Ruminations on the power of the riff.
I went to college to learn how to write about punk rock.
Well, maybe this isn’t exactly accurate. Technically, I went to school for journalism with the intention of pursuing a career as a music writer. I figured covering bands would be something I’d do on the side while working a day job at a newspaper. Instead, I landed in marketing, a thought that would have made me vomit when I was 20 but has worked out well as a fulfilling career choice. Anyway, the point is that I thought investing years’ worth of my youth to get a slip of paper that qualifies me to write words about unprofitable bands under the guise of “making something out of myself” was a good investment.
And you know what? I have no regrets. I’ve been writing about music since I was 19 (I’m 38 and falling apart now). It’s a passion that I made financially reckless (and arguably unnecessary) decisions to pursue because it’s something I can’t imagine myself ever not doing. “Find what you love and let it kill you.” For better or worse, I took that to heart.
Around five years ago though, I decided to try something different, and write about videogames. After pitching Unwinnable every idea I could muster, they invited me to write a monthly column. That’s how the column that used to occupy this space, Collision Detection, came to be. I’d like to think I made the most of that opportunity to explore the space between videogames and the real world alongside a stable of writers who, frankly, know a lot more about the medium than I do and can cover it with sharper insight than what I feel I’m capable of on a consistent basis. I don’t know how I’ve managed to hang with this crew for this long, but they haven’t kicked me out yet.
If I’m being honest, both with myself and the readership of this magazine, I’ve always felt like I’ve been allowed into the games criticism space on a guest pass of sorts, welcome to explore and see where my curiosity could take me but never fully feeling like I had found my niche. Collison Detection was, more than anything, something I wrote for myself as a monthly writing exercise that was intended to stretch my comfort zone. It pushed me in different directions than what I would have gone down had I stuck to writing about music and only writing about music, and it’s helped me to think about art and media more broadly through a more critical lens than what I could before.
With that said, it’s time to introduce something new once again: a music column that I’m calling Noise Complaint. I don’t have many specific goals for what I’d like to accomplish in these pages moving forward. All I know is that I want to share stories and thoughts about the sounds that have shaped who I am, in a way that can catch the attention of readers who might not care at all, and maybe make someone think about a record in a different way or check out something they wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
Ultimately, that’s all any music criticism does in general, and so maybe using too many words to say, “I am going to commit random acts of music criticism” isn’t helpful for understanding what to expect here. I guess as much as possible, I’d like to offer something that isn’t just a carbon copy of writing you could easily find somewhere else. Writing that doesn’t succumb to the kind of clout chasing that so often makes music criticism feel self-important and pointlessly mean-spirited but without filing off the rough edges so much that it becomes boring. I want to experiment with the column format and write what I would want to read, to reignite that same spark that made me want to devote my life (and thousands of dollars in student loan debt) to the written word.
I still love videogames and I love writing about videogames. But I don’t play as many of them as I used to and I don’t quite have the same fire for them as what I have for music. Rather than fighting against where my creative interests want to go, I decided to follow those instincts and see where I end up. Our editor David Shimomura gave me his blessing to do just that, and while I didn’t bother asking Stu Horvath or Sara Clemens for permission, that’s because I realized I didn’t really need to. Unwinnable gives its writers such a rare level of latitude to try and fail and try again that if we feel like going off in a different direction, then doing so is an expectation that doesn’t need an explanation. That isn’t taken for granted. I can’t believe this is something I get to do.
With that said, thanks for bearing with this overwrought explanation anyway. Hopefully, I can hold your attention long enough to stick around for whatever this is going to be. For now, I’ll end this introduction here and leave you with a handful of recommendations that I’ve been vibing on lately. Wait, what if I called all these capsule reviews “noise complaints?” Haha, “here’s this week’s noise complaints,” I’d say. No don’t get up, I’ll see myself out.
MJ Lenderman – Boat Songs
Indie rock bands love using irony to avoid the vulnerability that comes with sincerity. It’s an extremely easy way to make yourself seem like a genius when you’re actually just an asshole, and when you put it that way, I guess I see the appeal. It also makes artists seem deeply boring after the schtick wears off and you realize there’s not much substance underneath the smarmy veneer of intellect, so I also guess your mileage may vary if you go down that road.
Fortunately, MJ Lenderman plays a different kind of game, blending dry humor with heartfelt storytelling so seamlessly that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. If you like your alt-country mixed with touches of subversiveness and 90’s grunge guitars, take Boat Songs for a spin around the lake and/or oceanfront depending on your geographic location.
Warpaint – Radiate Like This
I have no idea why I like this record. It seems like I shouldn’t? It maybe even feels wrong, a little bit? Even though I don’t usually feel that way about music? I mean, you either like stuff or you don’t at the end of the day, but the lyrics here don’t appear to mean anything despite wanting to seem important, and its general vibe makes me feel like I’m loitering in an Urban Outfitters. Gives me the exact same feeling as standing in the changing room and wondering, “Do I really need these jeans?” How do you even make music that captures that feeling and for what purpose, other than to be played in an Urban Fitters? Does anyone still shop there or even have an opinion on that place anymore?
Apparently Warpaint’s first record came out in 2010 so maybe that explains that. Seems like that was around the time when we all (and by “we all” I mean people over 30) hit peak “having an opinion about Urban Outfitters” and that was one of the biggest things we all had to talk about. What a time to be alive! I guess if you drench enough airy melodies with a chorus pedal it’ll short-circuit whatever part of my brain is responsible for critical thinking and say, “I don’t love this but I’m not going to stop listening to it either.” I rate this 6 out of 10 pitchforks.
84 Tigers – Time in the Lighthouse
Members of The Swellers and Small Brown Bike join forces to create the best thing to come out of Michigan since Detroit-style pizza (which I have only just recently discovered, but as far as I’m concerned, it deserves a seat at the table whenever people start popping off about New York vs. Chicago-style pies). Written during the height of the pandemic lockdown, this sounds like a continuation of latter-day Small Brown Bike, but with former Swellers drummer Jono Diener holding down the rhythm section, and with even more existential tension. Those are good things.
Phobophilic – Enveloping Absurdities
There are two upscale coffee shops two blocks away from one another in my town. One, I’m pretty sure, donates money to pro-life causes. At the other, I can reliably find Phobophilic frontman Aaron Dudgeon wearing a Deicide hat while slinging the finest of hot bean water. It is truly a world of contrasts out there. Maybe that non sequitur is fitting for an album that dissects the absurdity of modern life. Or maybe that anecdote has nothing to do with this record at all, even if it does make choosing my preferred coffee shop a lot easier. In any case, this was the best death metal album I heard in 2022, and I listened to too many death metal records in 2022.
boygenius – the record
Landing on the front of a magazine doesn’t feel like it means what it used to (unless its Unwinnable), but when boygenius made the cover of Rolling Stone, it felt like they had hit escape velocity all the way out of the underground and fully into the mainstream consciousness. Those who have followed Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers respective creative ascents and career trajectories might not be surprised that, together, they’re powerful enough to crush all enemies in their path en route to world domination like some kind of punk-adjacent indie rock Voltron.
Yet this record still feels like something we should stop to appreciate now before we look back in 20 years and recognize what a turning point this was for themselves and for the scenes they emerged from before achieving the highest levels of stardom. I’d say they’d done so against all odds, but in retrospect, it feels like this was inevitable all along. Haters, cower in fear.
Samiam – Stowaway
Despite having worn out the records of every other 90s-era pop-punk and indie rock-tinged emo band, Samiam somehow escaped my radar until years after high school. Regardless, they sound as energized as ever on Stowaway, their first full-length album in over 12 years. I can picture it now: windows down, sun’s out and this record is soundtracking the two weeks of summer that we get where I live. I’ll savor it though.
flipturn – Shadowglow
I don’t know what you call this but it’s good. Elements of indie rock, pop and what vaguely feels like jazz without really being jazz collide into . . . something.
Do what you will with that description.
Bad Nerves – Bad Nerves
More catchy than the norovirus I caught a few weeks ago that made me feel like my body was trying to turn itself inside out (and credit where it’s due, it damn near pulled it off). A bunch of punks from somewhere in the English countryside (or at least somewhere not that close to a major urban center, as far as I know) have put together something here that, had it not come out in 2020, probably would have taken over the punk world. Now is as good a time as any to get caught up if you haven’t already.
Ben Sailer is a writer based out of Fargo, ND, where he survives the cold with his wife and dog. His writing also regularly appears in New Noise Magazine.