After it launched in 2008, it didn’t take long for Brooklyn label Captured Tracks to define its sound. Founder Mike Sniper had grown tired of the power-pop and punk albums he was reissuing on Radio Heartbeat Records, and he sold off most of his personal collection to fund Captured Tracks’ first two releases: the sophomore Dum Dum Girls EP and his own band Blank Dogs’ Seconds EP. By the end of its first full year in 2009, the label had more than 30 releases to its name, and within a few years, it had launched the careers of Wild Nothing, DIIV, Mac DeMarco, and Beach Fossils. There was a through-line within the Captured Tracks sound: fidelity was often low, the songwriting was pointedly nostalgic, and the overall aesthetic skewed atmospheric and dreamy. For several years, Captured Tracks held a moment in its hand. And then its bands had to grow up.
In 2017, the artists involved with the label’s rise are surviving on their own accord. DeMarco and DIIV have certainly fared best, with the former ascending from slacker icon to maturing troubadour, while DIIV’s leader Zachary Cole Smith hasn’t let personal demons stand in the way of creating a catalog of hypnotic guitar pop. Wild Nothing hasn’t quite recaptured the heights of debut LP Gemini, but that hasn’t slowed down the project’s offerings, either. And then there’s Beach Fossils, whose leader Dustin Payseur helped set the groundwork at Captured Tracks for his higher-profiled peers to takeoff, before remaining quiet for the last few years. On his third LP, the four-years-in-the-making Somersault, Payseur doesn’t shy from the fact that he’s reaching for something more both lyrically and musically. Somersault is an acrobatic leap for Beach Fossils.
Released on Payseur’s own Bayonet Records (which he co-founded with Secretly Label Group A&R rep Katie Garcia), the sleepy-eyed longing of the band’s breakthrough self-titled debut are a distant memory. In its stead are frequent surprises. The confident lead track and first single “This Year” recalls Real Estate’s jangle and infuses it with a driving rhythm section, and when the strings cue to punctuate its outro, Payseur’s vision sounds more ambitious than ever. The orchestration is a recurring feature on the record, accentuating the backing vocals of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell on “Tangerine” and turning the mid-tempo “Saint Ivy” into the most nuanced composition that Payseur has ever recorded. Its coda marries a weepy George Harrison-like guitar solo with string swells, as Beach Fossils traverse the chasm between its previous brand of dream pop and the retro AM radio vibes that Jonathan Rado, one of the record’s engineers, is known for producing.
“Wanna believe in America, but it’s somewhere I can’t find,” Payseur sings on “Saint Ivy,” which is as directly political as the record gets. But reality bubbles up subtly as Payseur casually mines his personal life and relationships for stories. There’s something real in how the country’s hardships are inescapable in 2017: Even when Payseur wants to focus on friendships or temporary escapism, he looks down at the concrete to see “A.C.A.B” (All Cops Are Bastards) in the song “Down the Line.” The encroaching claustrophobia of the world is reflected in the record’s more unusual moments, like a Cities Aviv-led spoken-word diversion on the introspective “Rise” or the rudderless harpsichord of “Closer Everywhere.”
Still, Payseur has written some of his best songs to date here. When Somersault reaches its unfettered climax, the five-minute-plus tension-releasing eruption of “Be Nothing,” it’s clear that the project has overcome its greatest burden. Like DeMarco and DIIV before it, Beach Fossils emerged from Captured Tracks haze and established its own identity on the other side.
It’s been 17 years since Travis took home NME’s Artist of the Year award, right smack between two album releases that sold millions in the UK alone. Some 15 years have passed since the characters took a shopping break during their fight against zombies in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later to the tune of Grandaddy’s “A.M. 180.” Nearly 13 years ago, Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” topped the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll for singles, becoming an alternative radio staple in the process. And barely more than a decade has passed since Band of Horses made “The Funeral” their first single, eventually reaching ubiquity through features in movies, television, and a particularly inescapable commercial for the Ford Edge.
For Midlake, the fifth band associated with new supergroup BNQT, there isn’t a similar time peg to note a crest of success. Since forming in 1999, their career arc has been slower and steadier than all the aforementioned artists, with bandleader Eric Pulido describing a workmanlike cycle of “write, record, tour, repeat” that can be seen as both a privilege and a vocational rut. So, while touring Midlake’s last album Antiphon, Pulido conceived of BNQT. He would share songwriting duties on the new project with the leaders of bands he had met over the years, each crafting two songs apiece from their respective camps and piecing the elements together both remotely and inside a studio in Denton, TX.
BNQT (pronounced “banquet”) is not a push outside the comfort zone for those involved, but further indication of restlessness from a collection of indie rock lifers, each of whose primary acts made their dent in the blog-rock boom and find their relevance dimming. At that, the optimistically titled Volume 1 serves more to elaborate on its characters than it does to recapture past glory. Midlake’s McKenzie Smith, Joey McClellan, and Jesse Chandler are the chameleonic house band, taking cues from the songs’ originators and finding cohesion in fully-realized arrangements. But it’s the songs themselves that are thin. Pulido is the only artist bringing A-level material with his vaguely-psychedelic “Restart” and his best nod to buoyant ’70s AM radio “Real Love.” They are a pair of songs geared specifically as singles, despite the lack of platforms for such singles to thrive. Travis’ Fran Healy steps out as a caricature of collective recording, with “L.A. on My Mind” begging for a sync with its titular geotag, hand-clap rhythm, and flexing guitar bravado. Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell doesn’t fare much better, as “Unlikely Force” is content with personality-free breeziness and “Tara” buries Bridwell’s best asset, his voice, with muddy harmonies and an uninspired vocal performance.
It’s only Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos that find success under the BNQT banner. Lytle’s usual recordings are so deeply insular that there is something to be gleaned from hearing him apart from his busted-keyboard sonics. His whisper-singing stands up to the orchestration of “Failing at Feeling” and “100 Million Miles” is one of the only songs of the collection that dares to drift beyond classic rock nostalgia. Kapranos, on the other hand, gleefully swims in the opportunity to get weird. Just the word “banana” rolling off his tongue on “Hey Banana” argues for adding smoked-ham lounge singing to his resume.
“I think we could all use a restart,” Pulido claims on the album opener, a song that readily admits that he’s “older now” and “broken but soon on the mend.” It’s a sentiment that could umbrella all five songwriters that have never struggled with maturity but are now toiling with getting old. Where lesser people might simply buy sports cars, musicians do these hapless projects that are more fun for the artists involved than for the listeners, like their own boring social scene. So when Pulido describes BNQT as “a poor man’s version of the Traveling Wilburys” in a press release, there’s some solace in everyone knowing where exactly where they stand. It gives the project the inability to disappoint. Aim low enough and you’ll never fail.
Woods have never been a band of grand gestures. Over nine albums in a dozen years, changes for the Brooklyn indie folk band have been incremental. There was the record where they ditched the tape effects of G. Lucas Crane (2012’s Bend Beyond) to discover that one of their signature elements wasn’t as integral to the group as thought. There was the one that proudly flaunted itself as the first Woods full-length recorded in a “real studio” (2014’s With Light and With Love), a move that stripped lo-fi as a defining characteristic. For a band that’s rivaled in success by both a former member (Kevin Morby) and a soundalike (Whitney), there is an unspoken imperative that their 10th record shifts the status quo, and songwriter and bandleader Jeremy Earl is explicit in stating his intention: Love Is Love is a political album.
The platitude from the days following the 2016 presidential election stated that at least we’d get good music out of the era of Donald Trump. Besides the obvious fallacy that good tunes somehow could make up for contingents of people having their rights stripped, this also ignores that there will be releases of all sorts of quality responding to the political climate. Earl struggles with this notion over the six songs and 31 minutes of Love Is Love. The title alone is a mantra that seeks to gain meaning through its repetition, echoing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s poem at the 2016 Tony Awards dedicated to the victims of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, used here as the core of the record’s bookends. It’s a phrase that sounds better on a picket sign than it does in a real-world application, where it doesn’t take a cynic to note that love’s mere existence isn’t negating laws or bombs or walls.
Earl’s sloganeering doesn’t end there. On “Bleeding Blue,” he reflects on election’s immediate aftermath, with flower-power cadences applied to lines like “Have you heard the news? Hate can’t lose” and “I am the wind/Love’s not dead.” The album’s closing track, “Love Is Love (Sun on Time)” asks “How can we love if this won’t go away? How can we love with this kind of hate?” It’s enough to think Earl might start quoting John Lennon or even Moulin Rouge!. Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but on a lyric sheet announces itself as “A Meditation on Love” and literally ends with a peace sign, the need to have something to say should be predicated by actually having something to say.
Where Love Is Love lacks ambiguity is in its musical presentation. Woods’ incorporation of jazz on last year’s City Sun Eater in the River of Light returns the ten-minute leg-stretcher “Spring Is in the Air,” full of patent leather vibrato and a lava-lamp glow balanced by a moaning horn section, a versatile layer of sound throughout the album. On “Hit That Drum,” Alec Spiegelman’s saxophone and flute are both texture and canvas for Earl to pile on the drama, while Cole Kamen-Green’s trumpet grounds “Bleeding Blue” in a triumphant spirit that paints the song as a rally rather than a wallow. Earl as bandleader is getting the most out of his supporting cast, allowing his effortless pop sensibilities to form the collection’s sturdy spine.
On “Lost in a Crowd,” Earl retreats to one of his most charming tendencies. He fills his lines with a few too many syllables and has to rush out the lyrics, singing “Just when we thought that it couldn’t get worse/I’m lost in a crowd, a descending darkness.” It’s a direct sentiment that lacks the heavy-handedness of the rest of the record. Here, Earl allows himself to be confused, battered, and worried. He doesn’t have all the answers for the world and he doesn’t have to. The ease of his melody is matched by his own ideas. It might be a small notion, but that’s where Woods operate most efficiently, for a moment achieving the solidarity that Love Is Love desperately seeks.