, give L’Imperatrice a shot.

Music News and Interviews

Eurovision 2021

Eurovision is an annual “American Idol” style song competition where each European country submits a song to fight for the yearly crown. It brought us Abba, an Israeli woman bucking like a chicken, a C-rate male Adele, and an endless supply of memes. There are 40 songs per year, which is far too many to cover in a single article, so I’ll hit the highlights for you here. These are my opinions, so check the songs out and come to your own conclusions.

The Good

Italy: This was the official winner. The rare rock victor, this band sounds like if Limp Biskit were a ’70s glam rock band, and also good. They have officially been cleared of drug use during the competition, which is kind of disappointing.

Ireland: This year’s Irish competitor suffered from a camera malfunction during the performance, which sucks considering that a queer woman representing Ireland of all countries is a milestone. I promise you she doesn’t sound like Sinead O’Conner

Malta: This is probably the most fun entry from this year. The artist, Destiny, has more energy in her than France, Switzerland, Spain, and Britain combined. The song feels like it could have used a second pass, but the singer more than makes up for it.

Latvia: This song is objectively awful, and I love it. It’s the kind of loud, incredibly weird, shameless pop music you expect from Eurovision.

The Bad

United Kingdom: Britain qualifies for the finals automatically because they’re one of the big five music markets in Europe. That is the only reason this song qualified. Props to the continent for giving this zero points, which is exactly what it deserved.

Switzerland: Falsetto singing is really hit or miss. A good singer can sound like an absolute train wreck if they don’t have enough breaths or hit the note a little off. On a related note, I really didn’t like Switzerland this year.

France: How did this get second place? It’s so boring I accidentally changed the song at the halfway point just to make it stop.

The Ugly

Germany: Ostensibly a song about trans acceptance, any positive messaging is overwritten by the painfully insincere lyrics and horrifying performance by Jake and Logan Paul’s long-lost younger brother. It’s really bad y’all.

San Marino: Sorry Europe, Flo Rida is your problem now.

Band/Artist Profile Classic Album Review

Is Sheryl Crow Actually Cool?

Most people our age remember Sheryl Crow from when we were kids. She was pretty popular in the early 2000s, I was born in 2001, so that means her last hits were around five years old when I first started hearing the radio. This is the perfect interval for music to feel nostalgic, new enough that we remember it, but old enough that we had absolutely no critical eye to determine who a song was by or whether it was good. When I was old enough to think about music critically, I personally filed Sheryl Crow away in a category I now describe as “Mom Rock.” Yes, we have dad rock, and if no one else has come up with this joke yet, I know claim inventorship of mom rock. This category entails bluesy, spiritual rock music by middle aged white women that was all the rage from around 1996 to 2004, and artists like Crow, Kelly Clarkson, Nelly Furtado’s folky output, Liz Phair’s self-titled album, songs like “Bubly,” “Unwritten” and that one song about feeling the rain I can never remember because it came out when I was like two.

Now, I have personally been reevaluating a lot of mom rock. Partially because a lot of this music was dismissed specifically for appealing to middle-aged women, and I want to give it a fair chance, and partially because it’s a warm wave of nostalgia for me (and most other people our age). So, imagine my surprise when I find that Sheryl Crow was uh… actually really good? Okay, obviously Sheryl Crow was a good artist, she has plenty of classic hits, but Crow’s ’90s discography is good an entirely different dimension than I expected.

As it turns out, all of the songs I remember were from her 2002 album “C’mon C’mon,” which was something of a change in direction. That was a pop-rock album, I might call it a sell-out if it weren’t filled with front-to-back bangers. We aren’t here to discuss that today because you probably already know “Soak up the Sun,” “Picture” and maybe “Steve McQueen.” We’re here to talk about her first two albums, which were, to my eternal shock, alt-rock.

To be clear, Sheryl Crow was not making grunge. She fit in more with the rootsy acoustic side of alt-rock, with her auditory aesthetic being more akin to a pumped-up Hootie and the Blowfish or a less dense REM. Crow’s take on the genre is still recognizably her own though, mixing in her country fusion, eccentric songwriting, and an eye towards pop hits with the typical REM formula. Her first two albums had a combined 4 hits, none of which I have ever heard. Maybe I’m alone in never hearing Crow’s ’90s output, but I suspect that a number of you haven’t either, so check out her self-titled album. The music isn’t just good, as a lot of her music is, but was, as the title suggests, actually kind of edgy and out of the ordinary. She went way too hard for even the alt-iest of alt-country, but too grounded and feminine for alt-rock, so I do not know how much credibility she had at the time, but to me, it sounds pretty awesome.

New Album Review

New Music Floodgates Open: Indie Rock Edition

With the pandemic winding down, musicians are now releasing long-delayed albums, so there is a lot of new music to cover. Indie Rock has evidently taken the lead here because numerous great indie albums have dropped in the past week. I thought I’d give you an annotated list of some of the new albums I’ve been listening to. Hope you see something you like.

Iceage – Seek Shelter

Iceage are technically a punk band, but they have moved in a warmer and more elaborate direction lately. This new album is lavish and densely orchestrated art rock. It also gets points for having the only sample of “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” I’ve ever heard outside folk music.

The Armed – Ultrapop

Your inner emo kid will rejoice at this album from the anonymous post-hardcore band The Armed. While Ultrapop strays far away from pop and even further from melody, the album is still accessible as mood listening. If you want to study and/or cry, this is the album for you

Spiritualized – Lazer Guided Melodies

I have an allergic reaction to all things prog, so I was very skeptical of this album at first. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of pretension in this instrumental space rock release. The album name really gives you what you need to know: it’s melodic to a fault. The primary compositional trick at work here seems to be the baroque counterpoint, where different melodies are played to create harmonic relations without relying on chords. It’s an acquired taste, but the album creates a spacey and beautiful vibe.

St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home

Alright, I’ve spoken about this album at length in a full review, so I’ll be brief. St. Vincent has reversed course yet again, leaning into ’70s aesthetics of glam, hard rock, and AM singer-songwriters. It’s Joni Mitchell, it’s Lou Reed, but most importantly it’s St. Vincent.

Weezer – Van Weezer

Rivers Cuomo sings “Pump it up into me please daddy,” and if that’s something you’re interested in I need not say more.

New Album Review

St. Vincent- Daddy’s Home Album Review

The elusive songwriter and indie darling St. Vincent has returned with a new album, “Daddy’s Home,” a legacy rock album filtered through her unique lens. Now, at the risk of giving up the goods too quickly, I’ll preface this with my personal thoughts: the album is very enjoyable, though not Vincent’s best work. If you like St. Vincent, or heck if you like female-led indie rock of any kind, you will probably enjoy this record. The duo of her virtuosic arrangements with ubiquitous producer Jack Antonoff is virtually untouchable from an auditory perspective and easily makes up for any faults in lyricism and songwriting. That said, I’d like to take you on a tour of the album’s reception and influences, and ask what’s next for St. Vincent and her generation of indie stars.

Reception to the album has been positive, but somewhat fraught. St. Vincent is a notoriously reclusive singer who dislikes press interviews, and this album is her most personal record yet. Unsurprisingly, this has generated conflict. While some publications have condemned Vincent’s press hostility, including her alleged attempts to “kill” an interview with Jezebel she didn’t like, I do have to admit some of the reviews and coverage for this album has overhyped the autobiographical nature of “Daddy’s Home.” The title, ostensibly a reference to Vincent’s own formerly imprisoned father, signifies that this will be personal for a St. Vincent album. However, in the scheme of indie records, this is still a strictly musical affair. The lyrics play second fiddle to the music, the songwriting to solos and so on. The press reaction has largely focused on Vincent’s personal life, so I’d like to take a moment to appease Ms. Clarke and analyze her music from a purely auditory perspective.

This is a legacy rock album, which is a label usually a pejorative for bands stuck in the past, but St. Vincent owns the label. While I would hardly call “Daddy’s Home” an innovative record, it also doesn’t feel anachronistic. The production aesthetics are vintage 1972, with Vincent purchasing period-accurate technologies to produce the album. The justification was that Vincent was trying to connect with the musical language of her father’s vinyl cabinet. As a result, there are a lot of boomer influences on display that have gone out of fashion in favor of more ’80s-oriented synthpop and punk aesthetics. All of Vincent’s previous work has favored the likes of Kate Bush or of David Bowie’s ’80s output, making this change of pace abrupt, but at the very least sonically interesting.

Bands like Greta Van Fleet still nip at the heels of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but Vincent is more interested in blending these influences with her own personal pantheon. On “Melting of the Sun” Vincent lays out this pantheon of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and the ever-present Candy Darling, who gets her own tribute song. These women, combined with Amos’ perennial male influences of David Bowie and Lou Reed, blend together into a kind of classicism. She is not trying to sound like any one of these artists but work within a venerated classical tradition of rock songwriters, using their style to express her own ideas. The effect is an album that is rooted in the past without being backward facing. However, this can also leave the album feeling formulaic at points, as the only songs that really caught my ear outside the context of the record were the singles.

As St. Vincent and many of her indie rock contemporaries age out of the mainstream, I expect they will experiment with this retro style more freely. Indie needs new ideas, and St. Vincent has responded by looking to the past. If this is her new direction, she will need new ideas and different angles. “Daddy’s Home” is pretty good, but here’s to hoping she has some more retro tricks up her sleeve in the coming years.