Indie Basement (9/18): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It's the last Indie Basement of Summer 2020 and you know what that means... more new records! This week: Osees are back and spelling their name differently (and sounding a little different too); British comedian/actor Matt Berry shows once again making us laugh is not his only skill; Australia's Mildlife make danceable prog; and Montreal's Le Couleur are back with a melancholic concept record about supersonic jet, the Concorde. Plus: Detroit Spacerock was a thing in the '90s and Third Man's got a new compilation to prove it.
Need more new album reviews? Andrew looks at Fenne Lily and Cocteau Twins fans Napalm Death this week in Notable Releases. Speaking of, check out our feature on the wide-reaching influence of the Cocteau Twins (featuring Slowdive, Ride, Prince, Napalm Death, Reggie Watts, Beach House and more), and read a 30th anniversary reflection on Heaven or Las Vegas by actual Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde. May I never type "ethereal" again...till next week.
This week's secret word: "Groovy." Head below for reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Osees - Protean Threat (Castle Face)
New band name spelling, slightly new band sound for John Dwyer’s reliable garage punk outfit
"Always different, always the same" is how John Peel used to describe The Fall and I think the same is true for John Dwyer’s ever-morphing band. Part of the "different" is that he keeps changing the way his band spells its name. Beginning as Orinoka Crash Suite, they then became OCS, The Ohsees, Thee Oh Sees, Oh Sees, and now they’re calling themselves Osees.
Protean Threat is their first album as Osees, though the name change seems mostly cosmetic and it features the same, fairly steady two-drummer lineup they’ve had the last five years. The album follows forays into doomy metal (Smote Reverser) and skronky jazz (Face Stabber) and this time it’s a slight course adjustment that takes them further into prog and krautrock. This may be the first time I’ve ever referred to the Osees as "groovy," but on Protean Threat they definitely are...in a Can/Neu! sort of way.
With that groove, Osees are making better use of that twin drummer attack than ever, like on the awesome "Said The Shovel," which is almost all rhythm section and even flirts with funk. "If I Had My Way" is also a little funky -- more than a little, actually -- in a ZZ Top meets Frank Zappa sort of way, while "Gong of Catastrophe" is a classic Oh Sees style jam that also fits in with the zone-out-and-dance vibe that’s all over the back half of the album.
Synthesizers also play a bigger part than ever before, but usually in a very stomped-on Osees kind of way. They stab like a thousand tiny pins on the manic "Scramble Suit II," and the distorted electronics on the Devo-esque "Dreary Nonsense" are used like a rhythm instrument (but not like a drum machine). The electronics on the album-closing "Persuaders Up!" sound like a ‘60s computer tabulating something complex while someone pours coffee on the circuit board. Which is cool
Like past albums, Protean Threat is a jolt to the system: "punk amulets for your ears and hearts" and "a battery for your core" says Dwyer. It’s also one of their most inspired records in a while, taking the forward motion of their last couple of platters and distilling it down to a tight 39 minutes of blistering mutant rippers and hypnotic grooves.
More than anything, it really makes me wish I could see them live.
Matt Berry - Phantom Birds (Acid Jazz)
He’s best known as a comedian on shows like 'What We Do in the Shadows,' but Matt Berry makes records that are no joke.
Matt Berry, who you might know as Laszlo on FX's What We Do in the Shadows (and from The IT Crowd, Toast of London, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, and many other funny shows), is also a very talented musician and songwriter. He’s got a style that sounds like mix of 1973 England: baroque english folk, prog and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. (Old TV shows are such an influence, he recorded a whole album’s worth of obscure theme songs.) His songs are very catchy, and if you’ve watched Toast of London, you’ve heard a lot of them, from the show’s theme song "Take My Hand" (from his 2011 album Witchhazel) to the musical montages that usually pop up every episode. Berry’s a funny guy, but his music’s no joke.
Phantom Birds, Berry’s eighth album, is pretty terrific. It was inspired by Bob Dylan's trio of Nashville albums, with Berry's aim being to keep the backing and arrangements simple. The album features the great pedal steel player BJ Cole, who’s played with everyone from Elton John and Gerry Rafferty to T-Rex and Kevin Ayers, and drummer Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett), with Berry playing everything else himself. While the arrangements are indeed simple, they are clearly considered, with Cole’s gorgeous pedal steel adding an air of mystery to most songs. There is a distinct twang on Phantom Birds, but in a British singer-songwriter kind of way. The best songs are the minor-chord numbers like "Moonlight Flit," "In My Mind," and "Waving Goodbye." It’s an album of earth tones -- oranges, dark greens and browns -- that comes just in time for autumn.
Mildlife - Automatic (Heavenly)
Proggy dancerock from Australia that scratches a laid-back, late-’70s itch
Melbourne, Australia’s Mildlife make smooth, proggy dancerock that is very, very groovy, and that's all the more appealing thanks to the very clear live band feel they imbue in their records. The band is prone to long instrumental passages where they can really stretch out, space out, and let the rhythm section take them places. Am I saying they "jam"? Yes, but Mildlife is "jamming" more for fans of Kraftwerk or Stereolab (with whom they’ve toured) or those Too Slow to Disco comps. They jam but probably also really like fondue. Also: flutes. I’ve never seen Mildlife live but I imagine turtlenecks and blazers. Their name is Midlife after all.
The band’s new album Automatic definitely scratches a specific itch. Waspy synth leads -- sometimes twin synth leads -- buzz around funky acoustic guitars and a seriously locked-in rhythm section. Vocals are airy and harmonious. Whooshes of wind effects blow across your stereo field. As do those flutes. If I was to make specific ‘70s comparisons, Automatic lies somewhere between the West Coast chill of Ned Doheny’s Hard Candy (see: "Citations") and the widescreen futurism of Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot (see: "Rare Air"). It all comes together on Automatic’s nine-minute title track which closes the album in a deeply laid back, vocoder-fueled groove. Which is definitely a jam.
Le Couleur - Concorde (Lisbon Lux)
Luxury meets tragedy on this Montreal trio’s new concept album about the infamous supersonic airliner
If you like that Mildlife record, but wish there was more disco than prog, but also more fondue and tragedy, Montreal trio Le Couleur’s new album Concorde might be your bag. Named for the famous ‘70s/’80s supersonic airliner that could fly from New York to Paris in 3.5 hours, it’s a concept record about an era of carefree luxury that ended when Air France Flight 4590 exploded on takeoff in July 2000. It’s also about not knowing its ending until it's too late.
"We were fascinated by the Concorde, it’s symbolism, it’s sexy look, it’s crash," the band’s Laurence Giroux-Do told Aught. "That’s what brought me to death, as a theme. Trying to find out why death here was dark, terrifying and ugly when it can be beautiful and celebrated in joy and life." Le Couleur are still making breezy dancepop informed by ‘90s house, ‘80s minimal wave, ‘70s lounge and ‘60s ye-ye, but there’s a distinct air of melancholy that wafts through it, too, that you can feel even if you don’t understand French.
Le Couleur made this record differently than previous albums, recording as a live band instead of piecing it together on a computer. You can feel that too, which gives it more of an ABBA vibe, though it's more Paris than Stockholm. (ABBA, of course, are a prime example of melancholic disco.) The production is as luxurious as the Concorde itself, with layers of analog synthesizers, funky guitars, and a truly killer rhythm section (the basslines are amazing). Congas, cowbells, agogôs and other percussion instruments enrich things throughout. Did Ennio Morricone ever make a disco album? It might sound like this. Musically it is a lot of fun, but you may find yourself humming along to a song titled "Un simple vol d’après-midi" -- "A simple mid-afternoon flight" which was anything but. You can tell a chill is coming on, but for now, you dance.
Various Artists - Southeast of Saturn (Third Man)
Explore the furthest reaches of the '90s Detroit space-rock scene with the new double-disc compilation
When you think of Detroit and music, you probably think of Motown, punk and garage rock. (Readers of the column may also think of Protomartyr). But a hazier side of Detroit heard in the 1990s is the subject of Southeast of Saturn, a new compilation being put out by Third Man on November 20. It documents the "Detroit space rock" scene which is not just a way of saying "shoegaze" without saying "shoegaze" -- though it is also that. The groups here were spacier, not as interested in melody and noise as much as riding a groove to another planet.
“I don’t think we really noticed the local Detroit scene earlier on," says Andrew Peters of Thirsty Forest Animals, one of the groups on Southeast of Saturn, in regards to the city's more hyped garage rock groups of the time (which of course included The White Stripes whose Jack White is now the boss of the label putting out this comp). "We were more into the bands you would see in the NME / Melody Maker, zines, and records - mostly from the UK - on the walls at [record store] Play It Again." Think Loop, Spacemen 3, Flying Saucer Attack. Thirsty Forest Animals' world centered around Burnt Hair Records, which was run by Larry Hoffman who also had an influential radio show, "Life According To Larry," where a lot of this stuff and the bands that inspired it got spun. There were a lot of cool groups part of the scene, too, including Windy & Carl, Asha Vida, Füxa, Majesty Crush, Space Monkeys, and Auburn Lull, all of whom appear on this comp (what, no Mahogany?).
You can check out the tracklist and pre-order Southeast of Saturn here, and you can get a taste right now via Majesty Crush's sultry "No. 1 Fan," which opens the album, and watch the trailer for the comp, below.
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.