Bill’s Indie Basement (11/8): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Greeting from Iceland Airwaves! To paraphrase a letter sent to Pee-Wee Herman in his "Pen Pals from Around the World" segment, brrr it sure is cold! With that I've used up my exclamation point quota for the rest of the year. Despite being in rare festival mode, I've got a new Indie Basement for you. The one record I was planning on writing about this week -- Girl Ray's new album, Girl -- got pushed back to November 22 (spoiler alert: it's really good) and it's not the biggest week for new releases, but I've still got some excellent stuff for you. Cult indie band Rocketship return with their first album in 13 years and it's their best since their first; Canadian band Capitol make gloomy guitar pop in the tradition of The Stills; plus two reissues that would make a great double-play cassette (Everything But the Girl's Walking Wounded and Moloko's Statues).
You can also read my daily Iceland Airwaves recaps and see you next week back on regular basement terra firma.
Inspired by the organ-heavy sound of Felt's "Song for William S. Harvey," Dusty Reske formed Rocketship in 1993 and released their debut single -- '90s indiepop classic "Hey Hey Girl" -- on the Bus Stop label the next year, and their fantastic first album, A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness, in 1996 via Slumberland. From there, Dusty guided Rocketship further from public view, releasing ambient album Garden of Delights in 1999, and then disappeared until 2006's Here Comes... Rocketship which was only released as a CD-R. From there it was mostly radio silence, though the band played an excellent set at NYC Popfest in 2014.
So what a nice surprise to see a brand new Rocketship album out in the world. It's their highest-profile, fullest-production release since their debut, out via Darla Records, and I'm happy to report it's not just good but genuinely great. Almost shockingly so. Dusty's found a great new collaborator in Ellen Osborn, who sings lead on at least half of the songs here -- "she was just the kind of singer that I had always wanted to work with" Dusty told chickfactor -- with a voice that can do ethereal, coquettish and alluring qualities, depending on what the song needs.
It's a good thing too, as Thanks to You covers a lot of ground, musically, though all of it probably falls on the spectrum between Stereolab to Saint Etienne. (There's still a lot of ground, there.) The album opens with the dazzling "Under Streetlights Shadow" which is like if The Cardigans and The Field Mice merged, jazzy but shy and with a little fantastic guitar solo that comes out of nowhere. The album pulls lots of rabbits out of its hat like that: blasting, tremelo'd guitar worthy of Kevin Shields on the otherwise baroque "Nothing Deep Inside"; a wall-of-sound worthy of Phil Spector dive-bombing the middle of "I Just Can't Get Enough of You"; and the manic Peter Hook-style bass on almost punky "Milk-Aisle Smiles." This is the kind of ambitious record shoegaze bands made in the mid-'90s and if it had come out in 1994 it probably would've been talked about in the same breath as The Boo Radleys' Giant Steps.
Thanks to You also has a danceable side which is just as sweeping and ambitious as the rest of the album, with the gorgeous, string-laden "Outer Otherness," and funky duet "I Don't Know Why I'm Still in Love With You" that's like a "Don't You Want Me?" for 2019. Two weeks ago I didn't realize this record existed but now I can't imagine this year without it.
A tour doesn't seem so likely for this. Dusty told chickfactor, "It requires rehearsal and we’re not at a level where we can count on getting paid so it really has to be for the love of it and people’s lives are so busy" but I'm ok with that, especially if we get another record like this sooner than later.
Gloomy guitar rock/pop has been a staple of alternative/indie for 40 years. (That is a scary sentence for me to write.) Sometimes it falls back into fashion -- like when early-'00s gave us Interpol, Bloc Party, etc -- and sometimes they're just out there doing it for themselves. Here we have Hamilton, ON's Capitol who have been around for the second half of this decade and you only need to look at the cover art and title of new album Dream Noise -- a black and white picture of snow-dusted trees with an out-of-focus silhouette in the foreground -- to get a good idea of what kind of music they make.
Specifically, Capitol cite Joy Division, the Cure, and Slowdive, but if I were to draw comparisons (and I will right after writing this parenthetical statement), the groups they remind me most of are fellow Ontarians The Stills (whose 2003 album Logic Will Break Your Heart is still one of my early-'00s faves) and Sweden's The Marionettes. Like those groups, Capitol are adept with delay and other effects pedals, and know a good hook and driving beat when they hear it. They're also not afraid to crib from other bands or namedrop them ("Heart of Glass," "Love Will Tear us Apart," and "Bittersweet Symphony" are all mentioned on this album). They pull it off, too, thanks to no small amount of swagger and romance, and in that way are also just a bit like The National with more of a Cure obsession (see "In Ceremony," "Wish I Was Here"). They've also just got some excellent pop songs, songs like the zooming "Never Been to Paris" and bright and soaring "Blondie" and the aforementioned "In Ceremony," while "Kids on Bikes" and "Infinite Reel" show great skill with atmosphere and dynamics. If much of it is evocative of a faded scene (take your pick), Dream Noise burns bright on its own.
Everything But the Girl's 1996 album Walking Wounded is an established classic at this point, one that really revitalized Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn's duo after years of making superior, sophisticated (if a safe and MOR-ish) major label adult contemporary. A few things happened that led here. One was Watt nearly died from rare disease Churg-Strauss syndrome (which he chronicled in his highly recommended memoir Patient); surviving that, in part, led him into the fertile UK drum-n-bass scene. There was also Tracey Thorn's contributions to Massive Attack's Protection, which used her powerful voice in ways the group never had. Most of all, it was Todd Terry's blockbuster remix of "Missing" off of Amplified Heart (which was already dabbling in synths) that had the new album diving headfirst into clubland.
“It was like a futuristic Brazilian sound,” says Watt. “The mix of high-tuned propulsive drums, late-night samples and low sub-bass just seemed to leave a big plangent hole in the middle, and in it I pictured Tracey’s voice. I heard the same vibe in the modern deep house and downbeat sound.” They made the record almost entirely in Watt & Thorn's North London studio, using only "an Akai sampler, a computer, a synth and guitar, an inexpensive vocal mic, and an 8-track tape machine." It was clearly a EBTG record but was the most alive the duo had sounded since their early bossa nova-inspired singles and brought them to a whole new audience. The songs, as strong as any they'd ever recorded in the 15 years prior, is what makes this record hold up more than most dance-influenced albums of the same era. (Most records also don't have Tracey Thorn singing on them.) "Wrong," "Good Cop, Bad Cop," "Single," "Before Today" and the title track all really hold up. This is a no-extras vinyl repressing but its one supervised by Watt that was given the half-speed master treatment at Abbey Road. There are some great remixes from this record -- most are on the 2015 double CD reissue -- but Walking Wounded is perfection on its own.
Order your copy of Walking Wounded from Ben Watt's own Buzzin' Fly Records.
Moloko have seen their full catalogue reissued on vinyl this year, and that series wraps up with Statues, the duo's final album, originally released in 2003. Moloko was born out of romance between beatmaker Mark Bryndon and singer Roisin Murphy, and early records Do You Like My Tight Sweater? and I Am Not a Doctor feel fueled in no small part by lust. By 2003, the fire had burned out, romantically, but not creatively. Bryndon and Murphy remained friends and the record is a sophisticated, danceable document of the musical energy between them. Or as Bryndon put it, "It’s a triumph of believing in something enough to ride all over that.” It's also a not-too-fictional look at two people across the course of a relationship, from the giddy start to the last smoking embers. It's also got some of Moloko's best songs, including its fantastic singles -- the jazzy "Familiar Feeling" and the awesome bass-heavy "Forever More." As always, Murphy's powerful, dexterous pipes are the star of the show, but Bryndon's production sounds like a million bucks and hasn't dated too much, thanks in part to its mix of electronic and organic instrumentation, including stunning string orchestrations, exemplified by the stunning album-closer "Over and Over." Moloko called it quits shortly after the record and subsequent tour, but what a goodbye.
Both "Familiar Feeling" and "Forever More" have fantastic videos: the former co-starring Paddy Considine (24 Hour Party People) and set at a Northern Soul club, and the latter in a roadway tunnel that is almost like the dance equivalent of drunken boxing. Both showcase Murphy's undeniable magnetism and abilities as a dancer:
If I had to pick only one Moloko studio to album to buy, it would be Statues, but if you can only own one record, singles collection Catalogue (also just reissued on vinyl) is the way to go...but it remains out of print and has never been released on vinyl. Hopefully soon.