Indie Basement (8/6): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Happy August! This week in Indie Basement: Ty Segall drops a surprise album and, no surprise, it's great; Liars drop an apple on their best album in a while; Sonny & The Sunsets add pedal steel to great effect on New Day With New Possibilities; San Francisco's indiepop tradition continues with The Umbrellas' debut album; members of Joanna Gruesome form new band The Tubs and release their debut EP; and Jim Noir says you can keep his football but check out his cinematic new mini album.
There is more going on this week, of course, and Andrew looks at albums by Laura Stevenson, Catbite, Foxing, Lingua Ignota and more in Notable Releases. Other recent Basement approved stuff: we talked to Damon & Naomi about their new album A Sky Record; Guided by Voices announced a new album (of course they did); so did Hand Habits; and Duran Duran's new single features CHAI, Graham Coxon and Erol Alkan. Crazy.
If you didn't know, Indie Basement has its own subterranean mini-store within the BrooklyVegan shop, full of records hand-picked by me, including A Certain Ratio, Dinosaur Jr, Galaxie 500, Weyes Blood, The Specials, Gang of Four, LCD Soundsystem, My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Can, Purple Mountains, R.E.M., This Mortal Coil, Dry Cleaning, Stereolab, Destroyer, Suede, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and more.
Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: Ty Segall - Harmonizer (Drag City)
What would Ty Segall's brand of glammy psych sound like if it was made with synths? It might go a little something like this...
It's been two years since Ty Segall's last album -- the great, guitar free First Taste -- and this may be the longest we've gone without a new record from one of the most prolific artists of the last decade. He did release an album last year with his proto metal trio, Fuzz, but it still feels like a long pause, especially for someone who has no problem working in one-man band mode. The silence came to an end this week, with almost no advance warning, in the form of Harmonizer, Segall's 12th studio album which he surprise released in full.
Harmonizer is in some ways a return to the glammy heaviosity of Manipulator and Emotional Mugger, while getting there in a totally new way. Made in Ty's just-completed Harmonizer Studios, the album features more synths (and drum machines!) than we're used to hearing, with a sound that's like a hard rock band in 1978 that has just had its mind blown by Tubeway Army and The Normal. With an arsenal of electronics, as well as instruments plugged directly into the board this time (as opposed to mic-ing amps), there is a shininess to everything, more "clean" than "polished" or "slick."
Made with co-producer Cooper Crain (Bitchin Bajas, Cave) and the murderers' row that is The Freedom Band (Ben Boye, Mikal Cronin, Emmett Kelly, and Charles Moothart), there was no chance this record was not going to sound great, and it's been clear for a while that Ty's not going back to the garage. But the energy is still there and you can tell he's having a blast with all the new toys. Ty has also not run out of big riffs and hooks, and there is serious swagger to electro-fueled jams like "Whisper," "Pictures," "Play," and the killer title track. One of the best tracks on the album is "Feel Good," which features Ty's wife, Denée Segall, on lead vocals and is squarely in skronky new wave territory.
The wonder of sound is baked into the album from the title down, be it twin leads or the multi-part vocal harmonies that coat every song. Ty is also having fun on a pure sonic level. Throughout, all sorts of bleeps, bloops and whirrs fly around the mix -- the kick pings between the left and right channels on "Erased," and the electronically enhanced drum solo on "Pictures" is truly mental -- while the extra-crunchy guitars continue to rip, making for a fun close listen. This may be Ty's first headphone album, so strap in.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Liars - The Apple Drop (Mute)
Angus Andrew and a new lineup of Liars make their most ambitious, satisfying album since 'Mess'
One of the most consistently forward-thinking groups of the last 20 years, Liars have always been a little larger than life thanks to the presence of frontman Angus Andrew who has a magnetism and voice to match his 6'7" stature. That said, the last two albums -- 2017's TFCF and 2018's Titles With the Word Fountain -- were decidedly small, basically Angus solo albums, made on a laptop in the Australian outback. But for Liars' 10th album, he decided to scale back up. “I was keen on being collaborative,” he says. “I wanted to return to a recording studio and utilise it as an instrument, not only acoustically, but collaboratively as a space for guided experimentation and song development. There's a limit to the scope of what I can create on my own from where I live, in the bush, on a computer.”
Drafting drummer Laurence Pike and multi-instrumentalist Cameron Deyell -- both classically trained musicians -- as new bandmates, Liars are decidedly maximalist in scope once again. Angus Andrew can make almost anything interesting, but he's at his best when the music meets him eye to eye, and The Apple Drop is easily the most ambitious, visceral and engaging Liars album since 2014's great Mess. Part of that is something integral to Liars that was absent from the last two albums: massive, whalloping drums. “Drum sounds were really my ultimate focus,” Angus says of the album's initial recording sessions. “There were some ideas that could only work with the right acoustics, like techniques for effecting the kit that were used on past records like They Were Wrong, So We Drowned and Sisterworld. I wanted to try and build a sonic through line with the drums.”
It's not just the feel of the kick in your chest, the percussion on The Apple Drop is highly nuanced, like the deft touch and skittering backbeat on "Big Appetite" and "From What the Never Was" and the free-jazz elements of "Star Search." There's also an orchestral grandeur to much of the record, like the sweeping "The Start," the loungey "King of the Crooks" and the truly massive "Acid Crop." Liars have always benefited from maximum headroom and there's plenty of space in The Apple Drop for Angus to roam around in, surrounded by eerie, textural guitarwork, and fat synthesizer sounds. For those craving bang for their buck, Liars deliver with "Pulse to Ponder," a classic smash-and-grab, and "Sekwar," that is equal menace, tension and atmosphere. Still, the most impressive element may be the human voice, both Angus' own -- which can go from whispered growl to wailing anguish -- but also the layered chorus that is a part of most songs here.
The drums are not the only through line here, though. Angus says this is the first album where he consciously revisited ideas from past records, like the character of Mr Heart Attack from Drum's Not Dead showing up in "Star Search," as well as unused song elements that never made it past the sketch stage. It's almost like all eras of Liars existing at once, a bit of sonic string theory that is immensely satisfying.
Sonny & The Sunsets - New Day With New Possibilities (Rocks in Your Head)
Pedal steel enlivens the latest album from one of San Francisco's most consistently rewarding songwriters
A San Francisco indie lifer, Sonny Smith always manages to reinvent himself with every new album while still kinda staying the same. He dabbles in genres, gets interesting people to produce his albums and play on them, but it always come down to his excellent songs. Some styles fit him better than others, like New Day With New Possibilities which drops a pin on 1960s Bakersfield, CA with one foot in country and the other in folk-pop. It's not a stretch, but it really compliments his innate storytelling style. "It was before COVID," says Sonny of the album's origins, "I had this big free empty studio in the hills, I was supposed to be painting, that was my initial plan, and I just began making songs on guitar, songs about being alone, songs about failed men, some dark tales of longing. I was reading some old western paperbacks, and I would go on these walks in the hills, come inside and write these kind of lonesome country songs. And that was it.” Giving the album immeasurable production value is 40-year country vet and pedal steel guitarist Joe Goldmark, whose expert, expressive playing can put a tear in your beer on its own. But paired with great songs like "The Letter," "Ring My Bell," "The Lonely Men" and "Palm Reader," it's magic. Sonny may not repeat himself much, but in this case maybe he should reconsider.
The Umbrellas - The Umbrellas (Slumberland)
San Francisco's long DIY indiepop tradition remains strong with The Umbrella's jangly debut
San Francisco has had a vibrant indiepop scene for about as long as the genre has existed, giving birth to well-dressed, jangly guitar bands prone to both heart-on-sleeve and tongue-in-cheek. The list includes The Aislers Set, Grass Widow, Wilma, Oranger, Brilliant Colors, The Art Museums, and The Mantles (to name seven), as well as more recent groups like The Reds Pinks and Purples. Add to that The Umbrellas whose self-titled debut fits right in with that tradition. Adding to their bonafides, the album is out via Slumberland Records which is basically an Indiepop Seal of Approval as far as I'm concerned. The album is brimming with instantly hummable songs, set to ringing guitars that sometimes go just a little twangy and sometimes just a little jazzy. They also sometimes sparkle, recalling classic Sarah Records bands like The Field Mice. Matt Ferrara and Morgan Stanley (real name?) each take turns to shine on lead vocals, but the best songs are where they come together, which happens often. You can tell listening to the album that they're probably a little wilder, a little louder, at live shows, and the record could use a little more kick (maybe next time), but The Umbrellas have no problem holding our attention.
The Tubs - Names (Trouble in Mind)
Excellent first taste from this UK band featuring two members of Joanna Gruesome holds much promise
In the review of The Umbrellas' album above I mention wanting a little more kick, and a good example of what I mean is the debut EP from The Tubs, a group which features former Joanna Gruesome members Owen Williams and George Nicholls, as well as Max Warren (bass), Steve Stonholdt (guitar) and Matthew Green (drums). You can hear all sorts of classic indie influences (Felt, Cleaners from Venus, The Monochrome Set) but there is palpable punk energy in these four excellent songs. The guitars may jangle but they are turned up loud, the drumming hits hard, and there's edge to Owen's moody vocals. Names is closer to 1979 Nick Lowe than anything on Creation Records in the '80s. Even at their most strummy -- "Two Person Love" -- this is exciting, electric pop. Not sure about their name, though.
Jim Noir - Deep Blue View (Dook Recordings)
There's a strong cinematic, John Barry feel to Jim's new mini album that's a companion piece to 2019's 'A.M. Jazz'
Best known for "Eanie Meany" which soundtracked an Adidas ad shown nonstop during the 2006 World Cup, Jim Noir (real name: Alan Roberts) returned after a seven year absence in late 2019 with A.M. Jazz, an album that traded in Kinksy pop for cosmic synths and interstellar prog. He's now back with Deep View Blue, which he bills as a companion piece to that record. “I originally had A.M. Jazz down as walking around some New York backstreet at 4 AM, smoking in a fedora, looking for crimes to solve but it now ends as night begins,” reveals Al, of his latest tale’s gradual evolution. “Deep Blue View is the night-time album now, like losing yourself deeper in the fog, or disappearing in the sea. Would someone, or some 'thing' come to save you or would they -- or it -- come along for the ride?”
Swathed in swoony strings, there's a real John Barry vibe on these six songs, with the title track and "Star Six Seven" in particular recalling some of the composer's most wistful Bond themes ("You Only Live Twice," "We Have All the Time in the World"). "Night Talk / Late Street" adds deep bass and jazzy keyboards for a particularly effective post-midnight atmosphere, while "String Beat" and "Peppergone" approach deep shag, deep space lounge. "Have Another Cigar," which features lead vocals from Aidan Smith, is the only song here to nod towards '60s pop but it's more Beach Boys' feel/flow than Brit invasion. Deep View Blue is a record that really sounds like its title, a wonderful comedown from whatever it is you're coming down from.
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