The short-term effects of formaldehyde

Admittedly, I haven’t heard the new Cat Power album yet, but I don’t know if I can imagine a song released this year more heartbreaking than “Cored to Empty,” the fourth track on Giant Orange, the new Cheap Girls album. Its a song about being stuck and it offers no hope for change.  “When you first found me I was dirty, broken, cored to empty”  sings vocalist/bassist Ian Graham, before delvering the song’s clincher, “I’m not much better now.”  This is a song where form so perfectly matches function it makes most other songs seem by the books and lazy by comparison.  The song is a last attempt to rouse oneself, and an utter failure of that attempt. For most of its length, it’s just Grahms voice and slow-strummed acoustic guitars, but, right before it ends an electric guitar enters, plays a breif solo, tries to climax in a wave of distortion, and is summarily cut off.

Cheap Girls?! More like Cheap Graphic Design Department!

The Michigan band’s last album, My Roaring Twenties, was all fidgets and broken-in-half corks mispulled by broken corkscrews out of bottles of supermarket wine.  It was exactly appropriate for 2009, the year I was repairing shoes (working with machinery with menacing names like “the grinder”) and working at a not for profit (which, hilariously enough, mostly paid me less than the shoe repair) and drinking a lot and being cold and huddled, generally.  While “hunkered down” was a pretty good summary of my twelve months in the land of pleasant peninsulas, it was also a time of hope, if for no other reason than because it’s hard to go downhill when you can barely stand u.

Giant Orange is a summer album, but not in the way you might think.  Sure, there are big melodies (“Ruby”), songs that explicitly reference the summer months (“Gone All Summer”), and 4-to-the-floor ragers which would compliment the pixelated sun in some fake Southern California backdrop in a Tony Hawk game (“If You Can’t Swim”).  But, more than the album embodies any of those, Giant Orange is the Michigan summer where it gets too hot to move, where the sun bleaches any sheets of paper you leave in your car, where Lake Michigan is always one hour too far away to be a practical retreat. This is an album of disappointment, exhaustion, and miscommunication (one of its best songs- “Miscommunication Blues”) made almost more difficult to hear by the primary-color melodies those emotions come wrapped in.

It’s the little details, the peculiar wording, the perfectly captured scene which carry Cheap Girls songs. Giant Orange’s first song sets itself up thusly- “While you’re off somewhere else high on animal drugs/It’s amazing all the things we’ll find on the ground.”   It’s second-to-last song includes the following perfectly summarized realization: “We’ve heard of ways of balancing it out/But always think of them last/And we always think of the right way last”  “Dim Lights,” It’s last song includes a volta you won’t see coming:  “I’m always on my way home

and you’re never happy to see me.”

Gone all Summer”  and “Cored to Empty”  are from the Cheap Girls album Giant Orange.

Another one I’ve been listening to a lot is the new Here We Go Magic album, A Different Ship. The first time I listened to it, I was walking through Terminal Two at SFO, and that seemed very appropriate.  The music was immaculate, distant, shimmering, and emotionally divested.  I mean, the first song it called “Hard to be Close”  and over jazzy drums and space jazzy guitar singer/songwriter luke temple tells you, the listener, “it’s hard, sometimes, to be close.”   And that’s where the album begins and ends for most of the lukewarm reviews it has gotten.

Here We Go Magic: masters of demure expressions.

But I think there is much more going on here.  And don’t just take my word for it; the gospel of York concurs.  When they were performing at a festival in Europe two years ago, Here We Go Magic looked up to see Thom Yorke dancing like crazy in the front row of the crowd.  A big fan, he introduced the band to Radiohead producer (arguably the group’s fifth-Beatle) Nigel Godrich, who agreed to produce A Different Ship.  This is the only non-Radiohead album Godrich has had anything to do with in the past 3 years.  So, if it means anything to you, this album comes indie rock royalty-approved.  That shouldn’t matter to you, but if it helps you give the band a chance, that works for me.

What should matter to you is that the band’s subtlety does not at all equal a lack of emotion.  After all, in that first song where Temple sings “It’s hard, sometimes, to be close,” he also sings “but what if I do?  What if I call for you?”  What you have to allow for A Different Ship to works its peculiar kind of magic (…sorry) is to get close to it, yourself.  Press yourself into your earbuds.  Listen close to singer Luke Temple’s voice. A close listen reveals the band to be quite emotional- restless (“Make Up Your Mind”), angry (“Made to Be Old”), in awe (“A Different Ship”), and  joyous (“How Do I Know?”).  Those emotions are just whispered to you, not shouted at you.  This is an album which I find absolutely refreshing because it entirely refuses to shout at you.

Hard to be Close”  and “How Do I Know”  are from the Here We Go Magic album A Different Ship.

(And, speaking of songs that absolutely refuse to be subtle on any level) I know it’s probably been talked about to death, but man, that newish Passion Pit single works really well.  It is so close to being one of those obnoxious songs about universal struggle made all the more obnoxious because it is written and performed by a bunch of well-to-do white dudes. But the music sells this one.  Those drums feel like the anthropomorphic clock from the nightmares of a type-a personality and that notched up keyboard line seals the deal.  Its rare for a pop act to feel genuinely unhinged.  The last time I can think of something this surprising on rock radio was Say Anything.   For what its worth, Gossamer is more convincing and better at what it does than Say Anything ever has been. Coming from a band who once wrote a song called “Cuddle Fuddle,” this is pretty impressive.

Take A Walk”  is from the Passion Pit album Gossamer.

I was going to say the same kind of thing about that new Muse single (OK.  A sidenote- there are two radio station in San Diego which, when tuning into either one, you have a 50 percent chance of hearing mid-late 90s rock bands.  Which is wonderful.  But the downside is, the rest of the time, they play the same M83 song, that terrible cover of “Smooth Criminal”  from a million years back, one of about 3 Blink-182 or Sublime songs, or the new Muse single), which, at first really impressed me, mostly because it reminded me of that wonderful Lali Puna song from the early aughts.  Also, “Madness” is more fun and less suffocatingly self-serious than any music  Muse have released in ages; Matt Bellamy trying white boy funk!  The closest thing rock music-circa-2012 has to an embodiment of male-fasco-machismo now wants to sex you up, ladies. The first few times I heard this song, I thought to myself, “Yeah.  This isn’t too bad.  maybe it’s actually good.”  But then yesterday I was driving back from Julian full of pie, and the song came on the radio and I actually listened to the words and subsequently realized, nope, “Madness” is a terribly innocuous song which says absolutely nothing of interest.  So I won’t be posting an MP3 of that song.

Next up, the new Shrag, Will Johnson, Calexico, Firewater,  Zammuto, Django Django, Grizzly Bear, and maybe also the new Hot Chip albums if I download and listen to that one a whole bunch.

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