In high-school, I befriended a French exchange student. My other friends didn’t particularly take to him because he was incredibly naïve and quick to laugh at the most benign occurrences. I forced him on my social circle because, quite frankly, he reminded me of my grandmother. A foreigner in a strange place trying his best to get by with his sensibilities under constant assault. That said, I agreed with my friends. The guy not only laughed about a mate of mine falling on his ass after being hit in the face with a soccer ball, he laughed about it for 15 minutes. He turned it into an awkward and bizarre Buster Keaton routine, recreating the fall with flamboyant exaggeration. And without a hint of malice or ill-spirit. That’s just what he was into. Fast-forward a few months and some of his friends from Paris flew over to visit him. He invited me to hang out with them at their hotel room. Watching him – let’s just call him Pierre – command the attention of his friends, driving them to maniacal laughter with every nasally syllable, outdrinking them and beating them in arm-wrestles: Pierre was the fucking man.
Phoenix are like that. Removed from their warm little nest and they seem naïve, even saccharine, expending equal energy doing their own thing and trying to fit in. They need to be appreciated in the proper context, then it all makes sense. As it happens, the context was consciously obliterated with the release of 2009′s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and the ineffable force-field between Phoenix and the mainstream world was part of the collateral damage. Phoenix were showing everyone that they were the shit, what they and their comfortable niche of fans had known for a while.
And I guess being the shit is a tiring and disheartening occupation, if the despondent self-reflective lyrics of Bankrupt! are any indication of what the last three years have been like for Phoenix. They’re weary from being a pop band that suddenly became popular: “What I once refused to be / Is everything they long together / I’d rather be alone,” sings Mars on lead single Entertainment. Who knew they were that popular?
“Cool / I’m just trying to be cool / It’s all because of you,” Mars ironically serenades show business as it looks down from its second-story bedroom window, giggling coyly. The track, “Trying To Be Cool”, is one of the scattered highlights of the album. The band has never been shy of synths but on Bankrupt! they become a crutch instead of a pleasant sonic element. The familiar textures – sparkling, soaring, gauzy, heavy, fuzzy – are overwrought and insulate the band from the cock-eyed shimmer they once displayed.
With Phoenix, every track is always a little too polished, the band is a little too slick. Mars’ heartbreak always seems like it played out exactly the way he wanted it to. His neurosis and awkwardness, a performance he deftly executes like a juggling trick. The guy has the blueprint to himself and that is, besides being a troubling prospect, the downfall of Bankrupt! Phoenix have rote knowledge of what they do. It’s ingrained in the very fabric of the band and it tethers their music to the same familiar nucleus. They’re yearning to experiment when they simply meander, they attempt melody when they should go for hooks. Musically they’re doing what M83, The Raveonettes and other bands have already been doing for a decade and those bands do it better than Phoenix.
“Bankrupt!” is analogous to Wolfgang’s “Love Like a Sunset”, “Drakkar Noir” harks back to “Too Young”, “Oblique City”, a little too similar to “1901″. They’re not rehashes, they’re uncanny acts of reflexivity. Phoenix is illustrating what it’s like for Phoenix to be Phoenix and unfortunately, the image depicted is not a work of art.
“It’s very experimental, it’s very minimal music,” said Mars of Bankrupt! I’ve always found both “experimental” and “minimal” to be highly dubious terms in any context. To classify something as being “experimental” is not only vague and pretentious, it’s also hubristic. Much like “progressive,” labelling a work as “experimental” should warrant a lot more than simply slinging shit at the proverbial wall. But to call the French pretentious, vague and hubristic is about as worthwhile as saying there are too many reality shows on television: everybody already knows and they don’t like it anymore than you do, so hey, what are you gonna do? “There’s something a little frustrating when you do pop music,” Mars continued. A little frustrating? You should try listening to it some time, it’ll make your baguette limp.
(V2 / Glassnote)
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.