Day 133: Summer’s For Music – On Blockbuster Music and 5 Albums You Might’ve Missed

by Tom Noonan

This article first appeared here.

Summer is a time for blockbusters.  Massive urban destruction and superhuman redemption overcrowds our movie theaters, and we line up to watch it all burn.  It’s become a ritual, escaping the heat and throwing ourselves into the fires of Gotham, which is actually New York, which is actually Hollywood, which is actually Pittsburgh, and emerging renewed, surviving the sonic boom of twisted metal and Hans Zimmer horn blasts.  It’s a ritual, and we all abide.

But 2013 is a different type of year, the year of the music blockbuster, albums sold to you straight up as products, with hashtags reading #NewRules but are really just recycling old ones.  Chris Nolan sold The Dark Knight Rises to you by plastering the bat symbol on the sides of buildings, so Kanye did the same with his face.  The Avengers sold you an app, so Jay-Z made one too.  This is the year where music adopted the ritual; so don’t feel bad if you’re still stuck in the fire.  We’ve all been there.

I’ve put together a brief list for anyone who’s ready to move on, a collection of small time projects that would probably be showing in the art house theater in town that sells vegan popcorn and “all-natural soda”.  Here are five albums to cure your blockbuster hangover.

Baths – Obsidian

Baths’s atmospheric and burrowing third album, Obsidian, can be imperfectly described as The Postal Service’s Give Up if it were rewritten by Darren Aronofsky.  It’s at its best when Will Wiesenfeld pushes his vocals flat against the music, letting them form a slight crust around the album’s expansive core.  His voice is more malleable, though, and can also fill in any empty spaces left among the complex arrangements, like roots spilling downward.  Obsidian is a dense album in the best sense of the word.


Gunplay – Acquitted

Acquitted is one of those mixtapes that could easily be pulled into the ephemera, a collection of mostly unmemorable songs from Maybach Music’s end of the bench player, Gunplay.  For the first nine tracks, Acquitted is a strong reminder of exactly who Gunplay is as an artist: a solid, often clever role player who is capable of chilling transcendence, like the final verse of the Peryon featuring “Salute Me” where he warns, “AR15, scrate, scar the scene/Only way you breathin’ if the grace of God intervene/I’m bringing trouble on the double, my double back gon’ be me/N—as gon’ perish they babies and parents gon’ bleed.”  It’s a pair of lines that represent the real version of a particular type of sincere insanity Maybach artists are usually best known for feigning.  This sincerity is what makes Acquitted‘s closing, and far and away best, track, “Bible on the Dash” so affecting.   With a surprisingly vulnerable vocal performance, one that is contrasted brilliantly with production sounding like it was built exclusively for the Don himself, the reflective track becomes both the most noteworthy part of the mixtape and the most genuinely enthralling.  ”Bible on the Dash”, unlike the rest of the album, feels more spontaneous, like Gunplay laid it all down in a one-take freestyle.  I’m sure this isn’t the case, it couldn’t be, but there’s something about the song that is unforgettable.  It moves like so few Maybach joints can.  If Gunplay is just a role player, then this is his Danny Green moment.


Caroline Reese – Slow Code

The Americana canon is getting congested, that’s for sure, but here’s the other side of the bottleneck.  Caroline Reese’s second album, the itinerant Slow Code, roots out all the overdramatics brought into the genre by Mumford and Sons and newer Avett Brothers to rebuild everything using only base elements.  The themes might be familiar, but the lyrical staging imbues her stories with a fresh perspective, skipping the superficial and finding the soul, like the Coen brothers directing a western.  Everything you need to know about Reese’s strength of songwriting can be found on “Fog In The Headlights”, a storm scene that doesn’t get caught up with itself, but moves into clear, focused prose.  It’s personal yet relatable, specific yet common.  It’s Americana.


Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold

Parquet Courts’ second album Light Up Gold is so furiously focused and punk-paced that it always feels like singer Andrew Savage might get left in its wake.  Really, his vocals sound like they were recorded in some sweaty, smoke-invaded karaoke bar, and he’s spending most of the night trying to keep up with the words as they scroll across the screen.  Savage is the band’s nuclear reactor getting ready to blow.  It might not always sound great, but few albums get this kind of energy right.


Waxahatchee – Cerculean Salt

Katie Crutchfield’s second album under the name Waxahatchee, Salt is a collection of fractured stories and refracted light, all of which are cleverly pieced together so that the jagged edges create a sort of momentum-building covalent bond.  Crutchfield plays with themes and imagery like an ordinary songwriter might mess around with the arrangements, allowing Salt to become more of a movie than an album, balanced on a soundtrack just sturdy enough to hold everything up.  But what makes the album so strong is its grasp of minimalism, not in instrumentation, but in emotion.  Only two songs exceed three minutes, which lets Crutchfield come at you with gut-punches that never lament.  It’s an album that makes sense because it doesn’t fit together exactly right.  These aren’t polaroids; they’re vivid, pulsing memories.