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they are back and the sugar has largely been replaced by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
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.
Chickens (Big Neck; https://bigneckrecords1.bandcamp.com/
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
- 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.
Lattimore & Mac McCaughan - New Rain Duets (Three Lobed
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
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
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
Girl Diet - Ideal Woman (Fiasco/Happy Happy Birthday To
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
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?
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.
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.
MARR With The Tranzmitors -
In The Summer & Magic 8 Ball b/w Pretty Pictures &
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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
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!
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.
– 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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