Charly Bliss, The Black Angels, Incubus, and more in this week’s music reviews
Charly Bliss’ debut is ebullient, addictive, and an instant classic
There’s a reason we form our closest affinities with rock and pop music during our youth. There’s something ineffably adolescent about our connections to our favorite musical artists. We may grow out of certain bands, genres, and even styles of art altogether, but the music we bond with at a young age rarely becomes a burden. If anything, study after study has shown the songs and records that we identify with as kids largely define our tastes forever. Which is also why a lot of the best rock music captures the indefinable quality of youth—it speaks to a part of us that is caught in the perpetual trap of angst and ennui, the emotions that music, at its best, both identifies and pushes us out of with an artistic zeal that lets us feel freer, however briefly. And by any of these metrics, Guppy, the debut album by Charly Bliss, is a nearly flawless exemplar of its kind, a record that captures a certain sound, mood, and energy with the passion and exuberance of a teen as-yet-uncrushed by life.
Put succinctly, Charly Bliss makes guitar pop-rock of the fuzzed-out kind embodied by ’90s acts like the Breeders, Weezer, and others of their ilk. But rather than sounding like some Johnny-come-lately imitation, the band does its musical forbears one better: It has crafted a record so engaging and resonant, it feels more like a contemporary bedfellow of those acts than a latter-day application of the same tactics. It’s a joyous outburst of brash and irascible energy, rising up with a wellspring of enthusiasm and a howl of 4/4 intensity that never forgets to be hooky or hummable. Whatever fizzy elixir of chemistry the band distilled in order to produce these 10 tracks of jangling chords and harmonies, it’s a combination that succeeds where so many others fail. It’s simple without being base, and familiar without once becoming derivative. Drummer Sam Hendricks meshes seamlessly with Dan Shure’s pulsing bass lines, a rhythm section that grounds all those shimmering guitar riffs with the propulsive backbeats of arena-ready acts 10 times their seniors. And guitarist Spencer Fox has long had a knack for the unassuming guitar lines that complement, rather than take over or attempt to outdo, the music. Even when guitar solos threaten to take center stage, he wisely keeps the focus on the melody, sacrificing flash for songcraft.
But the lodestone in Charly Bliss’ scruffy pop edifice is singer Eva Hendricks. An infectiously effervescent frontperson with the energy of a punk-rock cheerleader and the biting lyricism to match, her vocals have the rough sandpaper edge of a Kim Deal fused to the freight-train shout-alongs of a Kathleen Hanna, bringing the best of both elements to the forefront. When things threaten to turn saccharine, she belts out appealing screams with the best of them, adding the necessary roughness to sweet musical hooks and savvy softer squeals to the harder melodies. But it’s her words that create the atmosphere of forever-young passion and searching that permeate Guppy, making both rueful confessions and declarations of emotional war sound as relatable as breathing. When she describes the bad decisions that come from late nights with someone you shouldn’t have stuck around with, it’s both universal and perfectly individuated. “Don’t you know I aim to please? I’m everybody’s favorite tease, put your hand on my knee, that’s what friends are for,” she sings on album opener “Percolator,” capturing the too-intimate-by-half mood of every impulsive hookup in history, as well as her own badass declaration of purpose. “My conscience is fucked, and my judgment is leaking”: This is the sound of American youth, forever one step forward, three steps back, and another one sideways and tripping head-first into an amp for good measure.
From there, it only gets better. “Glitter” nails the suspicion that comes with being someone’s ostensible object of lust, only to realize it might be more fleeting than that (“Am I the best / Or just the first person to say yes?”), while “DQ” evokes the sense of fatalistic frustration we all confront at times, the fear that nothing good will ever come of our hopes and plans. Even album closer “Julia,” the only song to slow things down and take a breather, eventually builds to a screaming coda of distortion and feedback, the only appropriate end to a record that so vitally documents the churning miasma of emotional wanderlust that characterizes the best rock albums. And maybe that’s what is so essential about Guppy: It’s the sound of rock music doing the timeless job it only achieves from its best practitioners. It’s wholly adrift and disposable by any metric of serious analysis, but those very qualities are why it is absolutely necessary. It speaks to the uncertain core of each of us, doling out the screams and hollers of inner upheaval the rest of us lack the artistry to express in such passionate and expressive ways. Charly Bliss has made a record as alive and irrepressible as anything I’ve heard in years. Goddamn, but this is a record for the ages—I can only imagine where they go from here.
Wolfgang Voigt makes a forceful return to serenely ambient techno with his first Gas album in 17 years
Across four albums as Gas, Wolfgang Voigt established a version of ambient techno that was so subtle and deeply felt, it was nearly subliminal. Those late-1990s and early 2000s releases—which were reissued last year in a lovingly packaged box set—were distinguished, if not from each other, by their patience, with the German producer sampling classical composers like Wagner and Schoenberg, then rendering them as watercolor blurs, slowly building and decaying, breathing in and out. Whenever beats showed up, usually a simple 4/4 techno rhythm, they were all thunderous, yet muffled bass notes, a rave as heard from inside the womb—or as though from within some far-off woods, in keeping with Voigt’s stated goal to bring the disco to the German forests where he once wandered as a young man, high on LSD. Voigt’s music can be hypnotic, transporting, and soothing, or it can sound like an orchestra tuning up over a throbbing headache, depending on your own tolerance for such things. But for those who appreciate the palliative pleasures of those kinds of immersive ambient textures, Voigt’s first Gas album in 17 years marks a very welcome return.
Having spent that intervening time putting out releases under various aliases, as well as running the indispensable Kompakt label, Voigt certainly hasn’t lost touch with electronic music, though Narkopop reclaims the sound of it that is most unmistakably his, while also giving it more variance in tone. It picks up right where 2000’s Pop left off, almost literally: “Narkopop 1” fades in with a familiar drone that resumes the lingering fade-out of “Pop 7,” adding waterfall washes of hiss, sub-bass rumbles, and distant knocks that immediately put you back inside Voigt’s dreamy, drowsy world. From there, Voigt conjures intense moods of hushed awe and ominous portent, vacillating between the anxious thrums and vibrato strings of “Narkopop 2” and the rumbling cloudbursts of “Narkopop 3,” from the deep-space “Narkopop 3” and its repetitive, cogitating two-note figure to the Hans Zimmer-like martial beat and brass of “Narkopop 5,” the most urgent Gas track yet.
The back half of this 75-minute trek brings in cascading harp tones (“Narkopop 6”), triumphant Vangelis-esque blasts (“Narkopop 7”), and some jarring discordance (“Narkopop 9”), but as with previous releases, Narkopop reaches its apex with its long and sprawling closing track. At just over 17 minutes, “Narkopop 10” functions as a catharsis for everything that came before, its simple shifting pattern of notes the closest the album has to a discernible melody, its cavernous beat rendered as clearly as the shadows of Voigt’s acid-forest will allow. It’s a sound that, for once, is impossible to ignore. And as it dissipates, it leaves behind the hope that it doesn’t take another decade and a half for Voigt to pick it up again.
On Death Song, The Black Angels offer their most political record yet
The Black Angels don’t need motivation to look on the dark side of life. Austin’s psychedelic garage band of repute has been churning out moody earworms since 2004—and doing it well. But in 2017, world affairs have started to strangely mirror the band’s hazy, macabre soundscapes.
As a result, Death Song, the Angels’ fifth full-length release, feels like a record that’s very much under the influence of today’s precarious times. Recorded in the thick of the most vulgar election season in American history, the Angels funnel all the Trump-era savageness they can stomach into what might be the heaviest record of their career. “Currency,” the record’s lead single, rails against corporate greed. The spacey stoner jam “Comanche Moon” feels just as topical and timely when weighed against the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. “They’ve stolen the land we’ve been roaming,” frontman Alex Maas sings. “I swear it’s the end of the line.”
Those examples alone easily make Death Song the band’s most pointed record to date, but it isn’t just aimlessly lobbing political jabs. There are personal issues at play here as well. On the eerily hypnotic “Half Believing,” Maas opens up about the powerless feeling that can shadow a doomed relationship. “It’s like my spell on you is useless,” he confesses. You’d think The Black Angels would be jaded to such emotional bleakness this far into its career of dark and druggy dirges. But Death Song confirms there’s no end to the kinds of hurt and frustration that can be channeled into its cathartic music.
On album 8, Incubus revives the power chords, but not the personality, of its heyday
Even before the heavy-rotation balladry of “Drive” drove them up the charts and out of the mosh pit, the sensitive California rockers of Incubus didn’t quite fit the nü-metal profile. They were lovers among fighters, wedged uncomfortably onto the undercard of traveling aggro package tours, warming up crowds of sweaty teenagers with soaring self-actualization anthems. Over the two decades that have elapsed since the band’s major-label debut, S.C.I.E.N.C.E., every new album has inched further away from the seething thud of late-’90s mook rock—an evolution that culminated, in 2011, with If Not Now, When?, closer in mid-tempo sound to late R.E.M. than anything you’d ever hear at Ozzfest.
8 walks that sonic progression back a little. From the FM-courting, one-two punch of openers “No Fun” and “Nimble Bastard,” Incubus announces renewed arena aspirations. Big riffs snake their way through various tracks, like the fuzzy dystopian waltz of “Love In A Time Of Surveillance,” which commences with some shredding straight out of a lost Rage Against The Machine rager (or, okay, at least an Audioslave outtake). Returning to crunchy alt-rock isn’t the worst move for Incubus; these guys may be big softies at heart, but they never seem more confident than when setting their breakup blues or carpe-diem affirmations to power chords. But if 8 puts a little muscle back into the band’s sound, it lacks the constellation-sized hooks that made 2001’s Morning View a singles machine that kept on giving.
Too many songs get halfway there, starting promisingly, then petering out quickly. Both “Familiar Faces” and “Glitterbomb” squander guitarist Mike Einziger’s earworm intros, building something bland around the bright, shimmering blast of the former and the isolated desert reverb of the latter. Elsewhere, the hard-charging opening track stops cold for a woozy interlude, killing its own momentum. What’s missed, unusually, are the elements that used to feel like affectations, but might have given these songs a little personality: the spacey sound effects, the stray appearance of a bongo or a didgeridoo, the DJ showboating that once superficially linked Incubus to rap-metal. (Given that Skrillex mixed and co-produced 8, the general lack of electronic flourishes is perhaps especially surprising.)
The band’s greatest strength and liability remains its frontman, ab-flashing surfer loverboy Brandon Boyd. Time has been kind to his powerhouse pipes; the best song on 8, “Undefeated,” builds its reasonably stirring chorus around his passionate yelp, to the point where it scarcely matters what he’s singing about. That’s fortunate, because Boyd hasn’t outgrown his weakness for clichés (“I swing and I miss”), tortured metaphors (“You’re a payphone on a 1-a.m. sidewalk”), and goofy political commentary (“Please, do explain to me brother, why all the spying on each other?”). At minimum, he should be more careful about inadvertently arming his critics: “You’re no fun / You’re a song I never want to hear again” is a pretty ballsy chorus for a song plenty won’t want to hear again.
Robyn Hitchcock finds surreal inspiration in his new Nashville home
The longevity of Robyn Hitchcock’s career defies logic, but of course, that’s just what he’s done from the very beginning. He saved titling any album after himself for this latest, his 21st, displaying astonishing evidence of a creative force that refuses to tamp down. The Brit’s move to Nashville likely helped his current reinvention, as he teams up with like-minded players like Grant Lee Phillips and Gillian Welch, produced by Jack White’s Raconteurs bandmate Brendan Benson. So “I Pray When I’m Drunk” is as twangy as any honky-tonk ode in the country firmament, while Hitchcock’s strong-as-ever British vocals add a welcome element of discord; same goes for the winsome, but just as Nashville-fueled “Sayonara Judge,” which describes this particular move as “Losing my neighborhood / My self-esteem.”
Since he also now has decades to draw from—a perspective he refers to as “Autumn Sunglasses,” with a bit of angsty guitar raging against that good night—he uses his lyrics as a time machine, hopping back to days with his father in “Raymond And The Wires”: “My eyes have seen the trolley bus in 1964.” Or describing his current state in “Time Coast”: “I’m singing like a fossil / Time flies by so fast” (only one of those statements is true). But his four decades as a musician have only deepened, not lessened, Hitchcock’s legendary imagination and witty asides as we all trudge through reality: He sticks up for the titular writer and Sylvia Plath in the jubilant “Virginia Woolf,” and still depicts odd objects in the whirling “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox.” But perhaps most telling is the leadoff track, which Hitchcock titles, “I Want To Tell You What I Want”: He’s been doing that for years now, but on his 21st record, he again accomplishes that goal in his own inimitable style, still mining the uncommon depths and winning melodies within his own bizarre parameters.
Rich Homie Quan upholds his steadfast promise to go in on every song
Rich Homie Quan is best known on the internet for the titles of his mixtapes, which are named, in order: I Go In On Every Song, Still Goin In, Still Goin In: Reloaded, I Promise I Will Never Stop Going In, and If You Ever Think I Will Stop Goin’ In Ask RR (Royal Rich). This is all funny, but also accurate: Quan’s got a wildly musical intensity, wrenching hooks at odd angles as he warbles in chameleonic cadences all over the most maudlin beats he can get his hands on. He goes in on [Checks math.] every song. It’s not a dissimilar presence on the mic to his sometime collaborator Young Thug, with whom he released a collaborative mixtape in 2014 but has since fallen out. While Thugga’s gotten weirder and considerably more famous since then, Quan has fought off controversy, massive lawsuits, and publicly fucking up a Notorious B.I.G. tribute performance, all while still failing to secure a release for his debut record.
That proper debut is still slated for release later this year—don’t hold your breath—but in the meantime comes Back To The Basics, a new mixtape that, at 35 minutes, is about half as long as anything Quan has ever released. It is, accordingly, tight as a clenched fist, practically drawing blood, its 11 tracks featuring only one guest in favor of verse after verse by Quan, whose words on a track like “Money Fold” can switch from bouncing on the beat to snaking through it and then back again. “Heart Cold” features the earworm hooks of his 2015 smash “Flex” but flipped toward something more melancholy; “Da Streetz” is classic Atlanta minor-key autobiography. Even a peremptory glance at the track titles—“Never Made It,” “Lord Forgive Me,” “Replay”—suggest a sense of regret at the way his career and life has unfolded, but he battles back not with indifference but by, well, going in. The passion all those internet-famous mixtape titles reference is still here, but it’s a fire he’s now protecting. He sounds hungry, like he’s finally got a reason to rap.
Joe Goddard’s Electric Lines beckons summer with funk-driven dance-pop
Joe Goddard, as one-fifth of Hot Chip (but one of the group’s main songwriters), already has a long history of producing beautiful indie electronica that’s built in part on a love of American soul, funk, and disco. In his first solo release since Harvest Festival in 2009, Electric Lines celebrates those influences and illuminates them with his distinct electronica imprint. (The album’s companion timeline on Spotify is short and worth a listen as well; Goddard walks through his contemporary influences like Caribou as well as ’70s Detroit funk groups.) Electric Lines builds on a philosophy that will be familiar to Hot Chip fans, filtering the wealth of soulful musical influences through vintage synths and cheerful vocals. Goddard isn’t here to fuck shit up—to quote a song from Hot Chip’s last album—and it’s not the sort of transformative or adventurous album one might expect in a solo effort. But it is the kind of album that could background a hot August night, sometimes aglow with shimmering arpeggios, and occasionally veering toward a less distinctive, but perfectly enjoyable, dance pop sound.
The stellar front third of the album includes standout single “Home,” which is built on a sample of ’70s funk group Brainstorm’s “We’re On Our Way Home,” and its Pete Fowler-animated video is precisely the kind of pastel-drenched funk-based whimsy that Goddard’s dreamscape evokes. Album closer “Music Is The Answer” heavily samples the late-’90s “Music Is The Answer” by Danny Tenaglia and Celeda, and despite a little sagging in the middle third, Electric Lines is a fine club-friendly album to spend the summer with.