Bill’s Indie Basement (5/10): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week: baroque psych-pop via Sweden's Death and Vanilla; freak-flag art disco from Toronto's DOOMSQUAD; the debut EP from Montreal's hyper Pottery; superior garage rock crew The Mystery Lights; Mammoth Penguin, the current group from Standard Fare's Emma Kupa; and new synth music from the "unofficial fifth member of S U R V I V E."
If you need more of this week's new records, Andrew review the new Holly Herndon and more in Notable Releases; and if you need more Basement-approved stuff... Kelly Lee Owens' new single is great; Imperial Teen are back; and I really never expected UK band Virginia Wing to tour North America, but so they are.
It's been a while since I've used the phrase "sounds like Broadcast" here in Indie Basement (at least a month!) but but it's hard not to when discussing Malmö, Sweden's Death & Vanilla whose new album, Are You A Dreamer? is out today via Fire. I actually don't think these two groups sound all that much alike, but Death & Vanilla do have that haunting, beautiful, baroque sound that is similar to Broadcast, with a fondness for mellotrons, harpsichords, detached-but-gorgeous vocals, and bursts of wild psych-surf guitar. On the other hand, D&E are a lighter, dreamier band, and Marleen Nilsson has more of a California feel to her vocals. Both probably own Ennio Morricone's score for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage on vinyl, though.
Depending on how you count things, Are You A Dreamer? is the group's third or fifth album (there are some soundtracks things) and follows 2015's terrific To Where the Wild Things Are. There may not be anything quite as immediately satisfying as that record's "California Owls" here, but this is a more assured, sonically alluring album with an overall higher hit count. The percussion on this album really adds a lot, opting for the kind of skittering snare rolls that powered a lot of Portishead's first album (and old Serge Gainsbourg records). Nowhere is it more potent than on "Eye Bath" which, about halfway through the hypnotic six-minute song, tops off each little roll with a perfectly syncopated handclap. It gets me every time and is the kind of touch that makes your ears prick up. Are You A Dreamer? is loaded with little moments like this, adding an extra level of filigree to the already ornate, beautiful songs.
There are a lot of groups fretting over our modern malaise these days-- our reliance on technology, the sociopolitical climate, that sort of stuff -- but few are presenting a call-to-arms with as much panache, quirky charm, wit and danceability as Toronto sibling trio DOOMSQUAD do on their brand new album Let Yourself Be Seen. Drawing inspiration from underground urban scenes such as early-'80s Downtown New York, and late-'80s acid house or New Beat, the album is, according to the band, a "project of protest, catharsis and emotional and spiritual reconnection through music and, especially, through dance-music culture. It’s about activating the body on the most fundamental level, into states of change, release and reunion.”
Though one thread running through the LP is our use of nostalgia like a drug -- "I find myself hanging onto the past for dear life!" Trevor Blumas cries at one point -- there is no denying the album's reliance on classic sounds, and it will likely appeal first to those who appreciate Eno-era Talking Heads, Arthur Russell, Neneh Cherry, Meat Beat Manifesto, the '00s-era nu-dance scene (LCD, YACHT, Out Hud) and others who liked their disco with a splatter of dayglo paint. But DOOMSQUAD have such conviction and spirit, unafraid to mix those paints, they play it like they invented it. They also bring that spirit to their lofty, unique and undeniably arty vision which makes it welcoming, not pretentious. Lead single "The General Hum" is the album in a nutshell, with Trevor asking "Is there a place for spirit anymore?" over an infectious post-punk/house hybrid backing track. They are flying their freak flag and demanding to see ours, too, and if you miss the dancing as an act of rebellion spirit of !!! and Scissor Sisters, they've got it in spades. Other killer cuts: "Let it Go," which could be late-'90s Everything But the Girl; the afro-disco paean to to Ball Culture that is "Dorian's Closet"; and the title track which could almost pass for peak-era Underworld. (This album has a seriously high banger quotient.) The chemistry between the Blumases is undeniable, from their call-and-response vocals to the the seriously funky grooves to the outsider, freaks-and-weirdos aesthetic. Let Yourself Be Seen succeeds as pure dance music and as an art statement.
Last week I wrote about how coldwave synthpop was an easy style to play (or mimic) but hard to actually be good at, and I think that is also just as true of garage rock. Guitar, bass, drums and, if you're fancy, an old farfisa, three chords (one should be minor) and a shit-ton of reverb, and you could be playing Cavestomp. But most of it shouldn't ever leave the garage. The Mystery Lights, who moved to NYC from Salinas, CA and have been around for 15 years, are one of the very good ones. They've got a killer live show, absolutely electric, but they're also one of the few who make records I actually like listening to, with genuine songwriting chops, musicianship, danceability and a warm dose of soul.
Too Much Tension! is The Mystery Lights' second album for Wick Records, which is the rock imprint of Daptone, and it benefits from being recorded at Daptone's House of Soul studios by Wayne Gordon who has worked on records by Sharon Jones, Ghostface Killah, Mark Ronson, King Gizzard and others. Too Much Tension! just sounds right, vintage in all the important ways nwithout sounding like a Nuggets pastiche. The album plays like a on-fire live show, with almost no pauses between the songs, except when the mood changes, like on wistful ballad "Watching the News Give Me the Blues." That title is typical of the album, where the woes and pressures of our modern world seep in, but Too Much Tension! is not here to preach, instead offering welcome release through dancing.
The most recent time I saw Montreal's Pottery play (Rough Trade back in March), they opened with a song that almost seemed like an audition reel called "We Can Play Anything," as they cycled through a myriad of styles over the course of eight minutes or so, from hyper new wave punk, to Doors-style '60s psych, '70s bombast, country...I can't remember what else. They were great at all of it (this band can really play). The band's debut EP, out today, is not so schizophrenic, sticking mainly to the kind of jangly, manic post-punk pop favored by XTC, The Monochrome Set, Chris Stamey-era dB's and Orange Juice. (It's not too far off from what Uranium Club do, either.) But they do bring that impressive musicianship to their tight bursts of melody that are five of this EP's seven tracks, like on the great "Hank Williams," "The Craft," and "Spell." They slow down just a little for the trippy "Worked Up," and then let it all hang out on the seven-minute closing number "Lifeline Costume" that barrels down a drony one-chord jam until bursting into a crazed technicolor chorus and then back to droning and more noisey weirdness. The next record may not sound like this at all, but it'll probably be good too.
Josh Mills has been part of the Austin synth scene for a long time, and has worked as an engineer for Stranger Things composers (and S U R V I V E members) Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's score for Nat Geo series Valley of the Boom. (According to the band, he's jokingly referred to as the fifth member of S U R V I V E.) Now based out of Los Angeles, Josh also makes music on his own as Missions and will release new album, Subcreature, on August 2 via Holodeck, the label run by members of S U R V I V E. Given all that, you can probably figure out the ballpark in which Mills plays, making dark, sexy synth music, but with his own distinct flavor. First single "Truther" adds spice via vocoder, giving things a cough syrup electro feel. The video, all black light hues of crimson and blue, enhance the high. That video, directed by Essentials Creative, premieres right here, check it out:
UK trio Standard Fare, who were featured a lot in my old "This Week in Indie" column back at the start of this decade, broke up back in 2013 but singer/songwriter/guitarist Emma Kupa has continued to write catchy, heartfelt guitar pop with her new group, Mammoth Penguins. They just released There's No Fight We Can't Both Win, their second album and first in four years. Standard Fare were never what I'd call twee, they were firmly in the indiepop scene and, even though Mammoth Penguins is a much more twee name, there is more oomph in the performances and arrangements, which makes for a nice mix of brawn, brains and heart. Speaking of, Emma's heart remains on her sleeve, and her voice -- both strong and vulnerable -- conveys all the yearning and regret found in her lyrics. And the songs, like "I Wanna" -- with its chorus of "I love you, I love you, I love you / Fuck it all, fuck it all, fuck it all" -- are eminently relatable earworms.