Bill’s Indie Basement (11/23): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Hope you're having a lovely long Thanksgiving Weekend and are spending it with friends and family. Thanks for taking time away from that to read what might be the weirdest Indie Basement to date. (It's the one-year anniversary of the column for what it's worth.) We've got: Industrial icons Laibach covering songs from The Sound of Music; a reissue of David Axelrod's bonkers environmental opus Earth Rot; and Jacco Gardner's new instrumental album that's based on a 400-year-old science fiction novel. For the rest of you, there are indie rock reissues of Sloan and The Spinanes. Something for everybody, just like at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Happy holidays!
Long-running Slovenian (formerly Yugoslavian) industrial / electronic group Laibach are no strangers to high-concept albums, having covered The Beatles' Let it Be back in 1988 and and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1996, so them recording songs from The Sound of Music may not be that surprising in that context. The backstory on this album, however, is pretty interesting. The group were infamously invited to perform in North Korea in 2015, which they did, making them the first rock band ever to play there. Unsurprisingly, they weren't allowed to just play a normal set and were given a small list of approved songs they could perform. Laibach chose selections from The Sound of Music for their concert in Pyongyang, as it’s a beloved film in the DPRK (here too) and is often used to teach schoolchildren English. Inspired by their trip -- more on that below -- they made this LP, but took the concept further. In addition to songs from the musical, like “My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss,” and “Do-Re-Mi,” the group also offer a very Laibach version of traditional Korean folk song “Arirang,” and the record also includes “The Sound of Gayageum” which uses the traditional zither-like Korean instrument Gayageum.
The sound of Laibach these days is not as harsh as it used to be and much of The Sound of Music has an almost slick Europop sheen to it. Like on 2006’s Volk, they worked with Silence’s Primož Hladnik and Boris Benko (who also sings on the album, as does Marina Mårtensson). You might not even know it was Laibach until the gruff baritone of Milan Fras enters the picture with his Shatner-esque delivery (in an Eastern European way). It’s easy to just take this as novelty -- just listen to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” or Fras croak out lyrics like “Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels” and it's hard not to laugh -- but some of it is quite effective, like the expansive version of “Edelweiss” and the grand guignol arrangement of “My Favorite Things.” Whether or not this ends up being anyone’s favorite thing, there’s more going on here than one might first realize, given the group’s history and politics, the story of the film, and the album’s genesis. (Also look at that album cover, it's a classic.) This album fits perfectly into Laibach’s deeply subversive, often misunderstood, canon.
Fun Fact: released in 1993 on Sub Pop Records, The Spinanes' debut album, Manos, was the first album released on an independent label to top the college radio charts. That may sound unbelievable (some may even be asking "what are college charts") but Sub Pop was only just beginning to move beyond punk and sludge in 1993, and Manos was a gateway of sorts that would lead to Velocity Girl, Jale, Sebadoh (who had already released records on Sub Pop) and more. It is also just a great record with Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf coming up with a unique sound -- guitar, drums and voice -- that makes the most of its minimal setup. Their sound was copied a lot throughout the '90s but few groups had great songs like "Noel, Jonah And Me," "Uneasy," "Epiphany," and "Grand Prize."
Manos is now being reissued for its 25th anniversary by a different indie label, Merge, with slightly redesigned artwork and bonus tracks (which are part of the digital download with the vinyl edition). If you splurge on the Peak Vinyl edition, you get it on yellow wax and it comes with an eight-page booklet. It's out December 7.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Gates hasn't released a solo record since 2012 -- though she did contribute to a 2017 protest comp -- but in a September 2018 update on her website wrote that "music announcements, continuing sound and listening based culture and infrastructure work, audiocasts, voice, and art" were in the works.
After two albums of pristine, baroque psych, Dutch artist Jacco Gardner (who lives in Lisbon these days) heads into new territory: outer space. The inspiration came from the novel of the same name by Johannes Kepler, which was published in 1634 and is generally regarded as the first-ever science fiction novel. "This book fascinates me because it was basically Kepler travelling in his mind to a non-existent world while describing it, and his journey, with amazing detail," say Jacco. "Many of his imagined sensations are actually really what happens when one travels into space, which happened almost four hundred years later. You could call it a vision of the future through his dreams, and I find this aspect very mysterious and powerful."
Also new for this album, Jacco's gone instrumental, citing the work of Kluster, Tangerine Dream, Eno and Mike Oldfield, even hiring Simon Heyworth, who worked on Oldfield's Tubular Bells, to master Somnium. "I deliberately removed my voice from the experience, as it made it more difficult for me to achieve the intended state of mind. I think it makes the journey more interesting, more deep, and more intimate," Jacco says, adding "Somnium is a visionary experience. The album is more than just a trip, it is about contact with a deeper -- hidden -- reality."
Gone are the more overt baroque elements -- almost no oboe or harpsichord -- and in their place lots of spacey synths. You can almost hear Carl Sagan saying "billions and billions" over tracks like "Rising" and "Eclipse." As you might expect, this album sounds fantastic on headphones and is great for walking around the city or mellowing out a subway commute, and would probably make a great planetarium show.
They released their terrific 12th album earlier this year, but Canadian rock greats Sloan are not done with releasing stuff this year. They’ve just reissued their 2009 EP, Hit & Run, which was originally a digital-only release, on vinyl for the first time. Says the band’s Jay Ferguson:
Back in 2009, we Sloans delivered our first foray into the world of “digital-only” releases with our Hit & Run EP. True, we had some songs here and there that were iTunes-only bonus tracks, or extra songs that were only available on Japanese CDs, but this EP was our first truly intentional and exclusively “ones and zeros” release available for purchase via computer or smart phone. Part of the reason was the excitement of the immediacy (we’d only just finished mixing the recording with our engineer Ryan Haslett, mastered it and released it days later) but it was also a way of attracting attention to our new digital album store that we had set up on our website. An alternate to iTunes, we thought it might be prudent to offer our catalogue via our website in both streaming and downloadable mp3s with accompanying elaborate PDF lyric booklets. The thought was to also continue releasing more exclusive “digital-only” content in the future and drive fans towards our website. We pursued this plan to a degree with a B-Sides collection that followed not too long afterwards.
Flash forward to 2018. The age of streaming music has made the mp3 seem like a forgotten format, slowly being relegated to the shelf alongside the cassingle or the “Hip Pocket” 45 (perhaps Google that). Thankfully, the vinyl format has enjoyed a gradual renaissance over the past number of years so we thought it would be a good time to give fans a chance to own a tangible version of this release. Hit & Run always seemed a bit left out not having a vinyl release (the Peppermint EP and A Sides Win would also be in that category) as we’ve always issued all our records on the vinyl format since the UK version of Smeared in 1993.
Coming right after 2008’s Parallel Play LP, Hit & Run felt a little more like a throwback to their mid-’90s era, with all four members contributing great songs that had an almost ‘70s vibe, including Chris Murphy’s “Take It Upon Yourself” and “Dear Diary,” Andrew Scott’s nervy “Where Are You Now?,” Patrick Pentland’s rocker “Is It Now?” and Jay Ferguson’s light and lovely “Midnight Mass.” Originally a five-track EP, the vinyl reissue adds a sixth song, Andrew Scott’s “Get Out of Bed.” It’s pressed at 45 RPM and the first 300 copies come on “centre-of-the-road-dividing-line” yellow wax.
Sloan are touring Canada starting next week, and are gearing up to give 1998’s Navy Blues the 20th anniversary box set / tour treatment in 2019.
I don’t know what day/year you are reading this -- GREETINGS FROM 2018! -- but this edition of Indie Basement is going up on Friday, November 23 aka the day after Thanksgiving aka Black Friday. I try my best to make this Buy Nothing Day but it is also Record Store Day Black Friday, which means there are a few cool records coming out and my love of The Muppets and Paul Williams means I will probably schlep down to Rough Trade and pick up the Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas soundtrack.
But I’m also interested in David Axelrod’s 1970 album Earth Rot, which is getting reissued along with Pride, an album from the same year he made with his son. I picked up the reissue of Axelrod’s Songs of Innocence at Record Store Day proper back in April and, as a fan of groovy bass lines, flute solos, highly sampleable breaks, exotica, “bah bah bah” type singing, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, jazz-funk, and general “what the fuck is this” records, Song of Innocence was right up my alley.
If you’re unfamiliar, Axelrod got his start as a producer, arranger and songwriter, helping craft a lush, orchestral sound that garnered hits for Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley and others. Meanwhile, he was making really out-there albums on his own. 1968's Songs of Innocence and 1969’s Songs of Experience -- made nearly 50 years before Bono did a similar thing -- were based on the William Blake’s works. But Earth Rot is even crazier, an opus of, as he put it, "contemporary music with ancient yet timely words set to the theme of ecology." Lyrics were adapted from The Bible's The Book of Isaiah as well as Navajo spirit legends, and the record came out on April 22, 1970 -- the first-ever Earth Day. With a nine-piece chorus sing-chanting things like “You are destroying your own land” the record is about as subtle as the last third of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but musically this is one super groovy record featuring a load of famous session men, including drummer Earl Palmer and Wrecking Crew member Don Randi. You’ll go from saying “whoa this is awesome” to “what the hell am I listening to?” a few times over the record’s short 28 running time, but you probably haven’t heard anything quite like it.
What makes this reissue even more interesting than just being able to afford a copy, is it comes with a second disc of never-before-released instrumentals which should certainly interest hip hop producers, The Avalanches, and other fans of sampling. It’s also been “lacquered directly from Axelrod’s original master tapes at Capitol Records” and comes with a 28-page booklet.
I bet Jacco Gardner likes the album.
PS you should definitely check out Axelrod's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, as well as the albums he made with actor and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. co-star David McCallum.