Top Albums of 2015 Advent Calendar: Day 13
Deerhunter - Fading Frontier
To me, Deerhunter are undoubtedly an all-time great band at this point. Each new release they bring out is unpredictable; exploring new territories sonically, while maintaining the hallmarks of their style from their genesis. Deerhunter's last album, 2013's Monomania, was a caustic, neon garage rock album that found Bradford Cox at his thorniest and punkiest, spitting lines and grinding his guitar strings into contorted chords. Fading Frontier comes a mere two years later, but it seems like a lifetime has passed in the interim for Cox, who sounds much more serene and contemplative here - I suppose that's what getting hit by a car will do to you.
Yes, this major life event has seriously altered Cox's perspective on life it seems, and across Fading Frontier he discusses mortality and ageing from all different angles; but the car accident is always hovering in the background. On "Breaker" Deerhunter have created their most immediate song to date with an immaculate hook featuring Cox and Lockett Pundt harmonising for the first time ever, but the danger shows up right at the end: "jackknifed on the side street crossing, I'm still alive - and that's something." The electric harpsichord contributed by Stereolab's Tim Gane on "Duplex Planet" gives the song a low-gravity swing in a pink paradise where Cox is "dreaming all the way across the road." "Leather and Wood" starts the second half of the album, but almost entirely kills the momentum in order to put the listener into a slow motion car crash where the structure of the song is ever deteriorating in jabs of piano strings and threateningly ticking percussion, with Cox singing in a lucid dream "I drove my car over the edge, the leather and the wood formed a ledge."
To transport these messages the band has reverted somewhat back to the dreamier guitar washes that would plateau out splendidly in their previous releases. The songs on Fading Frontier don't merely float, however; the band has fine-tuned their knack for melodies and actually produced a short but punchy set of accessible indie rock songs. The collection doesn't only feature a few of their poppiest songs to date (the aforementioned "Breaker," the golden hymn "Living My Life," the kicking and strutting lead single "Snakeskin"), but a couple of their most beautiful too. Centrepiece "Take Care" borrows a title from Beach House, and also largely apes their slow, graceful and steady build to a crescendo of interwoven melodies and colours (but this is Deerhunter so I like it more). Lockett Pundt also makes his regular show-stealing contribution, this time with "Ad Astra," a song that, as its title suggests, launches for the stars from its very start and seems to venture ethereally forth, borne on their light.
In recent years I have begun to say and believe that Deerhunter are my favourite band of all time. This has been a poisoned chalice for previous "favourite" bands who have then gone on to release the worst music of their careers (see: Radiohead, Modest Mouse). Fading Frontier is Deerhunter's 7th full length (and they have a few stellar EPs too), and they continue to surprise, shock, enthrall, warm and harmonise with me every time they bring out something new. I just hope it won't take a near death experience to prompt the next one.
Have I bought this album?: Do you really need to ask?
Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love
It's a rare occurrence that a band finishes off with their best album, but ten years ago that's exactly what Sleater-Kinney did with 2005's opus The Woods. The hiatus still seems like a bit of a mystery, as the band cited no bad blood or fatigue, but just a desire to try other things. It seemed strange to for them not to want to share their peak powers of creativity together, or maybe they felt they'd done that with The Woods. Whatever happened, it seemed unlikely that three women so obviously meant to be together would stay apart forever, or at least that's what fans believed. Now, ten years later, they're fulfilling that wishful prophecy with No Cities To Love.
Those that have been waiting patiently for a new Sleater-Kinney album (a group which has swollen considerably in size over the 10 year break) might be expecting to go into No Cities To Love picking up right where The Woods left off; with the band trying to expand outwards and outdo themselves on every front possible. However, a mere look at the track lengths on their new offering will tell you that this is not an attempt at something even grander; none of the 10 new songs extend beyond the 4 minute mark. Rather than stretch themselves to breaking point as they did on their last, No Cities To Love finds the trio facing inwards, rocking out in a tight space, writing short and punchy punk songs and just generally enjoying bouncing off each other once more.
This rediscovered mutual infatuation is rife in the lyrics, such as the mission statement chorus of "Surface Envy": "we win, we lose, only together do we break the rules," but the most obvious statement of their combined prowess is all through the instrumentation. In the years off Carrie Brownstein may have focused more on her acting, but be assured that she has not lost a single inch in her guitar playing. She puts in a series of virtuosic efforts here, and her comrades are more than keeping pace, just like the old days. "We speak in circles, we dance in code" sings Corin Tucker on "Bury Our Friends," alluding to the seemingly psychic connection between the trio, and the song's simple-yet-mesmerising guitar and rhythm interplay seems as if it could only have been made by non-verbal communication. "A New Wave" accentuates all of Sleater-Kinney's strengths by having some of the album's most aggressive guitar squall all through its verses, then flipping itself inside out to become a delightfully breezy chorus which finds Brownstein and Tucker harmonising nicely. The song then flips back outwards again and ends with a fade-out of them all giving their respective instruments a good work out. Sleater-Kinney are just plain having fun here.
The inventive interplay throughout is thrilling, but the pop element shouldn't be underestimated either. A song like "No Anthems" could be a perfectly catchy pop-punk song, but it's something entirely other with Brownstein sounding like she's brought her guitar into horrifying life and is wrestling it into check, while Janet Weiss on drums gallops alongside propping her up and not missing an instant. The album's title track delivers a powerful hook and will likely knock listeners out on their first round. "Gimme Love" would be a mere sketch of a song in less capable hands, but Brownstein's python-like guitar wrapping around Weiss's bulletproof percussion, while Tucker gives a gale force vocal performance makes it a monolithic final product that's made for high speed summer driving.
If people are coming to No Cities To Love expecting a continuation of The Woods then they'll be disappointed; but if they truly believed that's what Sleater-Kinney would do after 10 years then they don't understand them at all. Brownstein recently said in an interview with Paste that they wanted to write this without looking back, and that "it should sound urgent and as necessary as if [they] had just started as a band." No Cities To Love certainly sounds urgent and necessary, but there's no way they sound like a band that's just started: they're just too good.
Have I bought this album?: Somehow no. I will amend this grievous error very soon.
This piece was originally published as a review on The 405.