Familiar music is comforting in a crisis, I know.
But new music reminds you that the world still exists, life still happens, artists still create—you know, all that lame shit you have to trick yourself into believing to get out of bed in the morning. That in mind, here are a few suggestions to coax you back into present-day indie-rock. And also the Strokes.
The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin (Merge)
A polymath dynamo whose work ethic is daunting even in ordinary times, poor John Darnielle must be bouncing off the walls right about now. The goat-in-chief was polishing up album number umptillion with his band when the pandemic interfered, so he wrote 10 new songs in 10 days (he doesn’t always?) and recorded them straight to his old boombox, just like he had for a decade prior to 2002. Darnielle acknowledges the throwback comfort this exercise provides on the closer “Exegetic Chains,” which invites us to “stay warm inside the ripple of the Panasonic hum” and calls back to his most essential song with “Make it through this year/If it kills us outright.” But I’m more fired up by how the chummy menace of “Me and my crew/We will deal with you,” adept scavenging of “We will have uses for these things,” oblique reassurance of “This is just a brief improvisation in the dance,” and not-quite-offhand phrasing like “bucking the curve” look ahead to our returning from the underground someday. So though Chuvin’s A Chronicle of the Last Pagans probably won’t make my quar reading list, I’m glad it inspired Darnielle to give voice to another wily cult, like the goths and and wrestlers he's celebrated before, outwitting oppressive normies. Maybe this call to retreat without surrender won’t sound as urgent and necessary a few months from now. But if we haven’t learned not to make those predictions, what have we learned from this year? GO
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge)
The drums divide time into coherent increments, the guitars fall into place with crisp precision, the melodies resolve neatly according to preordained patterns—in other words, Katie Crutchfield clearly wrote these 11 songs for a world that made a whole lot more sense than the one you woke up to this morning. As she told Pitchfork recently, “I started to reject the idea that you have to live your life clumsily and be a big mess to write anything that’s exciting or interesting” (a conclusion any young songwriter worth following arrives at eventually) and if the folksy jangle here doesn’t soar like the forthright alt-rock of 2017’s Out in the Storm, it does flatter Crutchfield’s Alabama drawl and lyrical self-scrutinizing. Even as her voice aches toward sanity, the onetime poet of unkempt emotion chafes against its imagined constraints: “When dreams become concrete, they may feel trite,” she observes and/or frets and/or warns on the first track here, and just one song later love has rendered her mind “useless and”—that word again—”trite.” But though she’s still occasionally a sucker for a lacquered Latinate patina like “You illuminate me as I galvanize a flowery demise,” Crutchfield seems to acknowledge that clarity isn’t a limitation—that the act of rendering your sensitivity to the world around you legible to others actually deepens your understanding of how you feel. And let’s face it, we all need a little structure in our lives just about now. GO
Frances Quinlan – Likewise (Saddle Creek)
Solo, Qunlan’s songs shift shape with the same willful hairpin daring that’s made Hop Along the reigning champeens of scalpel-to-heart indie drama. But rather than the parallel scrawl of electric guitar racing her voice rawly upward, the electric piano and acoustic strum favored here nudge her toward quieter discoveries. When “Your Reply” settles into a shuffle, it’s likely as close as she’ll ever come to writing a Belle and Sebastian song. The ease with which “Rare Thing” pivots to synth-pop should be the envy of Margaret Glaspy and Caroline Rose (who’ve both taken a similar tack this year). And wait till you get to the Built to Spill cover. Yes, “Of course you'll visit when you can/Of course I'll visit when I can” has taken on a new meaning under the circumstances, but the way Quinlan bats about each “uh huh” of the coda to “A Secret” says even more. The unpredictable trajectory of her melodies allows “There is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody” and “I have to stop myself and admit you make me happy” to land as epiphanies, while suggesting that just because you don’t know where you’re going doesn’t mean you won’t wind up someplace beautiful. GO
Clem Snide – Forever Just Beyond (Ramseur)
Eef Barzelay waited maybe about a decade longer than he should have to make the Fleet Foxes record that nobody but producer Scott Avett suspected he had in him. If the Clem Snide frontman’s slightly nasal quaver is plainer and unprettier than any of Avett’s brothers, something in his timbre suggests a sweetened harmony even when he sings unaccompanied. But even his more cosmic musings shade significantly more sardonic than any turn of the twenty-teens’ indie-folkies, none of whom would quip “It’s easy to say you would never sell out/When nobody’s made you an offer” or “You will never make anyone better by shouting them down at the mall.” More than two decades after his first LP, Barzelay can’t resist pulling on loose threads, and so of course the music that’s been tailored to suit him still isn't a perfect fit.
The Strokes – The New Abnormal (Cult/RCA)
They do keep themselves amused, these boys. I can’t deny the facility of their everything-old-is-new-wave-again tricks—whether nicking cute little guitar bits from A Flock of Seagulls, swiping a chorus whole from the Psychedelic Furs (fully credited, your honor), or stitching together something that should be titled “I’ll Stop the World and Dance with Myself,” they sound like they may never run out of other people’s ideas. From a friendlier band, this compulsion to art up past pop styles might be charming, but its glib lack of focus mostly makes me wish they’d go do session work for a songwriter with a clear vision. As for Julian Casablancas, surely nobody old enough to care about the Strokes still finds his straining-for-casual shtick cool or—criminy—sexy? If you’re in need of some familiarity to breed contentment just about now (understandably!), I can hear why these always-already backward-glancing known quantities might do the trick. But nobody who gets excited about a band’s middling fare 20 years after their debut gets to mock Boomers’ taste in music ever again. NO
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new, newish, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty self-explanatory: GO means listen to this now, means check it out when you get a chance, and NO means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.