Bill’s Indie Basement (1/17): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Two Thousand Twenty kicks into medium high gear with a solid crop of new releases: the first A Girl Called Eddy album in 15 years, plus new LPs from Canadian dance rock vets Holy Fuck, UK cult act The Chap, and Manchester collective Whyte Horses whose new album features Gruff Rhys, Badly Drawn Boy, La Roux and more. Plus: The 30th Anniversary edition of Pale Saints' essential debut album.
If you need more new album reviews, Andrew has plenty in Notable Releases. And this was a good week for Indie Basement type news: The House of Love will tour North America for the first time in 28 years this spring, industrial icons Einsturzende Neubauten will tour this fall, and we got details on the new albums from U.S. Girls and Porridge Radio.
"Girl, where you been?" asks an unnamed voice in the opening seconds of A Girl Called Eddy's new album whose title, Been Around, seems to be the answer but it's a fair question. Erin Moran appeared out of nowhere in 2001 as A Girl Called Eddy with an EP on indie label Le Grand Magistery that showcased a talent that had her being compared to Karen Carpenter, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Rickie Lee Jones, and Prefab Sprout. She then hooked up with Richard Hawley to make her stunning 2004 self-titled debut that more than delivered on the EP’s promise. Fifteen years later, she’s finally made a follow-up.
Been Around may not answer the "Where you been?" question but it does answer "is that magic still there?" with a resounding yes. This time out, Erin worked with another collaborator who really understands the kind of music she makes: Daniel Tashian of The Silver Seas. "I fell really hard for The Silver Seas' album High Society a few years ago and felt that if we got the chance to work together someday it might be something special," says Erin. "Daniel's quite a Todd Rundgren character in that he plays every instrument, is a great writer and can pull out of his hat any style you can think of. I'd go: 'I'm thinking this one could be a bit Rickie Lee Jones with some ELO in the middle eight, but with a wash of blue to it' and he'd be like: 'OK, cool, got it!' And he does. He gets it on all the levels you'd want from someone you're trusting your songs with."
This is an exquisitely produced album, lushly orchestrated and a much more classic-sounding record than her debut. With its chromatic harmonica solo, "Been Around," which opens the album, sounds like a Burt Bacharach recording from 1968. "Jody," one of a handful of songs on the album to feature backing vocals from The Watson Twins, sounds like Rickie Lee Jones covering Steely Dan, while "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart" is the kind of chiming, swoony guitar pop that just doesn't get made much anymore. Ditto for "Two Hearts," a swelling chorus that might get you a little verklempt.
Moran is a master of the wistfully melancholic, that happy/sad vibe that can tug at the heartstrings with a well observed lyric or just a perfect little sonic flourish. "Charity Shop Window," a song about seeing an ex's coat on display at a thrift shop which she co-wrote with the great Paul Williams (who wrote many of The Carpenters' hits, not to mention "The Rainbow Connection"), does both. Moran's voice, at turns breathy and powerful, is deeply emotive and never goes for gymnastics/theatrics. Even when the production tiptoes near treacle, it makes everything sing.
A nice companion piece to the A Girl Called Eddy album is Hard Times, the new record from Manchester's Whyte Horses, a band of sorts led by Dom Thomas, who runs very cool mostly reissue label Finders Keepers. Listening to Hard Times -- with its mix of various strains of ’60s psych and French pop, exotica, krautrock, glam and more into one groovy sound -- you know this is a group steered by a record nerd.
A record nerd with cool friends, too. Unlike Whyte Horses first two albums, Hard Times is loaded with guest vocalists, including La Roux, John Grant, Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), Tracyanne Campbell (Camera Obscura), Badly Drawn Boy, Chrysta Bell (Twin Peaks: The Return), and Mèlanie Pain (Nouvelle Vague). Described as Thomas' "ultimate fantasy mixtape come to life" and "made specifically to fit between albums 2 and 4," it's all covers. The title track, originally by cult artist Baby Huey, is sung with soul and bravado by John Grant; La Roux does a great job with mid-'70s pre-disco Bee Gees song "Mister Natural," as does Pain on Todd Rundgren's great "I Saw the Light." There's also Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang" (sung by Bell), Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" (sung by Badly Drawn Boy) and Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi."
The band assembled by Thomas is big and brassy and the record sounds great but the covers don't really stray too far from the originals. It's fun and was probably a blast to make but also...kind of pointless. (He couches this as a literal in-betweener lark, and seen as that, ok, but still.) The best songs, for me, are the ones I didn't know before, like "Mister Natural" and Idy Lynn's "Up in My Mind" (sung by Campbell) and Welsh folk song "Tocyn" sung by Rhys. This all probably works better live at Whyte Horses shows, which are few and far between and presented as big band, big production extravaganzas that Thomas has compared to Andy Warhol Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings if Glen Campbell had played instead of The Velvet Underground. As an album, Hard Times is like seeing photos of a party and realizing "cool but I guess you had to be there."
Whyte Horses were supposed to put on those cool live happenings in Brooklyn and Los Angeles in March, but due to "recording commitments," those shows have been postponed, but I do hope they do them eventually. Those commitments must be making the more proper fourth Whyte Horses album. You probably don't want Hard Times to be the first thing you hear from Whyte Horses, so do check out the first two which are both full of original song and are good: 2018's Empty Words and 2015's Pop or Not. Also worth seeking out: the hard-to-find 2019 album by mystery group Cowgirl in Sweden which is widely believed to be Thomas and Whyte Horses (and was a vinyl-only, 300-copies-pressed release).
I already wrote about Pale Saints' near-perfect 1990 debut The Comforts of Madness, one of my favorite classic-era 4AD albums (and one of my favorites of the '90s) which has just been given a deluxe 30th anniversary reissue. As I noted before, few bands mixed noise, beauty and melody with a welcome sense of weird like Pale Saints and all of that is on brilliant display here.
The reissue, out today, is worth buying for the remastered album alone but it also comes with a bonus disc which has demos of every song off the record, plus the band's sole Peel Session. Sometimes you wonder what a producer -- in this case, two producers: Pixies/Bunnymen knob-twiddler Gil Norton and This Mortal Coil's John Fryer -- bring to the record, and these demos show that Pale Saints pretty much already had the album figured out before going into the studio. Norton and Fryer add oomph and also coax better vocal performances out of Masters, but if these demos had just been the album, it still would've been great. The Peel Sessions feature three songs off the album and "She Rides the Waves" which was on their Barging in the Presence of God.
Let's hope 4AD reissues Pale Saints' second album, In Ribbons, which is almost as good as The Comforts of Madness.
You don't name yourselves Holy Fuck and worry too much about commercial success. These four Canadians have always plowed their own motorik path, creating live dance music out of jamming and improvisation, and not straying too far from the style they began 15 years ago. They wear it as a badge of honor, actually. In a statement of intent for their fifth album, Deleter, they write “The robots are smarter than ever, and the algorithm knows more and more what we like as individuals, but we have to remind ourselves that there is music in the margins that can go missing and that that music is more important than ever.”
To help make sure Deleter doesn't get lost in the margins, Holy Fuck have enlisted the help of some friends, which resulted in some of the record's most memorable songs. The title track featuring Liars' Angus Andrew is bouncy, propulsive and muscular and good enough to make you wish he was on the whole record. But then we wouldn't have gotten "Free Gloss" which features Pond's Nicholas Allbrook and is one of the the most blissful, melodic songs Holy Fuck have ever made. Or "Luxe," the driving single featuring Alexis Taylor of tourmates Hot Chip.
The rest of the record has the same energy, if less hooks. There is just something about making dance music as a live band, especially with a powerful drummer like Holy Fuck's Matt Schulz, that really brings a special energy to tracks like the banging "Moment" and the ecstatic psychedelia of "Near Mint" and "Endless." It might not be 2005 but that era's dancerock still has a place, and the margins ain't a bad place to dance at all.
UK group The Chap have been making quirky, hard-to-pigeonhole pop for 20 years now, constantly flying under the radar. I was a big fan of 2010's Well Done Europe, and the band have just released Digital Technology, their first album in five years. Digital Technology finds The Chap working in their usual MO, mixing indie rock, krautrock and glitchy electronics in a way that is wildly eccentric but also goes down smooth. They are capable of slicing vocal samples into pizzicato strings and layering synth parts for orchestral effect, while their singing style is casually erudite and the beats are politely groovy. Call it dance music for libraries. "Bring Your Dolphin" and "Pea Shore" (an ode to Mark E Smith) are gleaming and cool to the touch; "I Recommend You Do The Same" and "Merch" dabble in techno but never get to crazy. The best songs fall somewhere in between, like "Toothless Fuckface" (winner for best song title) and standout cut "Hard," a head-bobbing comedown jam about pop music and existential futility. Come to think of it, "pop music and existential futility" is a good descriptor for The Chap themselves.