The Underdog: December 2014-January 2015

The Underdog: December 2014-January 2015

Each month we’ll collect and highlight the best new indie releases. Our aim here is to expose readers to great new indie music they may not have been aware of otherwise. We intend to cover music that we believe doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, hence the title of this column: The Underdog.

As the new year approaches, the music industry enters a bit of a dry period, a sort of Great Recession, if you will. Contradicting its typical trend of eagerly anticipating upcoming albums, the blogosphere recounts what it loved, liked, disregarded, and ignored as the year went by, inadvertently casting a broad shadow over any music released in December. Of course, the surprise release of mythical albums like Black Messiah and Beyoncé have proven to be exceptions to this rule, but did anyone really notice that Nicki Minaj album that dropped last month? It’s clear that the music industry seems geared against album releases in December and early January, which is why this latest edition of the Underdog condenses both months into one article. By next month’s end, things will be closer to returning to full swing, but new music won’t be emerging at a rapid fire pace until March, in all likelihood. With all this free listening time on your hands, you’ve got no excuse to at least consider these ten albums released by emerging artists last December and this month. Who knows, maybe one of them will become the next big thing!

Amer – Luxandra

Ever heard of Frank Ocean? After the majesty of 2012’s Channel Orange, many fans were inspired to try their own hand at Christopher Breaux’s woozy, gleaming breed of electrosoul, some with more success than others. Amer, a self-proclaimed “two one-man-band band”, are on the higher side of this recent trend. Their approach is more minimal and hazy than that of their most obvious predecessor, and the lucidity and centering of their vocals gives them a bit of an edge against their competitors. On their Luxandra mixtape, they’re given a distinct touch via minute sonic elements such as the trap drum flickers on “Can’t Breathe” and the electric fizzle of the guitars faintly backing “Him.” It’s a short but engaging collection, but it’s enough of a grower that its brevity never feels like a shortcoming. Instead, it beckons the question, “When will these guys come out with more music?”, a query that’s a welcome distraction from their musical father’s painful lack of recent material.

Alex Calder – Strange Dreams

Brooklyn record label Captured Tracks is home to Mac DeMarco, one of last year’s biggest names, so it’s fitting that they also signed Alex Calder. Aside from their friendship, Calder follows in DeMarco’s footsteps: his lethargic, hazy vocals fall in line with the boundaries of DeMarco’s style, as does his slacker guitar sheen and dreary, enveloping dome of reverb. In fact, his songs often prove more memorable and direct than DeMarco’s blurry fog; the haunting hum of “Out of My Head”, for instance, brings an ominous touch into play that more precisely recalls earlier forebears such as Deerhunter. “No Device” likewise strikes less forgettably with its intensely watery, wavy flow, and the title track’s mercurial melody may well stick in listeners’ heads as brightly as the catchiest pop hits. Strange Dreams builds a bridge between the far too often disparate worlds of jangle pop stickiness and drugged out introversion, and is the most recent in a slew of reliable Captured Tracks releases.

The Aquadolls – Stoked on You

Originally self-released in late 2013, The Aquadolls’ debut album Stoked on You gained a wider audience after its Burger Records reissue in December 2014. Its guitar rock simplicity aligns with the label’s prior output, particularly in its deployment of surf pop sunshine and Californian glee. These fifteen songs get by on basic rock structures, hooky melodies, and vocals bearing the enthusiasm and force of a college-aged girl woken up by an unfriendly alarm. While drowned in this much instrumental sunshine, though, Melissa Brooks’ listless vocal delivery gains a good deal of resonance. This combination makes lines such as “What daddy doesn’t know won’t hurt him” and “We were so high” seem novel rather than overused, and ensures that The Aquadolls achieve their desired emotional impact. Sometimes, you really should just keep it simple, stupid.

Beacon – L1 EP

Just like their music, Beacon remain active while lurking in the shadows. L1 isn’t at all their first work, but the impact of their music has yet to spread past Brooklyn; it feels like they could emerge from their corner of the world at any point now. The title track to their newest EP proceeds on a simmering bed of gleaming speckles, broad, harrowing gulps, creepy percussive flutters, and whispering, soulful vocals, assuring a tension just like the one set to explode around these guys really soon. Since the rest of the EP follows in similarly unsettling fashion, why not get in on the action now?

California X – Nights in the Dark

Nights. Darkness. Two things that are inherently nocturnal, together in one phrase. But not entirely appropriately so: despite being one of the tougher, more guttural garage punk records of recent times, California X’s second album lets in plenty of sunshine. Both the title track and its follow-up, “Red Planet”, slam away forcefully with bile and grit, yet convey a major-key gleam. “Blackrazor (Pt. 2)” wears a small smirk despite its pounding, lacerating guitar acrobatics, and “Summer Wall (Pt. 2)” growls pretty happily for a sonic concoction this thick. Listeners seeking some more heft to their melodic punk need look no further.

Cloakroom – Further Out

Now this one should be titled Nights in the Dark. Somewhere between shoegaze and stoner metal, and self-described as “stoner emo”, Cloakroom write music that traps open ears under wide layers of bottom-heavy, bloated guitars and consciously lackluster vocals. On their debut album Further Out, when this notably muddy sound isn’t setting the tone, eerily untouched guitar sparkles effervesce into focus, often lasting only until that grating roar returns into play. “Lossed Over” enters in its quieter mode, alternating between this and its heavier state often while still giving greater weight to its deafening distorted walls; “Outta Spite” more evenly distributes its time between these states. Other songs only occupy one extreme, such as the bleating drone of “Moon Funeral” and the surprising acoustic balladry of “Clean Moon.” Most impressive is the balancing act on single “Starchild Skull”, which displays the most direct percussive attack on Further Out and drifts between calm dejection and pounding exertion. The song ends with a tone and feel that lies roughly halfway between the album’s opposite ends, achieving a floaty bliss not unlike what listeners might experience across this whole album.

Forth Wanderers – Tough Love

Before Tough Love‘s first thirty seconds even finish, vocalist Ava Trilling makes her intentions quite clear, thereby setting the tone for the remaining 25 minutes of this young New Jersey five-piece’s debut. “I wanna be known/as a girl who’s stone cold”, Trilling declares on opener “Selfish”, on which the combination of Trilling’s distinctly downcast whimper and her band’s vast, minor-key guitars ensure that no listener will remain unaffected. This song’s starkly defeated mood impacts with just as much emotional tug on each of the album’s other seven songs, particularly “Blondes Have More Fun.” Far from a 2010s update on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, it too opens with straightforward yet startling lyrics: “I don’t know where I went wrong” may read as simple on paper (or on a computer screen), but sung with Trilling’s dejected gaze and her band’s emo-laced soundscapes, it strikes the heart directly. In fact, all Tough Love‘s songs turn ordinary phrases into sentiments far more emotive, an especially notable talent for kids who are just now beginning their second semester of college. May they wander forth forever.

Professor Caveman – Professor Caveman Vol. 2

Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus is well known in the DIY scene for its rich basement show circuit, one that a small handful of college kids’ bands dominate with much fanfare. Perhaps the most popular band in the scene right now is Professor Caveman, whose shows in town always draw large crowds and result in immense audience participation. And how could they not? Listen to the grooves and melodies on Professor Caveman Vol. 2, which features contributions from two members of fellow scene kings and close comrades Eagle Daddy, and try not to succumb to their instant hookiness. “Toca La Guitarra” and “Puffin’ Down the Dart”, for instance, both use no more than a typical rock band setup (albeit with jaw-droppingly technical work across all instruments) to recreate the heyday of 1960s rock styles. But this isn’t just ripping off the past, although traces of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic influence are audible. Instead, songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Rob Romano infuses his music with the swagger of that era’s biggest surf rock and funk trends and figures while cultivating a hilarious personality and presence. The showy guitar and retro-gazing vocal takes ensure humor that brings this EP a notch above the countless other acts imitating the same styles. With talent this slick, it’s no wonder this caveman is a professor.

Suburban Living – Suburban Living

Faced with Suburban Living’s self-titled debut, you might react in one of two ways. The first one, asking “Who needs another shoegaze album?”, will get you nowhere. The second way would be to accept that the reason this style is omnipresent two decades after Loveless is because there’s something very specifically affecting about its hazy guitar tones and lackadaisical vocal delivery. Wesley Bunch, the man behind Suburban Living, isn’t nearly the first musician to adopt this subgenre’s watery, faded approach, but he does it remarkably well for someone just getting started. In fact, he embodies “watery” and “faded” very specifically and knowingly, aptly naming the corresponding songs “Drowning” and “Faded Lover”, respectively. Of course, Bunch isn’t the first musician to achieve success with this sound; this isn’t an album that deserves the phrase “it sounds like no one else”, but it doesn’t need to if it can provide melodies as sticky as that on “Wasted.” This song, the album’s most urgent, maintains a pulse to it, and the dynamic contrast between its restrained verses and its explosive chorus drives the music right into its listeners’ veins. “Hey! You can feel it! You can touch it!” Bunch sings ecstatically on the chorus, and he isn’t wrong: Suburban Living is an impressively tangible debut.

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