September 06, 2016

Off Your Radar #32: Here's To Almost by Feral Conservatives

 
One outstanding album each week recommended & analyzed by a dozen music writers & lovers.
 
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Here's To Almost by Feral Conservatives
Released On January 22, 2016
Released By Egghunt Records
 
 
This Week's Selection Chosen By Doug Nunnally

2016 has been a great year for EggHunt Records. The astonishing debut record from Lucy Dacus. Anticipated sophomore albums from Avers and Clair Morgan (featuring OYR contributor Shannon Cleary on bass). A cassette reissue of a great White Laces EP. Each is utterly fantastic and worthy of lengthy conversation and examination, but the last eight months or so, I've found that only one record of EggHunt's 2016 catalogue dominates my thoughts and conversation: Feral Conservatives' Here's To Almost. It might just be the record I've talked about the most this year with friends and colleagues, which is a bold statement considering how truly brilliant records like Lemonade, Black Star, and Hopelessness are. But throughout 2016, my love of this record has only grown and grown and if anything, I've only scratched the surface on its merits as I'm still finding new things to gush about in the music even if they don't fit inside whatever narrative I've tried to build that day.

Feral Conservatives is a quartet from Virginia Beach that lands on the sonic spectrum between punk rock and indie pop. You could call it twee -- and I did for most of the year because C86 is Holy Scripture to me -- but it's far less jangly and much more raw, even in its most angelic moments. Really, this is just a punk band -- see them live, and you'll know they are punk -- experimenting with pop songs to make a sound both authentic and inventive. I know, I know; punk mixed with pop is just pop punk, but this is far removed from even modern juggernauts such as Knuckle Puck and PUP. Using the mandolin as a lead instrument helps set the sound off from other genres, but it's also just in the way the band writes songs that make them stand alone. "Bus Driver," for instance, is a very basic song lyrically, and opens up with a childlike jaunt evoking memories of "Wheels On The Bus." Seconds later though, the band has turned this simple tune into a driving force that's both catchy and ferocious and it completely takes on a life of its own. Near the end, the jaunt comes back into play (with horns this time!) to tie it all together and really flaunt the songwriting ability the band yields on this record. Intros, codas, bridges, pre-choruses, countermelodies; there are very ambitious structures going on here, further pushing the band past pop punk, indie pop, or twee and into their own personal space.

For most, the big draw for the record is Rashie Rosenfarb's soaring voice, a voice so gorgeously emotive and complex that it becomes incapable of full description. Her ability to deliver snark up and down her register is baffling at times allowing lines like "another fuckin' holiday" to sound both sweet and callous. At the same time, she's able to drop the sarcasm and be as brutally vulnerable as possible when the song and lyrics call for it. The absolute best thing about Rosenfarb's voice though is its limit, and just how completely irrelevant it becomes in the music. One of my all-time favorite songs is "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" by Arcade Fire and I always get an anticipatory chill right before the third verse comes on because I know what's coming: Régine Chassagne pushing her voice to the absolute limit, through force and determination, to deliver an impactful statement. For the entire section, she sounds like she's going to buckle under the emotional weight of the song and her own limitations as a singer, but she holds on just long enough to absolutely nail it. It's even better when you watch the performance of the song on Saturday Night Live and you can see her physically preparing for that moment. Rashie Rosenfarb's voice reminds me of this solitary moment on The Suburbs, but it's far from an isolated event on Here's To Almost. Nearly every song has moments of Rosenfarb pushing her voice to the limit. The moments can be brief, like on the vocal rollercoaster of "Complacent," while others are more sustained, most prominent on "Last Light" but perhaps best featured on the closing moments final track "Wait For Me." Rosenfarb even couples her defiant voice with the mandolin, an instrument with its own set of limitations within a rock band that she repeatedly flies past in search of a perfect song, allowing her voice to completely shine.

As great as the vocal work here is, the other instruments definitely deserve their own recognition. Matt Francis' drums do just as much as the mandolin to create these sonic impressions, like his excellent Sundays-esque boom on "Last Light" and the absolutely manic thumping of "Twenty-Eight." "Logan's Song" wouldn't be half as great if it wasn't for that dangling bass line from Dan Avant and I absolutely love when the bass knocks the door down on "Class Reunion." Lyrically, there's plenty to identify with on the record too. "Complacent" and "Logan's Song" are definite generational anthems, with their baby boomer takedown and political apathy resonating strong in this election cycle. "Class Reunion" resonates the most with me, as I think it will for any music lover who spent the majority of their youth with headphones on instead of going to parties, and coupled with the music, singing, and structure, it's by far my favorite song off the record.

You're not going to find another record like Here's To Almost, in 2016... or at all really. It's not easy to be this endearing and charming while also being derisive and brazen, especially if you don't settle into one sound, style, or even tempo. Top to bottom, this is a flawless record of melodic and emotional discovery that is made by music lovers for music lovers. It may go overlooked in its own time, but those who listen to it will know just how incredible it truly is.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
http://sound-gaze.com
 
 
 
Exuberant & assertive with an incandescent sound that's instantly engaging.
 

Diving into Feral Conservatives' blend of folk, pop, and punk/rock sounds on Here's to Almost is akin to a bracing dip into a crystalline lake. The plucky, delicate mandolin and Rashie Rosenfarb's brilliantly piercing (in a good way) vocals play off the heavier guitars, bass, and drums in a way that makes the whole ensemble sound refreshing and new despite the seemingly typical individual parts. The songs bounce off each other in the same way, some leaning more towards straightforward pop (effortless lead single "Last Light"), some favoring a rougher tone (feedback-laden "Twenty-Eight"). It's a genre tightrope the band walks with ease, guiding the listener through the playful exploration of their sound throughout the album. Other highlights include the strumming mandolin and soaring vocal melodies of "Pacific Child" and the decidedly punk-ier, racing pace of "Logan's Song." Here's To Almost is a quick, no fuss listen that packs a lot of enjoyable moments into its eleven songs.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
 

Oh good lord, I love this record. There's no need for me to delay it because Feral Conservatives basically tick all of my boxes. Female lead singer? Check. Upbeat? Check. A mandolin? Check please! I had zero knowledge of Feral Conservatives going in, but now they are very much... on my radar. Cue canned laughter and a freeze frame of me winking at the camera. Here's To Almost is a heavenly slice of pop-rock that will just put you in a good mood. Lead singer Rashie Rosenfarb sounds great here and dominates every song with her terrific voice, and the standout track for that is definitely "Last Light," a phenomenal tour-de-force that is already on my best of list for 2016. What I like most about this record is that there really isn't anything like it in current music. Most of the tracks have an upbeat disposition and there's a real purity to the songwriting. Also, the mandolin kicks ass and really offers something different. Man, I love a mandolin. Feral Conservatives are a really pleasant surprise. Here's To Almost is definitely in my top three records we've reviewed on OYR (not including my own picks). It's just a fun, good listen and as tight an album as you'll hear all year.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
 

The coolest girl in high school was one I never met. This mythical creature, with long hair parted straight down the middle, with sweaters slightly too large and skirts a little bit too short and maybe boots, arms full of books, stands amid a crowd, slightly set off by something in her eyes -- trouble at home, or hidden insecurities, maybe a secret abortion. Paint on her cheek, chipped nail polish she cares nothing about, our high school heroine plays The Ramones and The Minutemen through headphones in the library or AV room, already disenchanted with cheerleading and ball games. While Regina George holds court over the lunchroom, our Lizzy Caplan skirts the corners, paints and writes and broods with her doe eyes and hair clipped carefully careless, certain to never fall into the horrors of marrying the quarterback and mothering screaming, snotty kids while her hometown hero husband sleeps around with the PTA president. Though I never met her, I know all about her, the Ginas and Coreys from Empire Records, the Kats from 10 Things I Hate About You, and through the sweet vocals and open mandolin from Feral Conservatives, she has found a voice. Each song on the album recalls the wanton joy with which adults characterize teenage years, which sometimes feels artificial but here completely works. Even the title -- Here's To Almost -- speaks to that feeling of being almost capable, almost out of every podunk town in America, almost adult enough to live and think and be on one's own, but not quite yet. Strains of folk and post-punk run through the indie pop sound, but are always anchored by the thin, high vocals of Rashie Rosenfarb that keep us right in that fresh, young '90s sound. Straightforward with pretty melodies, sometimes experimental bass lines, and song progression, this is not music to puzzle over; rather, this is music that should be played purely for dancing around your living room with friends, or with windows all rolled down as you speed down the highway with $15 and a case of PBR, headed nowhere. Whereas this level of adolescent levity was somehow always out of my nerdy grasp fifteen years ago, with Here's To Almost I can jump around on the rooftop of Empire Records and sing along with Gina as if I belong.

Laura Confer (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
http://insatiablebooksluts.com/
 

Here's To Almost has grown on me with each listen. The infectious pop punk hooks, dressed up in 2000s indie rock tones with a twist of folk, are like old friends with new hip clothes; familiar feeling, but different enough that you want to hear more. Think Jimmy Eat World but with a mandolin, or perhaps what Letters To Cleo might sound like if they debuted in the Bandcamp era. Of course "Twenty-Eight" is my favorite jam, but there's lots to dig on the less aggressive songs too. The fact that they are from Virginia Beach, are playing Hopscotch Fest this year (I go every year), and are on Richmond's EggHunt Records, it was always just a matter of time before I my ears caught up to the hype.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
http://pjsykes.com
 

Whenever I open my laptop, I'm greeted by the chillest stock photo of a girl cruising down an open road. Her braceleted arm hangings out the window, while she's riding the wind with her hand. It's my idealized self. Feral Conservatives sound like that. Light and airy, Here's to Almost glides out of the speakers. Songs like "Twenty-Eight" and "Bus Driver" conjure up a warm summer afternoon, tuning the radio dials to find the nearest alt-rock station as you cruise from state to state. But the real charm for me comes from the chill accoustic jams. "Last Light" is the real standout in that department. Fusing bits of '90s singer-songwriter with a little easy listening and just enough of a country song to create something with a truly unique vibe. It's carefree and unpretentious, which might be my favorite thing about the album as a whole. In a year where every (non-Carly Rae Jepsen) song-of-summer is laced with cynicism, the whole of Here's To Almost is utterly refreshing in its summery sincerity. It's an album that demands to be road tripped with a friend.

Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
http://consideredart.tumblr.com
 
 
Click below to watch the digital zeitgeist video for "Round The Corner."
 
Who doesn't love a band that can poke fun at itself and the internet?
 

I'll be frank with you -- I didn't check this band out for a long time. They're local to me, and on a local label, so in my role as a regionally-focused music journalist I heard them a time or two. But I only ever listened enough to come up with a quick and hopefully accurate one-sentence description, then moved on. Confronted with their new album as an assignment for this newsletter, I realized that I had to go ahead and really dig into what Feral Conservatives were doing -- something that I honestly avoided mainly due to that really awkward name (what are they going for with that? Do they live in the woods and plan to vote for Trump? Editor's Note: Not by the look of this.). Was it really possible that a band with an ungainly name like that could really pull off an indie pop record as dope as Doug had been swearing it was? Now I'm eating crow, because the answer is a rousing affirmative. I didn't think there was any possible way that singer Rashie Rosenfarb could pull off using mandolin as the lead instrument in an indie pop band, but rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, it adds a fresh and welcome additional texture. I didn't expect a mandolin-fronted indie pop band to be skilled with higher tempos, or to dish out some energetic, almost pop-punk-ish riffing -- but they do, to great effect (notably on "Twenty-Eight"). I definitely didn't expect to find myself addicted to this band's incredible melodies, which are layered several inches thick all over this album. Rosenfarb is the star of the show throughout -- her vocals and mandolin drive every track on this album. However, without the rest of the band providing a solid bedrock and some decided power on the record's more upbeat songs, this wouldn't be as great a record as it is. Ultimately, though, Here's To Almost proves that Feral Conservatives were worth a lot more than the casual dismissal I gave them back when I first heard of them. Further proof that I should never doubt Doug.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
http://rvamustseeshows.wordpress.com
 

If I can make one thing clear in my section of this newsletter, it's that if you want me to listen to your music with something approaching obsession, put a really talented female lead singer in front of a really good rock band. The past several years have seemed especially rich for up-and-coming female-led rock bands. They've always been around, but I think my attention has been grabbed by them in a kind of Baader-Meinhof situation. I've been looking for them and so I've found them. Case in point, this Feral Conservatives album is fantastic. Furthermore, it's from this year, and they're from my state, which means that I could theoretically see them playing these songs in the near future, which is very exciting! I think my favorite song on the album is either "Twenty-Eight" or "Bus Driver" which both find the band barreling forward with the breaks cut, showcasing an energy that I can only imagine whips an audience into a frenzy. What's great about these high energy songs is that it makes the sweeter -- dare I say gentler? -- songs all the sweeter because you know what the band is capable of. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check out the rest of the band's discography because if I'm going to be at a show, I'm going to want to know all the words.

James Anderson (@james80d)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
http://appetitefordistraction.blogspot.com
 

Somewhere between twee pop and punk rock lies the almost straightforward indie rock music of Feral Conservatives. It's so straightforward that I understand if you've missed this record this year -- showier albums grab the headlines and the BNMs these days. Here are some reasons Here's to Almost deserves your ears. 1. Rashie Rosenfarb's voice. It can be sweet, pissed off, and honest, all while retaining a strong sense of melody. Extra points for her excellent delivery of the phrase "another fucking holiday" in "Complacent." 2. Mandolin. If it's good enough for Peter Buck, it's good enough for Feral Conservatives. I know this is two Rosenfarb-based favorites in a row, but this is my damn list. 3. Rad songs. Really, this should be enough, right? My fellow OYR writer Andrew made me a mix CD for my birthday, and not only does it contain the Charlie Puth-Selena Gomez duet (he knows me so well!), but also "Twenty-Eight," a rocker of a jam that was on repeat for a whole day before I let the next song play all the way through. I had very high expectations of the rest of Here's to Almost after that, and (thankfully), all the songwriting is on an equally high level. 4. All the times "Pacific Child" gives me chills. 5. The "wah-oh-oh-oh"s in "Bus Driver" because they will be in your head for days. Have I convinced you yet? Just go listen. I hope to catch Feral Conservatives at a Hopscotch Music Festival day party for Egghunt records this weekend -- I have a feeling I will enjoy them even more live.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Occasional Feminist Music Blogger
http://smartladieslovestuff.com
 

Admittedly upon reading something about a mandolin, I literally said out loud, "Oh God." Chalk that one up to some PTSD from all the vexatious bluegrass bands back home in East Tennessee. So it's a relief to find something sounding more circa Letters to Cleo or That Dog, Riot Grrl light if you will. The instrumentation serves up a more sunny timbre than the former and mostly the tenory strings deftly meld into the frolic. If put on a turntable and slowed down, it might sound a bit like a spunkier Hem. To say it's bright-eyed and bushy tailed couldn't be more apt here. "Class Reunion" has some downright Ted Leo-ness happening with that hooky head-voice. Vim! Vigor! Pep! The tracks tumble into one another as it runs its jaunty course. It's quite the fertile foundation for a future foray into more sophisticated pacing and captivating starkness. But hey, for now here's a cheery pack of bubblegum rock! Chomp chomp chomp, pop!

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
http://mattklimas.tumblr.com
 
 
 
Live shot courtesy of Beth Austin.
 

Feral Conservatives have a fascinating sonic fingerprint. I wrote a thing a little while back about Goldrush, a Richmond band with a similar fingerprint: Lots of low end, lots of high end, with this amazing open territory in between. In Goldrush's case, that openness comes from the contrast between double bass and a combination of violin and searing guitar. With Feral Conservatives, the low end gets a boost from booming drum sounds (I love the sense of space you get from the drums on Here's to Almost), and the high end is occupied in most situations by mandolin, the group's most distinctive element. But here's where it gets really interesting: Rashie Rosenfarb's voice can climb and climb, so in many situations, the vocals join the high end and leave that middle ground open entirely. Add in touches of reverb here and there and you have this wonderful, spacious sound that's entirely theirs. "Wait For Me" is great for scanning that fingerprint: Reverb on the plucked mandolin, sparse, heavy drumming to start, with a chorus that takes Rosenfarb's voice from high to higher. A very small percentage of singers could hit those notes, and a very large percentage would kill to be able to. I was listening to "Wait For Me" while driving on Monument avenue recently, and what stands out most in my memory about that experience is how sunny it was. The more I think back, the less coincidental that seems. The sounds inside the car were just as bright as the light coming into it.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
http://youhearthat.wordpress.com
 

From the opening note of "Round The Corner," it's clear that Norfolk, Virginia-based indie rock group Feral Conservatives are here to have a good time. The group classifies its style as mandolin noise folk and it's surprisingly very accurate. I love every song on this album because it's full of fun, upbeat, and energetic songs that don't feel manufactured. Feral Conservatives promises a fun time and delivers. Just try to not move your thing as these songs play -- especially during "Last Light."

Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
http://virginia.org/music/
 

Based on what I think Feral Conservatives were aiming for, Here's To Almost is a flawless record, no almost about it. The bass, guitars, and drums are all doing things those instruments do best in a hard-driving folk-rock context. There is both energy to the performances and polish to the production, representing their passion as well as their dedication to their craft. The songs are catchy, melodic, and sturdy as a house. The only thing I could say against them is that the singing is a little bit high pitched for my taste. But that has nothing to do with the overall quality of the record. Sure, their name is kind of terrible and does a poor job of advertising what's inside the tin, but you could say the same thing for 10,000 Maniacs, and they went multi-platinum. In fact, I have a hard time reconciling this radio-friendly sound with the paltry number of listeners I see on Spotify, but that's just the fragmented time in which we live. If Feral Conservatives had major label muscle behind them in 1985, or even 1995, they might have outsold Natalie Merchant & co. Don't take my word for it, though -- listen for yourself. Here's To Almost could be your next favorite record.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
http://anearful.blogspot.com/
 

I'd have to say that my favorite record on this album is definitely "Acrylics." While Here's To Almost is a largely upbeat affair, "Acrylics" really stood out to me because of it's dark energy. The track opens with some somber plucks of a lone banjo (at least I think it's a banjo), perfect for a narrative about regret and broken promises. I could be way off here, but I took "Acrylics" to be a reference to her acrylic nails that "run too thin" as she's trying to hold onto something (or someone) that keeps slipping away. I like that. Even if I'm wrong about that lyric, I'm just gonna go ahead and keep believing that I'm right about it. But I digress. What's so perfect about this record is the synergy between artist and music. Sometimes an artist with a perfect voice doesn't match the song. It's a key aspect of production -- matching the right artist with the right song; I feel like I wouldn't want to hear anyone else sing this song. The marriage between artist and music here is seamless. So much so that if you listen closely at about the three minute mark the vocals and instruments are in near perfect harmony and it creates a sort of natural flange effect. It's spooky-good. Nothing acrylic about it.

Kellen "J. Clyde" Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
http://jclydebeats.com
 

The title alone celebrates the idea of what could have been and how to revel in all of your successes as well as missteps. Feral Conservatives are a band that has limitless charm and a lot of that stems from the unique choices they make in their arrangements. There is a fascinating dynamic in how the mandolin plays against the atypical rock bass-drum combo. It showcases the high-end in a way that perhaps wouldn't make sense with just having a guitar. It blends the acoustics and feels lush with electric hues. Just listen to the opening of "Twenty-Eight" to get a strong impression of how the trio incorporates these dynamics for an energetic intro that never lets up. Outside of the instrumentation, the songs are incredibly catchy. It's no wonder that Here's To Almost kicks off with the one-two punch of "Round The Corner" and "Complacent." The latter of the two spoke volumes upon each re-listen. Rashie Rosenfarb will dissect the notion of idol worship and how that can lead to self-destruction when you compare your successes to those that reach unimaginable heights. Sentiments akin to that can be seen portrayed in songs like "Class Reunion" and "Acrylics" as well. It's the idea of how you create your own definitions of what success means to you. For Feral Conservatives, that could easily mean releasing a strong full-length to start off 2016 and see what future opportunities await them.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
http://shutupcleary.tumblr.com
 
 
Next Week's Selection:
The Upside Of Down by The Tories
Chosen By Andrew Cothern
 
Off Your Radar Newsletter
 
Editor: Doug Nunnally
 
Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Shannon Cleary, Laura Confer, Andrew Cothern, Kellen "J. Clyde" Ford, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes
 
Logo By Matt Klimas