Indie Basement (12/11): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
The year is finally winding down and this will likely be the last regular edition of Indie Basement for 2020 with year-end lists of various sorts fill out the remaining weeks. But we're going out with a relative bang: both Guided by Voices and Osees release their third albums of the year; I play catch-up with the solo debut from former Oh Sees member Brigid Dawson; and reissues from '90s groups Gene and Heavenly.
If you need more new album reviews, Andrew has you covered with Notable Releases. Speaking of Osees, I wrote a guide to their many albums, lineups and name spellings that may help you approach their sprawling discography. Other Basement-approved stuff from this week: Tindersticks covered Television Personalities; Cheval Sombre released a cool new song produced by Sonic Boom; and shoegaze band bdrmm told us about their favorite records of the year.
If you need some stress release, listen to some Harold Budd (RIP).
Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Guided by Voices - The Styles We Paid For (Guided by Voices Inc)
The unstoppable Bob Pollard lets fly the third GBV record of 2020 -- made in quarantine, rocks the same
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." That's the old motto of the United States Postal Service, but it works for Guided by Voices, too. Bob Pollard has records to make and release, and nothing is going to stop him. Certainly not a global pandemic. The original idea for Guided by Voices' third album of 2020 when Pollard wrote the songs back in February, was that it would be recorded live to analogue tape and would be called Beyond Computers. Instead, the band recorded it remotely during quarantine from five different states, and it was "assembled and mixed" entirely in a computer by producer Travis Harrison.
Despite the digital, stitched-together way it was made, The Styles We Paid For is a pretty typical sounding Guided by Voices album (#31 if you're counting). A good one too, full of Pollard's signature anthemic rock songs, steeped in The Who, Wire and all his other favorite stuff but sounding only like GBV. He never seems to run out of tunes, nor the band riffs, and never lets his songs go on longer than needed. Often, you want them to be longer. On "Megaphone Riley," which opens the album (and mentions a "jumbo virus"), the chorus only comes once, right at the end of the song. If you want to hear it again you're gonna have to replay the song. (Smart.) That leave-em-wanting-more approach has always served them well, and Styles is a 15-course meal made up entirely of crunchy indie rock amuse-bouche.
To keep that culinary analogy going, "Endless Seafood" leads off this album's hooky hit parade that also includes the rocking "Mr Child" (the album's best riff), the chiming "Crash at Lake Placebo," and the reflective, pretty "Stops." There's more mid-tempo rock here than on their last few records, perhaps a product of the way it was made, including the carefully snarling "Abandon Ship" and the slow Cars-ish strut of "Electronic Windows To Nowhere." The album's most charming song, though, is "They Don't Play The Drums Anymore," which imagines an entirely digital realm where "They play electric lilypads on cool blue amazons" and there are "absolutely absolutely NO BONGOS! NO CONGAS!" Pollard is fighting for a world beyond -- or without -- computers (dude still uses a typewriter), even when forced to work otherwise.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Osees - Panther Rotate (Castle Face)
John Dwyer reworks tracks from this year's 'Protean Threat' and adds some other stuff for Osees' idea of a remix album.
Despite the pandemic bringing a halt to their normally breakneck touring schedule, John Dwyer has stayed busy as usual, with Osees putting out the great Protean Threat back in September, and then an album of unearthed Face Stabber session tracks, Metamorphosed, as well as making time for a few full-band livestream shows (including one coming up). Now here's something we've never had from the band before: a remix record.
Panther Rotate is not your typical 2020 remix album, though, where tracks get farmed out to a bunch of DJs, producers and friends. Like pretty much everything within Dwyer's realm, this was done in house, with the band at the controls warping these songs in new directions. No club mixes here, it's closer to a classic dub record than anything else, as Protean Threat's songs are stripped down, in general left in more minimal states, with some of their DNA altered. They've also added new tracks, new lyrics to old tracks, ambient field recordings, spoken word pieces, an Alice Cooper cover ("Don't Blow Your Mind"), and more for what amounts to an all-new album.
You can still feel the bones of the original songs in some of these "experiments" as they're called. The manic "Scramble Suit" is now more of a skeletal Can number, "Toadstool" is now set to a glam beat with throbbing synths crawling along the floor (and additional lyrics just for this), and ripper "Terminal Jape" has been deconstructed into dubby electronics with Dwyer's shouts mere echoes now. "If I Had My Way" takes a Faustian turn, and "Gong Catastrophe" has been mellowed out but is still very groovy.
Would this record have existed without the pandemic keeping Dwyer off the road? Who is to say, but Panther Rotate is more than just a curiosity, it's a worthy companion to the album from which is was birthed and will perhaps influence whatever's next for Osess -- which we'll probably get sooner than later.
Brigid Dawson and The Mothers Network - Ballet of Apes (Castle Face)
The former Oh Sees member makes her striking solo debut with help from Total Control's Mikey Young, Sunwatchers and more.
With the new Osees record out this week -- and a new guide to their discography published on this website this week -- I thought I'd do a little backtracking to this summer when former Oh Sees member Brigid Dawson released her solo debut. If you're a fan of the band you probably know Dawson or at least have heard her voice. Brigid played in the late-'00s/early-'10s lineup of the band when they were Thee Oh Sees, sang on many of their albums after she stopped being a full-time member of the band, and was a full-on collaborator on the orchestral folk OCS album Memory of a Cut Off Head from 2017.
Ballet of Apes is Dawson's first solo record and The Mothers Network are more a loose group of musicians who helped her make it in a few different cities around the world than it is an actual backing band she plays with. Part of the record was made in Australia with Total Control's Mikey Young, part of it was made in San Francisco with Mike Shoun (Thee Oh Sees), Shayde Sartin (Fresh & Onlys), Mike Donovan (Sic Alps) and Eric Bauer (Oh Sees, Sic Alps), and part of it was made in Brooklyn with avant-jazz group Sunwatchers. It's not exactly the record you might be expecting.
As much as I like hearing Dawson sing with Dwyer on Oh Sees songs like "Block of Ice" or "Ruby Come Home," it's a real treat to have her in the spotlight. She has a powerful, emotive voice and she really lets it fly on Ballet of Apes, at times sounding a bit like Lulu or Bobbie Gentry. Likewise the music has that late-'60s/early-'70s feel to it, with some songs in a jazzy pop vein, while others are more ornate and grandiose. It's a record made up almost entirely of showstoppers and you could imagine Scott Walker singing some of these songs in 1973, though these arrangements are nowhere near as epic as what he was doing then, though "Heartbreak Jazz" comes close. Other tracks, like "Carletta's in Hats Again," could be Robert Wyatt. The tracks with Sunwatchers are skronkiest, though Dawson's pipes keep things from flying too far into outer space. No song here, though, goes exactly where you might expect, which makes it a compelling grower that truly rewards repeat listens.
Heavenly - A Bout De Heavenly: The Singles (Damaged Goods)
New compilation from Amelia Fletcher & Rob Pursey's iconic '90s indiepop group
Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey are indiepop royalty, having made winningly winsome music since the '80s, when their band Talulah Gosh made sweet melodies, slightly out of tune guitars and anoraks cool for bookish NME readers. (They were a quintessential C-86 band even though they weren't actually on that legendary tape.) When Talulah Gosh fizzled out (and members pursued real jobs), the band morphed into Heavenly who were a little shinier, a little less shambolic, and maybe just a little less cutesy-poo, though no doubt they were still too much for some. Not like they got anywhere near mainstream attention, but to a certain cardigan-clad segment of the music-loving public their records were the indie equivalent of whoever was topping the Billboard charts at the time. Heavenly made albums but they did their best stuff via 7" singles on labels like Sarah and K and this compilation puts all those tracks in one place, from their charming 1990 debut "I Fell in Love Last Night" through 1996's "Space Manatee" and including classics like "P.U.N.K. Girl" and "Attagirl." Still sugar-sweet but not enough to send you to the dentist.
Heavenly became Marine Research, then Fletcher and Pursey led Tender Trap and now play as duo Catenary Wires.
Gene - Olympian & To See the Sights (Demon)
Vinyl represses of Britpop group's excellent first album and singles comp. Yes, they did sound a little like The Smiths.
Throughout their first few years, London group Gene were constantly being compared to The Smiths. Frontman Martin Rossiter did sometimes sound like Moz, some of their early singles did feature hooks that owed a little to Johnny Marr, and even their cover art felt similar. But listen more than once and most of those comparisons melted away. Guitarist Steve Mason drew more from Small Faces' Steve Marriott or Paul Weller than Marr, and Rossiter was much more of a positive romantic.
Gene's formation coincided with the rise of groups like Suede and Blur and after a string of excellent singles (including one on Sub Pop, believe it or not), they released their debut album, Olympian, in that Peak Britpop year of 1995. On it, they mixed stomping rockers like "Haunted by You," "Left Handed" and "To the City" with more swaying anthems ("London Can You Wait," "Sleep Well Tonight"), though pretty much everything here has swagger.
Even better, though, is 1996's To See the Lights which collects all the tracks from their early singles, including just a little crossover with Olympian. To continue the Smiths talk, this is their Hatful of Hollow and if there's one comparison that really holds up, it's that Gene also had a tendency to leave their best songs off their albums. If there's one Gene record to get, it's this one, with great A-sides "Be My Light, Be My Guide" and "For the Dead" and so many even better B-sides, like the undeniably Smiths-y "This is Not My Crime" and "Sick, Sober and Sorry," plus the swooning "I Can't Tell if She Really Loves Me" and "I Can't Myself." Mason's muscular, inventive playing has aged very well. To See the Lights also includes radio session versions of Olympian songs, alternate versions, and live cuts, including a great cover of Burt Bacharach/Aretha Franklin's "Say A Little Prayer."
Gene's entire catalog (they made three more albums after Olympian) was released earlier this year as The Albums box set, and now the individual records are coming out as standalone vinyl reissues, including Olympian and To See The Sights. No bells and whistles, just vinyl represses.
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.