Cults

Over the Weekend (Nov. 10 Edition)

New music, videos, and other fun as we prepare for “Foo Fighters Week”…

The Foo Fighters are released their eighth studio album today, Sonic Highways, and we’ll be running features on the band all week long.  To help get you into the spirit, SPIN has provided a ranking of all 147 Foo Fighters songs, including covers and soundtrack selections.  As with all lists, this one has its fair share of faults, including a weird affinity for the band’s weakest effort (Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace), dismissal of some of their best recent work in Wasting Light, and an unfortunate-but-expected disdain for tracks from One By One, and ranks “Hey, Johnny Park!” at least thirty spots too low.  On the other hand, it does provide the proper reverence for deep cuts like “A320” and “February Stars”, so we’ll take the good with the bad.  And though we have most of these Foo Fighters singles, including several obscure ones, this list did inform us of the existence of this performance with Serj Tankian of the Dead Kennedys’ classic, “Holiday In Cambodia”.

Aphex Twin recently sat down for an extensive interview with Dan Noyze, and not only that, provided a number of outtakes and and fragments made during the making of Syro.

Hutch Harris from local favorites The Thermals sat down with Late Night Action recently, and talked about subjects including the band’s early recording methods as well as the band’s personal involvement with their merchandise.  It’s always fun to listen to Hutch, so watch when you can.

Here’s an excellent list of “Songs You’ll Never Hear on a Sufjan Stevens Album”.

We’ve mentioned Interpol guitarist Daniel Kessler’s upcoming side-project before, but now we have a bit more info about Big Noble.  They’ve also provided a video of one of their songs, which is a nice combination of Kessler’s crystalline guitar with intriguing soundscapes.

Mark Ronson is going to be the musical guest on SNL in a couple of weeks, and to get an idea of where he’s at, he recently released one of the songs he wrote with Tame Imapala’s Kevin Parker, and the result is something that sounds a bit like MGMT.

We’re looking forward to the second album from Father John Misty, since Fear Fun was such an excellent debut; plus we need an additional enticement to go see Josh Tillman’s stage show once again.  I Love You, Honeybear will be released next February, but last week FJM performed on Letterman the new track “Bored In The USA”, and it was fantastic.

Cults performed in Austin, and Pitchfork was there.  That should be enough to get you to click the link.

And because we’ve spent the entire weekend pondering the philosophical conundrum that comes with “too many cooks”, we’ll ride that out the rest of the week and post the video here.

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Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2013

Today is April 15, and while the rest of the nation celebrates Tax Day, we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to release our Best Albums of the Year list.  To be technical, this is our first such list since the site was launched only a few months ago, but this is a practice that I’ve personally done for a few years now.  There are a few of reasons for this: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) I get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped my attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  That said, it is in the process of being patented and trademarked, so I can say that it’s not simply a look at my iTunes playcount for the year.  Actually, that is what it is exactly, but I’ll choose to believe in your good faith that you won’t steal The Process.  On to the list!

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because I don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.

10). (6 plays) The Flaming Lips – The Terror!!! – Thr!!!erYeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito.

We already have a surprise courtesy of The Process, as I didn’t think that Mosquito would perform so well.  The first single “Sacrilege” had me really excited for the album, but there was no other song that really matched its heights.  It was a bit of a letdown after the great It’s Blitz!, so my response to it may be harsher than it should be.  The Terror on the other hand was a new high point for The Flaming Lips; with the band involved in so many projects and gimmicks, there were legitimate fears that the creative well may have been running a bit dry, but the Lips responded with an album that  showed that even after 30 years the band still has new directions to explore.  Long known for their happy outlook on life, the band channeled inner turmoil (Steve Drozd’s relapse, Wayne Coyne’s separation from his partner) and created a dark, disturbing album that often plays like an hour-long version of the horrifying “Frankie Teardrop”, incorporating new elements like krautrock influences and drum machines.  The only reason it’s not higher on the list is you really need to prepare yourself to handle the despair that is prevalent throughout the album (though there are moments of pure beauty).  With Th!!!er, !!! may have won Album Name of the Year, but they also back it up with some of the best songs of their career.  I’m a sucker for their dance-punk style, and I highly recommend seeing these guys live.  It’s fun to see a bunch of people who normally don’t dance groove to songs like “One Girl/One Boy”.

9). (7 plays) Foals – Holy FireThe Joy Formidable – Wolf’s LawLow – The Invisible WayNine Inch Nails – Hesitation MarksParquet Courts – Light Up GoldPearl Jam – Lightning BoltRun the Jewels – Run the Jewels.

Normally, I would say that Pearl Jam exists outside the scope of “lists”, but one cannot argue with The Process.  I haven’t delved deep into my love of the band since starting this site, so for those of you unfamiliar with my passion for the band, I’ll try to sum it up like this: I’ve been to hundreds of shows over the years, and when people ask me for my all-time greatest concerts, I tell them there’s a Pearl Jam list and a non-Pearl Jam list.

As for the others, I’ll offer a few quick thoughts.  Foals have been underrated for a while now, and by my calculations “My Number” should have been as big a summer hit as “Get Lucky”.  The Joy Formidable put on one of the best shows I saw last year, and I’m a big fan of how the sweetness of the vocals contrast with the heaviness of the music, but all done in a very melodic way.  There wasn’t a big hit like “Whirring” on this album, but “This Ladder Is Ours” should have been.  Nine Inch Nails returned with a very good comeback album–I loved the incorporation of more minimalist ideas, which made it an exceedingly interesting dance record.  And it’s amazing that Low once again produced an amazing album, and I hardly saw any mention of it on the year-end lists.  Invisible Way saw the band returning to the more delicate sounds pre-Drums and Guns, but it was definitely not a simple rehash.

Light Up Gold is a perfect example of reason number two up above, as I heard nothing about this album before I saw it on a few year-end lists.  This catchy and too-smart-for-probably-its-own-good soon became a go-to in my car stereo.  You have to love a band that makes the point that “Socrates died in the fucking gutter.”

As for Run The Jewels, I’ll say this: it’s hard to believe that one of the best albums of the year was given away for free earlier this year.  And it received a small fraction of the attention of Magna Carta Holy Grail.

8). (8 plays) Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right ActionKanye West – YeezusThe Thermals – Desperate Ground.

I was glad to see Franz Ferdinand return from hiatus alive and kicking.  After some experimentation with Tonight, the band decided to go back to their old sound and play to their own strengths–a lot of good, hook-filled rock songs (for the record, I was a fan of Tonight, but hey, I understand the calculus).  The Thermals made a similar return to their roots: after the reflective Personal Life, the band decided to keep the songs short and the tempos fast, with the furious Desperate Ground.

I’m sure Yeezus was the most analyzed album of the year, so my opinion shouldn’t add much to the conversation.  I think Lou Reed did an excellent job in explaining its genius, so you should probably take his word for it.  I will say that one of the things I enjoy most about Kanye records is that it always seems like we’re listening in on a therapy session, because he seems free to let his thoughts roam unfiltered.  I also love a person that embraces the dichotomy of the sacred and the profane; who else would follow a great line “close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures” with “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches”?  The man knows exactly what he’s doing: “After all these long-ass verses, I’m tired, you’re tired.  Jesus wept.

7). (9 plays) The Men – New MoonSigur Rós – KveikurVampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the CityVolcano Choir – RepaveYuck – Glow & Behold.

We had an extensive piece already on Yuck, so we won’t rehash it here.  Volcano Choir is proof that Justin Vernon knows what he’s doing and that he doesn’t need the “Bon Iver” name to make great music.  The Men will continue to put great, solid rock albums from now until eternity it seems like; throwing in some classic rock and Americana touches like they did on New Moon just helps expand their sound.

Vampire Weekend got a lot of credit for their show of maturity on their third album, and a lot of it is deserved–Modern Vampires is an excellent rumination on love and faith.  That said, it wasn’t as great a leap as some critics made it out to be; I thought that Contra showed that the band was creative enough to find a way to connect their niche sound with other genres and still remain true to their identity.  So while this is a very good album, it’s not quite the “Album of the Year”.

I’m much more surprised about the latest album from Sigur Rós.  I found Valtari to be a real low point, an album that often struggled to find any semblance of creativity or inspiration, and it just seemed like an ambient mess.  So when the band released Kveikur so quickly after Valtari, I was pretty skeptical.  But holy shit, this sounds like a band reborn.  It’s a much more aggressive album, an adjective that is rarely associated with the band, and bears some (dare I say?) metal influences.

6). (10 plays) Cults – StaticSavages – Silence Yourself.

We had an extensive piece already on Cults, so we won’t rehash it here.  Savages end up with the highest-ranked debut on this chart, as I found their revival of post-punk thrilling, a brilliant mix of Joy Division and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

5). (11 plays) Arctic Monkeys – AMThe Besnard Lakes – Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO.

The instant I heard “Do I Wanna Know?”, I knew I would love this album; I just didn’t know that it would turn out to revive their career here in the States.  It’s a huge improvement over the good-but-unmemorable Suck It And See and the completely forgettable Humbug, and it wins my coveted award of “Night Driver of the Year”.

I’ve been a longtime fan of The Besnard Lakes, a band far more deserving of some of the plaudits that another Canadian band whose absence you may notice from this list.  If there were actual justice in this world, they’d be headlining arenas, but I’m glad I get to see them perform spellbinding sets in tiny venues like the Doug Fir.  I initially was not impressed with the new album, mainly because I had been hoping that they could use some of the huge hooks from Roaring Night and hopefully catapult into the mainstream; but once I accepted the album for what it was, I was able to appreciate the subtle melodies and beautiful atmosphere.

4). (12 plays) Deafheaven – SunbatherMy Bloody Valentine – m b v.

My Bloody Valentine shocked the world when they announced that they were immediately releasing their long-awaited follow-up to Loveless.  Servers were in a constant state of crashing as music buffs around the world rushed to download the album, but eventually we all got our copy.  Was it worth the over two-decade wait?  If you based it on trash like “Nothing Is”, then you would say no, but then you hear the gorgeous “Only Tomorrow” with its monumental guitar solo, and all is forgiven, because you are reminded that while there are thousands of bands that were inspired by them, there is truly only one My Bloody Valentine.

Sunbather might be the most surprising album on my list, because while there is a lot of heavy metal that I do enjoy, it’s usually not of the black metal variety.  However, Deafheaven uses the banshee wail-type vocals to their advantage, as they blend in with the walls of guitar.  If I had my preference, it wouldn’t be the style I choose, if only because it becomes hard to distinguish what are actually some pretty decent lyrics (an exchange like “‘I’m dying.’  ‘Is it blissful?’  ‘It’s like a dream.’  ‘I want to dream.'” read great on the page, but impossible to pick out when sung).  That said, the actual music is pretty goddamn brilliant.  I’m going to explore them in a future Feats of Strength, but I’ll say that the last half of “The Pecan Tree” was probably the best music I heard all year, but to understand its full brilliance you need to hear the 55 minutes of brutality that came before it.

3. (16 plays) Wavves – Afraid of Heights.

Wavves received the best press and sales of their career with King of the Beach, and to follow it up they release an album filled with cynicism and paranoia and plain old depression.  But they made it fun as hell.  I have to give a lot of respect who released a single that got actual radio airplay whose chorus is “Holding a gun to my head, so send me an angel; or bury me deeply instead, with demons to lean on”.  And they played it on Letterman.

2. (17 plays) Queens of the Stone Age – ...Like Clockwork.

This one of the best albums of QOTSA’s career, and that’s saying something since they’ve released several classic albums already.  It’s a brilliant mix of their desert rock with gothic horror.  It’s hard for me to think of much more to say than that, because I’m still bitter thinking how not one person on the AV Club staff gave this album a single vote.

1. (20 plays) The National – Trouble Will Find Me.

In the end, the list was topped off by what I would have predicted at the beginning of the year, but when I first listened to Trouble Will Find Me this was not a foregone conclusion.  But like other albums from The National before it, what initially sounded like a shapeless bore gradually revealed its subtle strength and beauty.  Melodies become more apparent, and dynamics become more evident; often it’s not drastic loud-soft contrast, but a gradual intensity that builds throughout in a song.  Each listen brings about a new favorite; first it was “Sea of Love”, then it was “Pink Rabbits” followed by “Don’t Swallow the Cap”.  Lately, it’s been “Graceless”, a powerful look at attempts to shake the melancholy stemming from a past relationship, filled with great lines like “God loves everybody–don’t remind me” and “all of my thoughts of you: bullets through rotten fruit.”  After a few listens, you notice things like the shift halfway between “graceless” and “grace” that occurs in the lyrics, and the gradual buildup of intensity in Matt Berninger’s voice as he powers through the song.  It’s perfect that an album that rewards multiple listens takes the top spot.

Over the Weekend (Mar. 24 Edition)

We’ve got a lot of new music to news that you need to be familiar with, or you’ll be completely lost at the water cooler this week.  And nobody wants to endure that potential fate, so we’re here with the links.

Probably the biggest news of the week first broke on Friday, when The Black Keys employed some unusual means of announcing to the world that they’re about to release a new album.  The initial tweet came courtesy of Mike Tyson, but the bizarre video that accompanies the tweet did not include him (unless that is one fantastic makeup job).  The Black Keys then held up their end of the deal, releasing the track “Fever” today, in advance of the May 13 release of Turn Blue.  The single sees The Black Keys further evolving their sound, away from their ragged blues to a more dirty funk/soul sound that was found on the album tracks of Brothers and El Camino.  Old school fans may be alarmed at first, but I hope they succumb to the groove.

The other big news today was the long-awaited announcement that the Pixies are finally releasing a new album.  Pitchfork has a lot of the details of the upcoming release of Indie Cindy, but a lot of the songs should be familiar to Pixies fans, since it includes the songs from their recent EPs (with EP-3 being released today).  There are a lot of special editions of the album coming out, including a double-disc edition which features a hardcover book and a compilation of live tracks from their recent US tour (with bassist Paz Lenchantin).

We’ve mentioned our previous love of Cults before on this site, so it’s no surprise we’re going to put you in the direction of this video interview that the band did with Salon.  It’s great to get a little insight into their development as a group over the last few years, thanks to a few good questions.

In some sad news, it was announced that the man known as Oderus Urungus, lead singer of GWAR, was found dead in his home this past weekend.  To help ease the sting of the news, be sure to watch the video from the AV Club link of the band’s cover of “Carry On, Wayward Son”, and check out the other GWAR videos on the site for good measure.

Finally, we don’t want to end on a bum note, so here’s a video of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah performing on their recent “living room tour” at their stop in Portland.  No, I wasn’t one of the lucky few that got a chance to see it, but it looks like I missed out on something pretty special.  Here’s a performance of “Underwater (You and Me)” from the criminally underrated Some Loud Thunder.

A SXSW (P)Review

The big news this week is of course the SXSW Festival, and you’re probably tired of hearing the same stories about the festival over and over.*  They usually follow one of two tropes, and it doesn’t matter which, because they’re both terrible: either the “all of your favorite bands are having a blast here in the LIVE MUSIC CAPITAL OF THE WORLD” or “it sucks now that SXSW has totally sold out, man” (annoying coming from either an Austinite or a music industry lackey, for different but totally valid reasons).  Here’s what you should know: 1) None of your favorite bands, if they are in Austin, TX this week, are having a blast because it’s now a requirement that anyone with new music coming out has to stop by and play crowded bars that haven’t seen an inspection since 1998, and 2) Nobody cares that the festival was awesome before anyone heard about it.

*I’m making a couple of assumptions here: that you like music (why else would you be here, unless you were really into cartography, I guess) and that you have at least enough of a passing interest in music/news that you are aware that there is a festival called “South by Southwest” (SXSW for short) and have seen at least one mention of this gigantic festival.  I would think that these assumptions didn’t need to be stated for the record, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Don't believe everything that you read.

Don’t believe everything that you read.

That said, there are tons of pieces out there attempting to provide a preview of this year’s particular incarnation of SXSW, and they’re all fighting for your eyes and clicks.  That means I have to come up with my own original approach, and I think I found the right hook: I’ll be reviewing my previous trip to SXSW in order to give you an idea of what to expect.  Because history repeats itself, and time is a flat circle.

I was lucky enough to attend the festival in 2011, when it lined up perfectly with my Spring Break from law school.  With my sister already in town for grad school, I had a floor for crashing and the toughest part of the trip figured out (a previous attempt to attend the festival back in 2007 when I was still working in radio fell apart because of that detail).  It sure seemed to be a better idea than sleeping in each day until noon and then waiting three hours in line for a Shake Shack burger–now I would sleep in each day until noon and then wait three hours to watch some of my favorite bands (because let’s be honest–I wasn’t going to work on my thesis in either scenario).  I looked forward to a week of sunshine, music, and cheap/crappy beer, instead of a week of cold, traffic, and expensive/crappy beer.

The thing that’s hard to realize about SXSW until you’re there is just how many bands are there, and they’re all playing venues that they would otherwise have no business playing in, whether it be a downward or upward shift in fortune.  Queens of the Stone Age playing in a converted auto-body garage?  Um, if you say so.  Some Brazilian surfer-punk zydeco hybrid band playing a packed two-story bar?  Yeah, you’ll never hear of them again (I think their name started with a ‘Z’), but for a brief moment they were a Next Big Thing at this festival.  You truly can’t comprehend the sheer number of bands.  My one souvenir from the festival was a t-shirt that listed “all” of the bands that played.  I took it out during the course of writing this as a reference to help jog my memory of what bands I saw, but it’s practically worthless in that regard because the half-point font makes reading impossible.  And and all these bands are playing in any possible space that they can find.

They even had a singing saw, but they couldn't play a Neutral Milk Hotel cover?

They even had a singing saw, but they couldn’t play a Neutral Milk Hotel cover?

So to people who are fans of “music” as a concept, this all sounds wonderful; to sane people, not so much.  You walk down Sixth Street, beer in hand, (or as I call it, Bourbon Street Lite) and  hear through the air the strains of 30 different bands playing packed, ramshackle bars.  Oh what glory it is to be alive, as the streets are filled with the sound of music!  Of course, if you’re able to actually pick out through the cacophony that sounds great or at the very least interesting, good luck in trying to actually make it into the venue.  This is something that a normal, sane person would enjoy, but SXSW makes this task very difficult indeed.

SXSW is of course famous for the long lines at its venues.  Of course, as a ridiculously popular festival, it’s to be expected.  However, I thought I had purchased a proverbial golden ticket: the wristband.  A couple of hundred bucks up front, and I had bestowed upon my hand the promise of “access” to nearly all shows without paying additional cover charges and the ability to skip lines.  As anyone who’s been to Disneyland knows, this is truly the only way to travel.  And it’s true, you CAN skip ahead of the lines…well at least part of the lines.  What I didn’t know is that SXSW had created an additional supertier with “badges”.  Those were the people that actually had access and so on–you know, what you thought you were getting with the wristband.  In the end, you realize that your purchase of a wristband was the equivalent of pulling into the gas station and selecting the “Plus” nozzle–additional dollars down the drain, with no real noticeable difference in product.

That means your dreams of seeing someone like Bad Brains were pretty much gone.  You thought you could make it into the shack where Death From Above 1979 had a surprise reunion?  Only one possible reaction.  If you’re aiming to see Queens of the Stone Age put on a show at midnight, well you better get to the venue at 7 and watch random crap for five hours, because there’s no way you’re going to be let back in.  It’s tough shit for the badgeless.

Kim Crowdsurfs

Kim Crowdsurfs

That means your dreams of bouncing from show to show are pretty much shot to shit, no matter how willing you are to zig-zag around town.  You are now forced to plan your time judiciously.  And you were hoping that there was not going to be any homework on this trip–I mean, if i was going to think at all this week, shouldn’t it have been in the course of completing my thesis?  These are not the kinds of reflections that I should be having on Spring Break.  Instead, I’m having to do calculations of “is this band popular enough that I can go see them with minimal hassle, but if there is a line, do I really want to see them?”  At this point, I’m about five seconds away from dumping all relevant information into Excel spreadsheets.

Travel 2000 miles to remind yourself of home

Travel 2000 miles to remind yourself of home

For those looking for the best way to see multiple bands, the lawn parties are really the best way to go.  It amazed me that I traveled a couple thousand miles to see a lawn party hosted by the record store that was across the street from me in New York, but Other Music had a great lineup, and offered a bonus attraction for avoiding the terrible Texas heat: shade.  It’s not the most intimate setting, but I was able to see Low, Ted Leo, and !!! all at the same place, and in relative comfort.  And if I wasn’t so restless, I could’ve seen future favorites of mine Sharon Van Etten and Cults as well.

Lawn party is the way to go, for multiple reasons

Lawn party is the way to go, for multiple reasons

The calculus homework that I did before truly came in handy during the night, when it was more of a crapshoot to determine which shows I could get in.  And here’s my advice: you know those buzz bands that you think you’re so cool for hearing about in the days before the festival?  You’re not special.  There are thousands of other people at this festival that read Pitchfork, SPIN, AV Club, FILTER, and whatever other random music press there is out there.  Hell, a lot of them read specific SXSW previews, so there’s no way that you have a chance of getting into the Toro Y Moi show that’s being held in a 50 person dive.  Unless of course you have a badge, as I mentioned above, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you don’t.  So that means having to aim slightly lower than the hippest, buzziest bands.  And sometimes, this works very well.  I was able to catch The Antlers perform an NPR showcase that proved that Burst Apart would be a fantastic follow-up to Hospice.  I was able to watch Tapes ‘n Tapes, years after their initial breakthrough, put on a great show and convince me to give them another shot and purchase their third album (and afterwards ate some absolutely kickass Korean BBQ tacos).  And I was able to witness Cloud Nothings blow the roof off a bar as they blistered through material, and showed signs of their potential before Attack On Memory was released.  Plus, I got to hear Dylan Baldi in the last instance ask the crowd if anyone had a place where they could crash, because they just drove down from Ohio with no real plan.  I hope someone picked up the slack.

Cloud Nothings tear roof off of roofless bar

Cloud Nothings tear roof off of roofless bar

I keep emphasizing the crowds, and there’s a good reason.  I’m not claustrophobic by any means, but Andy Richter has the right idea.  Every place is absolutely jammed with people, fire codes be damned (and honestly, if they were strictly enforced, you’d just be pissed that you couldn’t get in to watch the show).  And not only that, these are some of the dipshittiest people that you’ve ever seen.  I cracked that Sixth Street was “Bourbon Street Lite” above, and that’s really the attitude that the seeming majority of festival-goers take–they’re not in Austin for a great music festival, there in town as a substitute for Cancun or New Orleans, hoping to have A FUCKING BLAST, YO!  As a result, I overheard some of the absolute most inane shit possible while spending hours in lines over the course of the week, and I have to be thankful that I can’t remember anything specific.

Which leads me to my next piece of advice: bring a friend.  Of course, it’s always fun to share the experience with someone else, but I’ve managed to go solo to several shows without any problem.  But when you’re stuck in lines for hours on end, it’s best to have someone else with which to engage, or else you will have to endure only in your head what seems like a lifetime of bullshit.  It’s not pleasant.

This is even more awesome, knowing this is outside of Odd Future

This is even more awesome, knowing this is outside of Odd Future

In the end, is it all worth it?  I did get a chance to do things like stand five feet away and see …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead play a hometown show at one in the morning, see random old guys jamming on guitar outside an Odd Future show, and see The Strokes for the first time as fireworks exploded over the Austin skyline during “Last Nite”.  I also saw a ton of forgettable bands and people consistently make such asses of themselves that it would seem to be a productive use of my team to merely weep for the future of humanity.  But in the end, it was probably a fair trade-off–all I missed was a Shake Shack burger (which I’m now told exists in Austin) and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor concert that I had purchased tickets for months earlier.  And I didn’t work on my thesis, but we all know I wasn’t going to work on it anyway.

Anyway, for those who don’t care about history and are here for some advice, here we go, in list form:

1. Bring a friend.  This makes the boredom and idiots tolerable.

2. Buy a badge.  Being rich and important is a good idea for most things in life, SXSW included.

3. Have a plan.  You’re not going to see everything you want.  You’re barely going to see half of what you want.  Deal with it.

4. Find the Korean BBQ Taco truck.  That was delicious.

5. Texas beer sucks.  I didn’t mention this earlier, but just know ahead of time.  Know that the best thing you’ll buy is some off-brand cerveza at the taverna next to the gas station.

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Sophomore Slump or Underrated Gems? Yuck and Cults

In recent years I developed a scientific but informal method to determining the best albums of the year.  It’s scientific in its attempt at objectivity (number of plays over the year), but informal in that the order was only for the purpose of guiding friends as to which albums they would get the most bang for their back.  For the year of 2011, this process determined that the self-titled debut of Cults was the fourth-best album of the year, while Yuck’s album (coincidentally enough, also a self-titled debut) took the crown at number one.  Since then, I can honestly say those assessments hold up, since I continue to listen to those albums on a regular basis (in fact, if I re-ranked the list, I’d bump Cults up into the number two slot, close behind Yuck (sorry Girls and The Antlers)).

Is there a reason to pair these bands together, besides future narrative convenience?  In a way, probably.  As has been the case for most rock bands for over a decade now, both of these bands took their major inspirations from the past and offered their own reinterpretations of their favorite old bands.  If you want to be mean, you could say the urge was not to push boundaries and create new genres, but to affirm a love of the old sounds that they had heard before, and hey what do you know, let’s try to do the same things ourselves.  I myself don’t want to be mean, so don’t pin that accusation on me (others, however, have no problem whatsoever with this approach and react in a way that makes you want to ask if there’s anything you can do to console them, because it seems as if somebody in the band ran over their dog (possibly on multiple occasions)).

What distinguished Yuck and Cults from their colleagues was the era of their particular nostalgia.  While several bands trafficked in 80’s revivalism (from post-punk to top-40 sounds) or hearkened back to 70’s arena rock, Yuck and Cults chose different routes: early-90s guitar-rock for Yuck and 60’s-era pop for Cults.  After years of call-backs to Joy Division, Gang of Four, or God forbid, Led Zeppelin, critics at least would have a different set of bands to name-drop in describing each group’s sound (well, Dinosaur Jr. at the very least–that was the one that got the most references from what I’ve read for Yuck; I never saw too many specifics for Cults).  But reminding me of some of my favorite bands only gets you so far; I was more than anything impressed with the execution of each band.

Take “Get Away”, the track that kicks off the Yuck album: the super-fuzzed-out rhythm guitar instantly catches your attention, and then the delicious lead guitar line, both in terms of melody and tone, kicks in through the mix with a circular riff that matches the song’s theme.  But it’s the little moments that add up that make me truly appreciate the song:  the excellent use of feedback as lead parts in the second verse, a post-chorus that truly builds on the chorus and leads perfectly back to the verse, and a bridge where everything drops out but a bassline reminiscent of the Pixies before everyone jumps back in for one last go-around.  It’s early 90’s alternative done with an ear for perfect songcraft, and the only thing that’s infuriating is that the band members are even younger than I am.

For Cults, the comparisons are more general: the sunny nature of Madeline Follin’s vocals and the bright happy melodies do a lot to evoke an air of nostalgia, and bring to mind memories of Phil Spector and old-time girl groups like The Ronettes.  It takes a lot to make this style seem like more than a gimmick, and over the course of an album Cults managed to do this successfully.  There are subtle modern touches that provide enough of a twist to capture your attention, especially with the drum programming, and the seemingly carefree vocals mask lyrics that are more melancholic than expected.  And I have to love a band that’s willing to do not only music videos, but videos that can be best described as “the director decided to get stoned and watch Lost Highway, and oh yeah, let’s make it a bizarre love story too”.

It’s easy then to imagine the excitement I felt when I learned that these two bands would be releasing new albums in 2013.  I was excited to see what new influences the bands were willing to explore, or if they decided to stick with their old formula, that frankly sounded fine as well–it was a win-win as far as I was concerned.  But soon after the announcements of the new albums, bad news followed: Yuck announced that lead singer Daniel Blumberg had left the band (and would record an album as Hebronix), and Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin had broken up as a couple, but in both cases, new albums were going to be released anyway.  This was just the kind of news that makes a fan more than a bit wary of what could possibly be released, or worry that there would even be a release at all.

Each banded handled the turmoil in different ways: Cults agreed to several interviews detailing the process of making their new album and providing further background of the romantic-but-not-band breakup, and Yuck just started releasing music.  The first single after Blumberg’s departure that Yuck released was “Rebirth”, which is just too on-the-nose to not be something that was planned.  It did signal a new influence for the band, as they seemingly had decided to switch their focus from American alternative-rock to British shoegaze, and it seemed that the band had internalized the latter style as well as they had the former on their debut.  In a normal year, I would have said that “Rebirth” was the best My Bloody Valentine song released that year; since hell froze over and My Bloody Valentine actually released a new album last year, I would revise my statement and say it was the third or fourth-best MBV song of the year.

The Cults approach worked too, because at least with continued engagement with the press indicated that a follow-up was not a tossed-off effort, and that they were committed to continuing the band.  And their choice of a teaser single took the opposite approach of Yuck: from a stylistic perspective, “I Can Hardly Make You Mine” would fit right in at just about any point in the track-listing of Cults, though there were some subtle differences in the instrumentation that pointed to some growth (synths that were higher up in the mix, a more dominant guitar part, and livelier drumming all pointed to exciting possible new directions for the album).

With these songs, optimism began to build up once again, and I gladly purchased Glow and Behold and Static as soon as they were released.  I then went through my usual ritual, ripping the CD and importing the tracks onto my iPod (to be played during the next workout), and then putting the physical discs in my car (to be played on my next drive).  And just as was the case with their debuts, my reaction to each album was that of near-instant love.   Now here we are a few months later and both albums remain in my car as part of the regular rotation, and when I write up my review of the best albums of 2013, both albums should have a place on the list.

But apparently I’m in the minority with this opinion (well, a minority of a minority–we’re talking about indie bands that are somewhat obscure even by indie rock standards).  While Static actually has a similar Metacritic score to Cults, it failed to generate as much press or buzz, and failed to appear on year-end lists at the same rate that I remembered that their debut did.  And there was a huge nosedive in critical appreciation of Glow and Behold as opposed to Yuck.  Another bad sign was the lack of local promotion for either of their shows in Portland, which is pretty amazing considering that the backstories for each album should be a hook for both critics and their subsequent audience.  The articles practically wrote themselves.

At least with some critics, it appeared that some were unwilling to let go of the past.  This is especially evident in AllMusic’s review of Glow and Behold, which can’t seem to accept the fact that the band decided to continue without Blumberg, and subsequently would not sound the exact same.  It may be just that I personally found the increased emphasis on shoegaze to be a more interesting route to take than an attempt to ape Blumberg’s whine, or that I had fonder memories of Teenage Fanclub than others (when Yuck first came out, I remarked that it seemed like they were the one band that learned that Bandwagonesque was SPIN’s album of the year over Nevermind and seemed to agree with the result; the Teenage Fanclub influence was even more pronounced on Glow and Behold, with the album’s more focus on brighter melodies and cleaner guitars).  It was the same case with the more negative reviews of Static, though in a way in reverse: reviews would say how there was little deviation from the first album, when there was an entire two-thirds of the album that had a darker mood and more challenging instrumentation than anything on the debut.

So it’s clear what my answer to the title question is, and for what it’s worth, the few of my friends that care about this sort of thing tend to agree.  I’m fine with enjoying great songs like “We’ve Got It” and “Middle Sea” (a song that would be near the top of my list of best singles of the year) on my own, but I just hope that we won’t end up seeing more great bands like these two get caught up in the downswing of the hype-cycle, despite continuing to produce great music, as we’ve seen plenty of times before.  In other words, when album number three comes out, I’ll be there.