Indie Basement (8/28): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week in indie basement: Kelly Lee Owens' sublime second album; Boston's Sweeping Promises (who have made an amazing debut); the second album from Sheffield "nerd disco" group International Teachers of Pop; Athens, GA scene legends Love Tractor reissue their debut album; and a new compilation spotlights the '80s janglepop scene that grew up in R.E.M.'s wake.
If you need more new album reviews, head over to Andrew's Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved stuff: Pylon's essential first two albums are being reissued, both as stand-alones and as part of a very cool box set; the directors of the Other Music documentary put together a list of 100 album to check out after you watch the movie; and Arab Strap are "back from the grave and ready to rave!" (we'll find out what that means soon).
Saturday, August 29 is the first of the three Record Store Day Drops and we highlighted some notable exclusive releases, including ones from Pale Saints, Tones on Tail and Wolfgang Press. Your local record store definitely needs your help this year.
Check out this week's reviews below.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song (Smalltown Supersound)
KLO does not not disappoint with album #2, as she explores the furthest reaches of her electronic universe
Welsh shoegazer-turned-electronic-wonder Kelly Lee Owens released her fantastic debut album in 2017 and has stayed busy since, playing live, DJing, and releasing new single "Let it Go" and John Hopkins collab "Luminous Spaces" last year. Both of those tracks are fantastic, but neither make their way onto Owens' second album, Inner Song, which doesn't need them.
Owens established a sound fairly quickly, mixing Berlin techno with elements of trip hop (and other '90s styles) and an ethereal vocal style that owes more than a little to her dreampop past. She both focuses that and expands upon it for Inner Song, a sublime album that is both heavenly and club-ready. Sometimes on the same song, like fantastic single "On," which she says is "the most intimate and personal song I've written so far." It begins as a mournful torch song about leaving things behind, but the flickering synth arpeggiations get stronger as the song moves on and cracks open into pure, danceable liberation.
Those signature arpeggiations, which zip back and forth across the stereo field, power another of Inner Song's standouts, "Jeanette," that bounces like Vince Clarke but in a way Erasure or Yazoo never would. Speaking of arpeggiations, Inner Song features a cover of Radiohead's In Rainbows track "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" that skips the weird fishes and the lyrics for a gurgling instrumental that serves as the album's lead-in.
That said, vocals take on a much more prominent role here. In addition to "On," there's also "L.I.N.E." and album closer "Wake Up," two of the most overtly pop numbers KLO has ever made, both of which sound like they could've been '80s slow jams (Martika? Alan Parsons?) but filtered through her distinctive astral style. Elsewhere, Owens' vocals give wings to hard-hitting techno track "Night" as it soars across a dark sky.
One of the most ambitious tracks on the album is "Corner of My Sky," her collaboration with The Velvet Underground's John Cale. Set to a woozy backing with gentle waves of bassy synths and a seriously warped string section, Cale offers vocals in both English and Welsh, chanting a mantra of "The rain, the rain, the rain, thank god the rain." Owens says it "might be what microdosing mushrooms sounds like." Like all of Inner Song, it's transportive stuff, no matter where your head's at.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Sweeping Promises - Hunger for a Way Out (Feel It)
99th percentile post-punk from Boston. Every song's a hit.
It is always great to be surprised. A week ago I'd never heard of Boston band Sweeping Promises and now their debut album, Hunger for a Way Out, seems a lock for my Top 10 of 2020. Featuring 10 ultra-catchy, danceable songs, I can't imagine any regular reader of this column not loving it.
This is 99th percentile post-punk, urgent and hooky with a low-fi approach that is a clear aesthetic choice and not one used to cover up any deficiencies. According to the press notes, Sweeping Promises made the record with just one mic, and the boxed-in sonics that it provided really works with the group's minimal setup (guitar, bass, drums, vocals, occasional keyboards). Everything just pops, with a sound somewhere between ESG and Kleenex-Liliput, but you could just as easily draw comparisons to The Pretenders, Elastica or Sleater Kinney.
Sweeping Promises are led by Lira Mondal whose strong, clear voice is one of the group's real selling points. She can really belt it out, like on "Safe Now" and the title track which opens the album, but there is also a sweet vulnerability to her vocals, too, that is very appealing, as heard on the falsetto hook that drives the incredible "Cross Me Out." There is also an audible attitude on tracks like "Falling Forward" that you just can't fake.
More than anything, the songs. They're all hits, from "Cross Me Out" and "Falling Forwards" (both insistent, punky power-pop), to the wirey "Out Again" and "Atelier." Then there's "An Appetite," a serious banger with an irresistible bassline and groove that instantly made me wish I had a DJ gig to play it at. "Nothing inspires quite like a good meal," Lira sings on the song. "It's so appealing." At 27 minutes, Hunger for a Way Out is a quick but very satisfying meal. So appealing indeed.
International Teachers of Pop - Pop Gossip (Desolate Spools)
More tongue-in-cheek "nerd disco" from Sheffield group featuring members of Moonlandingz and The Soundcarriers
Sheffield's International Teachers of Pop seem to exist for the fun of it, as all three members have been in a zillion bands over the years: Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer are both in Fat White Family offshoot The Moonlandingz, with Flanagan having logged time with The Fall in the late '90s, while Honer was one third of All Seeing I who had a worldwide smash in 1997 with "Beat Goes On." Singer Leonore Wheatley, meanwhile, is also in groovy baroque psych band The Soundcarriers. Together, they make playful "nerd disco" that draws from ABBA, Human League and Giorgio Moroder, while hiding just a little social commentary underneath the big hooks.
Following last year's terrific self-titled album, ITOP are back with Pop Gossip, which is a little more varied but no less successful in having a good time. The album has last year's great "You Stole My Plimsoles" that has Leonore trading barbs with Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson. It's also got their incredible, German-language cover of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" ("Ein Weiterer Stein In Der Wand"), also from last year, that refashions the classic into a strutting electro banger. As for the new new, "Femenergy" tips its hat at Patrick Cowley's High NRG classic (and Stock Aitken Waterman '80s love of electronic handclaps) for an infectious feminist dance floor anthem.
Other highlights on this very entertaining LP: "Don't Diss the Disco," a love letter to going out that references Studio 54 and Bianca Jagger; don't-tell-me-what-I'm-thinking anthem "Gaslight"; and the minimal, cheeky "Beats Working for a Living (For Martin)." Pop Gossip also features Katie Mason, who is part of ITOP's live lineup and sings lead on the purple-hued "Prince (The Final Wheelie)." Then there's "The Tower," which Dean Honer notes is "a disco song about filicide committed by the Queen." Pop Gossip has really got it all.
Various Artists - Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983 - 1987 (Captured Tracks)
What hath R.E.M. wrought? Five years worth of obscure, fantastic American janglepop via this excellent comp.
It wasn't until their fifth album that R.E.M. managed to score a Top 40 hit, but by that point they'd already altered the course of underground music in the '80s. The band's early, jangly sound inspired dozens of other bands to pick up Rickenbackers and strum their way toward pop stardom. Most of them didn't make it past college radio, "Cool" record stores, or their hometown's city limits, but there's a wealth of great music from that scene that most people haven't heard.
Enter Captured Tracks who are putting out this great compilation of mostly forgotten mid-'80s janglepop. A few of them are favorites of mine, including Jackson, MS' The Windbreakers (who were on DB Recs, who were home to Pylon and was perhaps the Southern janglepop label) and Alabama bands Primitons and Sex Clark Five (whose debut album, Strum & Drum!, inspired the title of this comp).
There are also a few bands who had members that would go onto bigger things, like Bangtails (featuring a pre-Sea & Cake Archer Prewitt), The Outnumbered (featuring Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division), A New Personality (featuring Darren Rademaker of Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde), and the 28th Day (ft. Barbara Manning of S.F. Seals). There's also two bands featuring Ric Menck: The Reverbs, and The Springfields which also featured Paul Chastain with whom he'd form Velvet Crush a couple years later.
Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983 - 1987 works kind of like an American version of the C-86 compilation, though the bands here are a little sweeter and less shambolic. For every band I know on here, there are three I've never heard of, but all these songs are good. And as Captured Tracks domo Mike Sniper notes in the press release for this, most of the original records these are from are easy to find and affordable on the used market, so let this inspire you into an undiscovered pop world.
Strum & Thrum is initially out for the third Record Store Day Drop (October 24), and will hit streaming services on November 13. Until then you can listen to The Reverbs' wonderful "Trusted Woods":
Love Tractor - Love Tractor reissue (HHBTM)
Athens, GA cult legends get their snakey, jangly debut reissued, remixed by R.E.M.'s Bill Berry and Sugar's David Barbe
It's a good week for '80s janglepop and Southern post-punk. Pylon are getting a box set and their essential first two albums reissued in November and, also just announced, their Athens, GA neighbors (and DB Recs labelmates) Love Tractor are getting their debut album reissued via Happy Happy Birthday to Me.
Coming up at the same time as R.E.M., Pylon and The B-52's, Love Tractor share a little of those group's DNA but were unique in the Athens scene in that they were an instrumental band, making jangly, danceable rock that didn't need vocals to grab you. The band would start singing eventually, but early records were driven by the inventive guitar interplay between Mark Cline and Mike Richmond. Bassist Armistead Wellford added groove and R.E.M.'s Bill Berry was among the group's early drummers for the band before Andrew Carter joined full-time.
Love Tractor's debut album is catchy and atmospheric, and does it while mostly avoiding surf rock cliches you associate with instrumental rock. “When I hear it, I love it. It sounds like nothing else, like nobody else,” says Cline of the album, and I have to agree. The reissue has been remixed from the original tapes by Sugar's David Barbe and Bill Berry, and features liner-notes from R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, The B-52’s Kate Pierson, and esteemed rock journalist Anthony DeCurtis. and the album's artwork has been reimagined by the band (Cline, Richmond and Wellford are all visual artists.)
The reissue is out November 4 (pre-order), but before that, Love Tractor will release a 7" for the October Record Store Day "Drop" (10/24) featuring two newly recorded, re-imagined songs from their debut: “60 Degrees and Sunny” b/w “FESTI-vals.” They've also re-recorded "Seventeen Days" as a digital bonus track and you can listen to that, and stream the original album, below.
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.