Category Archives: FEATURES

Plastic Ants: No Alternative

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Plastic Ants make prog pop for this modern world

Plastic Ants’ songwriter Robert Cherry spent 10 years editing Alternative Press. Now, he’s joined the ranks of Patti Smith and Neil Tennant, musicians who wrote about music and are in their own bands.

“I was writing songs in my early teens and playing in bands shortly after, so music came first,” says Cherry. “I stumbled into an editing career at Alternative Press in the ’90s. It was fun and provided a great musical education that fed my songwriting and tuned my ear.”

Cherry started Plastic Ants in Cincinnati with the help of Afghan Whigs bassist/producer John Curley, Wussy drummer/singer Joe Klug and classically trained keyboardist/singer Guy Vanasse. The band’s sweeping, cinematic songs hark back to the progressive pop of the ’70s, but the quartet puts a modern spin on the classic sounds that inspired them.

“Rob and I talked about forming a band like the Zombies,” says Curley. “Not to sound like them but to have the same instrumentation—guitar, keys, drums and bass—and use vocals in a prominent way. Guy and Joe are great at writing and singing harmonies, but after that initial concept, the music evolved organically. The ’70s were a great decade for music. It’s no surprise people are looking back for inspiration.”

New album Imperial Phase was recorded in Curley’s home studio, giving the band an opportunity to create expansive, multifaceted soundscapes.

“We took time trying different things with arrangements,” says Curley. “We’re always looking for something new to run through the Leslie cabinet. The real evolution happens during the overdubs. People start adding ideas, trying different instruments, adding vocal layers. ‘A Sea Of Upturned Faces’ is a good example of that. The middle section with the synth and guitar solos came together during an overdub session. It was very quick and spontaneous, with everyone contributing ideas.”

—j. poet

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Stirrup: Riding High

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Chicago’s Stirrup continues to stir up post-modern jazz

In gynecological and equestrian pursuits, stirrups keep a body in place. But Chicago-based trio Stirrup likes things unfixed. Is it a singer’s backup band or a self-contained instrumental ensemble? A jazz group or a rock combo? Purveyor of lyric melody or ear-scouring noise?

Yes.

Cello and tenor guitar player Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nick Macri and drummer Charles Rumback are all longtime participants in Chicago’s jazz scene with a collective CV that includes work with Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann and Tony Malaby. But they all work with vocalists, too, and the trio first convened to accompany singer/guitarists Janet Beveridge Bean and Jim Elkington in a band called the Horse’s Ha. Recalls Lonberg-Holm, “A critic described us as a ‘post-modern jazz trio.’ We thought we’d see what we were like as a trio, and we liked it enough to keep playing. It’s one time a critic helped.”

Stirrup played its first singer-less gig in 2009, and while it still accompanies vocalists upon request, the trio has become a continuously working ensemble with three albums to its credit. The tunes that each man brings to the band are a diverse lot. They’re united by a reliance on steady pulse and bold, memorable melodies, but Lonberg-Holm is also prone to blowing them apart with electronically fried outbursts of scabrous noise. In concert, the band further shakes things up by inviting outside musicians to sit in.

“We don’t have a default mode of playing in Stirrup,” says Rumback. “I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we all come from different backgrounds as players or because we hear things very differently. Sometimes I feel like this makes me have to dig deep as a player, because we don’t have a ‘comfort zone’ of falling into a ‘rock thing’ or a ‘jazz groove.’”

—Bill Meyer

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Jess Williamson: The Big Empty

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Austin’s Jess Williamson continues her glorious journey into the void

Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say—or play—that matters. In the case of Jess Williamson, it’s the vacancies that lend tension and texture to her lonesome, weather-beaten take on confessional songwriting.

“I’m always thinking about how space can be another voice or another instrument,” she says. “You want to listen closer to a whisper than a shout.”

Unflinching self-examination informs Williamson’s new release, Heart Song (Brutal Honest/Kartel). Yet there’s something universal—and not especially precious or even personal—about a pivotal line like, “Is freedom really nothing left to lose?/Is freedom something that I have?/Something that I have, with you?”

Central to the groggy allure of Heart Song’s seven songs are the twists and turns mapped out by Williamson’s malleable vocals and the atmospheric six-string meanderings of RF Shannon’s Shane Renfro. “I’d been playing with this band for almost a year before the album was recorded,” says Williamson. “This was the first time I could write a song on my own and bring it to them, and we could flesh it out together.”

About two years ago, Williamson returned to her native Texas after an acknowledged “freakout” in New York City, where she’d been working toward a master’s degree in photography at Parsons School Of Design. “I remember the exact moment of realizing, ‘What am I doing here?’” she says.

A romantic breakup was involved, so it’s no surprise that a sense of dislocation and loss pervades her 2014 debut, Native State. So frayed does Williamson sound that you’d never know how excited she really was be to back in Austin—or that she’s basically a fun person. In fact, one of the most disarming things about talking to Williamson is how upbeat and optimistic she is about almost everything—even her own failings.

“Nobody’s perfect—I’m not perfect—but I’m generally a pretty happy, stoked person,” she says. “I just haven’t found inspiration from that place yet.”

—Hobart Rowland

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CRX: Go With The Flow

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Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi emerges with new band CRX

Three years ago, Nick Valensi was facing an existential crisis. The guitarist’s band the Strokes had just released its fifth album, Comedown Machine, but no tour was planned. And with every other member of the group but him having flown solo after its landmark 2001 debut Is This It, he desperately wanted to return to performing. But whose songs would he play? And who could possibly sing them? Finally, he launched his own side project, the Cars-and-Cheap-Trick-inspired CRX, with a new Josh Homme-produced punk/pop debut disc, New Skin, which the band will back by tooling through nightclubs in a cramped van and bunking in dinky motels.

“I don’t view it as not having gone anywhere—I look at like I’ve come full circle,” he says.

Valensi wasn’t twiddling his thumbs. He’d stayed busy collaborating with artists like Sia, Devendra Banhart and B-52s anchor Kate Pierson, and he’d overseen the launch of his signature guitar line with Epiphone. But he, his significant other Amanda de Cadenet and their twin children had also relocated to L.A. from the Strokes’ home turf of New York City, where he was reveling in quiet home life.

“I’ve always appreciated my down time—I just love being a dad,” says the 35-year-old. “But my kids are a little older now, and it got to a point where I was really hungry to get back onstage and tour. So I didn’t really have any desire to do my own project. Until I did.”

Valensi had only sung harmony vocals behind Strokes bandleader Julian Casablancas and learned singing lead wasn’t easy. Thus began a full year of woodshedding, wherein he laptop-tracked his vocals every day, often experimenting in difficult keys, until he was comfortable with the playback. The next hurdle: lyrics. He’d only contributed occasional Strokes verses. So what did he have to say, exactly? Backed by Guards guitarist/keyboardist Richie Follin, Rondelles strummer Darian Zahedi, bassist Jon Safley and drummer Ralph Alexander, he set out to find his voice.

Valensi arrived at a sleek, cynical sneer—and alienated world view—on chugging keyboard-buttressed anthems like “Anything,” “Monkey Machine,” “Ways To Fake It” and the Strokes-ish “Walls,” on which he growls, “We won’t be sure what’s legendary/Until we read the obituary/I don’t even know what to make of it/When everyone is faking it.”

“It wasn’t until I was done recording New Skin that I stepped back and went, ‘Whoa—I sing about authenticity, and questioning it, a lot,’” he says. “I’m expressing frustration at the amount of phoniness in the world, which starts with reality TV and continues into social media.”

Homme was the final piece of the CRX puzzle. “Right when he came on board, his first thing was, ‘Look, we are not gonna make this sound like Queens Of The Stone Age,’” says Valensi. “And part of me was sad, like, ‘Why wouldn’t we wanna do that?’ But Josh wanted to make my songs as great as possible, and he wanted to challenge himself and capture sounds that he hadn’t before. So we just kept chipping away at the old stone.”

—Tom Lanham

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Deep Sea Diver: Group Project

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Deep Sea Diver’s Jessica Dobson pursues the benefits of team ball

“I’m going to ask him to stop playing drums while we talk, because if he keeps doing that, it’s going to drive me nuts.”

Jessica Dobson lives with—and is married to—the drummer of her band Deep Sea Diver, Peter Mansen. Mansen is doing what drummers do: practicing his craft in another part of the home they share in Seattle. The background noise this activity creates has become a bit unnerving for Dobson as we discuss the finer points of her group’s sophomore LP, Secrets (self-released via High Beam), perhaps one of the finest albums of 2016.

Dobson’s musical bona fides are undeniable. Signed to a contract with Atlantic Records at age 19 (she recorded two albums for the label that were ultimately shelved), the gifted multi-instrumentalist went on to perform as a touring and recording member of the Shins, Spoon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Beck and Conor Oberst, lending her colorful guitar flourishes and knack for offbeat melodies to each act while simultaneously continuing to write and record as Deep Sea Diver.

Having released the well-regarded History Speaks LP in 2012 and the even-better Always Waiting EP in 2014, Dobson finally bid her time with the Shins adieu—with James Mercer’s blessing—to blaze her own musical trail, but not as a solo artist. Instead, within a band construct.

The results on Deep Sea Diver’s latest release have proven worth the wait. With Dobson’s focus now solely applied to her own music, the quartet has taken a considerable leap forward, recording Secrets with Radiohead engineer Darrell Thorp as a mostly live-in-the-studio affair, allowing the band’s interplay to fully take flight on tracks such as the squalling, propulsive “Wide Awake,” bouncing pop confection “Creatures Of Comfort” (the upbeat melody of which belies the pain implied by a repeated assertion that “it’s tearing us apart”) and the album’s finest moment, “Body On The Tracks,” a soaring guitar-and-mellotron fest that could easily pass for one of Billy Corgan’s studio-built guitar orchestras if I hadn’t witnessed Dobson playing it note-perfectly during her band’s spotless set at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival earlier this year.

“I tend to take the ‘mad-scientist’ approach to playing live,” says Dobson. “On certain songs (such as “Wide Awake”), I get to have a blank slate to do whatever I want. The way we recorded Secrets was to do the basic tracks live in the studio, to be all in a room together and capture a completely different spirit than the first album, which was multitracked and recorded separately. I’m proud of that record, and it actually has a really analog vibe, but we had yet to capture what our live performances were like. The songs on Secrets are more unhinged, have a more urgent feel to them than what we did before.”

Dobson’s considerable individual gifts notwithstanding, it’s her willingness to be a teammate that seems to hold the key to her musical future.

“I used to feel guilty about bringing songs to the band. I would wonder if I’d be able to ‘Jeff Tweedy’ the song, meaning, if it was just me on guitar or piano, would that song translate?” she says. “I’ve grown away from that recently. I still aim for simple, straightforward communication, but if it takes people to fill voices or harmonic parts to capture the spirit of the song, I’m a lot more OK with that now. I can’t get the value of Secrets across just by myself.”

—Corey duBrowa

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Kristin Hersh: Metaphysical Graffiti

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Five years in the making, Kristin Hersh releases a double album that stands alongside her best

“People think that I make a bunch of shit up, but I only write non-fiction. The books, the songs. My drummer in 50FOOTWAVE, Rob, asked me one time, ‘Do people know that your songs are all literally true? ’Cuz if they did, they might lose a lot of respect for you.’”

With a wheezy laugh, Kristin Hersh—yes, that Kristin Hersh, she of Throwing Muses, her rowdier 50FOOTWAVE project, the immortal solo collaboration with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (“Your Ghost”) and published author of Rat Girl and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die (two of the finest memoirs about the indie-rock era)—alerts me to a seemingly funny aspect of her art that’s actually dead serious.

Hersh is a diarist capable of evoking towering emotional vistas and yet seemingly incapable of telling a lie, or even a tale. She’s a storyteller in the Truman Capote or Susan Orlean mode—a realist more in touch with the ebbing and flowing of human foibles and frailty than a novelist or fantasist. This makes Hersh’s work both harrowing and healing in equal measure—a razor’s edge ride through the realities she’s survived but with a comfort-food aspect to its truths. She’s lived through this; you can, too.

On Hersh’s ninth solo record in what can only be described as an incredibly prolific career—Wyatt At The Coyote Palace (Omnibus Press), a double-album of dizzying depth, breadth, beauty and darkness—this truth-teller’s aspect of her work is thrust forcefully into the spotlight. Its songs can easily be taken as a conceptual allegory—a twisting tale of isolation and damage, love and loss, the joy of discovery and the erosion of the thin tethers of humanity that keep us connected to one another and those we love—but it’s also a very real portrait of her son Wyatt and his passing fascination with an abandoned building and the coyotes who took up residence there. Wyatt is on the autism spectrum—a difficult subject that Hersh is nonetheless remarkably open in discussing—and his obsessions and attachment to what Hersh says he calls the “beautiful, elegant math” of both music and life are the elements that make the story heartbreaking and inspiring.

“He’s like a story that’s unfolding,” says Hersh. “He tends to look at life through a lens rather than living it. He says he keeps finding the math. I trust the story that he is, and so when I discovered the ‘coyote palace,’ I thought it was just because he was bored. When I bring all four of my kids into the studio, they just want to die, you know? It’s me playing the same guitar part over and over again, and usually they just go to sleep. So I think he discovered the coyote palace out of sheer boredom, and then I noticed the flashing in his eyes, that he was on fire with it. All I did was follow him around the palace, the coyotes who lived in it. And showed it to him. Of course, being the good mother I am, the ceiling fell in at some point, and the trauma of that event triggered the end of his love affair with the coyote palace. At least we weren’t in it at the time.”

The album and corresponding book document her son’s temporary life-focus on the abandoned building and its canine inhabitants in a way that’s both uniquely Hersh-ian and yet all-time beautiful. The packaging binds the two inextricably to one another—a detail Hersh finds amusing, because while CDs tend not to be that valuable to anyone anymore, “A book is still considered a nice gift, so I like the idea of all of it together as, ‘Hey, here’s a present.’”

The record’s mostly acoustic guitars veer back and forth between Nick Drake intricacy and punk-rock jaggedness, its 24 songs caught between descriptions of tough love and gritty city streetscapes and the occasional bright glimpses of tomorrow that poke through the darkness, with the book’s zigzagging narrative nicely accounting for the spaces in between.

It’s been a long, hard road that Hersh has travelled to get to this place, but she seems to have found peace with it all, just the same.

“I have a huge heart, and my heart is just so broken right now,” she says. “I’m never really going to live on this earth, but I can live in my music. I can make it all right. There’s no sad in me with music. There’s nothing but—it’s an overused word, but it’s true—beautiful. ‘Water in the desert’ beautiful. Necessary.”

—Corey duBrowa

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Mike Mills: Not Going Back To Rockville

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R.E.M.’s Mike Mills returns with a foray into classical music

Robert McDuffie is a star. The violinist has been the featured soloist with major symphonies around the world. He plays a $3.5 million violin made in 1735. He has enough clout to commission work from Philip Glass. As a kid in Macon, Ga., he sang in church choirs with his high-school pal Mike Mills, who went on to a different kind of stardom as bassist/pianist/vocalist/songwriter for R.E.M.

The two kept in touch, and not long ago, when McDuffie was looking to commission new music, he floated the idea that Mills write a classical piece. Mills’ first reaction?

“‘This guy’s crazy,’” says Mills from his home in Athens, Ga. “Actually, I found it very intriguing. I knew right away it would be a pretty big challenge, but I thought it was something worth considering.” The result: Mills’ Concerto For Violin, Rock Band And String Orchestra. Mills’ father was a dramatic tenor who sang opera, and the family listened to classical music at home. Mills had a bit role as a street urchin in a performance of Aida when he was nine. His adult relationship with classical music has been less immersive, although he has followed McDuffie’s career and goes to the Atlanta Symphony occasionally.

Mills approached the project as a rock songwriter rather than as a classical composer. “I tried to view it as writing five or six songs, like I would have done for R.E.M., except I had to come up with the main melodies, which would normally have been Michael (Stipe)’s purview,” he says. “To me, melody is always the most important part of a song, and I knew since there would be no lyrics involved here that melody was going to be absolutely essential. So I just worked really hard to come up with the best melodies I could.”

The concerto is full of dramatic moments. It begins with a bass melody, played by Mills, that McDuffie quickly picks up and turns into a wild violin solo. The prominence of the drums, played by Patrick Ferguson, provide a rock ’n’ roll bedrock, as do electric guitars (from John Neff and William Tonks), but McDuffie’s lightning violin lines and the grandeur of the string orchestra (played by students from the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University) identify more as classical.

Writing for a lead violin was another challenge. Mills composed the melodies on a variety of instruments, but he had to imagine how they would translate to the instrument. Arranger David Mallamud was crucial in this role. “There were a lot places a violin could go that I was not familiar,” says Mills. “A lot of bowing techniques that can make a difference, a lot of glissandi and other things.”

R.E.M. fans will immediately recognize one segment, when Mills starts playing the familiar circular piano figure of “Nightswimming.” It also incorporates the oboe part that Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones arranged for the original R.E.M. recording. McDuffie and Mills had performed “Nightswimming” a few times before as a standalone, and McDuffie suggested using it in the concerto. It’s one of the more somber moments in a piece that’s lively, wild and fun.

While some rock songwriters seem to turn to penning a classical opus as a bid for highbrow cred (here’s looking at you, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney), Mills isn’t too worried about pretentions. “Of course, that is something to be aware of,” he says. “Two things I’ll say about that. One, I’m not completely unfamiliar with classical music. I certainly grew up with it; it’s been around me all my life. Another thing, when you listen to the concerto, it’s fun. There’s nothing stodgy about it; it’s playful. To me, it’s to be enjoyed rather than respected.”

Mills and McDuffie were interested in bridging the distance between their respective worlds of rock and classical music, and Mills dismisses the notion of lines between lowbrow and highbrow in music in general. After all, the Minus 5, the Scott McCaughey-led band that includes Mills and former R.E.M. bandmate Peter Buck, recently released an album that commemorates the Monkees, who were sometimes unjustly derided as the Prefab Four.

“Let me hasten to say, one of the highlights of my musical career was playing guitar with Micky Dolenz on ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ and ‘I’m A Believer’ at a live show earlier this year,” says Mills. “Again, what we’re trying to go for here is just to break down those walls. To say that there are elements of any fields that we can enjoy no matter what your musical origin or musical taste is, especially if you don’t approach it from a snobby point of view. I think a lot of people write classical music thinking they only want to appeal to classical music fans. But this was done with the goal of appealing to as many types of music fans as possible.”

—Steve Klinge

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Sleigh Bells: Down The Rabbit Hole

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Sleigh Bells’ fourth LP was guided by Infinite Jest and Yeezus

If you see a terrible review of Sleigh Bells’ fourth album, Jessica Rabbit, check the byline carefully. Derek Miller, the sonic architect of the band he shares with vocalist Alexis Krauss, is threatening to review his own LP.

“I could eviscerate each of our records and just completely discredit them. I could also make cases for why they’re singular and really inspiring. I should write the worst review of my own record and just publish it,” says Miller, laughing at the thought.

Not that Miller isn’t happy with the album, which is, by far, the duo’s most adventurous, dense and varied. Jessica Rabbit is still explosive, still built on hard riffs and thunderous drum-machine beats, but it pushes farther at the edges, venturing into sweet electro-pop and bruising hardcore while adding dense sonic layers and disorienting tempo shifts. Whereas Treats, the Brooklyn band’s 2010 debut, was hook-heavy and singsong catchy, Jessica Rabbit is complex and challenging.

“Some people are going to fucking love it; some people are going to fucking hate it,” says Miller. “I enjoy both reactions, as long as they’re both considered. As long as the person on the other end is passionate about it, I can handle it.”

Sleigh Bells is all about extremes. Early songs like “Infinity Guitars,” “Tell ’Em,” and “Crown On The Ground” were stark and immediate. Part of the band’s original concept was for Krauss to sing in a detached, unemotional voice that would contrast with the visceral power of the tracks. “We called it, jokingly—I’ll probably regret saying this—the dead-baby-doll voice,” says Miller. That timbre quickly evolved, however, and especially on Jessica Rabbit, Krauss occasionally shifts to abrasive yelling that verges on unhinged.

Miller is in a very different place now than when the duo created Treats. “I probably would get in a fistfight with that dude if I met him today,” he says. “I don’t like where I was when I made that record. I was reeling from a tragedy and I was getting fucked up a lot. With Treats, by and large, there was just a black cloud hanging over me the entire time. Reign Of Terror as well. Had it not been for Alexis, I would probably be in the ground.”

Miller began to get himself together at the end of the Reign Of Terror touring cycle in early 2013, and “was much more present” during the making of and tour for Bitter Rivals.

A scan of song titles on Jessica Rabbit suggests that the black cloud is not forgotten: “Throw Me Down The Stairs,” “Hyper Dark,” “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” and, perhaps most succinctly, “Unlimited Dark Paths.”

“Yeah, there are quite a few ways that you can destroy yourself,” he says. “But I try to counter those things. I try to create a balance so it’s not just a straight downer the entire time because that’s not how I experience life. It’s not all sunshine and flowers. But now it’s OK for me to address those things without feeling awful.”

On Jessica Rabbit, that balance often comes abruptly. “Unlimited Dark Paths” jumps from a minor to a major key at the end, and the video ends with a banner that declares “Keep Faith.” “I hope it leaves you with something soothing and hopefully inspiring after a little bit of punishment,” says Miller.

Tempos shift radically and unexpectedly in the middle of songs; harsh synth lines juxtapose with electric guitars. Kanye West’s 2014 Yeezus album (Miller’s favorite of the decade thus far) and tour prompted Miller to experiment with the arrangements on Jessica Rabbit.

“It was just incredibly inspiring and had a profound effect on me,” he says of seeing West’s Yeezus performance. “More than anything, it made me believe in myself. I left really believing in any and every idea that I had, and I was willing to execute the wildest shit that I could think of. A track like ‘Rule Number One’ arrangement-wise would have been really different had I not heard Yeezus. Some of the arrangements on this record are a little more challenging and frustrating. I enjoy that.”

David Foster Wallace also inspired Miller. “I finished Infinite Jest for the first time in 2012 or 2013,” he says. “Without even getting into the book itself or David Foster Wallace, I couldn’t believe the amount of work it would take to complete something so considered and so focused and so long. It’s 1,076 pages. It made me feel really lazy, and that’s a good thing. I realized I wasn’t working hard enough, so I just really tried to step up my game in every way, shape and form. I just busted my ass on this record. Lyrics were never a thing that I really considered; they were just something that needed to be done because a song needs lyrics. Infinite Jest changed that for me as well. I felt like I was ignoring this whole other facet of a record that you could engage with.”

Miller is proud of Jessica Rabbit, but he’s already rethinking it. For one of the first live performances of “Hyper Dark,” Miller overhauled the song. “I went and started fucking with it,” he says. “I bounced a bunch of new stems, made a new intro to it, cleaned up some of the verse parts, wrote new guitar parts, etc. I’ve never done that before, and I really enjoyed it.”

Not that he’s going to act like Kanye West with the ever-evolving versions of The Life Of Pablo and revamp Jessica Rabbit. But he could still write that scathing review.

“I wanted to make the best thing that I had ever made, and that was it. I don’t feel that I have; I do feel like I failed a little bit. There are about five or six tracks that I still love deeply, but I already have issues with about two-thirds of it. This is not what I should be saying to our fans right now. I should be saying it’s the greatest thing in the world! I tried; I did my best.”

—Steve Klinge

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This Wild Life: Into The Great Wide Open

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This Wild Life makes love songs for the disconsolate

This Wild Life—the duo of Kevin Jordan and Anthony Del Grosso—didn’t plan to be acoustic rockers. “We started off as a four-piece band with me on electric guitar and Anthony on drums,” says Jordan. “It slowly evolved, or devolved, into the two of us playing guitars and singing harmonies. It started when I did an acoustic version of ‘Ripped Away,’ one of our full-band songs, at a show. People liked the timbre of my voice, when I wasn’t shouting to be heard over the sound of the band.

“We wrote songs on acoustic but never played them outside of our bedrooms. When we decided to be an acoustic duo, we had to learn how to play standing up with a guitar strap. It was a slow transition.”

This Wild Life shows became known for the emotional intensity Jordan and Del Grosso create with two guitars and two voices. On record, they flesh out the arrangements with drums, bass and string, arrangements created with their producer, Copeland’s Aaron Marsh. On Low Tides, their current outing, they move from simple folk strumming to cinematic pop. “We wanted a stripped-down sound, but Aaron told us the songs might be more captivating if we layered them up a bit,” he says. “We decided to see where the big, open arrangements took us.”

The album’s intimate songs are delivered with an expansive assortment of acoustic and electric sounds that intensify Jordan’s candid lyrics and the duo’s burnished harmonies. “The feelings we put in the songs are difficult to get off your chest,” he says. “You have to deal with the repercussions you get when writing about people in your life and worrying how they’ll react to it. So far, people appreciate the sincerity and openness of what we sing about, even when it’s brutally honest.”

—j. poet

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LVL UP: Slanted And Enchanting

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With album number three, LVL UP continues to give you indie rock

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in August, and Dave Benton is at his Bed Stuy apartment with fellow singer/guitarist Mike Caridi. Their band LVL UP only has a few more pre-production checklist items—video shoot, festival appearance—before kicking into full-on promo mode for Return To Love, their terrific third LP and first for Sub Pop.

It’s relatively close to where the band got its start—just an hour’s drive from SUNY Purchase—but in a similar sense, it’s a world away. More music fans, more places to gig, more industry. And the album’s growth moves in tandem: Return To Love is a confident, driving set of power pop in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel’s blown-out acoustic fuzz and Nada Surf’s riff-driven harmonies. By comparison, 2014’s Hoodwink’d—released on the band’s label, Double Double Whammy—was more of a pop-punk/indie-rock affair akin to early Pavement, while 2011’s Space Brothers was essentially a compilation of lo-fi, GBV-esque jams recorded in fits and starts at school.

“I think Purchase allowed us to build some sort of confidence in our set,” says Caridi, who has spoken of the school’s DIY scene as an incubator in the past. “There was a really positive and supportive community there, which made it easier to start going out and playing in NYC on weekends.”

The album was recorded with longtime friend and collaborator Mike Ditrio over 20 days at Park Slope’s Seaside Lounge. Even though it was their first time in a proper studio, the only pressure came from LVL UP—not its new label.

“When we talked with everyone at Sub Pop, we told them we’ve always been very hands on,” says Caridi. “We’ve done the recording ourselves, working with our friends, releasing on our own label. They really respected that, and let us have that same control while helping bring it to a larger audience.”

It’s an outlook they try to bring to Double Double Whammy, which currently boasts a strong roster of indie-rock buzzmakers like Frankie Cosmos and Free Cake For Every Creature.

“We handle the bands the way we want a label to handle us,” says Caridi. “Or at least we try the best we can with the resources we have.”

“I think being in a band has helped keep the label grounded, never dark sided,” says Benton. “I think a lot of those big indie labels, they seem like big companies and they do make a lot of money, but at the end of the day they’re started by people like us.”

—John Vettese

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