Two months ago, Creative Loafing lovingly named Shuffle — a quarterly magazine covering independent music in the Carolinas — the "best local hipster 'zine that wants to be a regional version of Pitchfork." As Shuffle's music editor, I sincerely hope we live up to that standard. The Carolinas — especially the Tar Heel state — are currently producing a diverse array of ground-breaking music, work that deserves the kind of thoughtful coverage that has blessed Pitchfork with near unimpeachable critical sovereignty.
Last year, North Carolina's music scene saw regional stars rising to deserved national acclaim, ambitious stalwarts refining their techniques and artists in left-field genres proving those styles can claim an appeal beyond sound-obsessed geeks like me. It was a surging period of creativity, and the state's artists show no sign of slowing down. With the debunked Mayan apocalypse behind and a fresh year ahead, it's time to look back at the music that defined North Carolina in 2012 and look forward to 2013.
Of the North Carolina bands making an impact outside the state, Chapel Hill's Lost in the Trees has the easiest narrative to market. The string-infused art-rock outfit is led by Ari Picker, who mines the saga of his troubled family for his devastating odes. ANTI- Records, the national indie power label with a roster that includes Tom Waits and Nick Cave, signed the band in 2010, issuing an expanded version of Lost in the Trees' 2008 effort All Alone in An Empty House.
That record explored Picker's upbringing: his mother's depression and his father's emotional abuse. His 2012 album A Church That Fits Our Needs focuses on Picker's mother, who committed suicide in 2009. The record is his tribute to her, reckoning with the struggles of her life and imagining a happier place for her in the afterlife. But the record's force is equally indebted to the diversity of Picker's arrangements, complex constructions that incorporate elements of modern classical music into a cathartic folk framework.
A more surprising musical success story was that of Floating Action, from Black Mountain, N.C. Seth Kauffman — who released two albums under his own name before adopting the new pseudonym — had been working in relative obscurity, fusing fuzzy soul with rock 'n' roll charm and a psychedelic edge. In 2010, label difficulties forestalled a proper physical release of his sophomore effort Desert Etiquette, robbing Kauffman of momentum and forcing him to sell homemade tapes at his shows.
In 2012, Kauffman finally garnered some legitimate national attention. My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James released the digital version of Floating Action's Fake Blood on his boutique label Removador Recordings & Solutions. The endorsement opened doors for Kauffman, spurring opportunities such as a tour with Band of Horses, whose ethereal, coffeeshop-friendly folk-rock is one of the hottest sounds outside the mainstream. More refined — and more satisfying — than Band of Horses' recent output, Fake Blood hides intricacy beneath its low fidelity, its meaty bass lines mingling with comfortable guitar effects and frequent psych-rock embellishments. If given a chance, Kauffman's style could easily bend ears already entranced by Floating Action's more famous tour mates.
The past year was a great time to get into homegrown garage rock. In Charlotte, Paint Fumes released Uck Life, a relentless debut that smears revved-up '50s-style riffs with the distorted howls of Elijah Von Cramon, who began the project as part of his 2011 New Year's resolution to learn how to play guitar. In less than two years, the band has progressed from an amateurish squall to a more focused attack bursting with feral intensity. Strung-out guitars are supercharged by dogged rock 'n' roll grooves, recalling the sound of San Francisco sensation Ty Segall.
Chapel Hill's Spider Bags — long one of the state's most restless bands, with music ranging from drunken country staggers to psych-beguiled acid tests — found its focus on Shake My Head. The album is precise in creating a shambling atmosphere: driving rhythm 'n' blues complicated by the tangled guitar excursions of leader Dan McGee. Adding to the album's appeal is McGee's superb, sad-bastard humor: "I've been hanging around this town my whole life / now I'm cheating on my girlfriend with my ex-wife," he howls on "Keys to the City." McGee's up-and-down narratives are matched by a band that masterfully flirts with disaster, constantly seeming as if it's about to lose control without succumbing to the chaos.
This past year featured plenty of exemplary work from the louder end of the spectrum, much of it defying easy categorization. Horseback's Half Blood distilled more than five years of black metal and noise experimentation into an assured and entrancing sprawl. Chapel Hill's Jenks Miller — the leader of the project — draws from techniques he tested with a litany of singles and collaborative albums released following The Invisible Mountain, in 2009, infusing his metallic compositions with flavors of roots music and psych-rock and moments of horror-movie menace. Many metal bands become rigidly ensconced within particular genre conceits. With Horseback, anything seems possible, making it one of the most fascinating projects in this state or any other.
In 2012, North Carolina was rife with such creative volume dealers: Charlotte's Joint D≠ harnessed the heft of European hardcore and the vicious momentum of the heaviest garage rock to create uniquely searing punk. The legendary Raleigh trio Corrosion of Conformity consolidated sounds from all over its 20-year journey, from hardcore to meaty metal, hitching sludgy weight to speedy arrangements on its 10th studio album — the band's first full-length in seven years — titled simply, Corrosion of Conformity.
THAT'S A RAP
There have been bigger and better years for hip-hop in North Carolina, but a pair of young MCs offered reasons to look forward to the future. Charlotte's Deniro Farrar released two potent mixtapes — DESTINY. altered and Kill or Be Killed, a collaboration with Oakland's Shady Blaze. On the latter, Farrar's gravelly delivery and believably streetwise rhymes pair perfectly with Blaze's more frenzied flow. In Raleigh, King Mez made his case for the throne with My Everlasting Zeal, a confident release that pairs his super-smooth rhymes with production that sticks to tasteful updates of 9th Wonder's soul-sampling approach. Though these offerings were impressive, neither Mez nor Farrar seem to have reached their full potential, a good sign for the state's hip-hop future. Also, keep an eye out for Charlotte's Forever FC collective, whose Lute released a silky smooth mixtape in 2012, West1996.
ONE TO GROW ON
There are many exciting musical prospects in the Tar Heel state for 2013. One of the more intriguing is the possibility of more new tunes from Yardwork, Charlotte's resident posi-pop dynamo. Last year, the band's Bo White unveiled Same Deal/New Patrones, his tribute to the singers of Mexican drug ballads known as narcocorridos. He spent a year piecing together a veritable orchestra to achieve the album's blend of boisterous indie rock with flashes of Latin music and jazz. Similar complexities emerge on SLAMDUNKS, the free EP Yardwork unveiled near the end of the year. Guitars and horns counterpoint at odd angles, lending unprecedented intricacy to the band's buoyant melodies. The group is more active than it has been in a while, playing frequent shows in and out of town, stoking hopes that next year might bring more music from this talented outfit.