January 31, 2012

The Dodos - Don't try and hide it

More vaguely theological indie folk music. I highly recommend anything by the Dodos, especially if you suffer from existential crises that don't seem to end.

January 23, 2012

Dead ends: William Cavanaugh and the limits of consumer-centred critique

The American Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh was in Edmonton last week for a small conference on faith, economics and social justice at King’s University College. Given how influential Cavanaugh’s work was for my friends and I during our undergrad degrees, I felt obligated to go and hear him speak. I should mention that it was a conference aimed undergraduate students; his delivery was light and his argument familiar. It arises out of an Augustinian understanding of right living, the validation of all material (read: created) things with an emphasis on the proper ends of human desire. While I've appreciated Cavanaugh’s various attempts to align theology and politics, over the course of his lectures last week, I grew increasingly skeptical of his critical project.

In his first lecture, Cavanaugh narrated our culture as one of progressive detachment. Against commonplace accusations of “materialism” (which somehow explains our consumerism) he described the West as a place of increasing dissatisfaction with material goods, and thus increasing detachment from producers, the ground of production, and from the products themselves. Throughout the lecture images of scandalous magazine ads were projected onto a large screen. Some induced gasps from the audience, others pointed out how advertising has infiltrated every corner of human life. In Cavanaugh’s hands, this weak cultural analysis paved the way for an Augustinian prescription: for classical theology, the argument goes, all material things bear a spiritual restlessness because all of creation is predisposed to its eternal source—the only place where this constitutive trauma ends. Like other theologians in the "post-secular" school, Cavanaugh rebounds from this negative critique of a secular economy to another standard trope: the Eucharist. Participating in Christian model of consumption known as the Lord's Supper, we are not consumers, but are instead the objects that are consumed by God through the church. Thus, rather than an atomistic community based on the clash/coexistence of individual wills, our very subjectivity is transformed into sheer relation: the distinction between what is yours and what is mine is thrown into question [I was slightly confused by this aspect of his model, as Cavanaugh had made a passing remark, earlier on, that “we need private property so people will take care of their possessions”]. From this perspective secular versions of charity don’t go far enough because they rely on a model of violent consumption, rather than this apparently radical inversion.

The focus of Cavanaugh’s second lecture was the “free market,” a term which he questioned by holding up the liberal theory of American economist Milton Friedman alongside that of Augustine. Again, the content of this lecture was quite familiar. The free market system of contemporary liberalism is based, at least theoretically, on the assumption that all market transactions are acceptable so long as they are voluntary. Here, the argument goes, there are no common ends and thus there is only brute force: it’s essentially the same argument we get from RO theologians against what is disparagingly called “a metaphysics of violence” (as though the secular theorists who are lumped together in these critiques actually endorse violence as such). Where there is no objective standard, continued Cavanaugh, the one with the most power wins. While this understanding of freedom is “negative,” Christian theology offers a “positive” view of freedom: not freedom from interference, but freedom for the collective pursuit of human flourishing. Here, the ability to sin is not understood as an index of individual power, but as a weakness. We have true and false desires, the objects of which are either good or bad. For Cavanaugh, secular models of economic exchange fail because their appeal to voluntarism allows for exploitation; Christian models, on the other hand, can set a price on goods that contributes to flourishing on both sides of the exchange.

Of course, this sort of diagnosis begs some pretty obvious questions: Who decides which ends qualify as “good” or “bad,” and what constitutes an “objective standard”? Doesn’t Christianity already espouse some form of voluntarism, and how does one decide where human freedom ends and violent coercion begins? Second, how do objective ends emerge if not through power—how else do we account for the rise of the capitalist market as our only real objective touchstone? Surely, Christianity (and not simply secularism) has also helped to spread the global reach of capital. And it’s just lazy to say that there’s any clearly defined separation between the two, given our history of colonial expansion. 

What really discouraged me was the answer Cavanaugh gave to a student who asked what he should do. “You have two choices,” replied Cavanaugh. “You could run off and become a Marxist revolutionary, which would be to participate in and condone violence; or you could make more of an effort make good purchases (buy fair trade, organic, local when you can) and get more involved with your church. You see,” continued Cavanaugh, “Marxists believe that everything has to change all at once and, therefore, they think that what is necessary for transformation is a violent disruption of everything.” According to Cavanaugh, this logic stems from a narrow view of history that runs counter to the Christian tradition. Christians believe that God works slowly, on the margins, through His elect.  What frustrated me most about this throwaway answer wasn’t how reductive it was – of course Marxists are going to be caricatured by politically moderate theologians, but I’m tired of hearing that going to church and buying better products is the only option available to Christians who are dissatisfied with global injustice; I’m not sure I can accept the argument that church ritual is the proper end of all social and economic life, and that we can only ever change the objects/ends of our consumption. While I do think questions of ends and objectivity are on the right track (a track that hopefully leads to a critique of production, labor conditions and exploitation), I'm more interested in examples of how this shift in what Cavanaugh calls "spiritual discipline" leads to the empowerment of the dispossessed.

Is it really so hard to accept that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on the proper “ends” of human flourishing? Surely the church is not immune from this critique as it more often than not represents the interests of an increasingly paranoid middle class. What bothers me most about Cavanaugh's line of critique is that its focus on consumerism (which disingenuously steals most of its valuable insights from Marx) never seems to move beyond a simple reorientation, a change of buying practices, which are currently no more than a diversion that is just as often reinscribed by the market. This is bound to happen when our focus is on the symptom (and questions of individual morality) rather than the system, and when the work of historicization (a glaring weakness in much contemporary theology, which regularly tries to protect the church and what it considers to be “true” theology from any kind of historical necessity) is dismissed as a form of totalitarianism.

January 17, 2012

revisiting Marx's critique of religion

While I continue to appreciate the theological reflections that have grown out of the Marxist tradition, much of what I appreciate about Marx's writings on religion has to do with his dismissal of it as a subject thought to be worthy of critique. More compelling are the connections he draws between the abstract value of capital and the way its accumulation assumes a theology of its own. As is well-known, Marx's critique of religion in The German Ideology made a radical break with the sort of idealism that dominated critiques of religion in his own time. Derrida's Specters of Marx does a particularly good job of complicating this supposed break with the ghosts of religion, before proceeding to name Derrida's own debt to an unconditional and impossible justice, a hope which he models after Benjamin's weak messianism. The late French philosopher is one of many radical theorists (see Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, etc.) to return to theological sources and ideas in order to better understand and criticize the various "secular" guises of neo-liberalism.

I spent the holidays reading through most of Alberto Toscano's Fanaticism, a recent attempt to reconfigure the debate surrounding the so-called “return of religion” and the various arguments put forward by “post-secular” critics like those mentioned above. In it, he traces the critical history of  the concept of fanaticism. His expressed purpose is that of reconstituting a political vocabulary which is capable of accommodating both “enthusiasm” and “abstraction” (an overabundance of each is a consistent mark of the "fanatic," according to the Western liberal tradition). But for Toscano, the fanatic isn't simply the dark side of some secular ideal. As he writes, “Contemporary approaches to questions of politics and religion continue to rely, perhaps inevitably, on philosophies of history articulated in some sense around notions of secularization – whether they’re analyzing a supposed ‘return’ of a religiosity that history had doomed to obsolescence, or viewing unconditional political commitments or ‘fanaticisms’ as atavistic resurgences, in secular garb, of affective structures of a fundamentally religious kind.” For this reason Marxism is written off as a utopian program analogous to religion (so Alastair MacIntyre argues in Marxism and Christianity). Rather than invoking structures of experience or conceptual analogies between Marxism and Christianity, Toscano follows Fredric Jameson in arguing that the goal of political criticism should be to historicize the very comparison between these two systems of thought. 

Toscano centres his study of fanaticism on a rereading of Marx’s critique of religion in The German Ideology, emphasizing that we cannot begin to conceive of a space outside of religion—that is, a secular space—without first participating in real emancipation from capitalist modes of production and a radical restructuring of social relations. Amid the flurry of arguments for and against religion by popular scientists, journalists and Christian apologists, Marx’s simple but profound point—that the proliferation of ideology is intimately related to material practices and social conditions—is routinely forgotten. As Toscano puts it, “Atheistic criticism overestimates the centrality of Christianity to the state and treat’s the state’s secularization as an end in itself.” Rather, we should understand that Marx meant his criticism of religion to be a starting point, a critique “in embryo” for a restructuring of the economic base. To effectively dissuade people of their religious illusions about their condition “is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Whether this is in fact possible, or desirable is another question.

your little ampersand

Credit for the title of this post goes to John K. Samson, whose wonderful new solo album, "Provincial," is streaming at Exclaim.ca. Click through to listen.

It's dreadfully cold in Edmonton. I want to say "finally," in part because I've been anticipating this plummet in temperatures for several months and at least I can stop worrying about it. While this "return to normal" (-38* C) provides some rational closure and helps to temper some of the environmental paranoia that conditioned my Christmas holidays (Winnipeg, like Edmonton, enjoyed a very brown Christmas), I can't find anything else good to say about it. In the words of a fellow Edmontonian, "This shit is real." And suddenly we all feel like we've fallen behind, now struggling to catch up with the season.

Speaking of falling behind, I've returned to the quagmire of thesis research/writing. After submitting a sprawling, disjunctive first chapter (and from what I hear, the first chapter is always a disaster), I'm beginning to envision my second and third chapters, which I hope will be more focused and straightforward. Expect to see many related blog posts over the coming weeks. For now, I'll leave you with a song about distractions, which are of course a mainstay of grad school.

January 14, 2012

"Black Cat," a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke—

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

January 6, 2012

“To a Cat,” a poem by Jorge Luis Borges—

Mirrors are not more silent

nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther

we catch sight of from afar.

By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,

we look for you in vain;

More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,

yours is the solitude, yours the secret.

Your haunch allows the lingering

caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,

the love of the distrustful hand.

You belong to another time. You are lord

of a place bounded like a dream.

books, capitalism, and christmas

I realize most of us don't really want to think about Christmas for another 12 months, but I can't resist posting this brief digression from the introduction to Ted Striphas' The Late Age of Print. I wish I'd read it prior to the holiday season, but I don't imagine that it would have changed my gift-giving habits. As per usual, my gift of choice comes in the form of a book, whether it's for the coffeetable or the nightstand. Whenever I return home to stay with my family, I feel as though I'm re-inhabiting the ever-expanding library that conditioned my childhood; and the feeling is only intensified at Christmas, when the strength of our bookshelves is tested yet again by an influx of new reading materials waiting to be consumed. As Striphas observes,  such gifts have already fulfilled an overlooked historical function:
Consider the fact that books were among the very first commercial Christmas presents. Not only that, but they were integral to the development of a modern Christmas holiday primarily organized around familial gift exchange. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century there emerged in the United States a new genre of books: gift books. These special anthologies, which publishers released on the cusp of the Christmas season, consisted of poetry, prose, illustrations, and, typically, a customizable bookplate. The popularity of gift books as Christmas presents is attributable to many factors, chief among them their status as mass-produced merchandise. Indeed, industrial production not only facilitated their availability en masse at the appropriate moment but, even more important, provided for their reception as tokens of intimacy and affection in at least two ways. First, a gift giver had to select from among many editions the one that best suited the recipient. Making the correct choice wasn’t easy since publishers produced a range of volumes, each targeted to individuals belonging to a particular social set. Selecting a mass-produced consumer good, in other words, became a meaningful expression of one’s consideration and goodwill in no small part through the popularity of gift books. Second, the bookplates allowed the gift giver the opportunity to further personalize his or her selection, for they generally included a small amount of blank space upon which to pen an inscription. These pages, however, were preprinted at the factory, again suggesting a blurring of boundaries between mass industrial production and personal sentiment. In any case, these examples illustrate the crucial role that books played in turning Christmas into a consumerist holiday. “Publishers and booksellers were the shock troops in exploiting—and developing—a Christmas trade,” writes Stephen Nissenbaum, “and books were on the cutting edge of a commercial Christmas.”
Books not only helped give rise to what’s become the capitalist holiday par excellence but they also “were on the cutting edge” of a broader and more fundamental economic transformation that occurred as the nineteenth century flowed into the twentieth. By this I mean the gradual transformation of capitalism from a form in which agriculture and intracapitalist exchange were primary engines of economic accumulation to one in which economic vitality increasingly hinged on working people’s consumption of abundant, mass-produced goods. Books—along with sewing machines, pianos, and furniture—were among the very first items that people purchased with the aid of a resource newly extended to them toward the end of the nineteenth century, namely, consumer credit. Although the practice of buying consumer goods on credit harbored negative connotations at the time of and even well after its introduction, an attractive set of books was considered by many to be a more or less acceptable credit purchase. Much like a sewing machine, it was assumed to be a productive investment rather than a frivolous purchase. Clearly, the moral value many people attribute to books provided an alibi for their existence as mass-produced merchandise. Books consequently became a test case for debt-driven purchasing, an activity that’s proven to be a lasting and even prosaic aspect of contemporary consumer culture.
I also can't resist posting another related quote that was circulating closer to Christmas. It comes from late queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. Consider it a companion to the previous passage.
The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.
The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself.

January 3, 2012

Retro-spective: My favorite albums of 2011 (5-1)

(Click here for the preamble and for albums 10-6, illustrated and illuminated.)

5. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)

Most of the music I enjoyed this past year fit within familiar pop conventions and made use of familiar sounds. Musically, I'm a creature of habit: just as inclined toward repetition as I am toward novelty. Colin Stetson's solo record stands out not only because his vertigo-inducing songs avoid easy categorization, but because he uses unfamiliar sounds to channel the chaos of a forgotten (I want to say "Old Testament") world. To do this, Stetson bypasses most of the studio wizardry that other solo artists normally rely on. No loops here - just a muscular man and his massive machine. Along with his much talked about circular breathing technique, Stetson uses several different mics (variously located on his instrument and his body) to produce a wide range of primordial sounds that actually seem to capture the kind of archaic violence suggested by his (very pretentious) album title. The result is so utterly brutal, at once so mesmerizing and jarring, that Stetson's collection quickly became one of the most divisive and disturbing albums of the year.

4. Wye Oak - Civilian (Merge)

Here's what I wrote about this album back in May. For the most part, I think it still holds true:

It's a soothing, satisfying record: cohesive and gentle, but incredibly cathartic and uncompromising at the same time. It's the kind of record, in other words, that you'll want to listen to all the way through. This is going to sound like the worst kind of cliche, but for me, Wye Oak have found a paradoxical balance, the fullest expression of which can be found in the alt-rock of the early 90s. So it's a little creepy how much this album seems suited to my tastes.  Wye Oak's second proper LP highlights a stunning vocalist (Jenn Wasner), ample feedback, grungy breakdowns and lyrics with vaguely religious themes. For instance, there seems to be an ongoing dialectic between Creation and Evolution in Wasner's lyrics that's oddly compelling. Musically, things appear relatively stripped down (the band performs as a two-piece), but every so often Wye Oak's sound becomes incredibly expansive.

3. Sandro Perri - Impossible Spaces (Constellation)

I was introduced to the wispy voice of Toronto's Sandro Perri back in 2006 with his second proper album, Tiny Mirrors. I still like much of what I heard, but at the time I thought it sounded a little too stripped-down, a little too straightforward for a folksy singer-songwriter with clear Afro-beat influences (and a major debt to Arthur Russell). What I saw as shortcomings five years ago were perhaps over-corrected on Impossible Spaces, a cohesive collection of songs I honestly didn't think Perri was capable of. In interviews he's made it clear that he took every one of those five years (since Tiny Mirrors) to work on the new record. And it shows. The grand scope these songs--their dynamic structures and lush instrumentation--is carefully balanced by the intimacy of Perri's softly sung narratives. I tried to flesh out one of them (the ten minute epic "Wolfman") in the image above.

2. The Antlers - Burst Apart (Frenchkiss)

A haunting, absorbing chamber-pop album from Brooklyn's finest students of atmosphere and emotion, Burst Apart demonstrates that there is life after the kind of trauma explored on the Antlers' 2009 debut, Hospice. But if the conceptual overload of Hospice has indeed been left behind, it's only just barely. These songs speak of emotional collapse and relationships that are doomed to fail. Each track sounds as though its teetering on the edge of something terrible--be it chaos, the abyss, or isolation. Combine the apocalyptic tone of Menomena with the sublime reach of a group like Sigur Ros and you might have something close to the Antlers' sound. Despite the deep darkness of Peter Silberman's vision, Burst Apart is oddly comforting. For all the acknowledgments of subjective depravity, ineptitude, and confessions of deceitfulness, Silberman hits on something similar to St. Vincent's Strange Mercy and ultimately refuses to give himself the last word.

1. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Vagrant)

As expected, PJ Harvey was rolling in accolades by the time 2011 came to a close. Clearly, I'm in agreement with most critics when they praise Harvey's latest album as her best in a decade, but I'll confess that it's not a record I put on unless I'm in a particular mood. To tell you the truth, I've spent less time listening to and more time thinking about Let England Shake. It's impossible not to. And that's part of the reason I think this album is so strong--it effectively gets under your skin and stays with you. The music is catchy, at times eerily familiar thanks to some well-chosen samples from other artists; but once Let England Shake wins you over, your left to deal with a batch of heavy (and, at times, heavy-handed) questions, the kind we normally try to evade. Back in November, I wrote a lengthy Remembrance Day meditation on Let England Shake that should help to explain why I think this album was so important and so necessary for 2011. I guess I'll leave it at that.

January 2, 2012

Retro-spective: My favorite albums of 2011 (10-6)

This year I've gone a little overboard in my exhibitionism. Alongside the usual long-winded review you'll find original illustrations for each of my ten favorite albums. Some draw on a particular song, others are straightforward portraits; still others aim for something more personal and evocative.

In a year crammed full of nostalgia--from Destroyer's 80s homage to The Horrors' big-haired shoegazing, not to mention the forceful return of early 90s guitar rock via The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yuck, etc.--one album stood out for in its effort to draw this kind of memory work--and its politics--into question. But alongside PJ Harvey's meditations on nation and violence, other artists pushed through familiar territory to produce new sounds. Earlier this year, James Blake had the press swooning with his dubstep-infused R&B and Colin Stetson channelled something chaotic and primordial with his multiphonic saxophone, while both Annie Clark (St Vincent) and Chad Vangaalen entered the ambivalent spaces of domestic life with tragicomic results. With every year it becomes more difficult to narrow down and organize a list of my favorite albums--I've pared it down from thirty or so. Strong releases from stalwarts like the Dodos, Wild Beasts, Bill Calahan, The Roots, and Stephen Malkmus require some mention, as do new discoveries like Iceage, Dog Day, Main Attrakionz, Braids, the Weeknd, Shabazz Palaces, Peaking Lights and Jessica Jalbert. For many it was the year of Bon Iver, a charming enough folk-singer who turned out to be incredibly polarizing (producing among some of my friends the longest Facebook debate I've ever taken part in). Meanwhile, Radiohead fans had to grapple with a surprisingly weak showing from a band whose fans have come to expect nothing less than game-changers--besides a viral video, it seemed less an RH album--less a cultural event--than a blip.

I've split the list in half, with the first five following below. I'll try and post my top five in the next several days.

10. Chad Vangaalen - Diaper Island (Flemish Eye) 

It's not his best record, but it's probably his most consistent. If you like restrained guitar noise and conventional folk-rock this is the Chad Vangaalen album for you. It's full of moments that can only be described as "heartwarming" (but in Vangaalen's imagination, I'm sure this kind of description gets at something more perverse or grotesque than sentimental). Although it pays lip-service to domestic topics like child-rearing, relationships, etc., Diaper Island is still full of the wonderful weirdness, humor and creativity we've come to expect from Vangaalen. This illustration is based on one the album's more frenetic tracks, "Freedom for a Policeman." The song would be a straightforward punk jam about a violent encounter with the law were it not for a hilarious bridge/breakdown, where the policeman's blows slow down and we become privy to the psyche of an agent whose enforcement of the law is momentarily suspended--suddenly, at the level of fantasy, something sappy and pathetic comes into view. That's my take, anyway. Vangaalen's at his best when transforms the familiar into something strange and surprising.

9. James Blake - James Blake (Universal)

I'm not usually one for singer-songwriters, but James Blake is in a separate class. A poppier dubstepper, Blake introduced me to the wonderful world of sub-bass--his album also convinced me that I need a new stereo/soundsystem to appreciate the depth of his sound. It all sounds effortless. Sure, it's pretty music with a wide appeal, but each of the songs on Blake's debut retains a degree of darkness that keeps his music compelling, mysterious even.

8. Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)

Dan Bejar has been kicking it for nearly two decades. In my mind, this is his best album since 2001's Streethawk: A Seduction. Those of us who've been craving layers of ambient brass and woodwinds over top mid-tempo electro beats can pass out with smiles on our faces. The much-hyped 80s motif has found an appropriate home in Bejar's well-oiled hands, and the result isn't so much sentimentalized nostalgia for a wasted decade as it is reminiscence of parties we were too young to appreciate.

7. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy (4AD)

"Forgive the kids for they don't know how to live." It could be a simple accusation, but St. Vincent's Annie Clark spends the greater part of her third album accepting responsibility and dealing with the crushing guilt of her own failings. Part of what makes her so compelling is the feeling that she really shouldn't have to do so--that she's constantly reacting preemptively against what people think of her. Songs like "Cheerleader" "Neutered Fruit" take a confessional, prayerful tone that's anything but comforting: she's constantly putting herself into question, at one point memorably imploring a surgeon to come cut her open. The whole thing seems like a perverse, sacrificial offering--not so much an apology as a window into her own twisted psyche. Strange Mercy is "strange" for a variety of reasons: musically, it's adventurous and unconventional; lyrically, it's honest and evocative. But despite her best efforts to lay bare her own depravity, Clark seems unable to produce anything that's not beautiful, or at the very least, compelling. Indeed, it's strange that this confusing existential mess could be delivered with such force and candor and still require mercy. For Clark, the error of self-interest--manifested in her own guilt-ridden account of despair--is always there, lurking in the shadows. As with Terrance Malick's recent film Tree of Life, Strange Mercy succeeds in showing us how productive the traditional dialectic between nature and grace can actually be. "It's not a perfect plan," she sings on "Champagne Year," "but it's the one we've got."

6. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Lenses Alien (Memphis)

Along with a handful of well-recieved albums from the past year (such as those from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yuck, etc.), this album sounds like it could have been released fifteen years ago and would have had no trouble finding an audience. (Here is where I would normally list a bunch of bands that New York's CEG sounds like, but it's obvious enough.) But as nostalgic retreads of the 90s go, this is by far the most dynamic and well-crafted. It's also the most melodic guitar based rock record I heard this year. The songs on Lenses Alien are the kind that harness and transform the abrasive energy of teen angst into sheer catharsis. That description's a bit overstated, but so is my subject matter. For all the missteps (such as "The Current") and cringe-enducing lyrics (that more often than not resemble bad high school poetry), I'm won over by the unapologetic delivery of Jeremy D'Agostino's vocals. Sometimes he sounds like Conor Oberst in the worst way; other times his belting sounds like a real exodus.