Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
 


Imperial Teen - Now We Are Timeless (Merge)

This four-piece came out of San Francisco in the 90's, doing enough little things to set them apart from the pack. Dual male/female vocals wasn’t extremely rare, but it leaned away from the typical frontman/woman alterna-rock star trope of the time. Injecting pure pop into indie rock was fairly novel, and further still, they seemed to write songs that were playful like the former and off-kilter like the latter (See “You’re One” off the first album and “Yoo Hoo” off the second). Your toe is tapping and you might even mindlessly sing along, but your brain is left scrambling to nail down their essence. Of course you could always just give in and be like “Choruses don’t usually sound like that, but ok.” Now they are back and the sugar has largely been replaced by synths. I can’t say it sounds particularly innovative here in 2019, but at this point I’ve lost track of who’s following who when it comes to cycling through music trends.

The opener “I Think That’s Everything” sounds like a more lush BMX Bandits, and is perhaps one jangle guitar short of the C-86 inspired sound. The chant-laden “We Do What We Do Best” and the driving “Parade” are fine detours, and peppy numbers like “Ha” and “The Girl” let you know the band can still roll out their stylized hits without reinventing the wheel. If you’re an old fan this is an easy walk down memory lane. If you’re new to the group be prepared to navigate a fun game of square peg + round hole.

Wood Chickens (Big Neck; https://bigneckrecords1.bandcamp.com/ album/wood-chickens-well-done)

A cuckoo’s nest of punk on broth-colored wax that doesn’t dance up and down the scales enough to be rockabilly, and doesn’t yee-haw enough to be considered country fried. There’s some surf in there, but not enough to get you anywhere near a beach. It DOES freak out in a psychedelic way and blast you with noise that hovers around all those fringes. It’s a mad jumble of Demented Are Go, Meat Puppets on speed, and maybe the Dead Milkmen but somehow it all works. I don’t really know whether to scream or slap my knee or laugh but it’s an enjoyable listen.

There are a couple of tracks that get carried away with some wank, and the whole shebang loses itself in a spiral of psyche-obilly and takes the listener out of the moment. Luckily those forays are rare and overall the sound rips - short, weird stomps that will rattle your brain and your barn.

Dumb Vision - Modern Things (Big Neck)

S’more cool punk in the form of 80s California hardcore mixed with no-nonsense midwest stuff. There’s an enthralling urgency amongst these 12 tracks. The guitar lines have a rapid siren feel to them, bringing on a sense of paranoia. The drums rattle along in an almost-coming-off-the-rails fashion. The vocals are good but unfortunately a tiny bit buried in the mix. Things work best when the back-ups/gang vocals come in and match the power of the music. And if you’re wondering if the song content compliments the sound may I present the song titles “Shadows”, “Negative”, and “Couldn’t Sleep”. For fans of the Adolescents or their east coast offspring Psyched To Die. The band is from Wisconsin so maybe there’s some ground in between.

White Savage/Football - Split LP (Big Neck)

From the ashes of Baseball Furies, Tyrades, and a million other bands, White Savage play some wacked out post-punk complete with angular riffs, well-layered static and fuzz, and vocals that reach beyond the standard fare but not quite stepping into the zolo/asylum realm. All songs nudge past three, four, and almost five minutes long, which usually leaves me skeptical of any band pushing a “manic” sound, but there’s a whole lot of pounding and rhythm changes to make it work. When the shouted choruses come back around to anchor the song I’m sold.

Football are mining a similar part of the rock mountain, but play it with a more simple swagger. Without any curve balls though, these songs seem longer (even though they actually clock in shorter by at least a minute). “Hit By Flying Glass” is a riot though. I don’t want to be the one to recommend this band keep heading in the brutal physical punishment direction, but sometimes you have to sacrifice for the art, man!

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Mick Hale - Hale Haus (store.cdbaby.com/cd/mickhale)

The directions and distance that techno has gone in the last dozen years has been admirable. Any time a genre can branch out to spaces not yet explored is awe inducing. Of course, it’s not always the cuppa tea for people who cut their teeth on trance, house, big beat and the like from TWO dozen years ago, but one can still respect it.

For those that want electronic music with hooks (that have been missing from glitch), multiple layers (that you can’t find in most bedroom chillwave), and hard hitting beats (that have been missing from everything… and yes, I’m now done yelling at the digital cloud), I give you the Hale Haus EP from DJ Mick Hale.

“On Life” brings in a bulbous thump, vocals from Larae, and just keeps piling on the blankets of synth until you are totally buried. “Call Me Up” gives Larae even more opportunity to open up, going for a more verse/chorus/verse structure. It’s got the standard house music quickness to it though, complete with head-snapping stabs that will get a club in sync.

“Lemme Finish” catches the ear by starting off with some tribal drumming, reappearing at intervals - though riding that beat for the duration would’ve been cool. “Movin’ On” sinks into a deep groove and heavy beat and really nails that classic piano loop. Overall a nice throwback release that happily reminds me early Moby, Electronic, and 808 State.

Am I Dead Yet? - Am I Dead Yet? (Wire-Sound)

When a high caliber collab from Noko (Apollo 440) and Mary Byker (Pop Will Eat Itself) drops it should turn more than a few heads. Here’s what you need to know: Mary Byker’s emotive, imitable Britpop vocals are in full effect. The tempo of every song falls somewhere between a crawl and Sunday stroll, but Byker carries the melodies incredibly well, knowing when to wrench and when to keep it smooth.

Noko/Apollo 440 has been racking up soundtrack/score credits for decades now. The fact that his music has landed on the sets of The Sopranos and the Lost In Space reboot film, and that he once dared to remix the legendary Ennio Morricone gives you a good idea of what the music here is. A seamless blend of orchestral movements and electronic waves lay the foundation, while atmospheric soundscapes breeze in and out and guitar hooks squeeze in when the door is left open. Epic ballads like “Joe Meek Shall Inherit The Earth” work just as well as more “modern” tracks like “Futuristic Paranoia.”

It’s pretty weird, and cool, to listen to an album that gives you thoughts of watching neon maglev trains pull out of the station, and then turning your head and watching the tumbleweed go by.

Dreamers - Launch Fly Land (Hollywood Records)

Hey it’s 2019 and feel-good dance rock is still alive and kicking! The formula is pretty much what you’d expect - cruise-along verses with sunshine choruses. Clap your hands and sing along! There’s a medium-thick production sheen here, with a teensy bit of pitch correction and a tasteful amount of what I suspect are triggered drums. So yeah, my earnest vs artificial scales are way off balance here, but… are the songs any good?

Yeah, they are pretty good. If you feel like adulting is making you dizzy, they have a song called “Dizzy.” If you like to party, they have a song called “Celebrate.” If you can’t sleep, their best song here is “Insomniac.” If you feel like you want to listen to more music like Franz Ferdinand or LCD Soundsystem or say, a band that would open up for the Gorillaz then they have seven other tracks on this release (and yes, they DID open for the Gorillaz!). Full disclosure: This album is something that I sarcastically praise today, but I am only dipping my toes in for fear of genuinely enjoying it after these earworms tunnel in. If you want to actually be in a beer commercial where everyone looks like they are having a super good time, just dive right in right now.


Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan - New Rain Duets (Three Lobed Recordings)

This release distinctly falls within the experimental genre. Sprouting from ground broken by Brian Eno and John Cage, the pair here give us EXACTLY what they aim for. Duets with an aura of clouds, fog, mists, sprinkles, sheets, and storms. Lattimore plays a pedal-fixed and loop-enhanced harp, McCaughan handles the synthesizers. It’s entirely made with strings and keys, but you can just hear the “plinks” and the “drops” right now, can’t you? You can feel the motion, the rhythm that seems to be there, naturally, only to have it shift in another direction. If you ever listened to Sonic Seasonings by Wendy Carlos and thought, “Yes, well what else is there?” look no further. Leave your umbrella at home.

Unknown Instructors - Unwilling To Explain (Org Music)

The established improvisational punk supergroup is back! Mike Watt and George Hurley (Minutemen/fIREHOSE) provide the rhythm section, J Mascis (Dino Jr.) layers in the guitars, and Dan McGuire performs the poetry. Watt noodles out some cool bass lines, Mascis makes his guitar talk, stutter, and croon, and that might be enough for some. If you’re into on-the-fly jazz rock you’ll be hard pressed to find better indie star power. But the linchpin here is McGuire. Sometimes it’s just a straightforward spit of words (think Steven Jesse Bernstein), other times it’s a spooky delivery (like Tom Waits on “What’s He Building In There?”). Yet more times, and more often thankfully, he’s doing his own thing - using his voice like an instrument itself, echoing himself, experimenting with the flow of the music and the words. A niche release from icons hanging out in a punk basement, but, over there in some weird corner away from everyone else.

Dear Boy - Strawberry EP (Easy Hell)

This Los Angeles outfit has all the landmarks of a band playing it safe. The guitars are warm and fuzzy, the vocals are emotive and unthreatening. The song structures are verse-chorus-verse and follows the recipe to the letter. I can’t really distinguish this from any number of other bands that have popped up over the years trying to expand their base by watering down their sound. That all being the case - I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - There’s nothing wrong with going that route, IF THE SONGS ARE GOOD. A band can sit securely within the boundaries of “typical” and still be worth a listen, if the songs are well written and well played. We get that here with the lead single “Semester” - a catchy, easy-going melody that matches perfectly to Dear Boy’s manicured, soothing pop/rock sound. “Limelight” follows the same formula but picks up the speed a bit, and “Something Good” does it again but slows it down and brings out the acoustics. Reminds me a bit of the soft power pop ballads from Braden Blake or maybe Ken Stringfellow. The EP peters out a bit at the end (I can only take so many four-minute straightforward pop songs) but still, one should get the idea by now. Nothing new to see here, but some decent stuff to hear.

Motherhood - Dear Bongo (Forward Music)

Now here’s some fun, bratty, cacophony. And not the kind that cycles through the same chord progressions and touts “Hey NBD we’re just having a lark anyway.” This is full of twists and turns and creativity and singalong vocals.

The ingredients are your basic guitar/bass/drum set up, but this is still all over the map: poppy, swampy, rocky, rolly, dreamy, grimey… and so on. “Way Down” starts off like a regular, catchy bit of semi-angular indie rock, and then gets, for lack of a better term, groovy. Then it revs up into some soul revue action before exploding into joyous noise. “Costanza” has what I can only describe as a bouncy dirge style going for it, while the instrumental “Sweet Kid” goes in a cosmic surf direction. It seems like I’m just randomly name dropping a whole lot of genres into a barrel, but it somehow works here. Maybe it’s because they are from Jersey, but I can totally see this band carrying on the “weird punk” torch that Hunchback once held.

Swimming Bell - Wild Sight (Adventure Club)

Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Katie Schottland has here what the industry (Gasp! Is Jersey Beat part of the industry?!) would call an impressive debut album. This descriptor comes to mind for a very specific reason though. Yes, her voice is great. It’s strong but supple, with the ability to layer harmonies up to the heavens. Yes, the song craft is great. It’s patient, full of flourishes, and completely envelops the listener with it’s pleasantness. Sometimes I wonder about solo artists recording under a different name/persona but I think Swimming Bell really hits the mark here.

Yet what really struck me on the first listen is the flow of the album. It’s cohesive vision was a relavatory journey. It starts off as straightforward singer-songwriter/indie Americana/Lilith Fair folk stuff, with only tinges of hints of what is to come. But as the songs progress, it gets more and more floaty, airy, and spacey. Voices turn angelic and twirls of synth become more prominent. “Cold Clean Moon” has you looking up, “Wolf” howls in that direction too, and “Left Hand Path” might as well have been sung in a vacuum with only twinkling stars as back-up. “Love Liked You” crescendos like a sunrise seen from space and “Quietly Calling” fades out like any good album like this should, in our ever expanding universe.


Skinny Girl Diet - Ideal Woman (Fiasco/Happy Happy Birthday To Me)

Stripped down to a guitar + drums two-piece, London’s Skinny Girl Diet offer up a fuzzy slab of modern punk. Ursula Holliday bashes out heavy thuds while her sister Delilah Holliday makes her guitar growl out grunge riffs and matches her voice accordingly. It’s well executed and you can tell there’s a distinct vision being realized here.

The duo makes its mark by simultaneously being bare bones, but not simplistic. Yes, you can draw a direct line back to early 90's L7 and Hole, but whereas those bands wrote songs straight forward to your face, there is a much more… mobile, writhing, thing going on here. Songs like the title track and “Starfucker” have a sultry and sly feel to them, weaving through verses and choruses, while presenting power that belies the fact that it’s just two people. Again the enigma: This stuff keeps you on your toes, but you’d better brace yourself too.

The flipside is filled with a lot of slow/fast, quiet/loud dynamics, which brings this back down to a rather “average” tried-and-true formula, but the songs are still good. “Golden” brings in some dark, dreamy echo effects that sound cool and “Warrior Queens” kicks it up a notch to deliver on the great, and accurate, song title. The band already has been getting nods across the pond (from Iggy Pop no less). I suspect their trajectory will keep moving up so get on board now, eh?

Science Man - Science Man (Swimming Faith; scienceman.bandcamp.com/)

Talk about barreling out of the gates! The lead track, “Dark Matter”, from the self-titled release from Buffalo, NY’s Science Man doesn’t even rev up, it just straight-vertical drops into your eardrums. Pummeling rock’n’roll that sounds like The Hives and Mclusky fighting for the steering wheel. And while Science Man takes only the obvious tropes from the garage punk and post-noise genres, it’s mashed together in a frenzied fine fashion - nothing is blown out, the guitar parts are interesting but very rarely wanky, and the slow(er) burners are few and far between and sequenced perfectly.

If you’re into “Yeeeoooww”-style rawk but are looking for something a little more gritty and potent, look into Science Man. Yes, this genre is oversaturated with dudes presenting a “Look how dangerous we are” attitude almost to the point of losing meaning, but Science Man seems to deliver.


Kleenex Girl Wonder - Vana Mundi (kgw.me/album/vana-mundi)

NYC via Chicago musician Kleenex Girl Wonder (aka Graham Smith) is still pumping out albums. His heavily pop-slanted take on indie rock has been occasionally been cited as a nod to early Guided By Voices, and while he hasn’t been as prolific as Bob Pollard, (really, what band has?) he’s still built up quite a catalog over the past two decades. Which brings me to the good news of the present: This album is as good a place as any to start.

KGW’s sound has always been lo-fi, either by necessity or choice. Somehow he makes his electric guitars sound soft, and even when layers of instruments come in it sounds full and satisfying, but never bloated. Occasionally he replaces real percussion with a drum machine, lest one start to forget his bedroom pop roots. But what really makes KGW, and what makes this LP a welcome addition to the shelf, is the songwriting. Smith’s springy, tumbling melodies just seem to fall out of the speakers so effortlessly. He writes a solid hook, but then puts that hook on a zipline, taking you through each verse and chorus smoothly and quickly before you can really soak in your surroundings. It makes your ears happily flip like your stomach does on a carnival ride. His lyrics follow the same aesthetic. His ability to turn a phrase and craft short, multisyllabic rhymes approaches hip-hop level writing, and yet it’s funneled into good ol’ fashioned indie pop.

Kleenex Girl Wonder has never really launched into super stardom, but with his most recent release being just as good as the earlier stuff that put him on the map, he’s giving us ample opportunities to notice. Good on him.


PEDRO THE LION - Phoenix (Polyvinyl)

Touted as the return of Pedro The Lion, this album packs the 1-2 punch of tugging on the musical nostalgia strings while the songs themselves drag you through stories of growing pains, lost loves, and can-you-ever-truly-go-home-again? feelings. Prepare yourself.

The record comes out of the gate strong with a pair of uptempo numbers, “Yellow Bike” and “Clean Up.” Solid, catchy tracks that will find their way onto plenty of playlists this year. David Bazan’s vocals sound really strong here, stronger than the wistful tones of the earlier albums, but thankfully the warmth is still there. Things wind down until we get to “Circle K,” which if not for sounding so clean and feeling more like a gentle sway than true slowcore, would fit well alongside the PTL work of the late 90s. “Quietest Friend” builds on that foundation and really lets the noise loose. “My Phoenix” has some power underneath the hood as well. There is an inkling and a temptation to lump this in with heartland indie rock alongside My Morning Jacket and Built To Spill, but these songs relentlessly swirl around Bazan’s southwest stomping grounds in Arizona. There’s just too much open desert here.

The original incarnation of the band had a revolving door cast, so the album eschews all the clichés of reunion, return to form, and rebirth. And yet, those familiar vocals and that solid songwriting should have fans welcoming Phoenix with open arms. Don’t call it a comeback, call it a homecoming.

LISA MARR With The Tranzmitors -
In The Summer & Magic 8 Ball b/w Pretty Pictures & Salvation
(lisamarrwiththetranzmitors.bandcamp.com)

Two titans of punk pop join forces to create an all-killer EP. Lisa Marr (of Cub fame) and the almighty Tranzmitors collaborate to produce four cuts, labor-of-love style from start to finish. It’s one of those things that sounds really good on paper, but how does it sound on vinyl?

No need to doubt - this is excellent. They start with a Fastbacks cover. That perfect combo of sugary punk and speedy pop that very few bands “get.” The Fastbacks were one of them, and Lisa and company are paying a ridiculously on point tribute. I don’t care that it’s January, “In The Summer” will be in constant rotation.

Also on the A-side is a reworking of the classic cub track “Magic 8 Ball.” It doesn’t improve upon the original, but asking for that would be asking for the impossible. They do however, turn it into a sweet duet, and the happy-go-lucky melody and playful tone is completely intact. On the flipside “Pretty Pictures” also gets a remake. The original was jangly and wistful, this one is a lot more sharp and has 60s pop undercurrent (I’m thinking the Archies but maybe I’ve let the Betti-Cola aesthetic seep into my brain too much). Comparatively it’s hard to beat out the tunes I adored in my formative years, but I love how they were purposefully made to be *different*, not just a regular rehash.

Finally we get a brand new song called “Salvation.” Catchy, mid-tempo pop that has the sweet hooks of old school Marr projects with a more fleshed out sound and songwriting of new school Marr work. This is the best of both worlds! Old fans can not not get this. If you’re not a fan (yet), you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. All profits go to benefit the Vancouver Rock Camp for Girls.

 

 

Red Black Red - Resettlement (redblackredmusic.bandcamp.com/)

Now this is a piece of loose, electronic art. So many new acts these days claim improvisation and real-time creativity, and yet what comes through the speakers is precise and calculated, with nary a beat out of place. On the other end of the spectrum is Red Black Red, the latest venture from stalwart New Jersey musician Enrico Fernando.

Resettlement first and foremost, is an electronic pop-rock album. It’s got clear, weighty vocals, songs that tell a story, and guitars that add layers with understated riffs. It’s not abstract techno or IDM or glitch. And yet the beats stutter and twitch, stabs of electronics punctuate at odd times, and the tempos for all parts rarely match up. I can’t say I’ve heard much like it. He composed most of this album on a laptop while commuting on a subway, and honestly that little tidbit of info goes a long way to help me wrap my ears around this.

Inaccessibility aside, the album provides some noise worth listening to. Enrico’s vocals on “The Scientist” reel the listener in, while the deep grind and just-this-side-of-trash-can-lids percussion spits you back out. “Debris” is probably the closest we get to a majestic heartland rock tune. There are beats and melodic bleeps and bloops just under the surface, but it’s still got that anthemic feel and there’s even a guitar solo. “Black Pearl” mines similar territory, but going all-in on all angles makes it seem like he recorded two different version of the song and boldly sandwiched them together.

My conclusion becomes a warning, or maybe a challenge. Resettlement will defy preconceived notions, and might give your stereo’s equalizers a run for their money. I can’t say you’ll be handsomely rewarded for your efforts, but either way Red Black Red is going to make you work for it.


Gift Wrap - Losing Count (Captured Tracks)

Bendon Avalos from the Brooklyn punk trio B Boys decided to take a venture of his own into the world of post-pop solo recording, using the name Gift Wrap and setting up shop in his apartment. All the classic elements are here - disaffected vocals, parts where you can’t tell if it’s a synth or a guitar, straightfoward staccato bass, and your average garage sale drum machine percussion. Standard building blocks can still make something worth listening to though, if you’re writing good songs.

Things get interesting when the layers of noise pile up on “Change My Mind.” The album was supposedly a loose, experimental work, but hopefully he was paying attention to the knob-twiddle settings on that one because it sounds great. “Mirage” leans heavily into the electro-pop past, and the track is truly an album highlight, but we’ve been through more than one generation of this already. It brings to mind Ladytron circa 2001 more than OMD circa 1981.

Production is spot-on for what Gift Wrap is going for, and there are snippets of brilliance, like the changing gears on “Comatose” and the good sense to cover Egyptian Lover. But, in the end Losing Count is still only a fascimile of a copy of the original - a third wave rather than something creating fresh ripples. I think a very telling detail is that a video was made in conjunction with this release. It looks like a bad-copy VHS, to add to the old school asthetic. However, it wasn’t recorded with an old camera, it was recorded with a new iPhone, and they just made it look like VHS with some technical editing. I think that says it all.

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Sam Davison & Precincts - Professionals (samdavison.bandcamp.com)

When listening to outsider music I sometimes think I need to turn my perspective upside-down. This is some grating, challenging, and just plain weird shit. The first two tracks, filled with attempted singing and vacuum chugging have me questioning the boundaries of independent art. But I have to remind myself, “Yeah, maybe that’s the entire goal here.” The sound is super-stripped down, and while this music might be dubbed “experimental” it seems like everything that was put in is supposed to be there. No happy accidents, just some people purposefully being wacked.

As the album continues though, the tide turns from grating to interesting, from challenging to creative, and from weird to… well, still weird, but in a way I can appreciate. The spastic-beatnik “Apo Y Betun” is like space age bachelor pad music going off the rails. “We Are Professionals” is a great 100 second punk manifesto, and “I Want More, I Want Less” makes me think this guy spent a lot of time in his bedroom, alone, listening to Devo and Ween records.

“I Could Say I Was There” is a spoken-word ramble over an echo-y drone, and would appeal to anyone into storytelling and/or possibly dream interpretation. Professionals is chock-full of ideas, all over the place, and demands your attention. Sometimes it might not elicit positive reactions, but I think Davison knows that, too - see the closer, “I’m Sorry About Everything.”


Meat Beat Manifesto – Impossible Star (Flexidisc)

Full disclosure: I haven't listened to Meat Beat Manifesto since Subliminal Sandwich. At the time, their edgy electro-industrial racket, complete with Jack Dangers' snarls and sci-fi soundclips, hit the spot for a young Mark, but since then I've moved on to less sinister sounds. The group might have as well, since what I've known in the past sounds very little like Impossible Star.

The title is an appropriate one too, since this album lets the manic mechanics of the 90s fade away in favor of something more cosmic. The washes of synth are dreamy, the drum beats are hollow (in that good, spacey way), and the rest of the beeps and bloops bounce along untethered. There are glimpses of the original fire here and there, like when the obscure sound bites pop up, the vocoder effects drop in, and what sounds like a giger counter becomes part of the instrumentation. Overall it's an unsurprising affair, the songs sound exactly like their titles dictate. See: "Unique Boutique", "Lurker", and "Synthesizer Teste".

I don't find it particularly exciting, but perhaps this is truly what evolution feels like. We've got robots making music for robots, which in some ways is a really accurate way to describe this. But is it any good? I couldn't tell you any more than a Keurig machine could explain what love is.

Gary Numan - Savage (Songs From A Broken World) (BMG)

Electronic rock icon Gary Numan is one of the pillars of the genre. The music hasn't changed much at all, but he doesn't need to since he's the one that invented the sound in the first place. And since the 80s are back, the man that once brought us tracks like "Cars" and "Telekon" rightfully reigns again. Savage is classic Numan - cold, deep, hook-laden synths with Numan's pained vocals and a bleak outlook on life. The lead single "My Name Is Ruin" says it all. The future is already here and it don't look good. Sounds great though.

Trans Am - California Hotel (Thrill Jockey)

Trans Am are geniuses. Musical artists have mashed genres before, but usually it's music that goes together like PB&J anyway (disco and rap, etc.). Trans Am are the only outfit that I know of that successfully blend post-rock and synth pop. Snappy, delectable drums mix with keyboard riffs and vocoder vocals. Mathy, almost proggy guitar escapades, the likes of which are usually seen on their longtime label Thrill Jockey, get funneled through a digital wormhole until it becomes a jazz-hacker-nerd-punk hybrid. And if that last sentence turned you on instead of off, keep the switch flipped and rock this album out, because it rules.

Beck - Colors (Capitol)

Beck's oeuvre has bounced around for so long, you can't really sum it up without resorting to the reinvented rhetoric and chamleon cliches. His last album was "one of the serious ones" and this new album is "one of the party ones." Enough said. Morning Phase sounded absolutely pristine and deservedly won the Grammy for Best Engieneered Album. Perhaps Beck took pride in that, because Colors, with all it's slacker raps, handclaps, and oddball instrumentation, sounds great. He's always had an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic, but now that sink is polished clean and a luxurious studio is capturing the sound. The ten track album has plenty of highlights, hooks, and even a few throwback moments that nod to earlier works. Basically, if you're a long time fan, get on this.


 

Esmark - Mara I/Mara II (Bureau B)

Experimental artist Alsen Rau and sound architect Nikolai von Sallwitz put together a double album of spooky soundscapes and dark, ambient compositions. This is good news for people who like bad news. If you’re searching for a soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic nightmare, or accompaniment to a dystopian sci-fi movie where it’s gloomy and rainy 24-7, then look no further.
The music itself doesn’t really catch any ears except in rare moments, but the creation process itself, and the quality of the end result is fairly impressive. Lots of depth, lots of beats and synth lines taped and re-looped into the tracks, giving off some kind of quasi-analog feel. Another release from the underground, buried deep where the light of pop can’t get to it.

Brockmann/Bargmann - Licht (Bureau B)

After spending some time in the “Krautrock Guerilla” outfit Camera, backing up Michael Rother (NEU!), and working in the studio with the Tiger Liliies, Brockmann and Bargmann venture out to do something completely of their own. This collection of instrumentals shine, with melodies cruising juuust fast enough to make you feel like your car tires are floating above the concrete on a motorik road trip. Both artists are billed as improvisationalists, but that fact is masked fairly well, with structured rhythms and layers of sounds falling into place perfectly.
Highlights include the cascading “Deepmind”, the serene “Spektrum”, and “Horizont”, which could have snuck it’s way onto Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy score. The shuddering, tribal drums of “Schatten” is great too, evoking memories of the best that Juno Reactor had to offer back in the day. Overall a beckoning record, ripe with sounds that welcome return visits rather push boundaries. Chalk one in the win column here.

Eberhard Kranemann & Harold Grosskopf - Krautwerk (Bureau B)

Yet another release from German electronic music veterans. This time from guys who’ve logged miles with Kraftwerk and Ashra. The building blocks are all there - throbbing synths, waves of synths, and the occasional pounding and clanging of, what I suspect to be synthesizers. Which is all well and good, except for the go-nowhere songs and the repetitive tempos throughout. There really are some neat sounds here - the manufactured riff of “Paris Texas”, the bubbling thumps of “Happy Blue”, and waaaah-whoaaaa of “Buddhatal” that sound like a mash up of Close Encounters and adults speaking in the Peanuts cartoon. But those concepts just continue for a while and nothing really builds or moves. Maybe in the future someone will sample a cool snippet from this album and do something interesting with it.

Moebius Story Leidecker - Familiar (Bureau B)

Here we have yet one more super group collaboration from the fringes of electronic music. This time the team up includes Dieter Moebius of Cluster and Harmonia, soundtrack veteran Tim Story, and experimental composer Jon Leidecker, whose resume includes work with acts like Matmos and Negativland.
The trio convened in Montanna, took in the view at Glacier National Park, and then recorded this album. The sound is immediate, varied, and despite the genre tropes involved, natural. Overall the album has a “Hey guys let’s get together in the studio and jam” feel to it, but boy these dudes know how to weave their way around computerized sound. If you’ve ever looked at the set up of a synth-playing, knob-twiddling electronic musician, and wondererd “What exactly do all those buttons do?!”, this recording would give you a crash course. Familiar is intricate and showy, stereo-testing at all registers, tweaking in all manners, with plenty of subtleties sneaking in and out of the mix. Skittery synths and squishy beats push everything forward, with the apex coming right around the title track and “Block Blow.”

Coordinates met in time and space, producing what could only be captured in this exact moment. The fact that Moebius passed away a few short years after this was recorded only adds to it’s poignancy.

KMFDM - Hell Yeah (earMUSIC)

This German institution is now closing in on two dozen albums, spread out over a 33-year career. Their metal-techno hyrbid eventually fell comfortably into the industrial rock realm sometime early on, and while rock critics like it when bands turn corners, I think it's equally impressive that the band has barely changed its formula at all. Fad chasers get trampled by bands like these. Those pounding electronic drums energize with every beat, and those exact, mechanical guitars push songs ever forward. The vocals from Andy Selway don't carry the melodies that much (the sultry sounding Lucia Cifarelli is a bit more successful), and that makes perfect sense. I would expect everything here to sound like automated cyberpunk, even if it came from a human. What really binds this all together are the synths, filling in every available corner with hooks, trills, waves, stabs, and all manner of rapid electro-noise. Despite the classic KMFDM sound, one won't mistake Hell Yeah for something old. The group is too on point when it comes to ranting about the ills of modern society for that to happen. The uproarious "Freak Flag", the grimey "Fake News", and the foul-mouthed "Rx For The Dammned" make it clear this is a 2017 release. And if you've built up enough frenzied anger and are itching to riot, the album offers not one, but two completely-lose-your-shit anthems in "Total State Machine" and "Glam, Glitz, Guts, & Gore". It might not solve life's problems, but cranking up the stereo, turning on the strobe light, and raging to a chous of "THE GOVERNMENT HATES YOU!" has got to provide some kind of cathartic release.

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Culture Wars - Culture Wars EP (culturewars.bandcamp.com)

I'm trying to think of ways to explain Austin-based trio Culture Wars, aside from describing their competent but blatant mash-up known as "dance rock." A couple phrases pop into my mind as these songs rumble from the speakers: Radio-ready. Arena jams. Crowd pleasers. Car commercial music. I can't conjure up anything that sounds less pre-packaged than that. However, if this type of music is up your alley anyway, the band offers some nice tunage, even if it feels like it was ordered off the combo menu.

One good thing about this self-titled self-release is that while the music is a blend of electro pop and bleacher-stomping rock, neither genre is sacrificed for the other. The synth lines are prominent, the beats are solid and dancable, and the guitars get their licks in too. "Bones" throws it all against the wall, rewarding listeners with a "whoa-oh-oh" chorus that will have the kids involuntarily chanting and putting their hands over their heads. It's a winning move, but they pull the same manuever with "Hideaway" leaving one wondering if they ran out of ideas on a 5-song EP. The last of the cuts, "Money (Gimme Gimme)" puts all their tricks into overdrive. The vocals are snarly, the guitar hook is classic rawk, and the beat is heavy and throbbing. It seems like the band has all their ducks in a row if they want to sell a sporty sedan or open for Twenty One Pilots. I'm walking over to another pond.

Tiny Magnetic Pets - Deluxe Debris (Happy Robots)

Here we have an interesting amalgamation of sounds, eras, and geography. Tiny Magnetic Pets (a reference to a cute little Japanse toy) take cues from 70s Germany krautrock and 80s French electro-pop, and guides them through a filter of turn-of-the-century indie electronica (think Darla Records at their most bleep-boopiest). And where does this band hail from? Ireland, of course!

The mixture of precise, set-my-clock-to-it rhythms mixes surprisingly well with the warm synth underpinnings, and the soft, lovely vocals of Paula Gilmer add another layer as well. The authenticty of sound is undeniable. It's the inexplicable feeling while you're soaking it in - that notion of "Yeah, they got it right."

If the music is the gold star on Deluxe Debris, then the sequencing is the one demerit. The opener "I Lost My Guiding Light" is ho-hum, and while I think the epic motorik-meets-dream pop "Semaphore" is a standout track, at 11 minutes long you're asking for a lot of patience right off the bat. "Radio On", featuring ex-Kraftwerk member Wolgang Flur, is the hit we're all looking for, and it's followed by some choice cuts in the form of the bubbling "All Tomorrow's Yesterdays" and the dreamy, floaty, "Cloud Sequence." Unfortunately, sandwiched inbetween is "Here Comes The Noise", a track the band thought was so nice, they played it twice (in two parts, or two different remixes - regardless, it's too much). "Never Alone" caps off the album, a nice tune that goes down smooth now that the appetite has been thoroughly whetted.

The band mixes together influences like Jean-Michel Jarre, Berlin-era Bowie, and the Pet Shop Boys. They've also gained fans like Michael Rother of Neu! and Andy McClusky of OMD. Freaking Kraftwerk veteran Wolfgang Flur guests on the album! That's a lot of names to drop in my audio book, and this chapter sounds pretty good.

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Faust – Fresh Air (Bureau B)

One barely raises an eyebrow these days when they hear “70’s krautrock staple Faust have a new album out.” So many bands reform and continue to create these days, it’s hardly anything novel. These German “art-errorists” being as they are, however, never make it that simple. Fresh Air was recorded in the US over the course of their 2016 tour. So not only do we get new material, we also get live takes, guest stars, and field recordings.
The opening epic, recorded live at WFMU in Jersey City, is where you’ll get your classic Faust fill. The title track’s slow, haunting, undulating sounds draw you in, while vocals and voices juuust under the mix have your ears peering into that eerie darkness. Violin from Ysanne Spevack adds to the layers, while the drums and guitar sneak in so gradually before you know the track is already pummeling you with noise.

The middle section of the album takes you through Austin and Los Angeles, where a warped array of vignettes and fully-realized songs are ushered along with the help of the illustrious Barbara Manning. The best of the bunch is “La Poulie”, a tumbling, cranky motortik-on-overdrive tune with Jurgen Engler of Die Krupps lending a hand.

Finally, we close out with another 10+ minute opus back at WFMU, filled with Jean-Herve Peron’s tuneful ranting and ethereal jamming reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. There’s some really interesting stuff going on with this release, and I’d suggest that it’s as good as place as any to start if you want to know what Faust is all about. That being said, only those looking for a challenge to begin with need apply.

DER PLAN – Unkapitulierbar (Bureau B)

One of the pioneering acts of the Neue Deutsche Well (New German Wave) is back! Yes, the line-up has fluctuated over the years, and yes what was once their trademark experimental industrial/synth pop barely registers on the strange-o-meter these days, but nevertheless the band turns in a very solid effort. After 35+ years (with some lengthy hiatuses) of music making, Der Plan’s Moritz R has a bag overflowing with tricks, and he uses all of them to great effect. Plinky beats, pulsating bass lines, and synth hooks permeate most tracks, with a healthy dose of sound waves, vocoder effects, and an intriguing production that I can only describe as minimalist flair.

While top-notch execution is respected, and strong songwriting is always welcome, two more facets of Unkapitulierbar push the record toward the recommended pile: diversity and brevity. There are moments that sound fairly modern – the near-glitchy opener “Wie der wind weht,” and some that are yeesh-evoking 80s pap – the whispery “wowowow” of “Grundrecht” in particular. There’s one song sung in English (and it’s great, with a guest female vocalist), and there’s a tune that reminds me of Welsh-pop act Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. “Der Herbst” is an obvious homage to Fun Boy Three’s “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum.” There’s even a reggae song. Yes, reggae through a German synth pop filter. Not kidding. It’s quite impressive how much they cram into 39 minutes. The longest song here is four minutes long. By comparison, four minutes is the length of the shortest song on Kraftwerk’s Autobhan record. Each song has a job to do, and once the task is complete, the clock is punched. No wasted space, no bloated drone-fests. German efficiency saves the day!

NRVS LVRS – Electric Dread (Hz Castle/Big Bldg)

Coming in at three songs shorter, but 13 minutes longer than Der Plan’s album, this darkwave disc takes a while longer to sink into. Every song unfolds at a slow pace, but that’s not to say each one is without surprises. There’s a 1980s soundtrack vibe throughout, but tracks vary between Bowie-lite male singing and echo-y female vocals, gloomy city-scapes and majestic climaxes, and the oddball inclusion of various instruments. You’ll hear skronky sax in “I Am Almost Perfectly Awake”, impenetrable mic effects in “Voyeurs!”, and Casio-esque handclaps on “Lost To The Max.” The unraveling of the record is so slow-motion, the rumbling bass, back beat, and shouting of “Rich Man” is like a bolt from the (dark) blue.

There’s great production here, their vision is clear, and the band knows their way around a pair of headphones – the sound is quite immersive. As I toured through Electric Dread I enjoyed the experience, but any distinct memories have since faded in the rear view. The bottom line is they have a big, shadowy, urban playground that does absolutely nothing, other than provide you with a place to get lost in.

Ohmslice – Conduit (Imaginator)

Post-weird, no wave, improv-fusion outsider pop? I know, at first pass I too almost turned my head away in confusion and/or disgust. “Oh great, another attempt at being… creative.” On subsequent listens, I’m acknowledging they succeeding in this endeavor, and almost ready to admit that they nearly made it accessible, too.

The blending of electronic and organic sounds is seamless, and when they can’t get the sound they want from an instrument, they invent a new one (see also Bradford Reed’s electric board zither and his work with King Missile). Deep, syncopated rhythms entrance the listener, while the layers of creepy guitar and horns will have you checking under the bed. The fact that these recording sessions were live and spontaneous means the rotating cast of players (featuring session workers who’ve spent time with Blue Man Group, Yo La Tengo, and Swans, among others) were probably kept on their toes too. All the sounds being filtered through a modular synth is what gels this into a cohesive sound, so no matter what path you take, all roads lead to Reed’s palace of bizarre.

The final element in Conduit is Jane LeCroy’s poetry. Her words are occasionally beat, sometimes dreamy, and always adding to the notion that this is music made by and for those outside the typical musical boundaries. Ohmslice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but just coming up with this new and different flavor at all is a remarkable accomplishment.

 


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