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Best of 2014: Dear Hardly Art, S.W.A.K.

Posted by December 10th, 2014 No Comments »

2014 was, without question, the year of Hardly Art. The label’s output since January is so exquisite, it’s borderline harassment against comparable imprints. While the label is a subsidiary of the mighty Sub Pop— responsible for Pacific Northwest royalty from Nirvana to Shabazz Palaces to Sleater-Kinney to Fleet Foxes – Hardly Art has built its own distinctly separate identity focused on artists that seem comfortable living just on the cusp of breaking nationally. The label’s name comes from a song by The Thermals, furthering their allegiance to regional acclaim and DIY ethos. A simple Google search will lead you to a dusty Wikipedia entry claiming that their unofficial motto is: “Quality records for quality people since very recently.”

Their reign over 2014 began back in January, when Massachusetts-based dream pop outfit, Gem Club, graced us with their sophomore effort, In Roses. I remember its lush, refined compositions alongside the first breaths of a new year, not unlike walking across a field of untouched snow, and a distinct vulnerability from acknowledging the passing of time. Gem Club’s songs feel a bit more cerebral thanks to guidance from arranger and conductor, Minna Choi, during the album’s recording process.

The following month, Hardly Art’s domination continued with Tacocat’s sophomore album, NVM. If you’re unfamiliar with these palindromic surf pop aficionados, please stop reading this and follow their Twitter and Instagram accounts because they are honestly having the most fun out of every band in existence. It doesn’t matter whether they’re idolizing Miley Cyrus or shopping for Haribo delicacies or hanging with George Takei, Tacocat exist within a Technicolor aura. NVM combines their jovial chemistry with important, thought-provoking lyrics ranging in topics from a fictional bridge to Hawaii to the idiocy of cat-calling.

By the time Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right came out in April, I realized we’re living through a Hardly Art renaissance. The Detroit-based band resides in a ramshackle genre somewhere between punk and indie though, while that might sound like a garish oversimplification, I don’t get the sense they’d really fucking care. Underneath the smudged, hung-over, graffiti-covered Protomarytr demeanor is a very handsome, very crisp Indie Rock Record™ the likes of which haven’t been seen since the early aughts when the genre was en vogue.

Just before summer started, La Sera released Hour of the Dawn, a rambunctious departure from Katy Goodman’s prior catalogue, built for post-breakup puttering. I could almost see Goodman’s gaze harden beneath her signature reddish bangs in real-time. The former Vivian Girl expounds upon garage pop in a way that leans more singer-songwriter than basic genre aesthete, revealing an increasingly confident artist at the helm. Her voice is suited for 60s pop throwback vocals and the unprecedented instrumental variety exhibited on the album. Yes, this was meant to be played on muggy Los Angeles summers but it was built to last until mid-winter in Portland.

Sometime during the summer, I read somewhere that Jenn Ghetto would be releasing a new, Chris Walla-engineered album on Hardly Art under her S pseudonym and saw that meant a lot to a few people whose music taste I publicly admire. In order to understand their reaction, I needed to know that Ghetto used to be in a Seattle-based band called Carissa’s Weird, which broke up about a decade ago and contained musicians who went on to form Band of Horses and Grand Archives. I needed to know her last album released in 2010 and that this new one, Cool Choices, is about a messy breakup and took her years to write. But when the opening line turned out to be a defiant thesis like “This is how losers feel, I am a loser,” I understood.

And this all happened in the past eleven months; five unusual, complex, frighteningly potent records from artists that, at first glance, have no real reason being on the same label. You have the classical dream pop duo, human glitter bombs, shadowy ne’er-do-wells, future garage rock royalty, and an honest basket-case.  Do you realize Hardly Art’s 2014 output is the music equivalent of The Breakfast Club? The only difference is the character archetypes start to smear together sooner. Each of these records is important, adding their own gravitational essence to create a perfect bisection of indie rock in 2014. At this point I am comfortable being forthright in saying that I am in love with Hardly Art.

In fact, I love Hardly Art so much they’ll probably see me outside their office window with a boom-box held overhead, Say Anything-style, but they won’t need to open the window to know I’m strictly playing their discography.

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