School of X - Dancing In The Void (schoolofx.bandcamp.com)
Danish pop producer Rasmus Littauer embarks on another foray into modern indie pop (Side rant: Not to be confused with, say, the “classic” indie pop we remember from the previous decades. This is the understated, non-jangly, neon-city cruise pop that doesn’t often sound like a real band, but also doesn’t quite sound like it belongs on the dance floor).
What we get here is a collection of mid-tempo exercises that displays several sprinkles of talent and variety. The songs are tight, each one a final copy rather than a rough draft, and if there’s auto-tune on the vocals it’s masked to an appropriate level. While none of it lifts beyond its weight class, “New Friend'' offers a catchy swaying hook in the chorus, “Feel Of It” has some cool organ, and “1989” will turn at least a head or two with it’s whiplash drums. Dancing In The Void shows us that School of X knows how to get dat sound. For better or worse though, that sound these days is stagnant. It might be intriguing from a technical standpoint, but there’s not much thrill in these tunes.
Do You Have The Force? - John Savage’s Alternate History of Electronic Music ’78-’82 (Caroline True)
Other than Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire, there’s very little here that would overlap with most old school electronic compilations. I’ve been delving deep into 70s/80s electronic music for years and most of this is new to me (Full disclosure: I’ve heard of “Do You Have The Force” by Droids, but never bothered to listen to it, thinking it must be late 70s Star Wars novelty cheese… it’s not). This compilation avoids so many of my early electronic music gripes I can’t help but love it. What could be called proto-techno is usually not fast enough for my tastes, but Savage found tracks that thump along at a quick pace. What falls under the experimental realm usually sounds just like that - exercises in sound (and lengthy ones at that), and here we have tracks by Monoton and Flying Lizards that are concisely purposeful. And last but not least, as much as I respect the connection between the genres, late 70s electronic dance music often sounds too disco for my tastes. Tracks by the aforementioned Droids, Harry Thumman, and A Number Of Names have catchy, synthy hooks without sounding too strobe-light pop. Heck, even the song “Disco Computer” by Trans Volta is the best thing a song with that name can possibly be. Recommended to those with an interest in the genre and have already completed the canon part of their collection.
Kawai Sprite - Friday Night Funkin’ OST Vol. 2 (kawaisprite.bandcamp.com)
This release could justly fall under the clunky name of “video game music,” and it’s pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp. But don’t dwell on those (false) red flags. This collection of breakbeat/chiptune songs is full of great, inventive, catchy stuff, all jammed into 1-2 minute packages. You can just see the levels, the coins, the blocks all forming in your mind (though truth be told, I think this is from some kind of open-source rhythm/dance game). Definitely the happiest surprise in my latest queue.
Black Midi - Calvacade (Rough Trade)
Uncompromising and subversive, this London experimental rock quartet seem to have manufactured an instant landmark album. The balancing act of being a progressive, chameleon-esque band wavers between producing not-what-you-expected, and making it a successful treat. “John L” gives us lurching drums and panic button guitar lines, start-stop rhythms, spiders on the keys, and The Fall-esque spoken word rants. After that we get plenty of jazzy interludes (“Chondromalacia Patella”) and proggy exercises (“Diamond Stuff”) and each track deftly dodges pigeon holes left and right. Boundary-pushing rock can be one of those things we like more in theory than in practice, but the fact remains this is a captivating listen with surprises around every corner. Everyone should listen to this at least once.
Information Society - ODDfellows (Hakatak/Negative Gain)
Hard hitting electronics from this long running act. I wouldn’t call it a rehash of 80s synthpop, especially now that the aesthetic of that decade still seems to be holding on for a lot longer than a retro fad should. Most tracks have momentum and hooks, inviting beats, and lush, Pet Shop Boys-ish vocals. If you’re a fan of the dance floor anthems they’ve been doing for decades then know this is more of that.
Life With The Thrill Kill Kult - Sleazy Action (Sleazebox)
This is a band that found their groove. Guitars and beats
and sex and horror. To their credit, this long-standing act
consistently and effectively meld industrial rock, EBM, and
the occasional plunderphonics together, so they aren’t
a one-dimensional band. That being said, once they discovered
that secret family recipe, they’ve been locked in for
a while now. This LP is a nice catch-up, offering remixes
of select tracks from the last dozen years or so, as well
as cuts from Bomb Gang Girlz and some solo side-projects.
I like the extra layers and thump that these remixes give;
hashtagging this as “gothic disco” has never been
more fitting. The band and music have appeared in a slew of
cult films (which is just where they want to be, I suspect),
and I imagine B-movie producers sitting around their folding
card table thinking, “We need a band in this scene that
will help us achieve an atmosphere of a rock show, but with
witches and punks… Wait, I know, let’s get the
band that wrote Witchpunkrockstar. Perfect!”
Toy - Guardrails (atoydrummer.bandcamp.com)
Wow, I haven’t heard a percussion based album in...
I don’t know how long. Here’s two things I like
about this release. 1) There’s a lot of different drums
here. Live, sampled, sharp snares, deep bass, heavy hits and
skittery flourishes. Nice foundations filled out with more
subtle touches. All of these tracks use the (albeit immense)
toolbox of percussion, but none of them sound the same. And
following this, 2) These tracks actually sound like real songs,
instead of a guy messing around with beat programs in the
studio. There are some electronic pulses and synthy waves
that help in this regard, but you can definitely hear motivated
construction on these tunes. Nothing too short to signify
throwaway experimentation, and nothing too long to conjure
thoughts of aimless button mashing. It sounds like something
one might hear as the soundtrack to a short film. The imagery
is easily induced here. If not that, then the underscore on
a podcast outro, but like, a really good and interesting one.
- Twin Flames (Paper Bag)
One has to avoid the dismissive “side project”
tag here. Paul Murphy’s main gig is in the Halifax band
Wintersleep, and yes the Postdata project explores an entirely
different avenue of indie pop/rock, but dang this is pretty
good. Murphy was smart enough to tap a super-group’s
worth of backers - members of Frightened Rabbit, Blonde Redhead,
and yes Wintersleep contribute here, and the execution is
precise and perfect for what Murphy is envisioning. Often
earnest and occasionally majestic, these tracks defy a label
by evoking folk rock and yet sitting outside Americana (naturally).
The melodies have this classic feel to them (think Simon &
Garfunkel maybe?) while the music is encased in modern trappings.
The bed of synths cushion most of the edge here, but when
beat kicks in, processed or otherwise, you get that tingly
crowd-pleasing moment. The vocals are familiar and likable,
and when the band gets on a roll, which is for most of this
long player, I can totally see a club (or stadium) rocking
along. If this crew hasn’t shared a bill with My Morning
Jacket or Dawes yet, they should.
- Can’t Remember, Can’t Forget (Bloated Kat/Midnight
A fine group out of Northampton, MA here. I’m going
to accurately and concretely label this as alterna-power-punk,
which is really just a blend of all those cousin genres that
we all love, and I dare not explain it any further than “I
know it when I hear it.” What I’m also hearing
is Metric and Charly Bliss, and maybe it’s Massachusetts
playing tricks on my ears, but I hear a bit of Damone and
Letters To Cleo as well. And what do all these bands have
in common? Freaking great songwriting. All of these tracks
are instant sing-alongs, with easy-flowing riffs that churn
around vocal hooks for days. The peppy, buzzy numbers like
Yearbook and 8am are wonderful, but the true mark of quality
comes from the equally awesome slow jams Elka Park and Speechless.
When a band can keep me in their corner with punk ballads,
I’m ready to ring the bell and declare Best of 2021
contention. Impressive stuff.
Name Is Alive - Hope Is A Candle: Home Recordings 1985-1990
Warren Defever and company have been hopscotching across genres
for three decades now, but this archival release of early
recordings shows us their dream rock soundscape roots. You
can definitely get the feel of HNIA in these songs - dreamy
but purposeful, sometimes expansive but never meandering.
I was looking forward to seeing what vocals are on this, but
alas, there are none. These are truly just framework instrumentals,
and we don’t get the gaps filled in until the actual
albums that follow. The guitars and synths are so gently mixed,
that this plays like the pouring of a smoothie, the blender
is already turned off and now we just relax and enjoy. Still,
hardcore completionists only.
- Sand (PIAS)
Soulful sophisti-pop from Belgium. Very modern in its simple,
lite beats, and the songs have just enough casual sway to
keep from being background noise. Halfway reminds me of Like
Swimming-era Morphine, while Moment has a nice Hot Chip rhythm
in the driver’s seat. Overall though, the pattern emerges
with both frontmen assuming their roles - moody verses followed
by falsetto R&B choruses. Balthazar push themselves from
album to album, and each step along the way they seem to succeed
in capturing the right sound. It’s an easy thing to
do when you’re following the pack instead of leading
Auntlord - Daniel Johnston Covers (HHBTM)
Getting involved in Daniel Johnston’s legacy is a
bit of tightrope act. He made some weird, lo-fi, non-palatable
music. But his weirdness was sweet, the lo-fi-ness was not
just sonically but emotionally raw, and the indie cred one
gets from being a “regular guy” instead of a
“musician” is something you just can’t
buy in stores. You can admire his lyrics, you can reimagine
his songwriting, but there’s just no recapturing the
immediacy of his style or the essence of his work. And yet
many people have tried. A lot of people actually.
Kate Davis released Strange Boy just a few weeks ago. Built
To Spill released a cover album last year. The morbidly-titled
The Late Great Daniel Johnston was a who’s who of
indie artists paying tribute. Then you’ve got another
dozen acts like Cub, Mary Lou Lord, Kepi Ghoulie, and Yo
La Tengo who have covered him over the years. People, it’s
been done… but he *was* really great, so stay up on
the high wire if you want, I guess.
Antlered Auntlord bring their own fuzz and rattling to
the table, and do indeed make a valiant effort to catch
that lightning in a bottle but still make it their own.
The singer carries most tunes in a semi-caterwaul fashion,
melodious enough to keep the catchiness of the songs but
also earnestly revealing flaws here and there. There’s
not any piano or accordion (or even an acoustic guitar)
to be found here, so there’s no carbon copying, either.
My favorite track is the dreamier, echo-ish “Syrup
Of Tears.” I don’t think I’ve heard a
take on that one before. Hey look, it’s the bottom
line: Is it any good? Yeah, it’s pretty good…
But is it necessary?
- Tactics EP (Moshi Moshi)
This EP is a masterclass. “I Was Gonna Fight Fascism”
takes the relentlessly rhythmic thump of post-punk, combines
it with synth rock, and turns it into a deadpan anthem that
serves dual purpose as a warning for all apathetic armchair
antifas out there. 7 minutes of gold. “Children Will
Dance” and “Buy It” are more jabs at society
and capitalism, and while the beats splash around the puddles
of synth freakouts a bit more here, the delivery is aloof
enough to make it seem like they are on the outside stabbing
in. Fascinating release.
Circus - Telephone Dreams (Rainbow Polygon)
A neat little indie pop outfit that reminds me of Barcelona,
or perhaps Land Of The Loops, but with the advantage of
20 extra years of techno-pop culture at their disposal.
The songs all fall under the umbrella of synthpop, and there
are quite a few straight-ahead but infectious cuts like
“Death of Robo-Samurai,” but Wolf Circus pulls
at all sorts of strands throughout: Found-soundscapes in
the 11-minute “Tangerine”, cutesy twee in “Phone
Number”, and what I can only describe as jangle disco
in the track “Hung Up On A Feeling.” There’s
only very slight hints of newer (read as: vapor) and older
(read as: 1980s) sounds here. It’s a snug fit in the
middle of it all. It might be a tad long to accommodate
every idea, but, I somewhat recall from my youth that sometimes
parties last until past 10pm.
Poko - Cheater (Bella Union)
The debut from this group out of Norway was well received
in 2019, taking playful noise pop perhaps not to the next
level, but definitely into an adjacent room with more lights
and colors. This new one colors inside the lines a bit more,
so if you’re looking for something more “out
there” you might start at the beginning. That being
said, taking away a lot of the swerves and detours makes
Cheater *rock* a lot more than its predecessor, and I find
it to be more fun, accessible, and memorable. The title
track has a shooting-star arc, “Like A Lady”
has a captivating delicate verse/roaring chorus dynamic,
and “Andy Goes To School” is just a straight
up pop stomper. If the idea of falsetto vocals ringing out
earworms, guitars digging their hooks into you, and a few
pleasant surprises of noise along the way appeals to you,
then 2021 is already starting off well for you with this
- Toytown: Outtakes & Rarities (thepotatomen.bandcamp.com)
Recently I listened to the entire Potatomen discography.
Their output between 1994-1997 was enjoyable and substantial
(two LPs, three EPs, and a split EP with Cub,) but my journey
was not done yet. Toytown unearths demos from a
nearly officially reformed band in 2001, as well as assorted
compilation tracks and oddball scraps.
The 2001 demos sound a lot like what the band was doing
in the 90's - writing and playing country-tinged jangle
pop songs with an occasional Berkley punk edge. It seems
ridiculous to imagine Morrissey growing up in the Gilman
scene and making songs influenced by late 40s/early 50s
country music, but not only is that an accurate depiction,
it also works. Crazy, I know! “I Fell In Love”
starts off like the boring part of the Enchantment Under
The Sea, but then kicks up it two notches for a sweet
romantic ramble. They also had the good sense to re-record
some really good tracks from the earlier years - “The
Beautiful and the Damned” from the Cub split, and
“Ontario” from the debut single. “Toytown”
and “Loneliest Boy In The World” are dreary
ballads, but as they say, what’s a little rain?
As for the miscellaneous songs, “Empty Inside”
is a jaunty heartbreak, with a bouncy bass line and zippy
guitar lines. “Every Day Is LIke Sunday” is
one of the better Smiths homage songs. The recording quality,
style, and essence is definitely one you’d mistake
for actually coming from the indie/underground in 1986.
We are also treated to two cover songs. “Trinidad”
by Brent’s TV is done with such enthusiasm you can’t
help but connect the audio dots between the bands, and “Debra
Jean” by the Queers is another telling example of
the Potatomen’s modus operandi: a new band (at the
time) making music that sounds like old bands, but not as
a novelty. The Potatomen attempt to recreate those classic
sounds out of reverence, and maybe that’s why even
their leftovers are filled with an endearing sincerity.
- Paradise Lost (Satanic Panic)
One more album in the ongoing saga of the 1980s being reborn
again. Modern electro-pop continues to straddle the line
between the chillwave sound and the retro stylings of say…
the Miami Vice theme song. John Jagos has the perfect voice
for this. It’s soothing and heartfelt, but somehow
has that cold disconnect that comes with this territory.
At it’s best it’s transporting you to the title
of the album, a secret space that you could swear was once
in our collective memory. A few years ago this guy put out
a Tears For Fears cover album, so I don’t doubt the
veracity of his claims for 80s nostalgia. On the other end
of the spectrum this at times reminds me of “In The
Air Tonight” by Phil Collins (or “In Too Deep”
by Genesis, if you prefer). Have we come back around on
that, yet? I’m not convinced but I’ve let this
cruise around my ears a few times anyway.
Shop - Resist! (crocshop.com )
Normally projects billed as “protest music”
put me on the edge of a knife. They could be powerful and
timeless but just as easily they could be kinda lame and
dated. Having heard a few Mick Hale projects previously,
I was a bit more at ease and I think I know where he’s
coming from here. That being said, I don’t think it
counts as having “hit the mark” when the target
is this HUGE mess we are in these days. The beats are steady,
the synths push the melodies, and the vocals carry the message
when the soundbytes don’t. It’s not as wild
as Meat Beat Manifesto or industrial-rough as Skinny Puppy.
It’s not as creepy as Cabaret Voltaire or as dancey
as Nitzer Ebb. It just kinda sits there in the middle of
it all. Granted, this is a complete album (as opposed to
say, a very pointed single like “19” by Paul
Hardcastle), but the well-executed music and the vague railing
both seem to be the backdrop for each other, rather than
something truly significant coming to light. Politically
charged and with plenty of tools at their disposal, Croc
Shop avoids a lot of the protest music pitfalls thankfully,
though despite being a decent listen I don’t think
it will change anyone’s mind about the government
it admonishes, nor the genre of music it promotes.
Moss - Who The Power (Bella Union)
Stepping aside from her duties in London rock band Duke
Spirit, Moss gives us a solo outing reminiscent of the 80s
4AD era. There’s plenty of dark, moody tones here,
and overall the songwriting and production maintains a good
balance - you can hear the roots but you won’t mistake
this for something old. Going “all in” is where
Moss succeeds, as seen on the propulsive opener “Turn
Your Back Around”, the anthemic pop of “Suako”,
and the powerful ballad “The Individual.” She’s
got the gothic chanteuse chops that can carry you through
a song, but her sound emits as theatrical rather than ethereal
so it’s more like you’re an outside spectator
rather than becoming immersed in the dream. Still, if you’re
a fan of Cocteau Twins, Lisa Gerrard, and several others
of that ilk, this is more than worthy of your attention.
& His Mothball Fleet - GULF (Azteca)
The reemergence of the yacht rock genre is a curious phenomenon
indeed. Did it all stem from Toto’s “Africa”
coming back into vogue? Do modern pop/rock acts know that
writing a song that's insidiously memorable, ridiculously
unchallenging, and hypnotically singable comes along once
in a lifetime? The band doesn’t hit the jackpot but
does have a few cards up their sleeve. The country and western
tinged “Moves” and breezy sunshine pop of “Coastal
Living” are the gems soft rock lovers will mine for,
and a cover of Portastatic’s “I Wanna Know Girls”
is an eyebrow raising inclusion. This outfit creates pleasant
songs - it’s all warm and clear here. Not a chance of
lightning striking anytime soon.
Brothers - Across The Waves (Fluff & Gravy)
Really enjoyable Americana indie-folk from Oregon. This
one’s a keeper, if only because in addition to liking
this, it reminds me of another artist that I can’t
immediately think of, and I just won’t stand for that.
I’m grasping at Carbon Leaf, Son Volt (or maybe Uncle
Tupelo), and a few others, but not quite hitting it. The
sound brings forth images of pastures and broken down fences,
old barns, dusty roads, and the country home that you can’t
go back to because you’re too busy adulting.
While the tone seems to want to pull you to a simpler time,
the arrangements are lush and the performances are sharp.
Strumming, picking, and sliding guitars wrap things up in
a nice package, with a little organ and banjo as the ribbon
on top. What’s more is the whole thing works for the
uptempo numbers like lead single “Skyline” and
“All The Same” and also for the slow floaters
like “River Town” and the everything’s-going-to-be-ok
ballad “Where You’re Going.” Heck, the
mid-tempo “Picture Show” might be my favorite
of them all. Well done.
Center - The Ground Below (Chicago Research; civiccenter.bandcamp.com)
Electro-industrial jams that explore sound as art, combine
man and machine, and make weird noises, I presume, because
it’s fun. This is some dark, echoing, stuff that borders
on sound collage. Cabaret Voltaire did this many decades
ago. Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 did this with catchier pulses
of synth. This is a well-executed album in terms of production
and vision, but it’s evoking no real response from
me, which, I’ve been told, is what all good art should
- Saint Cloud (Merge)
Katie Crutchfield’s fifth proper album and a textbook
sleeper. It’s unchallenging, simple, and while consistent,
there’s no standout “hit” to be found
here. The easy sway of the music is pleasant but just a
backdrop for Crutchfield’s vocals. Her nuances and
melodic depth become more apparent upon each listen. Her
dusty voice shows wisdom beyond her years, but like Dolly
Parton, has a down-to-earth attractiveness that turns into
timelessness. The songs fall squarely into country and Americana,
but there are tinges of past decades of pop crossover (think
something like “Closer To Fine” by Indigo Girls
or Tuesday Night Music Club-era Sheryl Crow). I enjoy the
folksy and catchy “Hell” and the equally strummy
“Witches” with vocals that levitate like magic,
but the slower, longer ballads have yet to wake me up. Chalk
that up to my own impatience and desire to get that pick
up truck rolling and delivering those flowers.
Cars - Bad Ends (Self Released)
My long standing take on the Dead Mechanical catalog, aside
from being overall extremely positive, was that even though
the band was a trio, Lucas Carscadden’s voice sounded
like a second guitar. It was full, abrasive, and the force
he put into his vocals sounded like another layer of chords
in the mix. Here we get L(ucas) on his own, recording everything
himself while in quarantine. The time, place, and isolation
converge into some really good, stark stuff. The noise doesn’t
push the needle as much, but I don’t believe the intent
was to remake music from the past, anyway.
The opening track plods along with apathy, but “Quarantine
II” revs up to what old fans would most likely connect
to. “Little Light” intrigues with it’s
ringing guitar and layers of vocals that take on that oxymoronic
sound of a scream-whisper. “The Integratron Breaks
Down” is a spunky foray into lo-fi synth punk, and
as a bonus made me aware of the Integratron in the first
place (look it up). “At The Fences” sounds like
a legit Trent Reznor demo, and “Color In No Space”
goes in the opposite direction as a family affair. The floating
bed of synth supports Carscadden singing, the backing vocals
are supplied by his spouse, and the song describes the mysterious
phenomenon their son has - synesthesia (the ability to hear
a certain note and see a certain color). Bad Ends is different
and sparse, but I’m kind of excited to see if L Cars
keeps going in this direction even when not confined to
- It’ll Be Alright EP (tomemitsu.bandcamp.com)
Agreeable modern bedroom indie pop from California. Bookended
by doses of ambient pop, this EP highlights Tomemistu’s
skills in fashioning swirling guitar around his sunset vocals.
Melancholic in sound but not particularly depressing. Think
post-remix era Erlend Oye and pre-remix era Stars gently
Ward - Migration Stories (Anti-)
I love M. Ward’s guitar playing. Ever since I heard
his take on “You Still Believe In Me” (one of
my favorite tracks on Pet Sounds), I’ve been in his
corner. There aren’t many modern guitarists (let alone
those in the indie realm) that you would describe as a dancer
on the strings, but that’s what his style amounts
to. It’s not just expert plucking, Ward truly turns
it into an artform, and it’s a style that my ears
don’t ever get tired of.
So with this new album, my attitude of “Can’t
have too much of a good thing” is my own downfall,
since Ward seems to coast here in a more standard singer-songwriter
fashion rather than showcasing his skills with a guitar.
His songs are well-crafted, though they occasionally lean
into easy-to-please territory, with hooks devolving into
bah-bah-bahs and whoa-ohs. His vocals, as always, take nothing
away from the process, but don’t really add anything
either. We only get a tease of his best work with the opener
“Rio Drone” and the intermission track “Stevens’
Snow Man.” One great thing about the album is it captures
the feel of traveling under the stars and stays on point
from beginning to end. From “Along The Santa Fe Trail”
to “Heaven’s Nail And Hammer” you can
just imagine a small group sitting around the campfire after
a long day’s journey. Think “Blue Shadows On
The Trail” a la Randy Newman/The Three Amigos movie.
I’m still in his corner, but I don’t think I
would use this album to coax you to join me.
Mass - A Hopeless Noise (Mothland/Label Etiquette)
Most of this album’s one sheet is dedicated to explaining
the story of this concept album, and also gives us the spectacular
laundry list of guest appearances found here. It doesn’t
say anything about the sound, which I find interesting,
though I’m not sure if that’s due to being purposefully
messy or a happy accident. Most of it falls into the realm
of psychedelic music, but you’re exposed to the traditional
rock’n’roll stylings of King Kahn, the angular
art-noise of Mike Watt, and full-throttle garage punk from
Mac DeMarco and Rick Froberg (Drive Like Jehu/Hot Snakes)
within the first quarter of the album.
The randomness continues with the shadowy and seductive
“Devil In Disguise”, featuring Drug Train, songs
that howl about intoxication, and Evan Dando asking “Where
are my drugs?!”. Ok, so maybe there is a unified theme
here after all. We finally end up at “Sharp,”
presumably sung by the Diamond Girl herself, which starts
off with a slow strum, then hits a dance rock stride, DeMarco
returns, then shifts to some shredding, then slows to a
crawl. It’s a wild ride for sure, and I’m not
averse to that usually, but I’m not as keen on a journey
that pulls you in so many different directions.
Kizirnis - The Distance (ATOM Records)
This singer/songwriter has been traveling the circuit for
years, and this album is a testament of what musicians like
him do - namely, writing solid songs that people will like.
At a random bar, probably at an indie venue, definitely
at a food truck festival - this music will fit the bill
for the general public. While it leans dangerously close
to AOR, it thankfully can be described more as Great Americana
Songbook-style music. While Kizirnis is the guiding force
for the songs, he invites Kate Wakefield (of the Cincinnati-based
band Lung) to sing all the vocals. Channeling the proto-country-rock
of Gram Parsons and the timeless Sun-tinged pop of Roy Orbison,
these songs are custom made for your enjoyment. The album
features covers of Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits if that
helps put a frame around things.
- Future Teenage Cave Artists (Joyful Noise)
That title says it all. The peg-dodging, pigeon-hole avoiding
band is back with more experimental pop that constantly
lulls you into moods of catchy happiness and then switcheroos
you into atonal melodies and rhythm changes that trip you
up. Every song is filled with cooing vocals and layers of
harmonies, mixed with awkward riffs that rarely get into
a groove before someone hits the brakes or changes gears.
I think the true brilliance here is that the music never
falls back on senseless noise. Nothing is overfuzzed, no
mindless feedback, nothing falls apart. The band just uncovers
odd hooks and peculiar rhythms and puts them to good use.
I find it impressive from a creative and technical standpoint,
and I’m envisioning a sleight-of-hand chef magician
(Food Network tv producers, please get in touch with me,
I have an idea). You are watching them create something
delicious, like a piece of art even. And then you bite it
and you’re like “How did that creme filling
get in there?!?!”
Grade - Hit To Hit (Double Double Whammy)
This is good old fashioned indie pop, similar to stuff
you’d find on Kindercore or March Records in the late
90s. Fresh-faced and tuneful vocals (think Ben Kweller’s
debut) over jangle guitars in a mid-fi production package.
What’s more, the songs are saturated with ear-enticing
hooks swiped from dragstrip pop of the early 60s, Chris
Stamey’s “The Summer Sun” and perhaps
“Here Comes Summer” by the Undertones when the
band really kicks up some dust. So yeah, the feel of this
album just oozes summertime.
When the band’s not tossing off nuggets like “Sunkist”
and “Boys In Heat” or strolling through ballads
like “Summer of Your Dreams” we get reference
rock bubblegum with “Dennis Hopper In Easy Rider”
and “When You Were My Sharona.” There’s
a lot to unpack after this vacation, and that’s due
to the album’s 24-song length. It’s definitely
a fun listen, maybe just what we need right now, but watch
out for that crammed suitcase springing open on its own.
Depressedly - Depressedelica (Run For Cover, elvisdepressedly.bandcamp.
A lo-fi duo out of Asheville, NC that mixes the old with
the new. At times it has a vibe of Yo La Tengo’s mellower
moments, “Float On”-era Modest Mouse, or even
real-deal indietronica from the Darla Records scene (and
for some reason, I feel the need to point out the album
has not one, but two references to Primal Scream). However
all those cool influences are filtered through modern contrivances:
purposefully auto-tuned vocals, decent equipment that’s
punching down to sound like cheaper gear, and oh, let’s
just say a millennial affectation.
The band is most successful when the guitar enters stage
left. Tracks like the jangly “Holo World” and
the breezy “Can You Hear My Guitar Rotting?”
have fully-realized melodies, as opposed to the “just
there” synth pop attempts. Occasionally we get the
best of both worlds with the fuzzy “Let’s Break
Up The Band” and album closer “New Love In The
Summertime”, both of which balance the scales into
pleasurable indie pop.
Years - Animalism (Chapel)
Modern indie rock from Birmingham Alabama. The band creates
a good atmosphere, letting the songs breathe and flow, sounding
more like a natural expanse rather than an aimless wandering.
However, it’s not until the hooks of “Commonly
Known” do my ears perk up. It takes a little bit of
The Cure and recharges the battery, with a spritely tempo,
a bed of keyboards, and cool cascading vocals. “Animal
Taxxx” has a sunny glow about it, and they wrap thing
up with “Fear Culture”, a song that rocks in
a hypnotic way but is also bursting at the seams with pop
goodness, so maybe a nod to the Velvet Underground isn’t
out of the question.
Those tracks aside the album cruises along using an accomplished
but standard formula. Rolling synths flutter along the path
while guitars deftly weave in and out. The sprawl is impressive
and the sound is altogether pleasant, but it mostly fades
into the background as nondescript alt-rock music unless
you focus your attention diligently. This is music that
you need to sink yourself into deeply, and not just hear,
but feel. Robert Smith fans would dig this.
- Shadow (Funeral Party)
Didn’t I just review this record? Seriously though,
more throwback underground rock that makes me think those
left-of-the-dial bands of the 80s have come full circle
once again. This post-punk outfit fuzzes it up in a more
shoegazey fashion, and the vocals sound more gloomy so I’m
looking in Joy Division’s direction. The sound of
this is quite good - they definitely deliver on the blend
of scuzzed up guitars, eerie effects, and a swirl of 80s
gothic rock and modern dark wave. That being said, the dismal
vocals don’t really lend themselves to melody, and
the overall cohesiveness of the album is it’s own
downfall in terms of same-sameyness. Still, I will recommend
this to you if your bedroom walls are painted black.
- Sorcery (Bangs & Burns)
When Exmaid first hit the scene a few years ago, the idea
of the former Hunchback time-keeper and Full of Fancy/Black
Wine frontwoman being backed by Philly noise-punks Psychic
Teens really made sense on paper. All parties involved had
a penchant for making a melodic racket that fell heavily
on the dark side. With Sorcery, the plans have
finally come to fruition on wax. Never have Miranda’s
vocals sounded so magical and dreamy, never have the guitars
sounded so strong and punchy, and never have the two blended
so well together.
Side A starts off with slow burner “Mary,”
gently introducing the listener to floating vocals underpinned
by guitars both creeping and chiming, before exploding into
layers of fuzz. A barrage of hits follows - the pulsating
“Moth,” the hook-laden “Lite,” and
the riff-stacked “Dead” all keep the quality
Side B supplies sing-along “Moldy” and revved-up
straight-ahead rocker “Prez,” some of the few
tracks featuring backup vocals from Psychic Teen frontman
Larry, giving the tunes a little more depth, as if you weren’t
already staring into the abyss. We get a breather with some
slower cuts at the end of the album, and they are certainly
welcome after that ride.
There aren’t too many signposts that hit close to
the mark here. It’s a unique combo that’s only
done justice by listening to the previous/current bands
of all members. But for the heck of it imagine if Sonic
Youth went more pop, and Veruca Salt went more punk, and
they all wrote songs long distance via seance. The satellites
are confused, but it pleases me to say this is the best
thing this band has done.
Miserable - Insufficient Funds (Rhodehouse)
This Calgary-based punk pop outfit harkens back to the
days of singing along with sweaty friends in a dim basement.
If that description doesn’t bring forth a specific
sound to you, it should! If you’re wondering if the
music is any good, it is! Lead singer James has a great,
pained caterwaul that hangs onto that melody like you grip
on a carnival ride. The tone and delivery reminds of midwest
punks like Delay and Jeff Rosenstock’s work in Bomb
The Music Industry. The lyrical content is par for the course
- the world is going to hell in a handbasket so let’s
hurry up and do this!
The playing here is unceremonious and loud but not sloppy.
The drumming often gets riffy, which is a welcome treat
since it’s done well, and really lends itself to the
band’s erratic approach to song structure. Side A
gives us the multi-movement “Horses Held”, the
bouncy “Functional Embarrassment” the rage-quit
of “Burn, Athabasca, Burn” the near-90s-alternative
of “The Last Lonely Boy” and the Weakerthans-meets-Gainsville
Side B offers more variety with the upstroking “Almost
Fun” and the zippy, whoa-oh heavy “Soul In Progress”.
“It Costs A Lot To Be This Cursed” gets questionably
psychedelic and metallic, and the album ends on the anthemic
affirmation of “Keep In Touch.” Every step of
the way is like putting together a puzzle, where a solo
comes in, or the verse/chorus/verse pattern turns on a dime,
and you don’t think it fits, but then you rotate the
piece and voila, it *does* go together! I’m calling
it jigsaw punk and it’s a fine way to pass the time.
Mr. T Experience - MTX FOREVER: A History of the Concept
of The Mr. T Experience (Sounds Rad)
You don’t know The Mr. T Experience?! You might think
I’d ridicule such a person, but no. I’d be envious.
Imagine hearing those catchy pop punk songs for the first
time. Picture those eyebrows raising at the discovery of
Dr. Frank’s songwriting prowess. Imagine that smile
growing on your face at the funny, insightful, tunes that
this band has churned out over it’s multi-decade existence.
If not for the fond memories and the comfort of familiarity,
I’d almost not be able to contain my jealousy of someone
hearing this compilation as an introduction to the band.
So this is pure pop punk - too many to mention, straight
to the core 3-chord gems that’ll have the earworms
pogoing inside your head. But there are also selections
that play at the fringes. The horn-laden “Naomi,”
the dark “Deep Deep Down,” the power pop of
“Oh, Just Have Some Faith In Me” and the acoustic
heartbreaker “Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend”...
hmmm maybe this list has too many to mention as well. At
24 tracks, a band that released nine albums and a handful
of EPs can be summarized pretty well. There isn’t
a major release that isn’t represented here, and of
those, the song choice I think is really on point. (Side
note: I believe the songs chosen were by a team of engineers
cross-indexing multiple spreadsheets of fan surveys, discography
experts, and album sales).
That being said, MTX is revered for a reason. These two
dozen tunes should only serve to launch (or re-launch) your
love of this dumb little band.
Blue - These Songs EP (wearevistablue.bandcamp.com)
Well, these reviews are being written in April
of 2020, so we might as well touch upon the music inspired
by these strange times. “Emmaline Is Quarantined”
is a typically brilliant pop punk boy-loves-girl song, about
a girl who just happens to be sheltering in place with all
her cool records and movies. The slower paced “Come
On, Come On” at 2.5 minutes is the longest track here,
and while not my favorite of the trio, I hear a lot of the
Travoltas in the chorus, which pleases me greatly, and I
hope that trend continues. “These Songs” rounds
things out with more catchy isolation rock, and in addition
to being a sweet bite of sugar punk, we get a cool keyboard
solo too. This band just keeps stockpiling ‘em up.
Reed - What’s Good For The Goose Is Good (Youngbloods)
Avant-jazz is a tough pill to swallow. Extended sequences
try your patience, overblown instruments pierce your ears,
and the directionless approach leave you wondering what
the heck is going on. Bradford Reed’s new album isn’t
a spoonful of sugar, but it does go down a bit easier thanks
to relative brevity, pleasant tones, and an atmosphere that
doesn’t have you worrying about getting from point
a to b. This is space-age free form stuff, so there’s
no direction needed, you inherently know you’re just
going to float around for a while.
The album starts off with a mood-setting piece and the
title track, but it’s “Waves of Wind through
Tops of Trees” that first boosts the listener off
the ground. Instruments (what I presume are saxophone and
guitar, though they may be modified/synthetic versions of
such) weave and swirl aimlessly, nevertheless carrying you
above the canopy. “A View with No Rooms” pushes
us even more forcefully, with the keys being struck urgently
and more chaotically as the song progresses. It builds until
we get a near full sound, including some rare percussion,
though it sounds more like tapping a secret code on the
water pipes instead a steady beat.
There’s more oddball movie score-ness to be found,
but sprinkled in is the weird interplay of “One Forward,
Two Back Out”, the chopsticks-esque exercise of “Birds
of Pairs of Dice”, and the spry surprises of “Magnetoreception.”
All throughout one may wonder not just why Reed chooses
to create this music, but also how. The sound is organic
is some instances, and at other times otherworldly. What
happened? Did we go anywhere? What was the point? I have
to remind myself that we don’t always have an end
result. Welcome to experimental music, where the experiment
IS the purpose.
Redd Kross started off in the early 80s with some California
punk connections, but the McDonald brothers bring in enough
soaring harmonies, earworm melodies, and glossy production
that power pop reigns supreme. Call it alternative sunshine
rock if you will. All these years later Jeff and Steve are
still unabashedly campy, dedicated to rocking out and supplying
the noise for your weekend shimmy. For those looking for punk
pop, the album gives us vigorous rockers like “Fighting”
and “Fantastico Roberto”. Might as well name drop
Dale Crover (Melvins, OFF!) on drums here, and his spotlight
on “Punk II”. For those looking in an oldiescore
direction, check out “Ice Cream Strange And Pleasing”,
which to these ears owes a bit to Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.”
“The Party Underground” also has a classic bubblegum
feel and it almost brings me pain to think this song is not
a hit on the radio. The title track adds arena rock “yeah
yeah yeahs” to an incredibly catchy ballad, something
only this band can legitimately pull off. Everything else
on the record hovers somewhere around these areas, and overall
it’s a brilliant addition to the catalog. If you don’t
know Redd Kross, get on this. If you do know, well, you should
also get on this. Just to solidify your stance.
Kross - Beyond The Door (Merge)
Noice - NOICE (Orenda)
A dizzying array of sounds swirling around like a an art pop
carnival where the whole dang thing is a fun house. Jabbing
drums, robo-guitars, and a zippy saxophone all set the stage
for looped and remixed operatic vocals. You know how in a
cheesy tv show when they are about to do a flashback and the
screen gets all wavy and you hear a “deedle-lee-doo,
deedle-lee-doo” sound? That’s what the synthesizers
sound like here. But instead of leading us back in time, they
just keep deedling away. It’s both unsettling and hypnotic.
My brain is telling me there is some variety on these eight
tracks, but the sound is too unique and too dense for me to
differentiate. I can’t say, “You know, the one
track with the epic, high-pitched vocals and the creepy samples
and the saxophone,” because that is EVERY track here.
Noice definitely has an artistic vision, and electro-opera-jazz
is a bizarre one indeed. I might even call it vexing, though
I must admit I find it entertaining. That tv is flipping channels
on it’s own, all the electronics in the house are going
haywire, and the daydream is collapsing on itself. This isn’t
an album you can listen to passively, nor can you easily penetrate
the challenges it provides. One of those weird albums where
you just have to relinquish control and let it happen to you.
If you darrrrrrre.
Americans - Other Americans EP (https://music.apple.com/us/album/other-americans-ep)
The decade of the 80s as a foundation for modern music isn’t
a bad thing. Fond memories of Casio keyboards and lip syncing
radio hits are tough to let go of. This Kansas City band goes
for a one-two punch of 80s synth-heavy rock and vixen-diva-pop
star vocals (which, if I’ve got my records in order,
was invented by Madonna in 1983). The sound itself is pretty
good. The synths have a really nice, deep, satisfying vibe,
like when you twang a big rubber band just right. Singer Julie
Bernsden isn’t quite Annie Lennox or Shirley Manson,
but nice enough and in that ballpark, and you get an undiluted
tone - no modern auto-tuned nonsense. The songwriting however
is too breezy and fluffy, nothing to sink your teeth into
until we get to “Runaway King”, which amps up
the guitars and finds a hook. An admirable effort, at least.
The EP is supplemented by some remixes, for the EDM fans that
want a little dash of the new with the retro.
Erg - Waxbuilt Castles (Don Giovanni)
The span of time between the dissolution of The Ergs to
Mikey’s debut solo album can hardly be called a hiatus.
He logged time in so many other bands as a studio player
and tour workhorse that even before 2016’s Tentative
Decisions, he was never that far from the stage. That
album wasn’t a comeback per se but it was a hurdle.
It was an artistic vision finally completed. It was getting
those fresh (albeit Gin Blossoms/Lemonheads-inspired) songs
out there. With that under his belt, Mikey was primed to
do something even more brave.
Waxbuilt Castles is not a loud, fast record. It’s
not really a sing-along record. Hype on the street is it’s
a 70s pop/rock record, followed by a bunch of name dropping,
the most unavoidable of which is Elvis Costello (but think
more “Alison” than “Pump It Up”).
Some other bands get tossed about (when Mikey Erg is concerned,
the list of influences may as well be infinite), but to
these ears there’s a lot of AM Gold here. Emitt Rhodes,
Gram Parsons, and Harry Nilsson no doubt have some shelf
space in Mikey’s abode. The long-player has its flourishes,
but for the most part it’s a singer-songwriter affair
with Mikey’s vocals at the forefront. Which begs the
question, is Mikey a good singer? That question has rattled
around in my brain for some time now. Are we talking all-time?
Are we talking just within the punk realm? How are we weighing
the elements of his tunefulness and his power? Well, let’s
see what he does correct: He writes within his range. There
are many pop punkers out there with good intentions when
they write certain melodies, but you can realllllly
hear them stretching for some notes. Mikey succeeds within
his limits because he does yet more things right by initiating
a good cadence, expressing unforced emotion when the moment
calls for it, and he keeps his lyrics and phrasing on a
simple, tight leash. He may yet prove to be the Rod Carew
of modern punk songwriters.
Back to the bravery: The record starts off with “Kimberly
Gofigure,” one of the slowest, longest songs on the
album. Yeah it’s got some cool pedal steel in there,
but he’s making sure you know right away this is a
different ballgame. Following that we’ve got typical,
brilliant hits with “Bad Decision Monday” and
“Clueless or Cruel,” upbeat songs that will
motivate some toes to tap and hearts to ache. Later on the
soft but majestic title track flows into the lead single
“Hopland Superette,” and “Why Was I Programmed
To Feel Pain?,” which would fit right in with his
previous album, though I’m glad it’s here. There
are a few trying moments along the way, like the unnecessary
detour of the 8-minute “City Lettings” but by
the time we get to the closer of “Somewhere Drinking,
Drinking Somewhere”, I’m having visions of Mikey
playing The Fest sitting at a piano and it’s making
me well up a bit.
Dude has been putting on the miles and this release exemplifies
that fully. If you’ve come with Mikey Erg this far,
don’t jump off yet. He’s still in the driver’s
seat but there’s a new view out the window.
Lucky Eejits - Out Of Time (Wiretap/ByPolar)
This East Bay trio sounds like late 90s pop punk, right after
the slick, skater trend boomed and just before mallpunk took
over. That is to say, it sounds like Enema Of The State-era
Blink 182. Speedy drums propel the songs, buoyed with the
standard guitar buzz and backing vocals. Most of the time
it ramps up to an anthemic and/or whoa-oh style chorus. The
tunes overall are not bad, though they fare much better when
kept short, and each track is nearly indistinguishable from
the next. Sounds like something you’ve heard before,
right? Here are two things to consider before dismissal: First,
the lyrical content is much more mature than Blink 182. Ok,
so that’s not a high bar but it’s worth mentioning.
Second, the singer kinda sounds like KJ Jansen from Chixdiggit,
if KJ was trying to do some kind of DeLonge/Hoppus impersonation.
Fans of Blink, MxPx, and Direct Hit should file this one away
just in case.
- I Sold My Soul To The Devil When I Was 12 (SonaBlast Records)
If you weren’t aware that this queercore scream pop
duo from Louisville, Kentucky is about to take the world
by storm, look to the horizon. It’s coming. The topics
throughout are the real talk/socially progressive issues
of the current year (sex, identity, family dysfunction),
and there’s a passion that cuts deep with every line.
The anguished, just this side of deadpan vocals levitate
around steady, tuneful guitar lines, and bursts of noise
erupt in a forceful way but never detach from the melody.
Imagine the gloomy surf of La Luz mixed with a more spunky
Devi McCallion (Girls Ritual, Cats Millionaire), culminating
in a Carrie-at-the-prom like fashion. The singer Rej has
a smoky howl as well as a delightful coo, conjuring thoughts
of an SST-era Kim Gordon/Sonic Youth.
The brisk “I Hate My Mom” is a teenage punk
anthem smash. The haunting “Time” and cautionary
“Take Your Clothes Off” are indicative of the
build-build-build-RELEASE method of the entire album. That
being said, the songwriting isn’t formulaic, since
sometimes the slow build explodes at the end, other times
it flares up in the middle, and there are plenty of tracks
like “Donald”, “Fuck Me Up”, and
“No Tongue” that don’t even bother with
the tension; they rev from the get-go and detonate in the
choruses. The album ends with a peppy surf instro called
“Gay 4 U” and the pastoral, I’ll-be-back-again
of “I’m Not Afraid Of You”. Your radar
definitely needs to track this band.
Skin - Weird Skin (Future Ghost)
Having followed Azeem Sajid from his time in the Steinways,
House Boat, and Skinny Genes, there’s nothing surprising
here from his new NYC outfit. It sounds like his patented
fast-paced, lovesick, catchy af tunage all shoved into songs
hovering around 1 or 2 minutes. He’s got the perfect
voice for this genre - It’s got the sugar without
being sweet, the snottiness without sounding immature, and
the sensitive-guy pitch without being whiny. You might think
for the sake of brevity the guitar action would be abandoned,
but nope, they squeeze in a whole bunch of zippy riffs and
mini-solos. This is vacuum packed pop punk! Highlights include
the aching “Out Of My Orbit”, the aggressive
“Big Sigh”, the frenzied and multi-vocal arranged
“Extra Noise”, and the possibly Mean Jeans-inspired,
oldiescore “2 Weird 4 Luv.” I’d describe
this debut as predictable, but I’ve been closely monitoring
the natural progression of pure/Lookout/Mutant Pop/Insub
punk for the last three decades. This 20-minute album is
right in my comfortable, carpet-worn wheelhouse.
- Immaculada High (Relapse)
Long defunct Texas outfit Cherubs are back with some noise.
It sounds like the old, abrasive, pummeling, static shock
of yesteryear, once brought to our ears from bands like
the Butthole Surfers, Melvins, and Jesus Lizard. Altogether
nothing outstanding but if you’re into noise rock,
they hit all the marks: rumbling rhythm section, feedback
heavy, alternating between short, fast songs to lose your
shit to and slow burners to get lost in. Where Cherubs stand
out from the herd is with Kevin Whitley’s vocals.
Instead of a guttural growl or a stoner rock groan, he has
a melodic, druggy wail that interplays nicely with all the
fuzz. Noise-for-noise’s sake isn’t my favorite
take on punk but if it’s your bag this is probably
a solid investment.
Cannibals - Can’t Tell Me No (Tiny Engines)
After some DIY releases and a stint on Kill Rock Stars,
Portland’s Summer Cannibals take another step on their
journey with Can’t Tell Me No. That title
is entirely appropriate, as the album’s lyrical content,
overall attitude, and sheer existence is one of independence,
defiance, and a refutation of industry manipulation (they
scrapped an entire record and made this new one in their
A lot of this is in the Veruca Salt/Charly Bliss/Daddy
Issues ballpark, perhaps mixed with that certain indie punk
sound that you hear often in the northwest. Carefully constructed,
and sometimes powerful axe work matches up well with the
sneer and bite of Jessica Boudreaux’s vocals, but
there’s also some dreamy harmonies over the top, lifting
this out of the pedestrian girls-with-guitars basin. The
album starts with some energetic numbers, including the
stuttering title track manifesto, but it’s not until
the escalating, fuzzed-out-but-angelic “Behave”
kicks in that things get interesting. The swirling “Innocent
Man”, the quick and dirty “Staring At The Sun”,
and the ear hooking “Start Breaking” chalk up
more tallies in the hit column, and by the time we get to
the Phil Spector-beat “Into Gold” we are distinctly
leaning into win territory. I won’t presume to know
what this band’s destination is, but I’d like
to think with this record they are heading in the right
Youth - Memory Emotion (Watts Arcade/Last Gang)
What a dreamy, understated album this is. Austin Garrick
lays down a foundation of 80s vibes, ranging from the ethereal
(think early 4AD) to future-urban landscapes (think Blade
Runner and Tron). Bronwyn Griffin’s ultra-gentle vocals
are as beautiful as they come, but the texture is really
electronic, as if they were funneled through a synthesizer
with knobs and faders that control temperature and emotion.
Although quite rich in sound, this synthpop holds a similar
ambiance and barely approaches mid-tempo throughout. When
something glows in the dark you focus on that, because that
light invitingly contrasts with the dimness. Memory Emotion
is all glow though, which in turn makes everything blend
into itself and fade into the background. If you’re
looking for something to merely play in the back of your
mind, here ya go.
Raybon - Supertoys (eliraybon.bandcamp.com)
The future is now! That phrase sounds so fresh and captivating,
but since the future also sounds like 80’s synth pop,
it’s more familiar than fascinating to anyone that
grew up with Depeche Mode. Eli Raybon’s take on future
funk is almost too literal. This is a sci-fi album filled
with androids, battery brains, and the moon. It’s
also filled with disco beats, keyboard frills, and other
staples of the vaporwave offshoot. Electronic despair and
dance, together again for the first time.
The album has a great sound - warm, full-sounding layers
of synths and sampled beats and all sorts of catchy keyboard
squiggling that tease around the melodies. For the most
part you’ve got electro-dance pop as solid ground,
but occasionally a shake-up occurs in the form of a ballad
(“Star Child”) or a true get-on-the-floor number
like “Saturday Nights In Space.”
Nothing on Supertoys is off-putting, but Raybon’s
vocals are consistently plaintive. Very little vocal manipulation
here, he’s got a good natural voice. He seems to stay
within a programmed range though, if you know what I mean.
The release is a concept album, which is fine, but wow does
it hit you over the head with that theme. There’s
not a couplet that goes by that doesn’t mention binary
trees or electronic brains or computers or outer space.
The songs are a tad long for my tastes, but thankfully he’s
got a lot of ideas crammed in there, and overall the sound
is pleasant. I give this record 3 luminous balls of gas
out of 5 luminous balls of gas, held together by their own
gravity with nuclear fusion reactions at their core.
Parlotones - China (OK! Good Records)
This South African four-piece gives us epic sounding, keys-laden,
mid-tempo pop/rock. It sounds like U2 and Coldplay. Every
heartfelt, ready-for-commercial-radio note feels absolutely
perfect. If you’re looking for wholesome, soaring choruses
and songs that belong on very special episodes of network
tv dramas, look no further. The most intriguing part of listening
to this release is hearing “Young & The Guilty,”
which verses have a “We Didn’t Start The Fire”
aesthetic. Then a few songs later there is a song called “Only
The Good,” which yes, gives a direct lyrical nod to
Mr. Joel. I believe this band is popular in the smaller markets
of another hemisphere. They could be big here, but only if
we are still lending our ears to the blandest, safest pop
music out there. And we’ve moved on from that by now,
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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