Bill’s Indie Basement (7/24): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Last week we had three records that could all very well end up in my Best of 2020 list. This week is a little quieter in Indie Basement. But as always there are some great new albums to check out: the first album from pre-Versus band Flower in 30 years; former Ultravox frontman John Foxx's latest album with The Maths; Brazilian-born, LA based dreampop musician Winter; and a new EP from dark electronic wiz Pye Corner Audio. Last but certainly not least: two much-needed vinyl reissues from The Chills.
If you need more new record review, Andrew listens to Courtney Marie Andrews and more in this week's Notable Releases. And if you need more, have you listened to the new JARV IS..., Protomartyr and Crack Cloud albums?
Head below for this week's reviews.
Flower - None Is (But Once Was) (Ernest Jenning Recording Co)
Richard & Ed Baluyut's pre-Versus band make their first new album in 30 years.
Before they formed Versus, Richard and Ed Baluyut were in Flower, their late-'80s indie rock group that pulled from a variety of post punk and alternative influences. After nearly 30 years apart, Flower got back together in 2018, toured with Sebadoh, and started working on new music. In what sounds like the third act of a sitcom episode, they basically locked themselves together in a room and didn't come out till they had enough songs for a new album. That record is None Is (But Once Was), their first since 1990.
Like most songwriters, Richard has certain chord patterns and a way of playing that has run through nearly everything he's done. Specifically, there's a drony, open-string guitar style that lets you know he's here even before his distinctive voice comes in. That said, None Is (But Once Was) is markedly different from Flower's original output (or any other Richard Baluyut record), trading indie rock dissonance for a jangly style that's closer to Teenage Fanclub or The Boo Radleys.
However they came to these songs while locked in that room together, None Is (But Once Was) is an appealing, breezy guitar pop album with occasional flashes of the gritty NYC scene where they started. You get the whole record in one song right off the bat with "Lost Horizon," which starts like Wings, and makes a left turn into Sonic Youth before sailing off into Big Star territory. Flower sparkles and shines on "Glass Brick Window," nods lightly to New Order on "Consent," draws weapons on the fierce "Blood," and soars like Bends-era Radiohead on "Totality." It almost feels like Flower have literally picked up where they left off, and we're hearing the record they might have made in 1995 if they'd stayed together. None Is (But Once Was) makes for a very enjoyable "what if."
The Chills - Submarine Bells & Soft Bomb vinyl reissues (Fire)
The New Zealand band's two '90s albums for Warner Bros get their first vinyl pressings since their initial release.
The early '90s was a weird time where all sorts of bands that had no business being on a major label ended up on one anyway. (Not that this doesn't still happen now.) The Chills were one of those groups. After spending a few years on US indie label Homestead Records, famous for its good taste more than its willingness to pay its artists, they signed with Slash, which was distributed by Warner Brothers in America and Polygram-owned London Records in the UK. It kinda made sense in some ways: Slash was home to X, Violent Femmes, Los Lobos and more, but Warner Bros -- who handled marketing and promotion -- didn't really know what to do with these quirky kiwis led by brilliant eccentric Martin Phillipps.
The first album for Slash, 1990's Submarine Bells, is a flat-out triumph even if few in America noticed. Made in London with producer Gary Smith (Blake Babies, Throwing Muses), The Chills came with Phillipps' best batch of songs to date and a stable, talented lineup of the band. Smith's production style worked great with The Chills, avoiding au-courant studio techniques, but giving Phillipps' songs the fidelity they deserved. A #1 album in New Zealand, Submarine Bells has shimmer and bite, hooks and oddball charm, and still sounds great today, with such classics as "Heavenly Pop Hit," "Part Past, Part Fiction," "The Oncoming Day," "Effloresce And Deliquesce" and the gorgeous lullaby of a title track. One of 1990's best albums.
Its follow-up, 1992's Soft Bomb, is a much more sprawling, ambitious album and suffers a bit from blank check syndrome and label meddling. Phillips made it in Los Angeles with a decidedly more commercially-minded producer, Gavin MacKillop, and was convinced to use studio musicians (including The dB's Peter Holsapple) as well as keyboards and drum machines (not the cool ones), giving it a sheen that sounded more like 1988 than one year after Nevermind. Phillipps countered by peppering the album with grandiose song cycles and the baroque, orchestral "Water Wolves" featuring string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. Soft Bomb is not a bad album by any means, it's just a bit of a mess that only hints at what it could've been. Phillipps' songwriting on "Male Monster from the ID," "Ocean Ocean," "Double Summer" and the first of the three "Soft Bomb" songs on the album outshine the production. It's also got the lovely "Song for Randy Newman, etc" that has him singing about Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Scott Walker, Brian Wilson and Newman (misunderstood songwriters he clearly identified with).
The pressure of Soft Bomb may have been too much for Phillips, as he broke up the band immediately after their NYC show on The Chills' world tour for the record. He managed to put out another record, 1996's mediocre Sunburnt (credited to Martin Phillips & The Chills), but he spent the next two decades adrift, suffering from drug addiction and other health problems, before forming a new lineup of The Chills in the early-'10s and releasing the great Silver Bullets in 2015 and Snow Bound in 2018.
Both Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb have been out of print on vinyl since their original pressings, so these reissues are very welcome. No frills, just faithful reproductions of the original records, remastered for vinyl. Both are out in stores November 7 via Fire, but fans don't have to wait and can get them now by ordering online. There's a bundle for both that includes a pretty cool Chills tote, too. The offer is available in the US too, so no crazy shipping charge (which has gone up a lot recently). Order yours here.
Meanwhile: classic Chills singles comp Kaleidoscope World was reissued a couple years ago by Flying Nun in expanded form -- it and Submarine Bells are the two must-own records in their catalog. If you'd like to learn more, documentary The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps is available on most video on demand platforms.
John Foxx & The Maths - Howl (Metamatic)
The former Ultravox frontman drafts a new lineup of The Maths for their fifth album, including an old bandmate who changes the band's sound considerably.
Original Ultravox frontman John Foxx has been making music with his band The Maths for 10 years now and, unlike many of his peers, has rejected modern technology in favor of making electronic records like he did in 1981. No Ableton or laptops allowed, just vintage synths, drum machines and sequencers -- the kind that require note-by-note programming and patch cables -- not to mention guitars, bass and real drums.
For their fifth album, Howl, Foxx has drafted former Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon into the band, and in doing so has drastically changed the group's sound into something more raging. "There’s something central about what he does - and I always miss it, no matter who I work with," says Foxx. "It’s what Rob can do with a song, and with the sheer power of sound."
Simon's metallic wail may be the inspiration for Howl's title and is definitely a kick in the pants -- just listen to "Tarzan and Jane Regained" or the killer title track. He doesn't just make them louder, either; his guitar gives The Maths a more modern sound in the process. It also pulls them more towards Bowie -- who was a clear inspiration for Ultravox -- while still retaining what has always made them tick. There are still the kind of synth-heavy tracks that John Foxx & The Maths are known for, like "Everything is Happening at the Same Time" and "The New York Times," but everything feels a little more urgent and electric this time around. May we all sound so inspired at 71.
Winter - Endless Space (Between You & I) (Bar-None)
Gorgeous, shimmering shoegaze from Brazilian/American psych-pop artist.
I was a big fan of the Winter & Triptides album from a couple years back which combined the talents of Brazilian-born Samira Winter and LA psych musician Glenn Brigman (aka Triptides). I'm happy to report that Winter is no less bewitching on her own. New album Endless Space (Between You & I) -- another title that really takes on new meaning in our pandemic times -- is utterly charming kaleidoscopic dreampop.
While the tropical influences heard on the Triptides record are still here, it's just one of the many colors she has at her disposal. She makes modern shoegaze that is well versed in the classics (Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine), but is not afraid of current sounds and production techniques. Endless Space (Between You & I) is a gentle tractor beam, freeing you from the earth's gravity and pulling you into her orbit with layers of cascading guitar, synth waves and her honey-sweet vocals.
Winter's Brazilian background really comes through in the rhythm section, which is groovy, jazzy, and generally laid back. You can also hear it in her warm melodies, and on the album's more subtle moments, like the mid-album splashdown "In the Z Plane." This is not burst-your-eardrums shoegaze but neither is it aural wallpaper -- her perfect palette of sounds draws you in but she's got the tunes to keep you around, like "Healing," "Say" and the especially gorgeous title track. In a crowded galaxy of groups happy to imitate their heros, Winter truly stands out.
Pye Corner Audio - Where Things Are Hollow 2 EP (Lapsus Records)
Three brand new tracks from analogue synth wiz Martin Jenkins, plus a remix by John Talabot.
We last heard from Pye Corner Audio, aka analogue synth mastermind Martin Jenkins, last year with the terrific Hollow Earth, which soundtracked an imaginary journey to the center of the earth (or the mind's subconscious, it's debatable). Jenkins is now back with a new EP that once again focuses on things that are empty inside -- Where Things Are Hollow 2, which follows 2017's Where Things are Hollow. Not all Pye Corner Audio records have the world "hollow" in them, by the way, and I don't really understand whatever connection there is between them, apart from that they all contain sublime electronic music that splits the difference between throbbing techno and vintage prog/John Carpenter soundtrack music. It's cool stuff.
The EP kicks off with the dark alluring "Self Synchronise," which is like Tangerine Dream remixed for a Berlin club, and then slips into "Weather the Storm," a slippery banger that really makes the most of mood and dynamics. John Talabot's remix of "Resist" (which was on the original Where Things Are Hollow EP) completely reworks the track, giving it a distinct '80s feel, using drum machine sounds that would've been at home on Depeche Mode's Black Celebration or New Order's Substance. Things wind down with gently pulsing "Phase B." Running 24 minutes, this is an ideal entry point into Pye Corner Audio's iridescent world of which there is much, much more to explore.
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