AF 2017 IN REVIEW: 12 of the Year’s Most Compelling Debuts

When you’re new to the music industry, it can be really tough to crack the top ten of a critic’s year-end list. Oftentimes, the artists with the most accolades are established entities releasing their third, fourth, or tenth album, having a massive comeback after a decades-long absence, reinventing their sound or finally finding a niche and boring down into it, or waving goodbye for good.

And while old favorites (usually) deserve the attention they get, the unfortunate flip side of that is that newer artists sometimes get lost in the tide, even when their debuts manage to make some waves. Sometimes, the freshest new sounds are branded as novelty simply for their newness. And while a nascent artist’s staying power can only be proven over time, 2017 seems to have produced a flurry of future stars. Here are a dozen albums that threaten to disrupt the zeitgeist.

SZA – Ctrl (Top Dawg/RCA)
The long-awaited debut from neo-soul chanteuse Solána Imani Rowe, better known as SZA, has been well worth the excruciating process that brought it to fruition. Following three acclaimed EPs and co-writes on tracks from megastars like Beyoncé and Rihanna, SZA hunkered down in earnest to begin writing Ctrl, then under its working title A. Mired in the anxiety of producing something that would live up to the hype she’d already generated for herself, she painstakingly wrote and rewrote some 200 tracks; it’s rumored that her record label actually had to confiscate the hard drive which housed her material just before the LP’s June release, because otherwise, SZA may never have settled on anything. Lyrically, the album reflects SZA’s indecision as it relates to the process of coming into her own womanhood and navigating its attendant relationships and self-discovery, but ultimately lands squarely as a radical dissertation on feminine sexual power – the kind that demands respect, exacts revenge, and fucks solely for the sake of pleasure. SZA’s scathing honesty is softened by luxuriant, sometimes unusual production choices that bridge gaps between genres as far ranging as indie rock and trap, her infectious patois exhorting baes and besties to spark blunts and eat tacos one moment while questioning their motives the next. Whether channeling Tisha Campbell’s Gina or sampling the matriarchs of her own family, SZA dazzlingly represents the millennial iteration of strong female identity, and Ctrl is her powerful mission statement.

Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps (Dead Oceans)
As confessional singer-songwriters go, Angeleno twenty-something Phoebe Bridgers has an uncanny knack for rendering unforgettable heart-piercing details that, while they feel hyper-personal, evoke the kind of universal emotions capable of stopping listeners dead in their tracks with recognition. One potent example is “Funeral,” which begins with Bridgers planning to sing at a dead friend’s wake. Later, in a moment of listless, empty depression, she chides herself for moping with the starling realization that “Someone’s kid is dead,” but in the choruses, she resigns herself to “being blue” all the time; in another verse, she laughs off suicidal ideation while strings soar softly behind a delicately strummed guitar. Bridgers’ wispy voice has just enough grit to direct unexpected expletives toward cops in the midst of what is essentially a love song, or to implore a long-distance lover for nudes in “Demi Moore,” or to open “Motion Sickness” with the nonchalant vitriol of a line like “I hate you for what you did/And I miss you like a little kid.” Having made friends with the likes of Conor Oberst (who makes an appearance on “Would You Rather”) and Ryan Adams, the prospect of Bridgers whittling her songcraft into an even sharper point might be almost too much to handle.

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound)
With its almost synaesthetic qualities, Kelly Lee Owens’ eponymous debut taps into something subconscious, mysterious, and utterly absorbing. Its evocative sparseness gives the record the homemade warmth of a newish, naturally intuitive producer; much like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (who released her similarly lush sophomore LP The Kid this year), Owens builds worlds from the breathiness of her voice and a keen sense of depth, space, and light. Owens has a surprising ability to cull new sounds from familiar instruments, teasing an intangible nostalgia out of rarefied air. She can induce a trance with cascading marimba (as she does on “Bird”) just as easily as she does with droning sitar (on nine-minute closer “8”). Counterbalancing clubby numbers like “Cbm” (color, beauty, and motion) with dream pop bliss-outs like “S.O” and “Keep Walking,” each of these ten tracks radiates its own frequency squarely aimed at providing a blunted body buzz that feels satisfyingly therapeutic.

Sophia Kennedy – Sophia Kennedy (Pampa)
If ever there was a sucker for quirky art pop, I’m definitely one, and if ever there was a record that oozes the polka-dotted plastic charm of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Sophia Kennedy’s self-titled debut is it. With joyous abandon, Kennedy indulges every whimsical tendency she has to offer – husky vocals, playful poetic panache, and plucky piano lines abound – and then goes on to deliver “Being Special,” a direct ode to embracing her weirdness despite the isolation it can sometimes create. It’s as if Kennedy is attempting to soundtrack her own cartoon musical, replete with the occasional slide whistles, warped gongs, boingy spring sound effects, and gurgled psychedelic asides. But Kennedy isn’t all kitsch, using that buoyant energy to boost darkly observed truths about herself, her peers, and the everyday scenes that play out in the city around her.

Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)
Following up her explosive 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me with a studio debut four years in the making, Kelela pulls no punches on Take Me Apart, daring listeners and lovers alike to get to know her inside and out. Backed by fluttering Technicolor production, Kelela’s contemplative and deeply sensual turns of phrase explore desire and disappointment in equal measure. Minimal beats from collaborators Arca, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Jam City put Kelela’s buttery soprano front and center, making each of her missives seem that much more urgent, those sentiments hovering in the liminal spaces where fantasy meets reality.

Sloppy Heads – Useless Smile (Shrimper)
Produced by Yo La Tengo’s James McNew (and featuring YLT biographer Jesse Jarnow, along with Ariella Stok and Billy the Drummer), Useless Smile tickles all kinds of indie pop sweet spots. Not since Times New Viking has a band so gloriously vacillated between punch-drunk lo-fi ruckus and delicious post-shoegaze psych jams. Though album opener “U Suck” makes for an annoyingly juvenile introduction, that track turns out to be a false flag for what’s to come: the gentle, laconic reverb of “Suddenly Spills;” the smoky twang of “Always Running;” the interplay of insouciant organ and rumbling drone on “I’ll Take My Chances;” the title track’s hints of Mazzy Star meets K hole. When it comes to amalgamating the sound of a late-Nineties/early-aughts college rock royalty, Sloppy Heads certainly don’t slouch.

Bedouine – Bedouine (Spacebomb)
The songs on Azniv Korkejian’s debut as Bedouine are simple affairs that beg a hushed reverence. They are snapshots of moments you’d want to bask in, unsuspecting until they open and flourish like a rare night-blooming orchid. Listening to them feels similar to the comforts of coming home; the irony is that their progenitor spent most of her life globe-trotting. She was born in Aleppo, lived on an American compound in Saudi Arabia, and spent her adulthood bouncing between Boston, Houston, Austin, Savannah, Lexington, Kentucky and Los Angeles, where she currently resides and works as a sound editor on film projects. And though she’s adopted a moniker that harkens to her Middle Eastern heritage and her nomadic history, her self-titled debut is where she finally puts down roots. Working with Matthew E. White at Spacebomb Studios, Korkejian crafted timeless, traditional-sounding folk songs with an introspective, almost off-the-cuff approach that makes for a stunning introduction.

Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love (Wilsuns RC)
Since 2014, Philly quintet Sheer Mag have been hard at work, reinventing Seventies classic rock with modern, punk-inflected ethos. Three bracing EPs and lots of buzz for their beloved live sets have certainly helped audiences acclimate themselves to the band’s lo-fidelity leanings, and Need to Feel Your Love delivers AOR’s feel-good trappings in abundance. But perhaps more importantly, nestled within that unabashed pastiche are truly subversive songs of protest railing against Trump-era policies of doom, death, and destruction. Tina Halladay’s snarl is truest when threatening corrupt politicians on “Expect the Bayonet” and most resilient when paying homage to the Stonewall rioters on “Suffer Me.” Gone are the problematic trappings of a genre that was always notorious for excluding voices like Halladay’s, and while she may not be interesting in soothing the white male rockist egos of yesteryear, Sheer Mag makes music that’s got the same soul.

Stef Chura – Messes (Urinal Cake)
2017 turned out to be the year that Detroit-based musician Stef Chura cleaned up. Re-working her best Bandcamp songs from some seven self-released albums, Chura made molehills into mountains on Messes, and then stood upon their peaks, yodeling her biting lyrics in the curious warble that’s become something of her trademark. Clearly informed by a love of the ‘90s alt-rock Chura grew up on, the album has some folksier inertia as well, like the iridescent “Human Being” or its final aching track, “Speeding Ticket.” Chura claims that she’s a perfectionist, but the album’s best moments are those that are flawed – say, when her voice cracks or she slurs her lyrics. Paired with the candid nature of her songwriting, this realism ultimately makes Chura more relatable. If Messes were a mirror, it might be cracked and dirty, but it would absolutely reflect the beauty of a chaotic life well-lived.

Nick Hakim – Green Twins (ATO)
In 2014, Nick Hakim posed a simple question via the title of a two-part EP: Where Will We Go? Already bursting with potential, it took three years and a stint at Berklee College of Music for Hakim to find his direction, but the sprawling, euphoric Green Twins makes it clear he’s on another plane entirely. Surreal grooves float in a warm haze of unexpected, quirky production flourishes that make them endlessly endearing; stray piano here, a distended vocal loop there, an occasional burst of brass, doo-wop drum machine reverb throughout. But it’s Hakim’s soulful croon that connects and cuts the deepest, his breathy register perfect for the many intimate realizations that comprise his love-stoned lyrics. Green Twins has the same homemade eccentricity of vintage Ariel Pink or Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but Hakim’s music feels far more earnest, more inventive, and certainly more dreamlike, an opportunity to poke around in one man’s gauzy, pulsating subconscious. Due in large part to those sensual qualities, it activates an almost instinctual response to stay and explore a little longer.

L’Rain – L’Rain (Astro Nautico)
Though multi-instrumentalist Brooklynite Taja Cheek’s solo debut turned into something of a treatise on mourning, it’s not as immediately obvious as say, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me. That’s because Cheek was almost finished with L’Rain when she lost her mother Lorraine (from whom she takes her stage name) to sudden illness; it’s comprised of Cheek’s field recordings and Soundcloud snippets going back several years, making it somewhat tricky to pin down. Certainly indebted to free jazz as much as it is bedroom-produced dream pop, fluttering vocal loops rewind through spritely guitar arpeggios, Cheek’s vocals like some version of herself refracted, a Gaussian blur of her matrilineal roots. The soupy “Bat” gives way to a tumultuous vignette of “Alive and a Wake,” which itself gives way to a field recording of a storefront church on “Benediction,” which then gives way to the album’s mesmerizing carousel of a lead single, “A Toes (Shelf Inside Your Head).” This collage-like assembly amounts to a dizzying meditation on the inexorable march of time, its fragments wafting in and out like distant memories; in that way, it’s a fitting tribute to loved ones lost, even if L’Rain keeps those parameters pretty loose.

Hoops – Routines (Fat Possum)
Though its title suggests stability and even monotony, Hoops’ debut record was born of anything but routine; in fact, it’s the direct result of founding member Drew Auscherman shaking things up. Initially conceived as Auscherman’s direct to four-track solo bedroom recordings – Hoops’ three cassette-only releases are now available as a compilation – he welcomed longtime pals Kevin Krauter and Keagan Beresford into the fold. It wasn’t a move solely meant to up the ante on Hoops’ salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern image, though all three are the sort of nice Indiana boys you’d introduce to your mother; as a trio, they co-wrote the songs on Routines and swap instruments with aplomb when playing live. Signing to Fat Possum also put some legitimate dream pop shine on Auscherman’s formerly lo-fi affair, though the project still retains its homemade charm. While Auscherman may have been set in his ways, it was a wholly newfound approach that made Hoops a breakout band in 2017.

TRACK OF THE WEEK: Japanese Breakfast “Machinist”

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Photo by Ebru Yildiz

When I interviewed Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast for Brooklyn Magazine last summer, her dream-pop debut Psychopomp was creating quite the buzz. On a sold-out tour with Mitski and Jay Som, Zauner told me that her next album would have more of an electronic pop feel but still have some of those foreboding, Twin Peaksy Northwest vibes, and this week she delivered on that promise with a video for “Machinist,” the first single from Soft Sounds From Another Planet, which will be released via Dead Oceans on July 14.

Taking cues from its electronic sonic elements – like Zauner’s auto-tuned vocal – the video tells the futuristic tale of woman falling in love with a robot reminiscent of Hal from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the fourth video Zauner has created with House of Nod’s Adam Kolodny (along with “Everybody Wants to Love You,” “Jane Cum” and “In Heaven“). The band has been incredibly busy touring (currently with Slowdive, who play two nights at Brooklyn Steel beginning Monday), peppering their sets with a few new songs (and a brilliant cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams”), but “Machinist” ups the ante with propulsive synth burble that builds to a scorching sax solo.

Though Japanese Breakfast started out as a very personal lo-fi acoustic bedroom recording project, the little flourishes on “Machinist” – a robotic backing vocal, subtle handclaps – make the song unrelentingly infectious and show how far Zauner has come as a producer. Her character in the video may end up tangled in wires, but as far as her musical endeavors go, Zauner isn’t raging against the machine – she’s embracing it. And we’re betting Soft Sounds From Another Planet will be out of this world.

Watch the video for “Machinist” and check out Japanese Breakfast on tour this summer (dates below).

5/5 – Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall ~
5/6 – Montreal, QC @ Olympia Theatre ~
5/7 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club ~
5/8 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel ~
5/9 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel ~
6/2 – Washington, DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel *
6/3 – Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter *
6/4 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle (Back Room) *
6/6 – Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade (Purgatory) *
6/7 – Orlando, FL @ The Social *
6/9 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall *
6/10 – Austin, TX @ The Parish *
6/11 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada *
6/13 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Rebel Lounge *
6/15 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echoplex *
6/16 – San Diego, CA @ The Irenic *
6/17 – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room *
6/18 – San Francisco, CA @ The Chapel *
6/20 – Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile *
6/21 – Vancouver, BC @ The Cobalt *
6/22 – Portland, OR @ Holocene *
6/24 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court *
6/25 – Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge *
6/27 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St Entry *
6/28 – Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge *
6/29 – Columbus, OH @ Double Happiness *
6/30 – Lakewood, OH @ Mahall’s *
7/1 – Detroit, MI @ El Club *
7/2 – Toronto, ON @ Velvet Underground *
7/4 – Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz PDB *
7/5 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair *
7/6 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg *
7/7 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom *
7/8 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer *
7/27 – Halifax, NS @ Rebecca Cohn Auditorium ^
7/28 – Portland, ME @ State Theatre ^
7/29 – Buffalo, NY @ Town Ballroom ^
7/31 – Cleveland, OH @ House of Blues ^
8/2 – Covington, KY @ Madison Theater ^

~ w/ Slowdive
* w/ (Sandy) Alex G & Cende
^ w/ Tegan & Sara[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

TRACK REVIEW: Ryley Walker “Sweet Satisfaction”

ryley walker
Fingerpicking patterns and Chicagoan Ryley Walker’s slightly mumbled, yet melodic and crouched angelic voice make for his latest premiere, “Sweet Satisfaction.” By way of Dead Oceans, listen to the some of the most amazing guitar work fleshed into a little over six minutes. His rarity is artfully shown in the new track, crafting together his different melodies. He can obviously jam out too, then whelping out towards the last minute, before he ends—whigging and fast percussion.
You can catch all this live March 15 at Baby’s All Right, right here in Brooklyn.
We will be awaiting for his sophomore installment, Primrose Green, on March 31.
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LIVE REVIEW: HAIM @ The Wiltern, L.A.


After appearing at almost every music festival that summer had to offer this year, HAIM returned to Los Angeles for two nights of homecoming shows that were destined to be nothing short of a kick ass homage to the city that made them who they are. Lots of L.A. love was being thrown around for their second night at the Wiltern. Their openers, a valley girl punk band called Bleached, got the 818 area code sistas to rally for most of their show (that’s not to say the gentlemen and non 818ers in the crowd, which made up a considerable amount of the audience that night, were not feelin’ the love).

Bleached was the perfect opener for what was going to be a rockin’ girl fest. Sisters Jessica and Jennifer Clavin exude that classic punk girl attitude, a seemingly effortless style of performing that feels like a peek inside a garage jam session. Later in the show, Este Haim would admit that that’s exactly the vibe they were going for – the old jam sessions they used to have at their house parties when their parents were out of town. Bleached could certainly be that band straight out of the epic house party from your teenage years. With little stage production and a pretty packed house, they were not phased by opening for an act as wildly popular as HAIM; they treated the crowd like the old chums that brought the keg to the party. The performer-audience relationship deepened when their stage hand started throwing out Capri Suns to the crowd. Within their hour long set, they played a good chunk of their latest LP, 2013’s Ride Your Heart, along with some older stuff from a few of their earlier EPs. Even up in the very last row of The Wiltern on the top balcony, it felt like a kickback California punk show, with lots of sweat included.

By the time HAIM took the stage, the air in the theatre had congealed into a sticky humid mess. I wasn’t even in the pit and I was fading fast until that echoing thud of “Falling” rung through the night. From that point on the energy never ebbed as the crowd erupted immediately into a dance party. The best thing about a live HAIM show is that something comes through in the flesh that is absent on the recorded album. Aside from that attitude that can only be exuded by Este’s infamous bass face, the sisters’ instrumentation is exuberant in a live setting. The bass is more jarring, the vocal harmonies are more impressive and Danielle flashes her chops as a guitarist in a way that makes you wonder why the hell there aren’t more guitar solos on the album.

As they have been doing for months, they covered “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac three songs into the set, further proving that there’s something very classic and also eclectic about their style. Their rendition of the song shows that that their roots are founded deeply in classic rock. The best performance of the night was easily “My Song 5,”which was right in the middle of the set. Este admitted to the crowd that playing it is her favorite part of the night because the song gets people to “shake their asses,” and the audience happily fulfilled her predictions, lifting their voices in the best sing along of the night as every single person in the place chanted “Honey, I’m not your honey pie.” And I certainly wasn’t alone in my air guitarring and head banging for this song.

Afterward, the girls kicked it down a notch with a new rendition of “Running if You Call My Name.” This version features Danielle solely on guitar for the first two verses and doesn’t pick up until the bridge. It was yet another moment in the show that Danielle stole the performance by virtue of how talented a guitarist she is. They finished off the set with “Forever” and a confetti explosion to boot, which in my experience makes any concert ten times more magical.

When they returned for an encore, Danielle jumped on the drums for a cover of Beyonce’s “XO.” Every single girl in the crowd went nuts for the Queen Bey cover its insanity rivaled only with the pandemonium that ensued with follow-up “The Wire.” I knew it would be the crowd favorite but people started dancing on the stairs and in the aisle- a girl in front of us literally took up the span of five seats for her overly excited dance move which involved sidling back and forth and throwing her arms out as wide as she could. I was disappointed to see that a lot of people bailed after “The Wire” – if you’re a true HAIM fan you are not going to miss the “Let Me Go” finale. It’s just not right. The girls complete every show with this rendition of the song, culminating with all three sisters wailing on drums in a primal evocation. There’s a strong sense of finality that comes with this ending and it’s blasphemous to willingly miss it.

Whether you are in the front row of the pit or at the highest point on the balcony, when you are at a HAIM show you become a part of the greater HAIM experience and will witness one of the best rock shows you’ve ever seen. It’s amazing that after months of nonstop touring, they can pull off two solid shows so effortlessly. Their stint on the road is coming to an end very soon, so I’m more than pleased that I caught one of these astounding homecoming shows. If you’re in Seattle or Portland you’ve got another chance to catch these incredible sisters before they play FYF Fest in Los Angeles; in October they head to Mexico City for Festival Corona Capital.

VIDEO REVIEW: Bear in Heaven “Time Between”

After only a few seconds of watching Bear in Heaven’s new video for their song “Time Between,” I was immediately reminded of an old Smashing Pumpkins song called “We Only Come Out at Night.” Much like that track has always conjured up images of underground dwellers emerging from unseen pockets of the earth as the sun goes down and darkness cloaks what seems to be a completely different landscape, the “Time Between” clip centers around the eccentric inhabitants of New York City as the revel and rumble through the dusk. It’s a specific portrait of real people and their uncoiling selves as they make their way between train stations and parties and 24-hour delis. It’s also a portrait of people and memories suspended in those times and places.

Though the themes align, the Bear In Heaven track is more anthemic than the Smashing Pumpkins song it recalls, and the video reflects those epic vibes by immediately throwing us into a microcosm of nightlife existence. Shot documentary style through the lens of director Nick Bentgen and band members John Philpot and Adam Wills over several weeks in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, there’s a glamourous candor to each quick-cut scene. We see acrobatic buskers, drag queens, cops, lovers, construction workers, drunks, ballers, commuters and more, in train stops and clubs and street corners, all of it sewn together in what feels like a pretty authentic tapestry of big city life – the life that happens as you’re waiting in line to get into a show, or cycling across the bridge from one borough to another.

Bear In Heaven are in a similar limbo right now, as fans anticipate the release of their fourth studio album, titled Time Is Over One Day Old. The title implies a sort of resigned purgatory, a hash mark on a prison wall counting out a sentence before the prisoner realizes it’s all relative. It’s been two years since the band released I Love You, It’s Cool, a record that received generally positive reviews but took some time to resonate to the degree that 2010’s explosive breakthrough Beast Rest Forth Mouth did. With “Time Between” as a lead single, it seems like Bear In Heaven are again going for some of the immediacy that I Love You lacked. It also hints that it’s been a long road for the Brooklyn band, and they’ve more than paid their dues.

On of the video’s most poignant images depicts a woman is getting a tattoo that reads “ONLY TIME WILL TELL.” It’s almost a trite statement, the permanence of ink under the skin a way to convince us all that there’s something to hold onto, something that will never change. But even as the progression of time adds gravitas to loaded flashes of memory like the scenes sprinkled through the video, it keeps moving. Time will tell you one thing thing today, but it may say something else tomorrow. The scenes in “Time Between” loop from extravagant to mundane, a reminder that it all matters and yet none of it really does. Philpot sings the oft-repeated line “falling out” as if there’s some way to disengage from that continuum; meanwhile the dichotomy of the ordinary and the extraordinary plays out as the video runs its course.

Time is Over One Day Old is out August 5 via Dead Oceans/Hometapes and is streaming now on NPR. Monday sees the band play a hometown show at Rough Trade; they’ll embark on a three-month US and European tour following the record’s release – see dates below.

Mon. Aug. 4 – Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade (in-store)
Wed. Aug. 20 – Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
Thu. Aug. 21 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
Fri. Aug. 22 – Washington, DC @ Rock and Roll Hotel
Sat. Aug. 23 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle (Back Room)
Sun. Aug. 24 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
Tue. Aug. 26 – Baton Rouge, LA @ Spanish Moon
Wed. Aug. 27 – Houston, TX @ House of Blues (Bronze Peacock)
Thu. Aug. 28 – Austin, TX @ The Parish
Tue. Sept. 2 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echoplex
Wed. Sept. 3 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
Fri. Sept. 5 – Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
Sat. Sept. 6 – Spokane, WA @ Bartfest
Sun. Sept. 7 – Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey
Wed. Sept. 10 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St. Entry
Thu. Sept. 11 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
Fri. Sept. 12 – Columbus, OH @ A&R Music Bar
Sat. Sept. 13 – Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
Sun. Sept. 14 – Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
Tue. Sept. 16 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
Wed. Sept. 17 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Thu. Oct. 2 – London, UK @ XOYO
Fri. Oct. 3 – Brussels, BE @ Beursschouwburg
Sat. Oct. 4 – Paris, FR @ Espace B
Sun. Oct. 5 – Amsterdam, NL @ Bitterzoet
Mon. Oct. 6 – Cologne, DE @ Club 672
Tue. Oct. 7 – Berlin, DE @ Berghain
Thu. Oct. 9 – Copenhagen, DK @ Ideal Bar
Fri. Oct. 10 – Lund, SE @ Mejeriet
Sat. Oct. 11 – Stockholm, SE @ Kagelbanan
Sun. Oct. 12 – Goteborg, SE @ Pustervik
Mon. Oct. 13 – Oslo, NO @ John Dee
Tue. Oct. 14 – Bergen, NO @ Landmark
Thu. Oct. 16 – Aarhus, DK @ Atlas
Fri. Oct. 17 – Hamburg, DE @ Aalhaus


Dub Thompson

Dub Thompson

There’s a moment in record-store-nerd-meets-girl classic High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, catches a couple of skatepunks stealing records from his shop. The punks give back the shoplifted goods when their decks are held ransom, and Cusack’s character looks at their haul in disbelief. “Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, breakbeats, Serge Gainsborg… What, are you guys slam dancing to Joni Mitchell now?”

The pink-haired punk retorts, “Man, you’re so bigoted. You look at us and think you know what we listen to.” When they part with the last of the stolen merchandise, it’s a wrinkled copy of a guide to home recording; it foreshadows the end of the film in which Rob ends up producing their band’s debut single as The Kinky Wizards, titled “I Sold My Mom’s Wheelchair” (the actual track used in the movie is “The Inside Game” by Royal Trux).

This scene came rushing back to me when I first heard “No Time” by Dub Thompson. The quirky, static-laden piano ditty that introduces the track soon morphs into dubby beats and slinky organs, the sparse vocals layered with gritty reverb. It sounds like a sample of some weird reggae-punk record unearthed from a dusty crate, but in reality it’s the brainchild of two California teenagers named Matt Pulos and Evan Laffer. “We actually met in middle school,” explained Laffer in a phone interview with AudioFemme. “It wasn’t until high school that we started making music together. And then it wasn’t until after we made the record and found out that there was some interest in it that we both kind of signed on to the idea of really working on it in more ways.”

Laffer describes himself as the “non-musician” of the group, saying that “Matt is much more trained in certain respects. He knows how to play guitar much better than I do, and keys, and just has sort of a history of being in bands. But I was always really interested in music and would try to make little songs and stuff… [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][which] made it possible for some more oddball ideas to take shape. We each surprised each other with things that neither of us could or would think of, and then built on that.” They met with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado in Bloomington to pull together ideas and material for 9 Songs, the duo’s debut on Dead Oceans.

“We went into the studio with Rado just with a collection of songs and that was it. It was not immediately obvious to us that it was going to be put together as a record exactly, let alone sold as a record. The songs were written in this crazy span from like three and a half years ago right up to a week before we recorded – it was just kind of an outburst of energy. A lot of the stuff just happened from Matt and I kind of fooling around, writing stuff by ourselves, writing stuff with each other in mind, in a sense. But by the end, especially with Rado’s production style, the whole thing kind of developed this unifying aesthetic.”

What resulted is a cheeky little romp through eight tracks (despite the album’s title) that borrow from all manner of prolific noise rock acts with an explosive energy. The snarky worldview the record presents belies the incredibly intelligent choices Laffer and Pulos make in terms of rhythms, change-ups, textural elements, and moods; it’s not only hard to place the record squarely into any one genre, it proves difficult at times to nail down even a single track. But that’s not a bad thing, just indicative of their exuberance, and maybe of some mild ADHD. Laffer explains, “There were things we did when we finally recorded it where like, five minutes before we did the take we would just decide… let’s have this one have a so-and-so feel, like, theme this song a certain way that we haven’t thought of before. It ended up being sort of like a tour of different styles or something throughout. We just threw out all these songs that we had written in hopes that some of them stuck together. Eight of them did, eventually.”

Listening to 9 Songs truly does feel like a tour through any vinyl junkie’s shelves. There’s a well-curated eccentricity there that tempers whatever irreverence crops up from time to time. There are, of course, many critics ready to dismiss that sort of impudence. “A lot of critics have been like, ‘Well, I hate to just burst their bubble cause they’re just kids, they’re nineteen… let ‘em have their fun,’” Laffer says, adopting the snobby tone of the band’s detractors. “We are a bit more serious about it than just that, but the humor is part of it and it wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t have as much character if the humor didn’t balance our some of the more moody elements or whatever… even if it might come across as kind of sophomoric, or even childish, as some people put it.”

Though he’s gained quite a few accolades in recent years, similar things were initially said about Ariel Pink, whose early home recordings were met with more than a touch of scorn and disbelief. Through all of the crass charm of those first releases, there were ideas brewing and very wise aesthetic choices being made. Even without that kind of context, it seems dismissive to write off Dub Thompson as nineteen-year-olds who are “screwing around,” but that’s more of a discredit to incredulous reviewers than it is to the band. “Perhaps,” Laffer agrees, “But… I would also add that to their credit, we are literally nineteen. We’re at an energetic time in our creative process right now. So when things fly out that might be perceived as off-color or even stupid, that’s just kind of how it’s rolling right now. And why dampen the energy of it, you know? We wouldn’t want to like, put a gag on it just for the sake of making something more sophisticated.”

Dub Thompson Baby's All Right
Dub Thompson on stage at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn.

With the addition of Madeline McCormick on bass and Andrew Nathan Berg on synths, Pulos and Laffer have expanded their touring lineup to a quartet and are finishing up the last dates of an outing with Montreal’s Ought, a band equally enigmatic and bombastic, though with a slightly different approach. “It’s the first real tour we’ve done aside from just a few weekend gigs,” Laffer says. “We did a few in New York about two months ago. But this is essentially a month of no-breaks touring and shows.” They’re excited, he says, not only to visit cities where there’s substantial interest in what Dub Thompson is doing, but also relieved not to have to drive so far between stops. When they pulled through New York late last week, the Ought-curious crowd at Baby’s All Right thinned way down before Dub Thompson launched into a caustic set that made 9 Songs somehow even more vivid, so it was kind of a shame that not many stuck around. Pulos’ confrontational yelp was blunted only by reverb; Laffer attacked his kit with similar ferocity. There wasn’t a ton of banter, but then, most of the duo’s lyrics come off somewhat conversational, if inflected with shards of detached ambivalence.

The affect on 9 Songs – a sort of production quality that’s the antithesis of sounding produced – thankfully did not unravel on stage. If at times the songs seem a sort of cut-and-pasted melange of styles, the live set exhibited a carefully orchestrated flow. But delivered with haphazard, youthful gusto, it came off as just-unpolished-enough, and the set wasn’t limited to the tracks we’ve already heard from the band. In fact, there’s another record already in the works. “It’s got a little bit more of a hip-hop intent,” admits Laffer, “but it’s not necessarily hip-hop.” With such a cornucopia of styles at work on 9 Songs, the next album could be a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure of sorts. “Overall,” says Laffer, “I think I’ve noticed a lot of younger kids – kids who are still in high school – really dig it. Some of our relatives, our dads, they’ll usually just be like ‘Oh, the production is kind of noisy’ or something but still support it. Mostly, the thing we’ve gotten is ‘Oh, I can’t wait, I have no idea what they’ll do next.’”[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]