Indie Basement (1/15): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It's the second week of 2021 and the year hits in force with what I'd say is an exemplary Friday's worth of new releases in Indie Basement. If you like your British accents shouty and thick, there are new albums from Sleaford Mods and Shame. If you like a more soothing strain of music, there's the new album from Portugal's Beautify Junkyards and the first album in over 20 years from UK duo Insides. Plus, Stereolab's long-awaited fourth volume of their Switched On series.
If you need more new album reviews, Andrew looks at new album from Midnight Sister and Buck Meek (both of which I like) in Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved stuff from the week, Field Music have a new album out soon and the first single is fantastic; there's: a new album from Mouse on Mars on the way; La Femme have finally stopped toying with us and announced their third album; and Danny Boyle and Irvine Welsh's biopic about Creation Records will be out in March (and Boyle is also working on a Sex Pistols miniseries for FX).
Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Sleaford Mods - Spare Ribs (Rough Trade)
Sleaford Mods stay angry but up their melodic pop side on Album #11
It would be wrong to say that Sleaford Mods are taking the "speak softly and carry a big stick" approach on their 11th album (sixth as a duo), but there's no denying this famously shouty band are shouting a little less these days. "I love hip hop and the more aggressive side of what we do, but you get to the point of feeling like, 'I've done that, how can we change this?'" frontman Jason Williamson told The Quietus. "You can't change overnight, but I'm trying to push the limits of what I can do over what Andrew [Fearn] gives me." Spare Ribs does just that, finding Williamson and Fearn further exploring the melodic, poppier territory heard on 2019's terrific Eton Alive.
Spare Ribs is Sleaford Mods' catchiest batch of songs to date, starting with first single "Mork N' Mindy" that picks right up, musically, from where Eton Alive's "Kebab Spiders" left off, boasting an infectious clubby beat and "Too high, too low" hook courtesy their pal Billy Nomates. "Elocution" bounces along like lost early '00s post-punk revival jam, and even boasts a chorus and bridge, while bleak album closer "Fishcakes" has Williamson full-on singing over a dubby backing a la Gang of Four's "5:45." Fearn is really stepping up in the beat department, keeping things minimal but really making every bassline, every hook count, whether its a murky hip hop loop on "Out There," or the nagging, angular guitar hook and piano line driving "Nudge It" (which features a verse from Amy Lee of Amyl & The Sniffers who also makes an appearance on last week's Viagra Boys album).
Lyrically, though, they're just as angry as ever on Spare Ribs. Williams says the title reflects Western government's reaction and bungled response to the pandemic, "the idea of the amount of people that died from the first wave of coronavirus; human lives are always expendable to the elites… We’re in a constant state of being spare ribs.” Over a low-res, irresistible bassline, Spare Ribs' title track imagines a world where kids guzzle banana milkshakes and butterscotch lattes cause there's no hope for their future. "Give him what he wants, he's fucked."
While politics play a big part here, Williamson continues to save his most vicious verses for his favorite targets: phonies and "tourists." "Spare Ribs" gets in digs at musicians who say one thing but live another: "Going on about Aphex Twin, Spanish Anarchists / You don’t know anything / What happened to ya, Lager and linen, bullshitter, because you actually hate women. Don’t ya." Likewise, "Elocution" aims its sights at artists who shamelessly play the game. "I wish I had the time to be a wanker just like you."
Williamson is at his best, however, creating vivid little vignettes. Both "Fishcakes" and "Mork N' Mindy" are well-detailed portraits of his adolescence, living on a "really depressing cul de sac where couples get divorced and people come up that ya never seen before," full of "chip shop birthdays" and homes where people get stuck. "Furniture’s the same but the menu’s rearranged and your jokes won’t land in the same space they used to." It's a weary kind of anger most of us can relate to, even when the accents are near impenetrable. They wear it well.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Beautify Junkyards - Cosmorama (Ghost Box)
Beguiling tropicalia infused psych-pop from Portugal on the Ghost Box label
Led by João Branco Kyron, Lisbon's Beautify Junkyards have been making psych pop infused with tropicalia, English acid folk and synthy German komische for the better part of 10 years. There are harps and harpsichords, spacey Moogs, sweeping strings and mellotrons, bossa nova beats and Can-style rhythms, and wordless vocals right out of a Morricone score. The band have expanded to a six piece, including ethereal-voiced singer Martinez and former Espers member Helena Espvall on cello, flute and electric guitar. It's a sound that's foreign and familiar, inviting but with a sinister undercurrent, hypnotic and beautiful.
Yes, if you're wondering, Beautify Junkyards do sound a little like Broadcast, though they are probably closer to Vanishing Twin in this archipelago of mysterious islands. Cosmorama is Beautify Junkyards' fourth album and second for Ghost Box, the UK label that specializes in artists fond of analog synths, baroque psych and retro-futurist design. Needless to say, the band fit perfectly beside acts like Pye Corner Audio and The Focus Group, and Cosmorama is their most enchanting yet.
The album opens with the kind of swirling sound effect that old movies and TV shows would use to signify a flashback or a dream. As that fades, the chips of birds and the buzzing of insects rise, a flute floats in, and it's as if you've been beamed through a portal, washing up on the shore of an iridescent lagoon. From there you'll wander a lush "Garden by the Sea," investigate mysteries of the "Sphinx," spend a night at the "Zodiak Klub," luxuriate in a "Deep Green" world featuring Lake Ruth's Allison Brice on vocals, and drink deep from "The Fountain." Is this paradise? A hallucination? Nightmare? Best just to enjoy it while you're here.
Shame - Drunk Tank Pink (Dead Oceans)
UK punks come out of a two-year break a more mature, better band on their sophomore album.
When I last saw Shame play live -- the last date of their 2018 North American tour -- the audience was theirs to control and you could feel the momentum from constant touring. Charlie Steen totally embraced his frontman role and a new song, "Human, for a Minute," swang for the fences in an inclusive way you didn't really hear on their punky, agitated debut, Songs of Praise. To me it sounded like the Big '80s. Simple Minds. U2. I fully expected that would be the direction of their second album.
But that's not what we've got with Drunk Tank Pink, which comes almost three years to the day from Songs of Praise. The band took 2019 off of touring, for the most part, to write and record -- a hiatus that turned into two years thanks to the pandemic. Taking a long break after three-plus years of nonstop gigging -- which had begun when the band were still teenagers -- was a break they didn't realize they needed. New influences rose to the fore and the break itself proved a prime lyrical inspiration for Steen. “You become very aware of yourself and when all of the music stops, you’re left with the silence,” he said when the album was announced. “And that silence is a lot of what this record is about.”
Drunk Tank Pink, named after the color designed to calm down the inebriated and rowdy, is a definite step up from Songs of Praise. The band are still a whirl of energy, Charlie Steen is still a bundle of raw nerves, the passion is still there, but it's all more focused and nuanced. And yes, just a little calmer. But also twitchier. The full-frontal punk of their debut gave way to artier directions, new guitar tunings and rhythms. It's all applied to Shame's gang-of-voices chorus style, which grounds the more angular approach on the album's hookiest moments, the killer "Nigel Hitter" and "Water in the Well." As for "Human, for a Minute," it's been transformed from a potential festival anthem to a gleaming, sultry strut that better fits its hook of "I never felt human before you arrived." The song, like the band, is much more interesting than it was three years ago.
Insides - Soft Bonds (Further Distractions)
UK duo with ties to vintage-era 4AD go near ambient on their first album in 20 years
Brighton duo Insides, whose 1993 debut for 4AD imprint Guernica is a lost ethereal pop classic, returned last year after a two-decade absence with a promising new single, and plans for a new album. "Ghost Music" was a perfectly descriptive title for that single, haunting and elegiac with Kirsty Yates' breathy voice in excellent form atop Julian Tardo's spare backing.
The album was originally due out in November of 2020 but the pandemic threw a wrench into the production of the vinyl and CDs, and was been delayed till now. That's just as well, as dead of winter seems a much more appropriate setting for a record like Soft Bonds that sounds the sun reflecting off a frozen sea. Where 1993's Euphoria was chilled out synthpop a la Ultramarine and 2000's Sweet Tip was jazzy and danceable, Soft Bonds strips it all down to the bare minimum, with some songs little more than Yates' voice and near-ambient backing. It's a quiet album that benefits from being played loud, so you can really appreciate the delicate arrangements on these songs. Tinkling percussion -- thumb pianos, music boxes, and the like -- scatter throughout, with their airy sound filled by fretless bass, omnichord, icy piano, and strings that drop out of the heavens. It's a little like Talk Talk covering Young Marble Giants. Some songs are dark and unsettling ("Misericord"), while others are a long embrace ("Hot Warm Cool Cold"). Most are lullabies, and all of it is lovely.
Stereolab - Electrically Possessed [Switched On Volume 4] (Duophonic UHF Disks / Warp)
Long overdue fourth volume of Stereolab's essential non-LP singles/rarities comps is finally on the way.
Keeping up with Stereolab's releases in the '90s and '00s was a bit like trying to keep up with Oh Sees or Robert Pollard these days. Even the most attentive fan could miss a flexi, a track released on a Sweden-only compilation, or tour-only 7". Luckily, Stereolab were always pretty good about helping us play catch-up via their Switched On series which collected all those odds and ends -- which often times contained some of the best stuff -- onto three disc comps.
The last of those Switched On comps was 1998's Aluminum Tunes. Given that the band went another 11 years after that, there's a lot of stray material and fans have been wondering when Vol 4 would come ever since. Finally, after "delays, beyond our control," Stereolab have finally announced the fourth volume which is titled Electrically Possessed and will be out February 26 via Duophonic UHF Disks / Warp. The 25-track triple album does not include the many songs that are found on 2005 EP compilation Oscillons from the Anti-Sun (yes, it's confusing), but Electrically Possessed still has lots of bloopy gold, like "Dimension M2" which was originally on French various artists comp Disko Cabine. You can listen to that below.
As you might expect, there are a bunch of different versions of Electrically Possessed, including a super-limited edition Duophic edition that sold out instantly, but there's a variant for indie retail that comes in a reflective Mirriboard sleeve, and other versions. Pre-orders are available now and you can read a detailed rundown of the tracks and where they're from, here.
In other Lab news, Tim Gane's latest side project, Ghost Power, just released their first single.
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.