Indie Basement (2/25): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week in Indie Basement: Superchunk get by with a little help from their friends (Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, more) on Wild Loneliness; King Hannah smolder on their excellent debut album; Johnny Marr delivers his biggest, most ambitious solo album to date; Bambara don't fix what ain't broke on their latest; Detroit's ADULT. are Becoming Undone; and members of Yard Act, Hookworms and more form indie disco outfit Holodrum.
There are lots of other albums out today, though not Spiritualized or Soft Cell whose new records were supposed to be out today but got rescheduled. As for ones that are out, Andrew listens to Dashboard Confessional, Gang of Youths, Carson McHone and more in Notable Releases.
Speaking of Johnny Marr, I wrote about some of the many non-Smiths collaborations he's done other the years, from Billy Bragg to Billie Eilish.
Speaking of King Hannah: BrooklynVegan is presenting their North American live debut which is at Brooklyn's Union Pool on March 10 with Operator Music Band. There are still a few tickets left.
More Basement-friendly news from this week: new albums were announced by Porridge Radio, !!! (chk chk chk), Shilpa Ray, Jeanines, and Just Mustard, and Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser is releasing her first solo EP that is weirdly just coming out as a Records Store Day release.
The Indie Basement corner of the BrooklynVegan shop is well stocked with hand-picked records, including Fontaines DC's upcoming Skinty Fia on exclusive, limited edition translucent red vinyl, and albums by Stereolab, Pavement, LCD Soundsystem, Aldous Harding, Cate Le Bon, Spoon and more.
OK, head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Superchunk - Wild Loneliness (Merge)
The North Caroline indie rock greats get help from Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and more on their 12th album.
If Superchunk hadn't already named one of their best-ever albums Here's Where the Strings Come In, that would be a great -- if on-the-nose -- title for their 12th long-player. Swoony orchestration, courtesy Owen Pallett, Kelly Pratt and frontman Mac McCaughan, decorates much of this album, one of the North Carolina's indie rock icons' most laid-back-sounding, unusual albums of their 33-year career.
It still sounds like Superchunk, of course, but Wild Loneliness is the band at their most embellished and that goes beyond the strings. They made it during lockdown and while the title track speaks specifically to that feeling of not being able to hang out with anyone, they managed to bring in a lot of their friends for long-distance musical contributions. Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley bring Beach Boys harmonies to climate change lament "Endless Summer" (a phrase that is rhymed to "I don't want to be a giant bummer"); Mike Mills and Franklin Bruno help take "On the Floor" into '80s R.E.M. territory; and Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell buoys "This Night," one of the few overtly joyous songs on this album that has a lot of heavy stuff on its mind.
Andy Stack of Wye Oak, meanwhile, brings something to Superchunk I never thought I'd hear on one of their records -- saxophones -- and really makes it something special. It starts as a tight, playful solo before the saxes settle in on the back half of the song, lifting the whole thing up for one of the highlights of the album. Another highlight: "City of the Dead," which opens the album, is one of those songs that was written before Covid but eerily feels like it was specifically written about it: "Mutate the world under orangey skies / Cover your face when you need a disguise / Unleash a storm and a season to bring back the butterflies," McCaughan sings as Owen Pallett's truly beautiful string arrangements make everything featherlight.
Mac McCaughan can't help but write anthemic songs -- it's been in his DNA since "Slack Motherfucker" -- but Wild Loneliness has a different tone to it, dominated by a mix of acoustic and electric guitars gently strummed. It gives everything an almost '80s college radio feel, and would have even without R.E.M.'s bassist being on the record. There's a nostalgic air despite singing about very now topics, from global warming and the pandemic to how we don't seem to be able to talk to people with opposing viewpoints anymore. They save the best for last: "If You're Not Dark" is a masterful slow build, given extra emotional heft by Sharon Van Etten's backing vocals, that cracks open with pure catharsis: "if you’re not dark," they sing, "at least in some little part, what are you on? Can i have some? If you're not dark, I don't believe you." It's an instant classic that sounds like it could close Superchunk's sets for the rest of their existence.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: King Hannah - I'm Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me (City Slang)
UK duo channel lots of chill '90s acts with smokey style on their smouldering debut album.
“I thank God the day we met in the gross bar," Hannah Merrick sings on "It's Me and You, Kid," the closing track on Liverpool duo King Hannah's excellent debut album. It's a track that also serves as their origin story, detailing Merrick and guitarist Charlie Whittle's first meeting, when they both worked as bartenders by night at the same watering hole. "It's Me and You, Kid" is King Hannah in a nutshell: darkly sarcastic but utterly sincere, a great eye for details, and an even better ear for mood and atmosphere.
I'm Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me is absolutely swimming in atmosphere, the kind that evokes if not a gross bar than a dingy club, probably near closing time, and definitely well past when you should be out. Whittle's guitarwork is responsible for a lot of that. It hangs in the air like cigarette smoke on the songs, pure texture at times. You can almost smell it. Merrick's vocals are similarly smouldering and cool, all perfect for the bluesy music they make that usually stays at a low simmer but occasionally rips open into a rolling boil.
The touchstones here are entirely, unapologetically '90s -- PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, Portishead, Morphine, Radiohead, Smog -- but they do it with such confidence and style that you don't so much think about the specific reference points as much as you think how cool this style can still sound. Well, ok, "Foolius Caesar," may be a little too "Sour Times" for its own good but even that works. The arrangements and production give everything lots of headroom -- even when it's just an acoustic guitar and Merrick's voice, mic'd close, it sounds like it was recorded in the Grand Canyon. Like 2019's Tell Me Your Mind and I'll Tell You Mine mini-LP, this is quiet music meant to be played loud, better to hear all the deft little touches. The devil is in the details and I'm Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me is sinful as it gets.
Johnny Marr - Fever Dreams Pts I - IV (BMG)
While it could use a serious trim, Johnny Marr's sprawling fourth solo album shows he's still innovating 35 years after The Smiths
There is no disputing Johnny Marr's bona fides. With The Smiths, he was one half of the greatest songwriting team of the mid-'80s with a unique guitar style that changed the course of indie/alt rock. It's still being copied today. When The Smiths broke up, Marr was just 24 and he would go on to make great records as part of Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, and played on records by many others. He remains one of the great ringers and collaborators working today, always bringing his A-Game and bringing out the best in others.
After a not so successful first attempt at a solo career leading The Healers in the early '00s, Marr relaunched himself with 2013's The Messenger and has been going strong since, while still making time to guest on other people's records, like Billie Eilish's Bond theme "No Time to Die." Fever Dreams is his most ambitious solo record yet, a sprawling double album set in a gleaming, neon blue world where synthesizers are as prominent as the guitars and tracks like "Spirit, Power and Soul," "Sensory Street," "Night and Day" and "Ghoster" are all sleek, high-octane and danceable.
Both on his records and at his live shows, it's evident that Marr still loves playing and finding new avenues for his guitar. Weirdly, the Manchester group Fever Dreams most brings to mind is New Order, specifically their guitary, early-'00s records Get Ready and Waiting for the Siren's Call. Like those albums, Fever Dreams leans style over substance, but Johnny has style to spare. Unfortunately he's not following fashion icon Coco Channel's style advice of "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off." Fever Dreams was released as four EPs and, as a whole, it's a good six songs too long. That extra weight unfortunately keeps it from ever quite achieving liftoff.
Bambara - Love on My Mind (Wharf Cat)
Moody Brooklyn trio don't fix what ain't broke on their new mini-LP, but they do add a few upgrades
Brooklyn trio Bambara, led by twin brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh, get a lot of mileage out of a very specific sound. It's a dark and lusty blend of Johnny Cash, Ennio Morricone, Gun Club, and Nick Cave, splayed out as gothy Spaghetti Western melodrama. While each new record adheres to this formula, Bambara succeeds through prowess and genuine swagger. Their new mini album, Love on My Mind, is terrific and while it doesn't stray far from their established path, it does add a few new ingredients to the mix. Bria Salmena of Orville Peck's band adds soulful vocals to ripping, gunbarrel single "Mythic Love," while Public Practice's Drew Citron provides ethereal harmonies to the atmospheric "Little Wars." Bleating horns, courtesy Sunwatchers' Jason Disu and Jeff Tobias, add menace. What really seals the deal on this record, like their others, is Reid's snarling, all-in vocal performance which makes songs like "Point and Shoot" and "Slither in the Rain" feel like life or death. It's a killer cinematic formula that should be worth a few more sequels.
ADULT. - Becoming Undone (Dias)
Many of us felt like we were becoming undone in 2020; ADULT. documented their downward spiral on record
Detroit duo ADULT. make records primed for the apocalypse. Their last album, Perception is/as/of Deception, was released in April 2020 and was one of those works that seemed to take on new meaning as the world went a bit mad. Their new album was made in the second half of 2020 and Becoming Undone is a title that could describe a lot of people then. “We weren’t interested in melody or harmony since we didn’t see the world having that," says Adam Lee Miller, with partner Nicola Kuperus adding, "Humans have always been pretty terrible. But every year the compromises of culture just accelerate.” There is a little more urgency than usual in these eight songs that deal with all manner of decay, from societal to aging and death. With Kuperus' imperiled wails riding fiery EBM-style beats, tracks like "Our Bodies Weren't Wrong," "I, Obedient" and "Undoing / Undone" are literal bangers.
Holodrum - S/T (Gringo Records)
Members of Yard Act, Hookworms, Virginia Wing and more form indie disco supergroup
Holodrum are a dance-oriented new group that features members of indie bands from Leeds readers of this review column might know, including Yard Act, Hookworms, Virginia Wing, Drahla, Cowtown and more. The seven-piece unit are: Emily Garner (vocals), Matthew Benn (synth/bass/production), Jonathan Nash (drums), Jonathan Wilkinson (guitar), Sam Shjipstone (guitar/vocals), Christopher Duffin (sax/synth) and Steve Nuttall (percussion). “When it comes to doing music most bands fall between two extremes of doing it for some goal or as an end to itself,” says Shjipstone, who also plays in Yard Act. “I think Holodrum is about the joy and complexity of living, and I just hope to god everyone gets to have a good time doing it.”
The band's self-titled debut is a pretty good time. LIke Yard Act (who just released their debut album), Holodrum would've fit in nicely at a sweaty Williamsburg club in 2004, sandwiched on a bill between Out Hud and The Rapture. This is indie disco that has a reverence for DIY and DFA but also the lush, glittery '70s original artifact. They know how the rhythm section should sound (punchy and just a little blown-out), have a fondness for dinky '80s synths and old-school funky clavinets, have clearly studied dancefloor dynamics, and have a good sense of when a track could use some sax. The album could use more like opener "Lemon Chic," with strong its strong pop hooks, and "Low Light," which builds to joyous frenzy, but they've got the grooves worked out.
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