January was possibly the most eventful month in my recent life, period. May as well start with the big one: On January 23rd, i lost my father to a decade-plus-long battle with throat and mouth cancer. I've written thousands of words over the years about how much of my personality i attribute to my dad; it's because of him i grew up a huge sci-fi nerd, discovered a love for the stars, and felt empowered to blaze my own path in life--one that ended up immersed in music rather than any of the subjects in school i was actually good at. His absence was felt for the rest of the year, and will be felt forever. I've had few legit heroes in my life, but he was the biggest. And now i get to be my own.
Better Luck Next Life, the second full-length from Oakland/SF's Victory & Associates is a huge step forward in songwriting and production from some of the truest brothers around. Toshi Kasai's engineering and production skills unlocked some serious harmonies and hooks in a record that, while exasperated and bitter at first glance, is a full-length endorsement of self-empowerment and sincerity. "We'll Have to Be Our Own Heroes" is the perfect leadoff track and statement of purpose--it's not resigned to the reality of the song's title, it's celebrating it. Oh, and it's thick with killer guitar riffage as well.
V&A also gets a hat tip for introducing me to my new hair metal/pro wrestling nerd-in-arms, their delightfully goofy substitute guitarist Ryan Werner, with whom i want to finally start my New Bomb Turks/Turbonegro-inspired asshole gunk-punk band...but i guess he'd need to move to Milwaukee first.
Hey, here's another song that makes me think of my dad:
I know there's a lot more going on with this song than the lyrics; hell, a female singing these lyrics throws all sorts of brilliant gender politics into this tune, but at its core, i hear a salutation to parenthood and a kiss-off to it at the same time. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is pretty much my first serious dive into the work of Neko Case; the more singer-songwritery pop stuff has never been my primary bag. But when i get into it, i really get into it (see: Fields, Magnetic; Goats, Mountain). This record is just killer pop songwriting, killer harmonies, awesome arrangements, and strategically-peppered expletives front to back. Blah, i suppose i'm going to have to start exploring the New Pornographers now.
The other huge life change January brought me was a promotion: i got dragged kicking and screaming into the manager position in the call center at my music store. I was hired to be the assistance manager and at NO POINT had any interest in running the show, but with my dad passing and certain other life events that i will discuss later, i thought maybe this was the universe dragging me into a new stage of my life. So i let it happen and i don't regret it. Turns out i'm not awful at this job so far...even if i have to deal with a little bit more of the corporate BS side of things.
Honeys by Pissed Jeans is an okay record; i think a lot of my friends are bigger fans of theirs than i am. I probably have to see them live for it to really click. Right now, they sound to me like a more-than-capable hardcore version of Nirvana that occasionally manage to click with a killer, catchy-ass grunge/punk song (like "False Jesii Part 2" from King of Jeans...holy shit, that song). As soon as i heard "Cafeteria Food" i was nearly crying with laughter. "Think you got it all figured out except/Where to send your kids to school/ Go ahead, you can use the microwave/It's an excellent kitchen tool." Amazing. (Close runner-up: "Health Plan.")
Musically, 2013 started off with the first-ever Body Futures live show on January 11th. This show was an excuse for us to finally shit or get off the pot with regard to getting a live set together; we had friends that wanted to come up from Chicago to play, so what better time to oblige them? Plus, i was able to debut the lyrics to our song "When You Had a Jaw," which were about my soon-to-depart dad, and are some of the words i'm most proud of writing in my whole silly musical career. (And yes, i'm including it here, not because i'm listing my own band in my favorites of 2013--i'm not--but it does represent a lot of what i lived in 2013, so there.)
The two out-of-town bands we played that show with released some killer music in 2013, by the way. Chicago's Nonagon blessed us with The Last Hydronaut, one more taut, nervous and altogether explosive slab of high-tension wiry post-punk. Every time they play Milwaukee i'm pretty sure they convert more fans, and it probably doesn't hurt that they play with so many diverse Milwaukee bands (us, Juniper Tar, Wereworm) that they manage to get in front of different
While Body Futures took up a lot of my creative energy this year, one major change was that this was the first calendar year in 13 years that IfIHadAHiFi didn't play a show, or do much of anything, really. We have about 20 songs in various stages of completion ready to finish, so whenever we get ramped up again we'll have a nice foundation to jump from, but for now, i'm really happy and thrilled with that Body Futures has accomplished in 2013--a mini-tour, an agreement to release our debut full-length on my favorite label, Latest Flame, and some seriously fun shows. Besides, it's hard to get upset at HiFi's hiatus when Rev.Ever and his boys are busy putting out tunes this catchy:
Like Like The The The Death may be the best band in Milwaukee right now, as far as i'm concerned. They operate in a milieu that champions Hot Snakes, Polvo, Archers of Loaf, Sebadoh, and about a half-dozen other bands that i fell in love with during my college radio days in the mid-1990s, so the Law of Affectionate Familiarity demands that i passionately support what these guys do. Cave Jenny is musical clickbait seemingly written to push all my noise-rock buttons, and as long as they keep it up, i have no complaints despite their clear, cruel manipulation of my subconscious. (But really, i'd be ok with getting HiFi rolling again any time. Hint hint.)
In other local band news, Northless followed up their crushing 2011 full-length, Clandestine Abuse, with the even more crushing World Keeps Sinking. While at first listen these guys just come across as doing accomplished things with the Neurosis/Isis template, there is always WAY more happening below the surface with Northless compositions. Nationally, when it came to the heavy stuff a lot of attention was paid to Deafheaven's Sunbather, which is solid in its own right, but man, i'll put Northless up against any heavy band in the world.
In other "bands that haven't done much lately" news, my buds in Boston's Ho-Ag decided to finally hang it up this year, much to my dismay. Their brand of 50s sci-fi Devo-inspired spazz-punk produced some of the finest live performances i've ever seen, and Boston's music scene is far less weird without them around. Their last proper full-length is called World-Destroying Zig-Zags and it's full of everything i loved about them--crazy spastic stop-start rhythms, expertly-played theremin, how-the-fuck-did-they-come-with-that song arrangements and time signature mash-ups. I feel no shame in pointing out that Body Futures has already ripped off at least one idea from this record for our own. You'll have to listen to this whole record and then listen to ours in 2014 to figure out what it is.
February saw the start of a new tradition amongst my friends in the Electrical Audio Forum community--the first-ever PRF Winter BBQ: THUNDERSNOW. For one weekend, we converged on Gladstone, MI's Terrace Bay Inn and enjoyed some of our favorite bands, some ridiculously warm camaraderie, amazing food, and the most knock-you-on-your-ass brandy old fashioneds that you'll ever have an old lady whip up for you. When we woke up on Saturday after an evening of drinking in the hotel bar, our wallets were NOT pleased. We also were treated to a transcendent performance from Retribution Gospel Choir, who played both 20-minute tracks from this year's 3. We stared agape as Eric Pollard went round-the-world on his drums, going all off-script improv during the breakdowns in "Seven" and "Can't Walk Out" while Steve Garrington held everything together on bass. One of the most gripping performances i saw all year, and it happened in a little dance hall outside of Escanaba. What?
Thundersnow is happening again in the same place in February 2014, and it's become my Christmas. I'm counting down the days.
Thundersnow also introduced us to my two favorite new friends of 2013: Garth and Josh of the rutabega. Now, if you know me (and if you're reading this i assume you know me pretty damn well to deal with reading all of this), you know that i'm generally not one for emotive, heart-on-the-sleeve, slow-core Sad Bastard Music. So it may surprise you when you hear this record to discover that brother the lights don't work is, by a mile, far and away my favorite record from this year, period. To call things back to the Victory & Associates boys, 2013 was the year that we started to reclaim sincerity from the soulless PR-approved pseudo-"heartfelt" lightweight indie pop that your 88Nines and Riverside Theaters champion so thoroughly. Josh isn't appearing to bare his soul because it's a smart career move; he's actually tearing his soul out from behind his ribcage and sharing it with us because he may collapse dead from its weight if he doesn't. I'm pretty sure the same can be said for Garth on the drums and synth, too; sure, it may not be his words in the lead vocals, but watching his drumming is as equally a confessional experience as listening to Josh croon his sorrows. Their set at Thundersnow was a thrilling introduction; their set at the Summer PRF BBQ was a revelation. An entire room full of manly, aluminum-guitar-wielding noise-rock beardos were reduced to tears by this shit, and it only fed the waterworks when they dedicated "Come Back Big Brother" to our friend Steve from FowlMouth, who passed away after a long illness earlier this year. My god, do i love this band.
Shows, shows, shows...there were some doozies this year. Man...or Astroman? are one of my favorite live bands of all time and after being reunited for well over a year now, i finally managed to get to one of their shows, at the Empty Bottle. They haven't lost a step, and with their new guitarist Avona Nova (which is a palindrome, BY THE DUBS), i now have a rock star crush on one of them. Too much to handle. Their album from this year, Defcon 5...4...3...2...1, is classic Experiment Zero-style stuff and it feels like they haven't lost a step. Maybe a little light on the samples, but not the HOT ROCK.
So many other shows to talk about...i saw GOBLIN for the first time ever on their first ever tour of the United States. Saw Mudhoney for the first time since 2001. I saw the best noise set i've seen in years when Pedestrian Deposit played the Milwaukee Noisefest before a surprisingly fun Negativland greatest-hits set. And during a weekend in May, we got to see We Are Hex finally find an audience in Chicago and Milwaukee while opening for Die Kreuzen. We Are Hex also released their first music back from a two-year(?) hiatus with a 7" on Latest Flame that brought their post-punk darkwave back to form and included the best one-line statement of purpose from a singer all year: Jilly's "I've never wrote a love song/And i won't start soon."
I'm with Jilly on the "no love songs" rule, generally. I hate writing them, and since the world is glutted with them, i see no need to contribute some mediocre effort on my part. Thus, love songs from other people don't often grab me. Thus, i don't have a love song from 2013 to post while i discuss the far and away #1 event of 2013: Dixie and me announcing our engagement. To be honest, we probably decided we were getting married sometime in 2012; it didn't take us very long to realize that this was it. We just had to make sure that we had our officiant secured before spilling to family and friends. But once we did, we couldn't wait to spread the word. I can honestly say that being with Dixie makes me the happiest i've been in years. I always thought it was really cool to hear a couple refer to each other as their best friend, and always thought that must be a really excellent thing to experience. Now i can say from experience that it's 100% true--being engaged to your best friend fucking rules. Fun fact--Dixie's first words to me in 2003 were after a HiFi performance, when she told me "you guys make me wanna dance!" Well, dancing with her's the greatest thing, and we're gonna cut the rug something fierce on November 8, 2014.
In 2013 i became a big ol' Janelle Monae fan. The Electric Lady is everything awesome about Prince, Outkast, and all that fun, funky real-live dance music that's equal parts production and straight-up live James Brown show-stopping, horn-blowing BLAW. Weirdly enough, it was seeing her perform on the Late Show with David Letterman that finally got her music in front of me. She tore it the hell up, running over and dancing on Dave's desk while her banned just plain slammed. Holy shit!
And no, "Dance Apocalyptic" isn't a love song, and neither is this one, although this one reminds me of Dixie a whole bunch. Superchunk's I Hate Music is not as strong as 2010's Majesty Shredding, but i can really get behind the title and it has it's share of entrants into Superchunk's a-list material. "Void" and "Low F" are fantastic, but it was their opening salvo, "FOH" (Front of the House), that spoke to the house manager in Dixie. It's a pretty catchy jam, too.
Finally, a mad shout-out to Racine and Kenosha for emerging in 2013 as hot destinations for Milwaukee bands to play, as their club scenes are heating up in a way that i haven't experienced in my time in Southeast WI. A lot of Kenosha's credit goes to my man Jeff Moody and the work he's done in getting bands booked for the two bicycle pub crawls that happen every year: Handlebars & Bars in the summer, and the Ride of the Living Dead zombie pub crawl in October. This year Handlebars & Bars featured yet another magical performance from the rutabega, and the highlight of the zombie crawl was the ruckus perpetrated by Chicago's Fake Limbs, whose The Power of Patrician Upbringing is a hard-charging entrant into the classic Chicago noise-rock pantheon. At the RotLD, frontman Stephen Sowley and the rest of Fake Limbs whipped a sports bar full of drunken undead into a straight-up mosh pit that almost led to fists getting thrown between a zombie biker and Zombie Urkel. Oh, Zombie Urkel. Don't bite off more than you can chew, big guy.
Also, "Hairwrecker," the second track on that new Fake Limbs slab, features Sowley doing what i've decided is the best possible impression of the St. Sanders' "Kiss Shreds" video at the 01:52 mark:
But when it's all said and done, 2013 was, indeed, for me, all about the rutabega. I don't know anyone who heard them and didn't immediately fall in love, and i have it on good authority that this record may have jump-started the formation of what will soon be Milwaukee's next Hottest New Band (which will just have to wait until 2014's Year in Review, if we're lucky). And as much as i want to champion so many of the other great songs on this record, just about everyone has pointed to "Turn on the Summer" as Song of the Year, and for me, it's hard to argue with consensus, for once.
So as 2014 gets kicked into gear and temperatures hover in the single digits, i look forward to the next Thundersnow, the next PRF BBQ, all the next great albums of 2014, and of course, the Body Futures record and November 8th. 2013 was a lot of things for a lot of people, and while there was a lot of good, there was also a lot of loss. Mine wasn't the only father to pass on, and friends fell as well. Fires and thefts cursed a few bands, but others had pretty great successes. My plan is to launch into 2014 with as much of the sincerity and optimism gleaned from the rutabega, Victory & Associates, and more, and double down on it with the positivity of Kalamazoo's Minutes, and their early contender for Best Record of 2014, Roland. Here's to kicking 2014 in the ass, raising our fists up, and believing.
Hey! Here are some of the other Best Albums of 2013 that i couldn't fit into this but warrant mentioning, because they were great!:
Sebadoh, Defend Yourself
Bottomless Pit, Shade Perennial
Obits, Bed & Bugs
WAXEATER, Baltimore Record
The Columbines, Feral Villa
STNNNG, Empire Inward Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia
The Night Marchers, Allez Allez
Queens of the Stone Age, ...Like Clockwork
Whales, Size & Scale
Deltron 3030, Event II
The Blind Shake, Key To a False Door
Tyranny is Tyranny, Let It Come From Whom It May
Low, The Invisible Way
And seriously, watch out for these in 2014:
Call Me Lightning, Human Hell