Indie Basement (3/10): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It's another bountiful Indie Basement, with reviews of new records by Fever Ray, Sleaford Mods, Ulrika Spacek, La Luz's Shana Cleveland, H. Hawkline, Frankie Rose, Super Furry Animals offshoot Das Koolies, and former Fall guitarist Brix Smith. That's more than enough for one week.
But if somehow it is not enough, Andrew reviews MSPAINT, Manchester Orchestra, and more in Notable Releases. This was also a monster week for news: The Cure announced their North American tour (and Robert Smith remixed Noel Gallagher); two Indie Basement faves, Protomartyr and Baxter Dury, announced new albums; and I was knocked out by Weyes Blood's current live show.
If you're in NYC this weekend, the New Colossus Festival is upon us and I have some suggestions for who to see, and if you're in Austin next week for SXSW, come to our free day parties.
If you're in the mood for physical media, the Indie Basement corner of the BV online shop has vinyl, books and merch from Stereolab, Love & Rockets, The Raincoats, King Gizzard, Cocteau Twins, Grant Lee Buffalo, Sleaford Mods, Belle & Sebastian, New Pornographers, Naima Bock, Protomartyr, Mogwai, The Flaming Lips, and lots more.
Head below for this week's reviews...
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Fever Ray - Radical Romantics (Mute)
Collaborators on Fever Ray's terrific third album include Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, and her brother and former Knife partner, but Radical Romantics is 100% Karin Dreijer
"We don’t come with a manual," Karin Dreijer sings on "Looking for a Ghost" from their third album as Fever Ray, in a voice mutated by effects overtop ticking percussion, like a wind-up mechanical doll. Love is strange and it takes a lot of work to keep it aflame, a theme that runs through the entirety of Radical Romantics. If 2017's Plunge was Dreijer, newly out and embracing the wonders of the heart, then this is the tough job of keeping it going after passions have cooled and the realities of life seep back in. Reality is a loaded word in Fever Ray's world, full of distorted voices and unsettling characters (even moreso in their videos), but for all the creepy noises, Radical Romantics presents a lot of recognizably human emotions at its core. Love, anger and everything in between, all filtered through Dreijer's distinctive style.
Dreijer enlisted the help of a number of musical collaborators on Radical Romantics, including Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Karin's a fan of their Watchmen soundtrack), Portuguese DJ and producer Nídia, Johannes Berglund, Aasthma (Peder Mannerfelt and Pär Grindvik), Vessel, longtime collaborator Martin Falck, and Karin's brother and former partner in The. Knife, Olof Dreijer -- all of whom bend to Karin's will, making for a very cohesive LP. "The difference to me is that I get to have the last say on everything when it’s my track. I am directing much more," Karin says on working with Olof again for the first time since 2013's Shaking the Habitual. "With the Knife, it’s super, super democratic. We start together and we do everything together. Here, I had the songs and lyrics and melodies when we started."
Unsurprisingly, the four songs written with their brother that open the album are the most Knife-like, especially the slinky standout "Kandy" which has synths that recall the steel drums all over 2002's Deep Cuts, and the harrowing "What They Call Us" that might've fit on Silent Shout. Reznor & Ross contributed to two songs, one of which, "Even it Out," is a takedown of a real life school bully worthy of Lydia Tár. "There’s no room for you,” Dreijer fumes over a steely, pummeling beat. “And we know where you live!"
While most of the album is more mood than movement, there are a couple proper bangers, chief among them Vessel collab "Carbon Dioxide" which features enthusiastic "Woos," strings that swoop in seemingly from another song and, believe it or not, elements of Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk." It's Radical Romantics' unabashed love song and dancefloor filler that also encapsulates the album and its many emotions in a single track. "Holding my heart," she exclaims over scintillating techno backing, before completing the line, "while falling."
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Sleaford Mods - UK GRIM (Rough Trade)
England's going down the tubes but Sleaford Mods have never sounded better. Perry Farrell and Dry Cleaning's Florence Shaw join the party.
Somehow, defying all music industry logic and the normal rules of rock and pop, UK duo Sleaford Mods -- Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn, both over 50 and on album #8 --- just keep getting better. Maybe it's their metier; as long as there are idiots in charge to rail against, Williamson will never run out of bile, and Fearn will never run out of beats. Their home country is often the subject of their ire, but this time it's specifically focused on the state of the nation, from the title down. "The UK is like one of those crazy golf courses, where you’ve got a windmill, and then the next one is a stately home and the next one is a bridge," Williamson told The Guardian. "All we’ve got left are landmarks and characterizations of who we are, and examples of our architecture."
England has been on metaphorical fire since at least Brexit, but so are Sleaford Mods who are at their hilarious, angry and profane best on UK GRIM. They're trying to make sense of the last few years, and when there's no sense to be made, creative swearing and insults do just fine. The title track, which is best experienced via its animated video made by satirical collagist Cold War Steve, comes in hot, working in everyone from a shirtless Vladimir Putin to shortlived British PM Liz Truss. "In England no one can hear you scream," Williamson spews. "You're just fucked, lads."
It's not all Boris Johnson and cronies, though, with Williamson painting a grim, darkly funny portrait of day-to-day life during Covid lockdown. "Apart from You" is a post-punk jam about getting by hand-to-mouth, paycheck to paycheck; "PIt 2 Pit," over a machinegun bassline, has Williamson looking in the mirror and coming face to face with his vintage clothes addiction; and "DIWhy" looks at our too-online world, Twitter specifically. Then there's "Smash Each Other Up," which takes the Mods into eerie, atmospheric territory, a late night tale of post-COVID rage, quiet on the streets until things explode.
"Smash Each Other Up" is also a showcase for Fearn's ever-growing skill as a producer. Once happy to give WIlliamson bass-and-drum loops to rant over, UK Grim finds him working in increasingly nuanced melodic territory and clever, surprising arrangements, like "Force 10 From Navarone," which features Dry Cleaning's Florence Shaw, and sounds like dubstep Young Marble Giants.
Shaw's hilarious, dry witted delivery makes a wonderful foil to Williamson's phlegmatic barking, and she fits perfectly into Sleaford Mods' world. Not quite as obvious is Perry Farrell who does a b-minus Mods' impersonation but provides great backing vocals on the chorus of "So Trendy," a nonetheless instant classic in their discography. Sleaford Mods seemed like a novelty, a gimmick to some when they started over 10 years ago, but have continued to persevere and evolve through tenacity and exasperation. With the world not running out of idiots in charge, probably ever, don't expect Williamson and Fearn to go away any time soon. Thank fuck.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #3: Ulrika Spacek - Compact Trauma (Tough Love)
London quintet revel in the sound of inventive guitars on their first album in six years, also their best to date
In the year 2023, are guitars boring? Of course not, but for the sake of my own dumb argument I'll say it depends on whose hands they're in. (Obviously also true for any instrument, even the pan flute.) In London band Ulrika Spacek's hands, guitars swoop and soar, sneak and creep, caress and roar. Frontman Rhys Edwards and bandmates Adam Beach and Joseph Stone are cut from the same cloth as Doug Martsch, Bradford Cox, Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo, and the Radiohead of your choice, working within rock and pop boundaries but still finding new things to do with their instrument and excited by the possibilities. Compact Trauma, the band's first album in six years, plays off the promise of their 2018 Suggested Listening EP and is a glorious guitar record where even the two-minute songs feel epic, loaded with inventive riffs and clever filigrees. The album is very much a band effort, of course, with bassist Syd Kemp and drummer Callum Brown all adding to the wonderful, frequently thrilling din. The album opens with its best song, the swaggering "The Sheer Drop," which swings from sultry cool to wild noise and back, all with big hooks and a stick-in-your-head chorus. Compact Trauma maintains its quality levels over the remaining nine songs, taking us through jazzy pop ("Lounge Angst"), dark romance ("If The Wheels Are Coming Off, The Wheels Are Coming Off"), and more epics ("Stuck at the Door") before going out on the beautiful, dreamlike title track. Guitars? Here are 10 reasons to be excited.
Shana Cleveland - Manzanita (Hardly Art)
The La Luz leader's "supernatural love album set in the California wilderness" is another bewitching treat
As much as I enjoy La Luz's albums -- their 2021 self-titled fourth album is wonderful -- the spectral folk bandleader Shana Cleveland makes on her solo albums is even better. Her debut, Night of the Worm Moon, was one of 2019's more underrated albums and she's now followed it up with the equally bewitching Manzanita. Named for the evergreen shrub that grows in California and is known for its medicinal properties, the record was made while embracing motherhood and beating breast cancer. "This is a supernatural love album set in the California wilderness,” Cleveland says. These 14 songs are alive with mellotron strings, otherworldly pedal steel, desert wildlife and insects, big skies and bigger hearts. Cleveland's breathy voice is the perfect delivery device for it all.
Frankie Rose - Love as Projection (Slumberland)
Frankie switches guitars for synths on her first album in six years, but her main instrument remains her voice.
Frankie Rose got her start playing drums, joining (and quitting!) Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and Dum Dum Girls in rapid succession and was in many ways all three group's secret weapon. (Vivian Girls in particular; she wrote their catchiest song.) She went solo in the early 2010s, first in the dark garage mold of her other groups and then flirted, less successfully, with modern electronic R&B on 2017's Cage Tropical, but her true instrument is her voice and way with harmony. That was evident all the way back on that Vivian Girls song, "Where Do You Run To," and her ability to stack vocals on a big hook remains impressive on all of her records. She may have found the perfect vehicle for that with her fourth solo album, Love as Projection, that sets her voice and songs in lush, noirish synthpop arrangements. She's working again with Cage Tropical producer Jorge Elbrecht. but the gothier production suits both of them much better. They wisely avoid going full-'80s, making for an album with one foot in the past and the other in the future, with those harmonies connecting it all. With Love as Projection, Frankie Rose has found her voice.
H. Hawkline - Milk for Flowers (Heavenly)
Cate Le Bon associate H. Hawkline makes his best record yet
Huw Evans (aka H. Hawkline) and Cate Le Bon have been in each other's orbit since they both started writing songs in Cardiff, Wales. They also used to be a couple, and when they were living together Huw encouraged Cate to play her songs in public, and came up with her stage name (a nod to Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon). They moved to Los Angeles together in 2012 and broke up not long after, realizing they were always better friends than partners, but have kept working together since. Even if you didn't know all this backstory or could see the the credits for their albums, you could feel it. Huw and Cate are of the same strange green world, intertwined. They also play on each other's recordings, and Cate has produced all three of H. Hawkine's albums for Heavenly, including Milk for Flowers which is his best yet. Made at the legendary Rockfield Studios just outside Cardiff, it's also his least obtuse record to date, still decidedly odd but nothing a Bowie fan wouldn't understand. The wonderful title track plays like a bizarre world version of Todd Rundgrun's "I Saw the Light" (I bet Todd would dig it), while "Athens at Night" is mushroom tea glam featuring a wonderfully wigged-out guitar hook. If you're already a Le Bon fan and haven't checked out H. Hawkline, you need to complete this puzzle.
Das Koolies - The Condemned (Amplify / Strangetown)
What would Super Furry Animals sound like without Gruff Rhys? Pretty great, it turns out
Das Koolies are a "parallel band" of Super Furry Animals that includes guitarist Huw Bunford, keyboardist Cian Ciarán, drummer Dafydd Ieuan and bassist Guto Pryce -- that's everyone except frontman Gruff Rhys. It's an idea they've been threatening to do for years and they finally made it a reality in 2020, releasing debut single "It's All About the Dolphins." Three years later, slowed a little by the pandemic, they're back with their first EP. The sounds are familiar, the mix of rock and electronics, but take away Gruff's distinctive melodic and harmony style, and add in Cian and Bunf's vocals and everyone's songwriting, Das Koolies have a very different feel. The closest parallel would be 2005 SFA album Love Kraft, which featured songs from every member of the band, but this is actually more successful. Love Kraft suffered because, by that point, fans had expectations of what an SFA record should sound like, and the other members' lead vocals could never quite match Gruff's; but without the SFA banner hanging over it, it's easier to enjoy it all for what it is, a very fun, very creative 22 minute trip. What Das Koolies do share with their other band (still together, just hibernating) is a sense of playfulness. Seven-minute Welsh language track "Dim Byd Mawr" ("No Big World") is a wild ride that goes from Giorgio Moroder electro-disco, into space rock and then back to the club for a bit of squelched out acid house before a Beatlesque finish. It's brilliant. If the other three songs don't quite hit those heights, they come pretty close. Cian's keyboards are the real star here and if you wished the Furries had done more electronic music, like the intro to Phantom Power's "Slow Life" for instance, The Condemned is a bit of a "What If" fantasy realized. While I would really love for Super Furry Animals to make another album (surely they will), I hope Das Koolies make one too.
Brix Smith - Valley of the Dolls (Grit Over Glamour)
The former Fall guitarist, and ex-wife of the late Mark E Smith, releases her first-ever solo album
A California native, Brix Smith met The Fall's Mark E Smith on their 1983 tour and within days had joined the band, and not long after that married MES. Her time in the band, 1983 - 1989, is one of the most beloved periods of The Fall and she co-wrote many of their all-time best-known songs. Her pop sensibilities also gave The Fall actual UK chart hits. After leaving The Fall and divorcing Smith, Brix formed jangly group Adult Net, who released one album, The Honey Tangle, in 1989. She then spent time in the touring lineup of The Bangles and almost joined Hole (she was in the band for one day) before rejoining The Fall briefly in 1994-1995. After a 1997 solo EP, Happy Unbirthday, she gave up rock n' roll, trading guitars for clothes as a fashion retailer.
Old habits die hard, though, and Smith began playing again in 2014 with Brix & The Extricated, which featured her former Fall bandmates bassist Steve Hanley and drummer Paul Hanley, and had them doing Fall classics, mainly for fun. Her ex-husband's passing, along with writing a memoir, sparked the songwriting bug again, and here we are with her first-ever solo album. For it she worked with Killing Joke bassist Youth, who has made a career recently of producing post-punk comebacks, and the album includes contributions from Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles and Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama, Shakespeare’s Sister). "What came out here was probably the album I've been waiting to make since I was 15 years old,” Brix told Uncut, *but through the lens of a 60-year-old!" She can still write a hook, and describes Valley of the Dolls as a mix of Hole and The Breeders, but the album feels more like late-'90s commercial alt-punk. For someone who changed the sound of The Fall and went toe-to-toe with MES, this could use a little more post-punk personality.
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