Bill’s Indie Basement (3/15): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
Just because it's SXSW this week doesn't mean the music industry is not doing anything besides drinking tecate and eating breakfast tacos. No, this is a big week for new releases and Indie Basement is choc-a-bloc with cool stuff. To wit: Stephen Malkmus unearths his "lost" electronic record "Groove Denied"; Japanese band CHAI drop their deceptively cute, subversive and awesome PUNK; The Brian Jonestown Massacre are continue to make highly enjoyable psych-rock; and more high-concept post-punk existential angst from the Minneapolis Uranium Club. Plus: Liverpool band Seatbelts who grew out of Hooton Tennis Club.
The hype leading up to Groove Denied was that this was the former Pavement frontman's long-lost, rejected-by-Matador "electronic album." While there are keyboards and old drum machines on here, and at least one song that sounds like 1981, this album is not all that electronic and at least half of it could be mistaken for a Jicks record. So if you're hoping for Stephen Malkmus' take on synthpop or at least Silver Apples, this is not that. (Maybe a little.) It is however the lowest-fi record he's made since the early days of Pavement and sounds like (and probably is) an album of glorified demos that don't quite fit the preconceived notions of what a Malkmus record should be. Coming less than year from S.M.'s great Sparkle Hard it's nice to have a new record so quickly and the nature of it keeps expectations low. This one's for the die-hards.
That is not to say this is a "difficult" album or anything, just more of a lark, still with Stephen's ear for melody and witty wordplay. "Viktor Borgia" is about as close to the idea of an "electronic" record Groove Denied actually gets, with bloopy synths and a tinny drum machine right out of those early OMD records. Then there's "A Bit Wilder," which sounds more like gothy post-punk, while "Forget Your Place" is arty and weird with a repeated refrain of "feeling in debt."
The record gets more normal as it goes, with pop songs like "Come Get Me," which coulda been a Pavement song, and the wine cooler party psych of "Rushing the Acid Frat." Then we get "Love the Door," "Bossviscerate," and "Ocean of Revenge" which are all are noodly in the Grateful Dead way Malkmus can go these days. Lyrically, on some songs he is more obtuse than he was on Sparkle Hard while a good chunk of it, he is at his most vulnerable. "Won't somebody come get me / out on a limb here / I can't walk on ledge eternal," he sings on the album's best song, "Come Get Me" while on the album's weirdest song, sonically, "Belziger Faceplate," he delivers his most concise, wonderful love song with only three lines: "I love what you are to me / East to see, easy to be / I want to be around the bae." If he paired lines like this with his more Jicks-y material, there be no denying it at all.
Malkmus is on a solo tour this spring that hits NYC's The Kitchen for two sold-out shows.
Uncategorizable Japanese band CHAI have their cake and eat it too on their second album, PUNK, which satirizes and criticizes the “kawaii” concept of ultra cute-ness, while doing it in a way that screams KAWAII in all caps. They call it neo-kawaii, and it's very subversive in all the right ways. Certainly the idea is punk, even if there's nothing musically you'd call that on this album... which is just one letter off from their debut, PINK (which was actually more "punk" sounding). Here we get 10 very catchy songs that have a lot more going on than you realize at first, and I don't just mean lyrically. CHAI are a super talented band whose music incorporates post-punk, prog, disco with more overt pop styles with some really clever, and often weird, things going on in the arrangements, like the infectious, sample-crazed neon cheerleader overload that is band theme "THIS IS CHAI," and the noise assault in the middle of "Curly Adventures" that sounds like follicles frizzing. That song, about accepting you have curly hair, is one of many on PUNK that challenge accepted beauty standards and other societal norms all with a positive outlook. "To a shameful past; give it a kiss goodnight" they sing on the album's great closer, "Future," and you think there may be hope just yet.
Anton Newcombe has been on fire for the last five years, starting with 2014's great Revelation and since he's released three other very good Brian Jonestown Massacre albums, a handful of EPs, and film soundtrack, and two records with Tess Parks. So here we are with another winner, a self-titled album that hits just seven months after Something Else. (This was actually supposed to come out even sooner but the BMJ's tour proved successful with added tour dates, delaying the release.) Recorded in early 2018 at Newcombe's Berlin studio, the album features Sara Neidorf on drums, Heike Marie Radeker (LeVent) on bass, Hakon Adalsteinsson (BJM, Third Sound) on guitar, and Anton Newcombe on multiple instruments. It's not significantly different than Something Else, or most of his oeuvre, but this record sounds especially good, heavy on acoustic guitars, groovy basslines, organ dragging a drone through it all, and usually an unwinding guitar solo or two. From the opening jam "Drained" to the duet with Rike Bienert ("Tombes Oubliées," this album's "Anemone"), the pissed off "We Never Had a Chance" though to the rambling closer "What Can I Say" this is maximum head bobbing stuff. The Brian Jonestown Massacre have always been about vibe and they've nailed it here.
The wry, inscrutable Minneapolis Uranium Club have returned with a new platter of very meta post-punk high concept indie rock, titled The Cosmo Cleaners - The Higher Calling of Business Provocateurs, which is out today via Fashionable Idiots/Static Shock. They exist in a weird post-modern, possibly post-apocalyptic, world that might actually be the year 1981, where jobs last your whole life and Midwest companies like The National Pen Co. release records in addition to quality writing utensils. I kind of imagine learning about this band on Night Flight in between segments on The Church of the Subgenius and John Waters.
I've made Uranium Club sound super weird -- and they are -- but musically they are not hard to like at all. This is ultra-angsty, tightly coiled mutant punk, the kind of on-edge music that has been made over the years by the likes of XTC, The Wipers, The Feelies, My Dad is Dead, Devo, Wall of Voodoo or, if you remember this, Police drummer Stewart Copeland's Klark Kent alter ego. (It's actually very Klark Kent.) "Flashback Arrestor," which tears open this album, coulda been a Minutemen song, while "Definitely Infrared Radiation Sickness" has more of a slashing groove, and "Man is the Loneliest" alternates between Pavement-y indie rock and whiplash riffs. All this, with lyrics about existential dread, paranoid mania, conspiracy theories, and knowing your place and doing your job well. It's the kind of music that conveys its vibe so well, you feel nervous and pent up listening to it In a good way, I think, but a whole record may be too much for some people. "Grease Monkey," which is already a tweaker, has car alarms going off throughout and, for a guy who lives on a too-loud Brooklyn block, is a lot
As to the high concept nature of their records, the National Pen Co plays into them, both in the amazing artwork and design, as well as the record itself. Like on All of Them Naturals, the corporate aspect -- and the "club" in their name -- comes into play with a company representative, a British person named Michael, who offers updates on the club's activities. (That would be "Michael's Soliloquy" this time around.) This all leads towards the 12-minute, half-spoken "Interview with the Cosmo Cleaners," that closes the album and is heavy stuff, psychologically. "I'm going to be five minutes late today, a sorry amount of time to fret over. But still some significance must be held because it is the third time I've thought of it already," reads a narrator, diary style, overy jagged, slow guitars. "Ten blocks. Perpetual motion, swinging like the pendulum of time itself. The crowds flood the streets, everyone walking like there's seemingly no tomorrow. The buildings stand like giant gravestones, erect to themselves." Other speakers are introduced, other employees of Cosmo Cleaners, while it eventually becomes more song-like with a repeated refrain of ""It's a tough loss nonetheless / washed up deed to a cul de sac / borrowed time, vanishing away / till there's nothing left, and we say..." Their ironic guard drops down just a little here is pretty powerful, and thoughtful, even if it's something you might not wanna listen to repeatedly. Three albums in, I'm still trying to get a handle on Uranium Club, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
I was a big fan of Liverpool band Hooton Tennis Club whose two albums from this decade mixed '80s frayed sweater UK indie with '90s American college rock (I always said Pastels meets Pavement, and I'm sticking to that). The band is on the old "indefinite hiatus" but primary songwriters Ryan Murphy and James Madden started a new band, Seatbelts, who make a similarly jangly style of melodic, strummy pop. Murphy says they came up with the name when someone wanted to interview them and they hadn't decided on one yet. The anecdote starts in the most UK indie way possible: "I happened to be in the library... I went to the local history section (it's usually quiet in there) to talk to him...I looked around in a mad scramble, but all the books were about The Beatles (Liverpool's local history). A few of the books were upside-down on the shelves, so I said, what about The Beatles backwards? After a few garbled attempts we arrived at Seatbelts."
Seatbelts released the Songs For Vonnegut EP last spring and are getting ready to release their second EP, Please Slow Down, later this year. We've got the premiere of its first single, an ode to the relationships formed between people and place called "Spanish Songs." Male and female vocals trade off, as do lines sung in English and Spanish, with nice use of nylon string guitar and a "Bah Bah" chorus. The video, which Madden & Murphy directed, aims to get the "feeling of separation, or like long-distance relationships, but with place rather than people," says Ryan. "Abi Woods (vocals/keyboards) had recently been to Spain on holiday and brought back this cool VHS footage, so we used that and some live stuff and other bits. We filmed a lot of it in my living room. My girlfriend and her twin sister sing the Spanish bits, so we weren't short of faces to include in the video." Check out the video right here:
Seatbelts play the closing night of the BBC 6 Music Festival in Liverpool on March 31 at Phase One.