Bill’s Indie Basement (11/29): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Hello from my couch where I'm eating cold Thanksgiving leftovers straight from the tupperware and rewatching The Social Network. I may have the day off but Indie Basement does not. This week: the final two releases in Stereolab's year-long vinyl reissue series (Sound-Dust and Margerine Eclipse); a short new album from Portland's Woolen Men; 4AD-adjacent band Breathless get their debut album repressed on vinyl; International Teachers of Pop team with Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson for a cheeky banger; and Proto Idiot's Andrew Anderson releases a very fun, low-fi solo album.
If you need more new record reviews, check out Andrew's Notable Releases today. If you need more Basement-approved content, did you see that Cornershop announced their first album in eight years. And if you're reading this the day it comes out (11/29), it's also Record Store Day Black Friday and there are exclusive titles from Pylon, Nick Lowe, The Walkmen, The Wrens and more.
After continually one-upping themselves for most of the '90s, I think Stereolab lost a few people with 1999's Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night. Less people may have heard what came next but, musically, the groop recovered nicely with their next two records -- 2001's Sound-Dust and 2003's Margerine Eclipse -- both of which have just been reissued by the band, concluding a year-long campaign to get all their albums back in print.
Sound-Dust is still, at times, an odd record. Bandleader Tim Gane admits that originally it was meant to be a shorter album, but new sections were added to many of the songs to make them more "upbeat." I'm not 100% sure they succeeded -- this is at times a very spooky record --but there are more hooks and memorable melodies (and less labyrinthine instrumental sections and song titles) this time around. Sound-Dust also finds them adding some distinctly American influences, like the twangy pedal steel on the very poppy "Captain Easychord" and the laid-back ballad "Black Arts."
Margerine Eclipse is a real triumph, despite the trying conditions under which it was made. The band decided to build their own studio in France, just north of Bordeaux, in which to record. "As anyone who has ever watched a documentary about people buying and attempting to convert property in France will attest, all did not go smoothly," says Gane in the liner notes. Then, tragically, guitarist/singer Mary Hansen was killed in a bicycle accident right before Stereolab were to have started making the album. After taking time off and deciding to carry on, the initial concept of recording the album live in the studio was scrapped. Instead Gane hit upon the idea of extreme stereo panning, with most instruments only appearing in either the right or left channel.
That style of panning can be annoying -- just listen to original stereo mixes of mid-'60s albums by The Beatles or Rolling Stones -- but Gane clearly thought about how it would work, hitting on the idea "of having one version of the song on the left speaker and a second version on the right speaker and the third ‘version’ would be the two combined." Margerine Eclipse feels alive, swirling around your ears because of it (two drummers are key), and the songs and production is Stereolab's best since Dots & Loops. This highly underrated album is one that is really worth revisiting.
The bonus material on these two albums is lighter than on previous records: Sound-Dust comes with a 1-sided etched bonus disk of demo tracks; while Margerine Eclipse's bonus disc features the songs from the triple vinyl 7” release Instant 0 In The Universe and the tour 7”/CD Rose, My Rocket Brain! and in some cases these are longer versions than originally appeared on the singles.
We may be at the end of Stereolab's reissue series, but they're continuing to play live into 2020...could we maybe get new music?
Nearly a decade into their existence, Portland, OR trio Woolen Men have their sound down at this point -- the slashing minimalism of Wire, the raw drive of Wipers, and the flannel-fueled fire of Minutemen. Their hometown is also an essential part of the band's fiercely independent spirit, with art and environmentalism in their core, weary and wary of all corporate activity from real estate to technology. Human to Human is both the name of their sixth record but also an ethos, a preferred way of communication. At just 23 minutes and eight songs, Human to Human is a lean, concentrated dose of what the band does so well (see "K-Punk," "Mexico City Blues" and the invective "Big Shot"), but also manages to forge new paths, too. "Ecstacy of an Ant" is a new gear for Woolen Men, playing around with a reggae groove that works really well with the band's established style. Does it sound a little like The Police? Maybe just a little, but I say keep going in that direction, guys.
Breathless were the best 4AD band to never actually be on 4AD. They just seemed like they were, having all the earmarks of the label's '80s roster including an all-important gothy romantic aura than permeated all aspects of the band: a haunting, dreamy sound with guitars that cascaded like waterfalls; drums that often went tribal; melodramatic vocal wailing; and beautiful artwork that often made you ask "What exactly am I looking at? Protozoa? Out-of-focus buttons?"
There were some actual connections to 4AD too. Frontman Dominic Appleton sang on This Mortal Coil's Filigree & Shadow and Blood, and Breathless used TMC's John Fryer as engineer on many of their records, all of which came out on the band's own Tenor Vossa Records. That includes their debut album, 1986's The Glass Bead Game, which is getting a vinyl reissue via 1972 Records (who reissued Maximum Joy's Station M.X.J.Y. and Arab Strap's The Week Never Starts Round Here and Philophobia).
Comparisons to 4AD might be played up a bit by this author, as this album could also be easily compared to Pornography-era The Cure or groups like Comsat Angels, The Chameleons, The Sound. The band are at their best when really laying on the goth, like the pounding "Every Road Leads Home" and the swirling "All My Eye and Betty Martin." John Fryer's work helped give it a very satisfying '80s post-punk sound that shies away form gated drums and other sonic cliches of the era. Breathless are obscure even for folks who listen to a lot of this stuff, but are worth investigating. The Glass Bead Game is a good place to get your feet wet.
The vinyl reissue of The Glass Bead Game is out January 17 via 1972 Records.
Makers of two of my favorite records of the year, Sheffield synthpop band International Teachers of Pop and Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson, have teamed up for this terrific new single that is not quite like anything either have done before. "I Stole Yer Plimsoles" is a helium pop banger in the tradition of "Cars That Go Boom" and "I Love It," and a she-said-he-said as a tale of revenge against dirtbag ex-boyfriend. Or, as ITOP's Leonore Wheatley puts it, "“A bit of a ‘to-do’ between a couple of mature, consenting adults blundering their way through relationships, boundaries... and shoes.”
"I Stole Yer Plimsoles" is the first single from International Teachers of Pop's second album, due out sometime in 2020.
Manchester garage rock trio Proto Idiot released the excellent Find Out For Themselves over the summer, and now singer Andrew Anderson is back with a solo album. "Sometimes albums are something you plan," says Anderson. "You have songs in mind, a process for recording them...maybe even an album title. Sometimes though it’s more of a happy accident, and that is certainly the case with Clean Yerself."
Andrew, who also plays in Freak Genes, had about 20 songs that didn't fit with either of his groups, and was working on the tracks just for fun. "Then one day I put 13 of them in a playlist and they fit together as if by design." After a little polishing, the result is Clean Yerself, which runs through those 13 songs in about 23 minutes but is in no short supply of creativity or catchy bits. Using cheap drum machines and keyboards alongside guitars gives the album a sound that's straight out of the mutant pop late-'70s, whether that's minimal wave ("Take Me Back," "Walking Around") or astringent punk ("You're Too Close," "I Don't Like Music"). There are more than a few single-worthy tracks too, including "It's Not for Me" and "You Know Me Too Well" both of which sound more than a little like New Zealand greats The Clean... and make me wonder if the album title was an intentional nod.