Bill’s Indie Basement (3/27): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
While there isn't much going on outside thanks to you-know-what -- hopefully there isn't much going on, you should be staying inside! -- it's a pretty action-packed week for new releases in Indie Basement. We've got: the debut album from Activity (featuring members of Grooms, Russian Baths and Field Mouse); the dark and stark third album from Chicago's powerful FACS; more post-punk from Chicago's Deeper and Buenos Aires' Las Kellies; the new solo album from former Gorky's Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs; and two vinyl reissues of mid-'90s Redd Kross albums.
That is plenty but if you need more album reviews, Andrew writes about the new Waxahatchee, Half Waif, Childish Gambino and more in Notable Releases. Other stuff that's out this week that I dig: Sorry's 925 (who's album I reviewed last week), The Orb's Abolition Of The Royal Familia, Dutch band Lewsberg's In This House (which I may still review at some point), and while the JARV IS... album got pushed to September (thanks a lot, COVID-19!), the 12" of "House Music All Night Long" is out today.
Read this week's reviews below.
Activity - Unmask Whoever (Western Vinyl)
Dark, alien and captivating debut from Brooklyn band featuring members of Grooms, Russian Baths and Field Mouse
After a decade leading Brooklyn's Grooms through a variety of transformations both sonically and personnel-wise, Travis Johnson broke up the band and started Activity with their exceptional, inventive drummer Steve Levine, adding bassist Zoë Browne (Field Mouse) and guitarist Jess Rees (Russian Baths). Sonically, Activity's debut album is not that far from the alien landscapes Grooms were terraforming on their final album but they lean into it, adding electronics and playing to everyone strengths. A lot of music gets called Lynchian, usually by way of lonesome twangy guitars, and it's an overused analogy but I'm gonna go there anyway cause Activity get there without ever sounding like Angelo Badalamenti or Chris Isaak. Unmask Whoever is doppelganger music: unsettling, sensuous, sinister, familiar but alien and undeniably captivating. Bob would dig Activity.
"Earth Angel," which shares a title with The Penguins' early doo-wop classic (surely a Lynch favorite), is a good place to start (despite it being in the middle of the record), checking both the sensuous and sinister boxes. It simmers slowly with layers of droning guitars and an elliptical drum pattern, as Johnson whispers "I wanna fuck around" repeatedly -- there's more than a little devil in his delivery. The song rips open midway through with what is either a horn section or majorly warped guitars that sounds like a wall of floodlights suddenly being switched on, arena-ready in an alternate universe. It's fantastic.
Unmask Whoever maintains that woozy equilibrium throughout, occasionally employing loops and beats that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Tricky or Portishead album 25 years ago ("Calls Your Name," "Auto Sad"), or queasy synths that melt into the guitars ("Nude Prince," "Heartbeats"). The arrangements, performances and production are excellent across the board, as are the songs, revealing nuances on repeated listens. (This is a very good headphone album). "Spring (Low Life)," "Violent and Vivisect" and "Calls Your Name" are hooky and memorable while still giving you the creeps. In a good way.
FACS - Void Moments (Trouble in Mind)
This chicago trio led by Brian Case (Disappears, The Ponys, 90 Day Men) have made the soundtrack to 2020, whether you're ready for that or not.
If this were still a world where the Walkman was the primary mobile listening device, I would put Activity's Unmask Whoever on one side of a Maxell XL-II cassette, and Void Moments, the third album from Chicago's FACS, on the flip. They are different moons orbiting the same dark, ominous planet, and both feature stark, atmospheric art rock with incredible drumming. Three years into their existence, FACS have really found their groove, so to speak, this time really built around by Noah Leger's powerhouse abilities behind the kit and bassist Alianna Kalaba who has grown much more confident with her instrument. (Before FACS she was a drummer and had never played the bass.) Their music has always been more about mood and atmosphere than tangible hooks, but Void Moments really feels like the soundtrack to a disturbing, nightmarish sci-fi horror film that has yet to be made. (David Cronenberg might have been the man for the job 20 years ago.) Or maybe just the soundtrack to right now which I guess could be the same thing. Part post-punk, part post-rock, Void Moments is towering stuff, the sound of dread, cities in the sky floating above clouds of black pollution. Distorted basslines spiral upwards, guitars sounds like klaxons, while guitarist/singer Brian Case intones commands, cold and distorted, to the terrified masses below. Resistance is futile.
Redd Kross - Phaseshifter & Show World vinyl reissues
Third Man gives the first-ever North American vinyl pressings for cult power-pop/punk greats Redd Kross' two mid-'90s albums for Mercury Records.
Jeff and Steve McDonald have always done it their way with Redd Kross, mixing punk, power-pop, glam and psych into a crunchy, hooky sound that has never considered current trends, whether they were releasing records on indie labels like Posh Boy or current home Merge or, like in the '90s, major labels Atlantic and Mercury. But during that Clinton-era, the McDonalds' affection for the late-'70 almost lined up with the alt-rock zeitgeist, especially on 1993's Phaseshifter and 1996's Show World, which were their two albums for Mercury. Those both featured a great, loud lineup of the band that included keyboardist Gere Fennelly, guitarist Eddie Kurtzell (who died in 1999) and drummer Brian Reitzell (who is now a composer/music supervisor who worked on Virgin Suicides, TV shows Friday Night Lights and Hannibal, among other things). Both albums have just gotten their first-ever vinyl pressings via Third Man, and are out now on 180 gram vinyl.
Both records have, at times, a distinct '90s sheen, with the self-produced, John Agnello-engineered Phaseshifter displaying a particularly hard-edged sound with the McDonalds' kitschier elements downplayed just a bit, for better or worse. They also produced Show World themselves but let more of the fun, '70s elements back in (lots of twin leads). Both records are rock solid, with a slight edge going to Show World, but Phaseshifter is great too. Redd Kross haven't made a bad record in their 40 year career, even if they haven't made enough of them.
Neither Phaseshifter or Show World are on streaming services but here's a video from each:
Deeper - Auto-Pain (Fire Talk)
Album #2 from post-punk influenced Chicago group mixes things up a little to great effect.
Chicago's Deeper were just on tour (before it was canceled like everything else) with Montreal's Corridor and the two bands share a similar sound, favoring melty guitar effects and intertwining riffs and leads over guitar chords, with a powerhouse rhythm section keeping things moving forward. Deeper are more angsty, though, with definite nods to The Cure (singer Nic Gohl yelps a little like Robert Smith), Joy Division (the basslines) and Wire (guitars, mood) without ever really sounding like any of them. It's an appealing, often nervous style and the band's sophomore effort, Auto-Pain, is a step up from their very good 2018 debut. The pile-driving style of the first record can still be heard on rippers "This Heat," "4U," "The Knife" and "V.M.C." but they wisely let their foot off the gas this time, too, working in more textural songs like the synthy "Lake Song" and "Warm." The best tracks on Auto-Pain may be the mid-tempo numbers. "Willing," in particular, has a strutting groove that drips attitude and works particularly well with the group's well-defined sound and especially within this varied yet cohesive album.
Las Kellies - Suck This Tangerine (Fire Records)
Of all the post-punky stuff I'm writing about this week, Argentina's Las Kellies feel the most beholden to the sound of 1979, mixing jagged guitars, disco rhythms and dubby production. They even went so far as to have the legendary Dennis Bovell, who worked on records by The Slits, The Pop Group, Orange Juice and tons of reggae, mix their 2011 self-titled album. If Las Kellies are a little too stuck in a worn groove, their records are fun, danceable and get the details right. That's definitely true for new album Suck This Tangerine, which is vibrant, bouncy, bongo-fueled and entertaining even though you may not remember any of the choruses by the end...though "Baby" and "Matrixland" are bangers.
Euros Childs - Gingerbread House Explosion (National Elf Library)
Former Gorky's Zygotic Mynci frontman continues to make quirky, earthy folk-pop, with time with help from Cate Le Bon collaborator Stephen Black
I really miss Welsh band Gorky's Zygotic Mynci who for 15 years or so made charming, earthy pop that was not afraid to dip one foot in faery folk / ren faire territory while the other was in Brian Wilson's swimming pool. Frontman Euros Childs has continued to make similar pop since the split -- he's also a touring member of Teenage Fanclub these days -- and has been prolific lately even if, like me, you didn't realize it. Avoiding record labels and streaming services almost entirely, his recent output has been through his own National Elf Library, like Gingerbread House Explosion which he put out as a free download back in December and is getting an vinyl/CD release today. This one is more fleshed out than some of his releases, and was produced by Stephen Black aka Sweet Baboo who has been Cate Le Bon's bassist for decade, and the record also features former BMX Bandits drummer Stuart Kidd. It's very charming and pastoral, which is just what you want from Euros, with him leading the group on electric piano and singing songs about hippies, the commercialization of everything ("Virgin Moon" as in Richard Branson bought it), and other esoteric subjects. Best song: "Bin Night," a delicate, twisted, genuinely lovely song about falling for the girl across the road who he's too afraid to talk to, so he steals her garbage instead to learn more about her. One woman's trash is now our treasure.
Gingerbread House Explosion is still a free download!
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.