Parsnip / The Shifters: Hip Blister Review

Hip Blister

Hip Blister is a split LP featuring two bands from the thriving Melbourne scene in Australia: Parsnip and The Shifters. Parsnip, which includes Carolyn Hawkins, Paris Richens, Stella Rennex, and Rebecca Liston, perform the first three songs on the album, and The Shifters, comprised of Tristan Davies, Lloyd Davies, Ryan Coffey, Miles Jansen, and Louise Russell, perform the last three. For such a short album (it’s only seventeen minutes long) Hip Blister is packed with interesting songwriting and refreshing originality.

Parsnip begins the record with “Counterfeit,” a sunshine-drenched jangle-pop song. Sweet and rough around the edges, the lead vocals and harmonies float and mix together like a swirl of syrup in a colorful mixed-drink. There’s an element of blurry-eyed nostalgia to Parsnip’s sound, as seen in the playful keyboard glissandos in “Dailybreader” that feel reminiscent of transitions between segments on a children’s television show. Still, in contrast with the music, the lyrics are anxious and sometimes claustrophobic. For example, in “Counterfeit,” the group questions whether or not it is possible to truly know someone, and in “Hip Blister” they shout, “I’m at the end of a chain but you keep tugging!” Its this juxtaposition of saccharine sentimentality on the surface and tense confrontation underneath that sets Parsnip apart from bands that merely wallow in hollow nostalgia. This girl band only adopts the flowery demeanor so that you don’t notice the spoon-full of cough syrup they’re shoving down your throat.

The Shifters, on the other hand, are equally unrefined and sardonic in the subject-matter of their lyrics, but completely lack the veil of sweetness. The riffs are repetitive and hypnotic, recalling the deliberate minimalist approach of early punk bands like The Velvet Underground. While the overall feeling is downright dark and bleak, the story-telling in the songs is excellent. In particular, the last two tracks offer unique perspectives on historical events. “Conscript” is told from the point of view of a young Australian soldier sent to Vietnam in 1966. Conscription for compulsory military service for twenty-year-olds was mandatory in Australia during the Vietnam War and I found it interesting to hear an angle of the war that was new to me. The brutally repetitive nature of the music also makes perfect sense in the context of the story, as illustrated in the descriptive lyric, “all it is, is back and forth between boredom and sheer terror.” The final song, “Righteous Harmonious Fists,” is approached from the viewpoint of a desperate farmer who joins the Boxer Rebellion in China. The Shifters’ blend of historically-set dramas and politically-charged lyrics are engaging and distinct, feeling like a much-needed detour away from the usual relationship songs and list of issues that have become cliches in popular music.

While Parsnip and The Shifters have distinct approaches to songwriting, their energies compliment each other very nicely. In essence, they are both two sides of the same coin, calling our attention to the contradictions and uneasiness inherent in the past, present, and future. Hip Blister may lack the polish of more expensive heavily-produced releases, but what it lacks in perfection, it makes up for in character. Besides, with two cool bands for the price of one, how can you lose?

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Weezer (Teal Album) Review

Weezer (Teal)

I think most people, including Weezer fans, would agree that Weezer peaked with the Blue album and Pinkerton all the way back in the late nineties. For two decades, dedicated fans have stuck with the group through thick and thin, as if Rivers Cuomo and Weezer would eventually triumph and make a big comeback. In 2018, Weezer finally made a breakthrough with a cover of Toto’s “Africa,” which went viral and became their highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2009. “Africa” played non-stop on the radio that summer; the band performed it live on Jimmy Kimmel, released a music video for the song featuring “Weird Al,” and kicked off 2019 by performing it on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

Considering the success of “Africa,” I wasn’t too surprised when the Teal album suddenly dropped on January 24. An album consisting entirely of covers of popular songs makes too much sense for the group. The now famous “Africa” is joined by covers of A-ha’s “Take On Me”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (as made famous last year by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). The tracklist panders to the lowest common denominator with songs that both millenials and their parents can sing along to. There’s nothing on Teal that stands out as particularly awful or offensive, the problem with Teal is that its viciously unremarkable in just about every way.

The songs on Teal are serviceable, but never unique or memorable. Instead, everything is painfully average and boring. Take “Paranoid” for instance; it’s a faithful straight-forward cover of the original song, but that’s the issue. Weezer doesn’t attempt to reinterpret or put any spin on these songs. There’s no reason why I wouldn’t just listen to the original instead.

Great covers bring something new and notable to a familiar song. Despite being based on existing songs, they require a lot of creativity. Only a few months ago, Ty Segall released his own covers album, Fudge Sandwich. Love it or hate it, listen to his cover of “Isolation” by John Lennon and try to deny that he made the song his own. In comparison, Weezer’s Teal feels so sterile and safe that it’s almost as if it was formulated by a board of directors in an office trying to figure out the equation for a sure hit.

Ty Segall’s cover of “Isolation”

Still, I will give credit where it’s due. “Stand By Me” is notable for being the only track on this album that feels like more than the absolute minimum amount of effort went into it. The combination of retro synthesizers and electric guitar power chords in the chorus makes the tune feel like it came from an alternate universe where Ben E. King was a glam rocker. Its easily recognizable, but for a song that has been covered by the likes of John Lennon and Florence + The Machine, Weezer manages to carve out its own little space here with their version. I wish there were more covers like this, but for the most part, the entire album feels as predictable as painting by numbers.

Weezer’s cover of “Stand By Me”


At the end of the day, Weezer’s Teal album is only a short footnote in the long discography of Weezer; definitely not their best work but probably not their worst either. Destined to be forgotten like their christmas album, it really only exists as a little side project to hold people over until the somewhat anticipated Black album comes out in March. So why am I even taking time to write about this and share my thoughts? There’s just something off-putting about the fact that a major band like Weezer, who once felt like the voice of a generation, has devolved into releasing lazy covers in an obvious attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Whether or not this album is designed to be taken seriously, I can’t help but feel disappointed that Weezer is regurgitating songs they know we already love and expecting us to lap it up. For a more wholesome alternative, attend a gig by your local dad band. They’re basically playing the same music anyway and it’s a great way to thank them for coaching your soccer practices back in the day.

Surfbort: Friendship Magic Review

Surfbort, headed by Dani Miller and consisting of David Head, Alex Kilgore and Sean Powell, are a relatively new punk band from Brooklyn, but listening to them play you might mistake them for some forgotten group from the hardcore era of the eighties. Although Surfbort sounds vintage, the songs on their debut album, Friendship Music, are relevant to 2018, tackling topics from global warming and gentrification to Trump and the government.

I had the opportunity to see Surfbort live this past summer before their debut album was released and I was struck by the showmanship of lead-singer, Dani Miller. Dressed as a bunny and proudly displaying unshaved legs and arms, she jolted the crowd with an electric energy. Swinging her arms as she danced around, she wore a maniacal grin on her face as she belted her lyrics with a sardonic biting edge. Miller felt like the embodiment of a cartoon character, akin to a dark Mickey Mouse. Her stage persona is larger than life; a wild playful exaggeration of American youth, cracking cynical jokes as the world goes to shit around them. The songs are often dripping with irony, abrasive, and full of attitude and frustration. Most importantly of all, it’s music that demands to be blasted at high volumes, probably by teens rebelling against authority, whether that be their parents or “the system.” The challenge for bands like Surfbort, who have reputations as great live acts, is capturing the energy of their best performances where the audience and band are feeding off each other, and translating that into a studio recording that is subsequently compressed into an mp3 file without losing the magic along the way. On Friendship Magic the band only succeeds partly.

Clocking in at a succinct thirty minutes, Friendship Magic struggles to stay interesting until the end. Miller tries her hardest to carry the songs with her defiant attitude and punky charm, but without the visual juxtaposition of her trademark wide-smile and tongue-in-cheek delivery as the whole package, it becomes abundantly clear that Surfbort only has a limited number of tricks up their sleeves and not as much to say as one would wish.

Before long, the guitar and bass lines become repetitive and start to blur together. Riffs aren’t exactly memorable and at times they are downright forgettable. Every once and a while, the band slows down to pause from the hardcore-punk aesthetic and breathe with some more laid back heavy stoner vibes, but after the third time this happens, it gets tiresome and tedious. At points these sections become so slow and boring that they totally stomp any momentum that the better songs build up. Speaking of momentum killers, is it necessary to loop the same audio clip four times at the end of “White People?” It isn’t interesting the first time, but four times in a row feels like a cruel joke. In addition to this, the mixing is inconsistent. The song “Les be in Love” sounds particularly poor and muddy like all of the instruments were recorded on one microphone at the same time.

As for the subject matter of the songs, the list of topics reads like the headlines to the news these days, but not much more. I like the in-your-face wake-up call about pollution and global warming that is “Trashworld” and the hilariously over the top “45,” but too often I found myself wishing the band would have taken the time to dig a little deeper and say something a little more intelligent than another joke about how small Trump’s hands are. The metaphors can feel trite and there isn’t anything that Surfbort has to say on Friendship Music that hasn’t already been said before. At its worst points, songs lack any self-awareness and come across as parodies of that one edgy “woke” kid at the back of the classroom who smoked weed once and read some Foucault.

Surfbort is a band I wanted to love. I think Dani Miller is a fantastic front-woman, but Friendship Music does not feel remarkable or special in any way. It’s not awful by any means and I’ll admit I smiled more than once listening to the better songs like “High Anxiety” and “Trash World”, but after the initial charm wears off, the album doesn’t have enough steam to hold my attention or keep me engaged. What should feel like a party turns into a slog, and before Friendship Music was over, I found myself hankering for some Blag Flag instead.

Halloween (2018): The Franchise Gets Up Again After Being Shot 8 Times

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“Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.”

This is the ominous warning of Doctor Loomis, played by the late Donald Pleasance, in the original Halloween (1978). The thing that sets David Gordon Green’s Halloween apart from the other eight sequels to and remakes of John Carpenter’s original, is that writers Green, McBride, and Fradley understand what made Michael Myers resonate so effectively with audiences in the first place. What makes Michael Myers scary is that he is totally opaque as a character. He is the embodiment of death; cold and inhuman.

In the original film, it is never explained why Michael murders his sister on Halloween night, why he goes after Laurie and her friends, why he puts on a mask, or how he survives being shot and stabbed. Even his doctor cannot breach the mind of Michael. In today’s world of franchises and prequels, it is rare for a film to leave so many questions unanswered. Had YouTube channels like CinemaSins existed in 1978, they probably would have nitpicked the life out of the original and pointed out ninety-nine plot holes. Yes there are plot holes in every film, but people today get hung up on this much too often. In fact, where many of the sequels and remakes went wrong was in their attempts to explain away the many mysteries of the titular murderer. Halloween II revealed that Laurie Strode was Michael’s estranged sister, Halloween 4 introduced a cult of Michael Myers, and the remakes spent a lot of time showing Michael’s deranged upbringing. This new film does the right thing by throwing all of this off the balcony and shooting it until its dead. The explanations and reveals are unnecessary because at his core, Michael Myers is a force of nature. He is pure evil because there is no logic for his actions. He is not motivated by revenge, he doesn’t have any connection to his victims, and he kills indiscriminately. It’s not even clear that he gets any pleasure from what he does. There’s something unsettling about this unstoppable hulk of a man hidden behind a featureless mask that enters homes in average American suburbia and kills without any motivation.

In the new film, Michael’s new doctor explains that Michael Myers can talk, but he chooses not to. This adds another layer to the creepiness. There are several points in the film where people try to get him to speak, but he never yields to anyone. Much like a powerful hurricane, he is unfettered and apathetic to his victims. To speak would make him more human. Michael gets shot, stabbed, hit by a car, and knocked down the stairs in this film, but he somehow always gets back up and never seems to show any pain. How can a supposedly human man keep moving despite all of these injuries? It seems that the powerful desire to finish what he started forty years ago is the locomotive pushing him forward and keeping him alive. He has waited patiently for the opportunity to escape and face Laurie Strode once again, which brings me to the other strong part of the film: Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance.

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Jamie Lee Curtis and Director David Gordon Green

Laurie Strode in this film is very much like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2; she has been traumatized by the events that she survived in the first film and she has become obsessed with the return of Michael Myers, arming herself to the teeth and even ruining her relationship with her family in the process. She is physically strong, but she is emotionally vulnerable, unable to move on past her trauma. Laurie pushes away her daughter in an attempt to protect her, but she seems to have a special connection with her granddaughter, who is the only person to have some sympathy for Laurie’s plight. There are some moments where iconography from the original film is referenced in shots that replace Michael with Laurie. This portrayal of Laurie and Michael as two opposite sides of the same coin adds complexity to their relationship as victim and victimizer, bringing attention to their similar desires to finish their battle and kill each other. The three generations of women in the Strode family end up coming together for a powerful climactic battle with Michael Myers in the end of the film, which feels triumphant and empowering to the women. Michael really takes a beating, but it never devolves into slapstick. Michael stays silently formidable and intimidating until the very end.

Another notable part of the film is the haunting, brooding soundtrack by John Carpenter, his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel A. Davies. It’s exciting to hear Carpenter, who directed the original film, return to the franchise for the first time since Halloween III. When the theme kicked in during the opening credits, you can bet I was grinning ear to ear, knowing that Carpenter was behind the synths and guitars I was hearing. The new theme is an update of the infamous version that everyone knows, but it’s still very much recognizable. The best new songs are “Laurie’s Theme”, which retains the melody of her theme from the original but with some alterations to reflect how she has changed, and the end credits song, “Halloween Triumphant,” which is summed up adequately by the title. It’s satisfying to see Carpenter, who heavily influenced the synth sounds of shows like Stranger Things, return to film with such a strong entry in his already formidable discography.

Having complimented what I found to be the best aspects of the film, I must acknowledge that Halloween (2018) is not a totally revolutionary new take on the slasher genre. It indulges in many of the trite generic conventions that audiences have come to expect from these films: a cast of disposable teenagers for the killer to slaughter, the victim that inexplicably slips as they try to run away, the bumbling cops, and the inevitable ending that’s not really an ending because you know that the slasher villain will never stay dead. In this sense, there aren’t too many surprises in this film. I have heard people point out that the opening credit sequence leans to heavily on nostalgia, but I argue that the image of the smashed pumpkin inflating and turning into a full jack-o-lantern is an exciting image that effectively conveys “Halloween is back, baby!”

Halloween (2018) suffers from the typical horror movie clichés, but it marks an unexpected revival of a franchise that had been beaten to death by years of awful sequels and subpar remakes. Unlike the worst entries, there is some love poured into this one, and the writers seem to be aware of what made the original film so great in the first place. Bolstered by some strong sequences and performances, as well as a memorable soundtrack, there are a lot of frights and fun to be found in Halloween (2018).

Track Review: “Small Talk” by Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett has a genuine love for music that is apparent in the wholesome smile that she often wears in interviews and performances. Of course, this is nothing special; painters love painting, swimmers love swimming, scientists love science, and water is wet. What sets Barnett apart though, is her ability to share her love for music with others. Generally, this radiance shines the brightest in videos of her performing, where you can see her having fun, but I also feel this strong energy on her latest track, “Small Talk.”

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Source: Andrew Brownbill/AP

“Small Talk” came from the sessions for her last album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, which explored pertinent feminist ideas on songs like “Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.” With its conversational nature and seemingly ordinary subject matter, “Small Talk” is a laid back stroll of a song. The premise is simple and relatable: getting stuck in painful casual conversation with someone as you wait for a friend to arrive. The chorus is also straightforward, consisting of the same line being repeated, “I’m waiting here for you.”

Barnett’s half-spoken half-sung delivery of the lyrics may give off heavy slacker vibes, but this belies the skillful playfulness of the instruments going on. The loose quality of the framework laid down by the sturdy bass and percussion leaves just enough room for the guitar and keys to fill everything out with some groovy improvisations. The way chords and little lines are thrown in feels like a call and response between the instruments and the vocals. On twitter Barnett admits the song was tracked live and she had only just shown it to the band. You can even hear her laughing, calling out changes, and making up lyrics on the spot. This adds to the overall unscripted live feel of the song.

“Small Talk” ends with a laugh. Something about being stuck with someone in meaningless conversation is funny. Even if the person you converse with is annoying, at least you have a story to tell afterwards. “Small Talk” isn’t an epic anthem or a heartbreaking ballad; it’s easy listening regarding the subtleties of life. The trick which is achieved splendidly here, and which is not easy to pull off, is making ordinary day-to-day happenings feel fresh by injecting some love of fun into them.

Mink’s Magic Medicine – Interview with Melissa Wright

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Photo courtesy of Glide Magazine

Saturday September 9, Mink’s Miracle Medicine is performing at Gary Owen Irish Pub in Gettysburg in support of their new album, Pyramid Theories, so I spoke with Melissa Wright of the band to learn a little bit about her and the music. Write shared a lot with me from the new direction of the band and what to expect from the new album, to ancient aliens and the Pyramids in Egypt.

First, I asked Wright about the band’s new direction. When Mink’s Miracle Medicine was formed by Melissa Wright and her friend Daniel Zezeski in 2013, the group strived to create “minimalism in country music.” Back then, the group represented an alternative to the mainstream pop-dominated country music; they stripped down country music to its basic essentials. Their new singles off the upcoming album, however, are noticeably more dense in instrumentation and feature more contemporary sounds. I asked Wright how the band has evolved over the last five years since those more simplistic early days. She explained how the minimalist aesthetic of the group early on was started out of necessity. The group was travelling a lot and the band only had two people, so they made music within the limitations they had. Since then, Wright has developed more of a desire to experiment with new sounds and instruments. While she still likes to stay song-focused, their new music features more bass, piano, and keyboard.

Next, I asked Wright how the creative process behind Pyramid Theories was different from the process behind their debut album House of Candles. While it took four years to get their first album out, their second album is coming out just about a year after the first one. Wright said that she ended up writing a lot of songs that didn’t fit the first album, some of which became material for Pyramid Theories. She also claimed to be in a much better place in her life now than she was when she wrote the songs for the first record. The process of putting an album together in a year was not easy, and she said the band might take more time for their next album.

I wondered if the band was ever afraid of falling into a sophomore slump and failing to top themselves. Wright said, “yes and no”. She explained that the group takes an esoteric approach to writing music. “Everything is an expression of us living. We can’t let what other people think affect us because we’re just articulating our own feelings and experiences.” They try not to let any pressure bring them down.

 

What can people expect Pyramid Theories to be like? Wright admitted that there is no cohesive theme to the overall album, but they approached everything with a focus on songwriting and telling good stories. Daniel Zezeski also wrote and sings on one of the songs, which is a first for the group, because Wright usually handles all of the songwriting and singing.

The title track of the album is already available to listen to online, so I had to ask Wright about the lyrics, which make reference to aliens and ancient roman architecture. Wright laughed and told me, “Yes, I was watching a lot of ‘Ancient Aliens’ and National Geographic documentaries about ancient cultures in Egypt and around the world.” She explained to me a theory which claims that the pyramids were built as a giant “tesla” cell powered by the Nile, which was used to generate electricity. Wright is fascinated by these theories of ancient technology, but she assured me that this is the only song about this subject on the album.

Finally, I asked Melissa Wright what Mink’s Miracle Medicine has planned for the future. Wright is looking forward to an animated stop-motion music video for “Pyramid Theories” that the band is currently working on. Although they have no specific plans besides continuing to make music and perform, Wright told me that the band just wants to keep experimenting and having fun. If you don’t like the stadium country music played on the radio today, check out Mink’s Miracle Medicine for an interesting alternative.

The Lemon Twigs: Go To School Review

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The Lemon Twigs have not taken any breaks from writing music since their debut album Do Hollywood came out in 2016. The two brothers, Michael and Brian D’Addario, released an ep Brothers of Destruction and two singles earlier this year, but the real meat and potatoes that had fans salivating at the mouth was the prospect of their sophomore album. The Twigs already proved that they had the creative aptitude and songwriting chops to write fun music with a retro flair, but the real question was how they would grow and improve. Do Hollywood was a solid debut from the relatively young band, but too many bands fall victim to the sophomore slump and risk falling back into relative obscurity.

The band could have played it safe and done more of the same, which probably would have been fine for most fans, but instead they decided to write a rock musical concept album about a chimpanzee named Shane, who is raised by adoptive parents to believe he is a human boy. Shane convinces his parents to allow him to go to high school where he meets a host of characters and learns some hard lessons. For sure, this was an interesting choice for the boys, but the execution is extremely solid. The tale of Shane is a coming of age story in which the chimp progresses from a naive child into a bitter and defeated tragic figure. Along the way, he falls in love, gets beat-up by the school bully, eats bananas for breakfast, and struggles to make friends. The climax involves a terrible incident which forces Shane into isolation. Straddling the line somewhere between Matilda and The Wall, Go To School is quirky and odd but also deeply affecting.

What strikes me is how there’s an overwhelming sense of authenticity in the lyrics and performances on the album. This isn’t just a story about a chimpanzee going to school, it’s a deep reflection on alienation and not fitting in. Brian and Michael use Shane as a mouthpiece to open up about their own insecurities and make themselves vulnerable in a way we haven’t seen them do before. Being only nineteen and 21, highschool is still relatively fresh in their minds, so a lot of the experiences feel relatable and realistic.

The orchestral arrangements, which were composed by Brian, are lush and well-balanced. The track “Born Wrong/Heart Song” is particularly unique on the album because it ditches the rock instruments for full broadway-style orchestration. The clarinet and strings are gently float around but the horns add a touch of darkness to the fairytale aesthetic. Michael gives one of his best vocal performances on this track, expressing a range of emotions from sadness to anger and hatred.

The song “Lonely” is a heartbreaking moment where Shane laments how he feels different from his classmates. He wonders if there is something wrong with him. The lyrics are angsty and corny, but it’s perfect in the context of the character. Shane is a highschool student overwhelmed with uncertainty and doused in insecurity trying to figure out his own identity; the lyrics should sound more like a diary entry than a Shakespearean soliloquy. The song reminds me of myself at that age and the overwhelming social anxiety I would feel when it seemed that everyone was hanging out with their friends after school without me. I’m sure that many listeners will be able to identify with Shane’s sentiments.

Don’t worry though, not everything is just angst and depression. There is a lot of fun to be found in Go To School. For instance, “Queen Of My School” is an old-fashioned rollicking rock song in which Shane’s sexual fantasies are realized. It’s probably the best track to blast and sing-along to in the car because of how energetic and wild it is. Subtlety is thrown out the window here, but a high school story that doesn’t include some awkward sexual discovery and raging hormones is not a believable story at all.

Some other memorable performances include seventies singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren as Shane’s father on the song “Never Know,” Susan Hall as Shane’s bitter mother on the track “Rock Dreams,” and Jody Stephens of Big Star playing drums on “The Student Becomes the Teacher.”

The characters and performances are strong, but there are some themes that feel underdeveloped. “The Student Becomes the Teacher” contains a lyrical reference to violence in schools. When Shane tells his father that he wants to go to school, his father tells him, “There’s just no way / Don’t you ever turn on channel five? / and we want you alive.” I think this concept of how school shootings are portrayed and sensationalized in the media could have been explored a little more. Mass shootings are a huge problem in schools across the country right now and a major source of anxiety for parents, teachers, and students alike which is unique to this generation. Especially given the dramatic climax of the story, it seems odd that the band would reference and gloss over an issue as prevalent as this.

It’s exciting to see the Lemon Twigs pushing their boundaries and topping themselves in a unique way. Go To School is engaging and relatable. Its nostalgic and sometimes over-indulgent in its over-the-top presentation, but always in a fun way and not a frustrating way. Its light and humorous at moments, but also heavy and emotional when it needs to be. The story is attractive but the characters and performances are what make it special. Although I wish some ideas were developed more, what strikes me the most about The Lemon Twigs’ musical is how it emphasizes the importance of love and empathy. In a time when people who disagree are often at each other’s throats, Go To School reminds us that the one thing we all desire deep down inside is to feel loved by someone.

Cut Worms: Hollow Ground Review

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Max Clarke, the musician behind Cut Worms, first caught my attention with his 2017 ep Alien Sunset. His solid songwriting and rough charm left more than one of his songs lingering in my mind months after I listened to the project. I was excited to hear what would come next, and my anticipation was only compounded when I learned that Jonathan Rado, who did a fantastic job producing the Lemon Twigs’ debut album, would be lending his talent as a producer to Cut Worm’s debut album.

Hollow Ground is warm nostalgia and earnest love wrapped in a blanket and tucked in together. Almost every song deals with love in some capacity, whether the lyrics address fantasies of love, unrequited love, lost love, blossoming love, or blissful love. The honest and relatable story-telling on Hollow Ground is where Clarke really shines; there are countless moments that evoke bittersweet feelings and states of being, the way looking through an old album of photographs does. Even the vocal harmonies and arrangements feel old and familiar, recalling early Beatles songs and soulful doo-wop.

Two songs from Alien Sunset, “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” and “Like Going Down Sideways,” return on Hollow Ground, but not without some changes. The vocal harmonies have been reworked to sound richer and more full. The rough demo-quality of the original tracks has been smoothed out and cleaned up, but not overdone to the point of being totally sanitized of their spirit.

While the changes to “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” were more subtle, “Like Going Down Sideways” received the most significant improvements. The bass, which was overpowering in the original version, has been toned down, and the guitar part was doubled into two guitar parts providing some counterpoint melodies to each other. This reorganization of the instrumentation allows for Clarke’s singing to come through better. He takes this opportunity to add some nice shaping to the dynamic structure of the track, starting out softer and building into a satisfying high-point in the chorus.

Clarke’s vocals come into their own on this album. In the past, his rough voice garnered comparisons to the likes of Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers, but here Clarke displays a powerful vulnerability in his voice that is more unique to him. On “Cash for Gold,” his voice cracks display frustration and anguish, and on “Hanging Your Picture Up to Dry” he adds a touch of heart-broken country twang.

“Cash for Gold” is one of the highlights of the album. It’s a certified head-bopper complete with bright guitars, a playful premise, warm backup singers, and a catchy hook. I love how the structure teases the chorus with a pre chorus before going back into another verse. This makes the chorus hit much harder when it finally arrives with its lyrics that beg you to sing along.

“Hanging Your Picture Up to Dry” tips its hat to classic country music and the likes of Hank Williams with the descending guitar line that opens the song. The song paints a simple but affecting picture of someone crying over a picture of a lost lover. The lyrics capture the feeling of hopelessness that accompanies a broken heart with the line, “Maybe by the time its dry I’ll learn to start anew / or maybe I’ll just lay down and die.” It may be overdramatic, but it’s not far from how losing someone can feel.

 
With Hollow Ground, Max Clarke has established himself as a songwriter and lyricist that demands attention. He now has a very strong debut album under his belt and he has shown enormous growth in just the past year, which is not an easy task. That being said, I wonder where he will go with his next release. His sound is very particular, which makes me doubt whether I wouldn’t tire from more of the same. Until then, I am more than happy to pour over these tales of love and life again and again.