Interview: Tanner Merritt

Tanner Merritt

A lot has changed since I caught up with O’Brother last year. For one, touring again is a possibility for the band – over 105 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, which brings the country closer to post-pandemic normal. For vocalist Tanner Merritt, he has written a ton of new solo material due to monumental personal loss. Last year, O’Brother was riding high: They had released their long-awaited fourth album, You and I, to unanimous praise and incredible sales for a newly independent band. 

The album relished space and classical guitars while intentionally leaving vague lyrics to listeners’ imaginations. As beautiful as You and I is, there was a dark undercurrent beneath the track “What We’ve Lost.” A kind of follow-up to Endless Light’s “Black Hole,” Merritt needed an outlet to write about his father, Cyrus’s decade-long fight with Alzheimer’s disease. Then COVID hit, and Merritt spent most of the year in total isolation alongside his mother, watching his father’s condition worsen until he passed away on November 4, 2020, two days after his 63rd birthday. 

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Review: Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God

Manchester Orchestra - The Million Masks of God

If you had only heard the initial two singles from The Million Masks of God – “Bed Head” and “Keel Timing,” the sixth album from Manchester Orchestra, you could argue that the Atlanta group has learned how to groove. I’m not talking about groove-metal, Pantera style, although their take on “Walk” would be sick. They have always had that heavy edge, after all. Their songs have always been catchy; look at the youthful energy of “Wolves at Night,” the brilliant key change on “I’ve Got Friends,” the blues-inspired “April Fool,” or the undeniable “Choose You.” The list could go on and on. On their fifth album, A Black Mile to the Surface, the band combined their talent for unforgettable melody with ambitious, sprawling storytelling. In that sense alone, The Million Masks of God is the natural successor, a sister album to their 2017 instant classic.   

The Million Masks of God is co-produced by vocalist Andy Hull and lead guitarist Robert McDowell, alongside Black Mile producer Catherine Marks (The Killers, Alanis Morissette) and newcomer Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple). With these two powerhouses on board, Manchester Orchestra turns the concept album dial up to 11. While the theme was abstract at the beginning of writing, it became far more straightforward following the loss of McDowell’s father to cancer. “If Black Mile was this idea of ‘from birth to death,’ this album would really be more about ‘from birth to beyond, focusing on the highs and lows of life and exploring what could possibly come next,’” Hull explained. The question here is, how well do they tell the story? Does the music itself match the quality of the concept? To me, it’s complicated.

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Review: Ronen Givony – Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense

Ronen Givony - Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense

Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense isn’t your typical book about rock stars. For one, Ronen Givony opens his second book with this line: “First, a confession, and a caveat: I’ve only seen them fifty-seven times.” From the get-go, it’s clear that this narrator possesses the kind of voice that we can relate to. Chasing our favorite band across the world is the dream, is it not? Secondly, Not for You is an unsanctioned biography, if you can call it that. No members of Pearl Jam are involved in this book. Givony isn’t a journalist, nor a close accomplice of the band, he is simply a fan: “someone with no more credentials than you.”

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Manchester Orchestra Is the Best Band in the World

Manchester Orchestra

There’s that beep. There’s that panning over Asheville, North Carolina. The Manchester Orchestra logo. It’s all so familiar – we’ve seen the trailer for this film. We are subsequently cast to Echo Mountain Recording Studios, NC, where the band recorded their greatest album to date, A Black Mile to the Surface. We’re not here for an anniversary show, nor are we here upon release of the album. No, it’s been four years since Andy Hull (vocals, guitar, producer, all-around legend), Robert McDowell (guitar, keyboards, vocals, producer, engineer, all-around legend), Andy Prince (bass, another all-around legend) and Tim Very (drums, legend) released their fifth album into the world.

We are here – over 6.5 thousand people watching this live stream at 8 pm EST/12 pm AEST – watching an exceedingly special performance of Black Mile played in its entirety right from our living rooms. In a statement, Hull shared that the band was excited to share this concert, for free, to everybody: “This album and your reception to it has exceeded our expectations, and we felt this the best way to thank you all for supporting our music.” This presentation invited speculation: after all, Andy did say that this would be more than a concert. It’s also the beginning. Of what, exactly?  

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Review: Fell From the Tree – ENOUGH

Fell from the Tree - ENOUGH

If the Pet Shop Boys’ vocalist Neil Tennant was the first music critic turned stupendously successful musician, Hannah Jocelyn aka Fell from the Tree should be the next in line. She is the editor at Singles Jukebox and has written for Pitchfork and Billboard, among others (I cannot say for sure whether her experience as a journalist influences her songwriting, but I would like to think it does). As an artist, her influences track from electropop, to hip hop, to post-punk; all wrestling for the same urgency.

“I thought I needed more time to sort it out, I guess I prayed too hard for the world to stop,” Jocelyn sings above a demanding bassline and beats bubbling with tension beneath her vocal on “Tread Water.” She is somewhat anxious, finally all her; on her fourth album, ENOUGH, the last album she will release under the Fell from the Tree moniker. Amid a global pandemic, personal issues are suddenly meaningless, right? But they cannot be so easily erased.

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Mary Varvaris’s Best Albums of 2020

Best of 2020

2020, the year that was: I have stared at numerous blank documents, attempting to summarize how music shaped a truly terrible, often traumatic period in our lives. In 2019, we could have never imagined that by March 2020, life as we knew it would change irrevocably due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We said goodbye to movie theaters, concert halls, cafes and restaurants, wedding receptions; anniversaries, birthdays, and further celebrations. We said goodbye to travel and to see our loved ones on the regular. We had no choice but to adapt – we said hello to virtual meetings on Zoom, frequent takeaway meals, taking up baking and meditation, and live-streamed concerts, with a welcoming embrace. We binge-watched The Queen’s Gambit. For MasterChef Australia viewers, we were treated to the best season yet, thanks to a new round of judges and familiar favorites as the contestants. And, my god, some of the food was simply to-die-for.

It was the little things that kept me going in the year that was – finding comfort in being at home and bonding further with my family and my beautiful Labrador x Kelpie, Dane (I acknowledge my privilege here, I lost work for four months but as I live at home with my family, I never went without anything. Millions of Australians and millions more around the globe can’t say the same, and that’s a ringing indictment on lack of leadership), Netflix and other streaming services, reading magazines, doom-scrolling Twitter (yep, seriously), and of course, music.

It’s difficult to explain why the albums I have chosen as my favorite albums of the year have been ranked where they are, stayed with me for months or weeks, or overshadowed equally great releases. I found myself drawn to more guitar-based music than I have in years – rock music was a safety blanket in 2020, after all, it’s music that I have known and loved since childhood – and that’s OK. Here’s hoping that while I don’t hold much optimism for the year that’s just beginning, that a) 2021 is better than I expect, and b) that we all get to attend some concerts this year. Here are my personal favorite albums of 2020:

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Interview: Stephanie Ashworth of Something For Kate

Something for Kate

Something For Kate should be held with the highest regard for what makes the city of Melbourne so great, alongside our coffee, world-class research facilities, and richly diverse communities. The trio was formed in Melbourne in 1994, with singer and lead guitarist, Paul Dempsey; drummer Clint Hyndman, and Julian Carroll on bass guitar. After the release of the band’s 1997 debut album, Elsewhere for 8 Minutes, Carroll left the band after recently getting married and relocating to rural Australia. He was then replaced by Toby Ralph, who wasn’t the best fit for Something For Kate. In 1998, Stephanie Ashworth joined the band after the disbandment of the short-lived indie rock band, Sandpit. Upon early recording sessions with the lineup of Dempsey, Hyndman, and Ashworth, Dempsey remarked, “We’ve just been lucky because we’ve got this really natural chemistry between the three of us… We’ve finally got the right combination of people and we’re collaborating the way a band should.” 

To date, Something For Kate has released seven albums. The first album recorded with Ashworth on bass, Beautiful Sharks (1999) reached the top 10 of the ARIA Albums Chart; as did Echolalia (2001) and Leave Your Soul to Science (2012). The Official Fiction (2003) and Desert Lights (2006) sat pretty atop the ARIA Albums Chart. Their first album in eight years, The Modern Medieval; released last month, debuted at #4 on the Albums Chart. I chatted with Stephanie Ashworth on a surprisingly chilly day in Melbourne last week, and it’s a conversation I won’t soon forget. 

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Review: SUUNS – Fiction EP

SUUNS - FICTION EP

There are no ifs or buts about it – SUUNS are a band caught in a unique juncture of past and present on their new EP, FICTION. On the eerie opener, “LOOK,” the Montreal-based band conjures an ominous atmosphere straight off the bat. Vocalist Ben Shemie recalls sermons, his vocals high in the mix; processed to the point where words are unintelligible but that doesn’t even matter. All you can focus on is the feeling “LOOK” demands. “FICTION” takes a leaf out of trip-hop legends Portishead’s books with beats contrasting against a mournful elegy: “Where are you from, you don’t seem to know,” Shemie sings. “Life is long as a day/And one by one, you see them fall/I can’t talk, can’t take anymore.”

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‘Kid A’ 20 Years Later: Why Radiohead’s Masterpiece Still Matters

Radiohead, Kid A

20 years ago, Radiohead released an album that encapsulated an experimental fusion of cacophonous jazz (“The National Anthem”), ambient music (“Treefingers”), “traditional” rock moments (“Optimistic”), and electronic music (the rest). Kid A was unveiled during a moment in time that demanded heated discussion, introspection, and patience. With patience comes great reward: to understand the album the way it was intended opens up a whole new world. The record also immediately cast a behemoth-sized shadow over what Radiohead had done before (yep, even OK Computer) and what would come after (In Rainbows, too). 

Singer Thom Yorke found himself exhausted with burnout following a lengthy tour of OK Computer. He began to despise everything about “rock music” as we knew it – guitars, the glamorization of drug and alcohol addiction – and his vision of what “rock” music could be would inadvertently change the music industry and online music culture for decades to come. For many Gen X-ers, Kid A was one of the earliest albums experienced online. Pre-streaming era, over 1,000 websites posted Kid A and it was streamed over 400,000 times, three weeks before the album’s release. There was no promotion – no music videos, the band declined to do interviews – but that didn’t stop incessant arguments on whether the album was Radiohead’s magnum opus or hot garbage, nor did it stop the reviews coming.

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Review: Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road

Alanis Morissette - Such Pretty Forks in the Road

Alanis Morissette needs no introduction, but she deserves one. At 21 years old, her breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill sold 33 million copies worldwide, was nominated for nine Grammy Awards, winning five (including Album of the Year), and it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time. The singles are magnificent – each a warranted choice for best song on the album. Whether you were a year old in 1995, 13-years-old or pushing 30, “You Oughta Know” and “Ironic” were inescapable. Most astounding of all, Morissette channeled unflinching female rage in a fashion that was unheard of in mainstream music at the time. She also didn’t dream about growing older – she had one hand in her pocket, and the other one “giving a high five,” “flicking a cigarette,” and “hailing a taxi cab.” She effectively became the voice of a generation overnight – a voice for those who never expressed their desires, their fears, or their anger. 

In many ways, Morissette’s ninth album — her first album in eight years — Such Pretty Forks in the Road, feels like a love letter to her many past selves. Originally written for the 2018 Jagged Little Pill musical, opener “Smiling” calls back to the drama of “Uninvited,” as well as the Radiohead classic, “My Iron Lung,” echoing Jonny Greenwood’s descending guitar notes; only quieter. “Smiling” also paves the way for the rest of the album: she’s back, and she’s more confessional than ever. 

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Review: The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers

The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers

“You are a beam of light / maybe that’s why your battery runs dry,” Elizabeth Stokes sings on the penultimate track of Jump Rope Gazers, the highly anticipated sophomore album from New Zealand group, The Beths. “You Are A Beam of Light” is the sole acoustic song on the album, and what a song it is. In the hands of another pop-punk songwriter, the track could come across as corny; or worse, convey zero emotion in a story that should tug at your heartstrings. Stokes, though, is a songwriter who transforms the mundanity and nostalgia of life into something universal and wholly captivating, while highlighting her introspective mind.

The Beths’ debut album, Future Me Hates Me was a surprise hit. Well, it was a surprise to the band. To everyone listening, it was clear that the four-piece had created something extraordinary. According to Chris Taylor at The Line of Best Fit, “Future Me Hates Me was one of the most self-assured and exciting debuts in recent years.” It’s true: with their debut, The Beths had me enjoying pop-punk for the first time since my teens. The success of the album propelled the Kiwis to newfound heights, spending 2019 touring with Pixies, subsequent to a stint in Europe and the UK with their personal heroes, Death Cab for Cutie (The Postal Service’s Give Up is an album Stokes knows front to back).

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Mary Varvaris’s Top Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Best of 2020 (So Far)

2020 has been shit. Not good shit, not the shit; but a royal shit show. In Australia, the number of people suffering from COVID-19 have been low in comparison to the horrific amount of deaths overseas. For that, we are resoundingly lucky. That doesn’t mean we’re immune to the conspiracy theories (“the 5G towers are causing COVID-19!”), or apathy. Individualism over collectivism in western society has proven itself to be a curse. If only we all cared about the most vulnerable people in our communities some more. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t still be in this shit.

All of that said, 2020 has had a saving grace: Music. As always, music remains my lifeline, my inspiration, and brings some excitement to everyday life. The Aussies have been on fire, with legends like Gordi, The McClymonts and Hayley Mary (of The Jezabels) proving they’re here to stay for good. Newcomers Nat Vazer and Miiesha make me miss intimate gigs so much. This year, we have also witnessed some of the most stunning comeback albums ever. There’s Fiona Apple returning after eight long years with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album that’s a complete outlier within her discography but still uniquely her. Hum also returned after 22 years (!) with Inlet, an epic album that delivers on the riffs and soundtracks the apocalypse.

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Review: Gordi – Our Two Skins

Gordi - Our Two Skins

Sophie Payten, the Australian folk-pop artist known as Gordi, is one of the finest songwriters to ever come from this country. In August 2017, she released her debut album, Reservoir, which peaked at #20 on the ARIA Chart. Following the release of the record, Payten dove straight into exploring her collaborative side; appearing on “Postcard” with Troye Sivan, as well as featuring alongside Julien Baker, Bon Iver, The National, and more. Last year, Payten worked as a doctor at the Prince of Wales Hospital after completing her medical studies at The University of New South Wales in 2018. In January, Gordi released her first song in three years: “The Cost,” with all proceeds going to the 2020 Australian Bushfire Relief. Her second album, Our Two Skins, was somehow created amongst all of this.  

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Review: Jess Williamson – Sorceress

Jess Williamson - Sorceress

Something spellbinding occurs on “How Ya Lonesome,” the midway point of Sorceress – the fourth album from Texas-native, LA-based musician Jess Williamson – her already magnetic universe opens up before us in a kaleidoscope of hazy ‘70s cinema and meditative psychedelia, offering a story of love and uncertainty beside weaving pedal steel guitar, piano and synths. Sorceress sees Williamson remain true to her country roots while growing in ambition.

Williamson weaves untamed love letters to our confounding present and uncertain future – accompanied by musings on femininity (she questions what it means to be an aging woman in this society on “Ponies in Town”: “Am I aging well? Am I just an aging well?”), the pursuit of perfection; a search for meaning via Tarot, astrology apps and crystals; evocative critiques of capitalism and living online and details the lives and deaths of loved ones. Sorceress is an album about loss – lost innocence and facing mortality head-on – and self-assured insight. These reflections orbit around Williamson’s superb voice, a pure voice, a voice of might and vulnerability.

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Interview: O’Brother

O'Brother

O’Brother has never been an easy band to pin down. I’ll leave it to them, as they explain it best: they’re a “borderline metal band that’s heavily influenced by Radiohead and Sigur Ros”. Their debut album, 2011’s Garden Window embraced chaos and mystique, featured vocals from Andy Hull (Manchester Orchestra) and introduced the band’s experimental nature. O’Brother quickly amassed a loyal following through clever, brilliant music and non-stop touring. Disillusion (2013), their sophomore effort, expanded on the post-metal influence the band only teased beforehand. In 2016, O’Brother released one of the best albums of the year in Endless Light.

Last week, O’Brother put up their new album, You and I on Bandcamp for a pay-what-you-want price. On April 7 2020, first single “Killing Spree” was unveiled to the world, following a few days of teasing online. Where Endless Light touched the surface of using space as an instrument, their fourth album, You and I revels in ambience. Guitarists Jordan McGhin and Johnny Dang go back and forth between classical guitars and staring at the computer. Anton Dang still plays the bass guitar, of course. Michael Martens hardly plays the drums. In the meantime, vocalist Tanner Merritt reaches for the piano. I caught up with O’Brother this week from their respective homes over a surprisingly non-lagging Zoom call. Martens chatted from his living room, McGhin from his bedroom, Anton Dang from his porch, and Johnny Dang and Merritt from their offices/home studios.

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