sabrina is not in this chat Are LA’s Freshest And Sharpest Trio

To write about sabrina is not in this chat in terms of influences is a tremendous disservice to their inventiveness and originality. The Los Angeles-based experimental rock trio test the constraints of rock music, pushing against punk rock’s insistence on brevity and experimental music’s formlessness with destructive élan. Sharp, smart, and wholly refreshing, Sabrina quash easy comparisons to their peers or forebears. Yet it’s nearly impossible to think about the group without considering the striations of No Wave, Post Punk, and Math Rock that run prominently across the group’s DNA.

Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Olivia DeBonis, bassist Maddie Calderon, and drummer Siena LaMere, Sabrina have been slowly gaining traction in the West Coast experimental scene and beyond. Last fall the group embarked on a tour of the East Coast. The previous summer, they played a smattering of shows all around California, as documented in a rough, guerilla-style home video. The band’s debut full length album Not Recommended for Sensitive Skin was released January of this year, which has generated critical acclaim and even a co-sign (albeit, an obscure one) from Cherry Glazerr.

I met with Maddie in Pasadena to discuss Sabrina’s history, the future of the group, and the overall experimental scene in California.

Tell us about the band’s history.

Siena and Olivia have actually known each other for around five years. They went to school together and had played in bands together before. I met Olivia through my best friend Julian when they had started hanging out. Siena and Olivia had started a band already and Julian kept going, “You know they need a bassist right?” And I had just picked up my bass and I was still kind of learning and getting a feel for it. I went and jammed with them and it just worked really well. We’ve been doing that for two years now as of February.

Had you been in any bands before that?

No, it was my first. I like to say that I learned how to play bass in Sabrina. It wasn’t their first band, they used to be in a band called Kindergarteners… but this was my first band. I’ve been in other ones since then, but this is my baby!

Did you know about Kindergarteners before meeting them?

Julian had told me about them, but I hadn’t seen them. They’re actually from [North Hollywood and Studio City] so they’re from a little bit different of a scene than I was. I’ve been in Pasadena for the last six years. So there’s a little bit of distance there, but it’s starting to overlap.

How long have you been with Penniback records?

I’ve personally been working for Penniback for a long time. I met Julian—he’s the co-founder—in high school. And at the end of our senior year was when we started hanging out and we’d ditch at lunch and go get fish tacos… and he said, “You should come to a show,” and the first show I ever went to was a Penniback show and it was at The Smell. The Buttertones and the Meow Twins were playing. I was like, “Woah, this shit still happens?!”… That’s our community. That’s where we got our start.

We [Penniback] have always been booking shows as a promotional group and we recently got a website where we could showcase what’s going on and anything new with our artists. But we’ve always been a record label, just I think our media outlets are changing, but not by much.

Has everything Sabrina’s released been through Penniback? No self-releases or other labels?

No, our first two were through Penniback. We’re probably the most independent band on that label as far as functioning on our own and getting stuff done, which is cool. We took care of all of our recording stuff and they helped with the PR.

Some of the songs on Not Recommended have been released previously as singles or on EPs.

Yeah, we have around three new tracks on the album and we took the last two EPs, and they were kind of like demo recordings, and we got serious about recording everything. We wanted it really nice, so we met up with Andrew Oswald, who recorded everything for us, and he’s recorded so many of our favourite bands and we just love what he does. So it was cool to be able to work with him. We were actually supposed to go up to San Francisco to record it, and his studio got shut down or it had to be moved, and he was in between spaces so he was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just come to Anaheim, I’ll just come to you to record!” And we packed all three of us, all of Siena’s drum kit, my bass amp, Olivia’s guitar, and day packs in my little Honda Fit. And we made it to Anaheim.

Did you always have the intention to put the songs on a full length album?

We knew that eventually we were going to want to rerecord and make them nice. I think the initial point of when we first released the first two EPs was like, “OK, let’s get our stuff out so we can be heard as fast as it can be,” and then towards the end we thought, “We have some new stuff and we want to get a little more serious and clean things up a little bit more.” It was intentional, but I don’t think we knew when we first releasing the EPs that we were going to rerecord all of it. But I’m really glad we did.

Do you feel like you’ve gotten more attention since putting everything out on an LP?

Definitely. It was definitely more costly, so we were like, “Let’s really push it!” The album art—I made the actual set and we got together and fucked with the lighting and the toys to find out what works. It was definitely a long process.

Can you talk about the writing process for the album?

I feel like the writing process has never really changed from our dynamic, which I kind of love. Hyena and Clean are the first songs that were ever written, and that was before I joined the band, actually. And then everything from there—either I’ll bring a bass riff or Olivia will bring a guitar riff and we’ll jam on it. There’s so many recordings, 45-minute recordings on my phone where we were trying to record some songs for a demo and we accidentally jammed for 45 minutes, and we’re like, “Oh shit, that was so tight, I’m so glad we were recording!” [Laughs]. A lot of our stuff has come from that, which is really cool.

The last two songs that were added to the album were This Innocent Fish and Relief. Both of those are pretty insane, they’re definitely the craziest songs we’ve written. They’re very abrasive, but more technical. I feel like Relief is kind of a cult classic; I feel like a lot of people aren’t going to get that one. This Innocent Fish… I didn’t think too much of that song when we released it, but our friend Alex was like, “When are you gonna play that one again?

I came across an interview you did with Urban Outfitters.

[Laughs] It’s so old! That was our second or third show we did, the Play Like a Girl show. That’s what we did the interview for. I can’t even remember… they set up a photo shoot for us at the park. It’s really old. That was a weird show!

Was it all right? Did it go well?

I think our first five shows were pretty rough, but good in the right aspects. Everyone was still able to kind of understand what we were doing even if weren’t able to articulate it well enough. People were like, “That shit’s weird, I’m down!” Cool, glad you get it!

Our first show was a house show and it was crazy, it was almost a joke. We had barely practiced, my bass broke and I was trying to tune it with pliers… and it was kind of intimidating to me at the time. Olivia got wiped out by some kids moshing, she was tossed over her amp and the drum kit. It was crazy, we’ve come a long way. But I truly love house shows. I think I can speak on behalf of all of us that they’re the most intimate setting you can have.

Do you play more house shows than bars or other venues?

It’s pretty even, actually. For the last few months we were getting ready for tours so we slapped a guarantee on some stuff and we saved up to go out, so as of recently it’s been more venues than house shows, but we usually have a pretty even cut. Bars are always super frustrating because I’m the oldest and I just turned 21, so we usually get told, “All right, sit outside until your set, get back out there when you’re done,” or, “You have to stay in that corner and you can’t leave!” [Laughs] They don’t care!

You said earlier that your sound is very abrasive. How do live shows typically go, are people generally receptive to that kind of style?

Most of the time, I think we’re pretty fortunate. We play to a lot of musicians, so I feel like the response from that is kind of different from someone who doesn’t play music. But even from someone who just listens to music, we get good responses. I [recently] met this girl who just came up to me and was like, “Your band is sick,” and I’m always baffled when someone is like, “Yo, that’s cool.” I just wonder, “Really? You think so? I’m just getting shit out!

But, people are pretty receptive, and if not, there’s always at least one person that’s really down with it. We played a house show in D.C. and people were sitting down and they started leaving, but there were two people who were like, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” They bought us drinks later and we hung out. That one person is really all I need. But usually it’s pretty good.

Tell me about the tour you did on the East Coast last fall.

The last time we did a tour we did South by Southwest and then we went on a West Coast tour, but this was the longest we’d ever been on the East Coast and we did a lot of damage. We went to a lot of places. We crashed our friend’s van the first night of the tour in the snow. It was so bad, we were driving to Skidmore for a show we almost cancelled… It took us five hours, and thirty minutes from our destination, we were going twenty miles per hour, and it was the calmest collision. We were there for two hours, but we got the car back the next day in perfect condition (aside from cosmetically damaging it). My homie ended up actually buying it off him and drove it back over here. But we did the whole tour in that van.

We went to Philadelphia, Boston, and I swear to god, we met someone way more eccentric than the night before. The weirdest people and situations just kept happening and it was very surreal. We ended at The Glove in New York. It was amazing, we played with Godcaster… that whole night was so surreal but it was a great way to end it. It was emotional: it was cold, it was long, there were tears, there were laughs… lots of bagels, lots of bread [laughs].

How does the East Coast compare to shows back here in California?

It depends on where you’re at. Philadelphia was kind of difficult, one our shows in Philly dropped and the other one—we had fun, but it was weird. So much had come down at that point and we were just a little bit delirious. I actually just screamed through the entire set for no reason, and it was honestly one of the most fun sets we’ve ever played. There were five people and this big ass dude who said, “Quantity or quality?” and Olivia said, “How do you measure quality?” and he was like, “I SELL PURE COCAINE!” What’s happening?! Where are we?!

But we’ve played some really crazy LA shows, so I haven’t really noticed a significant difference. I feel like New York is more receptive to experimental stuff, so we definitely get a lot of feedback when we’re there, which is cool.

You have some songs like This Innocent Fish, which are very tightly structured and seem difficult to improvise over, but there are also songs like Intermission and Sabrina the Nut that are more meandering and maybe easier to improv with.

Sabrina the Nut is just an iPhone recording jam. We don’t perform that, it was just something we started doing and we were like, “What’s happening? I don’t know, just keep doing it!” And Intermission is a completely improvised jam that we did at the end of recording. We really wanted to do a completely fresh jam. They’re not songs we play live and they’re just completely improvised.

Do you do improv on stage?

Sometimes, we definitely have to be feeling it, but we’ve done some pretty cool improv. We’re very much a jam band in that aspect, we’re really good at feeding off each other’s energy and knowing what’s to come or how to counteract what’s to come. It’s nice.

A lot of these songs shift abruptly into new sections that don’t really sound like anything that’s come before. When you write these songs are they cobbled together from different ideas that have been floating around or do you deliberately set out to write pieces with all these disparate parts?

Sometimes it’s very deliberate and other times it’s like, “Yo, that other thing we were jamming on a week ago would be really sick on this.Sabrina was pretty deliberate; a lot what ends up in the song… it made us laugh. At first when we were recording it, two of our homies were like, “Are they serious?!” But it’s very playful and jokey, but the bass is more sinister. That is intentional. I feel like there’s a good mix of intention and appreciating free form and going with some kind of flow, but intentionally so.

I’ve read that you describe your songwriting style as “choppy.” Do you still stand by that?

I do! I think I was talking about my lyrical style being choppy, but also musically I’m kind of choppy too. I’m writing in an emo band now and so I’ve got to be better at transitions. But vocally and lyrically… I practice writing without stopping. Sometimes it’s not always coherent, but if I keep going, what I want to come out or what I feel needs to come out, does.

But it’s not a full sentence, it’s just statements or words. But my brain’s kind of like that too; I have a very hard time organizing my thoughts, so it’s easier for me and I feel like it’s more honest. But I also love Built to Spill, and that motherfucker—just paragraphs and paragraphs [laughs]! It’s whatever is sincere and honest to you.

It seems like [Los Angeles club] The Smell has been a big part of the band’s history, can you talk about your experience with that?

I feel like it’s a big part of our entire community’s history. The first show I ever went to in LA was at The Smell. I grew up in a tiny, tiny town, and when I moved here I didn’t get out of Pasadena, and my dumb ass thought Pasadena was LA and I was like, “This is kinda whack!” And I went to the show and was like, “Woah, this shit happens?! This is real?!” And I wouldn’t be playing my bass today if it wasn’t for The Smell.

I probably wouldn’t be in Sabrina, I wouldn’t have met Olivia. Where I met Olivia was at The Smell. That’s like a huge, fundamental part of our community. Joe Smith is our dad, he provides us with a safe space to grow what we’re doing and expose others, and we’re forever grateful.

What do you think it is about the LA experimental community that draws so many people in?

The LA experimental scene, I don’t think it’s that big. I think we’re coming out of… I missed the whole Burger Records wave, I came right as that was dying out. I came when a lot of bands were trying to rip off those bands, trying to ride off that wave, and it was like, you missed it!

As of recently, there’s definitely been some weirder stuff popping up. It’s almost getting more math-ey, but not in a commercial way, in a less obnoxious way. I love math rock, but there’s definitely a lot of people who are like, “I can’t listen to this! There’s too much going on!” But I feel that [style] being implemented more. I definitely think that it’s up and coming and that we’re inspiring each other to make new weird stuff and challenge the next thing. It’s growing for sure. – Sean Hannah (@shun_handsome)

Okay Embrace leave a lasting impression with ‘Drought (Song of California)’

Centered around twenty-year-old wunderkind David Schaefer, who cut his teeth in the L.A. indie rock circles in his teens with the band French Negative, Okay Embrace find virtue in the bedrock of a bygone era of indie rock: the guitar solo.

On the group’s debut single “Drought (Song of California),” the comparisons to Dinosaur Jr. and Yo La Tengo are obvious and tempting (as are the associations with Third Eye Blind and Semisonic), but it’s the forthrightness and immediacy of the Schaefer’s vocals/lyrics that distinguish Okay Embrace from the cluster of 21st century indie bands fighting for attention and adoration with flashy guitar tricks. Schaefer, with his grounded, commanding voice, finds empathy in the bedridden mother swapping poetry lines with her child and the fire abatement officer lamenting his own inefficacy.

The guitars are fuzzed out and sun-faded, which serve the clarity of Schaefer’s singular voice and hark back to alt rock’s heyday in the 90s. There’s a drought in California, as we all know, but through Embrace’s perspective, it’s a global concern. – sean hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Venom proves to be a piece of toxic tripe

words fae Olivia Armstrong (@starcadet96)

This isn’t Venom’s first debut on the big screen, much to Sam Raimi’s dismay. Despite his personal dislike for the character, studio interference insisted that Raimi have him appear in his third installment of his original Spider-Man trilogy, despite the script already being full to bursting with characters and plotlines. As a result, the first cinematic debut of Venom in 2007 (played by Topher Grace) gets as little screen-time as was allowed and has almost no bearing on the whole film save for one fight scene at the end, which left many fans disappointed.                          

This is Sony’s third attempt at a Spider-Man property, as The Amazing Spider-Man series was cancelled after a mere two films, with Andrew Garfield playing the role and Sam Raimi’s original trilogy still being well-regarded but left on a sour note with many fans. Despite loaning the titular web-slinging hero out to Marvel and consequently being unable to use the character themselves, Sony still very much wants to make it known that they are clinging onto the rights to the Spider-Man universe like Uncle Ben on his death bed.                

Despite the fairly impressive effects of Venom in all his gooey glory, the first trailers didn’t do much to build hype for the film, with awkward editing and the inclusion of lines that were hard to believe were actually real (the infamous “turd in the wind” line has already reached meme status due to the disbelief that something so hilariously stupid was meant to be seen as a badass threat). Sony’s review embargo until October 2nd wasn’t a good look either, as it came off as a borderline admission from Sony that they were aware they had a stinker on their hands.

The first half hour of the film largely relegates itself to clunky exposition and establishing Eddie Brock as one the worst journalists in comic book film history. We learn that he has a hugely popular show and is regarded as an excellent investigative journalist. But that doesn’t seem to match up with what we see, as he talks over his interviewees, dresses like he slept in his car, doesn’t bother to fact check (to the point where in his opening interview with the corrupt corporate villain, he is corrected by the bad guy himself) and hacks into his girlfriend’s computer to find classified information and stupidly use it live on air right in front of the villain instead of doing any investigation of his own. This, of course, gets him fired and his girlfriend dumps him on the spot.

But things pick up when it’s revealed that alien organisms known as Symbiotes are being tested on human hosts by Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who’s been using poor people and addicts as test subjects to see if he can give birth to a new superior race of alien-humans able to live in space. After being smuggled in by an employee who decides to trust him for some reason (despite previous establishment of him as a terrible journalist), the Symbiote known as Venom escapes and it turns out he and Eddie are a perfect match.

Tom Hardy is one of the most likeable and enjoyable actors working today, but even he has his limits and this film found them. Not to say that he is boring or uncomfortable. On the contrary, he makes what would be a bland and forgettable product into an insane buffet of ham and cheese through his performance. It’s a perfect combination of under-acting and extreme over-acting that brings us head-first into Nicolas Cage‘s Ghost Rider territory. Considering the rumours that large chunks of the film were cut (and it shows),  what they did decide to keep is strange, to say the least. There is even a moment in which he makes out with a sexy Venom. I’m sure there’s one guy out there rejoicing that the fanfiction he wrote while stoned one night was noticed by the films writers and put into the script on a dare.

While there are some intentional laughs in the film, the biggest ones are in the sheer clunky nature and badly-timed humour that’s so unfunny that it comes back around and gets a laugh. There’s even an end credits scene hinting at a cinematic universe, because all the cool studios have cinematic universes now and Sony just wants one so bad.

Venom is bad but it’s bad in a way I’d be eager to see more of. Fantastic Four (2015) had everything wrong with it but one of its biggest crimes was that it was duller than dishwater, with long stretches of boring dialogue and almost nothing happening for two hours. After a clunky start, Venom just never stops with its endless barrage of dumb and almost seems to revel in it.

I don’t think Sony is self-aware enough to know people are laughing at them rather than with them, but at the same time, any laughter is better than none at all. It takes a certain mindset to watch Venom and there’s no mistaking it for a good film, but if this is your kind of dumb, this might just be the turd in the wind for you.

Top Ten Vampire Weekend Tracks

words fae sean hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

I think… there’s something inherently interesting [about preppiness],” Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig confesses to Anthony Mason, responding to the flak the group caught for their sartorially-obsessed image. For haters who are still hung up on the band’s appearance, Vampire Weekend’s unassailably straight-laced wardrobe is a constant point of derision, as it calls into question the matter of the band’s authenticity in rock circles. But authenticity is a moot point in most rock music anyway, and image is the most superficial of its signifiers.

Spawned from the dorms of Columbia University, Vampire Weekend compounded their belletristic interests with a democratic passion for music that spans the entirety of the globe. Koenig provided thoughtful, reference-heavy lyrics to their songs, while producer/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij condensed his appreciation for classical, experimental, and world music into concise pop sonatas. Bassist Chris Baio plays stoically, capable of delicate melody as well as pithy foundation. Drummer Chris Tomson often favors an African-inspired floor-tom drum arrangement, recalling experimentalists like Mo Tucker as well as the rhythms of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

Despite eliciting such strong reactions from anti-Weekenders, Vampire Weekend have proven themselves an indelible phenomenon in this current iteration of indie rock. Their clean, poppy sound, understated sense of humor, and alacrity to explore new styles and genres with each album combine to form an inimitable aesthetic with an astounding consistency. And as the band’s forthcoming album moves at a glacial pace, with the band giving sporadic updates that quantify the album’s completion by tenths of a percent, it seems appropriate to look back at one of pop music’s most inventive bands of the last decade and evaluate their top ten songs.

10. Mansard Roof

Beginning with a hyper-specific reference to the architectural style of the same name, Mansard Roof is a treatise, an entrée into the world of Vampire Weekend. A sprightly 1-2-3 drum and organ pump heralds its opening line. “I see a mansard roof through the trees,” Koenig cheerily declares, “I see a salty message written in the eaves.” Even without the accompanying music video, it’s hard not to imagine Koenig and company dressed in Oxford shirts and Sperry’s as they contemplate the sloping roof of a nearby building while they themselves stand bayside. Mansard Roof, like the rest of Vampire Weekend’s debut album, said to the world, “We’re preppy, we’re smart, but we’re not too uptight about it.”

9. Arrows

It sounds like a song Wes Anderson would co-opt for a critical scene in one of his films, but Arrows is, in fact, one of Vampire Weekend’s most elusive and celebrated rarities. Recorded around the time of their 2008 debut, Arrows combines the energy of their live shows with the studio craft that would come to define the band. Tight, Billy Ficca-inspired drumming abounds, a rich, cello-led string section bookends the song, and effusive Afrobeat guitar runs punctuate the verses. Arrows could well have replaced nearly any song on Vampire Weekend, but part of its charm rests in its obscurity. For Vampire obsessives, it remains a well-kept secret, one that rewards those willing to dig deeper than the picayune three albums.

8.  Step

Its opening line is borrowed from a Souls of Mischief rarity, its chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon, its chorus from Bread’s Aubrey. Vampire Weekend pulled out all the stops for their third single on Modern Vampires of the City. Serving partly as a trenchant self-examination as well as an affirmation of personal growth, Step finds Koenig at odds with his opulent past: “Home in New York was champagne and disco” while recognizing his own oncoming maturity: “I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house.” In the song’s chorus are nods to Modest Mouse and outsider artist Jandek, both of which seem arbitrary in the context of the lyrics, but that’s sort of the point. For all of Vampire Weekend’s incessant name checking and bookish tendencies, there exists some modicum of profundity in their lyrical encyclopedia.

7. Ya Hey

Arguably the centerpiece of Modern Vampires of the City, Ya Hey is part indictment, part paean to its mysterious second-person subject. “Oh, sweet thing, America don’t love you/ So I could never love you/ In spite of everything,” pronounces Koenig in a mellifluous, Chet Baker-channeling coo. Ya Hey is partly about failing institutions, with Koenig running through a catalogue of people and things that have taken leave of this ambiguous “you.” Like a cynical take on the wish list of GirlsLust for Life, Ezra reminds her that the Motherland, the Zion, and religious zealots will never requite her adoration. The song’s climax arrives at the 4:40 mark as the chorus repeats and Koenig is joined by full band and choir. He confidently reassures, “Through the fire and through the flames/ You won’t even say your name/ Only, “I am that I am.” Those lines manage to fit in allusions to the eternally uncool DragonForce, the venerable Peter Tosh, and the confounding Hebrew expression Yahweh puts to Moses. Each referent is given without a hint of hierarchy, as is Vampire Weekend’s m.o., which is to be expected from a man who “swoons” upon hearing a DJ transition from Israelites to 19th Nervous Breakdown.

6. The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance

You criticize the practice by murdering their plants.” Vampire Weekend weren’t great at penning sensationalistic lyrics on their first album. They were acutely aware of this, however, which is why so many of the images in that record’s lyrics are impressionistic rather than explosive. The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance, which closes the band’s extraordinary debut, doubles down on the imagery VW knew they’d be chided for by detractors. Shiny cufflinks, pinstripe-clad men of distinction, and a hoard of money ($40 million, to be precise) populate Kids, all of which are sung about with a self-aware smirk by Koenig. With an instrumental track just as jaunty as anything else on Vampire Weekend, The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance closes out the album with poise, refinement, and an admirable amount of care and dedication.

5. California English Pt. 2

A B-side in the Vampire Weekend catalogue, California English Pt. 2 ultimately lost a spot on Contra to its more energetic predecessor. But the song meets or exceeds nearly any track on that album in terms of songcraft. Featuring a collection of slowly building keyboard lines that reside somewhere between dream pop and electronica, Pt. 2 finds the group at a lyrical and musical high water mark. As always, Ezra’s libretto considers the social and spiritual implications of growing up well-off with humor and tact. “Are our parents actually Buddhist? Is the pool below me the bluest?” he wonders to himself, fully aware of the contradiction between those two thoughts. The chorus is simple enough: an exultant “Oh, California!” sung with the reverence of any one of those great Golden State artists, be they The Mamas and The Papas or Katy Perry or whoever.

4. I Think Ur a Contra

Never mind the text message spelling in its title, I Think Ur a Contra is a song of enormous breadth and depth. Parlaying a more-or-less civil break up into a meditation on the superficiality of romanticized wealth and poverty, the Contra closer showcases Vampire Weekend’s greatest asset: their ability to transmute petty angst into sweeping societal critiques. “When you turn away from me/ It’s not right,” Koenig croons over an amorphous pillow of synthesizers and fidgeting guitar effects. It’s an overly simple summation of a failed romance, one that rock and pop music employ out of fear of nuance. But at I Think’s bridge comes a dramatic change: Rostam’s sky-clearing string arrangement brings out the philosopher in Koenig as he cuts down his ex’s hypocrisies. She wants “good schools and friends with pools,” but she also wants “rock and roll, complete control.” On one end are the attractions of pedigree, on the other, the promises of populism. Koenig himself is wary of both, demurring, “Well, I don’t know.” I Think Ur a Contra is as much a scathing breakup song as it is a self-conscious swipe at the lifestyle the band had been touting for their first two albums.

3. M79

For all their enthrallment with African guitar pop and European Chamber music, Vampire Weekend are first and foremost a New York band. They sing about Washington Heights and Taqueria y Fonda as if they were the cruxes of the world, and on M79, their ode to the NYC bus route of the same name, the band limn the city as the hub of cultural eclecticism it’s known to be as well as a site of personal disillusionment familiar to natives and non-locals alike. Touchstones of the Upper West Side are mentioned casually, like the taxis and rickshaws perambulating up and down the streets and the sights in Central Park (abbreviated to “The Park”). Still, though, there’s something universal to these lyrics: as the girl in the song passes her French and Buddhist classmates at Columbia, she’s cautioned not to think anything racist or jingoistic. It’s the common dilemma of being faced with other cultures, other ways of life, and wondering just how valid they really are. Or how valid our own is.

2. Hannah Hunt

Travel has long been a staple of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, but it was often underscored with the lightheartedness of a vicenarian viewing the world’s wonders from a safe distance. The trips to Spain, Cape Cod, and Darjeeling were just perks of the privilege the band would spend much of their career trying to shake off. But on Hannah Hunt, the desultory couple driving to Santa Barbara from Rhode Island discover a malaise in themselves that vacationing can’t allay. The song’s breezy, twinkling piano and guileless rhythm section betray its despondent subject matter, often submitting graciously to Koenig’s weary vocals. That is, until the song reaches its infamous bridge. “If I can’t trust you, then dammit, Hannah!/ There’s no future, there’s no answer,” he cries, the music swelling under him in a pained climax. On Hannah Hunt, Vampire Weekend perfect the musical travelogue, stealing it away from hackneyed Springsteen wannabes and reclaiming it for the indie crowd.

1. Diplomat’s Son

The penultimate song on Contra, Diplomat’s Son synthesizes every trick the band employed on their sophomore record into a six-minute mini-concerto. Delicate synths (more refined than the simple keyboards on Vampire Weekend), expansive, varied percussion, and lush orchestral dalliances comprise this experimental Afro-pop melodrama. Co-writers Koenig and Batmanglij construct the scene with stark lyrical economy, penning lines like, “It’s not right/ but it’s now or never/ And if I wait/ Could I ever forgive myself?Diplomat’s Son describes the turmoil of a man questioning his sexuality as the trappings of his privileged upbringing begin to fail him. Buzzing TVs are left unattended at home, car keys are hidden at a party, white shoes are strewn inside a bathtub. In a moment of hasty abandon, he gets high and sleeps with a close friend, who departs before morning. Like Contra on the whole, Son finds Vampire Weekend moving away from the faux-existential crises of post-collegiate life and stepping into the real world, one of frustration, confusion, and desertion.

The Melvins Shouldn’t Have Carried Pinkus Abortion Technician to Term

words fae sean hannah (@Shun_Handsome)rating 3

Locust Abortion Technician is the name of a seminal album by The Butthole Surfers. Jeff Pinkus plays bass on the record. These days, he plays with Montesano metal outfit The Melvins. He’s the namesake of their latest offering Pinkus Abortion Technician. This is all the background information you’ll need for the album.

Pinkus begins with a litmus test to the audience to determine just how much they’ll put up with. Stop Moving to Florida is a hybrid of Stop by AOR mainstays The James Gang and The SurfersMoving to Florida—the pairing seems ironic on paper, but both covers are played with what can be argued as sincerity and reverence. Still, the cover-by-numbers way The Melvins play each song (with little artistic license and even less edge) forces the listener to decide for him or herself if the album’s inaugural one-two punch really is a deferential rendition of two classic bands’ deeper cuts or just a lark. At any rate, neither cover surpasses its original.

The Melvins, after three decades of genre hopscotching, have landed on Blues/Southern Rock as their M.O. here on Pinkus. It’s in the bottom heavy chug of the instructional dirge Don’t Forget to Breathe and the slide guitar on the ridiculously titled Prenup Butter. The genre’s simple swagger suits the band’s flair for dumb-rock riffing and hardass guitar distortion, but given how heavily vocalist King Buzzo leans into eccentricity for the record, Pinkus Abortion Technician sounds more like a novelty album than a concerted effort by the sludge metal veterans.

Here, Buzzo delivers his melodies like Alice Cooper doing a parody of Alice Cooper: strangely accented vowels inflate the middles of his words on the aforementioned Prenup, gossamer vocals dust the grungy hoedown of Flamboyant Duck, and throaty howls turn Break Bread into a shock rock misfire. In the case of metal, showmanship is paramount (well, that and technical prowess), but when the band straddle the line between pastiche and seriousness so precariously, the whole album turns into a balance scale for the audience, forcing them to determine which song will eventually tip that scale to one side or the other. If the number of covers on the album is any indication (three out of eight songs), then maybe PAT actually is a bit of lighter fare just to tide fans over until the next big release.

Pinkus sounds more than anything else like it was culled together from songs that tested through the roof while on tour. The two Butthole Surfers interpretations no doubt pleased audiences who were already thrilled to see Pinkus splitting bass duties with Steven McDonald on stage. When played live, I Want to Hold Your Hand (yes, that I Want to Hold Your Hand) must have gotten some real mileage out of the meager guitar solo that wound up on the studio version. Unfortunately, much of the electricity of these live performances seems to have been lost during the recording process. This isn’t to say that there aren’t excitable moments on the album—the thrashing speed of Embrace the Rub eventually wins out over its outright strangeness, and the cacophony vocals on closer Graveyard show that the band haven’t lost their knack for piss and vinegar metal—but Technician ultimately proves more of a slog than anything else.

The cover art for the album was created by Mackie Osborne, Buzzo’s wife and frequent collaborator, who’s designed albums in the past for the likes of The Circle Jerks, Tool, and Social Distortion. She’s responsible for the Jerks’ iconic artwork on Group Sex and Wild in the Streets. But here on Pinkus Abortion Technician, the sinister, grinning mutt with a dismembered finger in its mouth and a vest that reads “GODDAM RIGHT I’M A SERVICE DOG” feels quaint. It’s like if Garfield creator Jim Davis were asked to design an album cover for a metal band. The artwork, unlike that dog, but sadly much like the music, feels toothless. The visceral moments are few and far between, resulting in a middling album by a legendary group.

David Byrne dwells on his career on American Utopia

words by sean hannah (@shun_handsome)
rating 6

Rock and roll is serious business. It thrives on angst and maladjustment. It must be delivered with unwavering despondency and grave seriousness.  The seed of this ethos was first planted by John Lennon’s stone-faced performance of Help on Ed Sullivan and solidified shortly thereafter by Jim Morrison’s pouty face and his misapprehension that death is romance par excellence.

So why has it always been so entertaining to watch David Byrne just have fun?

Byrne has never taken himself all that seriously as a musician. He doesn’t follow trends, he works with the artists he truly wants to, and every album he’s put out has been uniquely Byrneian. David is the quintessence of artistic integrity; always cognizant of his audience but never interested in pandering or catering to them, the Scottish-born polymath makes the music he likes first and foremost with the hopes that we will too. His music doesn’t draw you in against your will to try and make you enjoy it, but each release always raises the question why you shouldn’t. And on American Utopia, the singer’s first solo album since 2004, Byrne continues his streak of making music designed with himself in mind above anyone else.

David’s greatest asset has always been his lyrical abilities, but on Utopia, he finds himself articulating ideas with a certain tactlessness. Bullet, for example, details the human element in a vague scene of a man being shot, calling attention to its subject’s food-laden stomach and love-ridden heart. The song conflates a man’s physicality with his emotional impact on others, yet describes the path of that eponymous bullet as its “merry way,” resulting in an uncouth mixed message about gun violence that seems to conjure an alternate New York history in which Bernie Goetz never got his fifteen minutes.

Much of the album deals with Byrne wrestling with his legacy as Talking Heads’ frontman. He knows he’ll forever be held to the standard of lyricism that he presented as a younger man with the seminal New Wave four-piece. So in light of this reality, Byrne makes winking allusions to his former group. The meta-musical track This Is That finds David evoking the familiar imagery of flowing water and limited personal funds in a nod to the Heads’ flagship single Once in a Lifetime. Only here, these concepts are used as a sentimental nostalgia trip, far removed from Lifetime’s cautionary tale of the disengagement from the passage of time.

Perhaps the most Talking Headsesque track here is Every Day is a Miracle, a Latin-tinged Industrial number that recalls the band’s exaltation of the mundane as a profound philosophical phenomenon. Here, Byrne’s preoccupations lie with a cockroach’s appetite for the Mona Lisa, a perfectly pruned rose, and the significance of a donkey’s penis. But none of these things are actually mundane or crass: instead, they’re depicted as the makeup of one of many miraculous days in a lifetime. American Utopia wasn’t conceived just for fans to draw parallels back to his records with Talking Heads (though the return of producer Brian Eno will certainly elicit Fear of Music/Remain in Light comparisons), and in spite of its lyrical shortcomings, the album explores new territory without compromising Byrne’s singular, globally-conscious point of view.

American Utopia isn’t a perfect album. It’s not Byrne at his peak, but it is a David Byrne album, which means that there’s an undeniable craft and care to it, and just the appropriate amount of weirdness and experimentation to remind us why Byrne has been an inimitable figure in music for so many years. Even though the record’s hits and misses are fairly evenly stacked, Utopia is a welcome return for David after having withheld a proper solo effort for nearly fifteen years. And while the salad days of Talking Heads’ commercial apex may be long gone, the fact remains that Byrne still stands as an unassailable pop culture icon as his music career approaches its sixth decade. With every new album or collaboration, Byrne maintains the ability to make headlines and waves in the music world; he’s always elated to share with us his latest artistic venture. Everybody’s coming to David’s house, and we couldn’t have asked for a more gracious host.

Some Villains give a glimpse of new EP with The Skin

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

The more alarming of the two words in Some Villains’ name isn’t its noun. It’s that determiner “Some.” It implies that there’s a formidable current of evil out there, but these four Englanders are no cause for concern. Comparatively, they’re benign, operating somewhere between the borders of villainous and just. The band’s villainy is small cog in some nefarious machine hell-bent on churning out dismay and dread; they’re only a blip on the radar, the lesser of many, many evils. They’re just some villains, nothing more.

This is the guiding principle behind Some Villains: to exist in the ether between facile classifications. Their Facebook mission statement explains that the band’s music is an attempt “to straddle the line between the experimental and the accessible.” And on the group’s latest track The Skin, the Villains strike that balance with aplomb.

Heralding the group’s forthcoming EP Outliers is this lead single, a slow burning rocker that distills the influences Some Villains have been championing all throughout their career. Musically, The Skin’s verses most immediately recall Sonic Youth, particularly their song Cross the Breeze (both numbers utilize the same two chord oscillation). Some Villains, however, are far cleaner than the New York No-Wavers, forgoing the dissonance that permeated Daydream Nation in favor of a clearer, more direct sound. The other major influence on Skin is that of Queens of the Stone Age. Featuring a hefty drum and bass foundation and singer Edward Graves’s fervent-yet-aloof vocal delivery, the band evoke the sound of QOTSA in a way that sounds neither contrived nor dispassionate.

Some Villains’ ethos charges them with the task that many bands before them have grappled with and faltered: creating wide-reaching appeal while still maintaining their artistic integrity. It’s nearly impossible to have it both ways, and SV know this. Still, their forays into experimental territory aren’t alienating and their use of familiar rock tropes never feel like a compromise. It’s a tightrope walk, to be sure, to play to the experimental crowd along with the tamer mainstream audiences. But sunny down snuff, they’re all right by the heroes and villains.

Album Review: As Much as I Used To by Vagrant Real Estate

by Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

rating 7

Foresighted listeners who read the song titles of this seventeen-track objet d’soul before actually listening to it will be able to glean its basic narrative. A thoroughgoing romantic tale to be sure, As Much as I Used To tracks all the important milestones of its hypothetical relationship: the serendipitous meeting (First Sight), inchoate affection and consummation (Lust, Rendezvous), mounting trepidation (Hesitate), allayment (Assurance), and the devastating quietus (No You Don’t, Plato’s Cave), which proves to be a felix culpa (Still Friends). Like the myriad soul records he deconstructs and reassembles, Vagrant Real Estate seeks to universalize romantic despair and felicity by way of deceptively simple music and lyrics coupled with sensationalized scenes of either unbridled affection or debilitating rejection. But this Aberdonian DJ imbues enough aural nuance into its story that his flash fictive romance avoids cliché while still maintaining the appeal of familiarity.

The bulk of Used To’s songs are signified by oblique leitmotifs. Lust is certainly informed by its repetitive “I want you so…” and “Come on, baby” interpolations, but only when the strings climax and the soundbite “I just make believe” emerges, backed by a chorine countermelody, does the track truly embody the carnal attraction its title suggests. Hesitate employs a striking, dissonant piano chord that, when treated with a stentorian bass pop and a fidgeting guitar flourish, only strays farther from attaining resolution, in effect cultivating the feeling of reticence to which the song’s name refers. But despite the album’s more erudite depictions of these abstract concepts, The Vagrant is still able to play his audience’s pleasure principle and demand for immediate gratification. Casual listeners will fawn over the demonstrable sexiness of Muscle Cars, the instant melancholy of Blinded, and the speeded-up desperation of its successor Talk.

The soul samples Real Estate chooses to employ are arcane enough—no Let’s Stay Together or Three Times a Lady to be found among the bricolage of plunderphonics—but as with most artists operating within this strain of instrumental hip-hop, this doesn’t matter to anyone but the producer. For the half-engaged listener or fledgeling soul enthusiast, the obscurity of an artist’s source material is incidental to the music itself.

Like DJ Shadow, Vagrant Real Estate scours his collection of esoterica to find an appropriate snatch of melody, an engrossing loop or a chipmunk-worthy vocal line. Impressive, sure, but too principled for a genre predicated on extravagance and surfeit. Recall that The Dust Brothers sampled Superfly for Paul’s Boutique, after all. Still, VRE isn’t above throwing us an easily recognizable soundbite, either. Just listen to the Zoolander clip at the :44 mark of First Sight.

Like his hero J Dilla, The Vagrant champions brevity and the hypnotic loop above all else. With its longest cut clocking in at just under three minutes and most tracks running about half as long, As Much as I Used To utilizes a laser focus to pare its songs down to their aesthetic and thematic cores. But also like Dilla, VRE misprizes the tension and release model lauded by EDM punching bag Skrillex and orgasm addicts The Chemical Brothers. As a result, Used To comes off as more ascetic than dynamic, showcasing an aptitude for austere song structures without the payoff of forte-pianissimo oscillations. Even Madlib knew when to layer his instrumentals.

Cluttering Vagrant Real Estate’s Soundcloud page is an olla podrida of referential hashtags that identify, according to him, the most astute artistic comparisons. These tags run the gamut of instrumental hip-hop icons and evoke varying levels of credulity. Here we have #yeezy (absolutely), #drake (defensible), #donuts (if you must), and #wu tang (come on!), among others. The Vagrant no doubt holds a great amount of deference for each of these vanguards, and the aesthetic he’s created for himself certainly pays homage to them, but he strives to distil too many influences into a singular work of art. Make no mistake, Vagrant Real Estate is a talented producer, and As Much As I Used To serves as a promising start for a beatmaker looking to hone his craft in the LP format, but he’s bitten off more than he can chew for this first record. Remember what Kendrick said: “You ain’t gotta lie to kick it… You ain’t gotta try so hard.”

Album Review: POST- by Jeff Rosenstock

by Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)rating 8

If there’s any confusion or uncertainty about Jeff Rosenstock’s politics, let the conspicuous “Fuck Trump” button adorning his guitar strap set the record straight: the pop-punk maven has no interest in bipartisanship. Like any singer worth his or her salt, Rosenstock performs with an unwavering conviction, brandishing his principles and foregrounding his beliefs to better represent his voiceless constituents. As Bob Dylan apprised us in the late ‘80s, we live in a political world, and between the releases of Rosenstock’s WORRY. in late 2016 and his surprise New Year’s record POST-, the American populace has borne witness to a jarring shift in political epochs. Of the multitudinous interpretations possible, the title of POST- may well be political in nature (Post-Obama? Why not?), but given Rosenstock’s facility for tying everyday imbroglios to larger narratives, there’s likely a human element to the album’s name. And though he’s often favored personal strife over expressly political subject matter, Rosenstock, here on POST-, keenly conflates the malaise of the human condition with the frustration of living in an autocracy that fails to reflect his own values.

POST- is an album rife with conflict, vacillating between furtive political references and forthright internal turmoil. Yr Throat questions the efficacy of self-expression as the narrator’s body and mind lock into a stalemate: “What’s the point of having a voice when it gets stuck inside your throat?!All This Useless Energy stages a contentious dialogue between under informed neurotypicals and frustrated depressives: “You’re not fooling anyone when you say you tried your best. I’m worried of abandoning the joys that framed my life, but all this useless energy won’t hold me through the night.

Despite all the inert, self-consuming acrimony in his lyrics, Rosenstock is still able to direct his vitriol toward the larger issues. More socially conscious than overtly political, POST- susses out the everyday woes of the American public while still attesting to Toni Morrison’s pronouncement that all art is, in fact, political. And though he never refers to Trump by name, instead amalgamating him and other elected officials into the duplicitous, caustic “USA” villain character, Jeff continuously makes sly allusions to his unsavory Commander in Chief. In a political climate that has fostered a pernicious fissure between its two parties, and in a cultural landscape that attacks its leader far more vehemently and directly, Rosenstock understands the merit in avoiding explicit Trump name-checking.

Jeff Rosenstock’s songs are so effortlessly symbiotic that it’s hard to tell if the animus of his lyrics informs the energy of the music or vice versa. Is the lo-fi tale of blighted romance on Powerlessness fueling its Descendents-derived power punk sound? Does the New York Dolls-inspired guitar-kitsch on Beating My Head against a Wall dictate Rosenstock’s delivery of the album’s catchiest chorus? In an album fractured by both internal and external enmity, Rosenstock’s dedication to cohesion between his music and lyrics is his most reliable asset.

Rosenstock may not have the firmest grasp on the political morass plaguing him and his compatriots—without mention of race or class, his political gestures can come across as vague or even worse, toothless—which is why he opts for oblique, rather than direct, allusions to the Conservative opposition to his Liberal way of life. But he isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last punk singer to tenuously assess democracy in song. In any case, Jeff further positions himself as one of punk’s most effectual mouthpieces here on POST-. His verve compensates for all the ambiguity rock lyrics demand, and with the clarion call at the end of Let Them Win (which could have been cribbed straight from the Woody Guthrie songbook but for its conclusive “Fuck no!” lyric), Rosenstock asserts that he won’t spend the first full calendar year of Trump’s presidency sitting on his hands.

Whatever the meaning you choose to ascribe to the term “post” (Post-Obama, Post-Trauma, or for the overdramatic, Post-America) POST- refers to the end of an era. Every generation grapples with its social and political conventions, and now the Millennials have been called to action. A daunting task, to be sure, for a throng of young people consistently written off as thin-skinned, lazy, and disinterested. But with Jeff Rosenstock at the forefront of punk’s socially-inclined philosophes, we’re sure not to be tired and bored with the fight. May we never be again.

Album Review: Utopia by Björk

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)rating 4

The greatest looming threat to a pop singer’s career isn’t necessarily a diminishing talent for songwriting. More often than not, it’s the artist’s waxing age that does him or her in. Popular music is so heavily steeped in the exaltation of youth that showing even the most innocuous signs of aging can spell death for a musician’s career. Crow’s feet and receding hairlines won’t move albums or bolster streaming numbers when there exists an arsenal of cherubic up-and-comers at the ready to capitalize on the vacancy left by those former hitmakers. In the face of oncoming cultural irrelevance, these older artists are left with essentially two options: accept defeat and resign to a life of musical obsolescence or combat the aging process by way of artistic reinvention.

Madonna fended off antiquity by crafting pop songs through her ever-morphing registers of personal maturity. Neil Young did it by striking up avuncular (and symbiotic) relationships with the likes of Devo and Sonic Youth. And Bowie had burned through so many iterations during his career that his name is practically synonymous with musical metamorphosis.

But for Björk, musical mutability has been less a carapace against the ravages of time and more of a compulsion. Embracing the onslaught of alternative rock in the late ‘80s with the Sugarcubes and later discovering electronica the following decade, Björk’s career is a brazen protest against musical stagnation. To be sure, there have been no periods of stasis for an artist whose career has thrice begun in earnest. Yet on Utopia, her ninth album as a solo musician, Björk mistakes heterodoxy for being boundary-pushing and heartbreak for wisdom in an engaging yet familiar meditation on interpersonal relationships.

Utopia marks the second collaboration with producer Arca, whose panoply of twitching, programmed synths undergirds and guides Björk through her vicissitudes of jubilance, despair, and altruism. Relying mostly on Apollonian chamber music, Arca, along with fellow producers Rabit and Björk herself, crafts a thoughtful collection of dynamic, if lukewarm instrumentals. A delicately plucked harp carries Blissing Me. An ethereal chorus propels Features Creatures. The album’s title track is driven by a flute. As are Losss, Courtship, and Paradisia. The music is decidedly stately in its restraint, but Björk’s artistry has never championed understatement in the interest of normalcy. This raises the question “Can Utopia be called ‘experimental’ if it resists subversion?” Is Björk truly challenging herself or just giving us more of the same?

In response to the malaise and despair of Vulnicura, a self-described “heartbreak album,” Björk seeks to attain self-actualization on Utopia. Inaugural track Arisen My Senses explores the physicality of love as it intersects with musicianship and the advent of the internet: “Just that kiss / Was all there is / My palms pulsating of the things I want to do to you.” Physical sensation proves the gateway to fulfillment, much in the same way solitude and pastoral asceticism do in the Emersonian Claimstaker. “The forest is in me […] This is my home.” She’s markedly more ecstatic in comparison to her lovelorn self on Vulnicura, but Björk isn’t without trepidation when it comes to happiness. On the track Utopia, though she’s found comfort in her current situation, “Utopia: it isn’t elsewhere, it’s here,” Björk maintains an untraceable wariness about her: “My instinct has been shouting at me for years, saying ‘Let’s get out of here!’ / Huge toxic tumor bulging underneath the ground here.”

Ideas are inherently fragmentary. David Lynch likens them to fish swimming in our consciousness that are caught by chance rather than created by design. Björk seems to feel similarly, given that most of the lyrics to Utopia are fractious in form. As such, many lines come off as insular and underdeveloped. In the case of Saint, they’re plain clunky: “She has entered me thousand fold often / And undone knots at my most awkward.” The same is true of Courtship: “I then upturned a green-eyed giant / Who upturned and entered me.” The three producers’ decision to largely forego the inclusion of drums creates a decentering feeling, which is exacerbated by the songs’ fractured lyrics, yet they rarely add up to anything significant. And when attached to Björk’s amorphous melodies, her words only distract from the aesthetic of her voice.

The fallout of her past relationship hasn’t quite yielded the profundity she aims for on Utopia. It’s left her more guarded, certainly, according to The Gate: “My healed chest wound transformed into a gate.” But Björk doesn’t arrive at any major conclusions about love. She is, however, careful not to sully her children’s conception of a relationship in the wake of her heartache: “Tabula rasa for my children, let’s clean up, break the chain of the fuck ups of the fathers.” She’s selfless in her resolve not to let her shit ruin others’ chances at happiness. A benevolent gesture in a record otherwise overflowing with navel-gazing.

Björk’s youthfulness is self-evident in her resistance to stagnation and complacency. She’s outgrown alt-rock as well as dance music, but her alacrity to explore new musical territory keeps her from the status of musical curmudgeon. If we’re lucky, she’ll continue to embrace the future of experimental music and search out new musical identities for the rest of her career. If we’re luckier still, they’ll be more fruitful than here on Utopia.