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East India Youth: Culture of Volume

William Doyle has an unassuming presence. His voice has a crystalline, choirboy quality, a projection of pure light, and on the cover of Culture of Volume, he’s wearing a navy blazer with a tie clip and a tousled haircut; it could be ripped from his prep school yearbook. He performs alone, standing behind a standard setup of MacBooks, samplers and holding a bass guitar.

And yet, his East India Youth project has a distinctly intimidating air. Here is an incomplete list of the bulletproof influences he’s namedropped for Culture of Volume: Brian Eno, Pet Shop Boys, Cluster, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Yellow Magic Orchestra. The album title is taken from a poem written by Eno collaborator Rick Holland. Music critics started a label for the sole purpose of releasing his first 12” and of course, he was nominated for a Mercury Prize a year later. Coming on the heels of the idea-packed but unfocused Total Strife Forever, Culture of Volume is poised for a presumable “pop” breakout, but it still comes off as an academic pursuit, a veritable thesis on the legends of avant-garde art-pop. Culture of Volume doesn’t just want to impress you; it wants you to behold it with chin-stroking, head-nodding awe.

At times this is the only pose even Doyle can muster towards his work. In the credits, he refers to the making of Culture of Volume as The Process and the first vocal track details the process of creating The Process. “The end result is not what was in mind/ The end result is always hard to find,” Doyle sings during “End Result”, treating inspiration like a forensics expert. It’s preceded by a lengthy Station to Station homage of daunting electronic noise called “The Juddering”. The guy likes definitive articles.

And so Culture of Volume presents itself as a record of Big Ideas and Big Statements and it sure as hell sounds big. “Beaming White” is the third track here, and that title about sums up the production’s hyperclarity. Every drum pattern, every synth pad, every orchestral frill is a tool used to build gleaming edifices to house his spotless vocals. It sounds fantastic, which is to be expected of a record mixed by Graham Sutton. The Bark Psychosis frontman has also worked with These New Puritans and British Sea Power and very few others; he’s not getting involved if the artist doesn’t aspire for a certain museum-ready quality. But those bands also understand the idea of art as entertainment; they’re showmen, whereas Doyle is a curator.

“Don’t Look Backwards” toys with the idea of Balearic, but it’s a picture of Ibiza without the partygoers, presenting a “vague horizon set ablaze.” To convey a heightened emotional state, Doyle will say, “At the point of passion/ I am inflamed”; it’s a rather chilly way of saying you’ve got the hots for someone. “Entirety” and “Hearts That Never” are futuristic electro-pop for dance clubs that always meet sanitation codes. And even if they are highbrow pop songs, they’re still pop songs all the same—Doyle needs to sell them.

He could one day evolve into a Patrick Wolf or Owen Pallett-style auteur, but he currently lacks their capacity for theatrics, for personal revelation, for a vocal mode that conveys something other than bathos, for melodies that actually pop. If he’s going to try for a show-stopping, six-minute ballad, like he does on “Carousel”, there has to be a show to stop in the first place; here, “Carousel” is a confession to an empty arena. The same applies to “A Manner of Words”; Doyle asks, “Turn this dull roar down”, and then the song goes on to serve as the record’s 10-minute anticlimax. For a record so bent on impressing the listener, Culture of Volume somehow never manages to leave a mark.

Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart: Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart

Judging from their respective recorded output to date, Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart don’t seem to share anything beyond Montreal postal codes. The former is an archetypal indie rock band—four white guys in standard guitar/bass/synth/drums formation, belonging to a distinctly Western tradition of dystopian art-punk. The latter is the multimedia recording project of Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, a producer of Lebanese descent refracting traditional Middle Eastern music through a modernist, avant-garde lens (right down to the numerically dense song titles that reflect Arabic text-speak for sounds not represented by English characters). Suuns release albums through populist indie labels like Secret City (in Canada) and Secretly Canadian (in the United States) and have reached the “what the fuck, we’ll do a Nike commercial” stage of their careers. Moumneh records for the defiantly non-conformist Constellation label, and works as a sound engineer, producer and co-owner at the Godspeed-affiliated Hotel2Tango studio. Suuns thrive on structural linearity and rhythmic precision; Jerusalem in My Heart demonstrates what you can do when you completely disavow both.

But for a city of millions of people, Montreal is a small town when it comes to Anglophone musicians with experimental leanings, and in the case of Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart, there exists not just a mutual-admiration society but a full-blown recording collaboration. The seven pieces on their jointly billed eponymous debut were actually recorded during a week-long session back in November 2012, but put on the backburner as both principals prepped their respective 2013 albums (Suuns’ Images Du Futur and Jerusalem in My Heart’s debut, Mo7it Al-Mo7it). However, the extended gestation period between conception and delivery proves immaterial, because Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart sounds very little like the music either was making on their own at the time of its recording. The album’s success is contingent on the very fact that it never feels like a forced collision of two opposing musical approaches, but rather a natural cultivation of a shared underlying philosophy.

What Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart ultimately do have in common is a desired end goal of transcendence—the former’s two albums to date attempt it through lock-step grooves, synth-throbbed hypnosis, and Ben Shemie’s smeared vocalese; on Mo7it Al-Mo7it, the latter opted for free-form acoustic meditations, analog-electronic oscillations, and equilibrium-upsetting chants. On Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart, the collaborators unite Western rock convention with their ancient old-world antecedents: The appropriately clanging instrumental “Metal” plays like a call-and-response between a distorted Arabic melody—a distant echo of the Syrian wedding-singer boombox bootlegs that are foundational to the JIMH sound—and a mimicking fuzz-toned guitar that effectively turns it into a ’60s surf riff. The glitchy and twitchy “Seif” relocates Panda Bear to Beirut; the exhilarating closer “3attam Babey” hits pause on its whirring, motorik, synth-punk drive to accommodate Moumneh’s meditative vocal breaks, before an extended outro fuses them into the same third-eye-prying frequency.

Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart does leave you wondering what more the two entities could have accomplished had they worked on this for more than a week: the ominously intensifying clatter of “Gazelles in Flight” fades out just as the track seems ready to truly take off, while the incongruously off-the-cuff lullaby “Leyla” feels like a rough Suuns song sketch that lacks any of the collaborative frisson heard elsewhere on the record. But for both parties, the benefits of this recording experiment are obvious: For Suuns, it’s an opportunity to break out of their hermetic aesthetic and explore more open-ended modes of composition; for Moumneh, it’s a chance to forsake meticulously crafted soundscapes to indulge his love of raw punk and thumping techno. And whether they’re channeling the serene spirit of ’70s krautrock or the corrosive croon of a Damascus busker, the implicit message is the same: for these two, there’s no place like drone.

Nils Frahm: Solo

For many music obsessives, a first close listen to Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies changes everything. The French composer’s three 19th-century piano works serve as an introduction to one kind of minimalism—maximum emotion created with the fewest ingredients—and they show what can happen when you have the right note in the right place at the right time. The formal elegance of the pieces, along with the underlying sense of yearning and clear surface beauty, have made them a natural fit for advertising and film, and the Gymnopédies long ago became ubiquitous, their structure a sort of auditory cliché. But even with the overexposure, the power of Satie’s pieces are still there inside of us, guiding how we respond to simple piano music that leaves a lot of space. Whenever contemporary composers—from Chilly Gonzales to Eluvium to Jandek to Grouper to Aphex Twin—use a piano in this way, they tap into these buried associations.

German composer and producer Nils Frahm’s most recent full-length, his fine 2013 album Spaces, featured plenty of piano but found him putting the instrument into a number of different contexts and adding electronics (the set also included live tracks). But among the earliest works of his career were two albums of solo piano work, and he returns here with a third, an album he gave away free on Twitter two weeks ago. Solo is almost exactly what you might expect from a record like this one; it’s spare, it’s lyrical, it’s generally quiet, and it’s very pretty. Your mileage will vary based on whether that is enough.

Sometimes solo piano albums can get too sentimental, and can begin to sound like bad TV cues; sometimes they can be a little dry and academic, and can come over like an instrumental exercise. This one mostly fits into “just right” territory, balancing general loveliness with space and suggestion. Frahm’s piano is creaky and there’s a percussive tone coursing through some of these tracks, an extra “pling” that marks time with every keystroke. That extra texture gives a piece like “Merry” a tiny bit of grit to offset a gorgeous melody that might otherwise be overbearing, and gives the more downcast “Some” an extra ounce of dark weight. During its best moments Solo brings to mind some of the lower-stakes work of Harold Budd, where melody and mood become two sides of the same coin.

The album’s second half finds Frahm playing more with form, but oddly the variety, rather than being welcome, actually breaks the spell of the album’s first half. “Wall” is a loud, pulsing piece that is interesting enough on its own but derails the album’s gentle mood, while “Immerse!” leans toward meandering abstraction, foregoing melody and in no way justifying its almost 11-minute length. Still, for a free album that sounds very nice in a room, Solo mostly delivers, tapping into that very specific identification with the solo piano as an expression of wistful sadness.

Curren$y: Pilot Talk III

Curren$y is such a niche artist that he can seemingly vanish into the air like the weed smoke he so lovingly describes even when he’s still active. The New Orleans native tours regularly and continues to release quality projects like last year’s The Drive In Theater, 2013’s New Jet City, and 2011’s Alchemist joint-effort, Covert Coup, but hasn’t been able to duplicate the bite of his 2010 breakthroughs, Pilot Talk and Pilot Talk II. News of the third installation’s arrival sparked more interest than he’d enjoyed in awhile, as those outside of his core fanbase were curious to see if the next volume would do the series justice. 

Curren$y is a bit of a cinephile, and treats each individual work like a grand production; it’s evident in the titles of his projects (see his 2012 tribute, Priest Andretti), and Pilot Talk III begins with “Opening Credits”, where he strolls over an authoritative soul sample like Max Julien in The Mack. For just over two minutes, he reflects on his career’s trajectory: “It was right around the time/ I thought I’d have to move back with my mom/ I had to sell my first low-rider/ Halfway to the top went to sleep, woke up at the bottom.” The hopscotch path Curren$y has taken to success (from No Limit, to Cash Money, to independent juggernaut) is well-documented, but he rarely deviates from his cool-guy persona to reflect on his struggles.

Curren$y remains as irreverent as always, but he sounds more focused on Pilot Talk III than he has in awhile. The ominous “Cargo Planes”, produced by Joey Fatts, sounds like the opening of a cinematic crime saga, but in this case it’s a typical Spitta infraction: the theft of someone else’s girlfriend. “Never displaying affection when we out in public/ ‘Cause mufuckas lookin’, and shit could get ugly/ So walk right past me homegirl, and don’t say nothin’” he advises a female acquaintance. On “Froze”, eccentric jester RiFF RAFF appears like the ghastly clown from Spawn to exchange swank over Harry Fraud’s slow-burn production, and Curren$y keeps his cool.

Although Spitta’s range is limited, it’s never been a disadvantage; he’s a purveyor of lifestyle rap. His song titles, often named after random, inanimate objects or people (in the past we’ve gotten “Chandelier”, “Breakfast”, and “Scottie Pippen”, and here we have “Pot Jar,” “Briefcase”, “Lemonade Mimosas”) testify his ability to find something worthy of appreciation in the seemingly ordinary. On “Long as the Lord Say”, he sketches familiar imagery: “Plottin’ like always/ Marble floor hallways/ Smoked out all day/ Tryin’ to get more paid.” His lyrics are like an ad from a men’s magazine targeting the 18 to 25 age demographic in real time.

Because Curren$y himself is a control variable, production typically influences the quality of his output. Ski Beatz, who produced the bulk of the original Pilot Talk and its sequel, has left his imprint on everything from Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt to Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night. Noticeably absent from Curren$y’s discography following Pilot Talk II, it’s Ski’s presence that makes Pilot Talk III so strong. The shimmering crash of the cymbals and pop of the drums on “Alert” are vintage Ski and very welcome.

Curren$y may not do “new,” but he is very good at what he does: riffing on cars, money, women, weed, and obscure moments from television shows. It’s difficult for the third version of something to truly reign supreme, especially when there’s little variation differentiating them. “Audio Dope 5″ is solid, but nowhere near as experimental as the intoxicated stumble of “Audio Dope II”. Regardless, Curren$y’s sharp wit, the smooth chop of the Sylvers’ “How Love Hurts” heard on “All I Know”, and the return of Ski make Pilot Talk III more than worth it. He’s never bad company, even if you forget he’s there from time to time.

Scharpling and Wurster: The Best of the Best Show

Newbridge, the fictional New Jersey suburb invented by Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, is a town run on hubris and populated by people who either don’t know or refuse to believe that they’re deluded failures. That blend of reliable comedy tropes can drive inspiration for a long time, and when Tom Scharpling announced in 2013 that “The Best Show on WFMU” was coming to an end, the general consensus was that it was going out on top. Scharpling’s alternately cranky and enthusiastic rapport with his callers and the inspired regular-Joe insight of the monologues woven in with them demonstrated his mastery of the radio comedy format, while the extended bits Scharpling did with Superchunk drummer and top-flight weirdo Jon Wurster made it the stuff of legend. This was the kind of phenomenon that sustained a more-or-less-weekly show over 12-plus years, which means their “greatest hits” collection is a sixteen-disc, 20-plus hour box set—with a bonus USB stick that includes another 4 ¾-hours’ worth of material—that still could be described as “scraping the surface.”

That’s a lot of mileage to get out of just two people, though the trick is that these people actually represent multitudes. Wurster’s weirdly sympathetic call-in characters, co-created and co-written with Scharpling, are exercises in gradual-reveal lunacy that ramp up a conversation until both Scharpling and the listener are left repeating Wurster’s ludicrous claims (“you are two inches tall”) and malaprops (“laser beans”) with a bewildered disbelief. Over the course of a call that can stretch past the 20- or 30-minute mark, a friendly conversation mutates into a series of escalating threats, an arrogant display of untouchability that eventually crumbles to reveal the hapless loser beneath, or, as the origin-point “Rock, Rot & Rule” perfectly revealed, a self-proclaimed expert revealing just how arbitrary and flimsy his knowledge really is. It’s comedy that breaks down just how funny it can be to hear somebody with way too much self-confidence obliviously dig his own grave.

It’s a cult phenomenon, but nothing about The Best of the Best Show feels closed off or for-fans-only, even given an overstuffed deluxe-package treatment that feels aimed directly at the diehards. The diehards might even find an excuse or two to gripe about omissions (where’s “The Chippert Report” and its daring exposé of Davenport, Iowa’s “toilet rock” scene?), but what’s included is definitive and varied enough to draw in both entry-level listeners and longtime fans who snapped up all their previous collections on Stereolaffs.

Of course there are usual suspects and recurring characters. New Jersey-defaming hoagie enthusiast Philly Boy Roy details his family’s felonious Memorial Day exploits, battles post-Eagles playoff loss depression, and gets his wife to call in to reveal just how obsessed he is with Scharpling. The aimless, low-energy Pudge gets a few laughs as the call-in regular who has literally nothing to say short of “I’unno.” And even with his central conceit basically being “hippie Deadhead who takes bong rips mid-call,” Wurster’s giggly, wheezy-falsetto performances as Bryce and his rapport with the aggravated-yet patient Scharpling elevate a concept that other comedy acts would make into a one-dimensional caricature.

Couple these regulars with a few of the show’s most notorious calls, including the first appearance by Fonzie inspiration/violent elderly sociopath Roland “The Gorch” Gorchnik and the introduction of splatter-flick auteur Trent L. Strauss (famed for The Tool Belt Killer, The Hacksawist, and Art School Arson), and you’ve got a strong cross-section of what makes the “Best Show” canon so beloved. When Wurster gathers more than a dozen of his most popular characters together in an hour-and-a-half panel discussion for Newbridge’s highest office during 2008′s “Mayubinatorial Debate”, hearing him inhabit all these different characters in close quarters—Roy, Pudge, monstrously obese barbershop singer Zachary Brimstead, legendary drummer/erotic fiction author Marky Ramone—is pretty astounding. It’s worldbuilding of a kind you don’t often get from two people in any medium—and they did it pretty much pro bono.

A lot of Scharpling and Wurster’s appeal rides on a certain sort of deep-knowledge obsession with the absurd minutiae of popular music and the people that take it extra-seriously. “Rock, Rot & Rule” came in the middle of one of Scharpling’s pre-”Best Show” airings and provoked angry fans to call in to object to the rankings of Wurster’s know-it-some musicologist Ronald Thomas Clontle. Wannabe rock stars who have unrealistic dreams of making it (“Count Rockula”, whose own box-set vision is trashed by notable music website shovel.com) share space with rock stars who have unrealistic ideas of what “making it” entitles them to (Wurster’s version of Gene Simmons has a grand old time arrogantly auditioning the actual, in-studio Ted Leo and Carl Newman to be replacement members of KISS). The “Best Show” fandom in indie rock is well-documented, and has roped in everyone from Michael Azerrad (briefly interrogated by Wurster on the air as to why Wire Train weren’t included in Our Band Could Be Your Life) to Damian Abraham (who became an evangelical enthusiast of the show and broke the ice on tour with Kurt Vile by swapping Philly Boy Roy anecdotes).

You get a ridiculous amount of stuff with this box set, sure: all that audio content, plus a book featuring some great essays by the aforementioned Abraham, comedian Julie Klausner, and call screener A.P. Mike, an extensive interview on the show’s origins and developments with Jake Fogelnest, photos of archival material (including crib sheets Wurster used for some of the calls); and illustrations by longtime show-associated cartoonists Neil Numberman and Casey Burns. But what you’re really buying, whether you’re new to the world of Scharpling and Wurster or a Friend of Tom from back in the day, is an acknowledgement of a hard-won, rightly-earned cult. It’s an in-group that always has more room for anyone willing to forge a deep connection with the town that’s comin’ to get ya. And it can’t be stopped—even Scharpling’s 2013 farewell turned out to be a hiatus instead, and “The Best Show” continues to this day as an Internet show delving deep into the one of the biggest, strangest, best worlds in comedy. There’s more—way more—where this box set came from, and this collection is a prime reminder of why we’re lucky that it’s not slowing down anytime soon.

The Wombats: Glitterbug

When the Wombats first suggested “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” on A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation, their 2007 debut, they came on strong with a blend of jumpy indie rock and lovable goof personas. Their follow-up, 2011’s This Modern Glitch, followed suit. But in the four years between their second and third albums, the sweet silliness has dissipated. With Glitterbug, the Wombats have repositioned themselves as more pained, serious characters, longing to get away from the life of excessive parties and settle into a meaningful relationship. At their worst, they degenerate into sleaze, delivering lines like “There‘s no greater sight than you in your underwear removing mine.”

Many of the synth-tinged songs on Glitterbug would sound right at home on a John Hughes soundtrack, and the album itself plays like a rom-com concept album, chronicling singer and guitarist Matthew Murphy’s long-distance romantic relationship with a girl he began dating in L.A. while he was still based in London (“My head is aching in GMT,” he sings in a polite Robert Smith-style pout on “Give Me a Try”). It’s ironic that a band whose singer once sang “if this is a rom-com, kill the director” would be putting forth something like this. But there’s more drama here than in previous works: Maybe Murphy is killing the director himself. The number of drug references within the lyrics would seem like teenage exaggeration were it not for Murphy’s matter-of-fact delivery. There’s no “The Wombats Proudly Present” as a subtitle to Glitterbug, as there was for the first two releases. Perhaps because the Wombats as you knew them aren’t present, and they don’t always seem proud.

Glitterbug mostly seems like it was born of a frustration of not having made it in the States yet. The defining moment of the album comes when all the instruments drop out of “Give Me a Try” and Murphy proclaims, “We could be gigantic!” If you asked him, he’d probably say it was the girl in L.A., but he seems to also be not-so-covertly courting potential American fans. You can hear the same beseeching subtext in the single, “Your Body Is a Weapon”, where Murphy sings “Is it such fantasy that I should think someone like you could love a creep like me?”

And the Wombats are seemingly pulling out all the stops to be gigantic. Instead of using a number of producers, as they did with their previous two releases, the Wombats recorded most of the tracks at the studio of Mark Crew, who can be credited with fast-tracking Bastille into U.S. arenas. And as with Bastille and other short-haired Euro rockers like Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol, there’s a very palatable poppy sheen on all of these tracks: Glitterbug is packed with anthemic hooks and synth pulses that sound like they were composed solely to lure Lexus. But what sets the Wombats apart from those acts is the lechery and squalor just beneath the surface. And when a car company inevitably co-opts one of the songs for a commercial, those in the know can quietly laugh at the wild disconnect with the subject matter.

Doldrums: The Air Conditioned Nightmare

Airick Woodhead has been in the right place at the right time more than once. The son of Canadian folk artist David Woodhead, he grew up surrounded by live music and studio equipment, and discovered production while tweaking his father’s tracks into a noisy mess. As a teenager, he ambled around Europe and was invited to live at Toronto DIY space House of Everlasting Super Joy, which eventually brought him into the famed Montreal scene responsible for birthing Purity Ring, Grimes, Majical Cloudz, Blue Hawaii, Arbutus Records, et al. Hell, Woodhead’s first song released as Doldrums was an official remix for Portishead, an obvious and important inspiration to the ’90s baby’s synthy, sample-based avant-pop. It all reads like a young, independent artist’s fantasy, and a more advantageous backdrop for Doldrums’ first LP couldn’t be dreamed up.

Lesser Evil made good on that promise in 2013, revealing that Woodhead’s frenzied melodic sensibilities and nasally squeak could transcend the cresting wave of Merriweather Post Pavilion devotees. Lesser Evil was also fortunate enough to be wedged between the ascending stars of Grimes’ Visions and Majical Cloudz’s Impersonator: It was a good time to be an arty millennial with a laptop, and better still to be an information-hungry sound collagist with a distinctive voice. But where Visions embraced fluttering digitalia and Impersonator took a more direct, humanist approach, Doldrums’ first LP burrowed into the uncanny valley, forging its identity from the schizophrenic clutter of online media and the hallucinatory states readily available in everyday life. Sleep, lucid dreaming, technology, ancient mysticism, prescription drugs, obscure YouTube clips, popular music, obsession, anxiety, love, death—Lesser Evil somehow made it all fit inside a puzzling logic that was more intriguing for its inscrutable delirium.

So it makes sense that Woodhead would continue his train of thought on album two, The Air Conditioned Nightmare. But if Lesser Evil took a macro view of that mania through a greased fisheye lens, then Nightmare examines it with a magnifying glass under harsh fluorescent light. And that can be just as unflattering as it sounds. The elements and production methods haven’t been replaced so much as they’ve been reassessed and recalibrated. No longer is Woodhead’s Yorke-ian tenor awash in whirlpools of clipped audio and choppy beat fragments; now the underlying synths have taken a forceful lead next to polished and pronounced drum machines. Doldrums has effectively cleaned up his act, and in the process he’s rendered his music’s least remarkable parts the loudest and most integral.

A bonkers track like “HOTFOOT”, or the elegiac splendor of “Funeral for Lightning”, works best in this new setting, largely because the energy and songwriting are powerful enough to wheedle some emotional magic out of the machines. More often than not, though, Nightmare buries the details in favor of a generic synth hook or noodly freakout. The saccharine bassline in “Loops”, itself a trite tale of feuding lovers, seems to be gunning for a 2008 Urban Outfitters compilation—that is, when the song doesn’t digress into a beatless murk of pitchy vocals and awkward sample juggling. On “Industry City”, Doldrums attempts to balance aggressive electro, slippery machine funk, aerial singalongs, and noisy rave approximations. It might go over well at a midday festival performance, but on record it sounds like tracklist filler.

There are good ideas somewhere inside The Air Conditioned Nightmare, and anyone determined enough to look might get something out of them. Lyrics ranging from naively clichéd to slyly astute—often within the same verse—sketch a rough picture of Woodhead coming to grips with routine, non-transitory life. He fears the impending threat of mundane domestic relationships (“Blown Away”), condemns technological dependence (“My Friend Simjen”, “Industry City”), illustrates the throes of romance (“We Awake”, “Loops”), and ponders the loss of art and artists (“Funeral for Lightning”). The themes here are vaguely linked to a collection of Henry Miller essays on America’s growing disconnection from nature and mankind, but no one would fault you for not catching any similarities outside of their shared title. Not even the singer himself can find a clear through line for his scattered coming-of-age musings. Some might call it simply “growing up.”

Of all the songs, “Video Hostage” is the most significant. It also happens to be Nightmare‘s unrivaled highlight. Over a rhythmic sample set that billows and sways like something off Oneohtrix Point Never‘s Replica, Woodhead waxes analytical while in a trauma-induced existential trance. He’s said it’s loosely about desensitization, but the song also touches on questions of personal background, identity, artistic motivation, and nature. Woodhead seems to shed the world around him, examining finer aspects of his inner self. He’s looking for the devil in the details, so to speak, and the music’s effortless, unassuming composition mirrors his effort. You could say it’s a rare sign of growth on the capricious Nightmare, but maybe it’s just Doldrums finding himself right where he needs to be.

Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure

It’s very possible that we’ve heard the last of Brian Wilson. Not because the opulent pop of the Beach Boys, or his rich and tortured personal mythology, are showing any fade in ubiquity—a movie about both, with Paul Dano and John Cusack playing younger and current-day versions of him, respectively, comes out this summer—but because the man himself is speaking bluntly of his possible retirement from music this year.  

So for anyone who grew up with a reverence for Wilson’s brilliant work—which, especially if you’re from California, can veer into a fanatic sort of transposed paternal empathy—his new and eleventh solo album No Pier Pressure carries the burden of serving as his gold watch. Yet the record largely cedes the floor to duets with trendy young singers (Kacey Musgraves, Nate Ruess of fun., Zooey Deschanel, all audibly rhapsodic), a foreign and not entirely flattering experiment for Wilson. The album’s clearest predecessor is Santana’s Supernatural (1999), from which sprang the malevolent radio hydra “Smooth”, and other forays into May-September duet hinterland. (There’s been an upswing of the latter in the past year, from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga fluttering their jazz hands all hither and thither to Barry Manilow’s gauche, grave-digging extreme of shoving his voice into dusty audio of Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe.)  

Unlike Carlos Santana, though, who could just wedge in a noodling guitar break and shuffle back to his inexplicable stiletto empire, Wilson’s chipper duets never reach equilibrium. Either his presence feels underutilized—the syrupy “On the Island” with She & Him, in which his vocals are scant—or the guests feel shoehorned into musty production that undermines their own charisma. It’s apparent throughout that this album was originally intended as a reunited Beach Boys effort, as their songwriting staples are faithfully represented: the orchestrations are lush and swooning, the lyrics set in beatific seaside tableaus and brimming with sepia wistfulness. Wilson sounds most confident with his former band cohorts; several tracks feature amiable turns from Al Jardine and David Marks. Of the whippersnapper duets, Wilson’s coziest harmonizing with Ruess, whose high, earnest keening could’ve been plucked from the Beach Boys’ Sunflower era.

In listening to No Pier Pressure, uneasy questions rise about base motives. Wilson freely admits that he doesn’t listen to modern music, and was so surprised to hear Frank Ocean rap that he dismissed him from the album. That likely means that these duet artists were pitched to him for the project, with the hopes that some of those younger fanbases would follow along. It’s a pretty farfetched expectation: are Zooey Deschanel’s fans now really going to stampede en masse to the nearest Urban Outfitters and demand Orange Crate Art?

But to speculate this project was foisted whole on Wilson would infantilize him, a casual disservice done all too readily in the press (what other 72-year-old Grammy winner’s collaborations would prompt the caveat “whether he’s aware of it or not,” despite his ability to still deliver an incisive interview?). And there’s a warm timbre to all these artists’ voices that could surely appeal to Wilson. Whatever the cause, this is new territory for him: He’s sat in with young bucks here and there (Mini Mansions, Emile Haynie, the adulatory Brian Fest concert last month in Los Angeles) but he’s never been gregarious with his own material. His most recent album collaborators have been old friends returned to the fold, from a reunion with Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks to the global Beach Boys reunion of 2012.

There’s a happy accident in disunion, though: the closing track “The Last Song”, which was originally intended for Lana Del Rey before she sulked off into the sunset. It’s the autonomous note Wilson deserves to end on, a lovely, bittersweet swath of the elegiac strings and gilded harmonies he perfected in his youth with “The Warmth of the Sun” and “Caroline, No”. Wilson sighs, “Don’t be sad/ There was a time and place for what we had/ If there was just another chance for me to sing to you.” It’s a worthy, prideful summation of a gorgeous life’s work, both innocent and wizened at once. And he didn’t need any young blood to get there.

Fred Thomas: All Are Saved

Talk to anyone who’s seen an indie rock show in Michigan during the 21st century and you’ll probably get a Fred Thomas story within the first thirty minutes or so. Maybe it was the time their band played with one of Thomas’ 156 (give or take) musical projects at a warehouse in Ypsilanti. Or maybe they crossed paths at a demonstration in Detroit. To quote a colleague, “Fred Thomas is always standing right behind you at a basement show in Ann Arbor.” Which is to say that Thomas is a “lifer”, that mainstay of the local scene usually viewed with some combination of admiration and concern. Their commitment is cool even if they’re pushing 40 and clearly not in it for the money, but what are their alternatives? Do they have any marketable job skills?

Thomas’ most well-known project, the lo-fi throwback pop troupe Saturday Looks Good to Me, developed a cult following, but was always on the verge of a mainstream-indie breakthrough that never happened. He’s also released eight albums under his own name, but All Are Saved is the first to see widespread release. From the sound of things, Fred Thomas would be at peace if it was his last. It’s in the tradition of a very specific kind of record, including Father John Misty’s Fear FunSun Kil Moon’s Among the Leaves and the Wrens’ The Meadowlands—artists reinventing themselves as their actual self, lifers tired of watching their life pass by, tired of public indifference. With nothing to lose, Thomas ditches any pretense of metaphor to speak on every embarrassment and sleep-depriving doubt. And the results are devastating and funny in ways that previous releases barely even considered, a biographical work of art capable of leveling people who have never heard of Fred Thomas until the previous paragraph.

This is a record of epiphany, but there are no easy resolutions and false triumph. Despite its title, All Are Saved does not wrestle with mortality and arise with The Truth About What it All Means. It does not glorify the preciousness of our short existence. Most of it is derived from the realization that life, as it’s keenly described on “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II”, “is so incredibly long/ Like a kiss on a bridge between two nervous ass kids/ Terrified of doing everything wrong.” The image of teenage lip-locking pops up on two different songs: on “When They Built the Schools”, Thomas recognizes the “jelly legs and awkward elbows” of first-timers who have no time for the “burden of nostalgia” that clings to him like a wetsuit and essentially translates to “regret”.

Most of the memories Thomas processes on All Are Saved aren’t even good ones, and yet they’re revived with piercing clarity—drunkenly smashing his flip phone in a Baltimore basement in 2003; watching a girl get embarrassed by her dad’s use of slang on an airplane; the role reversal of going to a free dental clinic and having his dentist turn out to be a drummer he produced eight years ago. These are the types of situations that fill up an impossibly long life, so when Thomas opens the album asking his dog in its dying days whether trading 13 years of “walking in a clear straight line” for a human’s eight potential decades of fumbling is a “shitty deal”, well… the answer is obvious, right?

The album at least sounds uplifting, adding layer after layer while Thomas spins desperately in place. The aesthetic reflects the two cities in which this album was created, honoring Athens’ indie rock lineage by its Elephant 6-style thrift shop orchestration. If you’ve followed Thomas over the past two decades, this is a culminating work: the contrast of peppy horn blasts and foul-mouthed misanthropy on “Expo ’87″ recall Saturday Looks Good to Me; the spindly arpeggios of “When They Built the Schools” nod towards his emo-ish offshoot Lovesick; and the aquatic gurgling and electronic interludes make a case for reappreciation of his Type Records outlier City Center (namechecked in “Unfading Flower”).

But otherwise, this is an idiosyncratic “singer-songwriter” record, filled with surprises and unorthodox percussion choices—a soupy tabla sample on “Unfading Flower”, an erratic pound of a floor tom guiding the drunken amble of “When They Built the Schools”. Vocally, Thomas largely abandons conventional song structure and melodies, taking on a quasi spoken-word approach that allows him the maximum word count and lends a sarcastic edge to his sly note on”Bedbugs”: “If I seem too entertaining, I’m not singing, I’m just talking to you.”

The most entertaining songs on All Are Saved are generally the cruelest: Both “Bedbugs” and “Bad Blood” speak in a language simultaneously more truthful and cutting than most of us allow ourselves. These rambling, bilious one-sided conversations might be mislabeled as “rants”; more accurately, they’re the kind of righteously angry emails you spend all night honing to a fine point, and then sleep on, waking up relieved you never hit “Send.” Thomas provides us vicarious catharsis, but during the toxic airing of grievances of “Bedbugs”, he makes the risks of such an approach perfectly clear—”You can’t tell everybody to fuck off forever…/ And be mortified when they finally do.”

Thomas trudges through difficult relationships like most of us, being “so stilted and silent, not awkward, just angry.” That’s how he describes his presumable run-in with a more successful artist on “Bad Blood”, whose music he likens to “a pile of brown sweaters.” All at once, he wishes he could go beyond their brief exchange and express his envy and resentments, that it could be Thomas on TV in 2015 had things worked out just a little bit differently for Saturday Looks Good to Me. Instead, he blasts through the fourth wall, summarizing the futility of his past decade with a gut punch—”This ‘first day of school’ shit just seems to keep happening…the smiles are so big and there’s no one at the gig.” The most painful lines are Thomas quoting other people—”Hey I gotta go, but I’ll see you at the show!”, “Man, it’s so cool, we’re glad you’re doing your own thing.” It’s the sound of Thomas realizing that most of his interactions are compromised by his own self-pity and dishonesty.

And yet, this realization is the strange source of hope in All Are SavedThomas seems inspired, even moved, by the possibility that the sharp, overwhelming and temporary pain of being forthright with someone can be a breakthrough after years and years of silence and half-truths.  It ties back to that line about those kids on the bridge and how Thomas sets an example throughout All Are Saved—life is incredibly long when you’re terrified of doing anything wrong, and in the process of connecting with another person, it’s best to just go for it as directly as possible.

Young Fathers: White Men Are Black Men Too

The Edinburgh trio Young Fathers have always confounded categories—Tape One and Tape Two, the EPs they released in 2011 and 2013, were often called rap, but always trailing qualifiers—”alt-,” “art-,” “psych-”. Then, as their Shabazz-on-uppers verses (“I Heard”) and grimy Yeezus shrieks (“Effigy”) faded, they shifted again: their Mercury Prize-winning debut full-length Dead landed somewhere close to what people thought of as “hip-hop,” if similarly prefaced—”experimental,” “alternative,” or just “Scottish.”

You don’t call your record White Men Are Black Men Too unless you’re looking to stir up some questions about classification, and with their new album, Young Fathers double down on the confusion they inspired with their earliest releases. Their label bio even leads with the statement that the group has “no ancestors,” which is a funny thing to say about three men calling themselves Young Fathers because they all inherited their dads’ names. But their lineage is important, and audible: Graham “G” Hastings was born in Edinburgh; Alloysious Massaquoi hails from Liberia via Ghana, and Kayus Bankole was raised in the US by Nigerian parents. Young Fathers not only have ancestors but draw an enormous amount of energy from them, as White Men Are Black Men Too makes obvious: The record is a direct descendent of TV on the Radio, a grandson of krautrock, a distant relative of the earnest Streets, a grungy nephew of Arcade Fire. And, though it might change by the next time around, they’ve hit an unqualified category, for the first time: this is a rock record, almost a pop record. It’s raucous, messy, marked by a profound sense of urgency, intended to uplift and discomfit.

Remarkably, White Men Are Black Men Too also addresses the questions posed by its name. The lyrics begin the conversation, but only get so far:  “Old Rock N Roll” starts with “I’m tired of playing the good black/ I’m tired of having to hold back/ I’m tired of wearing this hallmark for some evils that happened way back.” Then, the speaker flips his loyalty—”I’m tired of blaming the white men/ His indiscretion don’t betray him”-—and reverses the album title: “A black man can play him.” Then it flips back: “Some white men are black men too, nigga to them, a gentleman to you.”

The idea is jumbled, a little hollow, mostly a venting of frustration. More to the point is this simple line on “Rain or Shine”: “I ain’t strange enough.” And the most honest moment on the album, the moment where Young Fathers delineate their worldview the most clearly, is on the album’s standout (and most overtly TV on the Radio-soundalike) single “Shame”, which begins with a dusty, drum-machine twinkle and rises up into a big, ragged, radio-ready melody. The chorus, self-flagellating and triumphant, switches between cries of “It ain’t right, baby” and “What you do to feel better! What you do to feel good!”

But at any rate, the words are just the address on the envelope; the music is the letter itself. There is an appealing coherence in the album’s composition. Most of the tracks are built on juxtaposition between the low and high register: a vamping bass riff against a shrill glockenspiel, a dark guitar loop beneath a top cacophony of horns, synths, vocal wails. It’s a simple framework and a strong mirror to Young Fathers’ submerged cultural project: delineating a foundational reality (race, genre) and then mounting a tantrum against it. And, in the midst of this dissonance, the album’s sound is all tied together by shreds of surefooted, strong pop melody: “27″ sounds almost like pitch-warped Passion Pit by way of the Avalanches, and “Dare Me” seems like a sweet little organ-backed ballad until it throws up a middle finger and breaks into an atonal, menacing shuffle.

It’s not all coherent or wholly successful. Young Fathers’ people’s-mic earnestness can combine with their penchant for major-chord toplines to produce a funky but unmistakable cheese, as in “Sirens”. Their fractious energy slants unfocused at times, too, and though the group does answer the question provoked by their album title, they do so by throwing their hands up—compacting the past like so much garbage and charging ahead. The sound of White Men Are Black Men Too is telling enough. It’s triumphant music for the hyperactive, plural city; it’s confrontational as a means to achieving communality, with no particular loyalties except to an anonymous, shifting collective of people who all want the same thing as Young Fathers—to be one thing, then the next, then the next.