Bill’s Indie Basement (4/24): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
How are we all holding up? The same. Let's get on with it. This week: BC Camplight releases his best album yet and sticks the landing on Shortly After Takeoff; Melbourne's RVG are finally back with their second album; Katie Harkin, who has spent the last decade playing in Sleater-Kinney, Wild Beasts and with Courtney Barnett, steps into the spotlight with her solo debut; Olympia Washington's Lake (who did the Adventure Time closing theme) are back with a new album; and a new comp sheds light on Perpignan, France's '90s garage rock scene.
If you need more new album reviews, head to Andrew's Notable Releases which includes X's first album with the original lineup in 35 years, and more. If you want more Basement-approved stuff, there are a lot of them in our 20 essential Merge Records releases that aren’t ‘Funeral’ or ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ feature, and Lloyd Cole was nice enough to tell us about what he's been listening to during COVID-19 lockdown. On that note, so has the BrooklynVegan staff (we've been doing weekly playlists), and there have been a lot of Basement-loved bands this week in our daily "Amazing Live Videos" posts (The Smiths, The Housemartins, Beta Band, The Wedding Present, more). That should hold you till next week.
Head below for this week's reviews...
BC Camplight - Shortly After Takeoff (Bella Union)
The ghosts of '70s singer-songwriters past (Nilsson in particular) and his late father haunt BC Camplight's confessional, self-effacingly funny fifth album. It's his best yet.
“This is an examination of madness and loss,” says Brian Christinzio, the "BC" behind BC Camplight. “I hope it starts a long overdue conversation.” Christinzio is a laugh-through-the-pain, crying-on-the-inside clown kind of guy and there's whole lot of both emotions on the fantastic Shortly After Takeoff, which is the third chapter in his "Manchester Trilogy" of albums he's made since leaving Philadelphia for the North of England. (The other two are 2015’s How to Die in the North and 2018’s Deportation Blues.) He's been through a lot across those three albums, including deportation, the death of his father and a constant struggle with mental illness. “It’s important to stress that this isn’t a redemption story,” he says. “I'm a guy who maybe lives a little hard and I’m in the thick of some heavy stuff. But as a result, I think I've made my best record.”
It's definitely BC Camplight's best record to date -- a wildly creative, thoughtful, and tuneful look in the mirror under the harshest light possible but one that's still able to celebrate the absurdity. While still, you know, working it all out. Musically, Shortly After Takeoff is a mix of '70s singer-songwriter styles by way of post-punk, mutant pop, and current musical trends. Dubstep "wub wub wub" bass, skronky guitars, and harp on the same album? It's no wilder than the mood swings in the lyrics that play out like hilarious diary entries from a particularly terrible year. For example, "Ghosthunting" opens with Christinzio performing a very dark stand-up routine before the song kicks in, detailing the days after his father's death. "At the funeral, my cousin, he asked me in small talk / 'Are you making the people dance?'" he sings in falsetto over chamber ensemble strings. "I said 'sure' and thought to myself / Who does he think I am Tame Impala?"
Actually, there might be a little Tame Impala in Shortly After Takeoff's grandiose title track, especially in the chorus where Brian's falsetto melts into a trippy orchestra of synthesizers and glammy guitars, but Kevin Parker would probably never write about totally coming unglued on a plane, full-on terror at 20,000 feet.
Elsewhere: “Back to Work” vacillates between a weird, heavy electronic chorus (there's that dubstep) and more folk-rock-y verses, while lyrically dealing with getting on with it in a Die Hard kind of way: “I’ve gotta block out most of the pain just / like John McClane does / I wanna look myself in the eye / be a normal guy / and say some clever shit whenever I’m about to die.” Says BC, “The verse seems to make sense, then out of nowhere, boom boom…just when you think you have it figured out… It’s the never-ending cycle of mental illness."
On that note, there's also "I Wanna Be in the Mafia," a Nilsson-esque, grandiose ballad about time spent at Philly's Belmont Psychiatric, dreaming of an easy way out ("I want to put a hit out on my brain") as a Ray Liotta mid-level made man, complete with a pinky ring and expensive sweatpants. There's also the Beach Boys-style car fantasy of "Born to Cruise" and the elegantly bummed-out "Arm Around Your Sadness." Shortly After Takeoff is a mere 34 minutes, but BC packs it with more memorable and moving moments than your average self-indulgent double album, and "heavy" has rarely felt this nimble.
RVG - Feral (Fire)
More straight-from-the gut rock from Melbourne's RVG who continue to wear their Aussie alt-rock influences on their sleeves
It's been about three years since Melbourne, Australia's RVG -- led by Romy Vager, a real pistol of a frontwoman -- released their debut album and a lot has happened since, not even taking into account the spanner-in-the-works that have been the last few months. Recorded mostly live using legendary Melbourne venue The Tote as a studio, 2017's A Quality of Mercy was self released and, surprising just about everyone, really took off, selling out its initial vinyl run instantly. They then toured the world for the better part of two years in support. Finally here we are with the follow-up. Though given a more ferocious title than its predecessor, Feral is a slightly tamer, decidedly studio creation, trading off a little of the debut's energy for fidelity and finesse. Not a bad deal at all.
RVG found a perfect foil in producer Victor Van Vugt, who has worked with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Go-Betweens Robert Forster, Luna and more, and who really knows how to capture live energy in a studio setting. You can't really "studio" the life out of an unstoppable force like Vager, anyway, and you can imagine her bouncing around the room while belting out the spirited vocal performances on "Prima Donna," "Alexandra," and the heartbroken "I Used to Love You." Vager continues to tightrope between self-deprecation, anger, wicked humor, and moments of genuine hope and triumph. In all cases she's giving it 100% and it's all there on tape. She is also still fond of sound effects: "IBM" from RVG's first album made good use of a dentist's drill; here, the witty "Christian Neurosurgeon" features a bone saw solo. RVG's influences remain the same the second go-round -- chiming '80s widescreen romantics like Echo & The Bunnymen and The Go-Betweens, wilder sounds like The Gun Club -- but there is more shimmer and jangle now. This style used to be the sound of alt-rock and college radio and, after having the life drained out of it by the late '90s, RVG remind you that guitars like this can still tantalize.
Lake - Roundelay (Off Tempo)
More earthtoned indie pop from this Olympia, WA band best known for the 'Adventure Time' closing theme.
In the mid-'70s, toy company Mattel made these dolls called The Sunshine Family who looked like The Carpenters, and made their own clothes; their grooviest accessory was a family truck that doubled as a mobile craft store. When I listen to Olympia, WA's Lake this is what I see in my mind. Earthtones... which, in this case, are not just a color palette (tans, greens, burnt orange), but also a sonic one. That's not a bad thing, there's just a certain intentional simplicity, plainness, innocence to their music which has always been one of their strengths. It's also a bit of an illusion, as there's a lot more to Lake's sound upon closer inspection. Lake have become more polished since "Christmas Island," their 2009 song that served as the end credits theme to Adventure Time, but the intricate nature of the their music could be heard even then. With Roundelay, there is a greater depth that you can feel more than measure, that glows with warm keyboards, jazzy chords, basslines you can feel in your rib cage (if you have it loud enough), and complicated-yet-unassuming drumming. All that with Lake's typically cheery melodies.
Roundelay plays like a time lapse photo of a trip from Olympia to Chicago with ghost images of both the "naive" K Recs scene from which they were born as well as the heady world of Jim O'Rourke and Archer Prewitt, with some evidence of a pit stop in Duluth to visit Low. Politely strummed guitars and bouncy keyboards power sunshine pop numbers like "Resolution," "Don't Pray for Me" and the Go-Betweens-esque "Hanging Man," while the jazzier side comes out on "Forgiveness" (which makes nice use of vocoder), lightly tropical standout "She Plays One Chord," and Roundelay's title track which is probably the most pleasant song to ever namecheck G.G. Allin. It all goes down very smooth but Lake aren't pushing empty calories. It's good for you, too.
Harkin - S/T (Hand Mirror)
Former Sky Larkin leader, who has spent the last 10 years playing in Sleater-Kinney, Wild Beasts and Courtney Barnett's live band, releases her solo debut.
I've been a fan of Katie Harkin's since seeing her former band, Sky Larkin, play at Union Hall back in 2008 (I wrote about them in one of my first "This Week in Indie" columns for BV way back when). Sky Larkin made three very good albums -- 2009's The Golden Spike might still be my favorite -- and Katie's songwriting, strong voice and guitar style (innovative while keeping within "indie rock" parameters) was a huge part of their appeal. In the early '10s, Katie started playing as a hired gun, first with Wild Beasts (who found her so indispensable that when she left they named the bank of computers they ended up using to play her parts "Katie"), and then -- a very high profile gig -- as a touring member of Sleater-Kinney. Since, she's also toured with Jenn Wasner's Flock of Dimes project and was part of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile's collaborative tour.
All the while, though, Katie was still writing songs and playing the occasional solo show, now going just by Harkin. She's finally released her debut solo album under the Harkin banner, which she made with Jenn Wasner and Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa, and veteran producers Richard Formby and John Agnello. The 10 songs on Harkin are an extension of what she did in Sky Larkin but sleeker and with more of an ear towards synths and beat programming. It travels in a similar orbit to Sleater-Kinney's The Center Won't Hold in that way, but with a distinctly British edge. Songs like "Nothing the Night Can't Change" and "Sun Stay With Me" are a remix away from dancerock, and the spooky "Red Virginia Creeper" sounds built out of loop pedal experiments. There's also the super-hooky indie rock tracks too -- see "Bristling" and "Mist on Glass" which has the album's best chorus. After a decade playing as part of other groups, it's great to see Harkin in the spotlight again.
Various Artists - Back from the Canigo: Garage Punks Vs Freakbeat Mods Perpignan 1989-1999 (Staubgold)
Vive le garage rock français!
At the foothills of Mount Canigó lies Perpignan, France's southernmost city, where the Catalan influence still has public signs written in two languages and garage rock has ruled for 30 years. The most famous export of this is probably The Liminanas, who mix in ye-ye with their fuzzed out sound, but a new compilation looks to unearth some of the scene's early history from the late '80s into the late '90s. Like a lot of garage rock scenes, Perpignan's was wide for such a small city but not that deep. Most of the groups on Back from the Canigo sound very similar (especially when you don't speak the language), with all the usual garage signifiers: wild, bashed out playing, tinny guitar leads, dirty farfisa organ, and singers whose goal seemed to be to push the levels as far into the red as they could. There are not one but two groups covering Them's "Gloria" (Les Gardiens Du Canigou and The Ugly Things) if you need a clearer picture. But what they lacked in originality, these bands -- with names like The Beach Bitches, The Feedback, The Rippers, and Human Potatoes (clearly thumbing their nose at Perpignan's unspoken rule of starting all band names with a definite article) -- made up for with unbridled enthusiasm. One song from each band, instead of three or four, would've given it a little energy, though and made the great songs -- like The Toxic Farmers' completely unhinged "Rocking Farmer -- stand out more.
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