Indie Basement (5/14): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It's a good week in Indie Basement with four records that are are really, really good: Paul Weller's Fat Pop Vol 1; Juliana Hatfield's Blood, The Chills' Scatterbrain, and Matt Berry's The Blue Elephant. I may be diluting the brand (or just didn't want to narrow) but I gave all four Album of the Week status.
There's a lot of other big stuff out this week, including Sons of Kemet's Black to the Future and St. Vincent's '70s pastiche Daddy's Home and Andrew puts those under his critical lens in today's Notable Releases.
If you need more Basement-approved stuff from the past week: The Goon Sax have a new album on the way; I wrote a little bit about new series Girls5Eva which I think is the funniest thing Tina Fey's been involved with since the first season of Kimmy Schmidt; and, speaking of 30 Rock related stuff, I guess I'm curious about what Rough Trade's new location is going to be like.
Have a great weekend, get vaccinated if you haven't yet (and are able to) and head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Paul Weller - Fat Pop V.1 (Polydor)
The Modfather's 16th solo album is a joyous, veritable Best Of comp of songs that didn't exist till now. Still changing, still got it!
"I've come undone," Paul Weller sings in the opening seconds of his 16th solo album. "It's too late to fix it." The former Jam and Style Council frontman, who has exuded confidence (and impeccable fashion sense) from Day 1, has never sounded more vulnerable than he does on Fat Pop Vol 1. Or more charming. Weller embraces uncertainty -- fatherhood, marriage, sobriety, and the fragile state of the world -- with panache, wit and a whole bunch of crackin' tunes. The Modfather's still got it.
When tour plans for last year's excellent On Sunset were scrapped due to the pandemic, Paul went back to work writing new songs, revisiting ideas he'd recorded on his iphone, and made the record remotely with his band -- Steve Cradock, Ben Gordelier and Andy Crofts -- trading files and ideas. Eventually they were able to record together at Paul’s Black Barn studio in Surrey and finished the album. With songs coming from all over, Paul says there was no overarching theme this time, instead envisioning a record where every song could be a single.
Weller has really succeeded with that -- Fat Pop plays like a Best Of comp, working in a variety of styles, some new, some old, but all of them memorable and melodic. "Shades of Blue," which was co-written with his daughter Leah (who sings on it too), is soaring Britpoppy Blue Eyed Soul; "Testify" and Fat Pop's title track dabble in jazzy funk (flutes!); and "Glad Times" has a soulful groove not unlike The Style Council's "You're The Best Thing." He's mellowed with age but the socially conscious artist whose politics were front-and-center in The Style Council is still there: the breezy, reggae-tinged "The Pleasure," a tribute to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, is one of the best songs on the album. Fat Pop's other finest moment is "Failed," a wonderful look at how he still has lots to learn in life (including accepting his mistakes), set to a shuffling '70s groove. Weller has always been a mercurial artist, and continues to find new sounds and ideas into his '60s, while still only sounding like himself. He's on another hot streak between this and On Sunset, and his ability to reinvent himself -- and make fantastic records like this -- remains an inspiration.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Juliana Hatfield - Blood (American Laundromat)
The indie rock great delivers equal parts pop hooks and anger/frustration on one of her best records
Like Paul Weller, Juliana Hatfield has maintained a quality level that few of her late-'80s/early-'90s peers can match, and remains in possession of one of indie rock's best, most versatile voices. Blood is Hatfield's 19th solo album and fuel-injects her ever-sharp pop songwriting with seething anger, frustration and doubt. It's a powerful, memorable and very melodic combination.
"I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up," she sings on "Nightmary," which was clearly written during 2020, "The whole world is controlled by fascist blood-sucking thugs." While the song deals with fake news, facebook and losing old friends to Jesus, Hatfield wraps the song in bouncy acoustic guitars and mellotron flutes. It's a sunshiny stormcloud approach she effectively uses, along with the mellotron's many voices, on most of the album. "Mouthful of Blood" warns of what happens when you don't speak your mind -- wrapped in lush harmonies, flutes and strings she sings, "I bite my tongue / my mouth's full of blood." Self-doubt and glammy, '70s rock make fine bedfellows on "Dead Weight," while a messy breakup powers the sunny chords of "Gorgon" that also features her still-great falsetto. Not all subject matter is so heavy: being stuck on indefinite hold with tech support provides one of the album's catchiest melodies with closing song "Torture."
Hatfield manages to incorporate some new sonic tricks here that, along with the very now subject matter, make Blood a very modern sounding album without sounding like an obvious stab at algorythm-friendly production and arrangements. Drum machines are deployed deftly, and fuzzy guitars lightly shatter on opening anthem "The Shame of Love." It sounds both very now and very Juliana Hatfield. There's not much more you can ask for, apart from great songs, which Blood has an abundance of.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #3: Matt Berry - The Blue Elephant (Acid Jazz)
The funny and multitalented 'What We Do in the Shadows' star's latest album is a deep dive into groovy psychedelica. It's a real trip.
If you're a regular reader of Indie Basement, and maybe even if you're not, you know that Matt Berry of Toast of London, What We Do in the Shadows and other funny TV stuff, is also a super talented musician who makes records that sound like they come from another era. Following last year's great Phantom Birds, which had him exploring Nashville-era Dylan sonics, Berry has switched directions -- while staying in his late-'60s/early-'70s sweet spot -- on The Blue Elephant, a trip into deep, groovy psychedelia. While not a concept album per-se, it plays out as two sidelong song suites where songs melt into one another, don't follow regular song structure, and are often instrumental or with the barest of lyrics. Berry's created a vivid musical fever dream, set at a very mod club with an incredible house band.
If you dig super groovy bass lines, jazzy drumming, keyboard solos played on a wide variety of vintage analogue synthesizers filtered through equally vintage delay and echo effects -- and the works of "library" musicians like Alan Hawkshaw and Keith Mansfield -- The Blue Elephant is your bag. The production, by Berry (who plays everything except drums here), is genuinely incredible and this record sounds like a lost artifact of the acid era. "Life Unknown," gets into serious Jim Morrison territory early on before drifting off to slumberland and then taking off into outer space with a heady combo of shuffling acoustic guitars, fill-happy drumming and seriously cosmic synths before a massive, distant chorus joins in the chant. The second half the the song is the album's best two minutes.
While much of The Blue Elephant is wonderfully out-there, Berry still delivers a few great pop songs: "Summer Sun" is chiming and jangly; "Like a Stone" would be perfect to go-go dance to; and "Blues Inside Me" delivers two earworms in one, a Walker Brothers-style number before transforming into a chugging pop rocker. I'm not sure if this is his best album but The Blue Elephant is his most accomplished, fully-realized work to date that you should spend some quality time with -- preferably via a nice set of headphones.
Did I mention I interviewed Matt Berry?
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #4: The Chills - Scatterbrain (Fire Records)
New Zealand indie icons continue their post-reformation hot streak
The Chills have had one of the most fulfilling second acts in recent memory, having returned after two decades to release the great 2015 album Silver Bullets, which was followed by 2018's equally terrific Snow Bound. They continue to charm on their third post-reformation album, Scatterbrain, which might be their grandest album yet. Martin Phillipps, who just barely survived drug addiction and Hepatitis C (the documentary on the band is eye-opening and life affirming), still has the sound of wonder in his voice and this time orchestral arrangements really rise up to meet it. Songs are punctuated by percussive marimbas, and there's a cinematic sweep to tracks like "Monolith," "Destiny" and "Little Alien." On "You're Immortal," it's as if Phillipps has been dropped into a spaghetti western, backed by dramatic strings, a chorus of "ahhhs," and mariachi horns. He's in a high noon showdown with all the negativity in the world: "Waking daily in a state of fright / Half the planet doesn’t sleep at night." Scatterbrain was completed before lockdown but this is another one of those records that draws eerie parallels to 2020. But Phillips offers hope throughout, not to mention 10 great new songs.
John Andrews & The Yawns - Cookbook (Woodsist)
Secret weapon for Woods, Quilt and Hand Habits makes lovely, chilled-out folk-rock on his own
John Andrews is a multi-talented musician who has played a lot of different things in a lot of different groups: drums (Quilt, Hand Habits), keyboards (Woods, Cut Worms, Purple Mountains), and more. But he's also a talented songwriter on his own, making chilled out, jammy folk/rock/pop that recalls a lot of mid-'60s groups (Grateful Dead, The Mamas & The Papas, The Turtles) but also jazz and other influences. He's got a high, smooth voice that just sounds perfect with mellow tunes like the sunny "New California Blue," skittering Nilsson-esque "River of Doubt" and the genuinely lovely "Early Hours of the Morning." With song titles like "Easy Going" and "Keep on Dreamin," he knows what kind of a record he's making and Cookbook delivers.
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