Bill’s Indie Basement (6/21): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Happy Summer Solstice! This week: Kirin J Callinan makes a covers record as only he could; Austrian post-rock/shoegaze duo MOLLY find inspiration in the Alps; Jane Weaver reworks songs from two of her albums into something new and wonderful; UK indie stalwarts The Band of Holy Joy remain true to their spirit on their new album; a new compilation of lesser-known No Wave duo Band Apart; and Virginia Wing offer up a treat for their upcoming North American tour.
If you need more new record reviews; Andrew writes about the latest from Hot Chip (I wish I liked it more) and Bedouine in Notable Releases. If you need more still, the new Versus single is real good.
There are a lot of talking points about this new album from the genuinely talented and genuinely eccentric Kirin J Callinan. First is its title, Return to Center, which is not just a play on "Return to Sender" but a reference to how it was made. Kirin bought all the equipment -- the instruments, the cables, the pedals, everything -- from Guitar Center, recorded the album as quickly as possible, and then returned everything, taking advantage of the chain's 14-day return policy. Which I find brilliant and hilarious, right down to the cover art. That is one way to deal with the new music business economy. Secondly, apart from the title track, Return to Center is a covers album, something I didn't realize till I listened to it while I thought I was putting the finishing touches on this week's column. I knew "Whole of the Moon" was a Waterboys song but hadn't grasped the gist of the album, hadn't really looked at the tracklist. It was the second track, "The Homosexual," where I went, "Oh this is the Momus' song" and then noticed "Vienna" which I knew then would be the Ultravox song. I became much more interested and then had to add to this week's column, and here we are. Great story, right?
Anyway, the whole album is Kirin taking on songs he genuinely loves, doing them in his particular, over-the-top KJC style, including some light lyric tweaking. Most of these tracks are from the '80s and his covers tend to keep them there, stylistically, even if they are drastically reimagined. Take for example "Life is Life" which was originally a quasi reggae/folk single titled "Live is Life" by Austrian band Opus (dig the original's very '80s video). Perhaps taking a cue from its refrain, "when we all get the power, then we all get the best," he turns it into something Laibach might have released. "It Takes A Muscle To Fall in Love," a tinny 1981 single by Dutch synthpop group Spectral Display, gets turned into something much more lush and sexy, sounding to me like late-'80s The The, with Kirin sounding eerily like Matt Johnson. The original "The Homesexual," from Momus' 1988 album The Tender Pervert, is a great song that was kinda ruined by terrible '80s production and a lack of budget; Kirin gives it the twisted baroque slink and grandiosity (and, again, sexiness) the song always deserved, dressing it up in a production somewhere between Gainsbourg and Morricone.
Elsewhere: he uses PiL's great 1986 single "Rise" as an opportunity to answer to the "controversy" around his kilt-flashing incident at the 2018 ARIA Awards, complete with samples of news reports of the story; and he takes "Signed Curtain," the ironic statement on pop tropes by Robert Wyatt's post-Soft Machine group Matching Mole, and turns it into a stadium rocker. He ups the menace on Randy Newman's "Pretty Boy" -- a song that was already very menacing -- to thriller levels.
The most ho-hum tracks are the ones he does the least with: Ultravox's 1981 UK smash "Vienna" was already totally over-the-top and, while he belts it out with as much melodramatic flair as Midge Ure, it's closer to karaoke than anything else. (I am also not a fan of the original.) Same with "Whole of the Moon," which hews close to The Waterboys original. As for the title track, it's also got an interesting story: it's based around a recording of Kirin being tickled by The Growlers on stage during soundcheck at Minneapolis' First Ave. Kirin's howls of laughter become haunting, though, set against an eerie instrumental. "There's this maniacal, hysterical laughter that just comes in both pleasure and pain, hilarity and pure torture," Kirin told PAPER, "which was sort of a good centerpiece for the album I thought." Which is kind of Kirin in a nutshell. Some find him hilarious, some find him brilliant, and for some he's pure torture. But he's almost never boring.
Having played the East Coast back in April, Kirin's got a couple California shows next week before heading to Australia. All dates are here. And for more on the whole Guitar Center aspect of the album, here's a short documentary:
“We are very much inspired by the mountains that surround us," says Lars Andersson, singer and guitarist for Austrian duo MOLLY who hail from Innsbruck at the foot of the mountain range. "I mean less in a contemporary sense, and the understanding of our region as some sort of fairytale-like holiday refuge, but much more in the way that Goethe and generations before him used to view the Alps: as a dangerous and scary place of unpredictable weather changes, sharp cliffs, threatening mountain passes and barren wasteland – a place where nature still rules in contrast to men.” MOLLY's debut album, All That Ever Could Have Been, sounds like The Alps: massive, majestic, imposing. Part post-rock, part shoegaze (and not EDM in any way despite their name), MOLLY travel somewhere between Sigur Ros and Slowdive, with some of Explosions in the Sky and Besnard Lakes' widescreen sonic vistas projected as well.
The duo go for it from the get go, opening the hour-long double LP with the 15-minute "Coming of Age" that ebbs and flows, soars and dives with waves of oceanic guitars, and drummer Phillip Dornauer’s tom-heavy style. The passing of time plays heavily into All That Ever Could Have Been which maintains a purposefully glacial, elegiac tone throughout, with songs like the groovy-in-their-own-gentle-way "As Years Go By," "Slowly," and the album's piano-laden title track. "The Fountain of Youth" and "Vogelnest" show MOLLY bring melody as well as atmosphere, and the album closes with "Coming of Age Pt. 2," featuring field recordings actually made in the Alps, bringing things full-circle.
All That Ever Could Have Been is out June 28 via Sonic Cathedral / Dalliance (pre-order) but you can listen to the album now: a stream of the whole LP premieres in this post:
MOLLY will be on tour this summer in Europe and the UK. Dates are here.
Deep into her carreer, UK folk artist Jane Weaver incorporated drony prog on 2014’s The Silver Globe and then took that sound into the stratosphere for 2017's great Modern Kosmology. For Loops in the Secret Society, Jane charts a course between the two records, reworking songs from both and connects them with new ambient pieces. What she does with the songs is subtle; you might not even realize, as a casual listener, that she's changed them at all. But if you A/B them, the differences are apparent, as she strips away some of the more forceful instrumentation (live drums, electric guitar) but then builds them back up with layers of spacy synths, dubby effects, and other otherworldly accoutrements. It's almost as if the two albums had been broadcast into space and are now pinging back, degraded from the light years traveled, but also mutated in some sort of Fantastic Four type exposure to cosmic rays. The way the songs flow seamlessly together via the new interludes is really impressive -- this is no stop-gap release. It does, however, make for a good introduction to the magic Jane weaves.
Manchester duo Virginia Wing's Ecstatic Arrow was one of my favorite album of 2018, and one of its standout songs, "Pale Burnt Lake," becomes the centerpiece of a new cassette (and digital release) they've released to promote their upcoming North American tour). They describe it like this:
‘Pale Burnt Lake’ is a collection of live interludes, abstract sketches, free form spoken word and improvised soundtrack. Using themes and motifs formed around making ‘Ecstatic Arrow’, Pale Burnt Tape is in equal parts soothing and disorientating, intimate and abstract, combining somnambulant synths with Chris Duffin’s harmonised saxophone to create a fully immersive sound bed on which Alice Merida Richards’ vocals recline.
"Pale Burnt Lake" always reminded me of an odd, alien (and somehow tropical) version of Yaz's "In My Room," and that style plays into the other proper song on this cassette, "I'm Outside," which, even in this not-fully-fleshed-out state, is appealing with its old school synthpop bassline and Merida Richards' cooly delivered vocals. The other nine tracks are even more skeletal and unfinished but there are lots of promising ideas, most of which are icy and disquieting. David Lynch could make some quality short films using these tracks as a soundtrack.
New York-based poet and performance artist Jayne Bliss and Marseille-based musician/producer M.Mader made up duo Band Apart, who existed from 1981 to 1983 and were part of the fertile underground No Wave scene, splitting their time between their two home bases. Like all good No Wave groups, Band Apart used saxophone, but "skronky" is not the right word for them, who were often more interested in atmospheric instrumentals that owed more than a little to Eno, or minimal synthwave that made twisted good use of toy instruments. The duo were one of the first artists signed to Belgium's influential, still-going Crammed Discs label (home to, over the years, Minimal Compact, Tuxedomoon, Juana Molina and more) but they don't sound like any other band on its roster, or anyone else from that time. "Le Mont des Olives," from the EP could've been on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and you'd be hard-pressed to put a year on the gorgeous "O My Beautiful Song" from their 1983 debut long-player.
The band literally parted ways after their 1983 debut album, Marseille, and have largely been relegated to footnote status, even within the No Wave annals, but they're well worth seeking out. You can do just that as Crammed Discs are releasing a new compilation that includes almost everything Band Apart ever released. The vinyl has the entire EP and five tracks from the album, while the CD and digital versions have everything but one song from the album ("The Lesson" has been omitted). The compilation has been remastered from the original tapes and sounds great. Rediscover them for the first time.
For nearly 40 years, Johnny Brown has led UK group The Band of Holy Joy, never bowing to trends, and lasting through fads, record label woes and public indifference. Brown is a bit like Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners, bending his Band into whatever shape he fancies, though most of it falls under the umbrella of grand folk or orchestral indie rock. The band hibernated for most of the '90s but Brown came back in force in the early '00s, toured the U.S. for the first time in 2008 and have released more albums since being back than they did in their most high profile era (late-'80s when they were signed to Rough Trade). With a solid lineup in place, The Band of Holy Joy just released Neon Primitives, the last part of a thematic trilogy which began with 2016's Brutalism Begins At Home EP and continued with 2017's Funambulist We Love You. The theme in question is making sense of the world that gave us Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of the far-right, though Brown never gets into specifics, choosing to sing from a personal point of view that is more relatable (and probably won't seem dated in five years). The feeling of disenfranchisement is palpable across the album, as The Band of Holy Joy employ a range or indie styles: post-punk ("Lost in the Light," "Take Heed Calumniators"), Smiths-y jangle ("So Sad" which is actually a Vincent Gallo cover), and strident folk-pop that takes a few cues from Joe Strummer ("Urban Pagans," "Ecstasy Snowbirds"). Tying it all together is Brown whose vocals drip with conviction. Like John Robb from The Membranes, Brown is still doing it because it's what he does, and the world could use more like that.