Pop sucks (right now).
An alarming indictment, especially from the folks at Popdust. But if you've read one post-VMA write-up, you've read ten of them: pop music is failing us. Maybe it's the churn of T-swizzle's robo-whine greeting us into a new media cycle or maybe it was that photo of Katy Perry looked dazed by a fidget spinner aimlessly instead of singing about her devotion to our lord and savior. Even Fifth Harmony feels dampered by fake news; come on guys Fourth Harmony has such a ring to it.
Is all of that really what we need, now more than ever?
Which is probably why we've found ourselves collectively cheering on grumpy white dudes with guitars and miles north of thirty. Last week, grown-up New Jersey emo-belters Brand New hit the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time in their career, with the arrival of their warmly-received fifth album, Science Fiction (Procrastinate! Music Traitors), their first (and supposedly final) album in eight years. And there's a solid chance that it's spot this weekend will be taken by another comeback machine: James Murphy spent much of the past year selling out mid-size Brooklyn venues by the week-load and finally has something to show for it, LCD Soundsystem's big number four, American Dream (Columbia). It's a relative slow-burner compared to 2010's This Is Happening (there's no "Dance Yrself Clean" for the Spotify mix) but with enough subtly gorgeous moments to keep the scaplers in their nefarious business for years to come.
The National - "Day I Die"
The next week will also bring the return of another aging indie rock institution who has found surprising popularity in today's frantic clime: The National, who made their first number one on the Adult Alternative chart with "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" earlier this year. It's no coincidence that the album attached to, Sleep Well Beast (4AD) also happens to be their strongest in a decade, a coherent arrangement of the band's best parts: complex, layered, string instruments brought together only to be blasted through by frontman Matt Berninger's gravely baritone, a sound that's midway between Morrissey and the howling wind that rages on late-nights in Bushwick between refurbished warehouses.
The record's latest single, "Day I Die" both underlines this aesthetic with a sharpie, a sort of thesis statement of what the band can do when they're whatever the indie rock version of flexing is. This is important: if the National are America's Radiohead, they have to burn a few witches too: "Day I Die" lights the dry brush hoarded in the silo all summer long, the kind of antic, particularly crashing indie banger that most bands whip out once and never quite recapture, see: "Wolf Like Me" or "Maps." It immediately brings to mind the propulsive material of their 2007 breakout Boxer but it also fits in a way that, say, TV on the Radio's "Winter" or anything on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Mosquito didn't. Just listen to how tight guitarist and primary songwriter Aaron Dessner holds back the chorus, waiting until the perfect, most well-thought second to let Berninger's grovel explode.
Bully - "Running"
Reeling a little little further back in the retro column, we find the piecing, wail of Alicia Bognanno, frontwoman of Nashville grunge revivalists Bully. Their debut, the fittingly titled Feels Like, felt crusted in tar, searing jabs caked in the mud of the Wishkah that Boganno seemed to be trying to yell out of existence. It was released by Columbia, which felt like a strange fit, were these Madison Square folk in search of some wack slacks?
They're on Sup Pop now, a home that makes an overwhelming amount of sense, and their first single there, "Feel The Same" briefly communicated Bogannno's power as a narrative songwriter, lacing the song's power in a riff that Mike McCready wishes he could still find somewhere. "Running" is a longer exercise and most immediately establishes the kinetic dynamic between drummer Stewart Copeland and bassist Reece Lazarus, smart but capable of letting down their training when the moment calls for it. And there's no better occasion than Bogannno's searing blast of "I get anxious too!," delivered in that perfect studded octave of Courtney Love, circa '91.
Speaking of Love, Patty Schemel, who drummed for Hole back in the day, wrote a sincere essay for Sub Pop on the Bull's new sound, blurbing it as "perfect anthems for a generation still learning to harness the power of resistance." She also handily namechecks Sebadoh, Dino Jr. and the Breeders for comps and it sounds like she should know, right?
HiRSH - "Time"
HiRSH is the moniker of a Northern Californian fellow named Beau Hirshfield who has been dangling around the mountainous Cali scene for a while now and he sounds like it. "Time" is another old school throwback: a bouncing acoustic guitar riff run on a synth voice that slowly bubbles into standard soaring chords fare. But there's also something strangely gorgeous about "Time"- in an emailed statement, Hirshfield writes that he "is In a constant state of awe at the horrific shit that's happening around us."
It's American Eagle Apparel music for the outlet store that's only two exits away from hell.
Jackie Highway - "The Hottest Flame"
"I kept thinking I'd like to tell this person they were the hottest flame and what would anyone else think if someone told them they were the hottest flame."
That's Jackie Highway giving the lowdown on her latest, a description that strangely evokes that Miranda July app where strangers would deliver messages between friends and lovers around the world. Highway, whose tells me that she is the daughter of biologists who design ocean water content instruments and forms of chemical distribution in the blood, creates a suitably wonky kind of pop, bastard child of Laurie Anderson and Grimes, with a dash of Jenny Hval's icy instrumentals hiding in between.
For anyone looking for relief from Swift's mechanical smile, Highway offers warm relief
Q&A | Chelsea Cutler tells us the future of pop
Chelsea Cutler is a sophomore at Amherst who signed to Sony Music after a spate of covers (an eclectic bunch: from standard fare like Drake to marginally quirky easy listening like Wild Cub) got the attention of the musical higherups. Since then, she's netted a thumbs up-via-Soundclound from one of her label's most sonically ubiquitous names, the Chainsmokers and studio time with a Sony artist that I actually like, Quinn XCII. Her latest, "You Make Me" is a breezy entry into the pop soundscape, a case study in turning songwriting chops into something with a chance at getting squeezed into one of those hella lucrative Spotify playlists.
I had the chance to chat with Cutler about her influences as a songwriter and producer (she does both), gender representation in the music industry and just what allures about the rungs of the major label system.
AK: What kind of resources do you feel like major label infrastructure provides you that, say, putting music up on Soundcloud doesn't?
CC: It's a completely different level. A label is able to provide a team that caters to your artist project and vision. They help craft your branding, facilitate your growth, and ultimately provide support in all aspects. Labels also obviously provide funding so artists can record properly and have their songs mixed/mastered by good engineers, and distribute and market the music.
AK: Your publicist touts you as a "a fully self-produced artist." What do you try to accomplish with your music as a producer?
CC: You don't break out by making music that sounds just like everything else people are putting out. The only way to really make unique music is to create your own sound, and writing all my own stuff helps me maintain the integrity of my sound. I also want to produce so other women feel encouraged to produce their own music too. Typically production is such a male dominated space, and so many artists need to rely on other people to build their songs for them, male and female. I want to push those boundaries for myself and motivate other female artists to do the same.
AK: What are some of your influences behind the boards?
CC: Bon Iver writes the most emotive music, Odesza completely revolutionized electronic music. The 1975 [also] has super honest lyrics and rhythmic melodies that have really influenced my writing.
AK: You go to school. What do the kids listen to that their parents aren't?
CC: I don't know too many adults that listen to popular electronic/dance or rap. I know at least that my own parents really only listen to Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, Taylor Swift, and me.
AK: What's a song you wish you wrote?
CC: I don't really wish that I wrote anyone else's song because songs are super personal and unique to the artists, but "Hostage" by Billie Eilish is probably the most beautiful song I know at the moment.
AK: What's a song that makes you cry?
CC: "Blood Bank" by Bon Iver and I wanted to be able to move people like that.
AK: Who is massively underrated right now?
CC: A massively underrated artist is Matt Maeson.
CC: [There is] no such thing as overrated in music. You're doing something right if people like your music.
AK: Where do you see the future of music in, say, five years?
CC: No clue. New sounds/trends become popular because nobody foresaw them. Breakout artists become popular because they bring something new to the genre that people weren't expecting. So I'm pretty excited to see where the genre goes.
Andrew Karpan is Popdust's New Music Editor. Don't you want to send him a thick, hot pitch already? If I were you, I'd follow him on Twitter first.