the ann arbor, michigan quartet pity sex is a pop band masquerading as a shoegaze outfit. beneath gloomy exteriors lie adroit guitar melodies and strong vocal hooks, a trait the band first explored on their 2013 debut feast of love and have now set out to perfect on its follow-up, white hot moon. co-vocalists britty drake and brennan greaves again team up for listless explorations of infidelity and longing, toggling between downtrodden narratives and pointed conversations as fuzzed-out guitars buzz in the background.
the album’s twelve tracks rarely waver in tempo, a veritable locomotive engine that propels its train into the realm of 1990s nostalgia with a focus squarely on lyrical development. drake takes more of a center stage than on previous efforts, be it commanding her own lead vocal on early stand-out “burden you” or sparring with greaves in traded stanzas on “september,” but her true apex hits on “plum,” a sparse, heartbreaking reflection on the loss of a parent that eventually gets consumed by a wall of guitars.
greaves’ performance across white hot moon isn’t too shabby either; his mumbled musings are more in-tune and focused than before, and ceding a bit more vocal duty to drake this time around allows for the attentive guitar work sprinkled throughout tunes like “orange and red” and “nothing rips through me.”
white hot moon feels very much like a continuation of its predecessor, and that’s perfectly alright. pity sex excel at honing their craft, and astoundingly resonant pop gems like “pin a star” seem to suggest that downtrodden shoegaze is a comfort zone the band won’t need to rely on for much longer. whether or not they will choose to completely shed their dichotomous aesthetic remains to be seen, but it’s clear that white hot moon is an incredibly focused effort that basks in a soothing analog warmth. soak it up.
it’s hard to stress the sheer importance of this record, both on a personal and on a more holistic level. death from above was an entirely new animal with which to wrangle when jesse f. keeler and sebastien grainger released their first ep in 2002, and the duo never seemed to take their collective foot off of the gas, even after adding the legally-obligated 1979 suffix to their moniker.
armed with nothing more than urgent vocals, frenetic drums, distorted bass lines, and the occasional synth, keeler and grainger obliterated conventional genres, creating a breed of punk rock that was just as informed by heavy metal riffs as it was by the electronic dance music keeler would explore later as one half of mstrkrft. more importantly, death from above 1979 resonated with a multitude of people, and with me as i began to cut my teeth on independent music as a young high school freshman.
heads up was a frenzied debut; chock-full of impressive riffs, blistering tempos, and wailing confessionals, the ep distilled death from above’s mantra down to a concise fourteen minutes, but left a bit to be desired. “dead womb” and “losing friends” were thunderous anthems, and “if we don’t make it we’ll fake it” has that woozy synth doubling the fantastic bass riff throughout the song’s outro, yet cohesion wasn’t 100% there. after teasing lo-fi renditions of things to come on romantic rights, the duo arrived with you’re a woman, i’m a machine, their triumphant and lone studio album as a band.
as someone who has listened to the band’s catalogue to an exhaustive extent, the differences in production on you’re a woman, i’m a machine in comparison to heads up are immediate and welcoming, yet it wasn’t always easy to explain my fondness of the lp over the ep.
on opener “turn it out,” keeler’s bass already sounds fuller, something i can now attribute to better mixing and heavier prevalence on his chorus effect. much of heads up relied on the high-output treble of keeler’s distorted tones, but you’re a woman, i’m a machine is rounder, with more of an emphasis placed on the low-end of the frequency capacity. this doesn’t mean any sense of agitation gets diminished, however; the bass guitar squeals at the beginning of “turn it out” dispel that possibility, and grainger’s vocals enter confidently and with more coherence than his turns on heads up.
“romantic rights” remains the general pinnacle of death from above 1979’s output, and for good reason. chronologically, this is the first song that showcases the duo’s penchant for writing sheer pop music laced with dance beats, a penchant later underscored by “blood on our hands” and “little girl.” the infectious bass line on “romantic rights” sets the song’s tone early on, snaking through grainger’s backbeats and vocals, and is later solidified when grainger chooses to double it for the song’s chorus. this song also moves away from the one-dimensional structure of verse-chorus riffs that dominated death from above’s back catalogue, instead firing off a rapid succession of melodic ideas throughout the back half of “romantic rights.”
both “going steady” and “go home, get down” return to the familiar formula initially championed by death from above, the important caveat being that keeler favors his synthesizer over his bass for the majority of the two songs. the tones of the two instruments are nearly identical, but the synth allows for more deft and dexterity as keeler tackles wider, dissonant intervallic leaps throughout the chorus of “go home, get down.”
while lyrics often play second fiddle to the duo’s overpowering instrumental force, it’s worth noting that grainger did occasionally put quite a bit of energy into his poetry; the most readily-available example on you’re a woman, i’m a machine is “black history month.” shying away from the usual tropes of lust, love, and heartbreak, grainger instead paints a dystopian picture of a city devoid of culture. although sparse and rather simplistic in nature, lyrics like “do you remember a time when this pool was / a great place for water wings and cannonballs” pack a nostalgic punch and provide a cautionary tale just as pertinent now as it was ten years ago.
on the reverse side of the lyrical coin is “little girl,” a song that revolves around various permutations of “lady,” “baby,” and “save me,” but the sacrifice is more than necessary in order to provide ample attention to keeler’s bass lines, his most dance-heavy attempts yet. the ostinato has the ability to test large amounts of patience, depending on one’s mindset, but it ultimately is a tool of tension-and-release, with the release point coming in the form of the rapidly descending line supporting the chorus. augmented by a pulsating disco beat and escalating vocal wails, “little girl” arguably embodies the ethos of you’re a woman, i’m a machine to the simplest of extremes.
deep within the album lies death from above 1979’s best one-two-three punch. “cold war” is exceptionally agitated, alternating between a frantic emphasis on all beats of the four/four meter and a heavy back-beat as lyrical ideas are exchanged (in live settings, keeler and grainger scream the sections to each other, but on the record the vocal timbres are too similar to positively differentiate), and features the heart-wrenchingly earnest line “if you love him know / or if you leave him tell him so” wailed over and over again until the jittering, syncopated breakdown halts all emotions.
the album’s title track is a repentant song about unrequited love, unique in the fact that the narrator is the rejector as opposed to the rejected. the front half of the song showcases keeler’s endurance on the bass while the back half demonstrates his love for arpeggiation and serves as a second of relative relaxation before the duo plunges into “pull out,” the most raucous and unabashed number in their arsenal. the subject matter is explicit in both definitions of the word, and the album climaxes to cacophony as grainger screams “let your spirit free” repeatedly.
named after an obscure reference from the simpsons, “sexy results” is the clear outlier on you’re a woman, i’m a machine, appropriately tagged at the album’s end. i’ve always wrestled with the purpose of the song and its inclusion on the record, but the more i listen to it – both in context and out of – “sexy results” seems to already forecast the duo’s unrest and signifies a rejection of the durational confines previously placed on their music.
it’s the danciest of the eleven songs on the record, but it’s also the furthest removed from the pop sensibilities that inform their other dance-oriented tracks. in terms of discussions surrounding how an album transcends its melodic and harmonic components and becomes a piece of work that “means something” or “has meaning,” this song definitely has a place at the table, but it’s constantly changing seats.
now i guess it’s time to have that discussion, or at least a snippet of it: what you’re a woman, i’m a machine means outside of the notes pressed to wax. in the mid-2000s, this music was abrasive, hinging on the riffage made popular by post-punk revivalists but sounding sonically more similar to a rabid bastard child of queens of the stone age and lightning bolt (indeed, death from above toured with the former in 2005 and keeler was rumored to become the band’s next touring bassist, but to no avail). yet at the same time, it spoke volumes to musicians who had like-minded ideas to create maximal sound with minimal instrumentation; i can’t help but think that at least part of this ethos helped inspire fellow compatriots japandroids, who choose to assault with six strings instead of four.
on a smaller scale, coming of age musically while you’re a woman, i’m a machine was still relatively fresh remains a crucial component of my musical education. the songs are timeless, never losing their edge or their significance, and they frequently conjure up memories of friendships founded or sustained based on mutual appreciation of death from above 1979, as well as all of the odd summer jobs and awkward stages that predominated my high school tenure.
it remains to be such an important album that, when abrasive music had long fallen from my preferred listening choices, i was beyond excited to hear the duo was reuniting after a five-year hiatus in 2011, and positively ecstatic to learn that their long-awaited sophomore album, the physical world, will drop in september. it’s impossible to predict the level of impact that record will have, but if lead single “trainwreck 1979” is any indication, the physical world is probably capable of holding its own. at the very least, its impending release gives diehard fans a topical excuse to revisit an agitated masterpiece.
i’m upping the ante and treating you to my ten favorite songs of 2013, as opposed to last year’s five. my choices don’t necessarily reflect contenders for album of the year, but don’t be surprised if some of the same names show up over the next couple of weeks.
10. oostende – keep shelly in athens: “oostende” was my first true glimpse at sarah p.’s vocal personality, which stretches from hesitant to confident within the duration of a verse and a chorus. the synth pads are brooding throughout, but the lead line that kicks in three quarters of the way through the song routinely gets stuck in my head. easily the best track off of the duo’s debut album at home, the power of “oostende” is only bolstered by an incredibly heart-wrenching music video.
9. collapse – vancouver sleep clinic: the second of just two tracks released by vancouver sleep clinic this year, “collapse” easily proves what tim bettinson is capable of doing with his voice. retaining an incomprehensible aesthetic akin to bon iver, “collapse” evokes a frigid winter landscape that has already become relatable. the production behind the vocals is also impressive, molding some james blake drum pads with soft-rock, folky guitars. both vancouver sleep clinic songs have been firmly distinguishable so far, but “collapse” flexes the ensemble’s potential the most.
8. graceless – the national: trouble will find me still hasn’t fully settled in yet. while the cohesive aspect of the album may be lacking, i know that “graceless” is probably one of the best songs the national have ever written. there’s that underlying post-punk tone that harkens earlier tracks off of alligator and boxer, along with a truly anthemic final chorus. the national is a band that ages well, and a sustained break from their earlier influences helped to add depth to that sound.
7. diamond mine – pillar point: i love a good mystery. when i found pillar point through polyvinyl’s twitter page, the sheer absence of a biography or any sort of personal identity attached to the project made me appreciate the music that much more. “diamond mine” is a chillwave standout that mixes a multitude of pulses, but that lead synth line is always an earworm, whether syncopated or straight in time. the lyrics are a bit melancholy, juxtaposing the sunny, up-beat accompaniment, but that only adds to the overall sophistication of the songwriting here.
6. tennis court – lorde: i could talk about “royals,” but everyone talks about “royals.” lorde stands for something that goes against the mainstream materialistic values and idolization of glamorous pop stars, but she’s also still a kid, barely out of high school and three years away from turning twenty. that doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s very self-aware and intelligent; i think “tennis court” showcases this the best. its lyrics are less about dissociating from material goods and more about defying social trends and chasing perfection. “tennis court” is fairly autobiographical, highlighting lorde’s naivete in the music industry, but her skeptic tone suggests that she won’t buy into its extravagancies. i guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
5. savage – majical cloudz: there’s a lot to be said about majical cloudz and their fantastic, under-the-radar year. devon welsh’s voice is routinely haunting, pairing well with the minimalist compositions that define the aesthetic of the duo. impersonator was an admirable record, but i was drawn to “savage,” a bonus track released just last month, more quickly than any song found on the album. the ostinato keyboard part sets the tone for welsh’s lyrics, a fairly direct romantic narrative. the first time i heard him break from his declamatory phrasing to croon “high on lsd with you,” i was sold, and i’ve felt the same tingling sensation every listen since.
4. summer skin – teen girl scientist monthly: someone likened teen girl scientist monthly to the pains of being pure at heart on steroids, a comparison that works especially well for “summer skin,” the opening track on their newest album modern dances. the opening guitar line sells the song as an instant earworm of powerpop, but the gradual additions of keyboard textures and gang vocals find the brooklyn ensemble as an amalgamation of the answering machine and arcade fire. “summer skin” is the kind of song you would wait around for hours to hear on the radio, but thankfully, you don’t have to do that.
3. comrade – volcano choir: “byegone” garnered understandable praise for volcano choir, with its anthemic folk rock feel reminiscent of bon iver’s sophomore album. but “comrade” is the essence of what volcano choir has become: the marriage of collections of colonies of bees’ post-rock leanings and justin vernon’s vocal tendencies. responsible solely for the lyrics and vocals on repave, vernon was in his element, generously modifying his voice to embellish the experimental aesthetic of the band. the autotuned coda at the end of “comrade” makes the song and is gloriously powerful live; watch the video below for a frame of reference.
2. lungs – chvrches: any song off of the bones of what you believe could contend for a spot on this list. chvrches was one of the most impressionable bands of 2013, seamlessly blending pop hooks with indie sensibility and dance floor beats. “lungs” is buried deep within the album and is a syncopated gem; lauren mayberry’s voice is subtly doubled with a vocoder, adding a harsh undertone to an otherwise crystal clear timbre, but it’s the quarter note-triplet pattern fed through a filthy bass synthesizer that defines this song. friends of mine who almost exclusively listen to electronic dance music appreciate chvrches due to this song, further showcasing the band’s accessibility across a wide variety of genres. “lungs” is on par with every single released off of the bones of what you believe, and is probably better than some of them.
1. boat rich – dads: it didn’t take long before “boat rich” was my most-played song of 2013. clocking in at under three minutes helps, but the fact is that the guitar work is too catchy to not listen to on repeat. dads started to receive some national attention this year with the resurgence of emo, but the new jersey duo are just as likely to throw a quick meter change into a song as they are to wear their hearts on their sleeves. the chorus of “boat rich” is anthemic in nature and each repetition builds, culminating in a climax following a triplet-based interlude. check out dads’ pretty good ep if you haven’t already, and keep your eye out for more material in 2014. i know i will.