Album Of The Week: Bully Feels Like
From a distance, Nashville’s indie rock music scene seems like some magical lost world where young people still party to fuzzed-up, guitar-driven rock music. If you’ve been to a major music festival anytime in the past few years, you’ll know that this is a true anomaly. If you get a few tens of thousands of kids together in a field, and if those kids get properly fucked up, they are not going to gravitate toward the stages that have people playing guitars on them. They are going to gravitate to the dance DJs, or the rappers, or maybe especially the rappers who rap over dance music, and the people with guitars are going to be in tents, off to the side, playing to sparse crowds of a few hundred true believers. But in Nashville, things are different. Diarrhea Planet are all drunken classic-rock guitar overdrive, with four different guitarists taking turns soloing, or soloing all at the same time, seeing who can bring more hair-flipping style to what they do. JEFF The Brotherhood front like heshers but knock out shockingly polished and melodic fuzz-pop gems that beg for cheap-beer coolers and innertubes and the backyard swimming pools of neighbors who are away on vacation. Colleen Green comes from California but went to Nashville to record with Diarrhea Planet and JEFF The Brotherhood dudes, and she left town with the best power-pop album in years. And then there’s Bully, who don’t necessarily make party-rock but whose rock seems informed by spending time at parties. They crank out plainspoken rock songs about being young and living in squalor and going through pivotal life moments. They’re great enough at it that they went from being a DIY Bandcamp band to one releasing a debut album on a major label less in less than a year, and they’re tough enough that they made sure their major-label debut sounds just as noisy as their Bandcamp releases. And that album, Feels Like, is the sort of thing that can renew your faith in rock music as a cultural enterprise.
Bully aren’t a party-rock band the way Diarrhea Planet are, but there’s nothing shy or retiring about them. Frontwoman Alicia Bognanno has a raw, tough, fiery voice. She sounds like someone who’s woken up hungover in the mid-afternoon but who’s determined to rally back and go out drinking again tonight. On the verses, she’s got a sort of conversational drawl, but it balloons up into this ferocious, beautiful rock howl on the choruses. And she sings with badass candor about that point in your life when going out drinking every night is a realistic possibility. 20 seconds into the album, she’s growling, “I remember getting too fucked up / And I remember throwing up in your car.” Later on, she sings about hanging out on rooftops, about not being able to find a ride home, about resolving not to sleep with a particular person anymore. On “Six,” reaching for ways to tell someone that she’d never hurt them on purpose, she has to reach back for childhood memories, talking about the time she broke her sister’s arm by accident and then felt so bad that she made her own arm injury worse on purpose. All that sounds like fun, and it’s true Feels Like is a fun album. It’s got momentum and hooks, and it sounds great blasting from open car windows. Bognanno has picked up enough tricks from ’90s alt-rock that she knows how to make soaring hooks and peals of feedback complement one another. But she hasn’t learned so much that the album feels like a retread. Instead, it feels rough an immediate, a forceful piece of communication from someone who operates without a filter.
But for all its fun, this is still an album with emotional stakes, and there are moments that capture how awful, or how frightening, that stage of life can be. There is, for instance, the tossed-off line on “Trying” about how she’s been praying for her period all week. Or there’s this, from “Reason”: “I thought that he would never hit a girl / But I guess you never know / And that’s the world.” That is a fucked up thing to have to figure out at any point in life, let alone your early twenties, but Bognanno sings it with a sort of seen-it-all shrug. There’s a lot on Feels Like about simply trying to hold yourself together: “I question everything / My focus, my figure, my sexuality / And how much it matters or why it would mean anything.” There’s a sense of desperation shot all through this album, and it never works against the sense of fun. The swirl all together, until sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. On “Trash,” Bognanno belts out, “I wonder if you’ve ever felt this confused / It’s magic how you make me feel like trash.” Then she’s roaring, “Feels like traaaaash,” over and over, sounding like a sick-in-bed Courtney Love. She sounds sad, of course, but she also sounds liberated, like she’s getting shit off her chest just by letting this person know this.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned anyone else in the band in this review. That’s not an accident. Bully, on the one hand, sounds like a band. They’re absolutely locked-in, and the album has a dry, organic quality to its sound, remarkable for a major-label rock record in 2015. It’s pretty clear that these are people playing music in a room together, that nobody is overdubbing a guitar part in a booth somewhere. On the other hand, this is very much Bognanno’s show. Other than the way those instruments key into each other, this is practically a solo project. Drummer Stewart Copeland gets a co-writing credit on album closer “Sharktooth,” but other than that, Bognanno is the album’s sole songwriter. She’s the singer and the guitarist. And she also produced, mixed, and engineered the whole album. Bognanno did all that at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, where Bognanno interned when she was studying audio engineering in college. There’s some of the spartan intensity of Albini’s sound in Bognanno’s recording job, but it’s also remarkably hard and sloppy and urgent in its own way. In the studio, the band would knock things out as few times as possible, and she’d rush to go mix it immediately when they had a good take. In that way, it’s an auteurist’s album, an album that sounds as close as possible to one person’s vision of how a rock record should sound. And Bognanno knows what the fuck she’s doing. Feels Like doesn’t sound like a baby band’s debut album. It sounds like a complete vision.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kasey Musgraves’ warm, winning humanist old-school country collection Pageant Material.
• Desaparecidos’ righteously enraged punk-rock reunion Payola.
• Richard Thompson’s Jeff Tweedy-produced comeback Still.
• London O’Connor’s mercurial, genre-shifting O?.
• Leon Bridges’ early-’60s soul revival Coming Home.
• The Armed’s post-hardcore pummel Untitled.
• Son Lux’s floating, drifting Bones.
• Cayucas’ breezy indie-popper Dancing At The Blue Lagoon.
• Vennart’s narco-prog meditation The Demon Joke.
• Creepoid’s scuzzily expansive Cemetery Highrise Slum.
• Glower’s sweeping, melodic hardcore debut The Circle Bends.
• Gnarwhal’s stripped-down-but-complex Shinerboy.
• Vanum’s sweeping, mournful black metaller Realm Of Sacrifice.
• Abyssal’s cavernous, doomy black metaller Antikatastaseis.
• The Bay Area psych-rock compilation OIM: Vol I.
• Thundercat’s The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam mini-album.
• Loop’s Array 1 EP.
• Class Actress’ Movies EP.
• Oscar’s Beautiful Words EP.
• Future Death’s Cryptids EP.
• The National’s fantastically redundant live box set A Lot Of Sorrow.