Bill’s Indie Basement (9/20): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It’s the last weekend of summer and Indie Basement has already started unpacking sweaters. Also down here this week: the first new Vivian Girls album in eight years; the fourth album by Seattle’s Chastity Belt; a vinyl box set of Luke Haines’ millenium era “pop” trio Black Box Recorder; The Springfields (Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck and Paul Chastain) get their late-’80s 7″ singles collected onto one album; and Operator Music Band invite us into their own metronomic underground on LP#2.
Need more Basement-approved stuff? Jonathan FIre*Eater’s Tremble Under Boom Lights is getting an expanded vinyl reissue via Third Man; Field Music are back with an unusual concept album; and David Lynch collaborator and New Wave Theater host Peter Ivers is getting a retrospective compilation. And if you need more reviews of new records, Andrew’s got you covered in Notable Releases.
I’m also trying to steel myself for the wave of Basement-approved acts making their way though NYC in the next two weeks, including Tropical Fuck Storm, Parsnip, Ride, Massive Attack, Stereolab, Metronomy, and Ladytron just to name a few.
Vivian Girls – Memory
Vivian Girls burned bright and hot, forming at the height of hipster, DIY Brooklyn (by way of New Jersey) in 2007 and making three albums in four years before burning out after 2011’s Share the Joy, and officially saying goodbye in 2014. They drifted apart, but after a call between Ramone and Goodman last year, Ramone left Brooklyn for Los Angeles — where Goodman and drummer Ali Kohler both lived — and they began playing together again. The three felt the chemistry return, so practicing, songwriting and recording began in earnest (and under a cloak of secrecy), before announcing their return this summer. Memory is their first album in eight years, and finds them picking right back up where they left off, and not missing a beat.
Like on their first three albums, Vivian Girls are still making hazy punk with a strong sonic debt to a variety of ’60s pop, and Ramone is still singing about lost love and taking dark looks in the mirror. But to my ears, these songs are hookier, the performances stronger, and the production is definitely better. Working with producer Rob Barbato (who did House on the Hill, the second album from Ramone and Kevin Morby’s band The Babies), Memory is without a doubt their best-sounding record. There’s a little less of that breakneck, cinderblock-on-the-accelerator rush that the early records had, but “Sick,” “Something to Do,” “Most of All,” “Your Kind of Life” and “Waiting in the Car” all have that slashing, harmonic roar that Vivian Girls are so good at, and are amongst their best-ever songs. Being away for eight years may have made the heart grow fonder but I’m glad they’re back.
Chastity Belt – Chastity Belt
“Lost my mind and much more, but who’s keeping score,” Julia Shapiro sings on “Rav-4,” one of the many laid back songs on Chastity Belt‘s self-titled fourth album. The record comes after a self-imposed hiatus that began with the band cancelling their 2018 North American tour midway through. For those worried about their well-being, the band say they never considered calling it quits and just needed a break to do normal people stuff. (Their last album, I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone, only came out two years ago, anyway, which is a blink in the eye of My Bloody Valentine or Chromatics.) Everything does seem hunky dory on Chastity Belt which also marks the first time the group have consciously decided to work with a producer, Melina Mae Duterte (aka Jay Som), and the result is their most cohesive record to date. Also the mellowest, playing like a lazy river float, drifting on gentle guitars (and some genuinely lovely leads) and warm harmonies. The album’s lyrics also have a go-with-the-flow, roll-with-the-punches spirit to them that matches the music. “Nothing ever turns out like you think,” Lydia Lund sings on the album’s best song, “Elena,” while “Pissed Pants,” which closes the album, offers up “You said, so casually, ‘Everything just works out’ / In time we’ll all be surrounded by what guides us.”
Black Box Recorder – Life is Unfair
Because he had more black bile than could be contained in The Auteurs and Baader Meinhof, Luke Haines joined up with onetime Jesus & Mary Chain bassist John Moore and gossamer-voiced Sarah Nixey in 1998 to form Black Box Recorder, the most subversive group of his career. Their mission: deliver candy-flavored sonic poison that reflected how they saw England and the music industry — as a pretty smiling face hiding a rotting corpse. Right from the start they were as disturbing as a JG Ballard novel: debut single “England Made Me” reads like the diary entry of an adolescent serial killer in waiting, and second single, “Child Psychology,” features a chorus of “Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it” that got it banned from UK radio. A lot of people missed Black Box Recorder’s sense of humor, as black and bleak as it gets, right down to the name of the group.
Taking its title from that controversial line, Life is Unfair collects Black Box Recorder’s three albums from their half decade together, plus a disc of b-sides and remixes, a DVD of all their videos and a live show, as well as a booklet full of liner notes and photos, and a poster. This came out on CD last year and is now out as a vinyl box set, marking the first time either 2000’s The Facts of Life or 2003’s Passionoia have been pressed on wax. It also comes with a live CD that didn’t come with the CD box set (weird).
BBR stretched their extremes further, becoming sonically sleeker and more lyrically wicked with each album. England Made Me sort of sounds like a minimalist, slightly trip-hoppy Auteurs record, guitars playing an equal part to drum machines and synths. It also includes, in addition to their own songs, a great cover of Althea & Donna’s classic “Uptown Top Ranking.” The Facts of Life is a much more posh, slinky record, with loads of synths and strings that, if you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics, you might mistake for Saint Etienne. The great, subzero title track was also a Top 20 hit in the UK. For 2003’s Passionioa (my favorite), they fully transformed into Pet Shop Boys/ABBA style synthpop, still while singing about the dark side of personal ads, Princess Diana and Wham!’s Andrew Ridgeley.
The bonus disc — which has a little overlap with b-sides comp The Worst of Black Box Recorder — has some real gems, including a remix of “The Facts of Life” by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey, and the whole of Passionoia reduced down to a three-minute “megamix.” Black Box Recorder went over a lot of heads at the time, but those who enjoy a very twisted sense of humor and a nice tune (at the same time), should still find it all wickedly entertaining.
For folks in the U.S. like me, Life is Unfair is pretty reasonable from Amazon.co.uk (even figuring in shipping).
The Springfields – Singles 1986-1991
Ric Menck and Paul Chastain are American indiepop royalty, having channeled jangly ’60s psychedelic pop, ’70s power-pop and more, most notably in Velvet Crush, but also Bag O’ Shells, Choo Choo Train and The Big Maybe, all of which seemed to exist at the same time. One more for that list: The Springfields, whose style fell somewhere between the ringing pop of Let’s Active and the West Coast Paisley Underground Scene. The Springfields only released five 7″ singles between 1988 and 1991, but two of them were out via storied UK label Sarah, including their debut, “Sunflower,” which made the UK indie chart Top 10 after being picked as Single of the Week in NME (Bob Stanley, who was a couple years from forming Saint Etienne, wrote the review). Nearly 30 years after their final single, Slumberland (who are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year) is releasing this compilation that collects all the songs from their 7″s, plus a few rarities (like a cover of The Pastels’ “A Million Tears”), onto one vinyl album for the very first time. In addition to the convenience of all these lost nuggets being in once place, they’ve never sounded better. Singles 1986-1991 is out November 15 and pre-orders come with a Springfields poster. You can listen to the remastered “Sunflower,” which makes its premiere right here:
Operator Music Band – Duo Duo
Brooklyn’s Operator Music Band pull from a lot of things I like: the bloopy neo-krautrock, nervous post-punk, nerdy new wave, ’80s No Wave, and early house techno. Their early records pulled heavily from the Stereolab recipe book, but over the last couple years they’ve really come into their own, with increasingly playful records that ride on the chemistry between leaders Dara Hirsch and Jared Hiller. That connection seems to be at the heart of OMB’s second album, Duo Duo, which is above all else is a lot of fun. “Slim Spin,” “The Gift,” “Mondo,” and “Fiji” are geek disco bangers that balance a fluid, funky rhythm section with twitchy energy while the jazzy, string-laden “Rex” shows off their suave side. The album’s most impressive track, however, is closer “Juice” where HIller and Hirsch circle each other in a metronomic underground that’s groovy while still making room for synthesizer freakouts and a searing guitar solo.
Operator Music Band celebrate Duo Duo at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere Zone One on Saturday (9/21), which is the kickoff of their tour. Fans of Quilt take note: Anna Fox is now a member of OMB.