2019: Albums of the Year

Friendship – Dreamin’

Last October I ordered LISA/LIZA’s ‘Momentary Glance’ on vinyl. An Orindal Records sampler CD felt like a bonus, when I found it at the bottom of the package. The only CD player I own is in my car – a red convertible smart car, I know. I still remember audibly saying, “What’s this?”, when the CD’s second track played as I drove through my hometown. A voice that existed somewhere between Interpol’s Paul Banks and Majical Cloud’s Devon Walsh emerged from my speakers along with a tugging guitar riff, a homespun pedal steel, and delicate drums. From the first verse, it felt like a song I’d known my entire life, that magical moment music sometimes brings, when all the stars align and each slight change, each new sound, leaves you breathless. Though not safe nor advisable, I reached for the CD cover mid-drive and read that the track was ‘Skip to the Good Part’ by some band called Friendship.

From there, I became obsessed with ‘Shock out of Season’, the band’s first full-length and the home to that song. A unique blend of Americana and Dan Wriggins’, Friendship’s lead singer, deft storytelling, embellished by whirring electronics. Two years on and we have their next full length, ‘Dreamin’, a record that’s more restrained instrumentally yet no less affecting. Any effects, any adornment, that could divert attention from the core of each song have been ditched. Though smaller in scale the songs are more affecting than ever; Wriggins’ incredible wordsmithery more prominent, the invention of Michael Cormier’s percussion clearer to the ear. 

Wriggins has an appreciation for the ‘little’ things in life. He understands that when we look back on our past exchanges, we often obsess on the minutiae- the tone of people’s voice, the small comment that planted a seed of doubt, a comment that initially seemed so unimportant yet months later you curse yourself for not spotting it. Like an esteemed novelist, he knows how to paint a scene. On ‘Dusky’, we find him on his porch with a friend, searching for words that might coax them into revealing what’s plaguing them. “Blessed is the front porch / and your six Pabst / your feet resting on the milk crate / something’s on your mind…I wanna hear your interpretation”. 

Most of Dreamin’ took shape while Wriggins and Cormier (drums) worked and lived as groundskeepers at a private estate in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. The gently pulsating ‘You Might Already Know’ recalls the bittersweet experience of receiving a message from a lover whilst you’re so far away from them. “You sent me a picture / you were looking alright / it’s hard to make up / the ocean at night”. In the chorus, Wriggins describes how his partner’s love managed to break down the barriers he’d enclosed himself in. “You found a portal to my door / And you walked right in / I didn’t think there was a door there / But apparently it was wide open”. 

Cormier’s invention behind the kit on ‘Dreamin’ is applaudable. His first sketches and ideas for the record’s drums involved a lot more effects in Audible and that experimental spirit can be heard throughout. On ‘Low But On’ the drums sound elemental, like rain, gusty winds and lightning all at once, they sound as insistent as a woodpecker chipping away at bark on opener ‘I Don’t Have to Imagine Your Love’, while ‘Sure’ features what sounds like clapping castanets. 

‘Dreamin’ comprises so many stand-out moments that it’d be exhaustive to go through each one. It cements Friendship’s place as one of the underground alternative scene’s best bands. ‘Dreamin’ is a record that will never grow old. 

Great Grandpa – Four of Arrows

By Sage Shemroske

Great Grandpa draw from the tarot deck when handing us their second full length LP, ‘Four of Arrows’. In a tarot deck the Four of Arrows are a sign that you’re in need of introspection, quiet, recovery. The card indicates faith in counsel or help. And so it goes.

Though the wetness of the band’s Seattle origins can be heard, the majority of ‘Four of Arrows’ was written as Patrick and Carrie Goodwin, the group’s chief songwriters, made their way through the Midwest. And this is obvious on tracks like ‘Mostly Here’ when vocalist Alex Menne slurs “all the lives we’ve lived and all the lives to be are full of trees, changing trees”. As a Midwesterner moistening my skin before winter dries my tongue, I can imagine the band writing in summer’s dying moments. I can’t help but think Great Grandpa want us to have this album while there’s still time to enjoy it. The pop-y ‘Mono No Aware’ seems to agree as it slips through your fingers, knowing that many of life’s prettiest parts are impermanent. “Do you feel the same thing that I do?” Menne asks, because for the time being they are here and they are alright, and because memory is oftentimes lost in the void and our presence is not always guaranteed, sometimes that’s enough. You take your joy where you can get it. 

On the optimistic ‘Bloom’, Great Grandpa dares to ask us to push aside our sadness and consider how far we’ve come. There is a freedom on ‘Bloom’, in knowing you are not in control of time but you are in control of your own narrative. “I get anxious on the weekends when I feel I’m wasting time/then I think about Tom Petty and how he wrote his best songs when he was 39” croons Menne, like an extension of those memes that remind you that J.K Rowling used to be a broke single mom and Oprah didn’t hit her stride until age 32. Great Grandpa are old enough to enjoy life and recognize that it’s a very long process, many of us nearing the middle of it wondering how we’ve made it this far to begin with. There is a lingering existentialism to ‘Four of Arrows’. The undeniable emotional anchor of the album is ‘Digger’, which is not only a song title but a character. It’s the digger who is wrestling with the tarot cards dealt to him. Neurotic and urgent, Menne wails “shouldn’t go out in the darkness”. The band stops, allows us to shape our mouths into ‘o’s, then finally wrenches the knife out of the flesh in a manic outro. From here the album unchains, living viscerally. 

Menne’s charisma is unmatched, even when admitting “I can’t help you if I can’t help myself/you’re gonna have to make your own coffee now” on ‘Treat Jar’, a song which grows out of the resentment that comes with expecting someone else to make you better. The start of ‘Treat Jar’ is bizarrely jovial, driven by the charming early aughts grit of the guitars before moving into the pitfalls of coping with your depression by making someone else feel better instead. “Sometimes living is hard, hard work” sings Menne on ‘Human Condition’, hitting us with the hardest truth on the album. This track is an arm wrapping around you, pulling you closer to the speaker and sayingjust stay a moment longer, it might be worth it

‘Four of Arrows’ is an unselfish album that doesn’t promise to fix us, but is invested in the we, in the fact that all of us are here and drenched in it together. ‘Four of Arrows’ is a reminder that death is still death, and art is still art, and sometimes the two can meet on common ground and agree to speak to each other like adults. I’m not in favor of celebrating pain but in valuing vulnerability. This album seems to heal Great Grandpa rather than force them to mine for more trauma- and that healing glimmers through. It’s a genuine smile in the midst of a breakdown. ‘Four of Arrows’ doesn’t know what happens next, but it continues to thrive with vines stretched outwards. It imagines survival. The band coaxes grief out of wherever it’s nesting and exorcise it. 

The tedious Earth sign in me loves the moments in which Great Grandpa are technicians. In which they catch you on a hook before revealing that the song is more invested in grief than in celebration. When Dylan Hanwright brightly plays guitar despite the darkness of the lyrics. Or when the delicacy of Pat Goodwin’s piano is almost out of place amongst the noise of grief. Great Grandpa have mastered both the facade and the reveal. ‘Four of Arrows’finds itself obsessive, paranoid, with all mirrors facing inward. But it thrashes and claws. Great Grandpa go head first and explore nonetheless. They go out into the darkness, and they even come back.  

Hovvdy – Heavy Lifter

If Hovvdy’s ‘Cranberry’ saw the Texan duo draw outlines with a blunt pencil, then its follow-up ‘Heavy Lifter’ sees Charlie Martin and Will Taylor dab their paintbrushes in a rainbow-like palette to make something unmistakably complete. Ben Littlejohn was asked to co-produce ‘Heavy Lifter’ allowing Martin and Tailor to focus more on crafting the songs.  And that’s what stands out most here, the undeniable quality of every single song – there are no fillers, no lowlights. 

‘Cathedral’ is constructed around a choral refrain that’s quite simply anthemic, “Maybe never come back here / we could stay with our friends / maybe never come back here / baby we better hover”Any surplus instrumentation is cast aside at the end, the duo singing the chorus over and over as if inviting a crowd to shout the words back at them. Though ‘Heavy Lifter’ is fuelled largely by optimism for the future, fear and regret still protrude. On ‘So Brite’ they fear that age may cause their creativity to run dry, “What if I start to lose my mind / what if I start to lose my shine?” Closer ‘Sudbury’ sees them mourn the dreams they had as kids, “front yard catch, you got a plan / to be a baseball star / Texas ranger shortstop”. Hovvdy though find strength in the mundane, the day-to-day, no better so than on ‘Pixie’, “Here I go driving to the hardware store / Pixie Road is where I park for free / under the magnolia tree.” This is something you’d say to a friend, to a parent on the phone, Hovvdy make a point of celebrating the small things. You should too.  

Laura Stevenson – The Big Freeze

I’ve always held Laura Stevenson’s music dear. Ever since her 2010 debut ‘A Record’, Stevenson has created songs that cut you in half, they hit like a dart, they steal your breath, they redden your eyes. ‘The Big Freeze’ though is the first time she’s put ten such songs side-by-side, previous records might’ve contained four or five gems but here every single song is unforgettable. Its ten songs consolidate the best moments of her past, whilst unspooling into new territories, new directions. Like a bruise that refuses to fade, you take them with you wherever you go, reshaping them so they match your existence, your truths, your afflictions. 

Stevenson is unflinching, she shoots from the hip. “In the Value Inn / I dig up my skin” she sings on ‘Value Inn’, bravely sharing stories of self-harm with her listeners. ‘Dermatillomania’ goes even further, acting as a vehicle for Stevenson to share a condition that she’s never previously discussed, one that causes her to pick at her skin uncontrollably. This isn’t a drowning-in-her-woes type collection though, conversely ‘The Big Freeze’ revels in the knowledge that she’s made peace with such insecurities. “Now you’re exorcised from my mind” she rejoices on the aforementioned ‘Dermatillomania’. 

Though, ‘The Big Freeze’ sees Stevenson reckon with her insecurities more than ever before, in an interview with us earlier this year, she conceded she was just on the precipice, still dipping her toe in a very deep body of water. “My next record could be even more intense as she continues on this journey of self-understanding”. Laura, when you’re ready, we’re ready. 

Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs

Jessica Pratt’s albums have always sounded like the work of someone with an incredible attention to detail.

Yet her latest record – the succinct, 28-minute long Quiet Signs – is the songwriter’s most sophisticated sounding record yet. It’s the first album Pratt has recorded in a proper studio and sonically it’s on a much bigger-scale than her previous records, 2012s’ eponymously- titled debut and 2015’s On Your Own Love Again. 

It’s clear that Pratt – who produced the record alongside her friend Al Carson, with her partner Matt McDermott adding synths and piano – established a clear sonic palette for Quiet Signs. The entire album feels incredibly light, where songs thread in and out of each other, producing a sensation not unlike the fresh feeling of the sun on your face on a cool winter’s day.

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