Indie Basement (10/16): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
While our brains continue to lose the ability to focus as Election Day approaches (me at least), here are some records to listen to that will hopefully counteract the chaos: Kevin Morby releases his best album since Singing Saw; Helena Deland does not disappoint with her long-awaited debut album; The Damned return to where they made The Black Album and Strawberries for a new EP; Osees zone out on an album's worth of song from the Face Stabber sessions; New Zealand cult band Dead Famous People return after 30 years with their first-ever full-length album; and The Wolfgang Press dig up lost songs from a sixth album never made.
Need more? Andrew reviews Matt Berninger, Black Thought and more in Notable Releases. More stuff out today: the full version of Tom Petty's Wildflowers finally sees the light of day; The Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me box set is out; and other records I don't write about but are worth checking out include Autechre's SIGN, The Phoenix Foundation's Friend Ship, and The Limiñanas' Calentita EP.
That's enough for now. Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Kevin Morby - Sundowner (Dead Oceans)
Heavenly shades of night are falling all over Kevin Morby's low-key, twilight-inspired album. It's his best in a while.
"Where have all my friends gone?" Death is ever present on Kevin Morby's new album. Dearly departeds like Richard Swift, Those Darlins' Jessi Zazu, Anthony Bourdain, and Morby's close friend Jamie Ewing flicker in and out, but Sundowner is not morbid or wallowing. It's a warm embrace, a fond memory, that glows like magic hour and makes you smile even while your heart sinks just a little at the same time.
Morby calls Sundowner his attempt "to put the Middle American twilight -- its beauty profound, though not always immediate -- into sound." The album was made somewhat by accident. He left Los Angeles for his hometown of Kansas City in 2017 to finish up the writing of Oh My God and brought an old cassette four-track recorder with him. While living in relative isolation, another record's worth of songs tumbled out. Those songs sat in wait while he finished and toured Oh My God, and he then went to Sonic Ranch, near El Paso, TX, with producer Brad Cook to recreate the magic he felt in the four-track "but make it three dimensional."
Whether or not that goal was achieved, Sundowner is a wonderful success -- Morby's most warm and inviting album in some time (at least since Singing Saw), and a total contrast from Oh My God's ambition and grand scope. Vividly drawn vignettes like "A Night At The Little Los Angeles" and "Campfire" draw you in immediately, and atmospheric tracks like "Brother, Sister" and "Don't Underestimate Midwest American Sun" hold you there. He sounds like he's singing just to you, or maybe just for himself.
Morby has always been at his most appealing when he's not trying so hard, or at least when he sounds like he's not trying so hard. Low key as Sundowner is, it's clear a lot of thought was put into it, and close listens reveal some wonderful, subtle production touches (and many memorable lyrics). "Campfire" pauses midway through as you hear sounds of an actual campfire and the voice of Morby's partner, Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, singing a capella in the distance before the song kicks back in, paying homage to Bourdain and Swift, and then fades out wistfully with harmonica and piano. The song's final lyrics feel like the whole album: "Now that it’s dusk, kids scatter the avenue / Hey who are you? I'm a sundowner too."
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Helena Deland - Someone New (Luminelle Recordings)
Montreal dreampop artist does not disappoint on her long-in-the-works debut album. What a voice.
The music Helena Deland makes is not folk, nor is it synthpop. It floats somewhere in between, an ethereal limboland that allows for touches of R&B and indiepop and trip hop. When you have a voice like Helena's -- honeyed, smoky, utterly bewitching -- it's the only kind of music you can make. It's the pixie dust that unites Something New, the Montreal artist's long-awaited debut album that makes good on the promise of four years of sporadic singles and EPs.
Deland has more than just the voice; the songs here are wonderful. For example: "Dog" is a twisted tale of love (or lack thereof) and validation where she sings, "I hate to be your dog / But I could use the company / To go out with on walks / Baby, let it be me" over a minor chord melody and a skipping, distorted beat. She's finding her own identity on these songs as she dissects past mistakes and relationships. See also the gorgeous, melancholic "Truth Nugget" ("I am another solid mystery when it comes to you / Michael, I’m the puzzle in the other room").
Someone New is confessional but comfortable and welcoming, thanks to gauzy production which makes all the right choices, whether it's just Helena and her guitar ("Seven Hours," "Fill the Rooms") or more lush tracks like "Smoking at the Gas Station" and "Lylz." But again, it's her voice -- that at times recalls The Cardigans' Nina Persson and Gwen Stefani -- that keeps you coming back.
Osees - Metamorphosed (Rock is Hell)
Five unused tracks from the 'Face Stabber' sessions see the light of day on Osees' second (but not last) album of 2020.
John Dwyer is a workhorse and prolific musician, rivalling Bob Pollard at times for sheer output. Having released Protean Threat back in September, Osees are already back with another record. Metamorphosed, though, it's more on the archival tip, dusting off five tracks from the Face Stabber sessions that didn't make the cut. There was a lot of material; Face Stabber is 80 minutes long. "Basically I found myself with a 12”s worth of material in the new year and things were starting to grind to a halt, so it was the perfect time to sew it all up," Dwyer says. "People need some tunes right now and I think the artists community is making a good run of it. So much great shit is seeing light right now."
Like Face Stabber, the five tracks here generally fall into two categories: manic skronky punk and extended jazzy "prog odyssey" jams, though the 23-minute closing cut, "I Got a Lot" is manic and skronky and punky and proggy, and definitely an odyssey. "Saignant," which opens the album, is one the heaviest tracks the Osees have ever recorded, a two-minute blast that could strip paint off walls. "Electric War" isn't far behind, driven by a metallic riff, dual hammer-on guitar leads and far-out electronics. "Weird and Wasted Connection" is also short and sharp, but heads into krautrock territory, making for a nice lead-in to The Virologist" (a very 2020 title), a hypnotic 14-minute instrumental heavy on groove that does drop in some psychedelic soloing to spice up the back half of the track.
Metamorphosed is not as essential as this year's Protean Threat, but I wouldn't exactly call it leftovers either. Any music in 2020 that encourages you to zone out for just a little while has its place. If you need more, Osees will have another album out before the end of the year.
The Damned - The Rockfield Files EP (Spinefarm)
Punk/goth legends return with this EP recorded at the same studio as 'The Black Album' and 'Strawberries'.
There have been a few different sonic permutations of The Damned over the years, but my favorite era is the early-'80s when they were still punky, their goth side was starting to take hold and they weren't afraid of pop hooks either. Specifically I'm talking The Black Album and Strawberries. If you're like me, someone who in addition to those things also likes James Garner private eye shows from the '70s, The Damned's new EP should pique your interest. The accompanying press release says: "In 1980 / 1981, The Damned went to Rockfield for a series of sessions that eventually became The Black Album, The Friday 13th EP & Strawberries. Their time there produced some of the Damned’s greatest musical moments and memorable stories of horses, cows, vampires, rifles and Lemmy. In 2019 The Damned returned to Rockfield studios to record the first new music since 2018’s Top Ten 'Evil Spirits' album."
The Damned clearly went back to that studio for a reason and The Rockfield Files feels like a conscious attempt to recreate the style and vibe of those records. The four tracks blend punk, Nuggets-style garage rock (lots of organ), and big choruses, all with that air of dark romance The Damned are known for. Dave Vanian's melodramatic pipes remain in remarkable shape, and the production here also manages to capture that early-'80s sound, too. Maybe it's just Dave, Captain Sensible and the rest of the band getting their sea legs back with 2018's Evil Spirits (their first album in a decade), but The Rockfield Files feels like even more of a return.
Dead Famous People - Harry (Fire)
New Zealand cult artist Dons Savage, who sang on records by The Chills and Saint Etienne, returns after 30 years with Dead Famous People's first ever full-length album.
Dons Savage is indiepop cult royalty, having formed New Zealand's Dead Famous People in the mid-'80s. The band's early records came out via Flying Nun and, after relocating to London, signed with Billy Bragg's Utility Records and released 1989's Arriving Late in Torn and Filthy Jeans. DFP broke up in 1991, but Savage was tapped to sing lead on Saint Etienne's early cover of The Field Mice's "Kiss and Make Up" and then provided crucial backup vocals on The Chills' "Heavenly Pop Hit."
Despite the early accolades, Savage went back to New Zealand in the early '90s to raise a family, but kept writing songs. Fire Records coaxed her out of retirement; she initially thought someone was playing a prank on her, but a random encounter with The Chills' Martin Phillipps made her realize it was a serious offer, and here we are. Harry, named after her son, is the first-ever proper Dead Famous People album and finds Savage still in very fine form, making the kind of strummy, witty and immediately compelling indiepop she always has. Informed equally by The Brill Building, The Velvet Underground and the C-86 diaspora, Harry has a timeless quality, with jangly guitars, swirling organ and Savages' soaring choruses.
Harry is loaded with memorable songs: opener "Looking at Girls" twists on the kind of tragic melodrama often depicted in girl group singles; "Goddess of Chill" has the charm and the hooks of late-'70s Nick Lowe; and "To Be Divine" swoons like prime Kirsty MacColl. This is the kind of October surprise you hope for (well one kind, at least) of and let's hope it's not another 30 years till we get the next record.
The Wolfgang Press - Unremembered, Remembered (4AD)
One of 4AD's best bands dust off demos for their sixth album (which they never made)
The Wolfgang Press were one of the first bands signed to 4AD and, when they broke up in 1996, were the longest-running group on the label, as Cocteau Twins left 4AD right after releasing Heaven or Las Vegas. Featuring Mick Allen and Mark Cox, who had both been in Rema-Rema, and Andrew Gray, The Wolfgang Press began as dark, foreboding post-punk but soon got a taste for funk, dub and dance music. By the time of 1991's great Queer (which was inspired by the sample-heavy Native Tongues hip hop scene), they had transformed into an almost entirely different sounding band, covering Three Dog Night and releasing pop songs like "A Girl Like You."
Grey left the band after Queer and Allen and Cox carried on as a duo, releasing the disappointing Funky Little Demons in 1995. They were working on a sixth album when they decided to call it quits, but six demos for what would've been that album were released back in August for Record Store Day and point to what might have been. Mastered at Abbey Road, Unremembered Remembered -- which is out now out on all streaming services -- shows that there was still life in The Wolfgang Press. Maybe it's just the slightly rougher nature of demos, but these songs feel like what Queer's follow-up should've sounded like -- danceable, hooky but with that air of menace Allen commands. "Liar" and "Black Hole Star" are especially good, and make me wish this had become an actual album. The closing track, "Miss HIV," however, makes you wonder what The Wolfgang Press could've done in the trip-hop era. (Listen to "Cut the Tree" from 1987 4AD comp Lonely is an Eyesore or "Raintime" from 1988's Bird Wood Cage and you can hear it even then.) It would've been a seamless, logical transition and might have finally given them something beyond cult success. We'll never know but I'm glad to have this.
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.