Bill’s Indie Basement (3/29): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It's been a rough week, with the loss of Scott Walker and Ranking Roger, two artists who have meant a lot to me over the years. I pay tribute to Ranking Roger this week by looking back on General Public's debut album, a near-perfect '80s pop album that flies under the radar these days. I also review three great new albums from onetime Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins, French dreampop act Marble Arch, and Chicago's pitch-black FACS, as well as a terrific new single from Dutch group Spill Gold.
It's been six years since former Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins' last solo album but he has been busy since. He moved from London back to his childhood home of Helmsdale in the highlands of Scotland, and also built the strikingly designed Clashnarrow Studios there and has recorded bands like Shopping, Hooton Tennis Club and Teenage Fanclub, He's also scored a couple films, and helped design a fuzz pedal. Moving back to Scotland stirred up creative urges -- as did finding a couple books of lyrics when packing up that dated from before he suffered two major strokes in 2005 -- which has us now with Badbea, his ninth solo album and fourth since his strokes.
Badbea is named after an abandoned village near Helmsdale where his grandfather lived and a strong sense of reflection runs through the album, weather it's the tale of lost love "I Guess We Were Young," a look back at his '80s pop star abandon on "Glasgow to London" or the affecting, acoustic title track. Collins' post-stroke albums have featured simpler, more direct lyrics than the wry and cynical nature of his '90s records, so setting some of his old, unused lyrics to music alongside new material makes Badbea almost like a bridge between eras. You can almost hear the twinkle in his eye dropping bon mots in songs like "Sparks the Spark" and the Spector-esque "In the Morning" that seems cut from the same cloth as "A Girl Like You."
You can hear that glimmer in the music, which has some of his most inspired arrangements and production in a long time. "Glasgow to London" not only lyrically references his old band Orange Juice, the synth bass seems to be tipping its hat to "Rip it Up." "I'm OK Jack" makes nice use of vintage drum machines and keyboards, while "I Guess We Were Young" tugs at heartstrings with surfy tremolo'd guitar, mariachi horns, whistling and Edwyn's close harmony style. That warbly croon of his remains one of Collins' greatest assets, warm and very human and nowhere on Badbea is that more apparent than on the sweet and string-laden "It All Makes Sense to Me," where, walking along the shore of a river, he realizes he's got all he needs. Hopefully that includes making more records like this one.
We lost Ranking Roger this week which, honestly, hit me way harder than Scott Walker. His groups The (English) Beat and General Public were the soundtrack to my high school years. Somewhat literally: my high quality BASF chrome cassette of General Public's 1984 debut, All the Rage, was stuck in my 1982 Honda Accord's cassette deck for about six months, so I know this album backwards, forwards and sideways, from H block to springbok, Moscow to Monterey, and Main to Mexico. (To paraphrase the LP's "Burning Bright.") If you're talking about the best example of Ranking Roger as a songwriter, producer, singer and musician, I think this is it.
Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger formed General Public as The Beat splintered -- guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steel, who formed Fine Young Cannibals, didn't like touring -- and was originally conceived as a supergroup, featuring The Specials' Horace Panter on bass and Dexy's Midnight Runners' Mickey Billingham and Andrew "Stoker" Growcott on keyboards and drums, respectively. Originally, Mick Jones, who'd just left The Clash*, was part of General Public, too, and he plays all over All the Rage but left the group before the album came out to form Big Audio Dynamite. (You can hear a little of BAD's "The Bottom Line" in "Burning Bright.") But it was Dave and Roger at the helm and they were firing on all cylinders here.
A bold statement: I also think All the Rage is the best '80s Pop Album there is -- as in a record that really, really sounds like and exemplifies the '80s. Certainly one of the most underrated. This was before so much '80s production turned to synthetic everything, so here you have real drums, bass and piano, Aswad's brass section, oboes, and Beat saxophonist Saxa alongside bright synths, electronic handclaps (the finest moment in their hit "Tenderness") and drum machines. The album is political -- but with that hopeful air the mid-'80s had -- but romantic and horny too ("Hot Your Cool.") Motown mingled with dub reggae, hip hop and postpunk, all with a pure pop shine. It's totally 1984, passes the Molly Ringwald dance test, but still sounds great today -- not something I'm sure you can say about either 1986's Hand to Mouth (which I also still like) or 1995 comeback Rub it Better (notsomuch) which is probably why they aren't as fondly remembered as The Beat.
Ranking Roger was much more of a hands-on collaborator in General Public than with The Beat, taking lead vocals on a few tracks, playing keyboards, drums and bass (and triangle, All the Rage's liner notes say) and you can really feel his presence all over the album. One of Roger's spotlight moments on the album is the moody, reggae-influenced "Anxious," where you really hear what a great singer he was, not just the guy who'd come in for the "toast" midway through every fourth song. He also sings lead on the very new-wavey "Day to Day" and the album's closing track and group theme song (all great '80s groups had a theme song) "General Public" that mixes funk, dub and gregorian chants (it's awesome). Even on songs that Dave Wakeling takes lead, like the great singles "Tenderness" and "Never You Done That," Roger's harmonies and backing vocals ("We danced and danced" on "Tenderness") are an essential part of what makes it so special. At this point, General Public exuded a multi-culti Benetton ad vibe (just look at Roger's striped hairstyle) and that genuine we-can-change-the-world-with-pop outlook a lot of UK music had at the time. All the Rage is a record where you believe it could happen, too -- just watch the moment in the "Tenderness" video where kid versions of Dave and Roger discover a guitar. The promise of the '80s in a single image.
I should say that all three of The Beat's albums are absolute classics (even the reggae-ish middle one Wha'ppen that I know a lot of people don't like), have not aged a day and transcend the ska tag which really only is appropriate on their first album and never genuinely fit there either. If you've somehow never listened, correct that today.
*Also speaking of The Clash, did you ever hear the version of "Rock the Casbah" where Ranking Roger sings lead in his signature Beat rub-a-dub toasting style? What could have been:
Brian Case's former group Disappears and his current one, FACS, were/are a bit like pancakes. The first one is never quite right. His bands thrive on chemistry and trust, and they need to really settle in and let the pan season before it gets good. Lineups need time to gel and connect. (Even when Disappears added Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums, it took a while for them to figure it out.) I saw FACS last year, not long after Alianna Kalaba joined the group on bass. It was good, but I could tell in six months they'd be a a meaner, leaner beast. (Kalaba is usually a drummer -- she plays in Cat Power's band -- and had never played bass before joining FACS.) Lifelike is the first record she's made with them and it's pretty evident that she and the group, especially powerhouse drummer Noah Leger (who was also in Disappears), now have a real musical bond. The album is dark, sinewy, sinister and 100% driven by their chassis. "If you have a good rhythm section, it doesn't matter what the guitars do. No one fucking cares," Case told The Chicago Reader. "And I totally believe that. Just listen to the way the record is mixed . . . it's drums and bass. The guitar line on 'Another Country' is nonsense. I can be as weird as I want—which is all I really want."
Case is a little hard on himself but his guitarwork on Lifelike is more minimal ethereal and atmospheric, adding color to the beastly rhythm section. Lifelike is an all-around better album than FACS' debut last year. Where Negative Houses was pure dreadline mood, there are song structures this time around, like the excellent "In Time" that recalls 154-era Wire or Colin Newman's early solo albums. "XUXU" has gothy allure and an actual chorus, and "Anti-Body" works in a similar way. The album closes with the eight-minute "Total History" that begins as one of the more traditional songs they or Disappears ever made, but morphs into a crushing beast halfway through with Case's searing guitar sounding like it's trying to arcweld its way out of your speakers.
Like I wrote before, nobody would mistake this for a pop record, but there are hooks and melodies this time around to hold onto as the rest of it attempts to suck you into the abyss. It will be interesting to see where FACS goes next and I hope this lineup stays intact -- the pan is ready.
Marble Arch is for all intents and purposes Paris-based musician Yann Le Razavet who has been crafting hazy guitar pop for the last five years or so. His second album, Children of the Slump, is just out on French label Geographie and it's terrific -- cool, groovy, kinda sexy and always with a focus on melody, keeping things interesting, and not overstaying its welcome. Take for example first single "Gold" which pulls you along with a great New Order-esque guitar hook that Le Razavet uses judiciously. Right when you're lulled by washes of ethereal synths and hushed harmonies, in comes that guitar hook again. It's fantastic. "I'm on My Way" works in a similar way, drawing on '60s psych melodies but more of a later-'80s Creation Records aesthetic, part House of Love and part My Bloody Valentine. The rest of the record works similar magic in its bedroom pop way -- you could imagine Children of the Slump coming out on Captured Tracks in 2010 and, if it had, would rank among the best records in that label's catalog. As is, this is one of the best dreampop/indie rock records that's likely to come out this year.
Amsterdam dark synthpop band Spill Gold are a fairly new band but they've already racked up some quality bonafides: they've played shows with both Beak> and Exploded View, and their 2018 debut EP included remixes by members of U.S. Girls, Virginia Wing and DOOMSQUAD. (That's a whole lot of stuff I like.) They're currently working on their full-length debut and to tide us over have released this excellent new single. "Dalí" alluringly builds itself up in layers, beginning with a simple keyboard hook and then adding Rosa Ronsdorf's heavenly vocals. Then comes thick, analog synth bassline and skittering drums that take the song into krautrock territory. It ebbs and flows, adding eastern strings, pulling back, then going bigger before finally letting it all hang loose in the last 30 seconds or so. Spill Gold have an extremely good grasp on dynamics and structure -- the video for this song has a lot of style too -- all of which bodes well for that debut album. Details soon, please.