Before I dive into this week's reviews, a bit of Indie Basement admin: this is likely to be the last new, regular edition of this column for 2022, as the New Release well has run dry and it's time for lists. So there is more still to come just in retrospective form. This week we've got new records from Taken by Trees (Victoria Bergsman), Marker Starling and German Punk Godmother Nina Hagen, plus anniversary reissues from Echo & The Bunnymen and Haircut 100.

It's a busier week in Notable Releases and Andrew reviews the much-anticipated new SZA album and more.

Rest in peace  one-of-a-kind drummers Jet Black and Hamish Kilgour.

Be sure to visit the Indie Basement department of the BrooklynVegan Shop, which has vinyl, books and merch from The Flaming Lips, King Gizzard, Pavement, Wet Leg, Mo Troper, Arctic Monkeys, Beach House, Midlake, Broadcast, Stereolab, Love & Rockets, The The, Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, Talking Heads, Spoon, Lilys, Cocteau Twins, Can, Dinosaur Jr and more.

Head below for this week's reviews...

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Taken by Trees - Another Year (Rough Trade)
Victoria Bergsman's first record in four years is an EP of Colin Blunstone covers featuring her old pals Peter Bjorn and John

It's been a while since we've heard from Taken By Trees, aka former Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman. Four and a half years to be specific and in that time she left Los Angeles to return to Sweden. This EP is a tentative step back to recording and has her covering five songs by Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. The title and cover art are a tip of the hat to Blunstone's great 1971 solo debut, One Year, and the record includes three songs from that album ("Say You Don't Mind," "She Loves The Way They Love Her," "Caroline Goodbye"), along with "Time's Running Out," and "I Don't Believe in Miracles" from Blunstone's second solo album, Ennismore. Her old friends and "Young Folks" collaborators, Peter Bjorn and John, serve as her backing band.

Blunstone's originals are lush, orchestrated early-'70s baroque soft rock, and Bergsman and PBJ take a much more spare, if no less pretty, approach to covering them, using marimba, vibraphone, woodwinds, a variety of percussion instruments and layers of harmonies. There's an air of melancholy to just about everything Bergsman does -- her demure voice summons grey clouds -- and they lean into it here, recasting these five songs with wonderfully mopey arrangements. In particular, "She Loves The Way They Love Her" is transformed from joyous, bouncy pop into an elegy, and it's wonderful. The whole thing is terrific, honoring Blunstone's originals while making them wholly her own.

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Marker Starling - Diamond Violence (Tin Angel Records)
Toronto's Chris A. Cummings is back with more laid back "Melancholy Party Jams"

"One of these days I'm gonna write us all out of this mess," Chris A Cummings sings over the silkiest of disco backing layered with sweet harmonies, synthy strings, Chic-esque guitar and a groovy bassline, all while he notes "crumpled pages" are "piling up tenfold" and "failure counts just as much as every step forward." It's a grim portrait of an artist, but Cummings, as Marker Starling, specializes in just these kind of "melancholy party jams." Diamond Violence is his first album since 2020's High January, a record that was produced by The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan and featured Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier. The arrangements are a little less lush (O'Hagan is hard to beat in that regard) but Cummings has a couple secret weapons this time: the wonderful Dorothea Paas duets on the autumnal "Yet You Go On" and sings backup on three other tracks; and trombonist and Arthur Russell collaborator Peter Zummo whose horn brings the title track to pensive life. (It is indeed "sad" and "trombone" but not in those two words' most famous parlance.) Cummings' voice is smooth but decidedly bummed out, perfect for these songs that are, to misquote an old American Bandstand rate-a-record cliche, downbeat but easy to dance to.

 

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Nina Hagen - Unity
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Nina Hagen - Unity (Grönland)
The Godmother of German Punk's first album in 11 years is bonkers, bananas and sometimes brilliant. It's a wild ride.

Nobody else sounds like Nina Hagen. Her voice is a weapon, all technicolor theatricality, pitched to 10 even when she's whispering, though she's more likely to be growling and wailing, with musical backing that's equally melodramatic. At 67 she has not mellowed one bit and her first album in 11 years is a wild tour-de-force that at times defies belief. No one could ever accuse her of phoning it in. Unity puts the many sides of Nina Hagen and her amazing set of pipes on display, from a froggy croak that would give Tom Waits a run for his money, to operatic wails and all points in between. Musically it's even more varied, from the electro-funk jam "Shadrach," which opens the album, to post-punk disco anthem "United Women of the World" that features Boney M's Liz Mitchell and Lene Lovich, to the title track which is a fantastic dub reggae stormer that quotes Coretta Scott King and features George Clinton. There's also a cover of Merle Travis' country coal-mining classic "16 Tons" that can only be described as demented, a German-language take of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," and "Venusfliegenfalle" that borders on metal, by way of Laibach. Across this whole crazy, awesome album, Nina rants, raves and demands your attention. Will you want to listen to the whole thing repeatedly? Maybe not, but you can't say you've heard anything else like it, or ever.

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Echo & The Bunnymen - Evergreen 25th Anniversary Edition (London)
The Bunnymen's 1997 comeback album gets a 25th anniversary edition and its first-ever vinyl pressing

Not too long after Echo & The Bunnymen released their self-titled 1987 album, which gave them a hit with "Lips Like Sugar," frontman Ian McCulloch left the group to go solo. The rest of the Bunnymen stayed together and tried out new singers but were dealt a huge blow when drummer and secret sauce member Pete DeFreitas was killed in a 1989 motorcycle accident. Apart, none of them did very well. With new singer Noel Burke they made the best-forgotten 1990 album, Reverberation, that sounded like rip-off of EATB's greatest hits. McCulloch, meanwhile, released two solo album that had their moments (most of which involved Elizabeth Fraser) but were pretty bland. McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant patched things up and released a somewhat promising 1995 album as Electrafixion that really only had fans wondering when the Bunnymen were gonna get back together.

It didn't take long. McCulloch, Sergeant and bassist Les Pattison reformed in 1996, and released their first new album in a decade, Evergreen, in July 1997. McCulloch had chased stardom hard in the '80s, but lost to his rivals U2. Now with the Britpop scene sweeping the UK, he saw another chance at the brass ring. As comebacks go, it's a pretty good one. Sergeant's signature lead lines and Pattison's playing -- not to mention McCulloch's unmistakable pipes -- let you know exactly who you're listening to, but the song structure, melodies and production are pitched to stadiums. Evergreen is loaded with swaying anthems with power chords that felt like their answer to Oasis, a band whose bravado matched McCulloch's. In fact Liam Gallagher provides backing vocals on the album's lead single, "Nothing Lasts Forever," that tied "The Cutter" as their highest-charting UK single. ("The Killing Moon," which McCulloch called "the greatest song ever written," only got to #9.)

Twenty-five years on, Evergreen mostly lives up to its title. The '90s production has aged better than the drum machines and synths on Echo & The Bunnymen (aka "The Grey Album") and it feels less like bandwagon-hopping than it did in 1997. It's not gonna replace Ocean Rain or Crocodiles as anyone's favorite Bunnymen record but as McCulloch noted this year, it's got “at least three great songs, which is three more than most bands have in their entire catalogue.” Humble to the end.

For its 25th anniversary, the Bunnymen are reissuing Evergreen and giving it its first-ever vinyl pressing, and the CD edition comes with loads of b-sides and a live album.

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Haircut 100 - Pelican West 40 (Edsel Records)
All this 40th anniversary deluxe edition of Haircut 100's debut album is missing is a a cream-colored cable-knit sweater

London new wave group Haircut 100 were part of a short-lived early-'80s scene that took influence from disco and funk but, unlike post-punk groups from just a couple years prior, applied it to sunny pop. With their terrific debut album getting a new 40th anniversary edition, due out February 24, here's an excuse to look back.

Chief members Nick Heyward and Les Nemes had been in a bunch of bands together since the late '70s (Rugby, Boat Party, Captain Pennyworth), all of which, in name at least, seemed to be leading up to what they'd do in Haircut 100. "Boat Party" would also end up as the title of the b-side of their infectious debut single "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" which is a revved-up, bongo-and-horn overload of blue-eyed funk that sounds like being on a yacht just off St. Barts. They looked the part, too, with blond, perfectly coiffed hair, linen pants and cable-knit sweaters. "Favourite Shirts" went to #4 in 1981 and they followed it up with an even bigger hit, "Love Plus One," which added marimba and smooth sax to their sound. That one dented the U.S. Top 40, too, reaching #37 and hitting even bigger on MTV with a very silly video (see below).

Both those tracks would feature on their debut album, Pelican West, which was produced by Bob Sargeant, who was working similar magic with The (English) Beat around the same time. Sargeant really knew how to meld classic British pop with tropical sounds and disco in an organic way (no drum machines or synths) that still sounds great today. The rest of the record follows suit and if there's nothing that trumps "Favourite Shirts" and "Love Plus One," then "Fantastic Day"(a #9 UK hit), "Lemon Fire Brigade," and "Love's Got Me in Triangles" come pretty close. The band's real life was probably not anything like their image, but Pelican West is a fantasy world that's fun to visit.

This Pelican West 40 edition has been produced with cooperation from the whole band. This was among the earliest albums recorded on Digital Audio Tape and it's been remastered from the original source with the vinyl getting the half-speed mastered treatment at AIR Mastering. As you might imagine, there are a few different editions, from a standard single-disc vinyl reissue to a 4-LP box set with single mixes, 12" extended versions, b-sides (including "Boat Party" and "Ski Club," they had all the posh vacation activities covered), and a disc's worth of unfinished tracks from sessions for the band's second album before Heyward quit to go solo. It also comes with a booklet featuring rare photos and a new oral history of the band featuring all original members  All that's missing is a cream-colored cable knit sweater.

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