By Alan Ke
This past week, I’ve been listening to a whole bunch of The Microphones/Mount Eerie with the recent release of The Microphones in 2020, one long autobiographical track encompassing an artist’s entire career. For that reason, this week’s focus will be on that release (possibly with an in-depth on The Glow Pt. 2 on its way). We dug into some recent (or in pg.99’s case, not so recent) releases that have newly been added to our library. If any of these stick out to you, feel free to call a DJ to request a song or two! Huge thanks to my colleague Jasper for contributing this week’s review of Eleanor Underhill’s Land of the Living.
Crying – Beyond the Fleeting Gales
Not everybody’s got a sweet tooth, but Crying are the type of band able to win over even those who think they’ve got the dreariest of tastes. On paper, they might not seem like they’re anything that special, an indie power pop band that uses chiptune synths alongside massive guitars. They end up sounding a lot like they’re soundtracking an arcade game in the 2000s, and somehow it works. When listening to this sugar rush of an album, one can almost see the flashing colors of CRT monitors and the glare of LCD lights on the screen. Crying take the listener’s hand and shows them through an entire world of fantasy at full speed.
The ethereal opener “Premonitory Dream” is exactly that, it sets up the non-stop ethereal bliss that’s carried throughout the entire album. Immediately afterwards, “Wool in the Wash” comes in with an infectious melody imbued with the wide-eyed thrill that comes with getting lost somewhere new. At this point, it only feels right to be listening while simultaneously exploring the big open of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – or something of its ilk.
The best part of it all is that these songs aren’t just enjoyable on the surface as fantastic pop songs but also as incredibly intricate and sometimes introspective songs as well. “Patriot” does so by pairing cryptic, yet endearing lyrics with overdriven guitars and synths. On “Well and Spring,” we’re offered solace in an alcove off the beaten path, a brief moment for reflection before the album’s chipper second half. What Crying does best is make you feel like you’re cruising through gleaming city streets, especially “There Was a Door” and “Revive.” Beyond The Fleeting Gales briefly transports you to somewhere else, tucked away in some effervescent fantasy.
Eleanor Underhill – Land of the Living
If you know the Santa Fe art installation Meow Wolf, you might agree that Land of the Living is its musical equivalent. I’m talking about a mystifying melange of genre, mood and memory; a journey that’s not necessarily linear but that leaves you in another place when you emerge.
This experience comes courtesy of Asheville’s Eleanor Underhill (of Underhill Rose duo acclaim), who hits her sophomore solo album with an intriguingly eclectic blend of folk, pop and R&B. Underhill manages to strike a balance with distinct style choices — proving herself particularly adventurous with electronics in earlier tunes — without seeming at all overbearing. She sticks to lovely, nutritiously varied originals with a quality core group of backing musicians (even if that accompaniment ranges from moody electric guitar to impeccable banjo). As with any good folk rock project, Underhill’s breezy voice and charming, emotive songwriting win the day. She draws on authentic heartbreak for songs like the smoldering “Bringing Down the Ghosts” and the touching ballad “Easier Than This,” but reserves the energy for uplifting pieces like “Beautiful Colors,” which, complemented by its stellar production, might prove my favorite on the record. Underhill’s contemporary folk-fusion experimentation makes Land of the Living an odyssey, but it’s well worth your persistence
Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) – On Time Spent Waiting, Or Placing The Weight Of The World On The Shoulders Of Those You Love The Most
Empire! Empire! are perhaps best known for their debut, What It Takes to Move Forward. This EP is along those lines but a lot more concise and decently varied. The writing is sharp and doesn’t overstay its welcome the way some of their other work does. “The One Who Could Ever Reach You” hits emotional highs from the very start while “Everything Familiar Has Disappeared!” is woefully sorrowful though brief. “I Would Have Stolen You a Whole Orchestra” is an aptly weary closer and the truest to their sound. Empire! Empire! never promised to mend any of your heartbreaks so why act surprised when they tear gashes deeper into them?
Free Throw – Those Days Are Gone
Though Free Throw never made a huge dent in the scene, this album is arguably more memorable than the careers of most offshoot bands on labels like Count Your Lucky Stars during the emo revival era. While their sound isn’t anything overly flashy, their chops are solid, especially when it comes to the twinkly, math-rock guitars that they love to throw in. The vocals here are forceful more often than not, resulting in songs that blast in your face with bitterness and self-deprecating humor. The lyrics are simple but get the job done, that is, they wallow in sad thoughts, self-pity, and latch onto failed relationships. The real highlights here are all housed on the A side. “Two Beers In” is a fantastic tune that’s immediately nostalgic for anyone who listens to it. Meanwhile, “Pallet Town” comes crashing in with wonderfully twinkly riffs and one-liners soaked in regret. To top it off, it ends with a brilliant breakdown and a singalong refrain. This album makes me nostalgic for nights that never happened from years long past. It’s not that Those Days Are Gone, they never existed.
Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again
A decade into his career as a drummer and bandleader, Makaya McCraven attempts his most ambitious project yet. We’re New Here is a reinterpretation of sorts, a revival of the spirit of musician/poet Gil Scott-Heron. His voice, regardless if singing or speaking, is sampled on most of these tracks, chopped up to match the new setting. What McCraven brings to the table is a full band of brass, woodwind and percussion to color in the gaps between Scott-Heron’s stanzas. Whether introspective, socially charged, or celebratory, the words are always backed by appropriately jazzy rhythms. For a tribute, there’s no doubt that this album upholds the honor to Scott-Heron’s legacy. The fusion of poetry and melody is immaculate, with the help of the added balance from the spoken word interludes. However, while McCraven achieves his goal of paying his respects to Scott-Heron’s genius through the album’s concept, the performances feel held back by the reluctance to dominate the atmosphere. “Blessed Parents” is the first moment the band frees their reigns and lets loose their virtosity, leadign to a frenzied avant-garde jam that barely lasts over a minute. After this display of what they’re capable of, McCraven’s band never quite reaches those highs again, save for the fluttering woodwind on “Where Did the Night Go.” Clearly, McCraven’s artistic vision was to not overshadow the words he houses on his music. But, if you choose to reinvigorate the words of Gil Scott-Heron in a time when they’re more relevant than ever, why not pair it with something equally as bold?
The Microphones – The Microphones in 2020
The Microphones in 2020 is Phil Elverum laying out all his cards on the table. In this 45-minute journey of an album, song, sound, he introduces himself not as a musician, not as an artist, but as a harbinger of truth. The purpose of the seven minute intro of gliding guitar strums is twofold. First, it sets the tone for its retrospective wandering, but more importantly, it gives listeners a breather before descending into its intense projections of rememberance. The way Phil presents his past in sporadic flashbacks, not adhering to chronology, replicates the imperfection of memory, with an endearing, poetic spin. He holds your hand down a corridor of fossilized images of the past, matinee martial arts movie screenings, concerts he attended, glimpses of songs he wrote.
The instrumental backdrop behind all these moments is usually weightless, but can be urgent and punctuative when the lyrics call for it. Most of the song is carried by the lone acoustic guitar motif, though Phil incorporates washing layers of synth to transition between thoughts. This most notably occurs at the halfway point, where the song becomes increasingly self-referential as the stories begin approaching the present. After weathering the storm, the second half introduces percussion to the mix, carving crashing canyons of chords that complement his earthly poetry. At the same time, there’s a lightness added to it by twinkling pianos, faint electric guitar mumble or the occasional bit of acoustic noise.
Along the way, Phil namedrops a slew of artists, from Stereolab to Mayhem. Just as his influences are varied and eclectic, his rettling of the past is scatterbrained and piecemeal. The song’s structure mostly follows cycles of steady streams of recollections, only to be interrupted by a standalone image or phrase, reminding him of the present.
Near the end, when Phil proclaims “When I took my shirt off in the yard I meant it, and it’s still off,” not only is he referencing the title track of The Glow Pt. 2, but he’s telling it as is. In this spitting image of himself through song, he’s naked and vulnerable. He has nothing to hide.
Throughout Microphones in 2020 and most of Phil’s discography, he grapples with the concept of eternity. He declares, “I will never stop singing this song,” and that’s not an isolated reference. As he continuously revisits past songs, former monikers, and labels projects “part 2,” there’s a feeling that his work is never to be finished. Even the endless, flowing feeling carried through by this one long composition reflects that aspect of his music. There’s always more to be said, more to be sung. When the song abruptly cuts out after the words “There’s no end,” there’s no sound of Phil getting up or putting down his instrument, just twenty seconds of hollow silence. I’d listen to this song if only just to hear that stillness.
pageninetynine – Document #5
To say that pageninetynine make a statement with Document #5 would hardly do them justice. This album is a manifestation of everything vicious and unsettling about music performed with utmost passion. pageninetynine stands out from their peers mostly with their sheer heaviness. Though this was only their debut LP, they were already experimenting with borrowing razor-sharp guitar licks from metalcore and grind on songs like “Skin Pack” to chunky powerviolence breakdowns on tracks like “Humans With Forked Tongues.” To top it off, the vocals are close to as charismatic as screamo gets without being sassy. The dull wit of “My Application To Heaven” is enough to crack a smile while headbanging. The real showstopper though is saved for last.
The very proposition of executing a 10-minute screamo song sounds absurd. The genre is more or less defined by abrasive but brief ideas compressed into as concise of a package as possible. Especially when preceded by three songs that barely hit the one-minute mark, “By The Fire Place In White” is surely something to be reckoned with. It comes in with a slew of sludgy, melting riffs before rebuilding in a brutal fashion. pageninetynine simply deny you of any rest until, without even realizing, you’re being completely smothered. Safe to say, the heaviness of this album will rip you in two.
Sano Ex Machina / mis sueños son de tu adiós – Split
Sano Ex Machina aren’t the type of screamo band to overload you with guitars and noise. They instead take a more patient approach, wringing out the tension in their songs with dissonance while indulging in the melodic on others. Their songs here perfectly exhibit that dynamic in that fashion. “June” is particularly well-done in that fashion once it reaches its brief but powerful climax.
On the mis suenos side, we have something less abrasive than what can be found on their latest release, paginas muertas. While still certainly heavy at some parts, “derrotadx -aplastadx” also features clean singing and innocent riffs to pair with its harsh wails. It sounds a bit like if the lo-fi indie pop of Panchiko took a harsh knife wound and began to cry out in pain. The real show-stopper here though is the split’s final track, “enero,” which incorporates elements of Japanese screamo with a relentless frenzy of guitars that are as dreamy as they are heavy and lo-fi.
Thou – A Primer of Holy Words
Earlier this year, Thou blessed us with their renditions on a handful of Nirvana songs. Here, they once again offer their tribute to their eclectic cast of influences. Covering everything from Minor Threat to Black Sabbath, these are heavy tunes that are only made sludgier and more brutal by way of Thou’s enormous sound. In most cases, these songs only benefit from being churned through whatever devilish machinations are at play. Have you ever wanted to hear a Shellac song but with a metal groove? Or does the idea of hearing classic Black Sabbath tunes performed with bigger amps and terrifying growls pique your interest? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Thou will take great care of you.