Bill’s Indie Basement (11/22): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It’s not the biggest week for new releases in Indie Basement, but I really love the one I do write about: Girl Ray‘s second album Girl, which finds them embracing modern pop but still sounding like themselves. It is however a great week for reissues (and a bad week for my bank account), with new vinyl pressings of records by Pale Saints, Dolly Mixture, Saint Etienne and Hefner.
If you need more reviews of new albums, Andrew’s got your number with this week’s Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved stuff from this week, there’s: the holy crap news that Eddy Current Suppression Ring are back; Baxter Dury’s back and creatively swearing; Oh Sees are putting out a box set of 8-tracks perfect for listening on your 2XL robot; Squarepusher’s back; and there’s another very good Destroyer song out now.
Girl Ray – Girl
When last we heard from Girl Ray, they had released their debut album, Earl Grey, which was as English and twee as the sheep on the cover art. Guitars jangled, voices were hushed, pianos occasionally tinkled. They were like the less-weird, but equally cool younger sisters of Cate Le Bon (or daughters of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci). Two years later they are back with their second album that finds them declaring their love for Ariana Grande and embracing modern pop sounds. It could’ve been a recipe for disaster, but Girl works like gangbusters and keeps their many charms intact.
Working with Ash Workman, who has collaborated with Metronomy and Christine and the Queens, they make pop music in their understated way that comes off closer to Tom Tom Club or Bananarama than it does anything on the Billboard Hot 100. The album eases you in with terrific opening track “Girl,” that plays with G-funk sounds, adding in a light disco guitar riff before Poppy Harrington and the rest of band’s breathy harmonies cascade over everything.
The production on the whole record seems built around Poppy’s voice which, with these arrangements, goes from sweet to sultry on tracks like “Just Down the Hall” (shades of Sade) and the latin-tinged “Because.” The whole record is breezy, from the very Banarama-y “Show Me More” to the tropical flutes that dart across the delicate “Because,” to the reggae vibrations of “Beautiful” and the electronic-bongo-laden pure pop of “Friend Like That.” Even “Takes Time,” featuring rapper PSwuave, works, with Girl Ray’s harmonies providing ethereal counterpoint.
The biggest, most immediate chorus, and most fun song on the album, though, is low-key banger “Keep it Tight,” where Poppy shares the mic with bandmates Sophie Moss and Iris McConnell for a joyous anthem about friendship that also has my favorite line on the record (“He dipped me like a casual fondue”).
There are a couple moments on Girl that could’ve fit on on Earl Gray: “To the Top” and album-closer “Like the Stars” which are both reliant on piano, flute and not much else. But they fit perfectly here as well. The only real criticism I have is it should’ve been released June 22 not November 22: Girl is a record for warm summer days, driving with the top down, or at least the windows open.
Girl Ray are touring in the UK with Metronomy which is a great double bill, and hopefully they’ll make it to North America soon.
Dolly Mixture – The Demonstration Tapes and Other Music
Dolly Mixture were one of those groups whose story could’ve only happened in the late-’70s and early-’80s. They started as a lark, were suddenly courted by major labels only to be chewed up and spit out before releasing an album. School friends Debsey Wykes, Rachel Borand and Hester Smith formed Dolly Mixture in 1978 with a shared love of glam, ’60s girl groups and The Undertones. Like all great punk bands, Dolly Mixture didn’t really know how to play their instruments when they formed, but they didn’t let that stop them and were up to speed soon, writing great songs of their own. John Peel loved them and played their demos on his BBC Radio show, and they signed to Chrysalis, who tried to work the “new girl group” angle by having them cover the Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You” as their debut single, with Bay City Rollers’ Eric Faulkner producing.
Charming as it was, that wasn’t exactly what Dolly Mixture wanted to do, and they were let go from Chrysalis and then signed to Paul Weller’s label, Respond Records, who released two singles, including the brilliant “Everything And More.” Those two singles were produced by The Damned’s Captain Sensible, who also had them sing backup on his hit solo singles “Wot” and “Happy Talk” (which went to #1 in the UK), but they became more known for that association than their own songs. Dolly Mixture ended up calling it quits in 1984.
Thing is, they had loads of unreleased recordings and demos, enough to fill up double album The Demonstration Tapes which they self-released in 1984. That record, along with pretty much everything else in their catalog, now trades for insane money. Good news, though: The Demonstration Tapes is getting reissued on vinyl on December 6. Demos they may be, but most of them sound great and you can really hear that Undertones-meets-The-Shangri-Las feel on songs like “Dream Come True,” “Ernie Ball,” “How Come You’re Such a Hit With the Boys, Jane?,” “He’s So Frisky,” “Treasure Hunt,” “Welcome to the Perfect Day” and “Never Let it Go.” Others were doing similar things, but not quite, and the songs here can be seen as a template for a certain strain of cardigan-clad indiepop that is still being made to this day. Twenty-seven songs in all, all worth owning, rediscovering or hearing for the first time.
There’s more: a new compilation called Other Music collects 11 other songs, including two tracks that were recorded in 1978 intended as their debut 7″, an alternate recording of “How Come You’re Such A Hit With The Boys, Jane?,” covers of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and Mott the Hoople’s “Foxy Foxy,” a demo for Paul Weller’s Respond Records, and five tracks recorded in 1984. That’s also out December 6 and preorders are available now.
Most of the songs on those two albums were released on a 2010 CD box set Everything And More which also included all their official singles. (That’ also goes for crazy money.) I wish those songs would get a release, along with Paul Kelly’s 2008 documentary from the same year, Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story. which is supposed to be fantastic. For folks in NYC, there is actually a screening of this movie happening December 5 at Immersion Room (7th Floor, Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South).
Debsy went on form Birdie in the late ’90s (worth listening to) and would also sing and tour with Saint Etienne, which leads me to…
Saint Etienne – Misadventures of Saint Etienne vinyl reissue
Saint Etienne are good to their fans at Christmas, releasing exclusive singles and sometimes whole albums worth of unheard music. Lately, they’ve been reissuing ’90s-era fan club CDs on vinyl, and this year our present is The Misadventures of Saint Etienne, an album that was originally released in 1999 and only in Japan. It was actually the soundtrack to a Parker Posey film The Misadventures of Margaret, and while there is a lot of score-type incidental music (all lovely), there are some great songs as well, such as “Find me a Boy,” the Bacharach-esque “Jack Lemmon,” the very groovy “Do it All,” and the break-beat-forward “The Way I Fell For You.” Sonically, there’s a lot of Good Humor‘s organic, baroque pop vibe but it’s decidedly more electronic. It’s both surprising to think about just how much Saint Etienne music there is out there beyond their “proper” albums and just how much of it excellent. Take away the “score music” and you’ve got a very solid 30-minute Saint Etienne album most people haven’t heard.
The Misadventures of Saint Etienne represses are out today with 500 copies each in black or white vinyl. The album also comes with a CD single featuring two new holiday songs — “Thank You Very Much” and “Tramway Song” — and if you order before Christmas it’ll come in a holiday card signed by Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell.
Meanwhile, Saint Etienne are working on a new album. “The new songs are sounding good,” they write. “Hopefully you’ll hear some of them next year. We’ll keep you posted.”
Pale Saints – The Comforts of Madness 30th anniversary edition
I always thought of Pale Saints as the ultimate 4AD band, having aspects of the label’s best-known groups: the ethereal shimmer of the Cocteau Twins, the off-kilter arrangements and rhythms of Throwing Muses, and the sonic roar of the Pixies. Formed in 1987 in Leeds, England, the band consisted of fey-voiced bassist/frontman Ian Masters, guitarist Graeme Naysmith and Chris Cooper on drums. They later picked up Meriel Barham, who had been in an early line-up of Lush, who provided vocals and guitar and rounded out the band nicely. Masters quit in 1993, but the rest of the band carried on without him for four more years. Pale Saints also had parallels to (or at least a fondness for) Mazzy Star/David Roback: Pale Saints covered Opal’s “Fell from the Sun” on their debut album, and covered Slap Happy’s “Blue Flower” on their second album, which Mazzy Star covered on She Hangs Brightly.
I digress slightly, but I’m here writing about the new reissue of their debut album, The Comforts of Madness, which was the first 4AD release of the 1990s and will be the first 4AD release of the 2010s. It’s among my favorite classic Ivo-era 4AD releases of all time, and has held up extremely well over the last 30 years. Few bands mixed noise, beauty and melody with a welcome sense of weird like Pale Saints. Guitars slash and chime, basslines often carry the melody, and Cooper’s drumming is nuanced and crisp. And the songs, well they’re just fantastic, from bright indiepop numbers like “You Tear the World In Two,” “The Language of Flowers” and “Insubstantial” to dreamy numbers like “A Deep Sleep for Steven” and “Sea of Sound.” There’s also what is probably Pale Saints’ most famous song, the hypnotic “Sight of You” that’s been covered by everyone from Ride to Dum Dum Girls. It’s pretty much a perfect album.
Never officially released in the U.S. when it actually came out (there was a 2011 reissue on ORG Music), this official 30th anniversary edition is a double album, with the original record on the first disc, and a second disc containing demos of nearly every song on the album, plus the band’s sole Peel Session. You can listen to the demo for “You Tear the World in Two,” and stream the original, below.
Nitpicks: I do wish they had included Pale Saints’ Barging in the Presence of God EP which has a longer version of “Sight of You” and two good b-sides, as well as “Colours & Shapes” (which was on Japan-only EP comp Mrs. Dolphin), but this is still very cool. There’s also a single-disc vinyl edition as well. Here’s hoping 4AD reissues Pale Saints’ second album, In Ribbons, as well sometime in the near future.
Hefner – The Fidelity Wars 20th Anniversary repress
They used to call The Wedding Present “Smiths fans’ second favorite band” and I always thought of Hefner as Wedding Present fans’ second favorite band. Actually Hefner are kind of like The Smiths and The Wedding Present mashed together with a little Go-Betweens. Like TWP’s David Gedge, Hefner singer/songwriter Darren Hayman wrote almost exclusively about relationships from all sides and set them to roaring indie rock. Hefner songs were literate, funny, heartbreaking, sometimes explicit, and almost always catchy. While some of their early releases were too low-fi for their own good, everything clicked on Hefner’s 1999 album, The Fidelity Wars, easily their best album.
The album opens with what might be the ultimate Indie Boy/Snob anthem, “The Hymn for the Cigarettes,” that asks in it’s ripping (and very Wedding Present) chorus, “How can she love me if she doesn’t even like the cinema I love?” and then lists off a dozen brands of smokes and how they relate to people in his life. (It’s also the ultimate Hefner song.) There’s also “The Hymn for the Alcohol” — Hefner had a lot of “Hymns” — which is a literal tear-in-my-beer country weeper for the dumped: “Start me on the whiskey / I know whiskey is his drink / You never drank it with me but now you drink it with him / I’m not good enough for whiskey, not good enough for you.”
The Fidelity Wars is loaded with songs like that, laughing through the tears, booze and smoke, even occasionally remembering the good times on “I Took Her Love for Granted,” even if they didn’t last (“I was ecstatic… for at least six weeks”). There are tales of infidelity (“Fat Kelly’s Teeth,” “I Stole a Bride”), and more than a few bitter kiss offs that are really “why don’t you love me?” laments (“I Love Only You,” “We Were Meant to Be”). There’s also the great he-said-she-said number “Don’t Flake Out on Me” where Hayman duets with The Raincoats’ Gina Birch which ends with a whole chorus singing a refrain of “What’s the point in getting laid? We’re waiting for the better days.” Misery loves company.
There was a 10th anniversary edition of The Fidelity Wars back in 2009 which added another 29 songs to the album’s original 11, some of which were good but it was overwhelming. This is just a very welcome repress of the original release, which is all you really need.
Darren Hayman no long just writes about girls. This year he released an album about astronauts.