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Albums Music

Current Obsession: French Vanilla – “How Am I Not Myself?”

After being inside for 371 days and counting, something I’ve been incredibly grateful for is being able sit down and voraciously consume as much new music as humanly possible. And one of the most valuable discoveries I’ve made has to be the radical and forward-thinking Los Angeles queer art punk quartet, French Vanilla. CLRVNT has described French Vanilla as a group “that takes a dissonant, politically-minded approach to no wave that hearkens back to the genre’s glory days; think Bush Tetras after a weekend of binge-reading Audre Lorde and taking saxophone lessons.”

French Vanilla began making waves on the L.A. DIY punk scene when they released their self-titled debut album in 2017, and have since toured with the likes of Girlpool, ESG, and Cherry Glazerr.

French Vanilla’s sophomore album, How Am I Not Myself?, was released in 2019 and produced by Sean Cook, who also produced and engineered St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION. The album combines infectious guitar and sax leads with idiosyncratic rhythm sections and a radical political literacy that is not too dissimilar from their Washington, DC contemporaries, Priests. The group does a sublime job of combining jittery post punk vocal stylings and instrumentals a-la Essential Logic and Suburban Lawns, with politically-conscious writing and outrageous performance art similar to ’80s queercore artists like Vaginal Davis.

With the whirling vocals of frontwoman Sally Spitz, and playing that juggles the sonic energies of new wave and minimalist art punk, the band sounds like the love child of the B-52s, Le Tigre, and Bush Tetras. Combining a danceable, saxophone-laden groove with feminist nursery rhymes, How Am I Not Myself? both revels in absurdity and interrogates the heterosexist power structures in an oppressively patriarchal society.

The song “Bromosapien,” finds Spitz flaunting her signature caterwauling against Daniel Trautfield’s crisp saxophone leads, with lyrics that rail against misogynistic institutions that strip away the autonomy of young women and girls (“How do I know you are sexist?/Because you’re ego is so delicate”). The instrumentation on “Lost Power,” draws contagiously twangy leads from lead guitarist Ali Day, while Spitz unpacks the paranoia and sense of lost identity that comes with being in a visibly heteronormative relationship (“All night I think I’m sick/Losing color and I’m falling quick”).

“All the Time,” boasts bouncing, brassy instrumentals that stand in stark contrast to the serious lyrical subject matter. Spitz’s robotic vocal stylings hearken back to early DEVO records, while the lyrics find the song’s narrator fighting for self-actualization through the act of attempting to please others, whether it be potential lovers, friends, clients, or families (“Oh, I wanted you to see, you to see/Everything that we could be, we could be”).

On “Joan of Marc by Marc,” the band does their best Josef K impression with rapidly jangling instrumentals. The narrator of the song feels corrupted by their unrelenting libido as they find themselves in a tug-of-war between their attraction to men and women, while simultaneously struggling to fight off the heteronormative dogma that forces women into subordinate roles in heterosexual relationships (“I gag on the ordinary”).

Writing songs about the intersection of the personal and the political in a way that makes listeners want to burst out dancing is never an easy task. French Vanilla’s How Am I Not Myself strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and whimsical satire with relentless energy, textures, and bright color palettes.

Score: 8.5/10

Categories
Albums Dream Pop

My 8 Essential Dream Pop Picks

When people think of music scenes that originated in the ’90s, the ones that often come to mind are the boisterous and upfront alternative rock umbrellas known as britpop and grunge. But one specific genre that often gets overlooked is the wistfully psychedelic-infused effervescence known as dream pop, which usually overlaps with the effect-driven, droning sounds of shoegaze.

Dream pop, known for its faded vocals and gliding instrumentals, provided a tranquil alternative to the posturing male aggression that became synonymous with later alternative rock and post-grunge. My favorite dream pop records are the ones that concoct a sonic atmosphere that floats in between the states of sleeping and waking.

These are my eight essential dream pop records that I would recommend to all listeners.

  1. Cocteau Twins – Garlands

No band captures the essence of dreams better than the Cocteau Twins. Their most popular records, Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas, had Liz Fraser’s signature operatic vocals overlapping with Robin Guthrie’s elaborate and effect-laden guitar loops. But I always appreciate hearing her voice when it’s more upfront than the instruments. The title track, “Garlands,” showcases Fraser’s dreamy vocal abilities at the forefront fully and clearly.

2. Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly

Whenever I hear Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star’s hypnotic vocals, I always feel like I’m being transported to an alternate universe or practicing witchcraft in the backwoods of my home town. The infectious psych/garage-esque track “Ghost Highway,” and the intervals and sliding guitar manipulation on songs like “She Hangs Brightly,” and “I’m Sailin'” are equally as captivating as Sandoval’s crooning voice. And the harmonic strings and organs throughout the record are just as intoxicating.

3. Mojave 3 – Ask Me Tomorrow

Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead of the popular shoegaze band, Slowdive, reformed as Mojave 3 in 1995 alongside Ian McCutcheon, Simon Rowe, and Alan Forrester. Their debut record, Ask Me Tomorrow, conjures up a dreamy, melancholic haze.

The album is riddled with sweeping harmonies and lazy-slide guitar leads on tracks like “Love Songs on The Radio” and “Tomorrow’s Taken.” An incredible highlight of the sound change is having Goswell’s gorgeous vocals at the forefront of multiple songs, no longer obscured by effects or distortion like they were on Slowdive records.

4. Julee Cruise – Floating Into The Night

You may know Julee Cruise as the singer who provided the gloomy and airy soundtrack to the David Lynch series, Twin Peaks. Her entire discography is worth getting lost in, but her critically-acclaimed 1989 debut, Floating Into The Night, is undoubtedly her magnum opus. With gliding instrumentals and Cruise’s ethereal vocal performance on songs like “Falling,” “Floating,” and “The Nightingale,” the album really lives up to its name, putting listeners in a state of floating around in weightless bliss.

5. A.R. Kane – 69

While many people look to The Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain as the arbiters of dream pop and shoegaze, A.R. Kane are largely considered to be the unsung heroes that launched dream pop into a proper movement. The duo, made up of Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, released their debut album, 69, in 1988. With heavy feedback and dubs on songs like, “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the album blends elements of dream pop, psych rock, funk, and even post-punk. Their following record, i, is also worth checking out.

6. Lush – Gala

Before My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse, and Slowdive, the band Lush was at the forefront of early shoegaze and dream pop soundscapes. Gala is a combination of the band’s first three EPs. Critic Andy Kellman described them as able “to veer from violent and edgy noise breaks to pop effervescence.”

The cracked soprano vocals from front-woman Miki Berenyi are largely obscured by echoing guitar feedback on the slower dreampop cuts like “Sunbathing,” and “Scarlet.” But on more aggressive rock songs like “Bitter,” she’s much more upfront with her delivery, which stands in stark contrast to her more restrained approach to singing on lighter cuts. The lo-fi production is another massive part of the record’s charm.

7. Galaxie 500 – Today

Galaxie 500’s mystical debut, Today, is one of my all-time favorite slowcore albums. Each song, especially the dreamy opener, “Flowers,” and the fuzzed-out “Tugboat,” remain sonically grounded with Dean Wareham’s upper-register vocals completely gliding across his lilting guitar leads and Naomi Yang’s textured basslines, all of which are soaking in reverb.

8. Broadcast – Tender Buttons

What is so remarkable about this particular Broadcast album is the fact that it was made after the departure of several band members, leaving only vocalist Trish Keenan and bassist James Cargill to work as a duo. But that didn’t stop them from making their most iconic record of all time.

Blending elements of psych pop, avant pop, and experimental space age electronica, Tender Buttons hits every nerve with static shock, drum machines, and crunchy synths on tracks like “I Found The F,” and “Corporeal.” The non-conventional instrumentation beautifully blends with Keenan’s serene vocals. It is also very difficult not to weep whenever the languid ballad “Tears In The Typing Pool” plays.

Categories
Albums

Discog Dives: Beat Happening – “Dreamy”

In the land of DIY indie rock, it would be a crime not to acknowledge the influence of lo-fi twee pop three-piece Beat Happening. Formed in Olympia, Washington at Evergreen State College by Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford, Beat Happening were one of the seminal bands to break the conventional rules of musicianship in the ’80s and ’90s. The band has influenced several groups that emerged from Olympia, Washington, including Fugazi, Bratmobile, and even Nirvana. Calvin Johnson was also the founder of independent label K Records, which kickstarted the careers of several indie bands like The Vaselines, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse.

Beat Happening has become one of my favorite bands over the past few years. Like many others, I discovered the band through Nirvana, specifically when Kurt Cobain referenced the group on the Nevermind song Lounge Act.

Beat Happening’s records are well known for their naive and childlike aesthetic, which is utilized to navigate mature subject matter in their lyrics. This is beautifully complemented by the band’s primitive instrumentals, the gentle unorthodox lead vocals of Heather Lewis, and Calvin Johnson’s soothing, almost hypnotizing baritone voice.

The band’s 1991 record, Dreamy, was released hot off the heels of their critically-acclaimed self-titled record (1985), and the following releases of Jamboree (1988) and Black Candy (1989). The band used childlike imagery and motifs to highlight the unique trials and tribulations of adolescence and adulthood. The song “Hot Chocolate Boy” illustrates an awkward young man trying to work up the courage to talk to a girl he is attracted to, and also trying hard not to capitulate to unhealthy standards of manhood (“Hot chocolate boy/Every girl yelling/Wanting him to be the terror”).

The wistful vocals of Heather Lewis on sweeter cuts like the buoyant love song “Fortune Cookie Prize,” and the more distorted, fast-paced cuts like “Collide,” are also a large part of album’s charm. On “Cry For a Shadow,” Calvin Johnson sheds the menacing tough guy veneer and bares his soul over Bret Lunsford’s twangy guitar riffs.

“Nancy Sin,” “Me Untamed,” and “Collide,” are all unabashedly sexual in nature. The former’s booming percussion and Johnson’s urge to be dominated as he chants the lyrics “FILL. MY. MOUTH. WITH. HOT. SAND,” is guaranteed to jolt the listener out of the trance that previous tracks will easily put them in. It’s definitely a change of pace, as is the closing track “Red Head Walking.”

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Albums

Discog Dives: Alice Glass – “Alice Glass”

Trauma is experienced and expressed in varying degrees and there are many ways that people who experience abuse cope with their trauma.

Alice Glass, formerly known as the brutal, thrashing front woman of Toronto electro punk band Crystal Castles, released her debut EP in 2018. The project was self-titled, illustrating Glass’s determination to reclaim her identity and re-assert her autonomy after leaving an abusive partnership with her former bandmate in Crystal Castles. It is a sheer departure from Crystal Castles, this time with Alice at the wheel, her guttural vocals this time buoyed by the digital hardcore mix and trap beats, no longer obscured by the production.

In a conversation with Interview Magazine, Glass expressed her love of post-punk and riot grrrl bands including Kleenex (formerly known as LiLiPut), Bratmobile, and Bikini Kill. The sonic brutality on songs like “Natural Selection” off her EP perfectly matches the vengeful fury of the riot grrrl sound and aesthetic, and the pulsating synth bass lines on “Forgiveness” feel like a throwback to the industrial electropunk of the Normal and Cabaret Voltaire.

The center focus of the EP is Glass finding catharsis in her attempts to heal. Many of the songs focus on her determination to permanently gouge her abuser out of her life. “Tell me where to spit/Don’t tell me what to swallow,” she asserts in the opening track “Without Love.”

Near the end of the third track, “Natural Selection,” there is a monstrous roar coupled with the explosive, clashing sound that I would liken to tinsel being tossed in a microwave. This is followed by Glass screaming “GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME!” four times in a row. This energy carries into the following track, “White Lies.” “This is not the voice in my head/You’re depraved, soaking to the bone/Wash away what’s left of my blood,” she chants defiantly. On “Blood Oath,” this roaring sound is looped throughout the song and embellished with squeaking synths and production glitches that sound like gunshots.

The EP’s closing track “The Altar,” strongly contrasts with the remaining songs on the EP. It is the only slow cut on the project, and also much shorter in length. “Somewhere else, someone else feels worse/Forget that the sun is in the universe,” she repeats, continuing her internal monologue. She’s persevering in the face of adversity, hoping that one day she will find peace. This track shows Alice coming back down to earth after ruminating on her anger and giving the listener a level-headed reflection of what she went through.

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Album Release Albums

Add to Queue: New Releases – Dorian Electra “My Agenda”

Being a hyper masculine edgelord is officially gay™ now, thanks in no small part to queer hyperpop icon Dorian Electra and their new album, My Agenda. With colorful production by Count Baldor, Dylan Brady, Clarence Clarity, umru, and many others, the versatile soundscapes on My Agenda embody every conceivable sound from bubblegum-bass to dubstep and aggressive noise rock.

Dorian’s previous album, Flamboyant, deconstructed gender roles and masculine archetypes ranging from the cowboy to the sugar daddy, business mogul, and boxers/street fighters. On My Agenda, they are cranking the satire up to eleven, tackling the culture surrounding incels and gamers on tracks like “Edgelord,” featuring Rebecca Black, as well as “Gentleman,” and “M’lady.” They also hilariously unpack the sexually ambiguous homosocial dude-bro dynamic on “Sorry Bro (I Love You).”

The standout tracks are “My Agenda” featuring Village People and Pussy Riot, “F the World” with the Garden, Quay Dash, and d0llywood, and “Ram it Down,” with Mood Killer, Lil Mariko, and Lil Texas. These tracks all embody the tortuous relationships that men have with sexuality and masculinity that the patriarchy imposes upon them. “Ram it Down,” speaks from the perspective of a person who perpetuates the age-old homophobic trope of being “fine with gay people, as long as they don’t shove their sexuality in my face,” (“Hey man/Love all you want/But just don’t ram it down my throat”). The breakdown of the song, which culminates in Lil Mariko screaming, “RAM IT DOWN! RAM IT DOWN! RAM IT DOWN!” over and over again, is a sonic assault of chaotic, hard-hitting dubstep beats and death metal vocal dynamics hitting the listener over the head.

On the outstanding title track “My Agenda,” Electra reclaims all the disparaging rhetoric that straight people love to rattle off at the expense of queer people, spreading their conspiracy theories about the quote-un-quote “gay agenda.” Dorian touches on the Lavender Scare, which prevented people from hiring queer people during the Eisenhower administration (“You can always spot us/By the way we walk/As we’re plotting to take over/And destroy you all”), the AIDS crisis (“My agenda/Will infect ya”), and even those infamous InfoWars conspiracy theories about frogs (“We’re out here turning frogs homosexual”).

There are up to eleven features on this album, which can be a risk for many artists, because the guests could easily outshine the main act. However, like their collaborative pop contemporary, Charli XCX, Dorian is an excellent collaborator. These features add so much quality to the project. Mood Killer and Quay Dash are two of my favorite underground acts at the moment, and both of their verses are hilarious and deliciously fierce.

Tackling topics as grim as incels, edgelords, toxic masculinity, and homophobia is not an easy wormhole to venture into. Dorian Electra’s ability to satirize such grim subject matter and collaborate seamlessly with innovative producers and futuristic sounds makes them one of the most exciting artists of today.

Categories
Albums Alternative Rock

29 Years of Hole’s Pretty on the Inside

Twenty-nine years ago, the legendary alternative rock band Hole released their seminal debut album, Pretty on the Inside—an urgent and formative collection of songs that drew from the band’s hardcore punk roots.

Produced by the legendary Kim Gordon, the instrumentation is a chaotic, messy and accessible product of Sonic Youth’s no wave formula, with a hardcore punk and sludge-metal edge. Eric Erlandson’s abrasive guitar work coupled with the thrashing screams from prophetic rock goddess Courtney Love as she details her experiences with violence, womanhood, and self-actualization are what make this album stand the test of time.

On “Garbage Man,” Love details her experiences with abuse and emotional abandonment at the hands men like her father and stepfather, which culminated in a reluctance to trust men as a whole (“Where the fuck were you when my lights went out?”). “Teenage Whore” explores the complicated relationship that many women have with their sexuality, and the learned repression and shame they develop as a result. Love tells the story of a young woman dealing with this specific struggle, and also takes on the voice of her mother, who doesn’t approve of her daughter engaging in such behavior. The title track, “Pretty on the Inside,” tackles the commodification of beauty through sex work, which Love wrote when she worked as a stripper at the Orange No. 5 Club in Vancouver. 

Whenever I revisit this album, there isn’t a single skippable track; every single song is immaculate. I have always thought that Courtney Love was a criminally underrated lyrical genius. Couplets like “I’ve seen your repulsion, it looks real good on you,” and Love’s angry, feverish tone and delivery on the song “Babydoll” as she screams “My raw hand, my fever blister/Watch me, watch me, watch me disappear,” is so emotionally evocative, and it’s incredibly clear that every time she screamed those lyrics from the pits of her core, she meant them with every fiber of her being. 

Discovering this album at a turning point in my life when I turned 19 was monumental. I was struggling to come to terms with my own identity as a young woman whilst dealing with chronic anxiety and body dysmorphia. Courtney Love was a force of nature; in the same vein as the riot grrrl bands that were adjacent to Hole, the way she acted was the polar opposite of a meek little girl, and I found a great deal of comfort and catharsis in her writing and rock star persona, leaning on her rage as a crutch. 

Temper tantrums are necessary, but if they were socially acceptable it would never be considered embarrassing or inappropriate to have at least one temper tantrum a day. Instead we are left to choose more productive and private outlets to channel outrage. This album filled that void for me, and continues to transcend space and time even now. Courtney Love has since distanced herself from the album, but I will always look upon “Pretty on the Inside” with awe and admiration beyond comprehension.