Bill’s Indie Basement (11/2): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
There are almost no guitars this week in Indie Basement. Lots of synthesizers, drums, bass, but no guitars. (Not much at least). What we do have though is one of my favorite albums of the year -- the brilliantly bonkers audiobooks LP -- plus the absolutely striking debut single from London's POZI, plus reissues from one group of '80s synthpop survivors (OMD) and a new album from another (Blancmange), as well as some killer Norwegian space disco via Bjorn Torske. Let's just jump right in, shall we?
Where to start with this crazy, amazing album that consumed about 60% of my listening time in October? audiobooks are fine arts student and musician Evangeline Ling and David Wrench, who is one of the most in-demand mixing engineers around. (His CV includes everyone from Frank Ocean and fka Twigs to Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Let’s Eat Grandma.) They met at a party, Ling showed Wrench some of her short stories that she had been writing on her phone, and he thought it would be interesting to set them to music. She came by his studio and audiobooks (that's a lower case 'a') were born. Their debut single, "Gothenburg," only hinted at what was to come, though. This record is bonkers: part synthpop, part spoken word character studies/short stories, and across-the-board brilliant.
The magic of this record lies almost entirely with Ling whose fascinating, often funny lyrics are equaled with what I can only call an incredible, all-in vocal performance. This is exemplified by “Dance Your Life Away” where she comes off a bit like Melanie Griffith in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild -- a manic pixie femme fatale who you meet by chance and drags you to an insane party where she then refuses to let you stop dancing even though you fear you're going to be strangled by her psychotic ex husband. When she starts yelling “WE’RE GONNA GO GET OUR LEGS WAXED! AND OUR ARMPITS WAXED! AND OUR VAGINAS WAXED! YEAHHH! LET’S GO! DO IT DO IT DO IT NOW!!!” -- all set to a maddening, Latin-flavored disco beat -- you really start to wonder was this a big mistake? But you keep on dancing.
Ling is going even more mental on the utterly demented “Dealing with Hoarders,” which she says was written in response to roommates who may have had a problem with throwing things away. She sounds possessed, shrieking “You make my head sweat” and later chanting “Charge forward into India!” while militant beat and distorted synths pound along. I have no idea what she’s on about, but her performance is undeniable. “Womanly Blood,” meanwhile, asks “Where does all the womanly blood go up in space?” which crescendos with giant drums courtesy Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa.
Whether it’s more out-there tracks like that or the more “normal” pop songs (and I’ll get to those) Ling is really giving it her all, in an almost improvised, off-the-cuff way. Wrench is apparently a big fan of first-take-is-the-best-take, a style he learned from working with Julian Cope, where mistakes can be magical. That even comes through on the pretty tale of infatuation, “It Get Be So Swansea.” In it, a girl is obsessed with a muscle-bound guy even though she knows he doesn’t have much else to offer her. "All of his children...he's got 17!," she exclaims before continuing, which is one of my favorite bits on the album, "And they don't like science, they only took up P.E!" which Ling absolutely belts out through some severe autotune. I am not a fan of even subtle autotune, but I love this.
As I said, there are things that pass for normal pop songs on Now! (in a minute), including two that clearly owe a big debt to The Human League’s Dare, specifically “Don’t You Want Me.” Both have Ling trading lines with Wrench who, in a tip-of-the-hat, actually sings “that much is true” on the voyeuristic, sitar-flavored “Hot Salt,” which features some of the most sublime production on the LP. The other one, “Friends in the Bubblebath,” is the best song on the record, an infectious bit of synthpop that makes a plea for platonic bubblebath-taking between friends. “It’s not a big deal, can’t you see? Just you and me, nothing sexy,” she cries out as Wrench’s synthpop spumante airates the proceedings.
What else? There are a couple very funny, straight-up short-story songs, “Grandma Jimmy” told from the POV of posh, condescending dowager type, and, even better, “Call of the Duty Free” where a girl suprises her upper-class parents by bringing a frowned-upon boyfriend on their family vacation. Ling also sounds a little like Bjork on the chilled out “Period Talk” and the dramatic, impassioned obsessive unrequited love song, “Pebbles.”
It’s hard to not just talk about Evangeline Ling, as outsized a presence as she has here, but Wrench’s backing is just loaded with clever touches, great sounding analogue synthesizers, like the aforementioned "Hot Salt" and the alluring album opener “Mother Hen” and its perfect, minimal skittering percussion. He mostly stays out of Ling’s way, but always gives her a compelling platform for what she does.
Trying to describe this entirely original album and duo is a real dancing-about-architecture moment, but we also live in a world where I can stop going on and you can just listen for yourself which I really, really think you should do:
Audiobooks are by all reports a knockout live -- they opened for Jarvis Cocker in London on Halloween -- and North America will find out next year, as they're slated to play SXSW.
Still led by Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, and still making very good records, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year (their first gig was in 1978 at legendary Liverpool club, Eric's). For that, they've just reissued their first four albums on vinyl, which is the first time they've been in print since the '80s. They've done a really impressive job with these both in the audio and packaging: the LPs were all half-speed mastered at Abbey Road, and feature meticulous recreations of the original die-cut sleeves designed by the great Peter Saville (best known for his work with Joy Division and New Order).
Heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, OMD established themselves at the forefront of synthpop with their classic debut single, "Electricity," which also set the template for their sound, which mixed then very modern keyboards and rhythm boxes with live drums and bass. Plus, McCluskey and Humphreys were ace pop songwriters as tracks like "Messages" (off their self-titled debut), "Enola Gay" (from Organization), "Joan of Arc" and "Souvenir" (from Architecture & Morality) and "Genetic Engineering" and "Telegraph" (from Dazzle Ships) all prove. The Big Pop era and John Hughes soundtracks were still to come, and these four are all still when OMD were still just a bit odd and really sounded like the future. Maybe too odd in the case of Dazzle Ships which, apart from the artwork, I'm not crazy about (it is very gimmicky), but the first three all really hold up with Architecture & Morality being the best of the bunch (and maybe their best album, period). You can sample them all:
London trio POZI sound like they could've played on the same bill as OMD at Eric's in 1978. Though there isn't a keyboard to be found (or a guitar for that matter), the group's minimal, slightly paranoid sound would've fit right in. What really makes POZI stand out is violinist Rosa Brook whose style is more drony atmosphere than what you might normally think of with strings. On their just-released debut single, "KCTMO," her violin almost sounds like a distant police siren which, paired with the moody bassline and motorik groove, adds a pronounced air of dread. Appropriate, as the song is about London's horrific Grenfell Tower fire disaster last year in May where 72 people died (by all accounts, senselessly) and its ensuing scandal. "I wrote this sitting with a guitar the day after the fire, feeling intensely numb," says drummer/vocalist Toby Burroughs. It's an intensely angry song aimed at the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and the Powers That Be ("The State shrugs its shoulders, it has no words to say...pencil pushers oversee from afar, crossing names off the register"), ending with a repeated, plaintive refrain of "May the residents rest in peace." The song's video was shot near the tower, on deserted streets. It's a powerful, compelling calling card from a band I can't wait to hear more from.
Blancmange were synthpop contemporaries of OMD, having scored UK hits with somewhat over-the-top but nonetheless enjoyable singles "Living on the Ceiling" and "Don't Tell Me." The group, who were named after the desert (and not the aliens from one of the best, longest Monty Python sketches ever) threw in the chips in 1986 after three records but principles Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe reformed Blancmange in the late '00s and released Blac Burn in 2011. Lascombe bowed out, due to health concerns after that, but Arthur has been releasing Blancmange records on his own since, and has now released seven LPs since reviving the name, including a complete rerecording of their debut album, Happy Families, and the just-released Wanderlust.
Wanderlust is Arthur's third album with co-producer, arranger and mixer Benge and manages to sound modern while keeping that Blancmange sound (aka classic '80s style Brit synthpop). It's not an easy feat, and "In Your Room," "Not a Priority," and Wanderlust's title track are all great pop songs. Arthur doesn't belt it out like he did on "Living on the Ceiling" (definitely not a bad thing) but his voice has mellowed with age, as has the music. The production sounds great, with all the great synth sounds but without the Big '80s bombast. While Arthur remains a wry lyricist, it's somewhat ironic that, for a group as associated with technology as Blancmange are, Wanderlust is obsessed with the perils of smartphones and social media, staying sane and happy while seeing "the pretence of a normal world being erased" on songs like "I Smashed Your Phone" and the John Lennon-esque "Talking to Machines." It's a dichotomy that makes Wanderlust all the more modern.
Since the late '90s, Norwegian house producer Bjorn Torske specialized is an airy, pastoral brand of space disco, as likely to include warm, analogue synth washes as funky clavinet. He has stayed busy since his 1998 solo debut, Nedi Myra, including a collaborative album with his Smalltown Supersound labelmate Prinz Thomas last year, but hasn't released an album on his own since 2010's Kokning. He finally returned this summer with Byen, his most overtly dancefloor-oriented album in ages that's been a real grower for me, one that I initially merely liked but has crept up to regular rotation.
Though this is Torske's first album in eight years, it was written and recorded relatively quickly, all last year. "My original idea was to keep things simple and more driven by melodies than has been my wont with the earlier releases," he said. "Still, I am always considering myself to produce music for DJs, so there is hopefully some material that will find its way to select dance floors." Mission accomplished, Bjorn, as the record has two absolute stunners: "Clean Air," which sounds like its name, soaring above a forest, light and jazzy with a synth hook that sounds like late-'80s New Order; and "Gata," which is much more blatant in its desire to make you boogie, armed with congas, big disco bass, and clavinet. Warm synths swell and then, about halfway through the eight-minute track, we get a male choir of "Ahhhhhs" that really sends it over the edge for me.
There's also the proggy "Fanfatas," the effervescent "Chord Control" (which is reminiscent of fellow Norwegians Royksopp), and the harder funk of "Night Call" which plays out of "Gata." Byen is bookended by two ambient pieces that acclimate you in and out of the club. I don't do a lot of clubbing these days, but Byen gets a lot of play walking around the city and folding the laundry (when I am most likely to be dancing in 2018).