Erika Elizabeth | obligatory backwards gazing for 2013
By Erika Elizabeth
Fair warning: do not approach the following list as any sort of hierarchal or comprehensive list of what music I thought to be the best (or even necessarily my favorite) in 2013. There’s still so much from the past twelve months that is unexplored, because there’s only so many hours in the day. Rather, these are some of the highlights of 2013’s musical offerings that I haven’t already covered in my “halfway through the year” round-up, or in reviews or singles or albums or demos that I’ve done for Collapse Board this year, or that otherwise haven’t yet had their well-deserved opportunity to be the focus of my written adoration. You could call it “Things I Would Have Talked About Earlier If I Had Been Able to Get My Shit Together”, but that’s a mouthful, so here’s some obligatory backwards gazing for 2013.
Kicking Giant secret reunion show at Land in Portland, Oregon (September 5, 2013)
Top music-related anything for me in 2013 by a wide margin. If nothing else justified my move to Portland earlier this summer, I could live with the fact that I went to an opening for Tae Won Yu’s art show at a gallery here in town & about an hour later was witnessing Kicking Giant tear through a 14-minute set completely unannounced. I had casually looked for video footage of this show a few times after it all transpired but didn’t come up with anything, which was actually kind of a welcome surprise in this age of instantaneous documentation & sharing of experiences. I could hold on to the image in my mind of singing along to ‘She’s Real’ at the top of my lungs & jumping around like I had been temporarily possessed by my 14-year-old self (the one who taped the song from the local college station one late night & was set on a total path of scrappy-pop devotion as a result), a secret moment that I shared with a few dozen other people similarly losing their shit over the fact that this was all happening. But now, months later, there is indeed video online (of course), so now I can share that secret with the rest of y’all.
Household – Elaines EP (Dull Knife)
I’m really glad that I took my goddamn time putting together this list, because the mad dash to the finish line that has so many music journalism/criticism outlets cranking out their year-end roundups earlier & earlier in a vain attempt to one-up their peers would more than likely leave this one in the dust. Household’s new EP was just released in early December & I haven’t even gotten my vinyl copy in the mail yet – there’s still two weeks left of 2013, so let’s not declare the year’s musical output over & done quite yet, okay? These six songs are like Mondrian’s grid paintings translated into sound; all primary colors, bold lines & right angles, carefully & simply arranged with not a single element out of place. Guitarist Talya Cooper’s unassuming vocals fit ever-so neatly into Household’s economical post-punk patterns in similar way to Alison Statton’s with minimalist masters Young Marble Giants, but there’s also a Marine Girls-inspired thread of roughly-sketched pop poking out here on songs like ‘The Way Things Are’, threatening to get pulled & unravelled.
Cold Beat – Worms EP (Crime On The Moon)
Hannah Lew of Grass Widow strikes it out with a new side project with her bags packed full of the same ethereal, off-kilter harmonies & angular minimalism to which her other band has become indelibly tied. The jagged stabs of post-punk guitar that kick off ‘Worms’ are quickly disembodied in a flurry of reverb, frantic jangle & angelic female vocals, sounding like the early-80s Rough Trade roster on a surf-garage bender, while ‘Year 5772’ sheds the sharp corners in favor of buzzing space-age synth & sugar-spun harmonies. Then there’s remixes of both tracks on the flipside of the EP, but after how spellbinding the originals are, I can’t help but wish that they had made room for more original material instead. Cold Beat also played a really great set last month at the second-to-last show ever held at my favorite venue in Portland (RIP Record Room), whose closure would probably be tops on my “worst of 2013” list if I was actually going to make one of those.
Ruby Pins – self-titled LP (M’lady’s)
Not to be outdone, Lillian Maring of Grass Widow has been engaging in her own extracurricular activities this year in Ruby Pins, a mostly one-woman project showcasing her otherworldly bedroom pop songs. There’s some of the naive brilliance of homespun popsmiths the Cleaners From Venus at work here (check out those lo-fi vocals & the jaunty drum machine pulsing in ‘My Friends Are Insane’), while the dream-popping ‘Chameleon’ & ‘In Your Dreams’ manage to sound simultaneously vintage & futuristic, like fading sepia-toned photographs that have been blown up & pixelated, or maybe a post-punk Angelo Badalamenti locked in a room with a four-track machine.
The Courtneys – self-titled LP (Hockey Dad)
The Courtneys are three twenty-something ladies from Vancouver, British Columbia who wear their 90s influences on their (flannel) sleeves, with a guitarist/vocalist who has adopted the moniker Courtney Loove, a song paying tribute to everyone’s favorite 90s TV show featuring adults posing as Californian teenagers (‘90210’, although I’m sure there’s a follow-up about Saved By The Bell in the works) & a Point Break-referencing musical love letter to Keanu Reeves (no offense y’all, but All Girl Summer Fun Band cornered the market on crush songs for alternative heartthrobs about 10 years ago with ‘Jason Lee’). Not surprisingly, The Courtneys have their musical gaze fixed south on Olympia circa 1992 or so, drawing equally from K Records’ naive, minimalist pop & kill rock stars’ strain of primal girl-punk. ‘Social Anxiety’ & ‘Insufficient Funds’ wind themselves around bratty sing-song rhythms lifted straight from the Bratmobile/Heavens To Betsy split 7”, while ‘Nu Sundae’ wipes away the marker-scrawled stomach messages for something closer to the shambling sweetness of Tiger Trap.
Skinny Girl Diet/Ethical Debating Society – split 7” (Happy Happy Birthday To Me)
Delilah (guitar/vocals), Ursula (drums/vocals) & Amelia (bass/vocals) of Skinny Girl Diet are all apparently “school-age”, which one can only assume means the School of Slampt Records – their lo-fi, ramshackle brat-punk would fit in perfectly with the likes of International Strike Force or Golden Starlet. On their side of the split, ‘DMT’ twists clattering drums, fuzzed out garage-trash guitar & echo chamber vocals into the sort of wiry punk rager that brings to mind teenage girl-punks of yesteryear Skinned Teen, while ‘Homesick’ speeds up & slows down with reckless abandon as the gang vocals weave in & out, alternating between a deadpan monotone & throat-shredding shriek. On the flip, Ethical Debating Society take the rough with the smooch, drawing similar inspiration from the youth underground revolution anthems of Huggy Bear & Nation Of Ulysses – all dual-guitar/no bass suckerpunches & incendiary co-ed vocals shouting “COME ON!” or “RIGHT NOW!”. Kris & Tegan’s urgent call-and-response vocals on ‘Child’s Play’ & ‘Creosote Ideas’ pass the Red Monkey test with flying colors, toning down that (woefully under-appreciated) band’s post-punk angularity for basic raw anger.
Good Throb – Culture Vulture EP (Muscle Horse)
Bare-bones co-ed punk out of London wrapped in prickly, repetitive guitar lines that cut like barbed wire & snarling, teeth-bared female vocals. Apparently the three ladies & one gent in Good Throb bonded together with the intention of starting a band where they would all pick up instruments that were new to them, which is how all bands should come into being as far as I’m concerned – start from nothing, make your own rules, color outside of the lines, stumble on something pure & uncompromising. I feel like like last year, the Australians ruled supreme on my turntable, but in 2013, the UK seems to have held my heart captive, with most of the credit for that going to the dozens of English bands representing the sounds of the modern boy-girl revolution (just don’t call it riot grrrl).
Zebra Hunt – Only Way Out EP (Tenorio Cotobade)
There’s been not one but two amazing EPs this year from the ever-lovely Zebra Hunt & all of the praise that I laid at their feet for their previous EP in my halfway-through-2013 roundup holds true with this one as well. ‘Only Way Out’ is pure starry-eyed, Dunedin-dreaming magic, backed with the much darker garage-rock stomp of ‘Get Along’, with a great kiss-off line from guitarist/vocalist Robert Mercer (“It doesn’t mean I like you, though I put up with your shit”) that could have found place within the righteous frustration of the first Violent Femmes album if they had been obsessing over the early, charmingly rough around the edges Go-Betweens classics instead of the collective works of Lou Reed.
Bunny’s A Swine – Calling Out LP (TinyRadars)
Bunny’s A Swine have been notably absent in a good number of the assessments by outsiders that Western Massachusetts is the next Olympia/Athens/Chapel Hill/whatever other buzz-bin epicenter with a large university that you can think of – maybe it’s because they’ve quietly released all of their records on their own locally-oriented DIY label, or maybe it’s because their musical allegiances (the early Teenbeat Records roster & heavy drinkers from Dayton, Ohio) don’t fit as neatly into a press-generated narrative of sharing a backyard with the likes of J Mascis & Frank Black. If these guys & girl are influenced by any 90s-era Massachusetts exports, they’re the ones from the opposite side of the state – the way that six-string guitarist/vocalist Candace Clement’s airy voice collides with three-string guitarist/vocalist Emerson Stevens’ hoarse shout on songs like ‘Barnburner’ & ‘More Than Enough’, often layered over a steady jangle that gives way to a flurry of fuzz & distortion, would do the Boston shoegaze division led by the Swirlies or Drop Nineteens very proud. Then there’s the stompers like ‘Greetings From The Bottom’, where drummer Dustin Cote’s manic, pounding drums propel the gloriously ragged, twangy racket (their pretty fucking apt self-descriptor: awk-pop slops-rock), with Candace & Emerson’s duelling vocals sounding like The Vaselines fronting vintage Pavement, maybe minus the blatant Swell Maps worship. They might not be getting the same level of attention as some of their neighbors, but of all the Western Mass-spawned bands of late, this is the one whose records I’m most confident will still hold up in 10 or 15 years & if I have to be the one running my mouth off about them until people get it, then so be it.
Woolen Men – Dog Years LP (Dog’s Table)
Technically, it’s a compilation of tracks culled from several small-run cassettes dating back to 2009 & yes, I put their self-titled LP of original material from this year on my round-up of the first half of 2013. The honest, unadulterated joy that I’ve gotten from being able to see this band every couple of weeks in Portland for the past six months is worthy of its own mention in this list, but this collection sums up fairly well what makes the Woolen Men so charming that I would include them on two Collapse Board-commissioned overviews in one year. It’s like these guys exist in a parallel universe where Our Band Could Be Your Life was equally devoted to the American & New Zealand undergrounds of the 80s, with the nervous & nerdy jangle of The Clean & The Bats existing side-by-side with the Minutemen & Husker Du jamming econo. If loving that is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
La Luz – It’s Alive LP (Hardly Art)
Mazzy Star reunited this year, but they should watch out for La Luz breathing down the backs of their necks as a good number of the songs on this album could easily become the next ‘Fade Into You’ for moody, head-in-the-clouds teenage outcasts who need a new downer of a prom song – there’s the gossamer multi-part female harmonies, the shimmery guitar that washes over you like a fog at sunrise & the slightly sinister heart that beats within the sock-hop organ on ‘What Good Am I?’ & ‘All the Time’. For the slightly more miniskirted & bouffanted, you can spike the punch & twist well past curfew to the swinging surf-garage rave ups ‘Pink Slime’ & ‘Big Big Blood’, complete with dreamy “ooooh ooooh ooooh” backing vocals lifted straight from the sorts of bands whose names generally end in “-ettes” or “-elles”.
Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister LP (Slumberland)
Joanna Gruesome do very little to belie their obvious affinity for the snap, crackle & pop of pre-Loveless My Bloody Valentine – the tremolo-strummed riffs in ‘Sugarcrush’ & ‘Madison’ that borrow fairly liberally from ‘You Made Me Realise’, the swooning male/female vocals. But they’re also not afraid to emphasize the “noise” end of the noise-pop spectrum – vocalist Alanna McArdle launches into the fuzzed-out ragers ‘Graveyard’ & ‘Anti Parent Cowboy Killers’ with a bratty, breathless rage that’s way closer to what was going on over at kill rock stars in the early 90s than anything that was happening with the Creation Records crew. Joanna Gruesome are sort of like the ratty old sweater that we all probably have, the one with the sleeves that are a little too stretched out & maybe a cigarette burn or coffee stain or two – it’s comfortable & familiar, yet a little fucked-up (in a good way). I need my pop with a few rough edges still intact & they’ve certainly rallied around that cause, which is actually more than you can say about My Bloody Valentine’s own offering this year.