HORSEBACK, HALF BLOOD (Relapse Records)
Earlier this year, the perfectly proficient Raleigh doom metal band Horseskull decided to get provocative, not with their retreaded music but instead with their promotion of it. They were unsatisfied with the Triangle's current doom metal offerings, they said, and vowed to make that mantle safe for darkness once again. More to the point, they quoted another local musician's loaded praise in their website's press section: "Hipsters say Horseback .... I say HORSESKULL!!!!"
Indeed, we do say Horseback; Half Blood, the fourth full-length and umpteenth release from the sonically exploratory outlet of Chapel Hill's Jenks Miller, is essential, challenging and invigorating. It's not doom metal; in fact, to call this heavy metal at all is to correctly identify many of its signifiers but to open it to the kind of mindless poaching of Horseskull. During these 44 minutes, Miller and his band wind through Krautrock and gilded drone, harsh noise and viscous pummel. From the organ-soaked radiance of the blues-metal that opens Half Blood to the three-part instrumental suite that ends it, Miller's experiments during the last several years coalesce into an album that takes shape as an uninterrupted voyage. This is incidental tourism through several music modes at once, proof positive that Miller is more interested in proving he's a polyglot, not disproving the old guard's admonitions that he might be a poser.
THE ROSEBUDS, LOVE DELUXE (THE ROSEBUDS PERFORM SADE) (self-released)
Now this is The Rosebuds we were promised: The once-married couple of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp have often talked about their band as an art project—a goal-oriented outlet meant to explore certain limitations and themes in a finite space. And early on, that held true, whether on the effervescent songs they first released via Merge on 2003's Make Out or the electronic adventures of 2007's brazen if disappointing Night of the Furies. But for the past five years, as Howard and Crisp worked through the complication of dissolving their romantic relationship while continuing their musical one, it often felt that the pair had settled into the business of being a band. While generally decent and sometimes excellent, their most recent two albums made it clear that The Rosebuds were trying to hold the boat steady, to make it out of a breakup with their business and audience intact.
At last, that protracted phase is over: Ivan Howard recorded Love Deluxe (The Rosebuds perform Sade) largely by himself on North Carolina's coast, attempting to work through the songs as stylistic exercises rather than as a proper 20th anniversary tribute to one of his favorite records. The result is paradoxically comfortable and risky, the sound of a singer settling into his skin and attempting to break through it. With help from some friends, Howard bleeds an anxious dub into "Cherish the Day"; on "No Ordinary Love," a ring of reverb around his voice recasts his singing as that of the itinerant wanderer, looking for anything but loneliness with each new turn.
This is the most fun I've had listening to The Rosebuds in years, not to mention the most enthusiastic I've been about their future. Shortly after releasing Love Deluxe, Crisp and Howard followed with a quirky new Christmas album, confirming those early art-school aims. It's good to have them back.
THE HUMAN EYES, GUIDING EYES FOR THE BLIND (self-released)
For years, Thomas Costello attempted to evade (or, at best, tease) his muse: While building a rather large songbook, he worked retail and customer service jobs in music, won a poetry contest with his lyrical and elliptical verse, and started and stopped bands for his own fear of failure. It's appropriately redemptive, then, that Costello's first substantive musical output—a nine-track cassette under the name The Human Eyes—documents a trip through existential hell all the way through its hopeful resolution. He graces these genial and danceable tracks with a casual lilt, smartly undercutting the torment of his words until he can reach the other side. Think The Go-Betweens and The Cure, charmed by a Southern calm. During "My Heart Is a Graveyard," he confesses that he's got a problem and asks if, first corrective step made, reconciliation is possible: "If the past would unlock with a key/ if I used it on your door/ Would you still remember me?/ Could we have what we had before?" There's no going back now. There's only forward, with failure fading in the background like an imagined specter.
BOWERBIRDS, THE CLEARING (Dead Oceans)
For better and worse, Bowerbirds have always been big dreamers: Idealists who started the band while studying birds in South Carolina, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular have spent the better part of a decade attempting to live life off the grid while finding success as entertainers. They've occasionally suffered hard for said commitment, too, including the bitter but temporary break-up that separated their second album from The Clearing, their third. As such, these 11 songs bravely profess the reaffirmation of those dreams, becoming at once a process for new commitment and the product of it. The inescapable "Walk the Furrows," for instance, questions the band's own fall from innocence and intent, seeking stability through renewed vitality. Though The Clearing is their most grandiose production yet, featuring help from Bon Iver's team and the most daring sonics of the Bowerbirds' limited output, it doesn't forsake the sweet creak of Tacular's accordion or Moore's gracious Midwestern coo. If there were ever a soundtrack for the venom of settling, The Clearing is its largely flawless antidote.
SPIDER BAGS, SHAKE MY HEAD (Odessa Records)
The start of "Friday Night," the third track and first single from Spider Bags' third album, Shake My Head, recalls "Tequila," the 1958 Champs classic that you've heard all your rock 'n' roll life. The reference isn't a mere sonic signifier; rather, it's a clue to the swill of party music that dominates the bulk of Shake My Head, from the headlong opener "Keys to the City" until the manic instrumental bender "Shawn Cripps Boogie." But somebody always has to foot the bill for the party, and here it's the host band, led by the wiry Dan McGee. Throughout the record, he's alternately punching a picture of the one who's not still with him, bumbling at the brink of psychosis and, on the closer, hurtling face first into doomy oblivion. They recorded the bulk of Shake My Head in a Memphis party house, keeping it together long enough to put this messy little gem to bed.
WHATEVER BRAINS, WHATEVER BRAINS (Sorry State Records)
If Raleigh's Whatever Brains didn't arrive fully formed on a debut duo of seven-inch records in 2009, they at least premiered with a faithful foundation: Put indelible hooks in the middle of a whirlwind of madness and momentum, and repeat as often as possible. Through a series of singles and EPs and two addled and addictive self-titled records, the prolific crew have since capitalized on that plan, making records that cake well-angled hooks in a mess of weirdness. This year's 36-minute LP feels longer than that—not because of tedium but because of density. Though some of the Brains' best songs depend upon senses of humor, snark, sweetness and misanthropy that one might be tempted to dismiss as juvenile, these 12 tracks work through samples and noise, sneering and skittering, harmony and upheaval to arrive at finessed music that bears repeating. There's always another detail hidden, another bludgeon to be had.
KING MEZ, MY EVERLASTING ZEAL (self-released)
"I see the game like a party/ Cosigns have the same effect as Bacardi," rhymes King Mez early into My Everlasting Zeal, his audacious and moody 14-track debut. "Take it to your head and you'll never leave your bed/ Because you're drunk off coulda-beens and Harleys." In the oft-frustrating search for new energy in the North Carolina hip-hop scene, King Mez is something of an oasis. Reluctant to be pigeonholed by associations with old crews or aging producers, Mez works as a free agent, lifting good beats from good producers and bending collaborations to his will, not that of a presiding executive producer. Diversity creates a showcase for Mez here. He sidesteps over a stop-and-start beat on "Monte Carlo" and, with the help of singer Drey Skonie, finds the rare payoff between commercial radio crooning and heavy-handed rapping.
J KUTCHMA, PASTORAL (self-released)
The links between punk rock and country music are logical, well documented and sincere. But is there a more groan-inducing prospect than an older punk turning it down to settle with an acoustic guitar and a lukewarm reserve of over-easy wisdom? Pastoral, the debut full-length of pedal steel and acoustic shuffle from Red Collar bandleader Jason Kutchma, works because Kutchma doesn't attempt to turn his impulses into a false one-off, one-on binary. His voice is defiant and desperate, his lyrics clinched with the cynical economy of his rock band's best stuff. Rather than retrofit his style to fit the demands of his Five Fifth's generally staid arrangements, or vice versa, he allows their sound to absorb his. Listen for his subtle exacerbation in headphones, then notice the way his backing band spirits away his worries on speakers large enough to double as a living room set.
ORGANOS, CONCHA (Potluck/Pox World Empire)
In Schooner, Pleasant, Tennis & the Mennonites and Un Deux Trois, Maria Albani spent years playing a specific role—thumb the bass, join on harmonies, fill the blanks. Perhaps that limited perspective of what it means to play a song shaped the way she writes in Organos, the loose band of friends she now leads. To call Albani's approach idiosyncratic would be to put it mildly. During the intoxicating "Side Girl," she bends her smoky voice over start-and-stop handclaps, arriving somewhere between an age-old plantation song and a schoolyard chant. "Fits and Fears" delivers its anxiety over a brilliant rock 'n' roll gestalt, where allusions to massive guitar solos and clamoring, break-out choruses supplant the devices themselves. These eight songs have some of the strangest shapes you'll ever encounter, but they certainly don't sacrifice their likability in some self-conscious pursuit of singularity.
T0W3RS, WYATT (DiggUp Tapes)
At least in terms of their output, the last 18 months have been a continuous honeymoon for the young Chapel Hill band T0W3RS: Last year, they released an EP anchored by a cover of a popular Lonnie Walker tune, following it this year with a scattershot LP and, finally, an incandescent five-song EP named Wyatt. The steady output has fostered quick confidence for the five-piece, pushing the bravado of their pop music to palpable levels. "Ours," for instance, lifts sequencer and signing suggestions unabashedly from circa-Strawberry Jam Animal Collective, but frontman Derek Torres sings the style like he invented it, shading the verses with subtlety and multiplying the chorus until it becomes a mantra. Most impressively, "Draw? Fold" precedes a squiggly country send-up with a tense kosmische simmer and admirably hides the seams between sounds that are continents apart. Here's hoping they never come down.