Top albums 2015 advent calendar: Day 21
Lower Dens - Escape From Evil
From the bright, broad and confident chords that open up Escape From Evil it is immediately obvious that this is a new version of Lower Dens from what we've heard on their last two albums. Twin-Hand Movement and Nootropics were dimly-lit, spindly, psychedelic and moody albums. Those elements still hang around in Escape From Evil, but they're lurking in the shadows of the bold new statements that the band are trying to send. Singer Jana Hunter has said that they "didn't want to try to write about being miserable while being miserable." This time the songs are much more raw and human than the previous album's technophobia-bent; it's as if the band has woken up to their humanity in a world run on technology, and through Escape From Evil they're putting all their emotions out there, under the neon-lit glare of the 21st century, and are looking for other humans out there to reciprocate.
This desire for human contact comes out through stories of loss and loneliness in a world of crumbling morals. "Sucker's Shangri-La" opens proceedings, and despite those big blocky chords I previously mentioned, we get a cutting Hunter telling us the story of people who go to soul-sucking jobs every day for the illusion of success, without looking at their actual reality and the people around them. On "Societe Anonyme" she compares modern society's addiction to entertainment to Plato's allegory of a man chained inside a cave. On "Company" she tells us "I wish I could feel anything at all, but I'm just a pile of want and doubt." On the slithering "Your Heart Still Beating" she expertly lofts her vocal on the synthetic breeze and announces "all of my fears, coming to life / all of my time, wanting you by my side."
Escape From Evil is a synth pop album, and taking the basic elements of the songs they are mostly quite perky, but the atmospheric guitar work and thick, slovenly bass give them an gloomy, grimy atmosphere through which only Hunter's purest feelings can pierce. She is particularly effective when her impassioned agitations are directed at a specific partner. "Ondine" is a singly heart-wrenching song, imbued with a deep and sultry low end that we feel as the weight of desire in Hunter's belly, while the twanging guitars scale higher reaches telling us of her unhinged disposition as she gutturally pleads "I will treat you better, I will treat you better." Hunter uses that chewy bass fuzz again on "Quo Vadis," this time to imply animalistic sexual desire as she admits "it's impossible love, what I dream of," before eschewing all facade, the band putting sheets to the wind to propel her as she recklessly announces "I wanna be with you alone," the desire and shame both tangible on her breath. "I Am The Earth" is the album's stately slow burner, with waves of cosmic synths cresting and interacting to depict our singer as a heavenly body, spinning slowly and gloriously in space - her resounding vocal gliding out into the far reaches. However, despite the seemingly calming and beautiful subject matter, the song is actually an allegory for Hunter's admissions of having treated a previous partner badly, and poetically admitting that she was self-centred and cruel.
Escape From Evil is a simply enjoyable synth-pop album on its surface, but with the psychedelic persuasions and lurking paranoia still hovering around it, there is a lot more to get immersed in. Hunter herself is political, outspoken and always honest, which only adds more hooks to get under your skin. While this may come off as quite a serious album there should be no mistake about it being fun too; the hopelessness in Hunter's vocals yearns for more voices to sing with it, and the band's smart and lively melodies kindle sparks of hope around her. The pervading message from this album might seem like all is futile or quickly declining, but then there's also one of the finest pop songs of the year in "To Die In L.A.," which has a carefree, arm-waving chorus to proclaim "time will turn the tide," and if we all believe that, and surf that wave alongside Hunter, then maybe we can start to feel that this world will be OK after all.
Have I bought this album?: Yes!
Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer
Speedy Ortiz's sound often gets categorised alongside the "slacker" 90s bands like Pavement that clearly influenced them, and certainly they have that lackadaisical kind of glaze to some of their production. But, to call Speedy Ortiz "slackers" seems so far off the mark because this is a very tight, hard-working and impressive band from top to bottom. Just take the lead single from Foil Deer, "Raising The Skate," a song that possesses a chorus of big chunky power chords, but rather than coast on the momentum that comes from the interjection of the guitar riff, the band crackles and twists around it while singer Sadie Dupuis announces "I'm not bossy I'm the boss," almost casually, but with enough malice to make you know that you don't want to get on her bad side. The song is more than a simplistic pop punk song because of the way the different instruments perfectly shift methods of attack on a moment's notice, giving it a bracing impact that speaks of the hours of construction that have gone into it.
This is true of every single song on Foil Deer; at surface they're songs they're bold, catchy and exciting pop punk songs, but further listens to the songs really emphasise how they're built up with such structural integrity that they'll still be standing firm and true after dozens of repeat plays. The band has more than mere "quiet-loud-quiet" dynamics; their songs lead forceably yet smoothly through pathways along rocky, uneven and hazardous crests and ledges that scale the heights of volume and the depths of quietness.
On the thorny "Homonovus" the band creeps on the edges around a subdued bed of taut clicks and plucks for Dupuis to dazedly sing the verses, before they unthrottle into full-speed acceleration for the visceral chorus. "Puffer" is sustained on a chunky thumping bassline over which Dupuis is sexily rhythmic in her singing, like the R&B stars she admires, announcing "I'm the god of the liars," with the seething and burning guitars adding to the feeling of deluded certainty. The interlocking nature of their densely constructed songs almost becomes a meta-topic for the song "Zig," as the band tilts and pivots under the combined weight of their muscular chords, Dupuis strainedly directing them "engage both components at the very same time. Now tie in the gear."
Dupuis' ability as a leader is certainly one of the reasons why Speedy Ortiz is a success. In her intelligent lyrics and fierce deliveries the band has found the perfect focal point for their bulky songs. She has a taste for the melodramatic and dark, which the band knows how to sharpen to a shiny and vicious point. "Dot X" is a song in which Dupuis' violent thoughts slither around her mind, and the slinking bass keeps her soft intonations afloat, until the guitars start to scratch along the surface, screeching in anger as she warns "don't ever touch my blade you fool, you'll be cursed for a lifetime." "My Dead Girl" takes the image of girls and boys riding carelessly around in cars, then flips into a song about the possibilities of rape and murder in these kinds of situations; the band expertly takes the sinewy, teasing guitar lick that gives the song its noir undercurrent and boosts it for the sucker punch chorus.
The album concludes with the majestically black "Dvrk Wvrld," which touches on several unnerving or unhealthy common occurrences, from drug dependence, lusty medical professionals and the eventual surrender to the necessary malevolence to get by: "It's cruel to be blatant to a life that you've thrown away, but there's no use for patience with a barrel of snakes." From there the song explodes into a chorus that drops guitar bomb after guitar bomb, getting bigger on each detonation, before finally the carnage ceases and through the descending dust we hear a benumbed Dupuis expel her final lines: "I think I took too many / Walking through the doorway, but I'm halfway deep / a heartache that numbs you even when it coats you." And you sit there, shell-shocked and immobilised, joining her in her numbness.
Have I bought this album?: Yes I have it on lovely gold wax.