Bill’s Indie Basement (2/28): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Before we leap into March Madness, we end February with the busiest week of releases — in Indie Basement terms — that we’ve seen since before Thanksgiving. Today’s also got a high hit quotient with six new albums, all of which I think are very good, and some of them are genuinely great. Those include: Dan Snaith’s first Caribou album in six years (it might be his best, too); Real Estate get even breezier on fifth album The Main Thing; Parisian band Juniore‘s very groovy, very French second album Un Deux Trois; UK group The Orielles‘ excellent second album Disco Volador; Cold Beat‘s first album for DFA; and quirky Scottish musician Pictish Trail. Plus: Rainy Day, the all-covers “Paisley Underground” supergroup record led by David Roback (Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star) who sadly died this week.
If that’s not enough for you, Andrew has more reviews in this week’s Notable Releases. I can also recommend Mission Bells from Proper Ornaments (James of Veronica Falls and Ultimate Painting), and Scottish C-86 survivors Close Lobsters have just released their first album in 32 years, the mouthful titled Post Neo Anti – Arte Povera In the Forest Of Symbols, which is also worth checking out.
This was just an insane week in general in the music blog-o-sphere: New Order & Pet Shop boys are touring together; Kraftwerk’s coming back in 3-D; Lars from The Intelligence and Wounded Lion formed a new weird band; Land of Talk are back; and so is Kelly Lee Owens.
That is enough for one week. See you in March!
Caribou – Suddenly
All the pieces — 900 of them — come into place for Dan Snaith’s best, most affecting Caribou record yet.
It’s been six years since Our Love, Dan Snaith’s last album as Caribou. He’s stayed busy, with tours, making records as Daphni, and some serious life stuff, but he’s also admitted new album Suddenly just took the longest to make. Snaith had made over 900 little loops, riffs and samples that he then poured through, combining, discarding, embellishing, to make this 12-song, 44 minute album. It seems like an insane, Eno-like amount of work, but Suddenly feels entirely effortless and, more than any previous record, connects the early psych-heavy Caribou (and Manitoba) records with the housey, electronic sound he surprised fans with on 2010’s Swim.
Major upheavals in Snaith’s close family over the last five years — divorce, heart attacks — fueled much of Suddenly‘s lyrical content, which you can hear on the album’s more contemplative songs. Opening track “Sister” sets the melancholy tone, with pitch-shifted synths — sounding like the motor on a cassette deck can’t hold a constant speed — imbuing a woozy instability over which Snaith sings “Sister, I promise you I’m changing / you’ve heard broken promises, I know / If you want to change it you must break it / rip it up and something new will grow.” There are a few tracks like this — “Cloud Song” and the truly lovely “Magpie” (about his sound engineer Julia Brightly who died in 2014) — but he balances the heavy words with warm, ethereal and very psychedelic production that is more like a reassuring hug than wallowing in sadness.
Those woozy synths and Dan’s falsetto tie the whole album — which also includes some of Caribou’s best, biggest club bangers to date — together. First and foremost is “Never Come Back,” a ebullient house track that builds and builds as Snaith layers in pitched-up vocal samples, piano, breakbeats, cowbells, agogô and other perfect touches. Late in the song, he adds in wonderful synth countermelody that lifts things to new heights just as it’s fading out. What a tease. The album’s two other singles are nearly as good: “Home,” a ’90s hip hop-inspired cut which is based around a sample of Gloria Barnes’ 1971 song of the same name but is not wholly dependent on it, with added in heavenly harp and strings and his own vocal melody; and the very trippy “You and I” which Dan notes embodies the album with sudden shifts in tempo and mood.
Dan also weaves in very modern rap/R&B production into his sound — see back-to-back tracks “Sunny’s Time” and “New Jade” — and really makes it his own without sounding like he’s jumping on a bandwagon. It’s a tricky balancing act; classic and modern, mournful and ecstatic, personal and populist. Dan never falters, though, even when the music he makes sounds like it could fall over at any second.
Real Estate – The Main Thing
And you didn’t think they could get any breezier.
Real Estate were breezy right from the start but have mellowed further with every record. The Main Thing, the band’s fifth album, is their most settled yet. Also one of their most enjoyable. This is Real Estate’s second album with Julian Lynch as the group’s other guitarist, alongside frontman Martin Courtney, and everything feels comfortable if thankfully not quite predictable. Keyboardist Matthew Kallman’s presence is increased, with swirling synthesizers intertwining with the rippling guitar leads, and Jackson Pollis is credited not just with drums but drum programming. In that way, there’s an added emphasis on rhythm and groove, with Alex Bleeker’s basslines more fluid than they’ve ever been before. The album opens with “Friday,” a song whose oceanic synths and rolling basslines are closer to Air or Zero 7 than The Grateful Dead or The Feelies, and it’s not the only soft rock touch here. That leads directly into “Paper Cup” which, with sweeping strings, bongos and a fat keyboard lead dueling with the guitars, is just a Michael McDonald backup vocal away from being full-on yacht rock. No Doobie Brothers in earshot, but Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath does provide lovely background vocals.
The rest of The Main Thing is in more familiar Real Estate territory, and quality remains high. “You” is an instant classic, and the title track is nearly as appealing with a soaring, compact guitar solo that actually leaves you wanting more. Courtney and Lynch stretch out and peel off some jammier leads on “Also A But” and a few other tracks, but for the most part keep things, tight, bright and just a little wistful. As for the album’s title, it was partially inspired by Roxy Music’s song of the same name and more specifically about how doing the thing you love is your true path. Which, in the case of this band, is writing super catchy guitar pop. To that end Real Estate are wildly succeeding.
Juniore – Un Deux Trois
Tres groovy second album from this Parisian “yé-yé noir” trio
Parisian trio Juniore make what they call “yé-yé noir,” which is to say a sound steeped in mid-’60s artists like France Gall, Françoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Dutronc, but with a sultry surf-psych twist. It’s in the same universe as La Femme and The Liminanas, and if you dig slinky French pop at all — or even things like Khruangbin — Junior’s new album Un Deux Trois is definitely worth a spin. Basslines are groovy, the drums really snap, twangy leads snake through songs, vintage organs add an air of mystery, and leader Anna-Jean has that breathy, sexy voice this kind of stuff demands. It’s that femme fatale air that got them placed a few times in Killing Eve and you can almost hear the single line of smoke trailing upwards from a cigarette on tracks like “Soudaine,” “En solitaire,” and “Que la nuit.” They’ve also got a few barn-burners: “La Vérité Nue” has a groove that could’ve been on a Klaus Johann Grobe album, “Tu Mens” smartly cribs from ’60s hit “Liar Liar,” and “Bizarre” has the best use of whistling since “Young Folks.” C’est fantastique.
The Orielles – Disco Volador
Space is the place for hard-to-pidgeonhole UK group’s delightful, party-friendly second album.
The best songs on UK quartet The Orielles‘ excellent 2018 debut Silver Dollar Moment were the funky ones where they seemed to be channeling ABBA and Delta 5 at the same time. Later that same year they released “Bobbi’s Second World,” their best single to date which also featured an amazing cover of Peggy Gou’s “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)” which further showed the young band’s finesse at pulling disparate styles into their old school indie sound. “Bobbi’s Second World” appears on The Orielles’ even better second album, Disco Volador, and feels like the jumping-off point for everything else on the record.
Themes of outer space are present throughout the album which incorporates house music, Madchester dance rock (the late Andrew Weatherall remixed an early single and it clearly rubbed off), disco and various strains of Tropicalia. “Its literal interpretation from Spanish means flying disc but everyone experiences things differently,” says bassist/singer Esme. “‘Disco Volador’ could be a frisbee, a UFO, an alien nightclub or how you feel when you fly; what happens to your body physically or that euphoric buzz from a great party. But it is an album of escape; if I went to space, I might not come back.”
Escape they have and The Orielles are inhabiting a psychedelic party planet — neighboring “Planet Claire” perhaps — decorated in acid house day-glo and lava lamps, and standout cuts “Rapid i,” “The Square Eyed Pack” and “Space Samba (Disco Volador Theme)” are overflowing with all manor of quirky keyboards, an arsenal of percussion instruments, shouts, sitars, flanged-out guitars, spiky riffs, and otherworldly sound effects. And good songs. Two years on the road for Silver Dollar Moment, plus the addition of a fourth member, has made The Orielles a tight unit that knows how to uncoil, and just have fun, as this album amply shows.
Cold Beat – Mother
The San Francisco synthpop group led by former Grass Widow bassist Hannah Lew make their warmest, most appealing album to date.
Hannah Lew, who used to be in much-missed S.F. band Grass Widow, made Cold Beat‘s fourth album while she was pregnant and contemplating what kind of world she was bringing a child into. “I found myself trying to describe our earth to a new human who had never been here,” Hannah says. “It was a bleak year to be pregnant, but I was simultaneously filled with so much love and hope at the same time. I remember feeling a sense of wanting to show my whole range of self to this new person I was about to meet. In past albums, I sometimes held my artistic self in an ethereal place, but I found myself wanting to be very much on this earth and grounded during the creation of this record.”
Mother is Cold Beat’s warmest, most tuneful record yet. (It’s also the group’s first for DFA after three albums on their own Crime on the Moon label.) There is still a palette of blue synths, but the melodies are more inviting and the whole record feels more human. “Paper” could’ve been a folk song in another life, and the wonderful closing track “Flat Earth” feels like a lullabye even though it’s inspired by climate change deniers’ reactions to California wildfires. There are still a few of the group’s spiky numbers — like the discordant “Gloves” — but Mother has a floating quality to it that is very satisfying and attractive. “Pearls,” with its layers of bubbling, arpeggiated sequencers, seems like a song that could’ve been a hit in 1981, while the harmony-laden chorus of the transcendent “Double Sided Mirror” is maybe the best song Cold Beat has ever made. Who knows what the future will bring, but motherhood suits her and the band.
Pictish Trail – Thumb World
Whimsical, quirky Scottish iconoclast keeps the DIY spirit on his first album for a bigger label.
Scottish musician Johnny Lynch has been making quirky pop as The Pictish Trail for nearly 20 years, straddling the line between folk, psych and electronics and doing most of it himself in true DIY style. With King Creosote, he co-founded Fence Records whose roster included James Yorkston, Rozi Plain, and Lone Pigeon, and when that label dissolved he started Lost Map Records. Thumb World is the first record he’s made for a label he didn’t start — Fire Records — and is his most polished record to date, but is still clearly the product of an individualist who does things his way.
A contemplation on “life repeating and gradually degrading, the inevitable cyclical nature of things, and the sense of their ultimately being no escape,” Thumb World cites our opposable digits as the things that both separate us from “lower species” but are also what we use to operate our handheld devices. That idea is also borne out in the album’s awesome cover art, which was created by Swatpaz (aka Scottish artist Davey Ferguson who worked on Adventure Time), which also ended up inspiring some of the song’s lyrics. Undeniably whimsical, Thumb World is also delightfully realized and tuneful, and his style falls somewhere between Grandaddy, Super Furry Animals, Spiritualized and Mercury Rev. Thumb World is apocalyptic, but he greets the end with good humor and even better tunes.
The late David Roback spearheaded this Paisley Underground supergroup covers album featuring members of Rain Parade, The Dream Syndicate, The Bangles and The Three O’Clock
We lost David Roback this week at the too-young age of 61. I will admit to being more of a fan of his pre-Mazzy Star work, most of which has sadly been out of print for 30 years. Rain Parade’s debut album finally hit digital last years, and word has come that Opal, the band he formed with The Dream Syndicate’s Kendra Smith that morphed into Mazzy Star, will finally see their records reissued and put on streaming services imminently. But I have a special fondness for Rainy Day, which was a 1984 album organized by Roback that was like a supergroup of the whole ’80s “Paisley Underground” scene, including members of Bangles, Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade featuring covers of their favorite songs.
In a time when Velvet Underground and Big Star albums were more talked about than available, this was a lot of people’s first exposure to VU, Alex Chilton, and deep cuts from Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and more. The stripped-down arrangements and production were also miles away from what was happening in 1984, and some of these covers are truly beautiful, especially the ones sung by Susanna Hoffs (VU’s “I’ll Keep it Mine” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) and Kendra Smith (A Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong” and Big Star’s “Holocaust”). Rainy Day was obscure even in the ’80s and ’90s, and now even the CDs go for a lot, but if Opal can get reissued, there’s hope. In the meantime the whole record is on YouTube and perfect listening for any kind of day, rainy or not.
Thanks for the music, David.
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