Arts and Entertainment

Reviewing Summer 2023’s Alternative Albums

This summer has led alternative artists to reflect on their careers due to creating projects of varying successes.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Claud, Supermodels 

Bedroom-pop singer Claud released their sophomore album, Supermodels, on July 14. Claud, an up-and-coming nonbinary artist, first produced their well-received album, Super Monsters, in 2021. 

 With a newfound independence, Claud offers a matured perspective on the fissuring of relationships. Supermodels fluctuates between different genres, from indie-pop to post-grunge, embodying the sonic possibilities that come with professional production. 

However, this transition from bedroom to studio production has been inadvertently rough for Claud. The new sophistication of Claud’s sound has rendered Supermodels completely sterile of the bold experimentation that characterized their past projects, resulting in a monotonous gaggle of languid acoustic guitar. The record stays confined to this accepted mellowness, rarely taking any sonic risks beyond the vibrating vocal effects in the track “Climbing Trees” or the post-punk synths in “Wet.” But even at its best, Supermodels is just super safe. 

Supermodels opening track, “Crumbs,” draws notable influence from Phoebe Bridgers. The track is palpably melancholic, denoting how the smallest pitfalls of a relationship—the “crumbs”—are ultimately what sabotage connection. One of the most distinctive and entertaining features of Claud’s earlier music is the androgynous quality of their voice, offering them a succinct vocal range. On Supermodels, however, their range is seldom put to use, causing their vocals to fall flat.

Later tracks such as “The Moving On” and “A Good Thing” are assembled with grunge influences, executed with radiant basslines and heavy drums. Both songs exude danceability and are successful in communicating the album’s emotional rawness with their unpolished tonality. Tracks like these are what ultimately save the album from total mediocrity. 

Despite sonic disappointments, Claud remains true to their signature wit, cushioning their lyrics with simplistic yet defiant anecdotes, such as “We argued about Regina Spektor / I said I loved her, but you think she could be better” from the song “Every [EXPLETIVE] Time.” This sentiment appears to mirror the broader essence of the album. Though it is interesting to hear Claud explore their new sense of self, the project as a whole “could be better.”

12 Rods, If We Stayed Alive

Indie-rock band 12 Rods experienced immense success in the ‘90s, even garnering Pitchfork’s first ever 10.0 review for their genre-defying debut album, gay? (1996). Despite their triumphs, 12 Rods disbanded in 2004. Released July 7, If We Stayed Alive is 12 Rod’s first album since their split nearly 20 years ago. Despite their seminal status, the two-decade gap since their last record has left fans wondering if 12 Rods has phased out of their talent. 

If We Stayed Alive isn't your typical comeback album—it's a compilation of seven missing 12 Rods demos recovered from the group's archive and independently revamped by 12 Rods frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Olcott. The fuzzy mix of the album replicates some of 12 Rod’s earlier sounds, but the instrumentation is more mellow. The subdued, smooth backing track heavily contrasts Olcott’s emo-inspired vocals. Initially, this opposition is off-putting and doesn't work for some songs, such as “Twice.” The saccharine guitar riffs are constantly pierced by Olcott’s voice as both elements fight for attention. “Twice” and other tracks like “Private Spies” lack the ability to sustain any coherent melody. Oftentimes, Olcott’s cacophonous production causes the entirety of If We Stayed Alive to feel one-dimensional. 

However, in some songs, this duality is hypnotic and catchy. “My Year (This Is Going To Be)” is a pristine example of Olcott’s evergreen ability to produce dynamic compositions. Heavy drums complement Olcott’s vocal delivery as he smoothly transitions from throaty, stunted articulation in the bridge to buoyant crooning in the chorus. Complex composition carries into “The Beating,” easily the most exhilarating track on the album. What begins as a few dissociative plucks of an electric guitar slowly escalates to a decadent melting pot of tropical percussion and crisp basslines, eventually culminating in an off-putting whisper of “Kitty Cat I love you.” 

Despite the moderately successful acoustics, the album is all over the place thematically. Consecutive tracks “My Year” and “All I Can Think About” are so dissimilar that they induce whiplash, the former a straightforward manifestation for the year ahead and the latter a breathy reflection on a school shooting. If We Stayed Alive struggles to tell a story, or even commit to a consistent perspective. But not much more can be expected from a collection of demos assembled at different points of 12 Rods’ three-year career.

Blur, The Ballad of Darren

Blur rose to fame in the ‘90s due to their melancholic Britpop jangles and quickly garnered a slew of fans. Despite relatable subject matter, frontman Damon Albarn’s abstract lyricism and dissociative vocal delivery have led Blur to remain emotionally distant. However, The Ballad of Darren (July 21) represents a significant shift in the relationship between Blur and the listener. In the eight years since their last release, the members of Blur have diverged and experimented on their own. This temporary separation has ushered in a new wave of vulnerability and reflection in Blur’s lyricism, making The Ballad of Darren their most eloquent project to date. 

The album emanates tenderness as soon as the opening track, “The Ballad,” begins. The first notes of “The Ballad” are deliberately Bowie-esque; faraway, stilted vocals explode into a synth-heavy, choral masterpiece. Guitarist Graham Coxon’s background vocals hug Albarn’s as the duo rejoices together: “I’ll fall along with you / we traveled ‘round the world together.” It’s impossible not to connect these lines to the brotherhood that exists within Blur. After all, there was no real reason for Blur to reunite to create The Ballad Of Darren—Albarn’s electronic hip-hop side project, Gorillaz, has become an internet sensation, and Coxon has sustained a longtime solo career. But Albarn’s and Coxon’s partnership deserved to reflect on their extensive history, revealing the true intentions behind The Ballad Of Darren: closure. 

Gratitude can be felt for the reunion. Albarn paints an impeccable self-portrait with the album’s single,“The Narcissist.” The reason this track is so successful is two-fold: partially because Albarn is a poster child for narcissism, and partially because the lyrical content of the song speaks to Albarn’s relationship with fame and substance use. He croons, “I could not tear myself away / Became addiction / If you see darkness, look away.” Coxon supplements Albarn’s sleepy confessional with metronomic riffs, creating an incredibly balanced sound. The track culminates in an overwhelming pool of distortion, drowning out all struggles of the past.

The pain of retrospection is palpable through these tracks, yet an air of hope permeates The Ballad of Darren. “The Heights,” the perfect closer for the album, whispers “I’ll see you in the heights one day.” This affirms the album’s persistent assertion that there will be something bright ahead, despite the band’s rocky history.