I have come here to praise cassettes, not bury them.

It’s Record Store Day, and that means a rush on local haunts such as Waterloo Records and End of an Ear. Hundreds of collectibles were issued specifically for this annual event designed to help keep brick-and-mortar shops afloat in the streaming age. The resurgence of vinyl means most special RSD releases are in that format — but at least a couple of cassette reissues have popped up this year, and a handful of underground indie labels have been putting out cassettes lately.

READ MORE: Joe Gross on 25 Record Store Day releases we’re jonesing for

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider, who wrote for the American-Statesman in the 1990s, today leveled an attack on cassettes as part of his contention that the CD format deserves a comeback. I have no argument with the latter: I, too, still value CDs as an ideal bridge between physical and digital formats. (My former colleague Grayson Haver Currin recently wrote eloquently about this in relation to a yearlong cross-country Sprinter-van odyssey.)

But I’m here to testify: Cassettes have enriched my life so much in the past couple of years that I must challenge Riemenschneider’s assault on the format’s integrity.

This all stems back to the fall of 2016, when I wrote about Austin band Croy & the Boys as part of our Austin360 Artist of the Month series. Attending the band’s record-release party at Hotel Vegas, I noticed that in addition to CDs, they were selling cassettes of their new record for $5. I thought it was charming and I wanted to support the sentiment, so I bought one.

Maybe it’s because the band’s Doug Sahm-esque combination of country and rock with occasional Tex-Mex overtones harkened back to the era when cassettes were commonplace, but something about that music just sounded great when I played it in my car, which thankfully was old enough to still have a cassette deck.

That was the turning point. Soon after, I began raiding an upstairs closet where I’d filed away a couple hundred cassettes that mostly contained music unavailable in any other format. As fate would have it, one of the tapes I found was the 1991 demo of an Austin band called the Troll Dolls that featured songs written by George Reiff.

A few months earlier, the Austin music community had learned that Reiff had cancer. Slipping the Troll Dolls demo into the car deck, I was reminded that for all of Reiff’s talents as a bassist and producer, he was quite a talented songwriter as well. I wondered if George remembered, so I shot an iPhone video of his song “Unsteady State” playing in my car and sent it to George’s brother.

The response from George arrived a few days later. “WooooooWWW!!!!! Where in the world did you get this? The good thing is it’s actually not bad. I was so worried I would hate it! I was sweetly surprised. Thanks so much for sharing.”

George died four months later. I’ll treasure that last note from him forever, and it all happened because of cassettes. (Eventually, more came of it. Former Austin duo the Mastersons played the song at a private family service for George, and last December, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis sang it at the public memorial for him at Emo’s.)

That’s the most deeply sentimental story to relate, but it was just the tip of the iceberg in digging back into my cassette archives. The real treasure trove, I soon discovered, was the mixtapes, which took me back to the exact time, place and feeling of their creation.

The gold-standard was the one pictured above: “The Long Journey Home,” made to document a drive of more than 4,000 miles from Alaska to Austin in August 1987 after a summer internship at the Anchorage Daily News. It included a song by a never-heard-from-again Anchorage indie band called the Guests, whose cassette-only release I’d purchased at the hip record store up there.

In responding to Riemenschneider’s article on Facebook, former American-Statesman music writer Don McLeese noted that cassettes may hold a greater pull for Austinites of a certain era because some great music was released initially (and sometimes still only) in that format: Daniel Johnston’s early homemade recordings, Butch Hancock’s “No 2 Alive” marathon of live recordings from the Cactus Cafe, collections by the radiant pop band Grains of Faith that never made it to vinyl or CD. Just yesterday, en route to the Old Settler’s Music Festival, another Grains of Faith tune I’d totally forgotten about popped up on one of those mix tapes. (“True Love Is On the Street Again,” if you’re reading this, Joe McDermott or Jennifer Summers.)

I suspect, though, that any of us who made mixtapes back then would be amazed at the powerful memories, and long-forgotten songs, those cassettes can rekindle if you dig them out and play them again now. This last year and a half of rediscovering those cassettes has resulted in some of the most rewarding music-listening experiences of my entire life.

Finally, to specifically rebut a few of Riemenschneider’s charges against cassettes:

1. “Those cheap, flimsy, plastic thingamajigs that warp in the slightest sunlight.” They made it through Texas summers in my car, and three decades later, they’re still no worse for the wear. This surprised me too: Initially I thought I’d have no luck playing most of these old cassettes. But the format is surprisingly, remarkably durable. Almost everything I’ve dug out still sounds as good now as it did back then.

2. They “require you to press the fast-forward and rewind buttons 25 times if you ever dare to replay a song.” This is a sad strawman, Chris. Everyone knows that by the early-mid 80s, most cassette players had added a search function that automatically skipped ahead or back to the next pause in the tape, so you could go right to the start of the song. Yes, it takes slightly longer than the instantaneous jump to the next track on CD players; but I’ve found those pauses of a few seconds to be kind of refreshing. It was OK when everything wasn’t immediate, and it still is.

3. Sonic fidelity is “weak and underwatery, except for in the right gas-guzzler cars.” It’s possible I just happen to have the right kind of old “gas-guzzler car” for this — and I’ll concede that I do think having a car that plays cassettes is a significant part of the appeal here, because these old tapes have sounded especially great when driving.

But I still have a cassette deck and turntable hooked up to a receiver in the house, and I still have an old boombox, and those tapes have played just fine on those units as well. If younger generations are going to champion vinyl and buy turntables, it’s pretty easy to accept cassette technology as well, especially since the price-point is much better, and they’re lighter and take up less space (important when moving).

In conclusion, I’ll simply paraphrase one of the great SNL comic skits from the glory days of cassettes: Chris, you ignorant slut.

360 Mixtape: Disclosure, Chvrches, Fetty Wap, Drake & Future, Big Grams

Each week, Austin360 music writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith listen to a wide variety of new albums and singles and offer first impressions on the Austin360 Periscope account. We put our favorite new songs from the week into the 360 Mixtape. Consider it your new music soundtrack to get you through the week. For Austin-based new releases, check out Peter Blackstock’s On the Record column

Chvrches performs at the Honda stage at ACL Fest on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)
Chvrches performs at the Honda stage at ACL Fest on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

 

Disclosure “Caracal” Listen

DSS: These twenty-something Brits are killing the dance music game. The songs do start to blend together as you listen, but that might just be a trapping of the genre. The album includes features from Lorde, Sam Smith and Miguel. They’ve clearly caught lightning in a bottle and everyone wants to feel the heat.

EW: My favorite part of 2015 is that house music is a viable mainstream radio genre. Listen, if you only know Disclosure from the Sam Smith-aided “Latch,” then you might be a little taken aback by “Caracal.” The follow-up to “Settle” features songs far more representative of the Lawrence bros’ heady mood-setting than that aforementioned hook-monster smash single. But there’s still plenty of earwormage here, chiefly on the Smith collaboration “Omen” and on the truly excellent “Magnets,” featuring Lorde.

Chvrches “Every Open Eye” Listen

EW: My life is a Super Nintendo game and “Every Open Eye” is my 16-bit inner monologue. I feel that I am not in danger of exaggeration to say that the Scottish trio’s sophomore album was one of the year’s most eagerly awaited releases, and this delivers like a Mushroom Kingdom 1-up. There is a ferocity and a middle-finger in Lauren Mayberry’s vocals on tracks like “Leave a Trace” absent from the prickly-sweet lilt of “The Bones of What You Believe,” and this LP trades the first album’s sonic/lyrical dissonance for some well-synchronized snarl. There is a danger of the band falling into sameness in the future, but the steely euphoria of songs like “Bury It” transcend that this go around.

DSS: Their music stirs my spirit in a way that’s super exhilarating. It makes me want to keep climbing the mountain because one day I’ll get to the top.

Drake & Future “What A Time To Be Alive” – Listen

DSS: According to Drake’s recent Fader interview, he and Future holed up in the studio for five days to make this album which is sort of hilarious because it feels like two completely different albums. Drake whines about the trappings of fame while Future delivers existential, drug-addled mumbles. The weird thing is how well it works. The counterpoint of Drake made Future make more sense to me. But no one sums the album up better than this dude.  Also, worth noting, Future is playing weekend two of Austin City Limits Fest so there’s a good chance we’ll see some of these tracks recreated live.

Kurt Vile “B’lieve I’m Going Down” Listen

EW: Over the past few days, this has become a dark horse for one of my favorite albums of the year. Kurt Vile’s strange, sweet, sad, stoned rock is philosophical where you least expect it and waxes poetic about dust bunnies and bathroom sinks. There are certainly influences at play here — a lil’ Beck, a smattering of Ryan Adams, a 1/4 cup of AM radio gold — but it’s all synthesized into something ear-perking. For an album that’s not afraid to take it downcast, it’s weirdly captivating.

JR JR “JR JR”  Listen

EW: The artists formerly named after a NASCAR star have been known in the past for electro-tinged mumblecore music — kinda clattery, kinda winsome. Nowadays, though, we’re all releasing candy-coated dance-pop albums (mine comes out in December*), so the rechristened band has this sunny offering for the world. There’s a faint feeling that this album should have come out five years ago, but it’s a buoyant romp.

*Not true, probably.

Sam Smith “Writing’s On The Wall” Listen

DSS: Wait, this is the theme to the new Bond movie? This sounds like the set up for the most boring Bond ever, where a major plot point involves 007 leaving his cashmere sweater in a cafe only to have it promptly returned by a friendly barista.

EW: STOP CRYING, SAMUEL. I am bored.

Big Grams “Big Grams” Listen

DSS: Outkast was always ahead of their time and Big Boi continues to push the envelope, dropping his syrupy southern rhymes over grandiose sweeping backdrops from Phantogram. I love everything about this project and I desperately want ALL the Austin fests to book them next year.

EW: Stylistic mix-n-match is nothing new, but when two such well-known acts do it, it feels exciting for some reason that I am sure reflects poorly on my own character. Phantogram is galactic, Big Boi is fast and smooth, and I am here for it.

Silversun Pickups “Better Nature” Listen

EW: As a fan of “Swoon” without equal, I am confused as to why the Silvers Pickups thought trading the sound of menace for a lighter tone was a good idea. This sounds like 30 Seconds to Mars in a way that will cause lemon-face.

Dumblonde “Dumblonde” Listen

EW: This debut from two former members of Danity Kane NO WAIT HEAR ME OUT cuts a very precarious line between dance club EDM and icy Swedish pop. There’s a little runway strut, there’s a little glitchy Oh Land resemblance — what do you have to lose? Nothing! If you hate it, well, Danity Kane already broke up!

Sia “Alive” Listen

DSS: I was super psyched about this song until Eric told me is was originally penned for Adele. Now I still think it’s a great song, but man do I miss Adele.

EW: If Adele had actually sung this, I think I would like it less, because Sia’s weird vocal tics are my chief source of enjoyment here for me. This one has a bland sweep for me with none of the debauched yet miserable cajones of “Chandelier” or the clockwork quirk of “Elastic Heart.”

New Order “Music Complete” Listen

DSS: Nothing really jumps out as particularly striking about this album. Coincidentally, Eric and I both listened to this album while cleaning our houses this weekend and it’s good for that.

Fetty Wap “RGF Island” Listen

DSS: Fetty Wap has totally owned 2015. I don’t think even he anticipated it, but he was ready. This is a solid collection of booty club party rap. It probably won’t change your life but it will get you dancing on a Saturday night.

360 Mixtape: Ryan Adams, Demi Lovato, Lana del Rey, Metric, Big Grams

Each week, Austin360 music writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith listen to a wide variety of new albums and singles and offer first impressions on the Austin360 Periscope account. We put our favorite new songs from the week into the 360 Mixtape. Consider it your new music soundtrack to get you through the week.

In this Sept. 17, 2015 photo, singer Ryan Adams poses for a portrait in New York. Adams released an album covering Taylor Swift’s entire “1989” album. Swift released the original album last October. (Photo by Dan Hallman/Invision/AP)
In this Sept. 17, 2015 photo, singer Ryan Adams poses for a portrait in New York. Adams released an album covering Taylor Swift’s entire “1989” album. Swift released the original album last October. (Photo by Dan Hallman/Invision/AP)

Metric ‘Pagans In Vegas’ — Listen

EW: Emily Haines, the queen of paranoia pop, and her sinister gang of Canadians go full-on synth (as is the fashion). Sinful and neon for the most part, but I plan to play “The Shade” at my wedding.

Telekinesis ‘Ad Infinitum’ — Listen

EW: The Seattle garage rocker also breaks with predictability and plugs into the generator for a rattling atomic reactor of electronic frenzy.

Robert DeLong ‘In The Cards’ — Listen

EW: Not really pop, not really rock, certainly not EDM. Robert DeLong is the chill house party major domo orchestrating laptop-born sounds for ultimate party effect.

The Front Bottoms ‘Back On Top’ — Listen

EW: You ever have a band that you just can’t get into because the voice drives a nail into your ear canal? I’ve finally given in and embraced the slightly off-kilter vocal charm of The Front Bottoms.

Lana del Rey ‘Honeymoon’ – Listen

DSS: I’ve moved through denial and anger into the acceptance phase of my relationship with the patron saint of the rich, beautiful and mopey. She’s here to stay and this album (MAYBE) makes a case for why that’s okay. Someone has to provide the soundtrack for all that middle class millennial malaise after all.

Ryan Adams ‘1989’ (covers album)  — Listen

EW: In many ways one of the most eagerly awaited albums of the year, Adams’ take on the Swift smash hit improves Taylor’s weakest tracks by injected a little Springsteenian charm (“Welcome to New York,” “Bad Blood”) and turns the sassy sugar high of “Shake It Off” into a mournful, three-Jacks-int0-the-night expression of self-doubt (aided by what sounds like a Casio keyboard). The only downside? Adams switches lyrical pronouns from male to female and female to male, and in some egregious cases (“Style”) rewrites whole lines in what amounts to a musical “no homo.” The gleeful perspective of a young woman was what made “1989” worth covering in the first place. What is there to prove?

Blackalicious ‘Imani Vol. 1’  — Listen 

DSS: Stumbling across a new album from this classic hip-hop crew was one of the best things that happened this week.

Pell ‘Cafe Du Monde’ (single)  — Listen

DSS: As a lover of soulful Southern rap, I’ve been watching this young NOLA cat closely.

Phases ‘For Life’ — Listen

EW: Perky mall pop best enjoyed with a scrunchie in your hair and a copy of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” on the VCR.

Demi Lovato ‘Confident’ (single) — Listen

EW: The best Katy Perry song this year (or the best Christina Aguilera song of 2007).

Børns ‘Fool’ — Listen

DSS: A little less sugary than everything else we’ve heard from Garrett Borns, but still solid pop.

Disclosure ‘Jaded’ (single) — Listen

EW: Whoa, the Disclosure brothers handling their own vocals instead of passing them off to Sam Smith (or Lorde or Lion Babe or Alunageorge or …)? Curve ball!

Big Grams ‘Lights On’ (single) — Listen

DSS: As a lover of Big Boi and Phantogram, every track I hear from this collab ratchets up my excitement for a full-length album and the (surely inevitable) festival appearances coming next year.

New Order ‘Plastic’ (single) — Listen

EW: Euro-disco doesn’t die. It just gets older and still sounds like goth kids raving (in the best of ways).

 

360 Mixtape: Gary Clark Jr., Duran Duran, Ben Folds, Angel Haze

Each week, Austin360 music writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith listen to a wide variety of new albums and singles and offer first impressions on the Austin360 Periscope account. We put our favorite new songs from the week into the 360 Mixtape. Consider it your new music soundtrack to get you through the week.

(Erika Rich for American-Statesman)
(Erika Rich for American-Statesman)

garyGary Clark Jr. ‘The Story of Sonny Boy Slim’ – Listen

DSS: If I had to sum up this album in one word it would be love. When Clark recorded his second album, his fiancee, Nicole Trunfio, was pregnant with his first child while the streets of America erupted with racial unrest. Both things weighed heavily on his mind and the result is an emotional release. Clark explores soul, R&B and rock and the through line connecting the songs is the pure heart in his delivery.

EW: Clark’s blues mastery is something I regard with admiration but not infatuation. It was a nice surprise for me, then, to hear so much soul and R&B influence in this album, especially on the soothingly swoony “Our Love.” That sidewinding guitar still shows up in all the right places, though.

duranDuran Duran ‘Paper Gods’ – Listen

EW: If you want to take a trip into a really unmooring headspace, listen to the strangely long deluxe edition of a 2015 Duran Duran album during an extra-long run at 1 p.m. in the summer. I don’t think that extreme heat exhaustion is responsible for the fact that this is a charming collection of pastel pop. Were one not expecting a “Rio” or a “Hungry Like the Wolf” — which is not a fair thing to expect from Simon Le Bon’s gang of Dorian Gray black light posters — it would still be a welcome, listenable collection. The kitsch of “Danceophobia” is cool-dad disco, and features from Kiesza and Janelle Monae (on “Last Night In the City” and “Pressure Off,” respectively) inject a little modern dancefloor cred. Bottom line: “Paper Gods” does not take itself too seriously, and it’s not Madonna, and those are the only things I could ask.

DSS: I could just take Eric’s word that no one was embarrassed in the making of this record, but the fact that there’s a Janelle Monae feature makes me compelled to check it out.

tiT.I. ‘Da’Nic’ – Listen

DSS: Look, I know T.I. can bring the heat. “You Know What It Is” was one of my favorite rap jams of 2008. But I only got two tracks into this. When he raps “Two things I don’t like, a (expletive) that can’t shut up and one who wants to stay the night” on “Ain’t Gonna See It Coming” I was done. It’s 2015, and I’m not even a little bit interested in that vibe.

EW: I thought T.I. was doing a whole family man schtick now? I miss late 2000s radio rap T.I., when he was just sad about his dead friends in every song.

benfoldsBen Folds ‘So There’ – Listen

EW: This album made me wonder who the Ben Folds superfans are, the ones who follow him from melancholy piano pop to cartoon soundtrack rock to a cappella covers to this, a lushly arranged orchestral collaboration that ends with a three-movement piano concerto. And yet, “So There” is as joyfully and emotionally nerdy as ever — schoolboy humor and all (see the song “F10-D-A” for more). If you really loved “Brick” or “Annie Waits” (I was always a “Zak and Sara” man), then it’s easy to follow Folds through his mad genius larks as long as he keeps backing it up with virtuoso flair.

DSS: A lot of people are trying to doing orchestral pop, but this seems to have a true symphonic sensibility that’s nice.

petitePetite Noir ‘La Vie Est Belle’ – Listen

DSS: Yes, South African artist Yannick Ilunga channels Depeche Mode (a lot), but he also dramatically stirs gothic melodies and electronic beats in a way that feels modern and fresh. His self-dubbed “Noir-wave” music will be huge in 2016.

EW: I listened to this and just assumed that Deborah would want to review it. Loads of verse-chorus contrasts (mellow vibes splintering into brassy piledrivers) and high-concept art vibes.

superhumanoidsSuperhumanoids ‘Do You Feel OK?’ – Listen

EW: This L.A. group was supposedly inspired to go dark on their latest album after touring with Erasure, and there’s certainly a cloak paranoia over the whole deal. What saves “Do You Feel OK?” from being lost in the crowd is its ballsy resemblance to its betters — Metric’s “Synthetica,” FKA twigs’ “LP1” and other barb-wired indie pop.

DSS: I only listened to one track (“Anxious in Venice”) and I liked the uneasy, skittery verse section, but it had a long slow build to a disappointingly bland chorus.

angelAngel Haze ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (single) – Listen

DSS: I haven’t had a chance to listen to the full “Back to the Woods” mixtape that dropped today, but this track finds the Detroit-born, NYC-based rapper singing over a cool, vibey groove. It doesn’t bum me out the way Nicki Minaj did when she traded spitting fire for generic radio R&B hooks, but the edginess we love in Angel Haze is definitely subdued on this track.

EW: I am willing see what Haze can produce doing the whole “showing a different side” routine, but she I hope she doesn’t pull a Nicki or a Childish Gambino and lose those teeth.

disclosureDisclosure (ft. Lion Babe) ‘Hourglass’ (single) – Listen

DSS: The twenty-something Brits are producing an astounding amount of really good dance music. On this one they enlist fellow Austin City Limits Music Festival artists/Brooklyn electro-soul duo Lion Babe for an excellent collab that we hope will be recreated live at the fest.

EW: Another iteration of a winning formula that reminds me of the group’s Alunageorge collaboration.

empressEmpress Of ‘Me’ – Listen

EW: I’ve had my eye on Empress Of for a year or so, and “Me’s” most interesting quality is how it synthesizes disparate trends into a cohesive … trend casserole … or something. You’ve got the looping vocals of Sylvan Esso, the ’90s house waves of Katy B and the pixie lilt of Purity Ring. Maybe not original, but it’s the dance version of Taco Bell Beefy 5-Layer Burrito (TM). Delicious, and probably tastes good while blotto!

DSS: I’m a sucker for a good female vocalist set against intricate electronic soundscape. While Lorely Rodriguez’ voice doesn’t grab me the same way Amelia Meath’s (Sylvan Esso) does, I’m intrigued.

rauryRaury (ft. Tom Morello) ‘Friends’ – Listen

DSS: This is a surprisingly sunny single that features Tom Morello not raging against anything. It’s unexpected, but light and charming.

EW: Saw Raury at SXSW this year; he was five different rock stars rolled into one. (So, a Beefy 5-Layer Burrito (TM) of rock stars.) This is calm and sweet and I would rather the wunderkind keep it on the hard side in the future.

 

cleanThe Japanese House  ‘Clean’ – Listen

EW: Apparently The Japanese House is one of those “mysterious/slightly anonymous” projects. I am convinced a teenage clone of Imogen Heap is involved.

DSS: Nice mellow atmospherics.

lowLow “Ones and Sixes” – Listen

DSS: This is a slow moving album but it’s rich with texture and harmony. It’s a good soundtrack for easing into a bleary morning. Also excellent coffeehouse-style background music for study or work.

EW: I’d listen to this before talking to other people in the morning, sure.

Big-Grams-Fell-In-The-Sun-579x560Big Grams – “Fell in the Sun” 

EW: Big Boi! Phantogram! Cascading, sticky-sweet electro washes and ATL flow! Take my money (that I pay for my Spotify subscription with)!

DSS: Last year Andre 3000 essentially dashed the hopes of any Outkast fans still holding out hope for a meaningful reunion, but in this collaboration we have the making of an amazing consolation prize.

360 Mixtape: Travi$ Scott, Scarface, Troye Sivan, Fidlar and more

Welcome to September. It’s the beginning of autumn somewhere in the world, but in Texas we’re struggling to gut out the unbearable end of summer. The lazy Labor Day weekend brought us a slew of steamy Southern rap, slick pop grooves, emo punk and more. As always, Team 360 writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith took over the Austin360 Periscope account to play a selection of this week’s notable new releases and compiled the top tracks to kick off the 360 Mixtape: September 2015 playlist. We also share our hastily compiled first impressions of the albums below.

For the best new Austin releases, check out Peter Blackstock’s On the Record column.

Zac Carper of Fidlar jumps into the mosh pit on the last song during the bands performance on the Bud Light stage during the Austin City Limits Festival held at Zilker Park in Austin on Friday, October 11, 2013. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Zac Carper of Fidlar jumps into the mosh pit on the last song during the bands performance on the Bud Light stage during the Austin City Limits Festival held at Zilker Park in Austin on Friday, October 11, 2013. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Scarface ‘Deeply Rooted’ –Listen

D.S.S. Years after ostensibly retiring, the Houston rap titan is back with a highly reflective album that reminds us of the Geto Boys’ essential role as Southern rap pioneers. It’s a powerful piece with rich, soulful production and thoughtful rhymes. With the requisite John Legend feature, it skirts the edge of adult contemporary rap, but that’s kind of my jam.

E.W. I honestly don’t know what to make of the John Legend feature. “Latter-day Common” comes to mind.

Troye Sivan “Wild” – Listen

E.W. The title track is undeniable. Longtime 360 Mixtape (and First Spins) watchers will recall my affinity for mainstream-penetrating earworms with queer themes, like Years and Years. Just like Years and Years (another teen fave), Troye Sivan’s “Wild” is an aching, romantic, steamy slice of R&B-influenced synth pop. (And do I detect a little “Crazy In Love” on “Ease”?) I could do without the tired playground chants on the title track, but that’s a minor quibble. The YouTube teens are on to something with Troye.

D.S.S.  You’ve got to hand it to those wacky YouTube kids, they certainly know how to craft a catchy pop song.

Travi$ Scott ‘Rodeo’ – Listen

D.S.S. A couple years back I watched a Fader Fort crowd go stark raving mad for a then 21-year-old Travi$ Scott during South by Southwest. Since then his buzz has grown thunderously. This album includes features from close to everyone — Kanye, the Weeknd, Toro Y Moi (?!?) — and it starts out promising. But it’s long (75 mins.) and too much of it stays in the same monotone lane. By the halfway point it’s become tedious and I found myself struggling to make it to the end.

E.W. You know I love Angry Kanye verses, at least.

Fidlar ‘Too’ – Listen

E.W. So the thing about Fidlar is that they are the kind of punk band where the lead singer could well have died at some point, and now they’re operating within this scuzz-punk image as they try to clean up their personal act a little. It makes for an interesting collection of songs ranging from the hard drive of “40 Oz. on Repeat” to the Wavves-y beach waves of “West Coast” to the strung out misery of “Overdose.” Think of it as a picture of a band in transition, or think of it as a modern punk sampler platter.

D.S.S. The eerie juxtaposition of ominous and oddly upbeat on “Overdose” is alarmingly effective.

Wiz Khalifa. (Tina Phan/American-Statesman)
Wiz Khalifa. (Tina Phan/American-Statesman)

Wiz Khalifa ft. Rae Sremmurd ‘Burn Slow’ (single) – Listen

D.S.S. During SXSW 2015 I shook my head while respectable music writers gushed about getting “turnt up” to the simplistic rhymes of Tupelo, Miss., brother duo Rae Sremmurd. I also hated Wiz Khalifa’s 2014 release “Blacc Hollywood.” But, dismissive misogyny aside, this combo is a party rap track I can get with — a self-described slow burner perfectly suited to the end of a brutal Southern summer.

E.W. It doesn’t sound like Wiz’s radio rap, and I don’t hear anything to set it apart from the pack, either.

Family of the Year ‘Family of the Year’ – Listen

E.W. The band behind the “Boyhood” song are back with this full-length, and with a cursory listen under my belt, it seems to be the kind of pleasant ready-made indie rock that will hit certain radio formats hard. There’s a faint hint of deeper meaning that I might explore. If I get around to it.

D.S.S. Only listening to one track, it feels like the kind of sweeping emotional indie folk pop that people who love sweeping emotional indie folk pop will love.

K Camp ‘Only Way is Up’ – Listen

D.S.S. With a variety of textures and an appealing off-kilter flow, the highly anticipated debut full-length from one of ATL’s hottest up-and-comers is a solid first go round.

E.W. This sounds generic, but when he really gets going, K Camp’s Orville Redenbacher flow makes me perk up.

The Wonder Years ‘No Closer to Heaven’ – Listen

E.W. The Wonder Years are the sensitive, thinking man’s pop punk band, and last year’s “The Greatest Generation” was well-received for transcending the Warped Tour sound (which I love) and tackling some adult problems in a genre where that’s not too common. The lead singer, “Soupy” Campbell, has had some hard times in the past, and he’s never shied away from putting some Real Personal Issues on a track. This album feels a little like a trudge to me — there aren’t many fist-throwers to break up the extreme earnestness — but if you want some me introspection, this’ll be welcome.

D.S.S. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation, but the heart on the sleeve passion is kind of working for me.

Kygo, Ella Henderson ‘Here For You’ (single) – Listen

D.S.S. I know nothing about 23-year-old Norwegian producer Kygo or 19-year-old British singer Ella Henderson, but the combination of smoky vocals and eurocool club beats on this track is one of my favorite sounds du jour.

E.W. I want to wear a mesh shirt and bop to this in a weird Serbian club.

360 Mixtape: Miley Cyrus, Beach House, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and more

Each week, Austin360 music writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith listen to a wide variety of new albums and singles and offer first impressions on the Austin360 Periscope account. We put our favorite new songs from the week into the 360 Mixtape. Consider it your new music soundtrack to get you through the week.

Miley Cyrus makes a surprise appearance with Mike Will Made It at the Fader Fort Converse stage during SXSW in Austin on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Lukas Keapproth/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Miley Cyrus makes a surprise appearance with Mike Will Made It at the Fader Fort Converse stage during SXSW in Austin on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Lukas Keapproth/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

weekndThe Weeknd  “Beauty Behind the Madness” – Listen on Spotify

DSS: This album was so very overhyped, it was almost set up to be a letdown. Musically, it goes in some interesting directions, but in his push for mainstream superstardom, the Weeknd turned to pop super-producer-du-jours like Martin and Stephan Moccio, who have worked with Celine Dion (?!?). In the process, he normalized some of edginess that defined his sound. And absent the vibey mysteriousness, not to mention the underground hunger, the endless stream of songs about strippers and cocaine and more strippers and cocaine starts to get very tedious. Having said that, the raw heat he brought to his MTV VMA performance last night made me super excited about his upcoming Austin City Limits Fest headline set.

EW: Much unlike the signature Weeknd plumage, “Beauty Behind the Madness” falls flat. I echo Deborah’s assessment that the antisocial hedonism that worked well on Abel Tesfaye’s earlier stuff (before someone booked the acts for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack) wears very thin here. Before, he seemed like an underdog. Now, singing lyrics that sound like the lines for particularly pessimistic luxury rap, the Weeknd seems unpleasant.

biebJustin Bieber “What Do You Mean?” (single)- Listen 

EW: I have listened to this song on loop more times than I care to admit. First, Bieber teamed up with Skrillex and Diplo for history’s greatest example of three wrongs making a right, “Where Are Ü Now.” Now with this airy, clock-ticking rumination on romantic indecision, the boy wonder is two-for-two on “Wait, that was him?!” singles that buck expectations, both of himself and of teen-baiting pop. Viva Biebs?

DSS: The Biebs is moving into a new phase of emotional maturity (perhaps that’s what he was crying about at the VMAs last night?) and I’m not ashamed to say I danced to this song.

mileyMiley Cyrus “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz” – Listen on Soundcloud

DSS: Like Chance the Rapper, I had issues with Miley Cyrus as VMA host and the fact that “Dooo It!” (the irritating mishmash she closed the ceremony with) is the lead track on the free album she just dropped made me feel primed to hate it. But I love it. Really. Miley can actually sing and her plaintive vocals set against the backdrop of woozy, gauzy psych pop (constructed in part by Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne) works beautifully. 2015 is shaking out as a very weird year.

EW: For starters, I do not hate “Dooo It!” I dooo not love it, but if any non-Miley electroclash iconoclast released this, it would get lauded by some circles. Sonically, it’s a shiny ping pong ball that you can’t take your eye (read: ears) off of. The lyrics, on the other hand, recall an Insane Clown Posse song. Judging from the couple tracks I’ve heard, it’s not fair to judge this as anything other than a peculiar art object.

beachhouseBeach House “Depression Cherry” – Listen

EW: The first go around on this one, I told Deborah that it bored me. The second time, the tip-toeing hints of melodies and swirly, post-rock-meets-dream-rock smoothie of instruments hint me in the right place. Pending a dive into the lyrics, this one could be top 50 of the year material. “Sparks” easily insinuates itself into the underside of your brain.

DSS: I like the lush swells and textures. Look forward to digging into this one.

mackleMacklemore & Ryan Lewis “Downtown” (single) – Listen

DSS: I am so confused by this song. I get that Macklemore wants to tip his hat to classic rap, and I appreciate that he’s got Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz on this song, but it sounds like three songs smashed together in the worst possible way. We go from Sugarhill Gang-era block party to 5:30 p.m. rush at the Gold’s Gym with a quick stop through a Broadway theater. The end result doesn’t establish Ben Haggerty’s hip-hop cred, it just proves he’s very capable of making terrible hipster hop.

EW: I didn’t listen to this on purpose. I also resent that, once Deborah made me listen, it was so readily apparent that there is no connection to any of this song’s parts.

yolaYo La Tengo “Stuff Like That There” – Listen

EW: Having only audited the Yo La Tengo discography and seen them at Fun Fun Fun Fest last year, I can’t give too insightful of a comparison against their non-covers-album work. But I would say that these entirely pleasant takes on “Friday I’m Love” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are going to make many a coffeeshop compilation.

DSS: The Cure cover was a nice summer evening chill song.

andraAndra Day “Cheers To the Fall” – Listen

DSS: She packs a gorgeous voice with just the right amount of grit. She also brings a retro soul sound that will inevitably draw Amy Winehouse comparisons, but her songs reach ambitiously in a broad range of directions. The stirring anthem “Rise Up” is one of the best modern R&B protest songs in a year that seen a brilliant resurgence of the form. I love this release and expect to hear a lot more about Ms. Day in the coming months.

EW: Well, one can’t help but make Winehouse comparisons after listening to these songs. However, there’s a bracing clarity to her voice that the most recent soulsters (like Adele, who I also hear a little bit of in “Rise Up”) don’t touch.

halseyHalsey “Badlands” – Listen

EW:  Let’s put “damaged, misanthropic pop queen” back in the trope drawer before we pull it all the way out, ‘kay? Sky Ferreira can pull that aesthetic off because I truly believe she has been strung out in a ditch. Tove Lo can pull that off because she’s a real big weirdo. Halsey, especially on the chuckle-worthy pop culture listicle/”issues” song “New Americana,” leads with the chip on her shoulder, but I do not wish to let her speak for my generation any more than I want to read the lyrics to a Lana del Rey song in any serious context. (“We are the new Americana/High on legal marijuana/Raised on Biggie and Nirvana/We are the new Americana” makes me do a Liz Lemon eye roll.) All that said, there are bright spots divorced from the overall image; “Hurricane” is a nice slice of MS MR-style doompop.

DSS:  I haven’t given this a fair listen, but I’m not particularly psyched about what I’ve heard.

tinkTink, Tazer “Wet Dollars” – Listen

DSS: Tink makes the best kind of danceable club rap and I can’t wait for her full-length debut which is scheduled to drop later this year.

EW: It’s like less-grating Rye Rye!

fablesDavid Ramirez “Fables” – Listen

EW: Ramirez is an Austin fave in the Joe Pug/David Bazan vein, and on the rootsy “Fables,” there’s more than a little of Jason Isbell’s working class soulfulness. The song “Harder To Lie” is dirt road heartbreak par excellence.

DSS: Always happy to give a little love to the home team.

Listen to August’s 360 Mixtape below.

360 Mixtape: Gary Clark Jr., Carly Rae Jepsen, Jordin Sparks, Nick Jonas, The Sword

Each week, Austin360 music writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith listen to a wide variety of new albums and singles and offer first impressions on the Austin360 Periscope account. We put our favorite new songs from the week into the 360 Mixtape. Consider it your new music soundtrack to get you through the week.

Carly Rae Jepsen performs on NBC's "Today" show on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Carly Rae Jepsen performs on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

81Daew5kuDL._SY450_Gary Clark Jr. “Church” (single) – Listen on Spotify 

DSS: After Gary Clark Jr.’s ‘Austin City Limits’ taping last night, I’m in full Stan mode, but I already was in love with this track. The acoustic guitar is a nice change of pace for Clark. It sets the stage for his vocals to really shine, particularly when laced with the lovely female vocal harmonies on the chorus. Also, that’s Clark playing harmonica, because the man oozes blues.

EW: This is a softer side of Clark that I think is good to hear. Since he’s arguably the biggest name from Austin’s music scene right now (in a national crossover sense, at least), a departure from the hot-guts blues that he’s made famous also reflects a different side of his hometown. This a beautiful, subdued trip to, well, church.

jonasNick Jonas  “Levels” (single) – Listen

EW: Breaking free of the Disney mold isn’t just for Miley, Selena and Demi anymore. The erstwhile JoBro almost matches the smash success of “Jealous” with this slick club gem. I’m not ready to say that he’s evoking Michael Jackson here, but I am prepared to say that he’s evoking serial-MJ-emulators Jason Derulo and Bruno Mars. Nick is bringing the bedroom falsetto as usual, though filtered through that stuffed-up-nose voice that I might get used to soon. Bottom line: “Levels” pulses with bass-pumping mischief. Going up, please.

DSS: Wait, what’s this weird, uncontrollable twitching in my hips. Head. Won’t. Stop. Bopping. I’m dancing to Nick Jonas. You’re blowing my mind here, Webb.

jordinJordin Sparks “Right Here, Right Now”  – Listen

DSS: I put this album on while I was cleaning this weekend and for the first half I was actively annoyed (and not just because my house was a mess). Most of these songs feel like they are trying so hard to be on the next R&B Radio Hitz compilation. Very generic. By the end, I was less irritated. She has a nice smoky tone on some tracks but even the better songs are still snoozy.

EW: Not bad, just generic. I think there’s a line of sexiness that this does not cross that maybe it should have. But what do I know? I voted for Blake Lewis.

carlyCarly Rae Jepsen “Emotion” – Listen

EW: Finally! The most anticipated album (by me) of 2015 is here! My CRJ enthusiasm has been well-covered in previous new releases blogs, but I’ve got to say that everything you might have read about “Emotion” is true. It’s a better 1980s synthpop tribute than Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It’s a smart, earnest synthesis of the Debbie Gibson/Tiffany sound and indie-friendly production by the likes of Dev Hynes. Jepsen reportedly went out of her way to make a critically acclaimed follow-up to “Kiss” instead of trying to capture “Call Me Maybe” lightning in a second bottle. She succeeds. Seductive ballads like “All That” (which sounds exactly like a Blood Orange track) work a little less effectively than shiny rock candy like “Boy Problems” and “Run Away With Me,” but all in all, this is a drum-machine-skittering, Laffy-Taffy-bass-strumming, earnestly joyful take on all things romantic. Consider that the singles from this album have made little chart traction so far, and wonder why that is.

DSS: I’m not fully sold on this yet, but it’s a lot better than I thought it would be and deserves a full listen. Also, it makes me happy to see how happy it makes Eric.

pandabearPanda Bear “Crosswords” (EP) – Listen

EW: If you like the techno-tropical atmosphere that Panda Bear spins, you will enjoy this companion piece to “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.”

DSS: I enjoyed “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” and this feels like a good follow up. Look forward to digging into it.

theswordThe Sword “High Country” – Listen

DSS: The Adrian Quesada-produced new album pushes the Austin metal act through psychedelia into some interesting classic-sounding hard rock. Also, the intro is called “Unicorn Farm.”

EW: Driving sturm-und-drang guitars get hitched to a less aggressive Thin Lizzy vibe on the verses, at least on “Empty Temples.” An accessible take on metal that sounds distinctly Austin.

smokebreakCarrie Underwood “Smoke Break” – Listen

EW: I like Carrie Underwood in general, though she represents a religious devotion to the Nashville machine sound, and her big ol’ voice doesn’t always connect to the lyrics the way one might want. Big swells and a story-song template swirl among working-class imagery. Feel free to throw back a Shiner as you listen, but don’t look for any wheel reinvention. But what do I know? I voted for Bo Bice.

DSS: Carrie Underwood is patently inoffensive by design and so is this track.

Spector-Moth-BoysSpector “Moth Boys” – Listen

EW: Forgot to spin this one on Periscope, but I think it’s worth including here. I’m not entirely sold on this British band’s particular brand of uber-dramatic post-punk emoting. “All the Sad Young Men,” at least, makes me feel like I’m running down underground to a dive bar in a West End town. See what you think.

360 Mixtape: New music from Lana del Rey, B.o.B, Melanie Martinez, Chvrches

With new music releases dropping on Fridays, we’ve shifted 360 First Spins, our weekly new music show on Periscope, to Mondays. Going forward, music writers Eric Webb and Deborah Sengupta Stith will take over the Austin360 Periscope account around 1:15 p.m. each Monday to listen to and review new music from the weekend. We’ll put our favorite new songs from the week into the 360 Mixtape. Consider it your new music soundtrack to get you through the week.

Listen to the Mixtape Monday playlist here. 

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NEW ALBUMS and EPs

eephusWondaland presents ‘The Eephus’ – Listen

DSS: True confession: I’m a huge Janelle Monae stan and I couldn’t be happier that she has her own imprint. The debut EP from Wondaland mixes the club bangers we’ve already heard (“Yoga,” “Classic Man”) with smoky R&B, dream pop tracks that offer a lovely and sublime way to lose yourself.

EW: I am intrigued that these songs seem connected by a stylistic thread, even though there are a variety of artists. Seems like Cindy Mayweather has a strong guiding hand. I’m digging the “sexy movie montage soundtrack” vibe.

teendazeTeen Daze ‘Morning World’ – Listen

EW: The term “sweater rock” fits this album better than a wool cardigan that you forgot was dry clean only. Similar to how the Wondaland EP has a strong identity, this whole album sounds like variations on the same shoegaze theme. There are little subtleties everywhere, from fuzzy guitars on “Pink” to a synthy wash on the title track to pianos in some places to twinkling baroque pop flourishes elsewhere. We’ve listened to a lot of lazy summer jams lately, and these are among the finest.

DSS: There’s a nice variety to the tracks here, and some interesting harmonic choices.

bobB.o.B. ‘Psychadelik Thoughts’ – Listen

DSS: As far as radio rappers go, Bobby Ray is one of my favorites. “Underground Luxury” was a very good commercial rap album. For some reason, on this one, he decided to leave his “A” game rhyme style behind to instead focus on his singing, which is a shame. He doesn’t have a particularly impressive singing voice. On some tracks, like the sufficiently danceable club jam “Hourglass,” he pulls it off. But for the most part, it feels labored, unsatifying.

EW: B.o.B remains my favorite rapper with a Rivers Cuomo collaboration in his discography. That said, this is bit of a contrived effort, if not a sincere one.

melaniemMelanie Martinez ‘Crybaby’ – Listen 

DSS: Martinez has a nice vocal quality and a lot of potential, but I’m not entirely on board yet. It’s something about her branding. Martinez, a former contestant on “The Voice,” is only 20 years old and the fact that’s she’s barely legal makes the creepy, sexualized fun house/pre-K nightmare vibe unsettling.

EW: This “precious Juggalette” schtick is nothing that I want to come within a mile of. Spooky-baby vocals and creep-pop need to stay in whatever dark corner Martinez found them in.


gracepotterGrace Potter ‘Midnight’- Listen

DSS: I haven’t given this album a good full listen, but my first impression is a lot of the songs start from interesting musical ideas, but then segue into a generic and predictable adult contemporary rock radio chorus.

EW: Either Potter or her producer had some noble creative intentions here, what with the Ratatat-esque sounds and Motown dalliances. Either Potter or her producer chickened out, and she ultimately stays in her lane halfway through each song. But I agree: It could be worth another listen. I’m willing to eat my words.

fkaFKA twigs ‘M3ll155x’ – Listen

DSS: Twigs takes future R&B to incredibly challenging places. Sometimes it works very, very well and I love the way she’s using her success to eschew easy formulas, but some of the dark, industrial atmospherics on this EP are very inaccessible. Her diehard fans will feel the whole package, but the rest of us might struggle.

EW: Ever the art school kid, our twigs. I feel like I’m not supposed to be listening to this, or like I should be at a gallery opening. There’s a little bit o’ Purity Ring-style witch house seeping in, methinks.

 

New Politics - VikingNew Politics ‘Vikings’ – Listen

EW: The best soundtrack for convincing girls to go up to a rooftop pool with you, “Vikings” is a hilariously un-self-aware follow-up to “A Bad Girl In Harlem,” which had an infectious single and a curious deviation into Limp Bizkit territory. “Girl Crush” is the best track, which is saying something, because it is a pre-fab Kohls commercial jam with Avril Lavigne handclaps. Two things: 1) The band is from Copenhagen, so there are some hilarious botched metaphors in the lyrics, and 2) I will probably hate-listen to this album at least a couple more times before the summer is over.

DSS: Now I need a jello shot. Why do you do these things to me, Eric?


NEW SINGLES

Chvrches ‘Never Ending Circles’ – Listen

EW: Take my money. This single very much serves as a bridge between the dark whimsy of the band’s debut album and the righteous anger of “Leave a Trace,” the first single off of the upcoming “Every Open Eye.”

DSS: I love the way their grandiose pop shimmers with hints of Celtic magic. Can’t wait to hear the full length.

Lana del Rey ‘High By the Beach’ – Listen 

EW: Since Our Lady of del Rey turned out to be popular beyond most people’s wildest dreams, it seems her label has given her a wide berth of creative control. Not quite the grandiosity of “Born To Die’s” high points, not quite the sonic Quaalude of “Ultraviolence,” this track shows that she’s tweaking and fine-tuning her hip hop noir even further. It seems to be moving in an intriguing direction.

DSS: Turns out stoned by the beach is the least tedious mope variation Lana del Rey indulges in. I almost like this song. Almost.

Wavves ‘Heavy Metal Detox’ – Listen

EW: This is a Wavves song! Do you like Wavves? I sure do!

DSS: Fun stoney, surf jam to take out the summer.

James Vincent McMorrow ‘How to Waste a Moment’ – Listen

EW: He’s got a big, heavenly voice, but instead of his usual Bon Iver soundalike gems, this one is dipping its toes into the How To Dress Well/James Blake R&B pool.

Gavin James ‘Bitter Pill’ – Listen

EW: For the Hozier fan who finds manbuns too sexually agitating, but is too discerning for Ed Sheeran. James opened for Sam Smith at the Erwin Center on Saturday, and he’s got a fine voice and affable charm. I picture a smash teen movie soundtrack spot in his future.

DSS: This guy, Hozier and Ed Sheeran all fit into a triple A rock radio version of New Sincerity that has massive commercial appeal.

Listen to the best tracks this week below.