Bill’s Indie Basement (5/4): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It’s an overstuffed Basement this week, with new records from UK eccentric Julian Cope, Ireland’s Girls Names, German house producer DJ Koze (whose album features Lambchop, Jose Gonzalez, Roisin Murphy and more), the return of Taken By Trees (aka Victoria Bergsman of The Concretes), ’80s alt vets Shriekback, Montreal’s gothy Freak Heat Waves, and snarky Minneapolis duo BNLX.
More Basement-approved music: new Protomartyr single “Wheel of Fortune” features Kelley Deal and is one of their best songs yet; Bodega just released my favorite song off their great debut album; and Australia’s The Good Sax are back with LP #2 (or will be in September but you can check out a song now). Plus, Andrew reviews the new Jon Hopkins album that I like (even if it’s a lot like his last one), and the first new Belly album in over two decades.
Julian Cope – Skellington 3
Julian Cope is a true believer and a genuine eccentric, one who is both far-out and surprisingly down-to-earth. He’s had hits, both with his post-punk/new wave group The Teardrop Explodes and his solo career, but has mostly done it his way. These days, he puts out records through his own Head Heritage label at his own (fairly brisk) pace.
He’s just revived a project called Skellington where the idea is to go into a studio with no songs, no plan and come out as quickly as possible with an album. He hasn’t made one of these for 25 years but surprise-released Skellington 3 last month, featuring 12 new songs in what he calls the “Acid Campfire” tradition. To that, the songs are simple, usually based around an acoustic guitar, with sing-a-long refrains and mellotron-heavy arrangements. Julian still has a way with a melody, while his distinctive vocal style (commanding with a little melodrama) and still-sharp wit carries the whole thing.
There are some heavily psychedelic numbers, of course, with “Parallel University” getting especially wiggy thanks to bongos and flute, and “Very Krishna” is not far behind. (Both are great.) There are also a few that lean toward sea shanty territory (“Stop Harping On About The Way Life Used To Be”) and if you have an aversion to jaw harp, there’s a good chunk of this record you might want to skip. Despite the hurried approach and decidedly low-fi sonics, Skellington 3 works more than it doesn’t and is surprisingly cohesive. “Catch Your Dreams Before They Slip Away” may be a song here about “taking advantage of all the opportunities handed to you out here in the West,” but also a mantra for Cope’s creative process.
Skellington 3 is currently not available on streaming services but you can order it from Head Heritage. In the meantime you can stream my favorite song from his 2013 album Revolutionary Suicide, “Hard Drugs”:
Girls Names – “25” & “Karoline”
It’s been three years since Belfast band Girls Names‘ excellent Arms Around a Vision (one of my favorites of 2015). Having parted ways with drummer Gib Cassidy in 2016, Girls Names began working on a new record soon after but ended up shelving it, taking time away and then returning to the tracks. “We started tearing the material apart and rebuilding, re-editing and re-recording different parts in my home in early Autumn last year,” says frontman Cathal Cully.
The result is Stains on Silence (our 6/15 via Tough Love), a record that is not as much a visceral assault as Arms Around a Vision but is equally dark and assured. You can get a good taste of Girls Names’ new sonic direction — more keyboards and drum machines, less driving rippers — with the album’s opening and closing songs: the synth-drenched dirge “25” and the elagiac and rhythmically propelled “Karoline.”
DJ Koze – knock knock
Knock knock? Who’s there? It’s German house producer DJ Koze who is back with his first studio album since 2013’s Amygdala. Like that one, this one is loaded interesting guest collaborators, this time including Roisin Murphy, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, Jose Gonzalez, Sophia Kennedy, Arrested Development’s Speech and more. (“Bonfire” prominently samples Bon Iver’s “Calgary” to the point its almost like he’s a collaborator.) Having been around since the ’90s, Koze works in that chilled-out house style that hit its zenith in the early ’00s but still remains popular (as can be heard on nearly every Kompakt Records release), and he continues to find fresh sounds and inspiration from working with others.
Like the new album from fellow Germans Mouse on Mars, knock knock bends to the strengths of his collaborators, but this is more clearly DJ Koze’s sandbox that everyone is playing in, making for much more of a cohesive listen. Roisin Murphy, who just released a great new single, brings her alluring style to two tracks, “Illumination” (which cries for a full on dancefloor remix) and the downtempo, glitchy “Scratch That” that has all manor of samples flying around its stereo spectrum. Kurt Wagner employs the vocoder that made Lambchop’s FLOTUS so special on the ethereal “Muddy Funster” and Jose Gonzalez’s “Muisc on My Teeth” sounds like a degraded transmission from another solar system. Sophia Kennedy, whose 2017 debut album came out via Koze’s Pampa label, provides knock knock with two of its more gorgeous numbers, “This is My Rock,” and album closer “Dream Me Up, Flashy.”
DJ Koze saves some of the best for himself, though. “Pick Up” is the album’s real banger, very much in a vintage French Touch disco style, taking its vocal hook from Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us”; and the ultra-glitchy, sample-flinging “Baby (How Much I LFO You” is the record’s best slow-jam. He is a master crate-digger, weaving others’ sounds — both found and invited — into this gorgeous, inventive tapestry of a record.
Taken by Trees – Yellow to Blue
Former Concretes singer and “Young Folks” duet-er Victoria Bergsman hasn’t released a Taken By Trees record since 2012. In the time since, she moved to Los Angeles, had a child and focused on being a mom, though she also spent the last three years working on new music. Motherhood informs her new album, Yellow and Blue, which is out today. Victoria says
‘Yellow to Blue’ my forth studio album has been three years in the making – and not focussing entirely on me brought something new to the table – which is what I need every time I make a new record. I was pregnant, had Charlie and then tried to find focus and patience caring for a child whilst working with on-demand producers like Jessie Shatkin, who thankfully adopted this album like a labour of love…”
Jessie Shatkin has worked with Sia, Rihanna, and Kelly Clarkson and most definitely pulls Bergsman into uncharted pop territory, with help from Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Usher), Rostam, and Daniel Nigro (Sky Ferraria). Dan LIssvik, who produced 2009’s East of Eden, also worked on the record. Despite all the heavy hitters, Yellow and Blue is still very much a Victoria Bergsman record and her unassuming style (and permanently, pleasingly mopey voice) balances out the sometimes slick production. The combo works surprisingly well. “This record is my contribution to offering something a little soothing, and not perpetuate more anger and cynicism,” says Bergsman. “We need to be more caring, make sure we know each other and what is troubling people to resort to violence in the first place. I’m in a lighter place, and I hope I can leave people with that feeling with this record.”
Shriekback – “And the Rain”
Barry Andrews, who was XTC’s keyboard player on their first two albums, has been fronting Shriekback, in one form or another, since 1981 and their sound has remained largely the same: earthy, sinewy, groovy-heavy (sometimes bombastic) pop with Andrews’ breathy baritone at the helm. While best known for ’80s indie dancefloor hits like “My Spine is the Bassline” and “Nemesis,” for my money Shriekback have always been more successful in their ethereal songs which can be heard in various Michael Mann films and TV productions (Manhunter, Miami Vice).
Why Anything? Why This? is the 14th Shriekback album and Andrews doesn’t mess with the formula too much. He’s always had good taste in bassists (he stole Dave Allen from Gang of Four for the original lineup) and this time out Scott Firth (PiL) adds muscle and subtlety, while longtime collaborators Wendy and Sarah Partridge provide their distinctive backing vocals. The album’s out May 25 and first single “And the Rain” is one of the album’s more propulsive numbers, with tom-heavy drumming and cinematic production. It’s Big ’80s with a 2018 production style.
Freak Heat Waves – Beyond XXXL
You may have recently seen Freak Heat Waves when they were on tour with Preoccupations. Both groups pull from dark post punk, but where Preoccupations are guitar-driven, FHW take a synthier, dancier approach. On their new album, Beyond XXXL, that sound never drifts into easy Sisters of Mercy or industrial/EBM territory, though when things get dubby, like on “Prime Time Slime” and “Bad Mutation,” they are reminiscent of 4AD’s Wolfgang Press. It’s an interesting mix of styles and sounds, gritty and romantic, but you can tell they’re having fun too — a sense of humor has been the key to some of goth’s best records, be it Bauhaus or Nick Cave. Listen:
BNLX – X EP
Minneapolis duo BNLX, led by Flowers Studio owner and indie rock vet Ed Ackerson (27 Various, Polara), are back with their first record since 2015’s Good LIght. It’s a return to the EP format that birthed the band — X is their 10th record in the format — and it is where they really excel. They haven’t altered their sound one iota — fuzzed out rock that draws from ’80s and ’90s influences that are easily spotted — but they do it so well and with a real sense of joy it doesn’t matter if you’ve heard it all before. Plus, Ackerson is a really savvy arranger — there’s a lot more going on in these songs than you may initially realize.
There is some definite post-election venting in the lyrics — there are shouts of “Deplorables!” on opening cut “Hit After Hit” — but BNLX never lose their sense of humor which is one of their secret weapons. My favorite song on the record is their cover of The Pink Faries’ “Do It,” a one-chord jam workout where things get pretty weird in the second half thanks to SAVAK’s Sohrab Habibion (solo guitar and Frippertronics) and Monsterland’s Greg Vegas on sax. The EP finishes with a cover of Wire’s 2017 single “A Short Elevated Period” which they turn, slightly, into a party anthem. This record is fun, which is a commodity in short supply these days.