John Darnielle is nothing if not deliberate with his words, so you could be sure that when The Mountain Goats announced an album titled Goths, goths were what you’d be getting. The song titles certainly deliver on that front, with references to Sisters Of Mercy, wearing black, and—more esoterically—Portuguese goth metal bands. But even though The Mountain Goats have taken that theme quite literally in some respects, they haven’t deviated much from their usual musical modus operandi, with the tracks remaining hyperliterate and ambitiously composed. Darnielle is also happy to mess with fans a bit on the lead single, “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds,” which is wistful in lyrics only; it’s full of surprisingly bouncy keyboards and what can almost be described as sunny vocals. I got a Sunset Tree feel from my first few listens, though I’m not sure “Unicorn Tolerance” will end up quite as chant-worthy as “This Year.” Still, it’s undeniably catchy, in a way that diehard goths might not like but Mountain Goats fans certainly will.
Last Friday, the portion of the rap world not losing its mind over Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” video was instead losing its mind over an unexpected new Cam’ron video. In it, he does more than merely sample Vanessa Carlton’s 2002 hit “A Thousand Miles.” He constructs a six-minute short-film cover version of it, capturing not just its memorable piano riff but also its bridge, its chorus—its very essence. The “Hey Ma” rapper is in that late-career hip-hop morass of a thousand permanently delayed projects—look out for Killa Season 2, now supposedly dropping late 2017—but Cam’ron remains one of the form’s true-blue weirdos, conjuring couplets here like “I blew it / Like a small condom, I’ll get through it.” The video heavily features Killa Cam’s naturalistic acting chops, most impressively in a lovelorn interlude where he is wrapped up in his ex’s favorite blanket, smoking her leftover cigarettes; when the track comes back in, he’s singing along with Carlton, “Later on that night I bought a kilo / To sell it or sniff it, I don’t know.” Cam’s version serves as the capstone for hip-hop’s long obsession with Carlton’s millennial rom-com staple, but it also acts as an unexpected resurfacing of Cam’ron’s most joyous, off-kilter sensibilities. Here’s hoping for more of that side of him whenever he resurfaces this year.
Unlike the dramatic changes in so many of Pile’s songs—which can angle out spastically, steering tunes in unexpected directions—the explosives of “Leaning On A Wheel” have a longer fuse and more tempered ignition. The Boston four-piece lays out slow, country-twinged guitar picking and subdued, dirty bass alongside the resigned lyrics of a man weighted by an unsatisfying relationship and everyday inertia. This story of a life on autopilot could easily grind itself to collapse, but around the three-minute mark, Rick Maguire and company climb to a charged, chugging peak, the instrumentation brightening as the lyrics grow darker: “But you know death can travel / And I’m sure it’ll walk you home.” The emotional centerpiece of Pile’s newest album, A Hairshirt Of Purpose, “Leaning On A Wheel” suggests that a shrug is sometimes the best you can hope for in life, that thing that happens before you die.
The record label Light In The Attic specializes in reissuing musical obscurities, but few of its recent finds have had the immediately evident, soul-searching artistry of the late Johnnie Frierson, whose lo-fi, home-recorded cassettes were sold at corner stores around Memphis in the 1990s. The brother of the mid-1960s Stax singer Wendy Rene, Frierson worked as a gospel and soul session musician before being drafted into the Vietnam War, returning to Memphis a changed and traumatized man. Last year’s Have You Been Good To Yourself presents seven of his original religious songs, recorded in the early ’90s with only an electric guitar and the occasional foot stomp for accompaniment. “Heavenly Father, You’ve Been Good” is one of my favorites, showcasing Frierson as not only a deeply personal songwriter but also a moving performer of wide emotional range, capable of gliding from a haunting falsetto into a testifying shout in his attempts to encompass the complexity and variety of his own faith in song.
I’m getting old. This summer, I will turn 39—not exactly an age of decrepitude in the grander scheme, but when it comes to going to shows (which I once declared, with the confidence of youth, would be my lifestyle forever), and especially as it pertains to checking out new bands, I may as well be dead. I have seen thousands of concerts, lived through three decades of scenes and revivals of said scenes and post-revivals of scenes; it takes a lot to get more than a jaded shrug from these weary bones, which the kids will merrily dance upon soon enough, particularly if you’re not some experimental electronic act that I can see soundtracking my writing or maybe early-evening cocktail sipping. But every now and then, I’ll catch a band like Negative Scanner—which I did at a recent, jaded-old-fuck-filled Sleaford Mods show—and remember, oh yeah, it’s still possible to be blown away by something new. Of course, it helps that the Chicago group sounds like something old: Rebecca Valeriano-Flores’ voice has the haunting, urgent force of Siouxsie Sioux in her prime (to the point that I thought the DJ was simply playing a Juju cut as I made my way up the Metro stairs), while the group plies a sort of taut, needling post-punk not dissimilar to Wire or the Wipers. Still, there’s a timelessly renewed youth to rock music that’s delivered with this kind of tension and laser-focused aggression, and since that night, I’ve been listening to Negative Scanner’s 2015 debut on repeat this week with an enthusiasm and obsessiveness I thought I’d lost. I’ve appreciated the reminder that I’m not dead yet.