Monthly Archives: July 2014

The uncertainty of ‘Monster’

This is one helluva book cover. Bravo.

This is one helluva book cover. Bravo.

When I’m in the library, I’m usually there looking for something specific. But while I seek what I know I want, I try to keep my eye out for something I don’t know I want. Which is how I stumbled upon A. Lee Martinez’s Monster.

The premise is goofily brilliant: Monster is a human “cog,” a muggle who sees and remembers magic. So much so that he went to magic school to become the equivalent of a multi-dimensional pest-control professional or “cryptobiological containment expert.” Instead of traps and poisons, Monster has to rely on magic, and in his case, runes are his favorite weapon. Monster also has a unique physical feature: He changes color (usually) when he loses consciousness, either via sleep or being knocked out. And when he changes color, his power changes as well. For example, when Monster is blue, he’s virtually invincible.

There’s a girl as well. (There always is, isn’t there?). Judy’s life is a mess, with odd, destructive things always happening around her, problems she is blamed for but isn’t responsible for … or at least she doesn’t think she is. After a group (herd? flock? gaggle?) of yeti invade the supermarket she works at, she meets Monster, and the tale unfolds from there.

It’s a terrific set-up. There are plenty of funny situations, and the secondary characters – Monster’s girlfriend from Hell, his paper man sidekick, the hippie grandmother villain and more – are a hoot. Martinez has some real vision when it comes to his creation and how he uses a vast catalog of fantastic creatures is something to behold. And yet …

Somehow Monster is lacking something. It was a fun read, no denying it. But authors I thought of who have had success with similar sci-fi/fantasy tones, such as Christopher Moore and Neil Gaman, their work sticks with me afterward. I find myself thinking about the exploits of the Other Mother or the Emperor days afterward. Nothing from Monster stuck with me like that.

Again, this isn’t to say Monster is bad. It just didn’t resonate at the depth other books from the same genre have for me. I’ll definitely check out Martinez again, in part because I had fun with Monster, in part because I wonder if I’ll connect more with other works in his catalog.

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Forecastle 2014, in review

The fellas from Reignwolf flat out shred.

The fellas from Reignwolf flat out shred.

Before I get to the music, I just want to say how much I appreciated the free valet bike parking the festival offered. Really enjoyed not having to get into my car or worrying about my bike being stolen while I took in the tunes. Thanks to the folks at Forecastle and MailChimp.


The Black Lips – They were fun to watch live and are good at what they do – a 1950s rockabilly-punk hybrid. Also the first time I’ve ever seen a member of a band periodically try to spit and catch it in his mouth.

Gary Clark Jr. – Please, Gary, don’t slow it down. The three slow songs really dragged the energy down. When Gary and his crew would kick it into high gear, and the intensity and energy would soar. Bright Lights, Big City, my favorite, got a makeover, with some heavy syncopation on the chorus that was a nice live change.

Spoon – These guys find a groove and ride it. I’ve enjoyed them on disc, particularly Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction, but live they’re much more than the sum of their parts. Probably the first time I’ve seen a few thousand people simultaneously bob their heads for an hour.

OutKast – They’re not a rap group. They’re a damn funk band, and a fine one at that. They also played my favorite OutKast joint, Da Art of Storytellin’. My only issue was that they front-loaded all of the highest-energy tracks – B.O.B., etc. One or two of those toward the end would have been nice. Still, awesome to see Andre and Big Boi together. Record an album, please!


The Wans – Tight, young guitar rock crew. I’d see them again in a club or as an opener.

Jill Andrews – I saw her open for The Avett Brothers in early 2013 and absolutely loved her. Just her on acoustic guitar, with another guitarist in tow. However, I find her to be way too polished on disc, and that’s what I felt like when I saw her at Forecastle with a full band. Good for those of you into a more mainstream country sound, but just not my thing.

Spanish Gold – My biggest disappointment of the festival. I really, really like their latest release, South of Nowhere, and I was looking forward to the live show to see how they filled out their sound. And they pretty much sounded like they do on disc. They weren’t bad, but I was expecting some Santana-esque next level shit, and there was none.

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – Sharon Jones is a badass. No further commentary necessary.

Johnnyswim – I went outside my comfort zone for this lovey-dovey duo. Solid performers, but a little soft for me. That said, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prettier couple in person than Abner Ramirez and wife Amanda Sudano.

Slint – Hells yeah. I was hoping for sludgy 1990s punk metal, and Slint served it up. Also the first time I’ve ever seen a show underneath an interstate highway.

Jack White – White and his crew put on a clinic, blazing through country, punk, garage rock, rockabilly, metal and so on. They even threw in a theremin solo for good measure, as well as earning points for playing Blue Moon of Kentucky. It would have been the best performance of the weekend, except they got upstaged on Day 3 (see Reignwolf).


Sharon Van Etten – There’s something a bit mesmerizing about Van Etten. It was blazing hot, and she was cooler than the other side of the pillow, playing reserved, heartfelt, country-tinged cuts that kept the crowd’s attention. Her between song patter was a hoot, as well. Liked her enough that I’ll be re-visiting her new album, Are We There.

Trampled by Turtles

Dear Trampled By Turtles,

Have you ever noticed that when you play fast – sometimes even light-speed fast on tracks such as Wait So Long – the crowd is rowdy, energetic, dancing, yelling and loving every minute of it? And have you noticed that, when you start playing down-tempo songs that make up at least half the show, the crowd claps politely? I’ve seen you twice, and I’ve noticed it both times. Just something to think about.



Jenny Lewis – Jenny was gorgeous (vocally and visually), the stage was awash in bright colors and the band – with some help from the Watson Twins – were dead on. I had to leave early to get to Reignwolf, but I will be seeing Ms. Lewis again at the end of July in Indianapolis, and I can’t wait.

Reignwolf – Oh. My. God. This trio, led by axman and singer Jordan Cook, are the balls (thank you, Ron Burgundy). Seriously, Cook was force of freakin’ nature, breaking string after string, taking the mic off the stand to sing and throwing it over his shoulder during solos, jumping all over while playing 95% of the set without a guitar strap and just flat-out shredding some amazing blues metal. As much as I loved headliners OutKast, Beck and Jack White and shows by other acts such as Spoon and Jenny Lewis, there’s no doubt in my mind that Reignwolf put on the best show of the weekend. I can’t wait to see them in action again.

Tune-Yards – I’ve listened to them on disc, and while they are unique and interesting, they’re not my thing. That said, I really enjoyed the live show and would definitely be interested in seeing them again. I hesitate to say much more because I only caught their last 2-3 songs after the Reignwolf set.

Ray LaMontagne – I’m not huge on LaMontagne, but I enjoy the new album, Supernova, quite a bit and was looking forward to his set. But live … snooze. Maybe it was just too hot for music that mellow, I don’t know. But I left early to get up close for Beck.

Beck – What can I say? This guy puts on a show, working Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Busta Rhymes’ Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See seamlessly into the middle of his own songs. The high point: Debra. My favorite slow jam, and he milked it for all it was worth. Maybe not as good as the time I saw him at Bonnaroo in 2006, but still terrific.

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Notes from a ‘Breaking Bad’ latecomer

I came to Breaking Bad late for a number of reasons, none important, then decided to wait until the series was wrapped up to watch it straight through.

It was worth the wait.

The most Quentin Tarantino-esque character never to appear in anything by Tarantino is Mike Ehrmantraut. The scene above – which I couldn’t find in its entirety – may be the most Tarantino scene I’ve ever seen in something Quentin hasn’t written or directed. Mike releases the balloons to fly up to kill the power lines, then shoots his way through the business until his adjustment to finish off the baddie hidden behind the wall, all backed by funk music and all just screaming Tarantino. Add that to Mike’s “Half Measures” speech, and it’s amazing how Mike seems like a refugee from the Quentin-verse. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him smoke a Red Apple while chowing down on a Big Kahuna burger.

Many may not find that interesting, but if you lived through Pulp Fiction and its aftermath, you know many filmmakers spent the better part of the 1990s trying to become the next Quentin Tarantino, none with even a modicum of success. Kudos to Vince Gilligan and crew for finding that wonderful mix of danger, humor and bloodshed.

Why Breaking Bad might be the best show in the history of television. I say “might” for a reason. There are some problems with Breaking Bad, such as why a cautious, intelligent man like Gus Fring didn’t just put a bullet in Walter’s head the second Gale Boetteicher had even the vaguest clue about how to cook the blue glass. Fring’s on-going indulgence of Walter, even when he’s not being nice to Walt, makes zero sense to me in retrospect. Gus knew from the jump off what a bad idea it was dealing with Walt and ultimately paid for it with his life. It just seems out of character.

But enough about shortcomings. There’s one thing, to me, that elevates Breaking Bad to such lofty status: The end of Seasons 4 and 5. Because those two outcomes create two entirely different stories. If it ends after Season 4, Walt really is a hero. Yes, he’s done horrible things, mostly to horrible people (the main exception being the poisoning of Brock), but he accomplishes what he wants to accomplish: Keeping his family safe from his illegal activities while also creating an enormous nest egg to care for them should the cancer claim him. I’m not saying he’s absolved of his worst actions, but Walt still manages to come out a borderline hero. Season 5 changes that view of Walt entirely, as he actively jumps in to become a heavy hitter in the drug trade, not just a cook. He plans heists, he orders executions, he never thinks about taking a step back. He’s a full-on villain, even when achieving satori after his final fight with Skyler and Walt Jr. It was an amazing change in tone and a huge risk. It was also worth it, and shows a lot of guts pretty much no one else in network television has ever shown.

Why, Jesse, why? Why did Jesse stay with Walt? I understand the early attraction, the money, the drugs, getting a few laughs from making meth with a guy who flunked you in high school chemistry. But Walt was poison, period, and after a time Jesse clearly recognized that. Yet Jesse couldn’t say no to Walter until it was too late. I don’t know enough about abusive relationships to know whether or not Jesse followed that type of pattern, but it was another weakness of the show, that lack of a moment that cemented Jesse’s and Walt’s deep, unbreakable ties to each other that made Jesse cling to his former teacher until it tore him apart. It made for interesting television, to be sure, but it didn’t quite seem to make sense.

"Don't drink and drive. But if you do, call me."

“Don’t drink and drive. But if you do, call me.”

Better call Saul. I can’t wait for Saul Goodman’s spin-off. Saul was the enthusiastic if uneasy shyster, the guy who never thought anything was a good idea but was willing to hang in there in hopes of the big payday. Bob Odenkirk was the perfect choice, playing up the sense of humor to hide his insecurity about the depraved acts he was at least tangentially involved in. I think it will be interesting to see more of Saul the ambulance chaser as opposed to Saul the fixer.

I hate Albuquerque Nazis. Where Walt really went wrong: Getting involved with white supremacists. You’d think a guy like Walt who so coveted his anonymity would avoid guys with Nazi crosses tattooed on their necks, which doesn’t exactly exude subtlety. On the plus side, they made for a helluva ending.

Once again, we’re back to Pulp Fiction. As I worked my way through entirety of Breaking Bad, I kept thinking of Marcellus Wallace’s speech to the boxer Butch: “That’s just pride fucking with ya.” That could have been Walter White’s motto. Every time Walt thought about backing off, quitting, stepping away, something would anger him. Walt would perceive a lack of respect or his pride would be hurt, and he would in turn up the ante, to the point that, during the dinner scene at his in-laws, it seemed as if he might even admit to being Heisenberg to his DEA bro-in-law Hank. Walt’s only redemption is in the final episode, when he admits to Skyler that it was his pride that had pushed them to this low point. Powerful stuff, and a great way to end.

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What to make of ‘The Islanders’

If you go into Christopher Priest’s The Islanders expecting a normal novel – straight-forward narrative, three-act story, etc. – you’re not doing yourself any favors. Because normal doesn’t even vacation near the Dream Archipelago.

What The Islanders is, in part, is what it the “author’s” forward says it is: An attempt to catalogue some of the endless islands found in the Dream Archipelago. Many of the entries are what you’d expect to read in any travel magazine, a rather simple explanation of climate, attractions, when to visit, etc. Some are first-person accounts of time spent on that particular island. There are odder entries as well, such as a police transcript.

What it evolves into are numerous things. We get a history behind the history of many artists and public figures, as well as key events of great political and human rights importance. We get accounts of military atrocities, mystical happenings and ecological anomalies. And, despite our author’s protestations of what an ideal and wonderful place the Dream Archipelago is, the curtain is lifted to find its inhabitants are also just as vain, mean, confused and opportunistic as anyone anywhere.

I feel like I’m underselling this, and I shouldn’t be. Priest tells some interesting, intimate tales, while taking full advantage of the vast scope of his fictional project to do it. The Islanders has its own, unique brilliance. It’s just not a brilliance that’s easy to explain.

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Where are my beautiful, brooding, glittery vampires?

The body count starts at 200.

The body count starts at 200.

If Guillermo del Toro was involved in a live-action film that pitted the horses of My Little Pony vs. the fruity friends of Strawberry Shortcake, I would watch it. The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Mimic and what I consider to be one of the best flicks of the past decade, Pan’s Labyrinth, are all the reasons I need to tune in.


But if that resume wasn’t enough, having read the first book of The Strain series would have pushed me all in, as well. I love the idea of treating vampirism as a virus/biological threat, elevating CDC scientists and pest exterminators to hero status, and a true, well-planned, violent takeover of the planet by the forces of darkness. The book moves quickly and clinically, a terrific mix of science and superstition.

It doesn’t look like the show will stick 100% to the books, however. It’s been a few months, so maybe I’ve forgotten (if anybody remembers, please mention it in the comments), but I don’t remember Sean Astin’s character from the first novel. That said, there are always going to be changes from page to screen (see The Walking Dead). If it’s handled well, if you don’t lose too much or fail to keep the spirit of the written enterprise, it shouldn’t hurt the show.

One disappointing moment of bad science: 200 people dead on an airplane from something toxic, whether it’s chemical, biological, whatever. As coroner, you’re in the morgue with all 200 of these bodies. Do you go casually eating in the workplace or use half-assed safety gear? No, you frigging don’t. And that’s what he deserved to be eaten by vampires. Supernatural Darwinism. Or maybe just karma for the stupid and lazy.

But that one irksome lapse is in the minority. If the FX series premiere is any indication, what worked on the page is going to work just as well on screen. The show moves quickly and easily, building suspense and delivering scares. The cast works – Mia Maestro seemed a bit under-used, but it’s the pilot so I preach patience – it’s well written and looks fabulous. The book has great breadth, both in story and characters, and early on it seems that the producers understand how to make that translate to the screen. The full-on vampires are used sparingly in the premiere, and our “Big Bad” vamp we’ve seen but not completely, just enough to tease and raise cause for serious concern as to his motives and what he will do to accomplish them. The slow build is definitely the way to go, and the minds behind The Strain get it.

So I guess I’ll just have to go find my pretty, self-involved, glittery creatures of the night elsewhere. The dude abides …

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Bad form, Forecastle

(My apologies, readers. I don’t usually cuss this much on my blog. But this is the rare exception to that rule.)

What the fuck, Forecastle? What the fucking fuck?

So I go to the website today to start making preparations for three days of music, sunshine and fun right on the banks of the Ohio River, and what do I see? That St. John & the Broken Bones as well as Curtis Harding, both of whom were advertised as performing at the festival, are performing, but only in some extra (re: more money) sessions.

Pricks. That wasn’t mentioned when the initial lineup was released, nor was it mentioned when the lineups for each day were first posted weeks later. Nope, they just get mentioned after that initial rush, buried in the fine print, housed off the beaten path, so you can try to ream us for more cash.

Bastards … great way to start a festival.

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Maslany’s performances drive ‘Orphan Black’

Rachel, Alison, Sara, Casima and Helena, some of the clones of Orphan Black.

Rachel, Alison, Sara, Casima and Helena, some of the clones of Orphan Black.

At first, I wasn’t sure I liked Orphan Black.

It was a compelling enough idea, an orphan runs into a woman who looks exactly like her. Said woman jumps in front of a train, and the orphan takes over her life, thrusting herself into the midst of a conspiracy to monitor and study what may be an endless number of clones, just like her.

My problem was … I’m still not sure. It just wasn’t doing it for me.

But the clones kept coming. And everything changed.

We’ve all seen the double thing in TV and movies. And there’s always that moment where it becomes obvious – a technological glitch, the actor isn’t quite looking in the right spot, etc. – and you’re taken out of the story.

Orphan Black is the exception to the rule. Kudos to the technical team behind the scenes, for making it seemless. But it’s really Tatiana Maslany who makes it happen. She so deeply inhabits each character that you never question that each clone is a different person. Alison is the Type A soccer mom with homicidal tendencies. Rachel is the ruthless corporate chief willing to push any button to further her agenda. Casima is the sweet, soft-hearted scientist who jumps into an iffy relationship eyes wide open. Helena is balls-out nuts, a feral animal caged by a religious zealot for years.

And then there’s our heroine, Sara. She’s a product of a foster family that includes the shady Mrs. S and joyously gay “brother” Felix. She can barely take care of herself, let alone her child, the intuitive Kira. Her violent ex is a constant menace, her doppelgänger’s ex is a constant menace, and everybody with an examination table and a scalpel wants a closer look at her lady parts, because she has done the one thing no other clone has managed to pull off: Procreate.

Beyond Maslany’s brilliant acting performances, creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson deserve a ton of credit. The first season is mostly Sara not trying to be her own worst enemy, both while re-connecting with her daughter and while trying to make sense of the madness she’s dived head-first into. The second season the conspiracy expands, as do the originally simplistic roles of secondary characters such Alison’s cuckholded husband Donnie, Sara’s dimwitted and violent ex Vic and Detective Bell. The story never falters, and where many sci-fi TV offerings lost their way in their second season – Lost, Heroes, Revolution, etc. – Fawcett and Manson carefully guide their fragile craft past dire straits.

But nothing on Orphan Black works if Maslany sucks. And she most definitely doesn’t.

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Three reasons to like ‘Snowpiercer’

Had the pleasure of catching Joon-Ho Boon’s (The Host) Snowpiercer this weekend, and for any action, apocalypse or sci-fi fans out there, I’d recommend checking it out.

The sycophantic, snobby Mason (Tilda Swinton) is the overseer of those poor, miserable wretches living in the tail of a train that never stops.

The sycophantic, snobby Mason (Tilda Swinton) is the overseer of those poor, miserable wretches living in the tail of a train that never stops.

1. Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Mason, a woman at the top of the caste system on the titular train. The train travels the world non-stop, because to stop is to freeze, and to freeze is death. In an overreaction to global warming, a chemical was released into the air which cause the entire planet’s temperature to drop quickly and significantly, making most of humanity extinct. Mason keeps the “tail” in line, the lowest group in the train’s caste system. She relishes her power, which allows her to lecture incessantly as well as mete out violent discipline. Swinton is always great, and she hits another one out of the ball park with Mason.

On a train, there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

On a train, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

2. Claustrophobia. The train is such a great setting, forcing all action into compact spaces. The train allows no place to hide when things go wrong, and faces its own issues such as tracks covered by frozen avalanches. It is the salvation of everyone on it, as well as a curse and a prison. Allocation of resources is a key theme, and when you see how crammed in the folks in the tail are compared to the luxury of those who live closer to the engine, that righteous, 99 percenter rage will rise. All of this and more serve to make the train not just the setting, but one of its important characters.

Another obstacle face by our plucky group of revolutionaries.

Another obstacle faced by our plucky group of revolutionaries.

3. Traveling into the heart of darkness. I thought a lot about both Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the novel it was based on, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This idea that, at the end of the line, there is a man with answers, who is the answer, who must pay for his sins, for everyone’s sins. The journey, the obsession, the dread of what such a powerful man might do to defend himself and his territory. How that all evolves into myth, making such a man seem almost god-like, immortal. Boon’s screenplay and direction, beyond a talkie third act, create a consistent pace that allows the journey and ensuing action to flow from the tail to the engine.

But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

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‘Serpent of Venice’ not quite the splash ‘Fool’ was


If I could use but two words to describe Christopher Moore’s Serpent of Venice, I would choose these: Dragon shagger.

Serpent of Venice – a mish-mash of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello, with some of Edgar Allan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado tossed in, as well as cameos by Marco Polo and, yes, a dragon – marks the return of the titular fool Pocket from Moore’s Fool, itself a sendup of King Lear. Pocket is classic Shakespeare, loud mouthed and bawdy, a bastard runt with royal blood. Along with his even more obscene puppet, Jones, the monkey Jeff and Drool the moron, Pocket bribes, cajoles and fights his way through the powers that would doom both Othello and Shylock, committing heinous fuckery at every turn.

There’s a lot to like here. Moore is weaving a lot together, so the book rarely drags or is uninteresting. Pocket is still the star, even when he’s not, a ridiculous thorn in the side of Venice society. The dragon sub-plot provides some menace, and Othello and Shylock both come off a bit more believable than in Shakespeare’s works.

The problem? Not enough Pocket. He drives Fool, the ultimate antagonist plotting and pitting forces against each other for his own gain and for the pleasure of watching the fallout. In Serpent, Pocket is much more part of the ensemble. When he is in the midst of the action, the book is never funnier or more compelling. When he is not the center of what’s happening, Serpent loses its spark a bit.

That said, it’s worth the read. Moore has made a delightful, bawdy, laugh-out-loud mess of these classics. I’m sure Shakespeare would approve.

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Favorite albums of 2014, so far

My favorite albums through the first six months of 2014.

Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – I love it when a band manages to mix chaotic musical departures with strong song-writing, a la the Mars Volta. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra has that ability, creating complex sonic pastiche while just barely clinging to traditional rock structure.

Guns + Ammunition, July Talk – In my songs list, I said the dueling vocals of Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay sounded a bit like Nick Cave and Tonya Donnelly. Musically, this one-two singer punch helps give July Talk an interesting edge.

Half the City, St. Paul & The Broken Bones – These southern boys aren’t reinventing the wheel here. This is old school, big band soul, plain and simple. But the thing about that old school, big band soul sound is that, when done well, it’s impossible not to listen. Paul Janeway and his crew display power and deftness on their debut.

Indie Cindy, Pixies – It’s not strange that the Pixies are on this list. Indie Cindy is the outlier among rock albums from bands who broke up for an extended period of time then got back together to record in that it doesn’t completely suck (see the Fleetwood Mac catalogue, anything after Stevie Nicks’ initial run with the band). What is strange is that the Pixies, indie underground darlings of the late 1980s and early 1990s, are easily the most recognizable band on my list.

Out of the Black, Royal Blood – If you like Queens of the Stone Age, give these fellas a shot. Thick, heavy guitars and active drumming drive Royal Blood’s sound, and singer Mike Kerr provides strong, melodic vocals to play against the wall of sound.

Say Yes to Love, Perfect PussySay Yes to Love makes beautiful noise, from the opening track Driver – a full-throated roar over music that is constantly spilling from melody to chaos – to points deep in the disc, such as the schizophrenic vocals and slow, quiet fade out of Interference Fits. Sublime punk rock.

South of Nowhere, Spanish Gold – Southern rock, reggae, psychedelic rock, blues … Spanish Gold touches a bit of everything, committing only to make the best album they possibly can.

Sunbathing Animal, Parquet Courts – I think of Pavement and 1980s skate punk quite a bit while listening to Sunbathing Animal. That’s a good thing. Parquet Courts use some conventional punk and garage rock song structure, but tend to throw the occasional feedback solo or wall of noise in spaces where the average fan probably isn’t used to hearing them.

Honorable mentions: Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen; The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Courtney BarnettGirl, Pharrell Williams; Give the People What They Want, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings; Stay Gold, First Aid Kit; Standing By Your Side, Lee Fields & The Expressions; Theosophy, Pete Molinari; To Be Kind, Swans

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