VIDEO PREMIERE: HNRY FLWR - Little Brother

Will Shenton

While the trend of using home movies in music videos isn't new, it's definitely one that has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. Most of the time, they're simply used to cultivate an air of vague nostalgia without much concern for the actual content. But in HNRY FLWR's latest video for their heartbreaking ballad "Little Brother," the old, fuzzy VHS tells a much more compelling story.

"Little Brother" is a treatise on bullying, and, more broadly, on the conditions that create cycles of male violence. In the band's description of the video, they explain that "Our friend, David, was a sweet boy—we see him in this music video celebrating his first Halloween as an RC-wielding Superman in 1990, somewhere in the Midwest. A couple years later ... he'd get bullied for being earnest and quiet, and then he'd bully his little brother as they grew up. It is a feedback loop that spirals outward until you find a way to channel it."

With that context, what initially seems like a cute (if somewhat banal) home movie becomes something more tragic: one of the last recordings of a child's innocence before the world turned him cruel. As HNRY FLWR croons "We're all made from an act of love," we see the first glimpse of the titular little brother—someone who would soon be yet another victim in the chain.

That said, "Little Brother" is not entirely without hope. This vignette, a single day in the life of a child, captures a gentleness that's present in all of us. As much as our experiences may bury it beneath anger and regret, there's always the possibility that we rediscover it and find absolution.

 

Catch HNRY FLWR opening for Uni and Blame Candy on Friday, 1/19 at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.

REVIEW: LUKA - What Kind of Animal

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Phillipe Roberts

For an album recorded and mixed live-to-tape in a single day, What Kind of Animal plays like a study in stillness. On his third full-length, Toronto-based musician LUKA capitalizes on his greatest asset, the bleak intimacy of his vocals, surrounding it with arrangements that are content to simmer in the background until called forth to add a touch of chaos. But these outbursts are exceptions to the rule, momentary squalls rippling across otherwise placid waters. An observational songwriter with a keen eye for bleak imagery, LUKA crafts shadowy folk that slithers its way into your heart. What Kind of Animal is a perfect soundtrack to existential dread, a predawn whisper that hangs over you long after sunrise.

LUKA’s tunes sleepwalk down a lineage of somber, close-mic’d pop stretching from The Velvet Underground’s self-titled record up to Yo La Tengo’s groundbreaking And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The sonic focus is squarely on the vocals in the style of Lou Reed’s “closet mixes,” with the supporting instrumentation pushed up and away to emphasize the loneliness of LUKA’s delivery; he sounds truly isolated in the mix, as if he’s singing along to the decaying memory of a song. The softly brushed drums, twinkling guitars, and warm bass hum along dutifully, breaking the reflective mood in only two moments—the ascendant guitar solo on “Animal” and the collective noise-scape that closes out “Happy”—where the cohesion of LUKA’s live band strategically lets off a little steam, bucking you awake after a particularly sleepy stretch.

To be sure, the mood on What Kind of Animal is predominantly overcast. On opener “Near Collision,” LUKA wastes all of two bars before spilling his lonesome guts. “She cried last night / So I held her / She read his poetry in tears,” he confesses, following it up with what might be the album’s finest lyric and thesis statement: “I cannot help but be dazzled by debris.” Indeed, many songs on the record come across like an examination of his own emotional wreckage. The surrealist imagery of standout track “Realize” reads like prelude to a broken relationship, peppered with fortune-cookie distillations of 4 a.m. post-fight wisdom. “Love is but a voice / That calls on you,” he sings, helpless against the tide of emotion sweeping him away as “Everything I feel about you / Moves inward.”

The singular moment of sunlight on the record, “Quick Reflex”, is also its shortest, and can’t help but be tainted by an escapist need for retreat into an idealized past. “Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be in the past / Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be home at last,” goes the chorus, sounding absolutely positive that if he can crack open the meaning of objects from an earlier time, he can disappear into it again. This kind of twisted, self-effacing optimism is LUKA’s sweet spot, and the swaying track coasts into the sunset with sprays of shimmering guitar. It serves as a pleasant and welcome counterpoint to the creeping fear that haunts the rest of What Kind of Animal, a masterful rendering of LUKA’s nocturnal sympathies.

REVIEW: Dove Lady - E

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Phillipe Roberts

Pause any song on Dove Lady’s excellent new EP E, fast forward 30 seconds or so, and try to guess where you’ll end up. Press play and listen for the sound of your expectations shattering. Five releases into a 26-EP project, Dove Lady only seem further away from solidifying their sound, and even less inclined to drop an outline around the white-hot plasma of punk, noise, ambient, and prog fueling their remarkable chemistry.

Barring the closing noise improvisation of “Eye Against Eye,” each song on E is a breathless sprint across genres. Opener “DZ Theme” comes slithering in on a mournful reversed guitar loop, grows a skeleton to the tune of martial drum triplets, and promptly implodes into fuzz-fried punk ferocity. Dove Lady have the attention span of the “SCAN” function on your radio. Songs unfold like a series of brief, dramatic love affairs. They might swoon over delicate, folky falsetto at the beginning of “Slapback,” but they’ll leave you in the lurch if you catch feelings while they flirt with hip-hop breakbeats and a smooth, surf-inspired interlude, only to leave the scene with a titanic, crashing alt-rock outro.

Given how recklessly catchy they remain throughout, it’s hard not to get attached to any one of these sections. Each suggests a track that would be tremendous on its own; as far as I’m concerned, the spectral R&B groove on “Can’t Be Sad” could go on forever. However, the beauty of E is that it constantly works to subvert that false sense of security while keeping you thoroughly entertained. If you love the chase, open your heart and give it a spin.

REVIEW: Laura Wolf - Stitch One

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Phillipe Roberts

In an Old Spruce Sessions video released in August of this year, Laura Wolf performs two songs off of her latest EP, Stitch One. The rendition of “Circles” is spare and lovely, but it’s her version of “Good” that truly shines. On the album, the track feels spacious; her strong voice, the various cello melodies, finger-picked guitar, and percussive slaps are panned and separated, breathing into one another. Live, sheltered from a sudden storm in a tiny tractor shed, Wolf gradually weaves the song into shape, each layer perfectly visible for an instant as she threads it into place. Though it takes a full two minutes longer to perform, seeing the bones of the track laid bare does much to peel back the artistry at work in Laura Wolf’s songwriting. Hearing them sewn up and refreshed on Stitch One, the songs take on a grandiose new scale. It’s a wholly different experience, but a rewarding one if you give them time to reveal themselves.

Perhaps the only fault in those live sessions, and live looping in general, is the destructive electronic effects of piling on so many layers. And if the live version of “Good” is any indication, Laura Wolf’s songs are dense; she pauses to add handclaps and slaps to the bridge of her cello for percussion as well as two switches from her primary instrument to the guitar slung over her back. The sounds end up squashed, each piece losing some of its distinct tonal character.

Stitch One does away with the distortion, and the clarity allows the remarkable amount of arranged detail to spring out at you. “Circles” gains a ghostly instrumental interlude with melodic screeching as the strings flutter in the distance. The added low end on “Body Part” drives the beat harder, giving the track an epic, anthemic feel, and the slight solo just before the outro feels gritty but optimistically adventurous.

For the most part, Laura Wolf’s vocals lean towards folk, but there’s a clear theatrical element at key parts that heightens the emotional drama at play. This influence is most keenly felt on “Stitch Two,” where her intense vibrato meanders through folk guitar, erupts in a pre-climactic roar, and descends back into gentle arpeggiations before her triumphant belting dissolves into multi-part harmony. By comparison, the slow, heartbreaking story of “Chinese Finger Trap” contains a few lofty moments, but takes a more straightforward melodic approach to sifting through the rubble of a broken relationship.

Wolf ends her first EP with a brooding instrumental that serves as the title track. “Stitch One” blooms out of a mournful yet cinematic melody; the scope feels huge, suggesting wide-open spaces while filling them with slight dissonances that press in at the margins. But steadily over the course of the song, brighter and bolder harmonies slip in until the track is spilling over with light at its close. It's a fitting end for a record so invested in the healing power of process.

REVIEW: Howard Hello - Election Year

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Phillipe Roberts

Every year, the next crop of older indie bands rides the latest nostalgia wave back into relevancy. Some never escape the cash-grab label, but others are lucky enough to collide with the arc of collective memory at a rare moment, old ideas reinvigorated by a timely historical synergy. The recent reunion of the Breeders absolutely comes to mind. Howard Hello, a duo composed of songwriters Marty Anderson and Kenseth Thibideau, retreated from view nearly ten years ago after a short run of records that aimed to “craft music inspired by the American Zeitgeist,” taking the form of lavish baroque pop arrangements that occasionally flirted with ambient washes of sound. Released approximately one year after the end of the 2016 presidential election, their reunion album, Election Year, takes the latest flashpoint year as a signal to renew that initial mission. Sidestepping appeals to nostalgia to turn in a therapeutic protest album, Howard Hello return eager to tackle old themes through the lens of a noticeably darker era.

Lyrical content aside, the soundscapes that dominate Election Year take their cues from the lush orchestration that characterized their earlier work. The sound is slathered with a heavy coat of reverb that gives it a melancholy, pastoral feeling, echoing the folk-oriented post-rock of Do Make Say Think and the lighter moments of Broken Social Scene. Finger-picked guitars meander across delicate plinks of piano and drums thud or simmer at a marching pace. There’s a state of constant ascent, with the tracks blooming and growing to swooning crescendos, aided by the addition of strings and horns. The expansion of the instrumentation is a massive benefit to their overall sound, and Howard Hello treat the viewer to a constantly evolving sonic landscape to match their lyrical ambitions.

Lyrically, the tracks attack the despair and opportunism springing from the election with equal fervor. “Simon Say” takes a stab at naming the callous forces arrayed against them—“DOD, NRA, Goldman Sachs”—melting them down with a heavy dose of vocoder on the vocals. Howard Hello have always used electronic elements, but letting this touch extend to the human voice reinforces the ominous atmosphere of Election Year to a wonderful degree, especially when paired with more organic instrumentation. The chanting of “mass civil disobedience” on “MCD” sounds both inviting and terrifying against the airy cascade of acoustic guitar. “Out” continues this mantra pattern with a plea to externalize despair into positive action, grooving along to tambourine and shuffling drums as it builds to a crescendo of frantic trumpet soloing. “Vote” forsakes percussion entirely except for a distant clatter, building a gently unfolding dirge of strings instead.

By taking the risk of making a deliberately political record, Howard Hello are constantly wrestling with the possibility of sounding overly earnest. Initially, the direct naming and shaming of a track like “Simon Say” felt grating in its directness, and similar moments crop up elsewhere on the record at first pass. But allow yourself to sink into the melodies and bask in the emotional swells of instrumentation, and it starts to sound and feel appropriate on the second pass. “Greenhouse” does it best the first time, its climate change-focused lyrics playing a majestic back and forth with the evolving landscape. The effect is a dazzling post-rock anthem that both soothes old wounds and galvanizes you toward direct action.