Here’s what I’ve been listening to lately.
The Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania (2012)
I am finding it more and more difficult to be impressed with TSP as I grow older, or more, as they continue to make music that shows little to no artistic progression. Of course, each development in the Smashing Pumps discography is different. Oceania is not quite comprable to the grungy optimism of Siamese Dream, and nothing stands up to Machina, which comes straight outta left field, but nothing that they make is progressive. I’m sure there’s something to be said for consistency there—fans know exactly what they’re getting when they sit down with a box of Cheese Nips to listen to a Smashing Pumpkins album—but honestly I was really hoping for something different here. It sounds almost like a caricature.
That’s not to say it’s bad, though. Lest we forget that The Smashing Pumpkins are fucking awesome, know that any following words are in the context of the fact that The Smashing Pumpkins are objectively great.
That said, this album feels contrived and predictable. Billy Corgan has come a long way emotionally from “Mayonaise” and “Suffer”, but lyrically this album is just a disaster—yes, a lyrical disaster even considering that one of Corgan’s most popular lyrics is “despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”. The lyrics in Oceania feel awkward (take a shot every time he says the word “lover”) and gimmicky (namely, “The Chimera”). Of course there are brief interjections of sense in the lyrics, but it all feels thrown together and patchwork a la Radiohead circa Kid A—the only difference being that Kid A wasn’t supposed to make sense, and Corgan has repeatedly said that these songs are supposed to be about relationship strife. I just don’t see it.
It’s a relatively catchy album (“The Celestials” and “Pale Horse” felt like old favorites right away), and it’s pretty to a fault. It’s enjoyable, it’s not bad, but it’s certainly not good by The Smashing Pumpkins standard, and for that it’s a disappointment.
Memory Tapes – Grace/Confusion (2012)
Against my better judgement I picked up Grace/Confusion at the recommendation of Pitchfork. I usually avoid Pitchfork because it always disappoints me and makes me feel like shit, but I’m an open-minded person who loudly avows to her appreciation of music in all its forms. So once in a while I head over and read whatever those fuckers have to say about whatever album they dug up from the depths of the Philadelphia “underground” music scene.
If there’s one thing that will instantly turn me off to a piece of music, it’s pretentiousness. Musicians can do almost anything else they want and not bother me, from overt sentimentality (Explosions In The Sky) or painfully cheesy lyrics (Weezer, Taylor Swift)—hell, I even crack up reading Anal Cunt lyrics, though I’ll never admit to liking them1. Aloofness from an artist doesn’t fly with me. It falls into the same eye-rolling category bronies on reddit who complain about how “smart” they are and how little self-motivation they have, and how angry they are at everyone who ever told them they were smart, UGHH, I just, it is physically impossible for someone to care any less than I care.
I didn’t want to like Grace/Confusion, because I’m nothing if not a musical cynic, and because for fuck’s sake I found it on Pitchfork. But, as someone who is also hopelessly romantic—especially about obscure music—I always set aside my reservations and give every album as fair a chance as I can muster. Right away, everything about this album was sending up “worship me, I’m cool” red flags for me. The album opens with the crickets-creaking atmosphere of a warm summer night and falls into a soaring, happy, crooning melody reminiscent of the Beatles’ LSD era. The lyrics seem to be more or less meaningless, but if Dayve Hawk’s voice is to be regarded strictly as a music instrument then I think he’s moderately successful. There is a lot of atmosphere to these songs and his voice brings you right back down to earth with a light slap in the face.
The rest of the album continues on the same thread. Individually, the songs work pretty well, with the highlights being “Neighborhood Watch” and “Thru the Field”. As a collection, the songs feel a bit off. They don’t quite work together cohesively—it all feels a bit experimental. I’m not disparaging experimental music, but this album sounds to me like an artist fumbling in the dark, not quite able to find their voice. There’s the Beatles-esque song, the Boards-of-Canada-circa-Campfire-Headphase-esque song, the Crystal-Castles-esque song, etc. I don’t hear a distinct sound, I hear experimentation.
Perhaps the second or third album will be more solid.
The Oh Hello’s – Through the Deep, Dark Valley (2012)
The Oh Hello’s are a brother/sister duo from San Marcos, TX. I saw a friend listening to them on Spotify last month and put them in a playlist of things to get to later. They came across my radar again last week while reading through a review of albums featuring female lead singers (although Maggie and Tyler Heath share the lead vocals and are almost always accompanied by a spirited chorus of background singers), and I decided it was time to give them a shot. According to the band’s Bandcamp, Through the Deep, Dark Valley is a concept album meant to be listened to in a single sitting, so that’s what I did.
I liked this album from the first 10 seconds. It’s honestly a perfect pander to my tastes: female lead singer, hailing from Texas, casual Christian guilt, banjos, tons of people with acoustic guitars, and generous insertions of “ohh ohh woahh ohh”s. Most importantly, there’s a complete absence of pretentiousness in the lyrics. As the album opened with sand shakers and a rallying drumbeat, I had no idea what to expect, but by the 0:17 mark I was calling myself a fan of this band.
The opening track (“The Valley”) is soaring and huge, bearing its emotion right on its sleeve, and it sets the atmosphere for the album quite well. Emotion and excitement are bursting out of the narrative here, but there’s also a deep, classic-country sadness. This tone allows for a ball of straightforward depth moldable with equal deftness by quick songs (“The Valley” and “I Was Wrong”) and slow songs (“Like The Dawn” and “Wishing Well”), with nothing seeming out of place.
My favorite songs from the album come down to “Second Child, Restless Child” and “I Have Made Mistakes”, but honestly it’s difficult to pick a favorite here. As a collection, the album works so well, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. I love this album, and after several listens over the past week, I have the distinct feeling that it will be going into rotation as one of my favorites.
1. For the record, if there is a second thing that will instantly turn me off to music, it’s bigotry in any form, be it sexism (Bowling For Soup, Childish Gambino), racism (Varg, Brutal Attack), or any combination of both (Montgomery Gentry). Anal Cunt is different from groups like the aforementioned, despite their clearly racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic lyrics that read like posts from the most depraved, festering pits of 4chan. Anal Cunt is different because Anal Cunt is satirical. Those who find Anal Cunt offensive are the same people who think 4chan is actually a bigoted cesspool where misogyny and pedophilia run rampant.