Indie Basement (9/24): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Fall doesn't mess around. The first Indie Basement of autumn and we have our most bountiful harvest ever, with reviews of 10 new albums, including records from Absolutely Free (their first in seven years), Cold Beat, college radio greats The Connells (first album in 20 years!), Pop. 1280, Public Service Broadcasting, and Film School, not to mention the star-studded I'll Be Your Mirror tribute to The Velvet Underground (Michael Stipe! Courtney Barnett! Iggy Pop! Sharon Van Etten! More! Exclamation! Points!). There's also the 30th anniversary edition of Pixies' Trompe Le Monde, a compilation of dub covers curated by Don Letts, and a lost album by mid-'80s obscurites Magic Roundabout.
For those who feel like 10 is not enough, Andrew reviews another five in Notable Releases, including Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, The Body and BIG|BRAVE, and more. If you still need more: The Wrens' Kevin Whelan finally gave up on Charles Bissell and is releasing his songs as Aeon Station; members of Dirty Three, Tropical Fuck Storm and The Necks formed cool new trio Springtime; UK duo King Hannah are back with new music; Charlotte Adigery is back too (and now officially a duo with Bolis Pupul); so are Man or Astro-Man? and Uffie; Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie has a new EP; and who would not want to watch an animated Jarvis Cocker singing in French in a new video directed by Wes Anderson?
Trompe Le Monde's is not the only album celebrating its 30th birthday today. It's also 30 candles for Nirvana's Nevermind (read Andrew's ranking of the tracks); A Tribe Called Quest's The Low-End Theory and, to a lesser extent, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic. Add in Primal Scream's Screamadelica (which came out in the UK 30 years ago yesterday) it was quite a week way back when. Wild!
You can pick up Trompe Le Monde, Nevermind and Screamadelica in the BV shop, along with both 'French Dispatch' albums (including the Jarvis Cocker one) and lots of other Indie Basement approved vinyl albums.
Head below for this week's overflowing cornucopia of reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Absolutely Free - Aftertouch (Boiled Records)
Toronto proggy synthpop group finally follow up their 2014 debut album, and it's glorious
It's been seven years since Toronto's Absolutely Free -- the komische-influenced spinoff of DD/MM/YYYY -- released their excellent self-titled debut. They've put out a few singles and EPs since, toured, and apparently had a second album in the can four years ago that never saw the light of day. That album, produced by Jorge Elbrecht (No Joy, Lansing-Dreiden), is finally out. I'm not sure what the delay was (probably record label bullshit), but it's fantastic, soaring, proggy synthpop that bears no signs of freezer burn. If you ever wished Tangerine Dream were a pop band, Aftertouch gets pretty close to that with complex polyrhythms (Steve Reich-style marimba/vibraphone features heavily), interlocking layers of synths / guitars, and bright melodies and harmonies that sail through the clouds. Join them in the sky, and let "Are They Signs," "How To Paint Clouds," "Remaining Light" and "Still Life" be your wings.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Cold Beat - War Garden (self-released)
Few bands do minimal wave / post-punk with as much panache and humanity as San Francisco's Cold Beat. The band's fifth album, War Garden, picks up where last year's fantastic Mother left off, taking icy darkwave and giving it a warm, beating heart. The album's title comes from the "victory gardens" of WWII, where people were encouraged to grow their own food as supplies were shipped to troops overseas, which Cold Beat has used as a metaphor for humanity's sense of self-sufficiency during times of strife. If singer/bassist Hannah Lew wondered what the future would be like for her newborn child on Mother, War Garden offers hope through a terrible year on gorgeous, swirling songs like "Part the Sea," "Weeds," "See You Again," and "Mandelbrot Fall" that sound as good while planting daisies as they would in a dry-ice-filled goth club.
Speaking of planting flowers, the vinyl edition of War Garden doesn't come out till January but if you preorder, they'll send you a plantable flower seed card now. "The sprout will grow while your record is created. As it blooms, your record will arrive at your door. Having faith and surrender is what guided us through writing these songs, and that optimism is what we would like to share with you in the form of a flower."
Various Artists - I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute To The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve)
Executive produced by the late Hal Willner, this VU tribute features Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile and more. Inessential, but very listenable
Brian Eno famously once said that while The Velvet Underground only sold 30,000 copies of The Velvet Underground & Nico, every person who bought one started a band. A slight exaggeration, but the band's influence cannot be overstated, and pretty much every rock artist who could be called "underground" since 1967 owes at least a little debt to Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Mo Tucker and Nico. The songs on that debut album have been covered and ripped off endlessly over the last 50+ years, and there have been a handful of tribute albums released over the years as well. (1991's Heaven and Hell is great.) Does the world need another? No, but I'll Be Your Mirror is a nonetheless entertaining album featuring a very impressive lineup of talent, including Courtney Barnett, Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile and more. It also serves as a tribute to the album's executive producer Hal Willner, who died in 2020 from Covid and whose ability to bring together unique talents is very much on display here.
Never less than totally listenable, I'll Be Your Mirror suffers a bit from having artists who are so clearly influenced by The Velvet Underground that they don't really take the songs into new territory. Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett, Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie & Thurston Moore, and Sharon Van Etten with Angel Olsen give you pretty much what you expect. That is not to say any of these are phoned in, they're not, but you know what Kurt Vile & The Violators' version of "Run Run Run" is gonna sound like before you hit play. Mixing things up a little are Michael Stipe, whose orchestral take on "Sunday Morning" sounds fresh and modern; St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) who deconstruct "All Tomorrow's Parties"; and Andrew Bird & Lucius who add baroque drama to "Venus in Furs." And who doesn't want to hear Iggy Pop give 111% on a wild, noisy version of "European Sun" with Matt Sweeney? The album is never less than thoughtful and engaging, though, and the artists are clearly having fun playing these classic songs, even if they're not reinventing the peel-off banana.
Pixies - Trompe Le Monde 30th anniversary reissue (4AD)
Pixies' final album with the original lineup remains a noisy blast and gets reissued on cool green marbled vinyl for its 30th anniversary
Following the subdued and very surfy Bossanova, Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering cranked things back up seriously with their fourth album in four years -- and last for this original lineup of the Pixies. Trompe Le Monde is Pixies' loudest, noisiest album. It's also one of their most fun, with Black Francis' flights of fancy heading even further out into outer space, aided by keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman who adds flying saucer keyboards to much of the record. Their punky cover of The Jesus & Mary Chain's "Head On" was the album's hit, but Trompe Le Monde is jam-packed with Pixies-penned classics, the best of which were not chosen as singles: "U-Mass," with it's monster riff and chorus of "It's educational!"; "Space (I Believe In)" another guitar crusher with a memorably weird vocal hook ("Jefrey with one F, Jef-rey!"); and poppier tracks like "Letter to Memphis" and "Motorway to Roswell." Kim may not have any songs here (The Breeders were in full affect by this point), but her flinty basslines gives much of the album its edge. Pixies' subsequent break-up, following a 30-date opening slot on U2's Zoo TV tour, has colored the album a bit, but 30 years later Trompe Le Monde is a helluva way to go out.
As mentioned in this week's intro, today is Trompe Le Monde's actual 30th birthday and in celebration 4AD has given the album a new vinyl pressing on cool-looking marbled green vinyl that echoes its Vaughan Oliver-designed eye-grabbing artwork. You can pick it up in the BV store.
Late Night Tales presents Version Excursion selected by Don Letts (Late Night Tales)
Filmmaker, DJ, Big Audio Dynamite co-founder and all-around cool cat Don Letts brings his impeccable taste to this unique compilation of dub covers
If I was to make a list of Top 5 Coolest People Alive, Don Letts is one name that would immediately spring to mind. A brief look at his CV: he was the DJ at '70s London club The Roxy where he famously turned punk crowds (and the bands) onto reggae when there were no punk records to play yet. He parlayed that into a career as a music video director, making videos for everyone from The Clash, The Slits and Elvis Costello to Musical Youth, Ratt, The Gap Band, The Pogues, and more. He's also made documentaries about The Clash, Sun Ra, George Clinton and many more. He also used his love of dub and film, not to mention his distinctive voice, to shape the sound of Big Audio Dynamite alongside Mick Jones who'd just been fired from The Clash. And among other things, for the last 20 years, Don has hosted "Culture Clash Radio" on BBC-6 where he continues to blur genre lines.
He brings his deep knowledge of dub and sense of the new to this new Late Night Tales compilation, Excursion Version. It's not your average LNT comedown comp, as this plays off the ska and reggae tradition of cover versions, but bringing his own unique musical background to it. "I wanted to carve out a space that was distinctly my own - something that reflected my musical journey and the culture clash that’s made me the man I am today," says Don. He's selected 20 dubbed out covers, including 13 that are exclusive to this compilation. It features versions of songs by The Beach Boys, Nina Simone, Kool & the Gang, Joy Division, Marvin Gaye and more, interpreted by folks like John Holt, Cornell Campbell, Prince Fatt, Ghetto Priest and more. Flipping the script a little, there's also Black Box Recorder's cover of Althea & Donna's reggae classic "Uptown Top Ranking" and a new cover of Big Audio Dynamite's classic 1985 single "E=MC²" by Gaudi Meets The Rebel Dread ft. Emily Capell. As Don says, Version Excursion "crosses time, space and genre" but his impeccable taste holds it all together remarkably well.
Don also released a memoir this year, There and Black Again, which is a great read.
The Connells - Steadman’s Wake (Black Park/Missing Piece Records)
North Carolina college rock faves pick right up where they left off on first album in 20 years
R.E.M. inspired many, many college students to pick up guitars and try their hand at jangly rock, especially in the South where Georgia and North Carolina were epicenters for strummy groups. One of the best and most successful were The Connells who formed in Raleigh, NC around guitarist and songwriter Mike Connell, his brother David Connell on bass and vocalist Doug MacMillan. The band had a strong Southern Gothic element to their sound, not to mention just a little Celtic folk, which made them stand out among all the other bands with Rickenbackers. Like REM, they worked with producers Don Dixon (1985's Darker Days) and Mitch Easter (1987's Boylan Heights), and were college radio favorites before breaking big with 1990's One Simple Word and then got some serious non-120 Minutes MTV/alt-rock-radio play with "74-75" from 1993's Ring.
The Connells have never broken up but they've been mostly inactive over the last two decades, coming out of hibernation to play shows occasionally. Mike Connell, David Connell, and Doug MacMillan reactivated the band in earnest a couple years ago -- guitarist/singer George Huntley and drummer Peele Wimberley are not part of the current lineup -- and have just released Steadman's Wake, their first album in 20 years. The Connells pick right back up where they left off and the 11 songs here are warm and familiar, hitting the notes and chords you remember. Doug's voice is still in amazing shape and tracks like "Really Great," "Universal Glue" and the title track recall those mid-'80s Left of the Dial days. Steadman's Wake is a bit like finding your favorite sweatshirt from college and finding that though it's faded just a bit, it still fits.
Magic Roundabout - Up (Third Man)
Ultra-obscure '80s indie post-punk band get unearthed by Third Man Records by way of Pale Saints and His Name is Alive. Cool!
Just when you think you've heard every cool, obscure early-'80s post-punk band, along comes something like Magic Roundabout. If you've never heard of them, at least till very recently, you're not alone. The group never released anything during their existence, apart from one song on a very rare cassette compilation curated by Pulp's Mark Weber. Magic Roundabout ran in similar circles as Spacemen 3, Loop, and My Bloody Valentine but had more in common, sonically, with the C-86 scene that sprung up around The Jesus & Mary Chain (Wedding Present, Close Lobsters, The Shop Assistants).
Magic Roundabout may have remained a fuzzy memory in the minds of a only a few, until the story got interesting last year. Previously unheard recordings fell into the hands Pale Saints' Ian Masters, who then passed them along to His Name is Alive's Warren Defever who works at Third Man Mastering in Detroit. (Ian and Warren made a few records as ESP Summer.) Third Man Records' Dave Buik then heard it when visiting the mastering studio and next thing you know, the label was putting out a 7" single, and now here's a whole record by a band almost nobody knew existed. "Sneaky Feeling," which was on the 7", is the obvious hit, but the white noise baroque of "Carol in Your Eyes" and the pretty "She's a Waterfall" are almost as good. If you dig hazy guitars, heavenly harmonies, strong melodic basslines, and Mo Tucker-style drumming -- or read this column regularly -- press play now.
Film School - We Weren't Here (Sonic Ritual)
San Francisco dreampop vets still sound heavenly on on their sixth album
San Francisco's Film School have been making shoegazey, post-punk influenced rock since 1998 and have stuck to their guns through periods where what they did fit into what was trending in indie rock (they were signed to Beggars in the mid-'00s) and when it did not. That said, they've never sounded like a group who wished it was always 1991; Film School have changed with the changing times while not jumping on bandwagons, and have a very consistent catalog because of it. We Weren't Here is Film School's sixth album and was made during lockdown -- the title is both a reference to the remote recording process and those we've lost during Covid -- and keeps up the band's solid track record. This is mellow, pleasing dreampop with hushed vocals that melt into the synthesizers and shimmering guitar lines. What really makes this album fresh is Noël Brydebell of Wild Signals whose voice is a perfect match for frontman Greg Berten's. Their airy harmonies lift We Weren't Here into the heavens.
Public Service Broadcasting - Bright Magic (Play It Again Sam)
High concept UK group take a tour of Berlin, with a little help from Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld.
UK group Public Service Broadcasting specialize in high concept albums -- it's all they really do -- using sampled voices from old news broadcasts, as well as educational and propaganda films to "teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future." Following albums about the '60s space race and the Welsh mining industry comes their most ambitious work yet, a record about Berlin, told in three parts (Building A City / Building A Myth / Bright Magic). “In my head, it was whirring and pulsing away for a long time, this fascinating, contrary, seductive place," says PSB's J. Willgoose, Esq, who moved to Berlin in 2019. "I knew the album was going to be about the city, and its history and myths, and I was going to move there. So it’s quite a personal story. It’s become an album about moving to Berlin to write an album about people who move to Berlin to write an album."
There is more actual singing on Bright Magic than any previous PSB album, and among the guest vocalists are Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten, The Bad Seeds) who is the voice of Berlin’s industry on prog-botic “Der Rhythmus der Maschinen,” while Gurr's Andreya Casablanca plays Marlene Dietrich on the anthemic "Blue Heaven" which is the poppiest thing the group have ever done. Much of the record falls into more standard Public Service Broadcasting territory, post-rock and prog, but it wouldn't be a record about Berlin without one Kraftwerk/techno homage, the terrific, Depeche Mode-referencing "People, Let's Dance." Even without knowing the concept, Bright Magic feels like the wonder of moving to a new city where everything is foreign and exciting.
POP. 1280 - Museum On The Horizon (Profound Lore)
Brooklyn industrial/EBM group finally put some actual "pop" in their name for their fifth album (and first for Profound Lore)
After four albums of dark, bleak industrial dance music sounds, NYC's Pop. 128 lighten up just a little for their fifth album, which somewhat ironically is their first for Profound Lore, a label known for extreme metal and dark, challenging music like Lingua Ignota. You might say they finally put the "pop" in "Pop. 1280" but that is going a bit too far, yet Museum On The Horizon is their most hooky album to date and recalls late-'80s EBM like Nitzer Ebb, DAF and Front 242. Throbbing, sweat-soaked tracks like "Not Too Deep," "Human Factor," and the title track are legit electro-goth bangers.
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