A guide to summer jams: indie edition

By Aaron Brown

Summer must be a tough time for Mac students. We here at The Mac Weekly know that you rely on the Arts Section and the Arts Section alone to tell you about the latest music and bands on the scene. With this in mind, we present a quick overview of the musical hits (and misses) of this summer.

“The Stage Names” by Okkervil River

The latest Austin band to garner the indie-rock scene’s attention, Okkervil River’s fourth album”The Stage Names” might make a great gift for that friend obsessed with witty, literary references and an appreciation for clever use of the English language. While poets like John Berryman make appearances in Okkervil River’s latest work, my favorite track, “The Plus Ones” tours pop culture music with numerical titles, singing about the 100th Red Balloon, “The 51st way to leave your lover” which Paul Simon didn’t mention, or the seventeenth candle on Molly Ringwald’s birthday cake. Of course, the mastery of the language might have something to do with lead singer Will Sheff being a Mac alum English Major, but it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the music of a nerdy, poindextered Colin Meloy. “The Stage Names” especially notable for its juxtaposition of aggressive, pounding rock with its confessional, cross-referencing lyrics. It’s a combination that usually works well for Okkervil River, and although I can’t say that Sheff doesn’t occasionally border on whiny, “The Stage Names” is by far Okkervil River’s best album to date.

“Sky Blue Sky” by Wilco

The insecurities, disjointed fragility and emotional confusion of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s life and bouts with substance abuse have always proved a steady source of inspiration, as exemplified in the musical brilliance of Wilco’s two previous albums “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born.” Yet while “Foxtrot” and “Ghost” leaned towards experimental and often chaotic musicianship – the final track of “Ghost” finished with fifteen minutes of radio static – Sky Blue Sky is a refreshing return to the alternative-country roots from Tweedy’s days in previous band Uncle Tupelo. The album begins with a warm, Cat Stevens-esque guitar-picking , and leads us through a less noisy interpretation of Jeff Tweedy’s struggles with being human. Diehard fans might disapprove of the band’s change in direction, and some have fairly criticized the album for becoming “dad rock” and losing that blunt, confrontational edge so familiar in recent work, but “Sky Blue Sky” uses straightforward, softer moments to convey the same existentialist humility that defines Tweedy’s trademark musicianship, and the music keeps its power with its conventionality.

“Boxer” by the National

As a kid from the ‘burbs who always looks out for those perfectly dark, moody songs to coincide with late-night driving on the highways after an evening on the town, “Boxer” might be my favorite new album this summer. The drums, bass and deep piano chords set the pace early for a mechanically driven album that perfectly compliments the equally dreary lyrics and baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger. Singing as a melodic voice of hope lost in a drab, industrial world, Berninger is reminiscent of a coldly stark Andrew Bird, and of The Killers without the top forty, predictable flailing guitar riffs. In short, The National cements Berninger as a helluva candidate for the next Morrissey while still maintaining an air of originality. Perhaps the best reason this album stayed in my car for the duration of the summer is its uncanny ability to continue to improve with every rotation; the sublime overcast sensibilities of the album allow for multiple deconstructed meanings and feelings and help the tracks grow with each passing listen. “Fake Empire” begins with a few somber piano chords that slowly build up to the crushing request “Turn the light out say goodnight / no thinking for a little while / lets not try to figure out everything at once.” The album’s allusions to sentiments of everything from alienation to broad geopolitical issues, coupled with Sufjan Stevens’ wonderful pianist appearance on standout track “Ada,” serves to bring the National to a status worthy of their name.