Indie Basement (11/13): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
2020 just keeps delivering, mostly lows but a few highs. I'm exhausted, but it's still a full plate this Friday the 13th: New Zealand legends The Bats release their 10th album; Belarusian darkwavers Molchat Doma are back with more songs ready for TikTok memes; Chilly Gonzales taps Feist and Jarvis Cocker for a Christmas album you won't mind listening to; Tricky reworks a track from this year's great Fall to Pieces, taking it in three new, unique directions; the return of Le Volume Courbe (with help from Terry Hall); the return of downtempo disco duo Bent; Ghost Funk Orchestra pen An Ode to Escapism; and the low-fi grandeur of Whitney K.
If you need more reviews of new album, Andrew tackles a whopping 13 records this week in Notable Releases, including Jesu, Aesop Rock and more. Some things I didn't write about this week but I like include records by David Nance, Jesse Kivel, and the covers albums by Lambchop and Marika Hackman. Also out this week is excellent new compilation Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983 - 1987. If you need more Basement-approved things from this week: Teenage Fanclub just announced a new record, as did Django Django. Or maybe you'd like to listen to The Brian Jonestown Massacre's ever-growing YouTube playlist of work-in-progress songs.
Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: The Bats - Foothills (Flying Nun)
This New Zealand quartet has maintained the same lineup -- and the same sound -- for nearly 40 years. 'Foothills' is their 10th album.
New Zealand greats The Bats have been together for nearly 40 years, maintaining the same four-person lineup the whole time. They never broke up, though they did take time off for life, making a conscious decision to not tour internationally while raising their families, and exploring other creative interests. It's not a formula for megastardom, but it seems like a healthy approach in the music biz if you can do it. (See also: Yo La Tengo, who The Bats resemble in many ways.) Foothills is The Bats' 10th album and their sound is as stable as their membership. Robert Scott strums and sings lead, Key Woodward provides harmony vocals and snakey leads, Paul Kean brings memorable, melodic basslines, and drummer Malcolm Grant provides an unfussy backbone. It's like putting on your oldest, most comfortable sweater -- warm and familiar, and the fraying around the edges only adds to its charm.
The easy relationship between these four longtime friends and musicians comes through in songs like "Scrolling," "Field of Vision," and "Another Door" where melodies and harmonies seem to pour out from muscle memory alone. Scott favors minor chords, which have always given The Bats' songs a tinge of melancholy. "Sometimes the path is not known, maybe the journey we've outgrown," he sings on "Gone to the Ground," one of the album's best songs, that feels a bit like staring at the sea on a rainy day. "And the rose no thorns for you, no pricks to worry about / We suppose it's a guessing game, no one really knows." Lyrics are kept simple, though, and The Bats often opt for a chorus of "bah bah bahs" that, in their hands, says as much as any poured-over lyric could.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Molchat Doma - Monument (Sacred Bones)
Superior coldwave on Album #3 from these Minsk TikTok sensations.
I do not know what the underground music scene in Minsk is like, but Molchat Doma sound like what I imagine it to be: gothy minimal wave frozen below the Cold War permafrost. They do it very well and so authentically you'd be hard-pressed to say what year their records are from, from the music itself to their artwork which takes ''70s/'80s Eastern European iconography and projects it into a dystopian futureworld. (Belarus' current state is more than a little dystopian, too; the U.S. is not the only country with a leader who won't accept election results.) Molchat Doma are the total package, and that they sing in their native language just adds to the mystique. The band are not even that underground -- "Sudno" from their second album Etazhi, became a hit on TikTok this summer, has been streamed over 34 million times on Spotify, and inspired some funny memes.
Monument is Molchat Doma's third album and first since signing to Sacred Bones. It doesn't really mess with the formula -- which is fine, as few groups in 2020 are doing it as well as they are. There's an energy and inventiveness to these songs that transcends pastiche, all while using most of the well-known sounds and styles, from tinny, rapid-fire electro-handclaps to the gurgling synths, to the delay and chorus on the bass and guitars. That's the thing, you want all these moves, but you need a group that knows how to pull it off and aren't afraid to play it like they invented it. Opening track "Утонуть / Utonut" is right out of the Clan of Xymox playbook, but damn if it doesn't sound fantastic cranked, just begging for a dancefloor bathed in smoke machines and lit with lasers. The record just goes from there: guitar-heavy slow jam "Обречен / Obrechen" falls somewhere between The Cure and The Chameleons; "Дискотека / Discoteque" sizzles with its hyper tempo, anthemic chorus and zippy production; and "Не Смешно / Ne Smeshno" oozes noir atmosphere. It is easy to make mediocre cold wave synthpop -- Bandcamp is littered with attempts -- but making a record like Monument is not.
Chilly Gonzalez - A very chilly christmas (Gentle Threat)
Featuring a cover of Purple Mountains' "Snow is Falling in Manhattan" featuring Jarvis Cocker and Feist -- what more do you need to know?
The world probably has enough Christmas music and almost all of what we actually want to listen to was made by 1970. But that doesn't stop artists and labels from cranking out new albums every year. Here's one from Chilly Gonzales that you might not mind adding to light rotation. Plus: A very chilly christmas is just too good a title not to use at some point. "Christmas is a time of very mixed intense emotion for me, and the existing canon often sounds like a forced smile," says Chilly. "Christmas is a typical time for superficial happiness, but also a time for reflection and mourning the sad events throughout the year, and to play the songs in a minor key makes Christmas more authentic and realistic.”
Chilly brings his minimal, classy, instrumental magic style to a whole bunch of standards new and old on the album, from "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful: to Wham's "Last Christmas" and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." He keeps arrangements on these instrumental covers minimal, opting for a style somewhere between Erik Satie and Vince Guaraldi and, as Chilly notes, he transposes them all into a minor key giving everything a wistful sadness. What's likely to bring you to this record are its guest stars, Jarvis Cocker (with whom Gonzales made an album) and Feist (with whom he collaborated on her Let it Die and The Reminder albums). Feist takes lead on the genuinely lovely original "The Banister Bough" and Jarvis brings his low whisper to a rendition of Christina Rossetti poem "In the Bleak Midwinter." But the highlight of the record, and the justification of its existence, features both Jarvis and Feist on a truly gorgeous cover of David Berman's "Snow is Falling in Manhattan" (from the Purple Mountains album). Jarvis' hushed delivery is perfect for both a song like this and Gonzales' arrangement, and Feist coming in with the "Snow-oh-whoa-oh-whoa-oh-whoa" chorus is enough to make you melt. It's hard to top the Purple Mountains original, but this is a classic in its own right.
Le Volume Courbe - Fourteen Years EP (Honest Jon's)
Charlotte Marionneau's musical alter-ego is back with the first of three EPs. This one features Terry Hall and Noel Gallagher.
Charlotte Marionneau has been making records as Le Volume Courbe for 20 years. Her music recalls everyone from Vashti Bunyan and Syd Barrett to Broadcast and Stereolab -- Cate Le Bon is also very much in LVC's style -- and have featured My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, members of Primal Scream and more. She spent the last few years playing the scissors (not a typo) in Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. She hadn't released any of her own music since 2015's I Wish Dee Dee Ramone Was Here With Me, but last year a cancer diagnosis brought a creative urgency back into her life. “It became like a vital thing," she says. Tracks that had been half finished for years found completion, new songs were written.
Fourteen Years is the first of three EPs which will together comprise her new album to be released next year. While I wish it was arriving under nicer circumstances, it's a pretty wonderful record. We'll start with the cover of Daniel Johnston's "Mind Contorted," performed as a duet with Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three. Hall's voice has always paired very well with others -- check out "Thinking of You" by his mid-'80s band The Colourfield -- and he and Charlotte sound fantastic together here, with some lightly psychedelic guitar courtesy Noel Gallagher.* Even better is the title track, which puts a jazzy, highly eccentric spin on what could've been merely Velvet Underground-style strummer, with spazzy trumpet and pizzicato strings whizzing across the stereo field.
The other two songs are decidedly more experimental and were both recorded during her chemotherapy: "MRI Song" sets the scary, industrial sounds of an MRI scanner to mournful cello, while "Planet Ping Pong" is more of a very off-kilter classical composition, where she spells out the title against gongs, flutes, piano, strings and feedback. It's the bitter that compliments the EP's sweeter first half and it all truly serves as an appetizer for the next two EPs.
*Charlotte says "Mind Contorted" was originally supposed to feature Kevin Shields on guitar but "Kevin being in Ireland and Kevin being Kevin, I didn’t want to wait a year so I asked Noel if he didn’t mind stepping in. I asked him on Tuesday and he said, ‘OK. Friday 2pm!’ Et voila!”
Tricky - Doorway EP (False Idols)
Three new, very different versions of "I'm in the Doorway" from this year's 'Fall to Pieces.' More than your average bunch of remixes.
Tricky released his 14th album, Fall to Pieces, back in September and it's his best in years. He's now taken one of the album's tracks, the loping "I'm in the Doorway" which featured vocals from Oh Land, and put together an EP's worth of alternate versions of the song. These are not remixes: the EP was born out of a competition where Tricky called for fans to submit vocals for the track; he picked his two favorites and then tailored the arrangements to fit them. With different voices, melodies and lyrics, these are brand new songs.
The "No More Mix" features LOUISE who is from Brazil and recorded her vocals on her phone. Her drowsy, sultry delivery is matched with a chilled out, slightly sinister arrangement that might be better than the album version. The "All The Way Mix" features a soulful, swooping vocal from English songwriter Mars Blackbird (recalling ANHONI or Wild Beasts' Hayden Thorpe), adds guitar and puts the original's muted trumpet forward in the mix. Finally, the "Talking With Maxine Mix" strips out all the beats besides the kick, adding spare, mournful cello and growled verses from Tricky himself (who was not on the original) alongside Oh Land's original vocal hook. With Fall to Pieces coming in at under 30 minutes, the Doorway EP makes a nice companion to the album and hopefully his next record will feature these two talented voices again.
Ghost Funk Orchestra - An Ode To Escapism (Karma Chief Records)
Grab a drink with an umbrella in it and turn up the Brooklyn collective's latest soulful, Jazzy, tropical psych concoction.
Brooklyn's Ghost Funk Orchestra are back with their latest slab of easygoing jazz-pop, this time a loose concept album designed to transport you somewhere during stressful times like these -- your deep subconscious. If last year's A Song for Paul tipped its hat to Marvin Gaye and David Axelrod, this new one explores warmer climates, mixing breezy Sergio Mendes tropicalia with Roy Ayers' funkiness while still exuding that loungey vibe. The word that really comes to mind with Ghost Funk Orchestra is "groovy," and they are in full command of that vibe on An Ode to Escapism, from the brass mirroring the guitar licks, to the rubbery basslines to the Bacharachian use of "doo-bee-doo-bee-doo" backing vocals. In between every few songs, a female announcer with a smoother-than-smooth voice talks just to you, inviting you to probe your inner psyche and let go. Ghost Funk Orchestra make it pretty easy to do just that.
Whitney K - "Maryland" (Maple Death)
Sailing on a summer breeze, this Canadian singer songwriter trades low-fi folk for shabby grandeur on the first single from his upcoming album.
Canadian singer-songwriter Whitney K, originally from Vancouver but who now calls Montreal home, is a low-fi folk troubadour in the spirit of early Beck or Cut Worms or Kelley Stoltz. He's sounding a little less ramshackle than he used to on "Maryland," the first single from his upcoming album Two Years which will be out February 7 via Maple Death. The song's got an urban cowboy vibe to it -- in a Nilsson/Fred Neil kind of way, not the John Travolta movie -- with faded strings beaming in like the sunset between buildings on the Lower East Side (or Le Plateau-Mont-Royal in Montreal). It's a little bit Velvet Underground and a little bit Leonard Cohen and I don't really want to have to wait three months to hear the nine other songs that precede it.
Bent - "Friends" (Godlike & Electric)
Sumptuous lead single from this UK dance duo's first album in 14 years
As far as Y2K era dance duos go, I've always had a soft spot for Bent -- aka Neil "Nail" Tolliday and Simon Mills -- who are witty, inventive crate-diggers who put equal emphasis on melody and danceability. Their debut album, 2000's Programmed to Love, stays in fairly regular rotation on my stereo and that album's single, "Always" -- which samples the Norrie Paramor Orchestra's 1962 song "Always in My Heart" -- is a DJ staple for me. It's been 14 years since Bent's last album, Intercept!, but they'll be back with Up in the Air on November 27. It's another record born out of the pandemic with Tolliday and Mills each coming up with four tracks before trading them with the other. If you're looking for a silver lining to this year, this might be at least a thread.
The first single, "Friends," is right out of the "Always" playbook, a sumptuous slice of disco a la Chic or ABC, with sweeping strings, a fat bassline and loads of bongos. It's also based on an old song -- jazz standard "Just Friends" that has been recorded by everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rawlins to Charlie Parker and Butch from Little Rascals -- but they turn it into something wonderful and new. Also like "Always," the great house music producer Ashley Beedle has done a wonderful remix that stretches it out and takes it just a little into space disco territory. There's also a mix by Mills' Somethin' Sanctified alter ego which takes the song in more of a downtempo direction. Kruder & Dorfmeister and Zero 7 might be back too, but this is the one I'm excited about.
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