Bill’s Indie Basement (9/13): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Friday the 13th may be unlucky for some but for you Indie Basement it is an embarrassment of riches. Some weeks this column is obscure but here is a cornucopia of (relative) heavy hitters: Metronomy's best record in almost a decade; Pernice Brothers' first record in almost a decade; crucial reissues from Stereolab and Super Furry Animals; SFA frontman Gruff Rhys' new solo album; and last but not least Belle & Sebastian!
This week is especially overloaded with notable releases, and thankfully Andrew's Notable Releases reviews a few things I'm not, including the new Chelsea Wolfe. Also out this week are records I like by Kazu of Blonde Redhead, Alex Cameron, (Sandy) Alex G, Twin Peaks, and Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier. Also, Jarvis Cocker's awesome single "Must I Evolve?" is out on 12" today with a remix by David Holmes & Keefus Ciancia (Unloved).
Joe Mount, who is Metronomy for all intents and purposes, said that 2016's Summer '08 was intended as a return to the "having fun" spirit of their 2008 album Nights Out. It was fun, but I think this loose, anything-goes new double album is much more successful in that regard, and has a much higher hit count as well. Surprisingly, Mount has also said that Metronomy Forever was, initially, not as much fun to make. Things started while he was working on Robyn's Honey and the original version of this album was, in his words, not very good. He ended up going back to earlier versions of many of the songs, and then added more tracks, resulting in the group's longest record to date at 17 songs and 51 minutes. The finished product? Mount says it's Metronomy's best.
I'm not ready to make any sweeping declarations like that but I do think it's at least their best since The English Riviera. There's a casualness here that reminds me of Nights Out (my favorite album of 2008), but Mount is a much more skilled producer now, so even when it sounds like he's not trying hard, there are still more ideas in songs like "Whitesand Bay" than in some pop band's whole albums. It's that vibe that allows for a song like "Sex Emoji," and it's "honey/money" rhyme scheme chorus (sung in a wild falsetto), to work gloriously while being entirely stupid at the same time. It's just fun.
'Metronomy Forever' is full of moments like that, including "Salted Caramel Ice Cream" which matches innuendo-laden food metaphors with a "Funkytown Beat," and "Lately," which Mount says was inspired by, uh, Twenty One Pilots and is a song I hated at first but have really come around to. "Lately" also has a lot of guitar on it, as does much of the album, which is welcome, especially when melted in with all the synths and drum machines. It feels like more of a rock record than Love Letters (which eschewed laptops for "real instruments" and analog tape) and allows for chunky new wave numbers like "Insecurity" and "Wedding Bells," and synth-folk lament "Upset My Girlfriend."
There are also two great instrumentals ("Forever is a Long Time," "Miracle Rooftop") and the very laid back, slightly reggae-tinged "Walking in the Dark" which might be their best single since "The Look." Mount has admitted he's "jealous of bands that I see as being in the same orbit as us getting played [on the radio]" and I sometimes wonder why they're not more popular, too. Perhaps Metronomy are just too quirky, or people think of them that way, though his pop smarts helped make Robyn's album a hit. It's certainly not from lack of tunes and I hope they continue making records as good as this one. Metronomy Forever -- let that be a promise.
Metronomy are flying over to play Brooklyn's Rough Trade on September 28, which is their most intimate show since playing Union Hall in 2008. (Sold out, but Rough Trade often has tickets at the door the night of, worth a swing by.) It's also the same night as a million other great shows, including Stereolab at Brooklyn Steel. Speaking of...
Now we're really into the good stuff with these Stereolab reissues, hitting that period when the band were really firing on all cylinders. Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots & Loops are my two favorite 'Lab albums, and they also mark the start of their collaborative relationship with Tortoise's John McEntire, whose influence changed the direction of the band significantly. It was also the era when Sean O'Hagan of High Llamas was a de facto member of the group, lending his distinctive string and horn arrangements (and vibraphone skills) to make for a distinctive sound.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup, like Mars Audiac Quintet, found the band between the early era (loud, distorted, droney) and their later era when jazzy lounge music and more complex arrangements became the norm. But the songs were better across-the-board than on Mars, and you could feel they were heading in new territory from opening track "Metronomic Underground," which managed to be funky and droney. Or, as Tim Gane puts it in the liner notes, the track epitomized their new approach that McEntire helped foster, "a shift from a drone style repetition into one of interconnecting and looping riffs." ETK is filthy with classics: The Mellotron-heavy, dreamy "Cybele's Reverie," the manic bassline-led "Percolator," the poppy "Les Yper Sound," "Spark Plug," with Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's interconnecting vocals, and "The Noise of Carpet," one of their best-ever rock songs.
It was Dots & Loops, though, where everything changed. McEntire introduced this fiercely analogue band to the magic of digital recording and ProTools, where one measure could be instantly looped forever, and pieces could be rearranged like blocks. Says Gane: "digital audio recording seemed like a child’s toy, making lots of little loops of the bass, guitar and the drum parts, not having to play everything through from beginning to end, plopping things in where you wanted them and moving things around to see how it sounded. We loved it!" Even though the album was recorded with two different producers in two different studios -- John McEntire in Chicago, and Mouse on Mars in Düsseldorf -- the magic of the new process made Dots & Loops their most cohesive sounding album since probably Peng!.
Dots & Loops also presented a sleeker, more danceable Stereolab, but in their own unique way. While they'd already made a record called Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, this was really that title's realization; groovy, futuristic and retro all at the same time, with just a million great little sonic things going on all over the place. It's also their most cinematic album, with songs getting a little open-curtains intro to reveal the most widescreen sounds, be it the perfect cosmic pop of "Miss Modular," the harpsichords-and-harmonies of "The Flower Called Nowhere," the rolling bassline, lush strings and "ahhhhhh" breakdown of "Rainbow Conversation," the amazing, four-part, 17-minute "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" (which I used to play on jukeboxes because of the bang-for-the-buck), and the stomping krautrock disco of album-closer "Contronatura." (The song titles, like "Brackhage" and "The Flower Called Nowhere," were also cinema references.) I even like the jungle-y "Parsec." While even the best Stereolab albums tend to run out of gas by the end, Dots and Loops holds my attention the whole way through still today. Their masterwork.
For Dots & Loops' follow-up, Stereolab made the whole thing in Chicago, but still with two different producers: McEntire and also Jim O'Rourke. To further switch things up, they kept the digital recording process, but recorded without a click track. Gane says, "This decision had a big influence on the way the LP sounded, lending the music a freer, looser feel but still allowing us the same amount of control of editing and arrangement possibilities." Unfortunately, Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night feels meandering, overstuffed, and has them both navel-gazing and treading water. Despite it's rep -- NME gave it a 0/10 with the headline "GANE OVER" -- it is still pretty good, and I liked it a lot more listening this time around than when I first heard it 20 years ago. There are a number of great songs -- "The Free Design," which works in ABBA's "Dancing Queen," and the gentle, carefree "Come and Play in the Milky Night" -- but Cobra and Phases can be tough going for the casual fan.
All three of these reissues come with loads of bonus tracks in the form of alternate takes, unused songs and demos. To me the most interesting are the Dots & Loops demos because you can hear the more conventional roots of songs that would be taken in wonderful new directions in the studio.
Also: Stereolab's North American tour starts soon.
Do you miss the early days of Belle & Sebastian when Stuart Murdoch was a shy, bookish indie dreamboy (as opposed to the confident, crowd-pleasing but still kinda bookish indie frontman he is today) and the group wrote gentle, folky pop? Then you're probably going to like the group's soundtrack for new film Days of The Bagnold Summer which is from director Simon Bird (who you may know from starring in The Inbetweeners) and based on Joff Winterheart's graphic novel of the same name. “There’s a difference between scoring and an LP and this film plays to our strengths,” Murdoch told The Wrap. “The process was that I looked at the comic novel and I just so happened to be listening to some really old tapes of mine. It just felt that the atmosphere of the story and old tapes went together.”
The album features newly recorded (but not changed too much) versions of two old B&S songs -- “Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying,” from 1996's If You’re Feeling Sinister, and “I Know Where The Summer Goes,” from 1998's This Is Just a Modern Rock Song EP -- as well as "Safety Valve," a song by Murdoch that predates the band by a couple years but could've fit on Tigermilk or Sinister. The rest of the new songs are in a similar style and it's nice to hear them working this way again: "Sister Buddha" is one of their better singles in a while, and the jazzy "This Letter" and delicate, baroque "Did The Day Go Just Like You Wanted?" show that less if often more when it comes to Belle & Sebastian.* There are a few instrumental score pieces that are lovely -- "Jill Pole" is wistful, like Mancini by way of Morricone -- but most folks will probably skip. Belle & Sebastian will probably go bigger for their next record but it's nice to hear them return, every once in a while, to the sound that made us fall in love with them in the first place.
*I should say Belle & Sebastian can do big really well too, as the Trevor Horn produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress showed. Also one of my favorite B&S songs ever is "You're Cover's Blown," which is one of their biggest, craziest songs.
Few songwriters of the last 20 years have been better at literate, melancholy pop that Joe Pernice, who manages a tightrope balance complex melodies that sound effortless, lyrics that balance feeling with a dark sense of humor, and production and arrangements that aren't afraid to steal from the masters. Any new Joe Pernice record -- be it solo, Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline, New Mendicants, Roger Lion -- is cause for celebration, but when he puts the Pernice Brothers stamp on it, you know he means business. After a long absence and with not too much advance warning, here we are with Spread the Feeling, the first Pernice Brothers album in nine years.
As he's done since 2003's Yours, Mine & Ours, Joe is making classic jangly power-pop that cribs from, among other sources, Brian Wilson, The Beatles, The Zombies, Alex Chilton, Bread, New Order and The Smiths. It's his ability to cram an insane amount of hooks into a three-minute song that really sets him apart -- he is the master of the middle eighth -- that and the contrast between his sad, darkly witty lyrical style and his featherlight voice and harmonies. All of that is on full display on Spread the Feeling right from the start with "Mint Condition," which rivals "Big Brown Eyes" by The dB's in the hooks-per-second department. It's not even the album's best song! That award probably goes to instant classic "The Devil and the Jinn," which features Neko Case's instantly recognizable vocals, and is about dismantling the idea of love songs. (He plays Devil's Advocate, too, admitting that while love may be "a silver-tongued huckster" you don't want to let it pass you by, either.) Almost as good: the chiming "Skinny Jeanne" and "Always in All Ways," the post-punky "Lullabye" and "Throw Me to the Lions," and mopey ballad "Evidently So." With guitarist Peyton Pinkerton back in the fold -- not to mention help from Ric Menck, Pete Yorn and James Walbourne -- Spread the Feeling is also a more cohesive Pernice Brothers album than 2010's Goodbye Killer and the best in even longer than that. I hope it won't be another nine years till the next.
Some 25 years into his career, Gruff Rhys still manages to bring something new to every record, whether it's with Super Furry Animals, Neon Neon, or his solo work. He also manages to do this while always sounding like himself, which is no easy feat. Following last year's terrific Babelsburg, which took a look at our relationship with technology, he's back with this album that pairs him with South African electronic artist Muzi who Gruff met on Damon Albarn’s traveling world music collective Africa Express. Gruff wrote the basic songs, which Muzi then remixed and reworked, sometimes stripping away everything but the vocals before building the songs back up. It's a record unlike any he's made before, but perhaps that is a redundant statement.
Pang! is also Rhys' most modern sounding record since the heyday of SFA when they were regularly pushing boundaries of pop and rock. Muzi's production, with its minimal beats, tropical rhythms, cut-and-paste style and fondness for melodic percussion instruments, really lifts Gruff's songs. "Ôl Bys / Nodau Clust" mixes electronic hand claps, electric harpsichord, waspy buzzes and Gruff's minor key harmonies brilliantly. There's a laptop flamenco vibe to the wonderful "Bae Bae Bae," and you could almost imagine the horn-filled "Digidigol" being blasted in a Brooklyn bodega. Except that "Digidigol," and the whole album, is in Welsh. There's enough going on with the production that you may not notice the language barrier at first, but I do wish I knew what he was singing about, as I have no doubt it is fascinating.
Gruff wraps up his North American tour this weekend in L.A. Go see him, always great.
Speaking of the heyday of Super Furry Animals, 1999's Guerrilla is right in the creative bullseye of a band that I think, album for album, was the best group from 1995-2005 when you're talking innovation and enjoyment. I am partial to 1997's Radiator, but 1999's Guerilla is up there. Like Stereolab on Dots and Loops, this album found the band further folding electronics into their sound, to great effect. (Also like Dots & Loops, Guerrilla employs the arrangement skills of Sean O'Hagan.) Working at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios with a sizable budget from Creation Records (who'd go belly-up just a few months after this was out), SFA took a real kitchen sink approach to the record, from their own psyched-out brand of punk ("Do or Die," "Night Vision"), soaring spacerock anthems ("Turning Tide," "Fire in My Heart"), psych epics ("Chewing Chewing Gum') and bonkers pop (the mariachi-and-steel-drum-fueled "Northern Lites" and stomping album-closer "Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy"). All of it worked, as did those experiments with sampling and electronics, like the vocoder tropicalia of "The Door to This House Remains Open" and the forward thinking (for 1999) "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)."
The band's creative streak would continue through the all-Welsh Mwng, the very high-tech Rings Around the World and Phantom Power, but Guerrilla was Super Furry Animals at their giddiest. This 20th anniversary reissue has been remastered from the original tapes and comes as a double vinyl album in a gatefold, pop-up jacket, while the CD version comes with b-sides from the era, and a second disc of demos and rough mixes. They're out November 1. The album's not officially on streaming services but here's a YouTube playlist that includes the "Fire in My Heart" video that was made with the folks at ILM.