2019 In Alternative

Tue Dec 24 2019

I’m back to serious use of this as a genre. Its definition is purposefully nebulous, perhaps a bit of a cop-out/catch-all, but I think that having come of age during its rise, I’m ready to take ownership of a synthesis of its old connotations and a newer translation. Maybe you can piece together what the term means via the following paragraphs. Go to hell, I don’t have to explain myself.

The once and future king of alternative: Nick Cave. I’m as enamored of his ongoing Red Hand Files as I am of his music; his latest album, Ghosteen, is a tough one to digest, especially if you’re dealing with loss of a loved one, and maybe it can eventually transition into a therapeutic record but I’m not sure. It’s not as painful as, say, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me; I can still go on with my day after listening to Ghosteen. I’ve found that I draw more joy out of it as I hear it more, but that could be simply the passage of time. That being said, it’s another licorice pizza I bought more simply to support the artist than because I’m anxious to have cause to spin it. I’m not trying to relate to it more, but that’s inevitable as you get older, you just keep losing people. Whether or not I ever need to turn to it for understanding, it’s a haunting piece of work, and beautiful, but I’ll be damned if it’s hauntingly beautiful.

Even Cave must bow to the queen Kim Gordon, however. If there was a way to make me completely get over the demise of Sonic Youth, No Home Record was it. I was transfixed on first spin, which often means I’ll burn out quickly, but I could tell that wasn’t going to happen this time. It took me back to the mid-aughts when Liars started sucking me back into the idea of post-punk after years of basically ignoring it, that pulsing, droning, irreverent sound. While her other post-SY music has veered into experimental (bordering on impenetrable) territory, this solo debut is immediately accessible if you have any background whatsoever in alternative music, and effortlessly so. I have not remotely gotten enough of any of the songs on this album yet.

Also approaching elder-statespersons status: Sleater-Kinney. I’ll say flat-out that The Center Won’t Hold is my second-favorite album of theirs, trailing only The Woods. All the drama surrounding its release was a meaningless attempt to steer some stupid narrative that I don’t think any of the band members nor Annie Clark (who produced the album) nor any of their fans bought into. The record is no radical pivot into synthpop; in its time, The Woods was a more dramatic departure for the band than this, but can we still somehow figure out a way to blame Jack Antonoff? Center may well be Sleater-Kinney’s weirdest work yet combined with a few of their almost disturbingly sugariest nuggets, but to me that just cements them as a vibrant force. This is the true comeback record after the tentative reunion-rock of 2015’s No Cities To Love. It’s a bummer that Janet Weiss’s swan song with this band featured so little of her input; deep down I am on Team Janet forever, and I think she’s got way better stuff to offer the music world than Sleater-Kinney could even withstand. However, I have to say, even without Weiss going forward, I’m excited for the future of the band, and I wasn’t before.

Deerhunter is one of my favorite bands ever. I hadn’t been able to get into their records for a stretch there, though, prior to Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? I’ve been close enough to Bradford enough times, not to sound creepy, just in the audience at shows people, but he’d have to be a powerful evil wizard and I a simpleton if it turned out that his artistry were somehow bogus. So he can put out whatever middling Bradford trifles he wants or I can fail to connect based on my own shit and I expect to be a devoted fan until one of us is dead, that’s all. Anyway my first impression of the new album was that there was a renewed attention to detail, about the atmosphere as well as the notes, and that was what I’d been missing. But then I heard that he’d done a record with Cate Le Bon, one of the zillion names that drift into my awareness for a second, you should check her out you said, and something else happens on the telephone. I had to explore and not much of what I heard grabbed me. Then I listened to Myths 004 a few weeks after it came out, this is my life now, sometimes letting weeks go by before I can surrender proper undivided attention unto an album by an artist I love! No regrets, though; I like this even better than WHEAD? even though it’s deliberately less grand and more frivolous, and although I haven’t warmed to Le Bon’s solo album, this keeps growing on me.

Julian Lynch’s *Rat’s Spit* benefitted from being released early in the year; I had months to digest it, let it drift out of my rotation, then welcome it back around for list season with open arms. It’s a fuzzy, hazy, uplifting drone, reminding me in attitude and adventurousness of artists like Beck and Sufjan Stevens before they started taking themselves too seriously. Sonically, it’s more of a post-chillwave experiment where shoegaze and synthpop merge with the Chicago avant/ambient movement, albeit with a greater focus on words. We could all use some more wistfulness chocolate in our noise peanut butter, don’t you agree?

Phew, there are a lot of releases I could talk about in this category and I haven’t even touched on Sacred Bones yet. I’m going with Lust For Youth’s self-titled as the label’s best release of the year. I do still love Pharmakon and I spent plenty of time with the latest Blanck Mass and, well, enough time with Föllakzoid’s new one, and I’ll admit I’m still digesting the Jenny Hval, I prefer it to The Long Sleep but it doesn’t compare to Blood Bitch so far. Lust For Youth, though, is so underrated; this is the type of album that I think Pitchfork would’ve championed prior to its abandonment of independent music, a record that’s infectious due to its pulse and kinetic energy rather than its hooks. I kept listening to it trying to define it until at some point I lost the desire to do so. Dance music can be alternative, right?

Finally, I’ll tell my story of Amanda Palmer’s new album, There Will Be No Intermission. Palmer’s music has affected me so profoundly over the years in so many different ways, I can’t figure out why I haven’t developed a full-blown obsession. The Dresden Dolls’ Yes, Virginia… was a fucking brilliant album. The only time I got to see them live (Bonnaroo ’06) they bowled me right the fuck over. When I saw Palmer with her Grand Theft Orchestra in 2012 I was reduced to tears. Since then, I…have no idea what she’s even done. It’s almost like my psyche knows I can only handle Amanda every once in a while. I don’t consciously believe this, but at the same time, I had to steel myself up for my first spin of Intermission without really knowing why, and I was very correct in doing so. The first song, well the first real song, “The Ride”, is a piece of such stunning genius I was immediately like ‘why the hell is nobody raving about this??’ Then she tears her guts out for over an hour after that, until arriving at the climax of the last song, “Death Thing”, and I burst into uncontrollable sobs at that point. I could not bring myself to listen to the album again for months. This was different from those aforementioned Mount Eerie and Nick Cave albums, though. I wanted to dig back in. I knew this was healing music, on some level. Of course there are certain themes, parenting stuff for instance, that weren’t gonna hit me as hard as they would actual parents, but mostly this album deals with broadly relatable pain. Maybe it was the relative lack of artifice, maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t about a single insurmountable loss for an entire album, I don’t know. I did eventually return to it, though, and all I can say is that Palmer is basically up there with Ani DiFranco, master wordsmiths making unassailable art that evidently still gets subtly ignored by mainstream media as fringey feminist fare, or something. Maybe it just doesn’t reach enough humans. Maybe too many people have replaced their humanity with ideologies. Maybe…Palmer has made some well-publicized mistakes that have cost her support?

In a way, these modern times are a golden age for music geeks. Exhaustive research, once a virtually valueless hobby, is now a requirement for writing about or speaking praise for any sort of art. From the other side of the equation, artists can’t get away with anything. Maybe in the ‘90s you could’ve pulled off a tour paying people in beer and hugs and it wouldn’t suddenly turn your allies against you. Maybe you could even have paid a writer to follow you on tour and “journalize” about it. Not these days. As a quasi-journalist myself, I should probably hate Palmer. Can you imagine a writer ever feeling entitled to be paid attention to? Even if these gross wokeness faux pas seem laughable, even a little deplorable, I still love Amanda Palmer. It’s not as if narcissism and the best of intentions for the world can’t coexist. I consider the reality of Palmer’s energy to be there in her music, and in her performances, which have never failed to move me. As distant from reality as she may sometimes be, the empathy is real. I also don’t see the whole shaming culture working. Not in politics, not in music. We gotta cling to our allies. In the war of idealism, we claim that our enemies can’t break us; they claim the same. The key is not to let our allies break us.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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