BY CHRIS HAISE
Another year come and gone, fully saturated with new music. The concerts and tours are coming back, and there are more new releases than ever before. But there seems to be an extension of the uncertainty cause by the pandemic.
From showing proof of vaccination and having your temperature taken at venues, to a new Summerfest schedule, it is clear the adjustment period is not over.
Still, artists old and new push ahead with new releases, leaving us, the audience, to determine how we consume in the new normal. The following points out some of the high points I encountered on my own musical journey in 2022.
Poor Pretender — Long Mama
Long Mama is a combination of some of super talented local musicians supporting the incredible songwriting of Kat Wodtke. The band provides a perfect canvas for Wodtke’s polished songs and distinct voice. The title track (and accompanying music video) is certainly worthy of its pedestal, however I gravitated towards other moments on the record, including the subtly stellar musicianship throughout.
“The Narrows,” apart from the ear-worm hook that is still stuck in my head, is the type of storytelling I love in music. A first-person tale of a mysterious man on the run, this song is infectious songwriting at its best.
The ballad “Clean Break” is a dreamy and tender unpacking of a modern breakup, full of harmony and longing in equal measure. “Wondering weights heavy on a lonesome heart / I’m rattling these chains, can you hear them from a far?”
Along with some attention from the music press, the band recorded with and tours with other regional Midwest acts, indicating we may see their footprint expand in the wake of outstanding projects like Poor Pretender.
You Probably Heard It
Midnights — Taylor Swift
A return and a step forward simultaneously, Midnights has the modern pop sound that transformed Taylor Swift into one of the biggest acts in the world. But in working again with Jack Antonoff, she continues to expand and impress.
Swift worked with Antonoff (and made me a begrudging fan) with the pandemic influenced folklore and follow up evermore. This new album is much grander than those stripped-down arrangements. But the heart of Swift’s appeal has always been in her pen. It seems to speak to and for the modern generation (or, as much of it as popular music can).
She has a way of making the words fit together in an extremely relatable way. The lyrics on Midnight cover Swift’s normal ground of love and fame and self, intertwined and mutually exclusive. There are plenty of songs, even individual lyrics, that are noteworthy, but “Anti-Hero” is a clear standout. The song is a self-examination in which the singer decides they are in fact “the problem.”
But this time, the pity party has a wonderfully sardonic feel. “I stare directly in the sun but never in the mirror / It must be exhausting always rooting for the Anti-Hero,” sings Swift in the chorus. Throw in a verse about leaving her murderous daughter-in-law and you have Top 40 gold.
Each new turn reveals more of Swift’s larger than life musical persona, and Midnights is yet another indication of her continued fame and success.
Ants From Up There — Black Country, New Road
I wanted to pick something great you may not have heard in your daily travels. Black Country, New Road is a band greatly impacted by the COVID pandemic, having their debut record and supporting tour thrown completely off the rails in 2020.
What they came up with in the interim is Ants From Up There, a big, quirky, beautiful mess. This record is somewhere between chamber pop and emo, with art rock arrangements and transitions. But that doesn’t quite cover it. The vocal performance has both intimacy and energy. The horns, harmonies and strings make the songs full and atmospheric. What I mean is, this is a great album, no genre qualifiers necessary.
“Concorde” is a definite standout, a delicate and melodic ballad full of dynamism that reflects on the one-sided intensity of the singer’s relationships. “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade” is a slow burner and another reflection on dependency, and also has lyrics that seems to encapsulate the meta, self-deprecating themes across this album; “Show me the fifth or the cadence you want me to play / Show me where to tie the other end of this chain”
Each song on the record seems to exist in its own weird, eclectic universe, but collected on this album they fit together in a highly compelling way. Throw in stellar musicianship and good production, and you have what might be one of the best records of the year.
Being Funny in a Foreign Language — The 1975
This will be the second The 1975 record to appear in my annual review, after 2020’s Notes on a Conditional Form. Suffice it to say, this has become one of my favorite bands.
I think my favorite thing about The 1975 is they are not trying to do anything other than make great pop music. It works. The English quartet is back with another concise set of brilliant songs. As usual their sound is big and bright, with singer Matt Healy’s vocals somehow out front and buried at the same time.
“Part of the Band” swirls between driving synths and melancholy acoustic laments. “The worst inside of us begets / That feeling on the internet / It’s like someone intended it.” A great showcase for the band’s wide range and sharp pen, inside of sprawling pop sensibilities.
“All I Need to Hear” is one of the best songs I have heard in a long time. A smokey, brooding ballad of pining for an absent love. The album then slips right into the witty and catchy “Wintering”. I found myself listening to these two back-to-back like a classic A and B side.
Along with the standout tracks I mentioned, the jumps from one well-crafted song to the next like a modern playlist, which in a way it is. Being Funny is another worthy addition to a catalogue that is fast becoming classic.
Revolver – The Beatles
Yes, yes, another remaster release. It sometimes seems like an old math class problem; Classic band X has Y albums, how many times can they re-release the same material? But this one is a little different. If you just take the remixes of the original Revolver songs, this is a really, really good remaster.
Classic recording techniques previously meant that multiple instruments would be put on the same track. For this version, Giles Martin and team have managed to isolate the individual tracks and work them back into a new overall mix. From what I understand, it was Peter Jackson’s production of the recent Disney+ documentary “Get Back” that lead to the remixing breakthrough.
The result is impressive. The familiar and timeless record has a freshness, while obviously not being “modernized” by new techniques. For example, a song like “Doctor Robert” gets the stereo treatment, and the vocals and harmonies in particular benefit from the process. If you listen to the original 1966 version right after the new version, the difference (and improvement) is apparent.
I will find the time to dive through the alternate versions and outtakes, but I think any music fan would enjoy this new presentation of one of rock’s great records.