Bill’s Indie Basement (1/18): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week is where 2019 really kicks in (there’s a whole lot of stuff out today). That includes the great new album from Steve Gunn. Elsewhere we’ve got two Australian groups — The Stroppies and J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest — that feature members of Twerps, plus a new EP from L.A. band Flat Worms (produced by Ty Segall), and a new compilation of music from Manchester, England that goes from skiffle to acid house.
As I said, this is a big week for new releases and, in addition to the Steve Gunn album, there are very good new LPs from Deerhunter and Sharon Van Etten. I’m not writing about either of those here, but you can read Andrew’s take on them in Five Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved tunes, check out: Piroshka’s great new single “What Next?”; Guache, which features members of Priests and Downtown Boys; Tamaryn’s “Fits of Rage” (very ’80s 4AD); and what Mute Records’ John Cage 4’33” box lacks in hooks (or music) it makes up for in high-concept cool.
Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between
Steve Gunn is almost too subtle for his own good. A supremely talented musician, great songwriter and singer, Gunn avoids flash, choosing not draw attention to himself, but continues to be one of the savviest, classiest makers of guitar-based music around on his second album for Matador. The Unseen In Between is even subtler than 2016’s great Eyes on the Lines, opting for a palette of mostly acoustic guitars this time out, coloured with keyboards and strings. But listen closer and there’s a whole lot going on in the arrangements. The album opens with “New Moon” that, with lonesome harmonica and strings, recalls Harry Nilsson/Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin,” while “Vagabond” sounds influenced by prime-era Johnny Marr (late-period Smiths and The The). Strings reappear on the gorgeous “Luciano,” blending with a controlled squall of feedback, and “Paranoid” is a swaying, chiming “end of album surf ballad” by way of swaying, mid-’90s Britpop.
Throughout, Gunn tosses off amazing, perfect little guitar filigrees, making them sound like no big deal. His guitar-slinger rep shows itself a couple times, like in the electric final minutes of “Lightning Field” and the twin leads of “Chance.” He’s got good help on the record, too. James Elkington, who also produced (like on Eyes on the Lines) makes for a great guitar foil, and Meg Baird‘s backing vocals are heavenly.
Meanwhile, Gunn’s observational lyrical style is especially nuanced here, be it the genuinely touching portrait of a bodega owner and his cat (“Luciano”), a down-on-his-luck person living out of their car (“Chance”), the value of art even when it doesn’t meet the artist’s original intents (“Lightning Field,” which is about Walter De Maria’s famous work in New Mexico), and “Stonehurst Cowboy,” a tribute to his father who fought in Vietnam before becoming an anti-war protester; he died following a battle with cancer two weeks after Eyes on the Lines was released. Like the arrangements, no word is out of place. And as the title suggests, The Unseen In Between truly rewards with closer examination.
Steve Gunn’s tour, which includes dates with Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore as well as Gun Outfit, starts at the end of January.
Various Artists – Manchester: A City United in Music
Morrissey was not singing about his hometown’s music lineage when he opined “Manchester, so much to answer for” on The Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children,” but it’s a phrase that has taken on a lot of different connotations since 1984. While most people tend to associate the Northern industrial city with The Smiths, Joy Division/New Order, The Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Stone Roses and Oasis, it’s been producing great artists since the dawn of rock and roll. A new compilation, titled Manchester: A City United in Music, aims to sum up the city — from skiffle to acid house, Britpop and beyond — across 45 tracks and two discs.
Disc 1 begins with “Dirty Old Town” by Ewan MacColl (father of Kirsty MacColl) and works through Freddy & The Dreamers, The Hollies and John Mayall, into Herman’s Hermits, 10cc and beyond. Disc 2 picks up just after The Sex Pistols played the famous Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall show, with The Buzzcocks‘ “Orgasm Addict” and also includes tracks by The Fall, Joy Division, Inspiral Carpets, New Order, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, M People, Lisa Stansfield, Simply Red, Oasis, and more.
What makes this compilation worth picking up, though, are the more obscure cuts. The Purple Gang‘s “Granny Takes a Trip” was not a Skidoo scenario of pensioners on acid, but a song about a little old lady’s dreams of making it in Hollywood (it got banned by the BBC anyway); “Geordie” by Greasy Bear (aka “Manchester’s answer to The Grateful Dead.”); The Freshies‘ (Chris Sievey’s punk band before he became Frank Sidebottom) Buzzcocks jab “I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk“; Jilted John‘s debut single “Going Steady” (the b-side, “Jilted John” became a hit); and “Innocents” by punk poet John Cooper Clark & The Curious Yellows.
This is missing a few things, most notably The Smiths (they put Johnny Marr‘s 2013 single, “New Town Velocity,” on as a consolation prize) and The Chameleons, but it definitely paints a vivid picture of a city that rivals London as the most important place in the UK. (It beats Liverpool in my opinion, despite The Beatles and The Bunnymen and The KLF.) Manchester: A City United in Music is out January 25 via Ace Records, and includes a 44 page booklet with a foreword by England’s Dreaming scribe Jon Savage. Check out the full tracklist here.
J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest – TA DA
Australian band Twerps, who released the terrific Range Anxiety in 2015, don’t seem to be in any hurry to release a follow-up. (If they are still a band at all.) Consolation: most of the members are releasing music with other projects. Singer Martin Frawley, who has been spending a lot of time in the U.S., has a solo album coming out on Merge, and his bandmate Julia McFarlane just released a her solo debut under the name J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest (formerly known as Hot Topic). TA DA is decidedly quirky, with odd, minimal arrangements featuring dimestore keyboards, skronky guitar, the occasional flute and sometimes jazzy/dubby arrangements. It all suits McFarlane’s detached singing style and if you like Cate Le Bon and the lighter style of early ’80s post-punk that Cherry Red used to favor (Marine Girls, The Wood-Be-Goods), you’ll probably agree that this is a very charming record. You might want to head first to “What Has He Bought,” “Your Torturer” and “Do Ya Like What I’m Sayin?,” the poppiest songs on the record, but it’s the beguiling, sad “Where Are You My Love?” that is my favorite.
And for those playing Indie Basement bingo: yes, Total Control’s Mikey Young mastered the record.
The Stroppies – “Cellophane Car”
Need more Twerps diaspora bands? Here’s The Stroppies, which features Twerps bassist Gus Lord, who was also in The Boomgates. With jangly guitars and prominent organ, this band sound like they could’ve been on Flying Nun in 1984. (We’re talking The Chills, The Bats, The Verlaines.) Following a few singles, the band will release their debut album, Whoosh, via Tough Love on March 1. “Whoosh is a silly word,” says Gus. “There is something completely nonsense about it, especially when removed from any kind of context. For me it conjures up images of something absurd and transient – two things fundamental in the experience of listening to or making good pop music.”
Good pop music is how I’d describe Whoosh‘s lead single, “Cellophane Car” with a Roadrunner-esque organ hook, albeit in a much more relaxed way, with Gus and the group’s other singer, Claudia Serfaty, trading vocal lines. The production is just right for this — minimal, everything where it should be, warts and all — which jams on mostly two chords in the sunniest of ways.
There’s been no talk of U.S. shows for The Stroppies, but they’ve got upcoming Australian shows, and they’ll be in the UK in July.
Basement Bingo: It is unclear if Mikey Young mastered this one — I even asked the label — but my money is on yes.
Flat Worms – “Shouting at the Wall”
When last we heard from L.A. poppy garage punk trio Flat Worms, they’d gone a bit more abrasive on a 7″ produced by Ty Segall. The band, which includes current/former members of Oh Sees, Kevin Morby’s band and Dream Boys, are continuing to work with Ty who not only produced their upcoming EP, Into the Iris, but he’s releasing it, too, via his GOD? imprint through Drag City. (Flat Worms’ terrific 2107 debut LP came out on Jonh Dwyer’s Castle Face label.) The noisy attack of that 7″ remains but the hooks are back on this EP, as you can hear on the EP’s lead single, “Shouting at the Wall.” After 30 seconds of weird, druggy chanting, the guitars and drums kick in and it’s off to the races — this is a killer, buzzsaw ripper with a great earworm chorus. The band say it “serves as a reminder to avoid temptations of self-indulgent anger and to stay focused.” I say turn it up.
Into the Iris is out February 8 via God? Records. Flat Worms will play a hometown release show at Zebulon on 2/8 with Automatic, and Kaz Mirblouk also on the bill (tickets). Hopefully Flat Worms will be touring, too.