End of the Year Day Five: Signals Midwest

By Maryam Hassan

Throughout December we at PT:HQ are bringing you end of year lists from bands, labels and promoters. We’ll have a new one for you everyday so keep your eyes peeled for them! See all the lists here.


Signals Midwest


Top 3 Albums of 2014

Hard Girls – “A Thousand Surfaces” (my top pick of 2014)

Plain and simple, this was the record that I listened to the most this year. I’d been following Hard Girls since their 7-song EP “Hello”, through their split with Kudrow and their first LP “Isn’t It Worse”, and a bunch of other related projects like Shinobu and Pteradon. Guitarst/vocalist Mike Huguenor even put out a little solo EP a year or two ago that was pretty great. I love all of those releases, but this blows them out of the water. The fuzzed-out, pummeling bass that still rips melodies, Max’s super-compressed and tight drumming style, the noodly, meandering guitar work that manages to feel like it’s always just about to go off the rails without ever actually doing so, the long instrumental passages in songs like “Deep Gulch” and “Flying Dream”, the interplay between Morgan’s super-gruff vocals and Mike’s cleaner voice – there are just so many things I like about loud rock & roll music that are employed here. There are even great quieter/slower moments like “Die Slow” and “Without A Sound”. “A Thousand Surfaces” was recorded by Jack Shirley, who’s done some really great work with bands as varied as Deafheaven and Joyce Manor. There are very few people making better-sounding punk/hardcore records these days. But honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this a “punk rock” record, really. It’s just a well-done, well-thought-out, dynamic record that documents a band fully realizing its own unique sound.

The Smith Street Band – “Throw Me In The River”

I should probably tell you that I’m in love with the Smith Street Band. I don’t think you’ll find a harder-working group of people who are as passionate about playing music and touring, and I can’t wait until they’re the biggest band in the world (and judging by the facts that they play something like 200 shows a year, they’ve sold out gigs everywhere from Melbourne to London, and that TMITR cracked the top 20 in Australia, that might not be too far off) so I can talk about how I saw them play to 30 people in Cleveland once and they stayed at my parents’ house. There are the straight-up singalong stompers that I’ve come to expect from Smith Street (singles “I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” and “Surrender” are great examples of that) but there is a more subtle, fleshed-out side to songs such as “Calgary Girls” and “The Arrogance of the Drunk Pedestrian” that do wonders alongside Wil’s hyper-lyrical, tell-all style of songwriting. The passion that seeps through the speakers at the climaxes of songs like “Surrey Dive” and the title track gives me chills. Chris’s drumming has never been better, Lee’s tasteful use of effects pedals sets his guitar work apart from the standard single-note and octave riffs employed by most lead guitarists playing this type of music, and Fitzy’s bass lines run seamlessly between thick root notes and meandering chord inversions and fills. There was also an all-star cast of people working on this record – Jeff Rosenstock produced it on-site with the band in a cabin in the forest in Australia, and Jon Low mixed it at Miner Street Studios in Philly. It sounds HUGE. So of course I love “Throw Me In The River”. These people are some of the best friends I’ve made playing music, but this record would still be on my best-of-the-year list even if I’d never met them before.

Cheap Girls – “Famous Graves”

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Cheap Girls give a fuck about many things and that’s what I like about them. Most of their songs sound similar, they’re not interested in putting on a huge, energetic stage show, and they’ve toured with everyone from ska bands to hardcore bands to the fuckin’ Hold Steady (how good was that tour, by the way?). But what they do give a fuck about is songwriting and sounding good, and that’s never been more evident than on this record. Every tone here is perfect – Adam Aymor’s Les Paul is pretty much an extension of his left arm at this point, and he’s easily able to blend basic chord structures with memorable, picked-out melodies. The rhythm section is locked-in, clean and flawless, but also showcases some new power on songs like “Pure Hate”. Ian’s songwriting style has never been more vivid and hook-filled than on songs like “Short Cut Days” and “Knock Me Over”, the latter of which will absolutely be stuck in your head for weeks after hearing it. The layered acoustic guitar on a bunch of these songs is also a welcome addition to the textures found here. “Famous Graves” is easily Cheap Girls’ best work yet. It feels like a product of relentless writing, touring, self-editing, and ultimately figuring out what works and running with it.

Top 3 Songs:

The Menzingers – “Rodent”

Probably the catchiest song of 2014 and maybe one of the greatest pop-punk songs ever written. How good is that breakdown into that “I am only bad news!” vocal part? This is the best song on a really great record that had a lot to live up to when placed alongside “On The Impossible Past”, but still stands on its own as a damn-good follow-up. Another Jon Low project, too – easily the best-sounding Menzos record to date.

Restorations – “All My Home”

This one snuck up on me. I’ve come to know Restorations for doing a few things really well: spacey, shoegazy indie rock that builds up into huge payoffs (“Separate Songs”, “Nonlocality), and chugging, midtempo jams with echoey, loose guitar lines and a massive, fuzzed-out low end ( “Quit”, “Tiny Prayers”). I love that about Restorations – they’ve figured out all these little tricks and signature sounds that they can just plug into any song and make it their own. I think that’s why this track caught me so off-guard, because it’s absolutely beautiful. The clean, arpeggiated guitar intro, the weary-yet-positive lyrics, the harmonized sort-of-call-and-response-sort-of-not background vocals in the chorus, that bluesy major-7th drop in the outro under the “whoas”…this song has a lot going for it. I think what really works in this song’s favor is the fact that it never really gets into the fuzzy-spacey territory that Restorations occupies so well and so regularly while still managing to fit in seamlessly with the rest of their catalog – it’s just a really well-done, well-crafted song, and was the highlight of “LP3” for me.

Pinch Hitter – “All Of A Sudden”

I can’t think of another record I’ve ever listened to that sounds like Pinch Hitter. Folk? Yeah, I mean, the two main instruments here are banjos, so that would be an applicable term. Emo? Yeah, the chord progressions and noodling melodies definitely recall the greats like American Football and Mineral. But the song hits HARD – which is especially remarkable for a 9-song record that doesn’t have a single guitar track on it. What we have here is an incredibly well-built song that manages to straddle a couple of my favorite genres without actually leaning full-on into any of them. And the lyrics are vivid and beautiful: “my blast-beating heart, this low-flying plane, all of a sudden, everything was okay.” Well done, boys.

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