Challenger :: "Are You Scared Too?"

Challenger, a band who released an incredible debut single, "I Am Switches" over the summer, returned with the release of their full length, self-titled debut this past Tuesday. Second track, "I Am Switches" is movie music with three distinct movements: an opening description of the problem, a down-tempo middle section where things look bleakest, and a rousing and ebullient conclusion. The middle third is dark, unfettered elegy, a vocalist left alone with one long, held chord, before the arrangement takes on a bit of Paul Simon-Graceland bass, and a soaring final sequence of keys and a guitar solo that jerks the telemetry skyward. It requires a bit of patience, certainly, but the rewards are manifold. The next song on the record after "Are You Scared Too?" is the aforementioned and explosive "I Am Switches," a song that erupts with as much force as any this year. Challenger does each of these tricks with equal impact, crushing sadness and relentless hope, often in the same song.

Listen :: Challenger - "Are You Scared Too?"


Shout Out Louds :: "Blue Ice"

The Shout Out Louds return nearly three years after the somewhat underwhelming LP, Work with "Blue Ice," a sweeping bit of widescreen pop. If Work was world-weary and a bit too intentional, the band here sounds committed to something more earnestly down-tempo. Adam Olenius, the mumbling soul of the band's truly excellent Our Ill Wills and Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, the voice who launched a thousand Morrissey and Cure comparisons, is his usual distant and morose self (see "Parents Livingroom") on "Blue Ice" . He braces his vocal against a playful piano riff and a flickering guitar line, as the slow-drive arrangement describes a sort of cold clarity in form and function. The band will have a full length out on Merge early next year, "Blue Ice" only a teaser 7", not possessing half the bombast and grandiosity of whatever will serve as the first single. Expect Olenius, for all his thoughtfulness and pacing here, to again find stirring moral victories - this is, after all, a band who wrote a song entitled "The Comeback" - somewhere up in the sky.

Teleman :: "Cristina"

London three-piece Teleman's debut single, "Cristina" opens with the intimate, "I'm coming back to where I started," an odd aside for a band only at its very beginnings. It is reversed remembering, the past pitched as cloistered and bizarre on lyrics like "I never meant to be the bad kid" or the intensely adolescent, "turn the lights on, throw everything around your bedroom." Of course, the glossy arrangement, a sort of cold medicine, plaintive Phoenix, eventually centers on the song's most important line, "some thing's just take you right back, you forget you've got to go soon." The past, for all its hemming in, reminds us again to leave. The last line, "why not let the music play, there's nothing in the way now," reveals this compartmentalized remembering has had its moment and is now gone.


Veronica Falls :: "Teenage"

Veronica Falls' "Teenage", a jangly little single, inspires nostalgia in more than just its name. For the teenagers of the 1990s, this all feels like a lost submission to the Reality Bites soundtrack, Winona Rider issuing winsome and distant stares from a softly lit and unintentionally ironic Volvo passenger seat. Narrowing even further, Veronica Falls sets the scene as "driving late at night", all dashboard glow and passing headlights, where you can "listen to the music you like," which the listener almost certainly has to presume is "Teenage."


Stepdad :: "Must Land Running"

One of 2012's most self-assured and brash singles, Stepdad unleashes the organized cacophony of peeling synths and buzzing keys on "Must Land Running." It is widescreen pop that boils over on the self-actualizing lyrics of the chorus, "Feel it all / feel it all around you / take it back / take it back with you." The keyboards, and it feels like there are fifty of them, climb to the top of the room, flickering against the top of the arrangement like a million summer moths around a bare porch light bulb. "Must Land Running" represents a bombastic and enthused thesis statement for a band who seems to be going for broke in every song on their debut LP, Wildlife Pop. The band, unironically, after unpacking the necessities of water and food on "Must Land Running," jubilantly declare, "There is life!", a statement that would be absurdly tautological or corny if, in this case, it weren't so damn true.


Mystery Pills :: "Anti-Pattern"

Only a noticeable minority, at least outside the old Confederacy, refuses to embrace the triumph of science and reason. This is progress, even in the anti-intellectual bastion of the United States. Still, this inexorable march toward truth is kills a bit of the mystery. It kind of sucks to know how the transfiguration works; the inexplicable ends up becoming the banal. Bedroom jammer Mystery Pills, the work of Raj Dawson, embraces a bit of this duality, a plea for the strange, that which isn't beholden to an algorithm or a matrix of outcomes. In some sense, he flat rejects it in the blipping chorus of "Anti-Pattern", shouting, "Hey, we never needed you anyway," at the assortment of "mathematicians" who couldn't grasp the temple he was building. It is all playful to be sure. Dawson embraces numbers and predictive validity as much as the next person with a high school education. But in an age of definites, Mystery Pills, like the implications of their very name, embrace amorphous aesthetics, the beauty in the unknown.


Ra Ra Riot :: "Beta Love"

Ra Ra Riot jag in a new direction on latest single "Beta Love", afraid and ebullient for the future of their band and their sound. Put another way, it's a long way from the strings-first rock songs they arranged at Syracuse. They played in basements before storming the New York rock scene in late 2006 with a set at Canal Room that offered a take on orchestral rock that put even Arcade Fire on notice. And then the band struggled to bring their intensity to the studio, to record accurately the ruckus from the stage. It never quite happened, save maybe on the bouncy, Honda-approved single, "Boy" from their 2010 LP. On "Beta Love," treble is the move. Buzzy keyboards strain against their outer markers and Wesley Miles, one of the best voices in indie rock, eventually ends up soaring almost into auto-tune and, finally, lands awash in layers upon layers of his own voice. The strings make their requisite appearance, a charming bit of the baroque in "this city of robot hearts" as Miles describes the hyper-modernity of "Beta Love." It is pretty and a little disturbing, smiling into the void, synths aimed at the sky and neon lighting what little we can see, the language and fear of the future in the same song.


Alt-J feat. Mountain Man :: "Buffalo"

"Breathe on me my buffalo," coos Alt-J lead-singer Joe Newman as sort of invocation before latest cut, "Buffalo" suffers a minor explosion into its second movement. Representative of the band's methodology, they are here backed by a choir, shifting easily from sparse elegy to an arrangement in full throat. The final twist sees the band recalling their second-movement hook from single, "Breezeblocks," the lyric "please don't go," replaced with a tweaking, "The buffalo from Buffalo." It is delicate and edgy, soft and dark, silly and serious. The final descending progression purporting to do all this conterminously.


On The List :: The Joy Formidable @ Littlefield [11.11.12]

Ritzy Bryan is absolutely possessed. It is a mixture of sex and violence, rock and roll tied up in this white Victorian dress. Her signature stare, a blend of surprise and being overcome, scanned the corners of the room at Littlefield, a challenge and a dare from the lead singer of the Joy Formidable, one of the best rock bands you can currently see live. But this possession, the seeming loss of control in the hands of the moment has a secondary quality. As Bryan collapsed, heaved and writhed in the hands of her music, she captured the audience, a trick of being possessed and possessing in the same moment. Her eyes, writ large for effect, communicated that she was both here and somewhere else, or, that what was happening was about both her and her audience.

Playing a few intimate shows in New York in advance of their coming sophomore LP, Wolf's Law, the band took the stage at a sold-out and still entirely pleasant Littlefield, to the head-nodding tones of "The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade". Bryan produced her perfect little diorama of destruction on the song's signature lyric, "This dream is in a telescope now," a line written four years ago that seems almost anachronistic now that the band is seemingly so close to crossover, mainstream success. Put another way, the last time they played Brooklyn was nearly three years ago at Union Hall, and though Littlefield is just a few short blocks away, these two sets are separated by a gulf of touring, record sales and reputation-building as a one of the single most transformative live bands of their generation. Using this past to craft their future, the band played, "I Don't Want To See You Like This," a favorite from their debut LP before unleashing, "This Ladder Is Ours," the consensus first single from their forth-coming record. There is little better metaphor than possession of a ladder upwards, especially given the song's video featuring the band in a house blown to bits. Joy Formidable aim upwards because they are so gifted at the creative destruction of their surroundings.

The band moved through favorites, "Cradle," the first song that seized the American audience, and "Heavy Abacus" before playing some new, as-yet-unknown material. They returned to their back catalog on closer, "Whirring", a song where Bryan is at her finest zombie self, charging around the stage, bangs swaying at her eye line with a mixture of menace and couture. In the final moments of "Whirring", bassist Rhydian Dafydd pounded the cymbals on the drum kit, pointing to drummer Matt Thomas and mouthing, "This fucking guy" as Thomas did what he does best: unleashing double-tap fill after double-tap fill. Thomas returned the favor, giving Dafydd the finger which took one hand away from his drumming, a fact that did not seem to disrupt the fury coming from the kit.

Closing with a bit of the dualism that made them suitably famous, Joy Formidable returned for an encore of the acoustic, "Silent Treatment" and the thrashing "Ever Changing Spectrum Of A Lie". Bryan did both poles well, vulnerable and a bit awkward without her guitar and then wantonly destructive. It was possessed and possession, weakness and strength, quiet and loud, a band that is always moving in two directions at once. Finally, this dualism will be appropriately reconciled as they move onward and upward on a ladder of their own making, sex and violence in the same breath.


Harriet :: "No Way Out"

Harriet, an LA band with former ties to PAPA and Dawes, already have one of the best songs of the year, the seminal and eruptive, "I Slept With All Your Mothers." While this debut single was covered in a fun bitterness, on new release, "No Way Out", singer Alex Casnoff describes a moment last April when he ingested far too much weed and his heart stopped. It is considerably more elegiac. He was rushed to the hospital, dosed with Ativan, doctors and nurses saving his life. It's the same piano-base of "Mothers," though more episodic and sparse, a progression toward literal death and then the slow march away. Casnoff outlines this feeling of dying: "you've seen how your body reacts, you've lost control, your body is nowhere," he intones before describing, quite literally, his experiences in the hospital, a doctor who gave him water, someone calling his name. "No Way Out" isn't an anti-drug polemic, rather a mediation on powerlessness against the backdrop of a specific and almost cataclysmic error. The final movement is vocoder harmony, Casnoff and many layers of his own voice singing, "if you hold on, it'll be alright."

Download: Harriet - "No Way Out"


CHVRCHES :: "The Mother We Share"

Riding down the back of Purity Ring and the intentionally bizarre Grimes, CHVRCHES (a Latinized "Churches") craft one of the best synthesizer singles of 2012. "The Mother We Share" explodes into a glittering chorus of fist-raising Kate Bush-lite vocal loops and buzzing keyboards that recall a far poppier version of the Knife. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry does the vulnerability trick well, howling a barely post-adolescent soprano at the maw of synthesizers and digital flourishes that threaten to drown her, managing to tame them all into time and rhythm for a refrain that takes the listener to the top of the room. It is a binary cacophony brought into step. The next movement, a major label deal, is sure to follow in 2013, hacking off a piece of what the Good Natured, another precocious girl-fronted synth outfit, never quite delivered. For CHVRCHES, as Mayberry sings in the chorus, "the way is long but you can make it easy on me," the way just got a lot shorter and easier for these veterans of other bands who now have nothing but bright lights ahead.


The Little Ones :: "Argonauts"

All the way back in 2005, The Little Ones stormed into the early music blog scene with "Lovers Who Uncover", a song that boiled over on falsetto chorus that bemoaned everything with a sighing, "oh no". The bridge invoked a different faded glamor, "way back when we were the latest around," before the lead guitar line and a series of fist-punching "hey's" papered over this richly modern anxiety. Now, seven years later, The Little Ones prepare their second LP, The Dawn Sang Along, a title that invokes at least something of a second coming for one of the original buzz bands that never quite panned the way they perhaps should have. First single and lead track of The Dawn... is the very fun, "Argonauts", a track rooted in ebullient vocal loop. Most revealing, the band opines about being "back again" and "the chance to get it right", before the arrangement washes away into a sea of warm guitars and super-treble organ chord. It is a reintroduction, and a promise to resume the chase of that which eluded them, a golden fleece if we take their metaphor at face value.


You Won't :: "Who Knew"

One of the great conditional love songs of 2012, You Won't craft a breezy earworm melody on "Who Knew", all centered on the word "if". Surrounding the great unrequited questions of why things don't work out, the band builds a series of increasingly absurd counterfactual scenarios ("If I was a cute little kid", "If I was a middle aged man", "If I was 103", "If I was Marty McFly") backed by flickering mandolin and a breathing, moaning accordion. The chorus, "All along I did what I could, but you tell me my timing's no good," is the real killer, the sense that under all these lighthearted hooks lies something darker. After all, what could have happened, all these compounded hypotheticals, never did, two people stuck out of time and all wrapped up in the word "maybe".

Despite all these conditionals, the band definitely plays the Bell House on December 1st.


Mesita :: "XYXY"

A bit of downtown lounge-act veneer covers the surface of Mesita's latest single "XYXY". Following early 2012 LP , The Coyote, and its shimmering first song, "Ken Caryl", which recalled the better-than-the-best-of Loney, Dear, "XYXY" taps a different vein, though no less satisfying. The aesthetic here is loaded with splashy drums and little lyrical admonishments like, "you were not the thing I'm dreaming of," as Mesita sends a fuzzy melody against a sparse piano and watches the unfolding drama. Episodic in nature, "XYXY" pulls back into measures of isolated piano before unleashing itself again with a drum fill and James Cooley's signature warble. Think Tom Vek doing a lounge set, and then embrace the long, slow, outtro of keys and drums, a relaxed end to a spasmodic and mercurial arrangement of forces.


Teen Mom :: "I Wanna Go Out"

Teen Mom's "I Wanna Go Out" drops messily in medias res, like a rehearsal the listener stumbled into, the bass, drums and guitar eventually finding a synchronicity. Of course, this is a useful descriptor for a band who's instrumentation resembles so firmly the Police, and maybe more accurately the arrangement tension in "So Lonely". Teen Mom, a Washington, D.C. act, however, draws much more on an independent, college radio aesthetic than Sting's wanton talent for writing radio singles. The chorus, a shabby and fuzzy winner, is also the title lyric, a falsetto lilt from singer, Chris Kelly. The conclusion churns as a crashing final act. The rolling snare leaving little doubt this is sonically darker than the lyrically morose Police sound it draws so self-consciously from.


Paradise :: "Endless Wave"

Paradise's debut single, "Endless Wave" opens with a buzzing synth chord that harkens everything from Stars' "Fixed" to Phoenix's "1901". The electronic rock geography isn't incorrect either, though "Endless Wave" draws a great deal on the surf-rock reverb for the buried, echoing vocals. It also doesn't hurt this beach-aesthetic that the main lyrical edict is "all aboard, my friends, here comes the endless wave" and the song's middle section owes its layers more to Pet Sounds than any synth rock encyclopedia. A well-arranged cacophony, "Endless Wave" is one of the most promising debut singles of 2012, no more clearly reduced than the 1.36 mark when the song unleashes into an ambitious middle movement that is one part Brian Wilson and one part the finishing kick of "All My Friends". Major label A&Rs take notice, spin your chairs around twice and give this a serious listen: Paradise, four kids from London, are going to be very hard to miss over the next year. Better yet, New York, they play Glasslands on November 13.