Becoming Self-Aware: A Farewell to The Swellers

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Sometimes it takes a band breaking up for you to truly appreciate how special they are and how much of an impact they’ve had on your life. Such was the case with bands like Thrice and Moving Mountains a couple years back, and such is case with The Swellers now. All three are examples of bands that weren’t really on my radar until a little later in their career and didn’t truly become favorites until they were almost ready to call it quits.

I discovered Thrice a little late in the game, during my junior year of college when they released Vheissu, and their early work never resonated with me quite as much as their last few albums. Their music was present in my college and post-collegiate years, but never in the captivating, all-consuming way that other post-hardcore/emo acts like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday were. After putting Thrice on the back burner for a few years, I became blown away by their last LP Major/Minor and subsequently started to appreciate their back catalog even more. And then about a year later, they announced their farewell tour, which I was lucky enough to see in two cities. I had a similar experience with Moving Mountains; I stumbled upon them a little later in their career, when they opened for Thrice (oddly enough) in 2011. While I was never a huge fan of their post-rock heavy debut Pneuma their last two LPs have now taken their rank among my favorite albums of all time.

As far as The Swellers, they’re a band I’ve liked quite a bit since I first saw them open for Paramore back in 2009. Much like Thrice, their music had a pretty decent presence in my mid-late 20’s, but for whatever reason their albums never quite made the transition into heavy rotation on my turntable. That all changed when I heard The Light Under Closed Doors for the first time last year on a road trip through New England and New York that involved me meeting up with friends and seeing Taking Back Sunday play in five different cities. The hundreds of miles I drove that week were soundtracked almost exclusively by The Swellers, Saves The Day, and of course Taking Back Sunday. I developed a deep appreciation for The Light Under Closed Doors; “Big Hearts” served up an instant shot of nostalgia, hope, and joy at a time when I was getting hit pretty hard by what I like to call my “quarter-life crisis, part deux,” “Becoming Self-Aware” quickly became one of my personal anthems, and “Call It A Night” honestly made me weep. When I arrived at my last destination on the trip—Portland, Maine—I immediately drove to one of my favorite record stores and purchased the album on vinyl. It has definitely been in pretty heavy rotation ever since.

Right before I went on my TBS road trip and rediscovered the Swellers, I reconnected with another thing from my past that I had kind of abandoned: long-distance running. After dabbling in cross country during my high school and early college years, I set goals to train for longer races in my mid-20’s, which ultimately led to injury and burnout. Then, after practicing yoga for a few years, I developed a renewed sense of appreciation and ease with running longer distances, which were always set perfectly to long pop punk/emo playlists of the Saves The Day/Taking Back Sunday variety. I’m especially particular about the tempo of the songs I run to; I need something to both inspire me and keep me going at a steady pace. So after my long road trip, I decided to try running to some Swellers songs, and the rest is history.

I’m not sure if it was the songs themselves, the fact that I interspersed them with songs from another one of my favorite bands—Weezer—or the sense of freedom and rejuvenation I felt after taking that much needed break from life to go on the open roads, but I was running faster and longer without the feelings of burnout, strain, or defeat that had always plagued me. I ran to my Swellers/Weezer playlist for weeks on end until I did what I had always thought of as the impossible: complete a full 13.1 miles. I’d like to think that the familiarity and personal connections I had with the songs— especially those on The Light Behind Closed Doors— and the feelings of pure joy and exhilaration I felt from associating them with my long drives across New England were what encouraged me to literally go the extra mile to achieve my goal.

A few days after I finished my own personal half marathon, I learned that The Swellers had decided to break up and were planning a farewell tour. Even though I had only been to two of their shows and felt like more of a casual fan than a diehard supporter, I was hit by a wave of loss and sadness when I heard the news. Their music had only recently made a significant personal impact on me, and now I would only have one last chance to see them perform. I’ve seen a fair number of bands from my teenage and college years break up, and I’ve gotten teary-eyed at several farewell shows, but perhaps because of the particular place I’m at in my life right now, this farewell felt more bittersweet than usual.

The band’s decision to break up coincided with my decision to transition out of a full-time career I had been immersed in for the last four years. I was working as an independent contractor, teaching yoga to adults and children, and the struggle to make ends meet without burning out became too much. I had experienced an intense moment of clarity during that recent long-distance run when “Becoming Self-Aware” popped up on the playlist. I realized that while I will always feel grateful for the freedom and flexibility my career offered me and the amazing people I met in the many classes and workshops I taught over the years, I was no longer in love with the work I was doing and needed to move on. Shortly after making this decision I read an article by The Swellers’ drummer, Jonathan Diener about the challenges of being in a mid-level band, and I drew a lot of personal connections to their struggles on the business end of things. Even though I had experienced a brief, blissful period of “selling out” my classes at a big corporate yoga studio chain—akin to a major record label in some ways—I was pretty much always a mid-level yoga instructor. Much like a band who tours extensively, I put far too many miles on my car and too much wear and tear on my general well being teaching too many classes just to pay the bills. This simply wasn’t something I could do full-time through my 30’s. And while it felt like a relief in many ways to give up several of my classes, it was a bittersweet departure. Months later, I’m still at a bit of a crossroads, caught between careers, working part-time jobs and attending school part time, but still very much hopeful and optimistic for whatever my next step might be.

A few days before I saw The Swellers on their farewell tour I took a mini road trip up to Portland, Maine to fill out grad school applications and write my personal statement. I needed the time on the road and the change of venue to clear my head, and Portland seemed like the perfect place, since I’ve considered it my home away from home for years. It was also the place where I bought The Light Under Closed Doors on my last major road trip, so it felt extra symbolic. A good friend of mine teaches yoga in the city, so I took her class in the morning, which was honestly the first positive, bullshit-free yoga experience I’ve had since stepping away from my full-time job as an instructor. After class I sat at my all-time favorite cafe, just down the street from my favorite record store, and the many words and paragraphs of my personal statement just came pouring out. The process of writing that essay helped put my past in perspective and calmed many of my fears and anxieties about whatever my future might bring.

I put the finishing touches on my essay just hours before seeing the Swellers play at a unique venue just two doors down from the apartment where I said goodbye to my 20’s not too long ago. It was like VFW Hall meets old school Italian Wedding Hall, and perhaps due to its oddly charming, DIY/celebratory ambience, it just felt like the perfect setting to bid farewell to a band that always did things themselves and persevered despite never quite becoming a household name or selling out a tour. I went to the show with my brother, his girlfriend, and one of my best friends who also recently quit her full-time yoga gig. Each member of our group is currently in a weird transitional place in life; like the members in the band, we are getting ready to say goodbye to certain things that just aren’t working for us anymore, and we’re optimistically bracing for the changes we’re about to face.

While at first I was overcome by nostalgia for the carefree, post-collegiate life I lived right down the street from the venue, and then by a grim, depressing feeling that my younger, happier days were behind me and that it would all be downhill from here, that feeling changed when The Swellers took the stage. They plowed through a pretty impressive, comprehensive playlist with a genuine gratitude for their fans and a love for their work. The energy with which they played began to transform my woeful pessimism into mindful positivity. I’m mindful about the fact that it will be challenging to switch careers, move to a new city, and return to school in my early 30’s, but I’m trying to maintain a positive outlook, and I know that these challenges will all be for my benefit.

I’m sure each member of The Swellers will find some success and happiness in whatever their next adventure might bring them, and to loosely quote one of their most memorable songs, I’m sure they’re “on [their] way to better things.” Their music re-entered my life at the perfect moment, and it played an important role in guiding me toward some better things for my future. While I didn’t get to personally say goodbye or thank them after the show, I’m truly grateful for this band and for what they’ve created. And the fact that I got to see them play one last time at such a pivotal point in my life made me happier than I could have imagined.

15 Albums That Turned 15 This Year (Part 1 of 2)

1.) Piebald- If It Weren’t For Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains For Us All

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The odd time signatures and creative song compositions that characterize this album make it one of the more memorable, compelling releases from the late 90’s emo era. Piebald were always different than other bands who got lumped into that amorphous “emo” category in that they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. Although they definitely did show us their serious, emotive side at times, their lyricism and delivery were generally more playful and humorous than that of their “heart on your sleeve” confessional emo peers, which provided a refreshing counterbalance to the emotionally heavy stuff I tended to listen to in my high school years.

2.) Saves The Day- Through Being Cool

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Full of incredibly catchy riffs, soaring choruses, and impassioned teenage poetry-style lyrics, no other album captures that angsty, youthful essence quite like Through Being Cool. From the power chords that kick off the album’s opening track “All Star Me,” to the “Whoa!”s of “Banned From The Back Porch” that bring the album to a dramatic, crash-and-burn close, this is an album that relentlessly rocks out all the way to the finish line. With this legendary LP, Saves The Day provided a blueprint for the waves of of pop punk and emo bands that would follow in its wake.

3.) The Get Up Kids- Something To Write Home About

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Combining irresistibly catchy melodies with powerful, pensive lyrics and sprinkling in some sweet, synthy ear candy to boot, Matt Pryor and company came up with a winning formula that made this album truly live up to its title. It seamlessly transitions between emo anthems that rock out with a gloriously bouncy fervor and tender ballads that leave an even more poignant imprint on teenage hearts everywhere. I challenge you to resist tapping out the opening drum beats to “Ten Minutes” and “I’m A Loner, Dottie, A Rebel,” and to keep a dry eye throughout the closing track, “I’ll Catch You.”

4.) Jimmy Eat World- Clarity

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Revered by longtime fans from the band’s late 90’s heyday as well as a whole host of younger fans and countless bands who emerged during emo’s “third wave” and beyond, the influence of Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity spans wide and far. This is somewhat odd for an album that was considered a commercial failure upon its release and which led to the band getting dropped from Capitol Records; it’s a little like Weezer’s Pinkerton in this way. And because I tend to place Jimmy Eat World and Weezer in the same listening category (super catchy, melodic, power pop-style rock), I equate Clarity with Pinkerton and Bleed American with “The Green Album.” The former albums are somewhat more rough around the edges and confessional in nature, whereas the latter offer more polished, straight up power pop with at least one obvious radio hit. I’ll listen to tracks from Bleed American when I want something fun, uplifting, and amped up, but I’ll play on Clarity from start to finish when I’m feeling the need to become completely immersed in a tenderly melodic, melancholic album.

5.) American Football- Self-Titled

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If I were asked to nominate one piece of work as the quintessential melancholic/contemplative emo album, American Football’s self-titled debut (and only full length album) would get my immediate vote. More nuanced and subtle than most of the work being produced by their peers at the time, this album was a bit of a departure in terms of my listening preferences during my high school days. I was accustomed to the more driving power pop and pop punk influenced sounds of all the aforementioned bands in this list, so the more delicate, but still raw and angsty stylings of American Football came as a pleasantly alluring surprise. Their combination of jazzy dissonance, ornately sparkling melodies, and roughly hewn vocals that shifted from sweetly lulling to intensely anguished captivated me like nothing I had heard before. Aside from getting all nostalgic and teary every time I hear the album’s opening tracks, “Never Meant” and “The Summer Ends,” I hear hints of its influence in several “modern emo” bands, from Into It, Over It and You Blew It! to Prawn and The Hotelier.

6.) Dismemberment Plan- Emergency & I

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In many ways, this album changed the way I listen to and think about music. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, but it recalled elements of the Pixies and Weezer, among other bands. In fact, I think I described them to a friend in high school as “The Pixies meet Weezer, on speed.” As a kid raised almost entirely on pop punk and emo, Emergency & I might have been the first truly “genre defying” album I purchased and subsequently fell in love with. From the oddly intriguing synth bass and falsetto vocals that kick off the opening track, “A Life of Possibilities,” to the beautifully frenetic mess of sounds and rhythms that is “Memory Machine,” to the hypnotically pulsating, Talking Heads-esque closing anthem, “8 1/2 minutes,” this whole album is a relentless tour de force of delightful, otherworldly sonic pleasures. And fifteen years later it still manages to sound surprisingly fresh, relevant, and unrivaled in terms of its quirky innovation.

7.) Pinback- Self-Titled

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I discovered Pinback shortly after I became a huge fan of the Dismemberment Plan. They were another band that appealed to my “emo” sensibilities, but managed to sound different from almost everything else I was listening to at the time. They were like Sunny Day Real Estate’s more lighthearted, playful cousin or a more chill, melancholy counterpart to bands like Modest Mouse and The Dismemberment Plan. And their self-titled debut album was what I would listen to when I needed to chill out during my teenage and college years. Its songs were uniquely structured, layered and compelling enough to be considered catchy, but carefree and breezy enough to also be considered soothing. Much like Emergency & I, this album continues to sound fresh and innovative fifteen years after its release. It manages to draw me so deeply into its bittersweet abyss of darkly soothing vocals and simple but otherworldly beats and hooks that I discover something new to latch onto with every listen.

8.) Modest Mouse- Building Nothing Out Of Something

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Well before Modest Mouse scored a not-so-modest radio hit with “Float On” in 2004, they were putting out messy, angst-ridden gems with cryptic lyrics like “Never Ending Math Equation” and spaced out, sprawling, contemplative indie-rock-punk jams like “Interstate 8,” the first two tracks on Building Nothing Out Of Something. This collection of tracks is less of an album and more of a collection of B-Sides songs from previously released EP’s, but the songs are of such a high caliber and flow so well that I’ve always considered this my favorite Modest Mouse album. The songs span the spectrum from super Lo-Fi and bleak (“Grey Ice Water”) to insanely catchy, repetitive, and sophomoric (“All Nite Diner”). Even the seemingly quieter, more introspective tracks are tempered with the playful, angsty intensity that makes this band so unique. While I have a deep appreciation for the band’s entire catalog and still enjoy listening to their more commercially successful later albums, this wonderfully sloppy collection of earlier tracks has always remained my go-to selection when I’m in the mood for some Mouse.

Jaymes Young- “Come Back For Me”

Jaymes Young is a master of the brooding, sultry, slow burning brand of electronic indiepop that has grown in popularity with the rise of artists such as Mikky Ekko and Ellie Goulding. His latest song, “Come Back For Me,” off his upcoming EP, Habits of My Heart is decidedly darker and more downtempo than the title track, but just as catchy and intriguing. His seductive croon is backed by a chill, steadily driving set of simple beats that entice the listener with a haunting echo. Young is definitely an artist to watch as the rest of 2014 plays out. I’m hoping he will finally give us a full album in 2015.

Desert Island Albums

Here are the first couple of entries in Jukebox Breakdown’s first collective project. It asks music aficionados to list their five essential “desert island albums,” explain why they chose each album, and/or speak about its personal significance and the impact it has had on their lives.

If this project sparks your interest and you’d like to participate/submit a list, feel free to send it to michaelbmann@gmail.com.

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It’s always hard to choose just 5 albums that you would take with you if you somehow managed to become stranded on that proverbial desert island, especially when you’re a huge music geek like me. So I thought long and hard about these selections, making lists and crossing things out until I finally came up with a near perfect mix of albums that have made a lasting impression on me over the years and are varied enough to ensure that I’d never be bored or overwhelmed by just one musical style or set of emotions while essentially listening to them on repeat.

1.) Saves The Day- Stay What You Are

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Saves The Day are my all time favorite band, and this 2001 release is arguably my favorite album of theirs. I was going to go with 2006’s Sound The Alarm, but its overarchingly dark, bleak themes and wrenchingly personal, intense lyrics might drive me to drown myself in the ocean, were I to actually listen to this on the island several times a week. So I went with something just a little more lighthearted. Stay What You Are is my quintessential “high school anthem” type of album, but it’s one that has stood the test of time and resonated with me into adulthood. Its songs alternately make me want to cry into my pillow, write teenage poetry in my journal, go for a drive with the windows down and sunroof open while singing along at the top of my lungs, jump around and do handstands in my kitchen, and sprint that extra quarter mile just when I thought I had nothing left to give. All in all, it’s a fantastic 33 minute voyage through an entire spectrum of sounds and emotions that never ceases to amaze me and most certainly never gets old.

2.) Moving Mountains- Waves

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With this sophomore album, Moving Mountains evolved beyond their decidedly post-rock foundations to create a more driving, vocally-focused sound that incorporates the sweeping, majestic post-hardcore stylings of bands like Thrice and The Appleseed Cast. Waves is a dynamic, emotionally searing album that always cuts me to the core with its downcast, heart wrenching anthems, impressively affective vocals, and flawless instrumentation. Give it just one listen and you’ll realize that the title could not be more appropriate or fitting; experiencing the album in full is much like riding a series of waves, some are calming and gentle, others have a stronger impact, suddenly cascading in an intense, almost violent rush. Be sure to seek out the deluxe version of the album, which, with its beautifully stripped down alternate versions of “Furnace Woods” and “Tired Tiger,” provides an even more sublime, poignant closing chapter to this breathtaking work of art.

3.) The Early November- The Mother, The Mechanic, and The Path

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This triple LP concept album was a huge stylistic leap for The Early November, as it saw the band incorporating elements of different genres, such as folk, alt-country, and 90’s style pop-rock into their signature energetic, poppy emo rock style. They managed to pull off this more nuanced, varied sound, while also ambitiously mapping out a well crafted lyrical journey of a boy at odds with his domineering father, who runs away from home, but despite his best intentions to transcend his family, ends up repeating the same mistakes his father made when he has a child of his own. It’s a pretty ambitious project for a young band, and while it may not have been a huge commercial success and led to the band taking a long hiatus the following year, it’s a record that I can always depend upon to satiate my oftentimes odd, eclectic musical appetite.

While I prefer to listen to the album in full (but admittedly rarely make it to the third LP, The Path. I find its intriguing, but perhaps overambitious mix of spoken word dialogue and short songs to be somewhat jarring), I’ll sometimes put on The Mother (LP 2) when I’m in the mood for mostly acoustic based folk/rock that’s in turns introspective, meandering, and sprawling. Or I’ll just rock out to the tightly constructed mix of emo rock and power pop that drives the first LP, The Mechanic, when I’m in a more upbeat mood. The first two LPs have been my soundtrack to many road trips and lazy Sundays, and I’m sure that their compelling stories, catchy melodies, and the range of emotion and honesty contained in frontman Ace Enders’ voice would keep me satisfied and happy on a desert island.

4.) Thursday- War All The Time

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I don’t think I will ever come across another band as powerful, visceral, or as influential in my life as Thursday. I found them at a pivotal time in my late teens as they rose to popularity through word of mouth and message boards, and while their seminal debut LP, Full Collapse is often hailed as their best work and considered a favorite by many fans, it’s their sophomore release, War All The Time, that has stood the test of time for me in a more poignant way. The instrumentation is carefully crafted and refined, but messy and explosive at the same time, and the songwriting is deeply rooted in darkness and tragedy, born not just from personal experiences, but from a collective consciousness and political landscape that had been crying out in anguish at the time of the album’s 2003 release. Each song encapsulates emotions, ideas, and images that span a spectrum of darkness, running from cynical and scathing to despondent and desolate, with a glimmer of hope that you’ll hear if you listen intently enough. War All The Time is an album that’s best experienced alone in a dark room or during a late night drive. So open up your senses, turn up the volume, and be prepared to feel many things as you listen from start to finish.

5.) Owen- (Self-Titled)

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Owen is an artist who more people need to know about. The songs he writes are sincere, expressive, conversational glimpses into his easily relatable inner landscape and his experiences with love, loss, and personal growth. While he has certainly matured quite a bit as a musician and as a lyricist over the years, I’ve always loved his self-titled debut album the best. It’s a simple, but lushly orchestrated, acoustic experience unlike anything else I’ve heard. The dreamlike beauty contained within its nine songs is unparalleled, and it has remained in heavy rotation since I borrowed and burned the CD from an older neighborhood friend who exposed me to many a new band during my teenage years. Owen is one of my go-to albums for soothing, late night listening, and it has been a constant companion, following me from place to place through the last several years of my life, from late nights spent writing poems or last minute papers in high school to jobs I’ve had at cafes and bookstores, and most recently, to the yoga classes I teach, where he is usually on the soundtrack. The accessibility and mass appeal of the album have always pleasantly surprised me; I got frequent questions about the music I was playing when this album served as the background music in the cafes and bookstores where I worked, and my yoga students of all ages will comment on how they love the playlist when it’s Owen-themed. Also, my mom, who hardly ever enjoyed, much less tolerated, the music I played around the house throughout my teenage years and beyond, kind of liked this album, which is really saying something. Owen is an album so full of deep, personal connections and memories for me; it will always occupy a prominent place on my record shelf, and its songs will follow me well into my later adult years.

Linda Spolidoro

If you have ever been to a Spolidoro family gathering and stayed past midnight, then you know that inevitably the question will be raised “If you were stranded on a desert island, what 5 albums would you choose?”

I have participated in this well-worn experience with my brothers and sisters dozens of times over the years and yet everyone still loves to pick, choose, replace, refine, and defend their albums. Scoffing at and arguing about other people’s selections is permitted.

While my choices have changed over the years (with some perennial favorites), my current list of albums are as follows:

1. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds- Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus
2. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds- Let Love In
3. Nina Simone- The Blues
4. The Beatles- The White Album
5. Elliot Smith- Figure 8 or Either/Or (I know I have to decide)

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The number 5 spot is always the hardest and is the album most in danger of being replaced…this is usually the time my brother suggests we come up with an ‘honorable mention” category, because it is almost unbearable to think about the possibility of never hearing all the great music that is out there ever again. I come from a family of musicians and music lovers so this is serious business!

Nick Cave is my musical, lyrical, satirical, linguistic, and writing hero and if you haven’t heard him, I would suggest you start with ‘Henry’s Dream” or “Tender Prey”. He can be a bit of an acquired taste and I find that it is the literary sorts with a penchant for melancholia who seem to like him.

As for Nina Simone, she has a voice and a soul that reaches directly into my chest. Listening to Nina is like a fearless punch to the heart.

You could lose your Spolidoro membership card if you were to omit a Beatles album from your list as it is pretty much mandatory in the Spolidoro family, and which Beatles album to chose is almost it’s own category. My brother Kevin can play a number of Beatles albums in their entirety, first chord to last, on his guitar and has done so on many occasions while the rest of us sing along. Any outsider that has been lucky enough (or unlucky enough, as the case may be), to be present during one of these marathon sing-alongs will attest to the serious nature that loving The Beatles is to our family. It is just a given.

My dear, sweet, depressive, Elliot Smith finds himself in the revolving number 5 spot, previously held by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Nellie McKay, Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake…and so many other honorable mentions. He is in danger of falling off the list the next time I find myself at a family party, late at night, glass of wine in hand and a guitar at the ready when the inevitable happens…

What would be your 5?

Odesza- “Say My Name” (feat. Zyra)

This latest track from Seattle production duo Odesza is a bit of a departure from the work they’ve typically been known for. While this new song, “Say My Name,” does feature the chopped vocals and vibrant, sunny, melodic house/electronica style that has become their signature style; it takes a far more lyrical approach, adding a more traditional verse/chorus format sung by vocalist Zyra. It’s catchy and uplifting; a perfect end of the summer song that will surely earn them a wider fan base. Their new album, “In Return” drops on September 9. You can pre-order it here.

In the meantime stream “Say My Name” below.

Mansions On The Moon- “Somewhere Else Tonight”

This latest track from indie/synth-pop group Mansions On The Moon is a bit of a departure from their previous work. The first thought that came to mind when I attempted to describe it is “Passion Pit goes a little EDM,” but I’m not sure that’s an entirely accurate or fair description. With “Somewhere Else Tonight,” they have definitely managed to straddle the line between indiepop and EDM in a way that’s infectious and intriguing, but without being accessible or mainstream enough to break into top 40 territory.

If you’re looking for a fun, summery song that’s a little different from what you might hear on the radio, or if you’re just craving a little bit of ear candy, this one is definitely worth checking out.