Bill’s Indie Basement (5/22): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Happy Memorial Day Weekend, whatever that means now. I will be spending it mostly inside, like all days for the last two months, contemplating cutting my own hair while watching Bon Appétit videos. (Maybe you have a backyard and can still have a cookout. Jealous.) Before all that I've got this week's edition of Indie Basement, featuring: Strange to Explain, the new album from Woods, one of the most reliable bands of the last 10 years; Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess delivers his fifth and most unusual solo album yet; former Hefner frontman Darren Hayman returns to his forte (breakup songs); Badly Drawn Boy is back with his first album in eight years; and Toronto's Marker Starling enlists The High Lamas' Sean O'Hagan and Stereolab members for his smooth new album.
Need more new album reviews? Andrew looks at the new Jeff Rosenstock, Old Man Gloom and more in Notable releases. Need more Basement approved stuff? New Zealand's Bailterspace are back; Purling Hiss' Mike Polizze is prepping a solo album made with Kurt Vile; Sloan touring keyboardist (and LIfter Puller member) Gregory Macdonald made a cool synth album as Cola Wars; and Hunx's Seth Bogart has a new album on the way.
Whatever you're doing this holiday weekend, enjoy it maybe while listening to one of these albums. Read this week's reviews below.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Woods - Strange to Explain (Woodsist)
Another terrific album from one of the most reliable bands of the last decade.
Woods have had a tumultuous last year or so. Frontman Jeremy Earl moved to Hudson, NY to focus on his newborn daughter, while guitarist and sonic mastermind Jarvis Taveniere moved, like so many other Brooklynites, to Los Angeles to further his in-demand production career. Taveniere and Earl also ended up producing David Berman's fantastic Purple Mountains album, with the rest of Woods playing on it too. Taveniere was set to be Purple Mountains bandleader for their summer 2019 tour...which never happened as Berman took his own life just days before the tour was about to start.
Right before the tour, Woods got together to record what would become Strange to Explain, the band's terrific 11th album. It might be hard, initially, to listen without thinking of what happened after it was made but, like most of their records, it's an album full of sunny music, beaming with hope. Those darker thoughts burn off pretty quick. Woods albums always sound a bit like they were made in the actual woods, but this one -- made at Panoramic House studio just north of San Francisco -- really radiates that West Coast vibe. Part of that comes from John Andrews and Kyle Forrester's keyboards, favoring warm instruments like electric piano, mellotron and vintage organs which leaven already buoyant songs like "Before They Pass By," "Fell So Hard," and the album's wonderful first single "Where Do You Go When You Dream?"
Like most of their records, groove is a huge part of the Woods equation on Strange to Explain, and some of the most transcendent moments on the album come when they stretch out, let the very capable rhythm section take over and jam on a riff. For example: dig the second half of the fuzzy, feisty "Can't Get Up," a song about overcoming self-doubt that sails on distorted bass and Earl's falsetto harmonies, and "Fell So Hard," which motors along a krautrock-friendly beat. Then there's "Weekend Wind," the fantastic, jazzy, instrumental that closes the album on a wave of bongos, vibraphone and trumpet. The jamming never takes over the songs, though, which is where the real Woods magic may lie: both sides know when to politely cede control to the other... for just long enough.
Tim Burgess - I Love the New Sky (Bella Union)
The Charlatans frontman's fifth solo album is playful and unlike any record he's made before.
Tim Burgess is best known as frontman for Manchester group The Charlatans, who have for the last 30 years chiseled out a distinctive, danceable brand of Brit rock heavy on Stones-y riffs and Hammond organ. He explores other music he loves, though, on his solo records that pull influence from folk, country, avant garde, electronic music and more. I Love the New Sky is Burgess' fifth solo record and his most playful yet, mixing string-laden baroque folk with oddball glam (Sparks and Eno) and soft rock, while lyrically looking for the magical in the mundane. Helping out here are a couple cool, unusual musicians: Julian Cope collaborator Thighpaulsandra and Daniel O'Sullivan of The Grumbling Fur. It's the kind of record where wailing fire escape saxophone might drift in at one point ("Sweet Old Sorry Me"), or bloopy synths and twin-lead guitars soundtrack a trip to "The Mall." Tim's never made a record quite like this before and, while some of his peers are happy resting on their laurels, it's great to hear him do something this creative and fun.
Marker Starling - High January (Tin Angel)
Canadian singer-songwriter Chris A. Cummings drafts High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier for this album of smooth, '70s-style pop.
Toronto singer-songwriter Chris A. Cummings has been making self-described "Melancholy Party Jams" for 20 years now, first as Mantler, and now as Marker Starling. He's got the kind of voice perfect for it and a gentle keyboard-style to match. His new record, High January, really takes that style to the next level, working in tropicalia and Burt Bacharach-isms, and the "bah bah bah" choruses go down even smoother now. To achieve this, he enlisted the help of High Llamas svengali and frequent Stereolab collaborator Sean O'Hagan to produce the album. Cummings headed to England to make it, recording at Stereolab drummer Andy Ramsay's Press Play studios, with the Lab's Laetitia Sadier on hand to sing on a few tracks. “In the late nineties, between The High Llamas and Stereolab no one else was making better-sounding evocations of past styles without falling into pastiche,” Cummings says. “Mainly because of the way they mashed those styles and eras together. To me it was astonishing the way both bands used vintage instruments and recording techniques and - crucially - seemed to adapt the very ideals of a previous age, to evoke the past while creating something original.”
Cummings calls High January his ode to "pastness," which succeeds in evoking an era without copying it, exactly, while also not really sounding like a High Llamas or Stereolab record either, though you can 100% feel O'Hagan's touch. This is the epitome of "breezy," with a sound that evokes the tans and oranges of the '70s like a magical warm autumn afternoon. The whole album is a lovely listen, but the two songs that Sadier sings on are especially good, both lightly funky and engaging, in a Boz Scaggs meets Sergio Mendes sort of way. Of those, "Waiting for Grace," with its chorus of "a little live music never let me down," is the real hit here. In a time where we're stuck inside too much, High January is a nice beam of sunshine.
Darren Hayman - Home Time / I Can Travel Through Time (Fika)
The former Hefner frontman gets back to doing what he does best -- breakup songs.
Indiepop cult hero Darren Hayman has spent the years since Hefner called it quits breaking out of the lovelorn pigeonhole he put himself in. He's written songs about astronauts, the Wu-Tang Clan, submerged himself in Thankful Villages (about the 55 villages that survived the Great War with no casualties), and other subjects. While those are all very good, Darren is always at his most effective as a songwriter and singer when dealing with matters of the heart. That brings us to Home Time, which is an album entirely of breakup songs. Hayman has no problem laying his feelings bare, wallowing, or making himself look bad, but his sense of humor and way with a melody keep things from being a downer. Hayman is a relatable mess on songs like "I Want to Get Drunk," "The Joint Account" and "Because We Were Impossible" and Australian artists Hannah Winter and Laura K provide vocal counterpoint and instrumental assistance. Sometimes you need to hear about someone else's problems to make you feel better about your own, and Hayman is especially good at that, leaving you humming in the process.
As a companion piece to Home Time, Hayman also released I Can Travel Through Time -- 23 songs that were each less than a minute long and released on one 33 RPM 7" single. (Do he and Stephin Merritt know each other?) "When I’m hurt I want to be small," Hayman says. "I want to be unnoticed. During the making of Home Time I was imposing restrictions on myself to make the music smaller, limiting to 8 track, acoustic instruments." They're all also breakup songs. Favorite sad sack song title: "Are You Still My Password?"
Badly Drawn Boy - Banana Skin Shoes (AWAL)
While some of his old spark is still audible, Damon Gough's first Badly Drawn Boy album in eight years unfortunately finds him slipping
"It's time to break free from this plaster cast and leave your world behind," Damon Gough sings on "Banana Skin Shoes," the title track of his ninth album as Badly Drawn Boy and first in eight years. Maybe he is talking about himself here, and it does sound like he's leaving the world we associate him with behind, as the track is the kind of slick, shiny, kitchen-sink funk you associate with Beck. Knowing when to say when has always been an issue with Gough and unfortunately here it gets the best of him. There is probably a good album here somewhere; Gough still has a way with a melody and his distinctive voice sounds great as ever, but the gleaming, in-your-face production on so much of this drowns out the good. For example: "Tony Wilson Said," which is about the late founder of Factory Records, is given an '70s/'90s R&B treatment that mostly sounds like the Diff'rent Strokes theme. There are a few songs here that capture the magic of the Badly Drawn Boy we loved on The Hour of the Bewilderbeast and the About a Boy soundtrack -- "You And Me Against The World" and "Note To Self" are both catchy and understated while "Fly on the Wall" works as '70s disco rock -- but too much of this is just "too much."
Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.