I like all kinds of music for all kinds of reasons.
People have a hard time believing that I enjoy angry music, but sometimes I can get pretty angry. I need bands like Sepultura and Strapping Young Lad (and yes, like Linkin Park) in my life, for those moments when I feel like ripping the goddamn world in half. I need bands like the Cure and Lost in the Trees for those days when I feel so sad that I can’t imagine making it through another sunrise. I need emotionally and musically complex artists like Sufjan Stevens to kick my brain into another gear and make me consider the world in a different way.
But there isn’t much I enjoy more than beauty. It’s one of the main reasons I’m as into music as I am – when music aims for transcendent beauty, it does it for me like just about nothing else. Pretty music doesn’t actually need to do anything but be pretty for me to appreciate it. I love songs of simple devotion, songs about opening oneself to the wonder of the world. I love songs about exquisite sadness – see Dan Wilson’s “Disappearing,” which still has my vote as the year’s most beautiful song. I even love pretty songs about nothing at all. Beauty is its own reward.
So when a band or an artist goes into the studio with the goal of making the most beautiful thing of which they are capable, I am always on board. Below you’ll find my mid-year report, essentially my top 10 list in progress, and you’ll see that Beck’s Morning Phase continues to hold on to a prominent spot, as does Elbow’s The Take-Off and Landing of Everything. Both are there because they’re incredibly beautiful. You’ll find a couple others that have made their way onto the list for that same reason, including one of the two I have on tap this week.
That one is First Aid Kit’s gem of a new record, Stay Gold. I’m not sure how Joanna and Klara Soderberg, the Swedish sisters at the heart of this band, decided on their collective name, but it’s the worst thing about them. The youthful siblings – Joanna is 23, Klara 21 – write and play delicate folk music, elevated by their intertwining voices. When these two harmonize, it’s like a warm summer day, like sunlight breaking through an open window.
Those voices have always been the feature of First Aid Kid, and I reservedly liked their first two albums, 2010’s The Big Black and the Blue and 2012’s The Lion’s Roar. But Stay Gold is another thing entirely, a fuller and more complete work. Producer Mike Mogis has incorporated strings and pedal steel guitars, adding a widescreen twang that reminds me of the best of Neko Case’s records. There’s nothing tentative about this album – it’s a remarkably assured and confident thing, particularly for two artists so young, and its wide-open soul is older and wiser than you would expect.
The tone of this record is consistent, from start to finish – it’s full of heartbreak and bewilderment, suffused with loss, and its melodies are high and lonesome. “Shattered and Hollow” is the perfect example. It’s low-key, nimble acoustic guitars dancing above a bed of pianos and droning synths, and though it begins with the line “I am in love and I am lost, but I’d rather be broken than empty,” it eventually blooms into a gorgeous chorus. “We are gonna get out of here, run from all our fears,” the sisters sing, taking that glorious melody through the sky.
On it goes, song after lovely song, and each time you think they’ve run out of splendid vocal melodies, they surprise you again. “The Bell” is a highlight, with its subtle trilling flutes, as is the gossamer “Fleeting One” and the piano-led closer “A Long Time Ago.” The music is so lovely that it may take you a few listens to notice how heartbroken it all is: “I know I lost you a long time ago” is the final line, and the summary. But when the sadness is this beautiful, you won’t mind. Stay Gold doesn’t redefine First Aid Kit – in truth, Mogis has simply added more meat to their already lovely bones. It’s their best and prettiest record, and if they keep making records that are their best and prettiest, they’ll be around for a long time.
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Long Beach, California’s This Wild Life is a study in subverting expectations and prejudices.
First off, they’re on Epitaph Records. Second, the two guys in the band – Kevin Jordan and Anthony Del Grosso – are exactly what you’d picture when you imagine a band on Epitaph. They are covered in tattoos, Jordan has an epic black beard, and Del Grosso has huge lobe-stretching earrings. You’d be forgiven for expecting a loud-yet-melodic punk record, like so many others that look just like this, and for a while, that’s what This Wild Life delivered.
But then a funny thing happened: they decided to become more beautiful. Now they’re an acoustic duo, with some occasional drums and strings, and they write sweet little ballads. Their Epitaph debut, Clouded, was produced by Aaron Marsh of Copeland, another artist who aims for the gorgeous more often than not. And while it does sound like a punk band gone acoustic, song-wise, it’s a promising start.
There’s a lot of Dashboard Confessional and the Early November on this record, and it sometimes gets bigger than you’d expect, but it largely remains strummy and pretty. Jordan has a high, strong voice, and Del Grosso harmonizes nicely with him, like the Everly Brothers raised on Blink-182. The songs are all straightforward, but it wouldn’t take too many listens to “Over It” to get it stuck in your head. (I’m a fan of the plinking pianos that come in on the bridge, certainly Marsh’s touch.) And when they hit on a fine melody, as they do on “No More Bad Days,” they drive it home.
The lyrics are, again, pretty typical, but unlike First Aid Kid, the This Wild Life guys make sure to inject a healthy dose of hope. It’s easier to do in this setting than in the louder pop-punk this band used to traffic in. We get a taste of that at the end – the amps are cranked up for “405,” a fine exit ramp for an album full of potential. I appreciate any decision that leads to more beauty, so I’ll be watching these guys to see if they keep making those decisions.
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It’s hard to believe the year is half over, but here we are.
Below you’ll find my mid-year report. If you’re not familiar with this feature, let me fill you in: for a few years now, I’ve been giving quarterly reports on my top 10 list in progress. It’s fun for me to commit to choices in print like this, and I hope it’s fun for you to read those choices. I talked a bit about what you’re about to see above, so I’ll stop babbling now. If you were to put a gun to my head and force me to write up a top 10 list right now, on June 25, this is what it would look like:
#10. Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines.
#9. The Roots, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin.
#8. First Aid Kid, Stay Gold.
#7. Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line.
#6. Andrea Dawn, Doll.
#5. Dan Wilson, Love Without Fear.
#4. Coldplay, Ghost Stories.
#3. Elbow, The Take-Off and Landing of Everything.
#2. Beck, Morning Phase.
#1. The Choir, Shadow Weaver.
As I said in March, I think this is a pretty great list. I’ll explain next week why I love that Roots album. I’m more than pleased that I can include a Tori Amos album again, at long last, and even more pleased that the Choir has roared back with such an extraordinary disc. Y’all should buy it. We’ll see if they can hold on to the top spot come the end of September.
That’s it for this week. In seven days, I’ll take a detour into hip-hop land with the Roots and Atmosphere. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.