Bill’s Indie Basement (3/6): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Happy March! But, ugh, what a week. Thankfully there are some good records out today that may help take your mind off pandemics, narrowing presidential races, weather systems and other serious concerns. This week: Stephen Malkmus continues his hot streak by going folk; Honey Harper delivers the dreampop country album of my dreamy dreams; Cornershop are back with their first proper album in 11 years; The Auteurs’ Luke Haines teams up with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck for his best record in years; and Pill and Eaters combine forces as P.E. Read those reviews below.
If you need more new album reviews, Andrew reviews the new U.S. Girls and more in Notable Releases. If you need more Malkmus, I interviewed him. If you need more Basement-approved stuff: Jarvis Cocker announced JARV IS’ debut album; the Record Store Day 2020 exclusives list is out; Adam Green turned Misfits’ “All Hell Breaks Loose” into a Scott Walker song; Pottery’s debut is shaping up to be really good, as is Porridge Radio’s; the Other Music documentary is coming to a theater near you this spring; and Woods have a new album, as do BOAT.
Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques
Acoustic suits Stephen Malkmus, who here delivers his most personal, affecting batch of songs to date.
While associated with staunch indie rock snobbery, Stephen Malkmus has long dabbled in jam band territory, all the way back to Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight. (Before? Maybe.) So when he announced Traditional Techniques, his third album in three years, as “stoner folk” it wasn’t really as much of a stretch as Matador may have wanted you to believe. At least not in that way. It is, however, his quietest, most introspective and straight-from-the-heart record he’s ever made. Made with Chavez’s Matt Sweeney and The Decemberists’ Chris Funk (who engineers, and also coats many of the songs in gorgeous slide guitar), the album’s mellow style feels very comfy and appropriate for the aging hipster Malkmus is. If you ever wanted a whole album of “Church on White,” this might be it.
He really does let down his guard here, delivering some of his most tender, affecting songs ever. On “The Greatest Own in Legal History,” he offers up his services as confidant and counsel, the “one who defends you when the odds are stacked up high like rotten dominoes / I’ll be there to vet the jury make sure there’s a couple of softies on our side / they see their own kids in you, their empathy will go a thousand miles wide.” (Funk’s slide guitar is particularly transportive here.) The other is “What Kind of Person,” where he wonders “what kind of person steals in reverse / the kind of person you can become if you play your cards far from the vest / it’s a mess it’s the best you can do in love.” When the flute drifts in at the end of that line, it’s genuinely sweet.
The wry Malkmus of yore peeks his head through — like on singles “Xian Man” and the tour through dark recesses of tech that is “Shadowbanned” — but it’s the gentle ones that worm their way into your brain, and — we should get used to this — your heart.
Malkmus will be on tour for Trad Techniques soon.
Honey Harper – Starmaker
Forget Orville Peck, this is the country dreampop record you need to hear.
William Fussell has been in a few bands over the last 10 years — all various strains of dreampop, including Mood Rings and Promise Keeper — but has found his voice with Honey Harper that incorporates everything he’s done before but applies it to ’70s-style country. If the imagery on the album cover — his glitter dusted lips and kaleidoscopic lens flare beaming out below his closed eye — have you questioning his sincerity, one listen to the genuinely gorgeous Starmaker will let you know he’s for real. His voice falls somewhere between Glen Campbell and Randy Travis, capable of high falsetto and deep bellows and it cracks just the right way when shifting between between them, with a quiet quiver that sounds like a lump in your throat. Musically, Starmaker is like Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” by way of Weyes Blood’s wide-eyed, wide-screen space-pop and the floating guitar cascades of Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie (if he sported a Stetson). With strings courtesy the Hungarian Studio Orchestra and amazing pedal steel from Henry Senior, the production and arrangements are genuinely swooning. There are moments of pure sunshine, but more often there’s a gentle melancholy breeze blowing across the upbeat numbers (“The Day it Rained Forever,” “Tired Tower,” “Tomorrow Never Comes”). It’s when things get quiet and introspective, like “Vaguely Satisfied” and the gorgeous title track (featuring Sebastien Tellier!), with Will’s voice melting into those strings and pedal steel, that Starmaker achieves transcendence. Orville Peck is, y’know, fine, but Honey Harper has made the country dreampop record of my dreams.
Honey Harper will be on tour with TOPS soon.
Cornershop – England is a Garden
Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres’ deliver the first proper Cornershop album in 11 years
Coming up on their 30th anniversary as a group, Cornershop have kept busy, releasing collaborations with Bubbley Kaur, one-off singles, their disco side project Clinton, and reworking older material, that it doesn’t seem like it’s been 11 years since their last proper studio album, 2009’s Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast. Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayers sound as switched on and in touch as ever on England is a Garden featuring their signature blend of Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones and Marc Bolan peppered with sitar, tabla and other traditional indian music and pop. Never shy about confronting stereotypes and racism (they were calling out Morrissey 20 years ago), England is a Garden comes in the midst of Brexit, but there are just as many songs about the power of rock n’ roll as there are ones about the effects of British colonialism. The makers of “Brimful of Asha” have never been lacking in catchy tunes, either, and “St. Marie Under Cannon,” the flutey “Highly Amplified” and “The Cash Money” are all worthy additions to the Cornershop riffy pop catalogue.
Luke Haines & Peter Buck – Beat Poetry For Survivalists
Former Auteurs frontman Luke Haines makes his most enjoyable record in a while, thanks to Peter Buck (and Scott McCaughey & Linda Pitmon)
Luke Haines, of The Auteurs, Servants and Black Box Recorder, puts out a lot of solo records. A lot. Most of them are on the esoteric end of the spectrum and are often concept records about historical figures/events, or fictional stories featuring actual historical figures, or what have you. They’re all pretty good — he’s got bile for miles — but it’s been a while since he’s made a record that is interesting and entertaining. Beat Poetry for Survivalists does both.
It’s a concept record, too, but this time the concept is that he made the album with former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. As per the press release, “One day, Peter Buck bought one of Luke Haines’ Lou Reed paintings (for £99.00). They had never met before but decided that the fates had brought them together and they should write some songs together and make an album.” Buck invited his Filthy Friends bandmates Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon along, and you’ve got the closest thing Haines has made to a “band” record in a decade.
The songs, all co-written with Buck or McCaughey, are all within Haines’ usual glammy style, but having a rhythm section and a second guitarist adds a lot of muscle to his poison pen invectives. There are songs about a pirate radio station that only plays Donovan songs, the search for Bigfoot (that involves Liberace and The Ramones), Andy Warhol, a bunch of “Gallic macho men” who “prowl the back roads of rural France looking for a ‘discotech’ to ‘detest’,” and “Ugly Dude Blues,” which they describe as “an old Troggs song that Reg Presley didn’t get around to writing so we wrote it for him.” The title track is about the co opting of counterculture by the clueless and rich. Haines is as bitter and witty as ever, but he also sounds like he’s having fun here. Make another of these, please. Also: tour!
P.E. (Pill + Eaters) – Person
The combined forces of Brooklyn groups Pill and Eaters make for unique, distinctly post-punk listening experience
A couple years ago, Bodgea threw a record release party for their terrific debut album. As part of the festivities, members of skronky band Pill collaborated with electronic duo Eaters for a weird set of freeform improvising. There was something magic about the combo, though, that was very post-punk (in a Throbbing Gristle / Scritti Politti kind of way) and it stuck with them. When Pill broke up last year, the band’s Veronica Torres, Jonathan Campolo, and Benjamin Jaffe hooked up with Eater’s Jonathan Schencke and Bob Jones to explore the collaboration further, calling themselves P.E. (A name that is clever but may also cause some confusion as it’s also a common abbreviation of one of the most iconic rap groups of all time.) They took ideas that worked, moments of improvised magic, and formed them into more cohesive, concrete ideas.
P.E.’s debut album, Person, truly feels of the post-punk anything-goes spirit. There’s forceful electronics, dubby sonics, skronky no wave, dance jams, ambient piano/spoken word loops, and pop songs all melted into something new, unique, wonderful and strange. There are also some specific post-punk references, too: “Top Ticket” feels clearly inspired by The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” and “Pink Shiver” tips its hat to Liquid Liquid. A woven sound mix and Ben Jaffee’s beautiful, floating saxophone ties it all together. I’m not sure that I’d called P.E. more than the sum of their parts — I like Pill and Eaters a lot — but they’re much more than a side project.
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.