Bill’s Indie Basement (3/1): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Happy March! This week in the Basements we've got Inferno, the terrific new solo album from Go-Betweens co-founder Robert Forster, plus the "debut" album from early 4AD post-punk band Rema-Rema who broke up 40 years ago (and, no, didn't get back together), as well as Australian band The Stroppies, and a welcome dose of verdant spring vibes via French band Le SuperHomard. And like a lot people, the news of Mark Hollis' death had me pulling Talk Talk albums and I write a bit about their third album The Colour of Spring which found them transitioning from New Romantic hitmakers into something much deeper.
If you need more Basement-approved new stuff: Andrew writes about the new Hand Habits album in this week's Notable Releases; and there are new singles from Kevin Morby and Montreal band Pottery (who play one of our SXSW parties this year).
They also released the Record Store Day 2019 exclusives list and while I still need to really pour over it, it includes vinyl reissues of records by The Charlatans, Frank Black (his first two solo albums), and three of my favorite Jazz Butcher albums A Scandal in Bohemia, Sex & Travel and Distressed Gentlefolk.
What an elegant artistic career Robert Forster has led, having cult success with the much-loved Go-Betweens, many terrific solo albums, and a great memoir that hopefully won't be his last book. Somehow he just seems to get better with age. 2015's Songs to Play (his first album in seven years) was fantastic, and now at 61 he's just released Inferno which might be his most enjoyable solo album to date and, for me, rivals the highs of The Go-Betweens.
It's not like he's doing anything different here than he's done before. After 40 years of making records, Forster has an established song style and delivery -- vaguely in the Lou Reed milieu, ofter in storytelling mode -- but he's just firing on all cylinders. In addition to the excellent batch of songs, the method used for the record seems to have a lot to do with Inferno's success. Working in Berlin with Bad Seeds producer Victor Van Vugt (with whom he made his 1990 solo debut Danger in the Past) and a band he's dubbed The Magic Five, Inferno was mostly recorded live and you can tell they had a great time playing together, a feeling that transfers to the listener. You can hear it in the playing and you can really hear it in Forster's vocals. You can tell he really likes these people and these songs.
As well he should, they're all fantastic. Forster was known as being the more dour of the two Go-Betweens (Grant McLennan, who died in 2006, was definitely more of a pop songwriter) but he's often a very witty songwriter and is quite the charmer when in playful mode, as on first single "Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)." Forster wages a war against heat, humidity and voraciously growing plant life of his lawn and garden while dreaming of snow and ice. Set to a banging piano, it's his most cracking tune in ages.
Forster seems comfortable in this life of being a somewhat homebody, surrounded by books and family, with dreams of stardom in the rearview ("No Fame," maybe the Go-Between-iest song on the album), and happy just to live each day as it comes (the delicate, lilting "The Morning"). Restlessness does rear its head on "Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement" which sets William Butler Yeats' poem to some of the album's sultriest music, and his onetime ambition of being a screenwriter crops up in "Remain." (Anyone who's read his wonderful memoir Grant & I knows he may still have a screenplay in him.) On the beautiful album closer "One Bird in the Sky," that sense of comfort sounds like a philosophy. "Eat only what I eat, breathe only what I breathe, well that's me." And as his "da da das" and violin fade out, you can almost imagine the credits rolling. May we all achieve such grace.
If you need more jangly Australian indie pop that is definitely in the tradition of early Go-Betweens, The Stroppies' debut album, WHOOSH!, ably fits that bill. There is a lot of music like this, not just in Australia (and New Zealand) but Sweden, the UK and even right here in the U.S.A. but The Stroppies do it particularly well and they may be the best band of this sort since Dick Diver. (I had to check to make sure there were no common members between those two bands, because you never know with the Melbourne indie scene.) With Gus Lord (ex-Twerps) and Claudia Serfaty both on songwriting and vocal duties -- often trading vocal lines -- things stay interesting. The Stroppies keep it simple, too, and WHOOSH! sounds warm, intimate and inviting, and the occasional frayed seams just add to the charm. (They throw in some curveballs to the arrangements, too, it's not just strum strum strum.) First single "Cellophane Car" is probably still the most immediate song on the record, but the zooming "Nothing At All," with its rush of urgent arpeggiated guitars, comes a close second. Also great: "First Hand," "Switched On," and "Better Than Before" which all recall The Chills with their use of organ and close harmonies. Lyrically, The Stroppies are warm and romantic while not showing all their cards. "On my way home / I build a language / It's wind in your ears / and I've kicked the bucket" are the opening lyrics to "My Style, My Substance" and while I'm not sure what Serfaty is on about -- one way conversations? unrequited love? -- the lines have stayed in my head. It's a record that seems simple at first but reveals more and more layers each listen.
Post-punk band Rema-Rema weren't together very long, about a year, but were pretty significant for a few reasons. Their sole release, 1980's half-studio/half-live Wheel in the Roses EP, was one of the first records released by 4AD and is still an influential cult classic. The four songs are claustrophobic, dark, and dubby, with interesting and strange electronic touches and a downright foreboding atmosphere. "Fond Affections" was covered by This Mortal Coil on their debut album, It'll End in Tears, and Big Black covered the pounding, punky "Rema-Rema" at shows, as documented on 1987 live album The Sound of Impact.
The band split up before the EP came out but all the members went on to other bands: Marco Pirroni, who was briefly in Siouxsie & The Banshees before Rema-Rema, would become Adam Ant's main songwriting partner both in the Ants and on solo albums; singer Mick Allen, guitarist/singer Gary Asquith and keyboardist Mark Cox would form another shortlived group, Mass; and then Allen and Cox formed The Wolfgang Press, who would be one of 4AD's longest-running and best bands, while Asquith would form sample-heavy electronic group Renegade Soundwave.
Forty years after breaking up, 4AD is releasing Fond Reflections, which they're calling Rema-Rema's debut album. Gary Asquith, with engineer Takatsuna Muka, culled the 10 songs here from reel-to-reel and cassette tape recordings of rehearsals and live shows, and did painstaking work to make it as cohesive as possible, and it "pretty much reflects the band’s live set and is the closest to what their debut album could have sounded like." They also note that while the four songs that were on Wheel in the Roses are on this album, they all come from different recordings.
The "new" songs are pretty good, especially the organ-driven "Lost My Way," synth-punk number "International Scale," and the droning, heavy "Entry" that closes the LP is like 154-era Wire with great call-and-response vocals between Asquith and Allen. The CD comes with a bonus disc titled Extended Wheel in the Roses that uses the original EP, and adds "Entry" (taken from the same studio session as the EP’s a-side) and two more tracks recorded at the same Albany Empire, London show in 1979 as the EP’s b-side. It's both a fascinating document of 4AD's early days and offers more from a band who burned out too soon.
Are you super-excited that Stereolab are back but don't want to wait for the reissues and fall tour? I highly suggest you check out Meadow Lane Park, the debut album by French band Le SuperHomard. As mentioned before, the group pull from various groovy sounds of the late '90s: Dots & Loops era Stereolab, the first three Cardigans albums, and the lush Morricone-esque soundscapes of The High Llamas. (They're also a little bit like The Bird & The Bee.) The arrangements, by bandleader Christophe Vaillant, are loaded with sweeping, swooning strings, Serge Gainsbourg/Scott Walker style basslines, xylophone, harpsichord, bubbling synthesizers and jazzy guitars. It's an amazing sounding record. They know how to write great songs too, and Meadow Lane Park is loaded with them, from the soaring title track and "Paper Girl" to the bouncy "SDVB" and "Karoaking" and, my favorite, the percolating, walking-bass driven "Black Diamond." Singer Julie Big has a light, friendly voice which is perfect for this style of music and keeps Broadcast comparisons relatively at bay. (Also they are French but sing in English for those scared of foreign languages.) If you're getting sick of this winter weather, this is a 40-minute trip into the blossoming spring.
Mark Hollis died this week and even though he hadn't really released anything -- for the most part -- in two decade, it still felt like (and is) a huge loss. As the outpouring of tributes from across genres has proven, the music he made with Talk Talk and his one solo album have proven massively influential. While most of the praise these days tend to be heaped on Talk Talk's final two albums, the undoubtedly great Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, I think the album I actually like the most is 1986's The Colour of Spring. Talk Talk were still a functioning commercial band at this point, as in they played live, did interviews, etc, but they'd abandoned the New Romantic synthpop sound of their first two albums. (This was also their biggest-selling album, a Top 10 LP in the UK.) But it didn't really sound like anything else in 1986, a year when it seemed like most albums had gated drums, Fairlight synthesizers and generally too much of everything. Fully collaborating with keyboardist/producer Tim Friese-Greene (who they would collaborate with for the rest of their run) for the first time, The Colour of Spring was a Big '80s album in its own way: massively ambitious, with widescreen production, but it was organic in a way you didn't get with, say, The The, Prefab Sprout, XTC or even REM. They were still writing pop songs -- "Life's What You Make It" might be their best single -- but you could see where they were heading, too. Very few records from that year hold up now they way The Colour of Spring does.