My Listening Week: 3/10/23

Thoughts on Guided By Voices, Cro-Mags, Dark Thoughts, Girls Against Boys and Elvis Depressedly.

My Listening Week: 3/10/23

I listened to a lot of Coldplay this week to prepare for an episode of Endless Scroll. I also listened to a lot of good music this week. Here're a few thoughts on some of the above records, including a pretty formal review of the new Elvis Depressedly record.

Guided By Voices - Propeller

I think it'd be incredibly cool if someone could honestly say they've listened to every Guided By Voices album. That would mean listening to all of the new GBV records, including the three that've dropped within that last year alone, in addition to their gigantic pre-breakup (in 2004) catalog. It'd be the equivalent of someone who somehow keeps up with the Simpsons episodes in 2023. You're probably wading through a ton of mediocrity and redundancy, but damn, what a badge to be able to wear. All the GBV records. Sick. Anyways, Propeller is their '92 breakthrough and I love how it comes crashing in with these bombastic, Who-inspired barn-burners filled with guitar solos and caustic distortion.

I also think a great studio project prompt would be to actually flesh out every five-second song idea that GBV string together on "Back to Saturn X Radio Report." It's one of those, scanning-the-radio-and-each-station-has-a-different-vibe medley songs, but there're some great little tunes in there that deserve more than the two bars they've been given here. There's a free one for you, musicians.

Cro-Mags - Age of Quarrel

I'm seeing the Cro-Mags (Harley's version) for the first time next week. I expect the crowd to be a lot of aging punk dudes in bandanas and then a small cadre of twenty-something moshers who just want to pound each other to "Malfunction." I'll be with the moshers.

Dark Thoughts - Must Be Nice

This record wasn't on Spotify for a long time, but this week I realized that it is, so I had an excuse to play it back again. Imagine being this proficient at writing Ramones-style pop-punk songs? Totally un-monetizable skill in our day and age, but at one point, Dark Thoughts probably could've made some good money doing what they do. I mean, fuck the money, that's clearly not why they're a band. But these songs are so fucking catchy and charming and enlivening. If they found a way to bottle up the joy these songs provide me into little vials, they would be millionaires. Again, fuck the money. I'm just trying to say that these songs fucking rule, and that in a just world, they'd be smash hits.

Girls Against Boys - House of GVSB

Never heard this band until yesterday. Mid-nineties post-hardcore I had previously dismissed for their dumb name. Love, love, love when my assumptions are smacked out of my hands like someone swatting my tray of food to trigger a cafeteria food fight. Yesterday was the first, but by no means the last, time I'll be ripping through this record. Brilliant, swaggering, hard-for-me-to-find-the-words-to-describe heavy rock music. Kinda like Quicksand, Helmet and the most melodic Glassjaw elements, but in a much more pop-forward and dancey context? Weird, unexpected, and maybe brillianat? Yeah, brilliant sounds about right.

Elvis Depressedly - Who Owns the Graveyard?

I spent a lot of time with this album this week and I have some more thoughts on it. Mat Cothran (Elvis Depressedly singer-songwriter) is one of my favorite songwriters ever, hands down. His stuff has been a go-to of mine for years, and I think he's the type of creative who can just keep going forever and always have his best material ahead of him. Who Owns the Graveyard? is the first Elvis Depressedly record since 2020's Depressedelica, and I read somewhere that it's  being billed as the final one under this moniker? If so, I think it's a fascinating way to put this concept to rest, even if it has some flaws.

One thing I love about Mat Cothran's songwriting is his unfettered honesty. He writes lyrics like he has nothing to lose, as if every outpouring of familial trauma, personal failure, or existential woe are his final words before venturing into the great beyond. The way he approaches death, addiction, depression and the dissolution of relationships holds nothing back. His frankness can be intimidating, like you're listening to a friend vent without a filter, and it's making you feel concerned for their well-being. Intentionally or not (I have a feeling it's just an echo of his natural affectation), Cothran has always been a wizard at balancing out those morose admissions with black humor and a clever wit, injecting his works with enough levity to keep them from drowning in the darkness, and reinforcing the uneasy truth that misery, pain and suffering can sometimes be incredibly funny.

Lyrically, Who Owns the Graveyard? is packed with classic Cothran-isms. "The whirlwind of life came and fucked up my mind/Praise the Lord, I'm sober no more," he croons in the crusty country ballad, "Sober No More," a recent career highlight. "Yeah I'm at the lowest point of my life, tonight," he warbles through auto-tune on "Say Hi." "If you're at the lowest point of your life, say hi," he returns with all the vigor of a Zoom party MC gesturing into the blue light.

A motif I've always loved in his work is how he can make meta commentaries on music without coming off as cringe or contrived, which is hard to do. On "rock 'n' roll" from 2015's New Alhambra, he quips, "Jesus died on the cross/So I could quit my job," and I smile wide every time I hear it. "Let's Break Up the Band," from Depressedelica, is one of my favorite Cothran songs, and its level-headed thesis ("It's just a band, it's not our lives") rings in my head when I'm stressing over a creative project and need a reminder that the things we do for fun shouldn't consume or define us.

The Graveyard song "Lay It In" is another excellent installment in that mini-canon, and also the album's most painfully raw track. Trilling atop a chipper chillwave beat, Cothran piles up his last few year's worth of shortcomings until the tower topples over and he can make peace in the rubble. "I let the alcohol get me drunk." "I let my family drift apart." "I let my grandfather down." "I let my art be a job. I let the job steal my soul." "I drove drunk every night last week." And finally: "I inhaled your life and died, face down in the bed all night/Can't let myself go out like that/Riding trauma all the way to death?/No, no, no."

Musically, this is Cothran's most sprawling work across any of his aliases (Coma Cinema, Elvis Depressedly, Goin' Nowheres, or his birth name), and while I think he has the vision and potential to pull off a multi-faceted, genre-jumping epic that bridges country, trip-hop, shoegaze, post-chillwave lo-fi pop and the sort of wounded indie-rock he built the Elvis Depressedly name on, I think the record gets lost in its own wanderlust. For someone as prolific as he is, Cothran has historically been skillful at trimming bloat, writing concise, sub-three-minute songs packaged into records that rarely exceed the 30-minute mark. Graveyard is 56 minutes long, and songs like "Say Hi," "Who Owns the Graveyard?" and "Middle Man" — all over five minutes — are built upon great ideas that feel needlessly expounded on with meandering instrumental outros or repetitious loops that exhaust rather than enrich.

Up until this point, the instrumentation on Elvis Depressedly records has always skewed minimal, seeing Cothran anchor his songs with a knockout melody (often coated in films of hiss and reverb, like all the gems on New Alhambra and Holo Pleasures / California Dreamin'), a killer bassline, some piano and/or guitar and a bit of light percussion. Who Owns the Graveyard? is the band's embrace of studio exploration, allowing saxophones and strings and auxiliary percussion and big guitar solos to join the fold, all while Cothran simultaneously doubles down on his use of electronic production, sampling and vocal effects. Songs like the shoegazy dirge, "On Earth", (possibly the loudest track he's ever recorded) and the bongo-laden emo-rap nugget, "Jane Again," benefit from the wider sonic lens and more spacious production.

Other songs feel like they lose their focus just for the sake of logging studio hours. "Same Old Way" is a beautiful piano shuffle with a classic Elvis Depressedly feel, but it feels like they wrote more than they needed just to make use of the saxophone at their disposal. It's pretty, but it drags, and Cothran's best songs succeed by making the ear want more, not less. Opener "The 3 American Mantras" is another overcooked concept. Its Blond(e)-esque minimalism (finger snaps, light strums, and Cothran's auto-tune-glazed voice) lays an intriguing foundation that never gets built upon throughout its 3:45-second runtime (long for an Elvis Depressedly song), and therefore starts the record out on a slightly lackluster note.

Overall, the bullseyes generally make up for the misses. The yearning piano pop morsel, "Hold Me Down," has a classically great Cothran hook, bringing to mind Blue Suicide-era Coma Cinema but updated with auto-tune and more modern production. And despite the looped sample in "Who Owns the Graveyard?" driving me crazy by the time the track ends (especially when it's goofily played in reverse during the outro in what feels like nothing more than stoned studio fuckery), the crux of that song is hauntingly gorgeous, and I do like the interplay between the chopped-up vocal, the deflated acoustic strums and Cothran's ghastly wails.

This being the final Elvis Depressedly record doesn't worry me. To Cothran, each of his various aliases might feel like distinct artistic identities, but to me, he has an inescapably singular style that makes all of his albums feel part of the same greater whole. My favorite stuff he's ever made has been under the Elvis Depressedly moniker, and while Graveyard doesn't blow me away like some his past work, my issues with it are probably the aspects Cothran loves the most. The whole record comes paired with an accompanying musical film (which I have yet to watch as of this writing), and the record's sprawl sounds like the mark of a band truly having fun with what they're doing. If he really felt like his art had "become a job" in the past, then Who Owns the Graveyard? is a re-embrace of freewheeling creativity.