Words by Brendan
Pittsburgh is just brimming with good music, and I swear that everyone can find something they’ll like here. It’s great to have a thriving scene like this but I’ll tell you what: it makes narrowing down everything to the “favorite of the favorites” pretty much impossible. I want to just make a list of every Pittsburgh band I listened to this year that you should listen to, but I won’t actually do that. (Maybe I’ll do that later …) I stewed and tossed and turned and managed to somehow narrow it down to the list that follows. Too many good choices!!!
Big Snow Big Thaw / “Homestead Grays”
This song has a little bit of everything that makes BSBT great, and is far MORE than the sum of those parts, to boot. Jim’s high-reaching, warbly falsetto and David’s low growl make for rich tonal and timbral harmony. (It’s even more impressive that they can swap roles without batting an eye; just see Ricky’s BSBT pick, “Ice Age”, for an example.) The banjo and acoustic guitar are arranged perfectly (like their other songs), and there’s even some tinkly chimes in the chorus (unlike their other songs). But really, it’s Dani’s inventive percussion that pushes this tune to the top. The drums stay out of the way mostly, but then thrown in some punches, building up to that stutter-step, oh-so-playfully-delayed cymbal crash: dah-dut dun-dun-dun-dun-dun … DSSS!, and variations thereof. It’s powerful and brilliant.
The Color Fleet / “Hurricane”
Those echoey drum pounds. That lush guitar tone. That dark energy that builds and builds and builds … This song is about release, setting up that moment when we first hear a breathy, “Hurricane”, after about two minutes. But there’s three more minutes of climax for this song, letting those guitars play back and forth a while longer, and similarly with the vocals. They even work in a cool “whole band solo”, with the guitar leading the “Oh oh ohs” and the drums. It’s cool stuff if you pay attention. Best part, though? The word “Hurricane” is never sung louder than a normal speaking voice. I don’t know why, but I just love that.
Good Night, States / “Fog In The Valley”
Look, I know this song is sad. I don’t even know why it gets to me. The singer’s story doesn’t relate to my life. But I’ll be damned if Good Night, States doesn’t just perfectly play this tune, making me forget all about the world and whether or not it “means” anything to me. You can get lost in this song. Easily. And I do, every time I hear it.
Harlan Twins / “Mama Jo”
I really dig Old Familiar. It’s as fun as the Harlan Twins are live. No matter where they play, they’re happy to be there, dancing about and belting it out, and I admire that. For that reason, I chose “Mama Jo” as the tune to share from their 2012 album. Sure, “These Are The Days” is damn catchy, and that psychedelic gloom on “Easy Lines” is amazing, and there’s no better singalong part than the chorus of “Canine Teeth”. But! The Pittsburgh connection with local matriarch Mama Jo, the twangy energy, the signature Harlan Twins sound … this song is the one.
Household Stories / “Blueprints”
It’s hard to tell whether the singer here is speaking to himself, some specific other person, the listeners, or all of the above. The lyrics are personal and charged, showing bits of disgust, provocation, encouragement, apathy, and a little hatred. The more I listen, the more enigmatic it seems, wrapping around itself and my mind until I realize the song’s over and I’m just playing it again, looking for more. It sure helps that the whole thing is carried on some hooky (albeit downtempo) guitar jangles and background vocal punches. I can’t but help sing along, hoping every time I do so reveals another layer of meaning.
Karl Hendricks Trio / “The Whole Fucking Thing”
“Where’s my prize? Yeah, where’s my cake and ice cream?”
We’ve all felt that. The urge for recognition. But very few of us, if any, could craft that sentiment into a rocking tune, replete with the solid guitar and bass tones the Trio always has, plus Karl’s signature lyricism — Is life really a strip mall? Hey, chips & pickles doesn’t sound so bad. What’s so upsetting about sunny days? Etc. — That bass rumble right in the middle is perfect, too. Basically, this is everything Karl Hendricks does well, done well.
Legs Like Tree Trunks / “Anchorage”
I was this close to putting “Snowflake” on this list. It has the jangly, guitar-tappin’ sounds you’d expect from LLTT, plus Matt’s consistent-yet-lax vocals, but there are some decidedly new elements: the layered vocals, the spacey synths or something … Okay. Great song. But here’s why I want to include “Anchorage” instead. It also has the band’s typical and still excellent guitar sounds, but they’re a little more subdued. This let’s Matt’s lyrics shine through a little more, deservedly, as well as the excellent recording. There are layers to unravel here, and always something new to hear here. Hear, hear!
Meeting Of Important People / “Oh, Will You Finally Go?”
This song has been kicking around since early 2011, when MOIP treated us to an acoustic version in a Troy Hill graveyard for their Echo Chamber session. It was fantastic then (especially in that setting) and it’s a different kind of fantastic now. The insistence in the vocals, the earnestness, the emotions … You can feel a story surround you, instead of hearing one told. While a typical MOIP song is more suited for dancing your sillies out, this one is decidedly a headphones song, and I like that.
Pet Clinic / “Alaskan Plates”
Any song from Pet Clinic‘s EP could easily be here. Their sound is so cohesive and appealing, it’s impossible to choose a favorite. I went with “Alaskan Plates” because it’s one of their longer sangs and, by the way, it’s absolutely killer live. I’ve listened to it so many times that I buckled down and counted the number of times the repeated melody actually repeats, and then listened so many more times that I completely forgot what the number was. But who cares about that, anyway? This song sweeps you up, swirls you around, and leaves you in the dust. Not many songs have that power.
Spirit Night / “Kerouac”
Although he’s since moved away, Dylan recorded this gem of a punk-pop album in Lawrenceville in 2010 and 2011. One Man Houses is nine songs of energetic and impressively catchy tunes. The songs exude sloppiness and lo-fi recording but that’s just a facade; these are actually played really tightly, and the fidelity is solid, not to mention the songwriting. “Kerouac” is the most fun, for me: the way you just want to shout along with the chorus, the flipping-of-pages sound in the middle, the drum fill right after that I can’t help but air-drum along to … Sometimes a tune just catches your ear and never leaves. Truth be told, I’ve listened to this song at least 50 times. I can’t stop.
Best of the Rest:
Here are 10 more songs that easily could have been on the list above:
Adventures / “I Feel So Sure”
Black Moth Super Rainbow / “Hairspray Heart”
Bluebird Midwest / “I’ve Always Loved You”
The Borough Fields / “Kiss & Tell”
The Ceiling Stares / “The Day The Volcano Screamed Death”
Essential Machine / “Steeples”
Low Man / “Golden Dawn”
Nik & The Central Plains / “Eyes”
Psychic Boots / “Hold My Hand”
Sleep Experiments / “Out Stealing Horses”