Review: Story of the Year – Wolves

It’s no secret that this has been a challenging year in the music scene. 2017 has been harsh and unforgiving, this seen particularly in the loss of several major figures in alternative music. Returning from a seven-year hiatus, Story of the Year tackles these issues of mental health and feeling alone, as well as fatherhood and feelings of mediocrity, in their latest album, Wolves.

You can buy Wolves on iTunes.

The album begins with a haunting minute-long instrumental intro which sets the stage well for what appears to be a concept album. From almost every standpoint (lyrically, musically, compositionally) Wolves is full of surprises. When you listen to Story of the Year, you expect morose lyrics surrounded by an equally moody soundtrack, but this album finds a new lightheartedness. Story of the Year haven’t lost their signature sound, but they’ve definitely matured.

In an interview with Fuse, front man Dan Marsala went through the album track by track, offering a bit more background into the stories that compose Wolves. Two of the tracks are about Marsala’s family, which is not generally a theme we find in this genre of hard rock/punk. It’s refreshing and new – something this scene, filled with sad songs about breakups and ordering pizza at 2 a.m., needs desperately.

His lyrics are the same as any fathers would be: worrying about how to raise his kids in this crazy world and how to provide for them. Both tracks, “A Part of Me” and “Give Up My Heart”, are beautifully written and meaningful but still hard-hitting and don’t sound anywhere close to the lullaby you would expect from someone writing about his family.

The album was recorded independently, a path many bands have been taking and using successfully. They used Pledge Music, and the amount of merch and exclusive content for backers is actually insane. (There’s still some items available, as well as copies of the album, for sale on their Pledge page.)

Much of the album was produced by Aaron Sprinkle of Tooth and Nail fame, and honestly, I can hear his input all over the record. He’s very sonically talented and always finds new and exciting ways to elevate the projects he works on.

For as many great moments as you’ll find on Wolves, there is certainly filler as well, including the three tracks leading up to the album closer. While it’s certainly brave of Story of the Year to come back with such a lengthy album, you can feel the effects of the seven-year layoff, as well. That isn’t to say there’s a lot of bad tracks, it just feels as though some might have fit better on another album or on a collection of b-sides.

The biggest surprise on Wolves is probably the final track. Story of the Year really went with the “go big or go home” approach with this closing song and it’s some of their most impressive work. There’s a spoken word piece thrown into the middle that solidifies the concepts in this album and ties everything together really well. The instrumentation in the final track is also impressive; the band really pushed themselves musically, which offers a counterpoint to the aforementioned layoff. Sometimes a little time off is necessary if a band is to come back and create another set of songs.

One final theme in this album is the band’s struggle with whether to reunite and release new music. When you’ve been a band for as long as Story of the Year (17 years, to be exact), it can be easy to grow monotonous, simply treat it as a job, and lose the passion for the creative process that was once so appealing. After a break, the band is back and seemingly stronger than ever, and Wolves is a beautiful testament to both human struggles and the joy that overrides those.

4.5/5

by Nadia Paiva

kiel_hauckNadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

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Review: Emery – Revival: Emery Classics Reimagined

What does someone write about an album of old songs? A lot, apparently, when it’s as rich of an experience as is the case of Emery’s latest offering, Revival: Emery Classics Reimagined.

You can buy Revival: Emery Classics Reimagined on iTunes.

Oftentimes, when a band re-releases old songs, whether it be an acoustic version or a remix, I’m not a huge fan. I generally enjoy the original recording more because I like an organic representation of the artist’s interpretation and intent when writing and composing. I’ve changed my opinion in recent years, because everyone looks back on past work and wonders what they could’ve done differently. With Emery’s Revival, the band captures that thought process perfectly.

Each track has been carefully re-crafted and entirely thought through. Originally an EP of three songs given as a gift to Kickstarter backers, they apparently enjoyed the process so much that they turned it into virtually another full-length. I’ve been listening to Emery for a long time and when I listened to Revival, it didn’t sound like the Emery I knew. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when I did a bit more research and learned that the members of Emery weren’t overly involved with the production and planning. Their touring guitarist, Chris Keene was more involved with the composition side of things and really made a change sonically.

One of the things I especially enjoyed was the lack of harsh vocals. I may just be getting old, but I don’t have as much patience for lyrics I can’t understand. I was excited to really be able to hear and pick apart some of the lyrics that I missed in the original versions of the tracks. There’s something special about listening to lyrics rather than reading them from a random site that you’ve Googled. It provides a more personal approach and connection to the artist and their artistic intention.

The composition of all of Emery’s music is something to be severely impressed with. The members of the band have such an incredible set of skills when it comes to production, songwriting and musicianship. This album was no different. Each track has new elements and interesting facets, and it’s a joy to listen to. Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton are vocal masterminds. Their harmonies are honestly unmatched and I can only chalk that up to the longevity of the band and how well they’ve worked together over the past years.

Favorite tracks for me were generally the ones I’m most familiar with from other albums, the top track for sure being, “The Smile, The Face”. Even though that doesn’t rate as one of their heavier tracks, I loved the way that they managed to soften it up even more. The only complaint I have is the lack of tracks from their 2011 album We Do What We Want. That album, along with their last release, 2015’s You Were Never Alone, is my favorite album and I was a bit disappointed to see that they ignored it. I would’ve especially loved to hear a new version of “Scissors”.

Emery never fails to excite me with any release announcement. Regardless of the familiarity and age of these songs, Emery has managed to completely revamp their sound once again. Based on what they’ve accomplished with this collection, I am eagerly awaiting another full album and look forward to what they’ll do next.

4/5

by Nadia Paiva

kiel_hauckNadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Review: Jake Bugg – Hearts That Strain

Jake Bugg frustrates me as a songwriter. His debut, Jake Bugg was a slow burn that quietly became one of my favorite records when it debuted a few years ago. Each subsequent record has been vastly different than the last, to mixed results. But one thing I am fully aware of is that at 23 years old, Jake Bugg is a force of nature that will be here for a long time.

You can buy Hearts That Strain on iTunes.

Hearts That Strain, Bugg’s fourth full length, follows suit with his previous works in that it is completely different from anything else he has put out. While his debut, an acoustic tribute to Oasis and Shangri La, was a grunge punk album, Hearts That Strain is a classic country tinged album that seems to channel John Denver in all the best ways.

What sets Bugg apart as a songwriter is how vastly different his work is, especially for someone whose debut album was released four years ago. While I initially fell in love with his ‘don’t give a shit’ acoustic songs that oozed with personality, on Hearts That Strain, Bugg blends a dreamlike homage to outlaw country with influence from the Gallagher brothers.

Hearts That Strain is Bugg’s most cohesive album to date. It doesn’t sound nearly as slap-dash as some of his earlier work, and is far more fleshed out than earlier records. However, the lyricism is more vague and doesn’t seem to have the same storytelling aspects of his classic, “Broken”.

Though his songwriting has always had a hint of bluesy southern rock to it, it is absolutely astonishing that Bugg is able to take a genre like classic country and make it his own to the point that it sounds in-line with his older works. The steel guitar, piano and the angelic backing vocals sound like more of a tribute to George Jones and Conway Twitty than most modern country acts can muster.  I would say that is an impressive feat for a kid from England.

“In The Event of My Demise” seems to channel the rhythm of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” amidst a Johnny Cash-esque guitar line. “Waiting” is a perfect duet with Noah Cyrus, amidst romantic guitar strums, playful piano and violin, and a killer saxophone solo.

While the lyrics don’t give the straight pictures I would have hoped for, they are dreamlike enough that it allows you to paint your own image and setting given the music. A good example is “The Man on Stage”, which finds Bugg singing about a broken lover with the lines, “He took your heart with his heart / And then he led the man on stage / Is not the same man you’ve met / To the next town up ahead”. The piano and scorned violin convey a devastating heartbreak, even though Bugg hasn’t really said anything himself. It’s as infuriating as it is brilliantly catchy.

The only downside to the album is given how much energy Bugg has, it is a shame that every song has the same mellow energy. He doesn’t push himself in ways I had hoped at the start of each song. Instead, he found a groove and a sound for this album and stuck to it. But the depth of musicianship and number of instruments help make up for it.

Jake Bugg is an incredibly talented songwriter. The fact that he’s so young and has mastered so many different genres but still manages a cohesive discography is the feat of a genius. While I can’t claim that Hearts That Strain is Bugg’s best work, it is inspired. It harkens to the classic sound of country music in a way that modern country artists can’t touch. Considering that Hearts That Strain came just over a year after his last record, it makes this album all the more impressive.

3.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has almost finished watching How I Met Your Mother for the first time. He just learned what the ducky tie is.

Review: Walk the Moon – What if Nothing

I feel that if anyone were to choose a word to describe Walk the Moon, it would be “infectious.” They’ve created an expertly executed ‘80s revival mixed with modern pop and electronica in a music culture that has incessantly tried to nail that combination. So far, I feel that Walk the Moon have succeeded. I walked into their latest offering, What If Nothing with the same expectations that were fulfilled with both their self-titled album (released in 2012) and the sophomore Talking is Hard (released in 2014).

You can buy What if Nothing on iTunes.

I’m generally not one to enjoy a lot of the pop music that is released to mainstream radio, but I can’t help but listen to Walk the Moon’s earlier two albums over and over. I was hoping that this album would be no different, but it fell a bit short. That’s not to say it’s not a good album, but it doesn’t hit me quite the same way as their previous releases have.

When I first heard the preview of the opener and first single, “One Foot”, I was a bit disappointed. They have a formula that’s worked so far for them, but I felt it was time for them to grow musically and lyrically. This album probably should’ve been called Talking is STILL Hard, because it feels like a sequel. Many of the tracks feel as though they were leftovers and fillers from that album.

Walk the Moon generally isn’t known for deep lyrics; they’re known more for the music behind the lyrics. If you’re musically-inclined rather than lyric-focused, you’ll enjoy What if Nothing a lot. The lyrics speak to a lot of confusion, as signaled by frontman Nicholas Petricca in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “This record is very much about owning the ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on.’”

Like Petricca, I don’t know what’s going on either, but, unlike him, it’s concerning this album rather than the current events he referenced in that interview. A definite low point for me comes near the middle of the album. “Kamikaze” is especially weak, lyrically, while “Sound of Awakening” is just so strange that it lost me at the halfway point. The random autotune effect used in the latter track struck me as odd, because Petricca’s vocals are so strong and don’t need any kind of altering.

Regardless of my feelings on the album as a whole, there are a couple of tracks that stood out as gems. The first track I genuinely enjoyed was “All Night”. Lyrically, it’s a stronger track in the group of 13 and felt like the Walk the Moon I love. Another is “Can’t Sleep (Wolves)”, which, in the first line, seems to reference the death of Petricca’s father: “Hold on to the ones you love / But don’t squeeze too tight”. The songs that are good on this album are great tracks, but together they get lost in a strange shuffle of synth and inappropriately-placed autotune.

What Walk the Moon needs is a lyrical revamp. They’ve grasped the musical component. It’s time for them to really branch out and explore the other facets of the scene they’ve built for themselves. They might be able to take a couple of pointers from bands like Young the Giant, who established themselves and then grew out of that sound into something new and more mature. As listeners, we hope that our favorite bands will be able to stay relevant and grow as we grow.

What this album ends up being is a reflection on lost love, the fear of failure, and the uncertain times in which we find ourselves. I wish I could say that it hit those points perfectly and poignantly, but it falls flat. The songs end up sounding cheesy and hastily written, despite the excellent and experimental sonic composition. I wish I liked this album more. What I expect from Walk the Moon is a great spring or summer album, but What If Nothing is not much more than sad songs about break-ups and being left alone at the club.

3/5

by Nadia Paiva

kiel_hauckNadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Review: Speak The Truth… Even If Your Voice Shakes – Everyone You Love Will Slip Away from You

I will always thank Drive-Thru Records for my love of music. Though I still listen to many of those influential bands, there are two groups that frequently fall off of my radar, only to resurface every few years as a new obsession before being put to the sidelines again: Senses Fail and Finch. It is because of these bands that I stumbled into a love of hardcore music. Speak The Truth… Even If Your Voice Shakes, the new(ish) supergroup consisting of members from both bands finds its inspiration from the golden era of emo and unabashedly flaunts it.

You can buy Everyone You Love Will Slip Away from You on iTunes.

Speak The Truth consists of Senses Fail’s Buddy Neilsen on vocals while Alex Linares (guitars), Daniel Wonacott (bass) and Alex Pappas (drums) of Finch round out the instrumentation. Though both bands hail from a harder sound, Speak The Truth hits an odd mix of genres that somehow makes a cohesive sound.

While their singles remind me of the racing guitars of Anberlin (“Crash My Car”), or an emo band putting out their first record (“Everyone You Love Will Slip Away from You”), there is a maturity that channels the positive lyricism of modern pop punk (“The Upside Down”). The result is a record that toys with expectations, honors the legacy that helped get these musicians to where they are now and is a truly refreshing record about coping with the world around you.

While I admittedly haven’t followed either Senses Fail or Finch as closely as I would care to admit, I can say this – this is some of the most inspired music from Linares, Wonacott and Pappas that I have seen from their career. What could be brushed off as a “throw-back” pop punk record churns with luscious guitar rhythms and brutal drumming that seems to crop up just when you want it to. Though the album is significantly poppier than I expected, “Go for the Throat” is a pleasant surprise that sounds like a long lost track off of What It Is To Burn.

Neilsen is fantastic. I forget how much I love his vocals until I hear him, and Speak The Truth is no exception. While he relies mostly on clean vocals, his trademark screams find their spot on the record as well. Though scarce, the screams highlight the darker aspects of the songs while his clean vocals tackle the more hopeful spots (“The Upside Down”).

Everyone You Love Will Slip Away from You is a revival of modern emo. Though the album’s title and main theme revolve around the tragedies of life, the album focuses on handling it with poise and determination to come out on the other side as strong as possible. The idea of coping is a strength and Neilsen portrays it brutally.

On “The Upside Down”, Neilsen lays down a thesis for the album, singing, “Sometimes depression is the only thing reminding me that I feel alive/ And all the sadness could be more beautiful than all of the stars in the sky / I don’t wanna be afraid to be who I am / I don’t wanna be ashamed”.

During “Carpenter In Prison”, after describing the idea of being a shell of the person your younger self hoped to have been, he mixes clean vocals and microphone distorting screams of, “Save yourself / Cause there is nothing more / You gotta wade out into the water / You gotta wade out further / If you’re dying inside you gotta swim to the surface”.

Not everything is hopeful, though. “Mornings Mournings” is a unrelenting rage attack on someone. “Crash My Car” is a more traditional emo song, with a chorus of “I crash my car into a wall to bleed with you”. “Drowning on the Sidewalk or Dying Inside” finds Neilsen admitting, “I write better when I’m depressed and anxious / Nobody wants to hear about the sunny side of life / They’d rather hear that I’m choking inside”. The song also acts as a eulogy for a loved one and is the poppiest song on the record (try not to love that piano during the chorus).

That said, this record isn’t perfect. While the lyricism has a thematic element to it, the songwriting feels as though there were too many ideas. As stated before, while one song sounds like a pop punk anthem, the next is a guitar heavy alternative track. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it has a distinctive sound of several writing sessions that were mushed together. Additionally, Neilsen’s lyrics on “At Least There’s Always Lexapro” seem like they are half audible under the production, which pulled me out of it entirely. It’s a track I tend to skip over on repeat listens, which is a shame.

Finally, the album closer, “Show Your Scars” is a truly awful track (lol). It is completely different from the rest of the album sonically, and it seems to come out of nowhere after listening to the previous nine tracks.

All said and done though, Everyone You Love Will Slip Away from You is a solid debut from a band consisting of seasoned veterans. Musically, it is more of a departure from what fans of either Senses Fail or Finch are expecting, but the execution and exploration of sound is brilliant. Consisting of two bands that rose from the heyday of Drive-Thru, their influences aren’t hidden. Speak The Truth sound like a crowning achievement that both pays homage to the bands that brought the scene to where it is today as much as it pushes that sound forward with modern sensibilities.

3.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has a cat that just snored so loudly, he thought someone was breaking into his apartment. As a natural defense, he heroically leapt up, smashed his knee on a table and promptly fell over.

Review: Taylor Swift – Reputation

Just over three years have passed since Taylor Swift won me over, and just two years have gone by since I made that information public. At the time, I admonished myself for the lack of empathy I exhibited toward Swift as she reckoned with fame in the midst of her youth. Her latest album, Reputation, dives headlong into that very conversation from every angle imaginable.

During the album’s rollout, as narratives flew wildly, it was easy to forget that the past three years of Swift’s life consisted of more than just petty feuds with Kanye West and Katy Perry. As stories of sexual misconduct in entertainment continue to crash ashore, remember that Swift handled herself with strength and grace this summer while winning a lawsuit against an ex-radio DJ who groped her.

You can buy Reputation on iTunes.

Even one of the most powerful cultural forces in recent memory is not immune to abuses of power and had to fight for the public perception of her own character. With that in mind, Reputation takes on a significantly more meaningful role than you might think on the surface.

That’s not to say that Reputation is a great album. It’s flawed, certainly, but its significance remains.

If you’re like any of the other 700,000 people that purchased Reputation last Friday, you’re aware that several of the album’s 15 tracks are much better than the singles we were given. In this case, the missing pieces fill in the gaps quite well, making the purpose of Reputation clear. Taylor Swift isn’t embracing her dark side – she’s resolutely stating the control she has over her own relationships, her own persona, her own destiny. It’s kind of powerful in that way.

And oh, by the way, the majority of the album pulses shamelessly with buzzing synthesizers and rattling bass lines, as if to emphasize her point. When it works, as it does on the delightfully trappy “I Did Something Bad”, it elevates Swift to another level of pop excellence. When it doesn’t, we get handed hollow wannabe bangers like lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” or the impossibly clumsy “End Game” with Ed Sheeran and Future.

The aforementioned “I Did Something Bad” works so well because Swift conveys her message with such flare and clarity. During the track’s bridge, she alludes to a dying culture of victim-shaming and misplaced anger, singing, “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one / They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons”. That self-awareness and snark makes her chorus of, “They say I did something bad / Then why’s it feel so good?” all the more bold and empowered.

It’s a strategy that plays well on other tracks like “Dress” and “Don’t Blame Me”, where Swift defiantly embraces her sexuality and control of her own love life. On “Call it What You Want”, when she sings, “I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck / Not because he owns me / But ‘cause he really knows me”, it’s not a reinvention – it’s a reclaiming of her own story.

These moments make Reputation worth its while, even when things become uninspired (“Delicate”, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”). Such has been the case with nearly every album of Swift’s career, so offering another cry for her to trim the fat merely seems like wasted breath at this point. Besides, this is what Spotify’s queue feature was made for.

If you’re still in need of finding a storyline in which Swift stands not in the best light, opportunities are available. For instance, take her firm apolitical stance at a time when her voice would be welcome – a stance so steadfast that she is willing to sue a blogger for even questioning her silence against dangerous alt-right groups that seem to support her.

As it turns out, Taylor Swift is complicated, just like the rest of us. Reputation, on the other hand, is not. With her sixth full length album, Swift has boldly declared her own narrative, others be damned. Whether you choose to scoff or turn up the beat and dance is up to you.

3.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: Weezer – Pacific Daydream

My first experience with Weezer came while playing Guitar Hero with a friend and watching them play “Say It Ain’t So”. As ridiculous as that sounds, their self-titled album remains my favorite release of theirs and I always turn up the volume when “The Sweater Song” comes through my headphones.

You can buy Pacific Daydream on iTunes.

My experience in this regard isn’t necessarily exclusive. Weezer has always been a great choice for a party playlist. This was true at the beginning of their hip, college kid demographic of yesteryear into the irony-driven college kid demographic of today. The lyrics in their latest venture, Pacific Daydream, are approachable and not too deep, but not worthless, either. As their career continues to unfold, Weezer seem to dwell in the past, always holding onto youth and fun, while avoiding feeling dated

Pacific Daydream was released on October 27, which is strange, because it would’ve landed best, without a doubt, as a summer album. That doesn’t take away from the quality of the album at all. I think it’s got their finest production and tightest sound, and, noticeably, their most enjoyable lyricism.

It’s no secret that times are tough. Shootings and natural disasters and all manner of terrible things tend to plague our day-to-day lives. Still, people are using music as an escape. I think Weezer’s Pacific Daydream provides that escape perfectly. Songs about relationships and day trips and simpler times are what we turn to when the news gets exhausting and depressing.

I know I’m more apt to turn on something upbeat when the world around me is at a low point. I think that the past holds a certain security, because we know what’s happened and how everything turned out, whether the outcome was positive or negative. Weezer seems to have tapped into that idea with the song “Beach Boys”, where Rivers Cuomo sings about how old, familiar music is sometimes the best choice.

Something I noticed from track to track is the similarity between certain older songs and the songs on this album. The references are simple and may not even have been done on purpose. “Weekend Girl” reminded me of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” with the reference to meeting said-girl on Sunday and thinking about her on Monday and then through the remainder of “the weekday traffic”.

Similarly, “Sweet Mary” lyrically reminded me of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. Right from the get-go, we have the lines, “When I am all on my own / One foot in the grave / My Sweet Mary comes / To help me find my way”. The most overt mentions of classic music are obviously the aforementioned track, “Beach Boys” and the lyric in the final track, “Any Friend of Diane’s”, which talks about a girl wearing a shirt featuring The Smiths.

On a broader level, Pacific Daydream seems to be the second in an unofficial series of albums featuring heavy mention of California. This album is their second to be released with Crush Management, so it’s possible that there was a push there for some thematic continuity. Whatever the case, it gives a perspective on where the members draw their influence, at least from a geographical standpoint.

I don’t really like choosing best or worst tracks. Instead, I prefer to take the album as a whole, trusting the artist’s final judgment on the pieces of their art they believe to be good enough to release publicly. Even without that personal guideline, I had difficult time with giving these 10 songs a definitive rating. The album is tightly knit and well put together and each song fits well where it was placed. Put plainly, Pacific Daydream is a perfect pop album, joining the ranks of some of the year’s best.

What I’m trying to get at here is that Weezer is the ultimate nostalgia band. With a new album hinted at for 2018, Weezer has made it clear that they aren’t keen on stopping. Over their 11 albums, they’ve remained consistently tied to the idea of never-ending youth, and they’ve invited us to revel in summer all year ‘round.

4.5/5

by Nadia Paiva

kiel_hauckNadia Paiva has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Review: Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

If you frequent this website, you’re aware of our approach to music criticism. We view it as more of a dialogue – toeing the line between flag-waving fandom and unbiased, nuanced observation. Call it critique with a heart. This review will not abide by this principle. It, in fact, cannot.

I make this disclaimer because Julien Baker’s new album Turn Out the Lights is deeply meaningful to me. Maybe more so than any recent release I can remember. Over the next 900 words, I’m going to tell you why.

You can buy Turn Out the Lights on iTunes.

Like many others, I discovered Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle via word of mouth. That album became a refuge of sorts. When hearing Baker’s fragile voice atop her guitar, it’s hard not to visualize her pain. Those songs are poignant in their specificity, yet universal enough to find your own story within. So often in life, we feel like we have to fight our battles alone. Sprained Ankle became a safe place to process my own demons and feel solace with someone in the midst of their own fight.

I was not alone in my experience. Since that release, Baker’s profile has risen, and thus, so did the anticipation for her follow up. Turn Out the Lights expands on Sprained Ankle’s outlines in nearly every way. No longer alone with her guitar, Turn Out the Lights finds new and interesting arrangements, including piano and strings. These new elements open doors for Baker to explore painful themes in a way that feels as authentic as anything you’re likely to hear this year.

Turn Out the Lights lives in the moments right after the ugly cry, as you gather yourself and decide whether to give up or push onward. It is unapologetic in its honesty – a trait that will hit close to home for many, and potentially alarm some others. No matter. Turn Out the Lights may not be for everyone, but for those willing to journey along through the mire with Baker, the discomfort is worth it.

I knew from the moment I heard lead single “Appointments” that this release would be more than just another album to me. This summer, my therapist moved away. If you’ve ever been through therapy, you know how upended your whole becomes as you process the idea of starting from scratch with someone new. Two months into my refusal to try again, Baker’s line of, “Suggest that I talk to somebody again / That knows how to help me get better / Until then I should just try not to miss any more appointments” hit home in a very real way.

I’d venture to say that anyone who has battled with depression would find a multitude of moments like these on Turn Out the Lights. Not to mention those who struggle with addiction, those who question their faith, those living in the aftermath of a failed relationship, or just about anyone working through pain in their lives. Baker’s knack for translating her trials into songs that feel so universal is nearly unmatched.

Moments that force my own deep personal reflection come on tracks like “Happy to Be Here” as Baker belts, “Well I heard there’s a fix for everything / Then why, then why, then why / Then why not me?” or on “Shadowboxing” when she sings, “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes”. These moments of painful solidarity bring the slightest hint of hope. Hope that we’re not alone in this struggle and that someone else is there. Baker tugs at this notion on “Hurt Less” with the closing lines, “As long as you’re not tired yet of talking / It helps to make it hurt less”.

I often find it hard to share the deepness of my struggle with depression. In my attempts to verbalize my thoughts, I can pass that pain along to a loved one unwittingly. It’s difficult to talk about the darkness without casting it onto someone else, which is why those fleeting moments when we can safely confide are so precious. It’s also why the album’s closer, “Claws in Your Back”, might be the most painful, personal and powerful song I’ve ever heard.

It’s painful because it fearlessly tackles thoughts of suicide and the terror of sharing those thoughts out loud. “Pump the vitals out of my wrist / ‘Cause I’m conducting an experiment on how it feels to die / Or stay alive”, Baker’s broken voice rattles out atop her haunting piano. It’s personal because it captures the private struggle of depression, with Baker singing, “So try to stay calm, ‘cause nobody knows / The violent partner you carry around / With claws in your back, ripping your clothes / And listing your failures out loud”.

But more than anything, it’s powerful because, like everyone who fights this battle, Baker must choose to live with “the sickness you made”, declaring on the album’s final, chill-inducing lines, “I take it all back / I changed my mind / I wanted to stay”. The beauty of her cries vocalize the will it takes to fight for another day. It’s the kind of beautiful that only music can convey. And it’s the reason we listen. It’s the reason I write. It’s the reason this website exists.

I could tell you about the songwriting growth exhibited by Baker on Turn Out the Lights, or the powerful production and purposeful arrangements that make it one of the year’s best albums. But ultimately, I want to tell you to find the music that speaks your language, shares your fears and speaks to your soul. Cling to it and listen to it as often as you can. Because these moments are the reason we listen at all. Maybe Turn Out the Lights is that for you, as it is for me. But if not, keep listening, keep searching and keep fighting. You don’t have to do it alone.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: The Wonder Years – Burst & Decay

For many people, myself included, it is hard to buck the idea that The Wonder Years are a positive band. After the release of The Upsides, there is always that part of me that will juxtapose anything they release with the immortal line of “I’m not sad anymore”. Even as the band has matured and their music drifted away from youthful optimism, I still see them as one of the most earnest bands out there. But their songs always felt grounded in the stories each album told. Burst & Decay, the band’s new acoustic EP, is an exercise in reinvigorating their material so much so that it’s hard not to see those same optimistic boys that set the scene aflame with positivity.

You can buy Burst & Decay on iTunes.

Burst & Decay is a delicate interpretation of songs throughout their catalog. Tempo changes, keyboards, and crooning vocals are the most prominent changes from the original punk rock. However, that is enough to revamp these songs entirely into their own message. The softer songs build to crescendos that the original songs lacked. When vocalist Dan Campbell shifts from a croon to all-out shouts, the message carries stronger and more prominently than the original songs were able to.

“There, There”, which reflects on one’s own faults, becomes a slow-built song of defiance. “Cardinals”, a song of regret over letting down a friend, becomes a moment of somber reflection and a loving war cry.

It’s not as though these songs are fundamentally different by any means. The melodic violin, soft drumming and acoustic strums of “Cardinals” sits alongside Dan Campbell’s whispery vocals in perfect meditation. There is a build throughout so that in the final verse, when Campbell explodes and shouts the lyrics, it fundamentally seems to change the tone of the original song. Instead of pleading for a chance to prove himself, Campbell is swearing an oath to the gods.

“Don’t Let Me Cave In”, a cornerstone track of Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, may be the most dramatically changed. In lieu of the raging guitars, the song is a ballad focusing on dreamlike keyboard melodies with minimalistic guitars. Originally, this song was frantic and desperate. Campbell seemed to search for an excuse for being in such hysterics. He pleaded for help. This softer version finds him saying the same words, but determination is behind him. He’s aware of his problems and thankful to have someone there to help see him through his demons.

Not every song takes a different tone to its predecessor. “Dismantling Summer” is arguably the most direct conversion to acoustics. “Coffee Eyes” is still an absolute jam. The drums rattle away and the guitars are crisp and hypnotic. Slightly more isolated, Campbell’s cracking voice as he shouts, “There’s always been a table for me there”, sounds so much better than it did on the original recording.

“You In January”, one of No Closer To Heaven’s stand-out tracks, tops off the EP. The light violin and plinking piano provide the romantic backing a song like this always asked for. It’s also in this song that the record’s title, Burst & Decay become prominent as Campbell sings to his love. “You In January” is the thesis of the album in a roundabout way. Where many of these songs centered on the idea of cracking slowly and trying to stop the damage, these versions have managed that task.

Burst & Decay is one of the few acoustic albums that make a true difference in a band’s sound. Much like The Starting Line’s Make Yourself At Home, this record is short, crisp and fundamentally different than the core sound of the band. Though it doesn’t carry the same weight or theme of a proper album, Burst & Decay does enough to differentiate itself from anything else The Wonder Years have done.

My one hope for this album was that perhaps the songs would be reimagined lyrically, much in the same way that “Logan Circle” and “Logan Circle: A New Hope” were. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with Burst & Decay. But finding a new meaning and tone to the existing lyrics may be something more profound.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and is probably playing euchre right now. Why? No reason other than he is a pretty cool cat. Myaaah!

Review: PVRIS – All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell

“Two years gone / Came back as some bones and so cynical”

The opening lines of “What’s Wrong”, an early single from PVRIS’ sophomore album All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, provide a quick and distressing synopsis. By all accounts, this album should mark a joyous occasion for the fast-rising electropop trio, but vocalist Lynn Gunn shies away from celebration, choosing to bare her broken heart instead.

That heavy honesty, coupled with the band’s refined execution, has resulted in something that somehow manages to surpass the immense hype that preceded it.

You can buy All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell on iTunes.

PVRIS took the scene by storm in 2014 with the release of White Noise – an absurdly fantastic debut that set the bar high for such a young band. From the moment those songs went on the road and the trio’s fan base ballooned, it was clear that PVRIS were never ours to keep. This was music that deserved to be heard on the biggest of stages.

I don’t know if All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell is the album that will take them there, but it succeeds in nearly every way as an improved version of PVRIS. Surprisingly, All We Know doesn’t stray completely from guitars, drums and rock influence, even as the songs themselves have appropriately evolved toward a more fully realized pop sound. It’s just good music, plain and simple.

That richly melodic background creates a haunting palate for Gunn to create contrast as she reflects on the pressure and confusion that comes with nearly immediate fame and exposure. During the second verse of “What’s Wrong”, she continues her descent, singing, “When did I get so pitiful? / Just a goddamn corpse in a centerfold / You got my back against the wall / Now I can’t ever get comfortable”. And later, she distressingly declares, “I don’t need a metaphor for you to know I’m miserable”.

Like many others in the revived genre, Gunn uses the jubilant glow of synthpop to explore dark themes, but the naïve ambiguity of White Noise fades away here. Instead, Gunn opts for a straightforward approach with some clever turns of phrase thrown in. On what could easily have become a late summer dance anthem, Gunn uses the billowing chorus of “Same Soul” to inject hollow regret into a famous Gotye line, belting, “I’m just a body that you used to know”.

Themes of shame, remorse and confusion permeate All We Know, spanning across a soundscape of synthesizers and drums that elevate tracks like “Heaven” and “Anyone Else”, building on the foundation laid during the band’s debut. Even so, aggressive elements remain – “No Mercy” is the heaviest song the band has written and closer “Nola 1” floats atop a slick guitar lick and deep, pulsing bass from Alex Babinski and Brian McDonald. It’s a delicate balancing act that never seems to tip the scales in one direction across the album’s 10 tracks.

On White Noise, Gunn was a firecracker, letting her vocals bubble over into a growl during the crescendo of nearly every track. On this sophomore release, she’s found her voice, usurping expected restraint with commanding vocals that make use of her range and power without spilling into yells or screams. During the chorus of “Winter”, Gunn harkens to old bangers like “Smoke” and “Fire” as she sings, “Can you burn a fire into my flesh / Cause your love’s so cold I see my breath” with a powerful and controlled delivery. It’s that kind of rapid progression and growth that makes the future of PVRIS increasingly exciting.

During the opening moments of “Half”, Gunn sings, “Some days I feel everything / Others are numbing / Can never find the in-between / It’s all or nothing”. Her personal battle speaks volumes about her character. Gunn is brave to share her struggle and wise to ponder the fleeting fulfillment of fame. As she does, PVRIS have come even closer to crossing the mainstream threshold. When their rise reaches its peak, which could very well be sooner than later, it would seem that they’ll be prepared.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.