Bill’s Indie Basement (8/14): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week: former Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine frontman Jim Bob is back with a very of the moment album that asks "2020 WTF!" and other important questions; erudite, harpsichord-loving Britpop group The Divine Comedy are celebrating their 30th anniversary by reissuing their entire catalog; Whitney and Black Marble put out very different all-covers records; and a lost voice from the '90s Halifax scene, Matthew Grimson, gets a posthumous album of unreleased music with help from Sloan and Thrush Hermit.
If you need more new album reviews, head to Andrew's Notable releases. If you need more Basement-approved stuff from the week: The Knife have joined Bandcamp in celebration of their 20th anniversary; Bob Mould's got a career-spanning box set on the way; Andy Bell of Ride is gearing up to release his solo debut; and Buffalo Tom are finally reissuing Birdbrain on vinyl.
That should do for now. Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Jim Bob - Pop Up Jim Bob (Cherry Red)
Former Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine frontman returns with his sharp, observant wit and anthemic melodic sense, just in time for 2020.
UK duo Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine barely got records released in North America but they were an early-'90s force in their home country. They headlined Glastonbury in 1992, and had four Top 10 albums (1992: The Love Album went to #1) and a string of hit singles that mixed -- in a very English way -- punk attitude and guitars, cheesy drum machine backing and frontman Jim Bob's insightful, witty and observant lyrics that always had their finger on the pulse.
After breaking up in 1998, Jim Bob went solo and has released a number of records over years, interrupted periodically in the '00s with a few Carter USM reunions. It's been seven years since Jim Bob released a new album, but he returned back in April with a perfect 30-second blast titled "2020 WTF!" that had had been recorded last year; if it didn't quite predict the pandemic, it managed to encapsulate pretty much everything else. "Sometimes what you need is 26 seconds of punk rock discombobulation and despair to scream at the wall," he said.
"2020 WTF!" would've also made a good title for his new album, Pop Up Jim Bob, which was also made last year but still hits on most of the non-virus 2020 headlines: protests, riots, authorities abusing power, mass shootings, and fighting the urge not to just live in a drug-and-booze-fueled stupor through all of it.
Jim Bob's still got that keen observational style that doesn't draw lines in the sand or paint only in black and white. He's also still a master of double entendres, isn't afraid of a good (bad?) pun, and has a way with a big anthemic chorus. Standouts include "Jo's Got Papercuts," which mixes depression with our information overload age; the scathing indictment of empty words, "#thoughtsandprayers"; ode to apathy and intolerance "If it Ain't Broke," and "Kidstrike!" which genuinely sees hope in today's youth.
Jim Bob has come a long way, sonically, since the '90s. and this is maybe his best-sounding album ever. The drum machines and cheap synths that were intrinsic to Carter USM's sound also trapped it in the amber of 1992; this record may be entirely rooted in 2020 but, musically, it's one that will still sound good in 20 years time. Barring the apocalypse of course.
Jim Bob does seem to have at least a little hope for the future. Vinyl copies of Pop Up Jim Bob come with a 2021 calendar.
Whitney - Candid (Secretly Canadian)
More than a lark: this album of well-considered covers works as a real Whitney album.
Whitney have always had a way with covers, perhaps coming out of necessity -- as they continued to tour for their first album, they didn't have enough songs to fill a headline set and had to supplement. Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, talented as they are, do not seem like the most prolific songwriters but they have a good ear for songs that fit their laid-back, wistful style and making them sound like they wrote them.
Playing to those strengths, they've now released Candid, a whole album of covers, which also marks the first record Kakacek and Ehrlich made using the full Whitney live band. A couple songs are maybe a little too on-the-nose, like John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads," a duet with Waxahatchee (though to be fair I am a WV native and have heard this song enough), but mostly the group pick songs from a road less traveled, or are at least outside of what you might expect. Like modern R&B. Their jazzy take on SWV's 1997 hit "Rain" and a spacious cover of Kingdom/Kelela's "Bank Head" are two of the best tracks on the record.
The rest of the record is a little more to their chill, twangy vibe but done with no less finesse. Their covers of The Roches' "Hammond Song" and Blaze Foley's "Rainbows and Ridges" are gorgeous, and their version of Damien Jurado's "A.M. A.M." really shows off Whitney's talent as arrangers. Covers albums can often feel like a lark, but they bring the same thoughtfulness and skill to this as they would their own songs, making for a worthy new Whitney album.
But, you know, now let's write some new songs.
Black Marble - I Must Be Living Twice (Sacred Bones)
More covers! This time for fans of synthwave. Not essential, but fun.
“About three years ago we started playing cover songs on stage, and a couple of unforeseen things started happening," says Black Marble's Chris Stewart of the idea behind this EP. "First off, people would ask me - not knowing it was a cover - when the new songs they heard were coming out on an upcoming Black Marble LP. Sadly, I’d have to tell them that a) I didn’t write the song, and b) me playing this new material was not evidence of the impending new release they were hoping for. The other thing that would sometimes happen is people would come up to me who already knew the songs I was playing. These people were stoked to hear an old favorite worked into our set, but again they would often wonder if they could ever hear them outside of the live setting."
Now we can hear them, as Black Marble has just put out an EP of covers, all in his minimal synthwave style. Unlike Whitney's covers album (see above in this same post), these hew much closer to the original product: Lives of Angels' "Golden Age" sounds like a blueprint for Black Marble's style; his version of Grouper's "Poison Tree" is a pretty mirror image; and Robert Palmer's pre-"Addicted to Love" single "Johnny and Mary" was already charming synthpop. (Todd Terje & Bryan Ferry's remake was much more radical.)
The other two tracks on I Must Be Living Twice are a little more interesting: Wire's 2015 single "In Manchester" might actually work better than the original with this synthier take; and The Field Mice's twee classic "Emma's House" does not suffer from the added oomph of Stewart's arrangement and vocals. This EP definitely falls more into that "lark" territory, but Stewart clearly loves all these songs and the covers are enjoyable but they're not essential.
Black Marble's Chris Stewart told us about his favorite cover songs by other artists which you can read here. PS: If you still need more covers, Tanya Donelly of Belly and Throwing Muses also put out a covers album with the Parkington Sisters today.
The Divine Comedy - Album Reissues & Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time box set (Divine Comedy Records)
Witty, erudite and whimsical singer-songwriter Neil Hannon looks back on 30 years of The Divine Comedy with very welcome vinyl reissues, and a big CD box set.
Neil Hannon has been making delightfully witty, baroque and decidedly British pop as The Divine Comedy for 30 years, having scored a number of UK hits in the '90s and '00s while being almost entirely unknown in the United States. The trio of 1993's Liberation, 1994's Promenade and 1996's Casanova are among my favorite album of that decade, with Hannon's foppy, melodramatic harpsichord rock recalling Scott Walker and Jacques Brel. (Also, Blur at their most whimsical/pastoral but he was doing it before them.) He's continued to make great records since -- as well as write theme music for Graham Linehan's Britcoms Father Ted and The IT Crowd -- including last year's Office Politics.
For The Divine Comedy's 30th anniversary, Hannon is reissuing his entire catalog with new vinyl editions and double-CD sets loaded with bonus cuts. This is great news for fans like me who look on Discogs periodically to see what ridiculous price Promenade is going for. In addition to the individual reissues, there's a CD box set titled Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time - Thirty Years of The Divine Comedy which, like the reissues, is out October 9. It contains a few things you can't get anywhere else, like the first Divine Comedy album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse -- which Hannon has said was him trying to be R.E.M. -- as well as a 2-disc compilation of early material from Hannon's personal archives, including recordings stretching back as early as 1984.
Most fans, though, will pick up a couple of the reissues, probably Casanova, which contained "Something for the Weekend" and two other hit UK singles, as well as "The Dogs and the Horses" which is the best song Hannon ever wrote and is one that never fails to get me right here [writer thumps chest]. Liberation is also fantastic, featuring one of the best songs about allergies ever written ("The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count") and the gorgeous baroque-gaze classic "Lucy." Promenade, meanwhile, is a wonderul concept album that follows a young couple on a day-long date to the seaside, and contains Hannon's second-best-ever song "Tonight We Fly" that also gets me right here.
All three albums are white whale reissues for me, and the rest of The Divine Comedy's catalogue is worth checking out too. If you're unfamiliar, you can sample The Divine Comedy's '90s peak via their A Secret History compilation:
There were supposed to be 30th Anniversary shows in London and Paris in September but those have been postponed till 2021. Hannon used to play NYC somewhat regularly in the mid-'90s and I have very fond memories of shows at Fez and CBGB Gallery. I do hope to get a chance to see him again.
Matthew Grimson - Prize For Writing (Murderecords)
Underrated, underheard and prolific Canadian singer songwriter gets a loving posthumous compilation of '90s four-tracks recordings with help from Sloan and Thrush Hermit.
Matthew Grimson was part of the Halifax alternative/indie scene of the '90s that gave us Sloan, Eric's Trip, Thrush Hermit, The Inbreds, and more. He was more around the fringes but those in the scene were fans, including Sloan's Chris Murphy and Andrew Scott, who both helped out recording and playing on some of Grimson's songs. One of those songs, "Stood Up," Sloan ended up covering on the "Live at a Sloan Party" bonus album that came with the US edition of One Chord to Another. Most of Matthew's music, though, was handed out via home-dubbed cassettes.
Matthew died in 2018 at age 50, and Chris Murphy and Thrush Hermit's Joel Plaskett went to visit Matthew's sister to see if the tapes they had recorded together still existed. They found those and dozen of other cassettes, as well as hard drives, full of songs. Plaskett remixed the songs from the 1995 four-track cassette sessions that featured Murphy, Scott and Superfriendz's Matt Murphy, and those make up this album, Prize for Writing, which is out as a joint release between Sloan's Murderecords and Plaskett's New Scotland Records.
Says Chris Murphy: "The songs range from hysterically funny to devastatingly sad. He is my absolute favourite lyricist and a great guitar player. Imagine someone who could write like Warren Zevon but who could have played guitar in The Stooges. As I write this I am realizing Matthew looked like a combination of Warren Zevon and Ron Asheton."
If you're a fan of Sloan or Eric's Trip or the Halifax scene, or '90s indie rock, this is a real lost treasure and includes Grimson's original "Stood Up" and 14 other great examples of his songwriting gift. "I wish this record had come out in 1995 because I wish Matthew was able to receive some recognition of his talent and hard work during his lifetime," says Murphy. "I also think that adding this document to the already impressive mid-90’s output from Halifax makes that era even more impressive. I hope that enough people turn onto this record that it warrants releasing more of his material because he is a treasure and there is a big box of cassettes and hard drives that I would love to see the light of day."
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.