Bill’s Indie Basement (7/10): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
I hope everyone is dealing with the heat ok, we are in the Dog Days here in NYC. One nice thing about coronavirus lockdown and social distancing, I guess, is it's a good excuse just to stay inside with the air conditioning cranked and just listen to some new music. In that regard, it's a pretty solid week in the Basement: New Zealand's The Beths beat the sophomore slump; Kelley Stoltz dives into "power pub" on his new album; Dougie Pool spins country gold with a uniquely modern worldview; former Pale Saints frontman Ian Masters' new project, Isolated Gate; a much-needed reissue of Saint Etienne's best album (no spoilers); and Canadian sludge-pop trio Kestrels get some help from J. Mascis on their new album.
If that's not enough album reviews for you, Andrew digs into the latest from My Morning Jacket, Julianna Barwick and more in this week's Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved stuff: Doves just announced their first album in 11 years; Massive Attack are back with a new EP; comedian and musical genius Matt Berry has a new album on the way; and Guided by Voices will release their 30th album in August (it feels like more, right?).
That's all I got. Head below for this week's reviews.
Album of the Week #1: The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark)
No sophomore slump here: the crunchy, poppy indie rock hits keep coming on New Zealand band's second album.
New Zealand band The Beths' 2018 debut album, Future Me Hates Me, was both a breath of fresh air and a welcome throwback to the kind of crunchy, hooky indie rock power pop that was prevalent in the '90s. I'm happy to report that singer-songwriter Elizabeth Stokes has lost none of her melodic or lyrical skills on the band's terrific follow-up.
As before, Stokes is still grappling with self doubt in the songs' searching, sometimes self-deprecating (and witty) lyrics, but The Beths sound more confident than ever. They also seem a little more comfortable in their skin this time around, not afraid to slow down for a ballad (the great, melancholy title track, or the equally moving "You Are a Beam of Light" where Stokes sounds a lot like The Sundays' Harriet Wheeler.) or even for a few mid-tempo numbers. Harmony-filled earworms like "Acrid," "I'm Not Getting Excited" and "Mars, the God of War" all sound effortless while being crammed with inventive hooks, countermelody backing vocals, killer middle-eighths and some truly ripping leads. There are more great ideas going on in any one of these songs than most groups manage on a whole album. No sophomore slump here -- The Beths have bettered their debut, and I'm looking forward to the hat trick.
The Beths also just released a video for "Jump Rope Gazers" which stars Stokes and guitarist Jonathan Pearce as star-crossed couple in what directors Sports Team call a "sci-fi alien adventure romance." It also features some of New Zealand's spectacular scenery and is quite moving even if I don't 100% understand the storyline.
Album of the Week #2: Kelley Stoltz - Hard Feelings (Chuffed)
Prolific DIY genius makes an album of ultracatchy late-'70s style "power pub" rock. Like everything he does, it's great.
We last heard from Bay Area wunderkind Kelley Stoltz back in November with the Falcon/Falkland album, a collaboration with Garth Steel Klippert where they posed as a fictional duo releasing a career-spanning, genre-hopping Greatest Hits. Stoltz does well with a high concept, and here he digs into '70s-style pre-punk "power pub" a la Dr. Feelgood or Eddie & The Hotrods, with a little glam and punchy new wave thrown in for good measure. Kelly explains: "A chance buy of a $75 Japanese Electric Guitar conducive only to power chords, and repeated spins of the Mick Trouble LP made for a wild week of recording this edgy delight."
This is new territory for Stoltz, who generally cribs from late'60s folk / psych pop, and post-punk. He banged out 17 songs (at 41 minutes) in just a week, and you can tell he had blast. That definitely carries over to the listener. Hard Feelings is packed with hits: the punky "It's Crap," "Taking the Train" and "Me and My Mohawk" (the latter's chorus: "ultraviolence, hoo hoo!") the proggy "People in Power," the glammy "Disappearing," and "Japanese Sweat" that sounds like a 1981 meeting at IRS Records between R.E.M. and Klark Kent. That's not even counting Hard Feeling's most immediate numbers, "Driving Myself Crazy" and "Now That You're Gone." Now how do we get Kelly to make reggae and country albums?
Album of the Week #3: Dougie Poole - The Freelancer's Blues (Wharf Cat)
Pure country gold can be about anything, as this alienated, lyrically gifted Brooklynite shows on his second album.
Brooklyn's Dougie Poole travels in similar circles to LA hipsters Drugdealer and Jerry Paper, but makes music that's much closer to Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. The brand of country he creates is steeped in the mid-'70s, but lyrically he couldn't be more now if he tried. Poole understands that country music can be about anything as long as you're singing about what's true to you...and that singing about your troubles makes the best songs.
It also helps to be a good storyteller, and The Freelancer's Blues proves Poole is a great one. He hooks you right out of the gate, letting you know what kind of record you're in for, with album opener "Vaping on the Job," about a woman who "turned in her BFA for a CDL." He sings "Now she drives that box truck 50 hours a week / She don’t paint anymore / She misses it for sure, but who’s got the time?" While a diligent driver, she "sneaks a little puff, and that’s enough." Set to the kind of pedal-steel fueled twangy melody Eddie Rabbit would've jumped on (Poole's voice is close to Rabbit's smooth tones, too), the chorus goes "Forget the dreams she used to dream that she forgot / Forget the boss, she’s vaping on the job."
The Freelancer's Blues is full of similar stories of urban ennui, tentative steps towards growing, and those who can't escape inertia. "Los Angeles," which liberally borrows its vibe from Dolly's "Jolene," is about a guy who decides to leave NYC and move to the West Coast, but never makes it further than New Jersey. This verse is great:
Now I’m driving back to New York, to the tune of “California here we come”
My cat curls up in the shotgun seat
And she gives one of those looks to me
That seems to say “Well that was quite the stunt you pulled you old son of a gun, now have a think about what you done”
There are tear-in-my-beer songs for the lovelorn, too, including a modern update of the waiting-for-you-to-call weepie ("Claire"), another about the difficulties of dating apps ("Natural Touch"), and a tale of a couple who are drifting apart ("These Drugs Aren't Working"). Poole's got a way with words, and a way with a tune, too, and the production by Eaters' Jonathan Schenke -- who has become a great jack-of-all-trades artist facilitator -- sprinkles just the right amount of modern stardust on the proceedings. Despite who Dougie sometimes hangs out with, there's no irony here, just real country music... from a unique point of view.
Isolated Gate - Horologium Demos EP / T.L.C. onk-02 EP (Institute of Spoons)
Former Pale Saints frontman Ian Masters and Tim Koch collaborate on ethereal glitchy pop. These EPs are a teaser for a full album due out sometime soon.
When Ian Masters quit the great Pale Saints in 1992 (not long after their great second album, In Ribbons), he continued to make music that was increasingly esoteric, but no less rewarding, via a variety of collaborations and solo projects, including Spoonfed Hybrid, ESP Summer (with Warren Defever of His Name is Alive), Friendly Science Orchestra, Sore & Steal, Oneironaut and more.
I'll be honest, as much as I loved Pale Saints (and Spoonfed Hybrid and ESP Summer), I lost track of his many projects more than a decade ago and have not heard much of his recent works, like Big Beautiful Bluebottle which Wikipedia describes as "international confusion jazz." (Which is now a genre I want to learn more about.) I digress, but digressions also seem to be at the heart of Masters' musical world (which has been based out of Japan since 2005).
Masters' newest project is Isolated Gate, a collaboration with Australian electronic musician Tim Koch. They put out this very promising EP of demos back in April that takes Masters' typically ethereal melodies and vocals and pairs/processes them with glitchy, elastic backing. There are two entirely different, entirely bonkers, mixes of "Rubber Brain," along with a more ambient track, "Delight Ingot Thon Thoth."
Isolated Gate will release an album later this year and just released a taster via a lathe-cut 5" EP, T.L.C. onk-02, that they only made 20 of and unfortunately can't ship to the USA due to COVID-19. But they also put it on Bandcamp and both songs -- "Binary Nomad" and "Nail Bather" -- are in that ambient mode, with "Nail Bather" having more blips, bleeps and vocals than "Binary Nomad."
Stay tuned for for, and maybe a lot more as the notes on Horologium Demos say the group "are now ready to unleash a 21 LP box set of mixes to the world. Are you ready? You have time but do you have enough ears?" We'll find the ears, Ian.
Related: Pale Saints' Japan-only compilation Ms Dolphin is getting its first-ever vinyl pressing for Record Store Day this year.
Saint Etienne - Words and Music reissue (Heavenly)
Saint Etienne's fantastic (and out of print) 2012 album finally gets a new pressing.
Saint Etienne's Words & Music was my favorite album of 2012 (and still is). It was a concept album about the band's relationship with music through the years, from nights as a child spent watching Top of the Pops, to being lost in music on the dancefloor, to as an adult geeking out on music message boards about forgotten #1 singles. To bring it to life they collaborated with a bunch of bonafide pop hitmakers: Richard X (Kelis, Rachel Stevens, Annie), and Xenomania's Tim Powell and Nick Coler (Sugababes, Girls Aloud), and Rob Davis (Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head"). It's a joyous album about the pure joy of music, with brilliant cover art that turns London's labyrinthine roadways, roundabouts, and tubeways into pop song landmarks.
Words & Music ties with Good Humor in my book as Saint Etienne's best album, which is pretty amazing for a band that was 20 years into their career when it came out. It's also been mostly out of print since its release, with the initial vinyl pressing selling out immediately. The band have finally given it a new pressing -- available in multicolored splatter vinyl, and a new double CD edition comes with the US tour-only More Words And Music (that featured 10 unreleased songs), as well as "Pocket Call" (that was only on a 7" previously) and unreleased tracks "Starlings" and "When I Was Seventeen (single mix)," plus new, extensive liner notes. These are limited edition, too. Don't wait.
Kestrels - Dream or Don’t Dream (Darla)
Halifax, NS sludge-pop shoegazers return with their first album in four years, featuring production by the great John Agnello and a few solos from J. Mascis.
Dream or Don't Dream, the first album from Halifax, NS's Kestrels, opens with "Vanishing Point" that features a punch-in-the face-riff worthy of 1989 Dinosaur Jr before the song dissolves into fizzy, fuzzy pop. I bring this up as the record was produced by longtime Dino Jr knob-twiddler John Agnello and J. Mascis himself turns up on the next song, "Blue and Grey," to lay down a couple of his patented incendiary solos. (The band are quite capable of fiery leads, themselves, by the way.) This album is very '90s Boston all around, recalling more than anyone else the sludgy power pop of Gigolo Aunts. The melodies and harmonies are sugar sweet but it's the guitars that could knock your teeth out.
Kestrels might be a little too sweet become an essential song from the shoegaze / heavy crossover, but there are lots of Indie Basement faves on this list (Catherine Wheel, MBV, more).
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.