Bill’s Indie Basement (6/12): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
The world continues to be upended on a minute-by-minute basis which is not a bad thing at all, yet records are still coming out. This week: Savages singer Jehnny Beth's surprising, sometimes powerful solo debut; Built to Spill's lovely Daniel Johnston tribute album; oOoOO and Islamiq Grrrls combine forces as Drab City and make a great trip-hop album; and former Let's Wrestle frontman Wesley Gonzalez heads further into pop territory on his second solo album. Plus: I play catch-up with recent releases from Lithics and Ladybug Transistor's Gary Olson.
If you need more new album reviews, Andrew looks at Ian MacKaye's new band Coriky and more in Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved music: Tricky's new single is very good; as is Jarvis Cocker's; and I'm becoming more of a Billy Nomates fan with every single.
Finally, this longtime (too long) Williamsburg resident is really going to miss Snacky (and not just because they let me program their old iPod).
Head below for this week's reviews.
Jehnny Beth - To Love is To Live (Domino)
The Savages singer goes solo with help from Flood, Atticus Ross, and The xx's Romy Madley Croft. Sleek, stylish and occasionally powerful.
Savages pretty much had it all. The style, the sound, the attitude, the onstage prowess...everything except the tunes. As much as I loved to see them live, I'm not sure I could name you more than five Savages songs. (My two favorite -- "Husbands" and the Bunnymen-esque "Flying to Berlin" -- are both on their debut single.) Frontwoman Jehnny Beth always seemed primed for the spotlight and now she's got it on her confident and sometimes powerful solo debut. She told the NY Times that David Bowie's Blackstar, with its sense of one last chance to say something, was a big influence here, saying she worked on the record "as if I was going to die." It worked out well, as To Love is to Live has some of her most memorable songs to date.
Jehnny Beth has a lot of very talented musicians and producers at her disposal, including Flood, Atticus Ross, and her partner Johnny Hostile, as well as Joe Talbot of IDLES, Romy Madley Croft of The xx, and actor Cillian Murphy. None of them threaten to overshadow Jehnny Beth who feels in full control here. Working without the constraints of a band pays off, allowing her to explore new sounds and styles that compliment her voice and persona. The brash, explosive "I'm the Man," originally on the Peaky Blinders soundtrack, is pretty much the only song you could imagine her singing with Savages. It's industrial blues, with drill bits flying in the stereo mix as if the song was being built by robots, with only a brief piano interlude to provide respite.
The rest of To Love is To Live is more atmospheric and sensual. "Flower," about a pole dancer at LA strip club Jumbo’s Clown Room, is a gothy grinder set to a trap beat where she wonders "How come we can’t get closer?" "Heroine," meanwhile, flies quick and close to the surface, lifted by airy horns, driven by throbbing bass and skittering production (courtesy Croft), and featuring an outstanding vocal performance. "We Will Sin Together" is a lush garden of earthly delights, albeit in an urban setting with the sounds of cars and birds bustling in the background.
To Love is To Live is a deliberately paced and constructed album with songs flowing seamlessly into the next, with interludes as connective tissue. Once you notice it, the transitions are particularly impressive. Murphy's spoken word piece "A Place Above" serves as an intro into "I'm the Man," which then elegantly settles into high drama piano ballad "The Rooms." All of To Love is To Live works in similar sleek, sophisticated -- and often lusty -- ways. Hopefully it will not be the last record Jehnny Beth makes, but also hopefully she'll bring the same sense of urgency to whatever is next.
Built to Spill plays the songs of Daniel Johnston (Ernest Jenning Record Co)
The title mostly says it all, but Built to Spill keep things charmingly low key on this album of Daniel Johnston songs.
In 2017 Built To Spill were invited to play a few shows as Daniel Johnston's back up band as part of his final tour. (It was billed as such, and we lost Daniel in 2019.) Rehearsing the songs before joining up with Daniel, Built to Spill liked what they came up with so much that they decided to record the songs as a tribute, saying "this is what those rehearsals sounded like."
Most of Johnston's original recordings are so basic, so sparse, that they are extremely malleable, capable of bending nearly any way an interpreter might want. But they were rehearsing for Daniel Johnston shows, not Built to Spill shows, so Doug Martsch, Jason Albertini, and Steve Gere kept things as simple as possible. No indie guitar heroics, no extended jams, no solos. (They also avoid some of Johnston's most famous songs, but there are enough versions of "Speeding Motorcycle" out there already.) The result is a terrific indiepop album, where Johnston's songs really shine, and this is up there with Kathy McCarty's 1994 album Dead Dog's Eyeball as the best DJ tribute out there.
Drab City - Good Songs for Bad People (Bella Union)
Witch house survivor oOoOO and Islamiq Grrrls combine forces on their beguiling debut as Drab City. Trip hop fans take note, this is good.
I'm not sure whether trip hop is having resurgence, or my love for it has made a resurgence. In either case, I'm here for it and so are duo Drab City who just released their beguiling debut for Bella Union. Though they're trying to be enigmatic and anonymous (but not trying that hard), Drab City are are in fact Witch House survivor oOoOO and Berlin-based Bosnian-Muslim artist Islamiq Grrrls. They first collaborated on oOoOO's 2018 album Faminine Mystique and then decided to give this its own name.
Good Songs for Bad People would make a great soundtrack for whatever is way, way past your bedtime, with it's dark and sultry grooves and late night tales of "social alienation, violent revenge, and (perhaps) romantic love as salvation." I haven't delved into the lyrical content too much, honestly, but you get where they're coming from just from the song titles -- "Live Free And Die When It's Cool," "Troubled Girl," "Standing Where You Left Me" -- and the gorgeous, intoxicating music.
The whole trip hop thing is an easy if hard to avoid comparison, but Drab City don't feel like throwback pastiche, though perhaps born from the same influences. It's woozy, dubby, funky and majorly chilled out -- think Wu Tang Clan, those weird, cool David Axelrod albums, Portishead -- with Islamiq Grrrls' cooing vocals pulling things into Françoise Hardy / girl group territory. The jazzy arrangements, full of vibraphone, flutes, twangy guitar and mellotron strings, feel played, not sampled. It's a fully realized and kinda creepy world, this Drab City, where every street is a dark back alley.
Wesley Gonzalez - Appalling Human (Moshi Moshi)
The former frontman for shambolic indie pop band Let's Wrestle continues his transformation into charming and synthy adult contemporary.
After a decade leading charmingly wobbly indie rock band Let's Wrestle, Wesley Gonzalez had had enough of his band, noisy guitars and himself. He learned to play piano listening to old Stevie Wonder and Beatles albums, bought some keyboards and reinvented himself in '70s'80s pop mode with 2017's Excellent Musician and assembled a new band that included Rose Elinor Dougall and Younghusband's Euan Hinshelwood. He's now back with what feels a bit like a response to that album, Appalling Human -- he says the last was "pre-therapy" while this one is "post-therapy" -- that takes its musical ideas further.
Appalling Human deals with a lot of heavy subject matter (death, estranged family, toxic relationships) but Wesley wraps it lush sounds that recall Japanese "city pop" and a variety of other soft melodic sounds, as well some dancier things. "I was listening to loads of house music, hip hop, soul and funk," Wesley says in the album's press notes. "The more dance music you listen to, the more you go like 'Oh, it's OK not to be dreary the entire time.'"
Dark subjects and happy music are a classic combo, and in a lot of ways this style suits him and his voice much better than Let's Wrestle. The album sets the tone with opener "Tried To Tell Me Something," that sounds like the kind of saxxy disco Nile Rodgers would've produced in 1982. There's also "Friend at First" which lays down a thick, infectious G-funk-style bassline; the sweet "Girl, You're My Family Now" which nods to Isaac Hayes; and "If I'm Sad" which pulls from modern house and new R&B.
The album closes with the terrific "Did Get What You Paid For?," which plays in a swaggering, mid-'70s singer-songwriter style that encapsulates the whole record. Gonzalez says it came out of trying to write a song that could be played at his funeral. "I thought 'Do you all love me? Am I what you want? Did you get what you paid for?' - was a pretty good final statement,' Wesley says. "A good mix of tragedy and comedy - I wrote the music with that in mind as well it has to be said, but it had to have personality, I can’t die boring." Maybe he and Jehnny Beth should compare notes.
Lithics - Tower of Age (Trouble in Mind)
Portland band keep things skronky and sharp on their first album for Trouble In Mind.
After two albums on Kill Rock Stars, Portland's Lithics has moved over to Trouble in Mind for their third album, Tower of Age. Not much has changed otherwise, they're still making superior skronk and jagged dadaist non-pop that can cool a room down faster than your window-unit AC. The quartet pare things down to the bare minimum, but also know how to set things to blast, as when the guitars aim for maximum shringyness on the awesome "Hands."
Gary Olson - Gary Olson (Tapete)
Have you ever been mellow? Ladybug Transistor frontman gets even more gentle on his solo debut.
Gary Olson has led Brooklyn baroque group The Ladybug Transistor since 1995, and has been a champion of local music as well via his Marlborough Farms studio where he's recorded countless bands over the years (like Crystal Stilts, Mates of State, and The Essex Green). He's also a go-to trumpeter for just about any indiepop band playing live in NYC who needs one. Ladybug don't play too often anymore, with members far-flung around the country, and Gary Just released his first solo album. Made in the Norwegian countryside with help from Serena Maneesh's Håvard Krogedal and Emil Nikolaisen, gorgeous string arrangements by Joe McGinty (Psychedelic Furs, Loser's Lounge) and Pale Lights' Suzanne Nienaber, this self-titled record is even more gentle than than his band's albums. Those string arrangements are really key to the record's mellow breeze vibe -- like a '70s AM soft pop station -- and Gary's deep, calming voice sounds like a smile.
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