Winter is murder. Like, death. This part of winter, I mean. It always hits right about this time, right about the beginning of February, and then…it never leaves. The only good thing about winter—and I mean the only good thing—is the setting it provides for music. Somehow, these ugly days and endless nights provide a perfect ambient cathedral for certain types of sonics: lonely, angry, harsh, somber, spacious, wondrous, sad. All these tones echo perfectly against heat-blasted car interiors and closed windows keeping out subzero freeze; all these songs sound especially amazing in blinding late-morning sun and pitch black afternoons. So if I’m especially generous to new music during this season, keep those factors in mind—I cannot help how I hear these records, how they sound to my ear, and how much they affect me now.
On the cover of 2 is a field of broken ice under a slate gray sky, indicating perhaps that Retribution Gospel Choir recognize the setting to which their music is best suited. RGC is the new(-ish) project from Low frontman Alan Sparhawk, and while Low released a string of beloved albums and helped to define the “slow-core” genre, I prefer Sparhawk’s voice and vision in this context to anything created by his other band. 2 is enormous and loud, big ’70s riffs borrowed from Sabbath and Hawkwind, all feedback squalls and Marshall stacks, but strangely placid, almost picturesque, like some righteous combo of Neil Young and Sigur Rós. The big thrill here is in getting blown away by the sheer power of the sound, but the songs stand up to all that, too. [8/10]
The name Beach House has always seemed somewhat ironic—the band is more Twin Peaks than Jersey Shore—so it’s not a big surprise that the duo’s third LP, Teen Dream, plays so well in these frigid climes. In fact, calling it Teen Dream seems a bit of a misnomer—thing sounds like Patti Smith singing along to some old Slowdive records, i.e., not exactly some youthful frolic. I guess it is pretty dreamy, though: not dreamy like a crush; dreamy like a hallucination, like a lost afternoon spent in a thick, stoned haze. More robust and focused, relatively speaking, than the band’s droning, minimalist freshman and sophomore efforts, Teen Dream is also the sound of a band that has found its voice. And that voice is wrecked and heartbroken yet swoony and sweet; like a kid’s birthday party at Grey Gardens or something. The year has only begun but Teen Dream looms large; to these ears, it sounds almost like an instant classic. I can’t imagine it will sound quite so great as the weather warms, but I also can’t imagine too much sounding better than this at any point this year. [9/10]
On the subject of ironic titles, Laura Veirs gives us a record called July Flame: a perfect soundtrack to 5 p.m. sunsets and homebound weekends spent sipping Irish coffee and watching snow pile up on the sidewalk outside. Veirs’ electro-poppy folk has always shown flashes of excellence, but this is something else entirely. Stark, lovely and pristine, July Flame feels like a portrait of loss, wonder and remorse. The title track in particular stands out here—hushed, urgent, hypnotic and deeply, strikingly sad, this could be the blueprint for the rest of Veirs’ career, and maybe a small subgenre somewhere along the line. Over and over, Veirs begs, “Can I call you mine?” It’s touching and haunting, as if she doesn’t want to know the answer to her question but can no longer bear not knowing. [8/10]
Sweden is a cold, wintry land, right? I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s how I picture the place. Maybe that’s why all these Swedish synth pop bands sound so chilly and remote to me. This isn’t a new thing; I feel the same way about, like, Ace of Base and Abba, but I really catch a chill when listening to the likes of The Mary Onettes, Air France and Sambassadeur. The Shout Out Louds are probably a bit more famous than their aforementioned contemporary countrymen—all of whom are releasing pretty excellent populist pop right now—but that (relative) notoriety doesn’t manifest itself in the form of less-involving or -inspired music. Work took a few listens to sink in with me—oh, it was pleasant enough the first couple times through, but after I spent some time with it, I found myself enchanted by the songs’ depth of emotion and structural complexity. They’re also catchy and smart and sad, and while they might not make it out of the winter with me, I’ll surely be back for them this time next year. [8/10]