Indie Basement (10/29): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Happy Halloween Weekend! I forgot to figure out a costume once again as I've been busy listening to records. This week I review new platters from Billy Bragg, Brooklyn buzz band Geese, Sam Evian and The Pop Group's dub version of their 1979 debut album, which they made with reggae legend Dennis Bovell. And while last week I reviewed a record 13 albums (Jarvis, Guided by Voices, Clinic, 10 more), it turns out I still missed a couple, so I play catch-up with Xeno & Oaklander and L.A. motorik psych band Dummy.
There are lots more albums that came out today, of course, and Andrew takes on major new releases by The War on Drugs, Marissa Nadler, and more.
In more Basement-related news from the week: Snapped Ankles are going to tour North America next year (and BrooklynVegan is presenting their NYC show); Midlake announced their first album in a decade; Spoon's new single is very good; Metronomy announced their new album; so did Elvis Costello; The Residents have a massive new retrospective coffee table book; The Wedding Present are going to release a new single every month in 2022; Edgar Wright's great The Sparks Brothers documentary is now on Netflix.
Billy Bragg - The Million Things That Never Happened (Cooking Vinyl)
On his 10th album, Billy Bragg continues to mix the personal and political in sublime ways like few else
One of the great human beings of Planet Earth, Billy Bragg has been mixing pop and politics with compassion and wit for 40 years and, unlike some of his contemporaries, has continued to evolve, look forward and consider the bigger picture. "As a mid century modern geezer, I’m aware that my notions of personal relationships were formed almost fifty years ago, likewise my politics," Billy says. "To cling to that and imagine that you’ve nothing to learn from younger generations, you’re in danger of becoming a dinosaur. Kids have got new priorities and new ideas. Thatcher’s dead. The world has moved on. I’m trying to respond to the things I’m hearing now, rather than reminding folk of ‘the good old days’."
One thing that Bragg does better than almost anyone is mix the personal with the political, bringing a relatable point of view to his most strident material, as well as his tender love songs (few are as observant to the slings and arrows of relationships). Written and recorded during the 2020 of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, The Million Things That Never Happened has the personal and the politically intertwined like never before. There are songs about personal accountability ("Shoulda Seen it Coming," "The Buck Doesn't Stop Here No More'), aging and death ("Pass it On," the title track), and changing with the changing times ("Mid Century Modern," "Ten Mysterious Photos That Can't Be Explained.").
The production on the album by The Magic Numbers' Romeo Stodart and Dave Izumi is warm and soulful, like Billy's voice, with mellotron giving songs a surreal thread that fits the times in which it was created, the weirdest two years most of us have ever experienced. The album's most effective moment, though, is also its most simple and direct. "I Will Be Your Shield" is a song about the power of love and friendship in the times of deepest strife, that is little more than Billy and a piano. "When things start to unravel / And days fill you with dread / When comments dent your confidence / Confide in me instead." While the world changes by the minute, Billy's empathy remains steadfast.
Sam Evian - Time to Melt (Fat Possum)
Groovy sounds to cook to -- an album that tastes great going down but is good for you, too
Having left the hustle and bustle of New York City for a more relaxed life in the Catskills, Sam Evian and partner Hannah Cohen say they mostly listen to music while cooking, and that his new album was an attempt to make a record perfect for that. He's largely succeeded with Time to Melt, which is warm and convivial that keeps you engaged whether you're making risotto or grilling flatbreads. (He's got a cooking series on YouTube.) In addition to having a culinary feel, the title is a good sonic descriptor for the album as well, which has a rubbery, psychedelic feel where most of the instrumentation feels pleasingly wilted, deglazed with a glug of white wine. Sam also brings a lot of '70s influence to the table, with echoes of Steely Dan, Gerry Rafferty, Sly & The Family Stone, Al Green and more in groovy tracks like "Dream Free," "Sunshine," "Lonely Days" and the sublime, string-laden "Knock Knock." While your mother may have said politics have no place at the dinner table, these songs are also packed with an undeniable social consciousness fed by recent times. The message is there if you choose to listen, and it bubbles up undeniably on repeat plays, but Time To Melt goes down easy like comfort food while packing more vitamins than you think.
The Pop Group & Dennis Bovell - Y in Dub (Mute)
If you thought the Pop Group's classic debut was already pretty dubby, you haven't heard anything yet.
Dub has been a core component of post-punk greats The Pop Group's sound from the very start, working the form's spacey world of echo into the sense of dread inherent in their bleak, paranoid style. Call it dread meets dread. Mark Stewart and the rest of the band had the good sense and taste to use dub and reggae legend Dennis Bovell to produce their early records, including their classic single "She is Beyond Good and Evil" and their debut album, Y. Bovell, who has worked with everyone from Linton Kwesi Johnson and Steel Pulse to The Slits and Orange Juice, is once again at the controls for this new dub version of Y. “Dub to me is the music of chance," says Stewart. "A teenage dream come true – at last – this one’s for the explorers.” This was already a pretty damn dubby album, but Bovell and The Pop Group take Y (plus "She is Beyond Good and Evil" and its flip, "3:33") to the furthest reaches of the galaxy and the depths of the ocean, ripping these songs apart and stitching them back together in surprising ways, stretching them to the breaking point and sometimes beyond. It also has Bovell pushing the definition of dub and some of these -- "Snowgirl" and "We Are Time" -- almost sound like completely new tracks. Recently awarded the MBE for his contributions to British music, Bovell shows he is still at the top of his powers here, a virtuoso whose instrument is the mixing board. More than a companion piece, more than a remix album, Y in Dub stands on its own.
Geese - Projector (Partisan)
Debut album from hotly tipped Brooklyn band has decades of New York rock coursing through its veins
It's been a minute since there's been a New York band has hyped as Geese, who were the subject of a label bidding war before they graduated high school. It's part of a compelling story that includes how they recorded and produced their debut album, Projector, on their own at their home studio in the hours after school and before a hard 10 PM curfew instituted by their parents. Once signed to Partisan (and PIAS in the UK), the album was handed over to the very talented Dan Carey (Squid, Kae Tempest, Hot Chip) for mixing and mastering. It's a slick sounding record that doesn't sound like it was made in a basement. On Projector, Geese distill the last 50 years of New York rock, from Television and Talking Heads to The Strokes and Interpol. While they haven't quite figured out their own sound just yet, the album was clearly made by five very talented musicians who know how to construct a song. There's a lot of The Strokes here from the guitar interplay to the attitude in singer/songwriter Cameron Winter's vocals, and the '00s in general seem like a strong influence. Geese would've fit comfortably on a bill between Foals and Tom Vek in 2006. While Projector might not live up to the hype that comes with it, impressive, swaggering songs like "Low Era" hold a lot of promise for a band whose members have yet to hit their 20s.
Dummy - Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble in Mind)
Stereolab comparisons may be mandatory but the debut album from this drony L.A. band featuring former members of Wildhoney moves beyond the bachelor pad
Baltimore band Wildhoney have been dormant for a while now -- they are missed -- but guitarists Joe Trainor and Nathan O'Dell are still playing together in Los Angeles band Dummy alongside Alex Ewell (who played on Wildhoney's Naive Castle EP) and Emma Maatman (Kent State). Like Wildhoney, Dummy have shoegazey elements to their sound, but they more directly pull from drony psych and komisch, be it Cluster, Neu! or The United States of America. Single chords are jammed upon for extended periods while vintage combo organs and synths hum and gurgle. Dense, ethereal harmonies mingle with fuzzed out guitars and jazzy/motorik drumming. Melodies are sweet but cut with white noise. If all this makes Dummy sound like a certain groop known for Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, well they would probably be the first to admit the influence, from the sonics (see "Daffodils," "Fissured Ceramics") to the song titles that seem to have come from a Duophonic Refrigerator Magnet Poetry set. (Does that exist? It should.) But they are very good at it and, following last year's two EPs, Mandatory Enjoyment finds the band staking out their own corner of the universe, with tracks like the beautiful "Atonal Poem" and the tripped-out "X-Static Blanket" pointing to intoxicating new directions in which to head. Tune in now, but stay tuned, too
Xeno & Oaklander - Vi/deo (Dais)
As Xeno & Oaklander, Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo have always made minimal wave synthpop the old fashioned way, preferring synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers that require patch cables and note-by-note programming, over the comparative ease that is laptops and loop-based systems like Ableton. Vince Clarke may not make records like he did in the early days of Erasure anymore, but Xeno & Oaklander do. Vi/deo, the duo's seventh album, feels vaguely modern, though. Or at least further into the '80s, with stabs of strings, bigger drum hits and richer production. It's also X&O's poppiest album, albeit one that opens with a total banger titled "Infinite Sadness." McBride is an inventive programmer, coaxing new sounds out of decades-old equipment and Wendelbo has never sounded more appealing, beckoning you closer while keeping you at arms length. Nearly 20 years into their existence, Xeno & Oaklander still make the past sound like the future -- when the future seemed cool.
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