Happy February! This week: The Specials are back with their first album to feature Terry Hall in nearly 40 years; crucial reissues from The Cardigans, Sparks, and The Fall; plus UK psych-vets The Telescopes; and the sparkling, sophisticated pop of Le SuperHomard.

More Basement-approved stuff: The Mekons are back; Charlotte Gainsbourg is touring, as are Swervedriver.

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    The Specials - Encore

    Terry Hall's first album with The Specials in nearly 40 years is a pleasant surprise

    The Specials just released Encore, their first album with singer Terry Hall in nearly 40 years. I am a big Specials fan and an even bigger Terry Hall fan, so I was a little nervous about hearing this one, but it turns out to be a pleasant surprise. I wrote a long review and here's part of it:

    Whether you consider this to actually be The Specials or not — singer Terry Hall, vocalist/guitarist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter are the only original members and, for many, it’s not The Specials without Jerry Dammers, no discussion —  Encore is probably the most legit release under their name since 1980’s More Specials (their last with Hall), and the fact that it’s Hall’s first album of any kind in 16 years makes this notable on its own.

    Verdict: this album’s pretty good! (I’ve come around from an initial first listen reaction of “shrug” to appreciating it a lot more.) A few qualifiers, though. For those who just wish they’d go back to sounding like “Do the Dog” and “Nite Klub” of the first album, you are going to be disappointed. However, those of you who liked the underrated second album, More Specials, Jerry Dammers’ jazzy The Special AKA and Terry Hall & Lynval Golding’s other group, Fun Boy 3, will be pleasantly surprised, and there are some genuinely great moments mixed in amongst the merely fine.

    Read the whole thing here and stream Encore below.

    The Specials just announced North American tour dates, too.

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    The Cardigans vinyl reissues

    All six of the Swedish band's albums are getting long-overdue reissues (including two that have never been on vinyl before)

    The Cardigans' 1995 album Life has long been on my vinyl reissue wishlist so I was very excited to learn this week that not just that one, but all six of the Swedish band's records were being released today, including first-time-ever vinyl pressings for their first album, 1994's Emmerdale, and their most recent, 2005's Super Extra Gravity. All have been remastered and given gatefold sleeves.

    The Cardigans have had an interesting, swervy career. The band was formed by guitarists Peter Svensson and Magnus Sveningsson, who were both previously in hardcore and metal bands but had backgrounds in jazz. Bringing in drummer Bengt Lagerberg, keyboardist Lars-Olof Johansson and vocalist Nina Persson (who had never sung in a band before), they explored that jazzier side, mixing in the sounds of sunshine pop and Swinging London pop. Working with producer Tore Johansson, who was almost a sixth member of the band, at his Trampoline Studios in Malmo, The Cardigans' sound was born.

    Life, as most of the world knew it, was actually a compilation of The Cardigans' first album, 1994's Emmerdale (which included "Rise and Shine," "Sick and Tired," and that great cover of Black Sabbath's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," which married their metal roots with The Cardigans sound), and the original Swedish release of Life ("Carnival," "Daddy's Car," "Tomorrow" and more). It didn't make it to America till 1995 and the band would tour it for two more years.

    The Cardigans and Johansson further refined their sound, while letting a little more than a little melancholy creep into things, on 1997's First Band on the Moon which contained the band's breakthrough worldwide hit "Lovefool," which was also on the William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet soundtrack, as well as another loungey Black Sabbath cover ("Iron Man").

    While they continued to work with Johansson, The Cardigans changed things up for 1998's Gran Turismo which sported a sleeker, shinier, electronic-inflected sound as exemplified by lead single -- and one of their best-ever songs -- "My Favorite Game." They lost some fans who wondered where all the harpsichords, xylophones and flutes went, but Gran Turismo is a big leap for the band and arguably their best album.

    It would be six years before The Cardigans would make another album, and they threw folks another curveball with 2004's Long Gone Before Daylight which is the only record they haven't made with Johansson and found them with a rootsier sound, and Nina Persson taking on darker lyrical themes and a huskier, belt-it-out delivery. They took that sound even further on 2005's Super Extra Gravity that had three great singles ("I Need Some Fine Wine, And You Need to Be Nicer," "Don't Blame Your Daughter" and "Godspell") and the rest was nearly as good.

    I'm definitely more a fan of the first four albums, but I do like all of them and if you've never heard past (or anything but) "Lovefool" it's definitely worth at least giving all their records a spin -- they're all on streaming services except for Super Extra Gravity. One other note about these vinyl reissues: they're UK/EU only but ordering from Amazon.co.uk puts them around $25 a piece including shipping which is what most albums go for these days. It's certainly cheaper than what you'd pay for OG vinyl on Discogs (Life has gone for as high as $180 recently!). It should also be noted that these restore the original tracklistings, so if you want all the songs that are on the UK/US editions of Life, you're going to have to buy Life and Emmerdale. For a taste of their whole career here's their 2008 Best Of comp (which is not on vinyl):

    I last saw The Cardigans at the old Tribeca Knitting Factory during CMJ 2006 where they didn't play anything before Long Gone Before Daylight  -- they haven't played here since but the band have come out of retirement, and played Gran Turismo 20th Anniversary UK shows last year. Let's hope we get some US shows this year.

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    Le SuperHomard - "Paper Girl"

    Sparkling pop from this French band whose name means "The Super Lobster"

    If you're looking for a modern band that sounds like '90s era Cardigans, with a little same-era Stereolab, look no further than Paris' Le SuperHomard. You may have heard their 2018 EP and now the group are set to release their full-length debut, Meadow Lane Park, on February 22 via Elefant. The album includes both "Springtime" and "Meadow Lane Park" which were on that EP, plus a whole bunch of groovy new songs, like new single, "Paper Girl." Travelling on a gossamer thread of arpeggiated keyboards, this is soaring, swelling, string-laden pop that may also remind some of Eggstone, The Wannadies and Saint Etienne. Bonus for some: though they're French they sing in English.

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    Sparks - No. 1 in Heaven 40th Anniversary Edition

    The Mael Brothers ++ Giorgio Moroder = magic. Now with a bonus disc of rarities

    There are a lot of reissues this week, including this 40th anniversary edition of Sparks' 1979 classic, No. 1 in Heaven. This was a turning point in Sparks' career and a reinvention for Ron and Russell Mael, who had previously made weird, incredible glammy, guitar-based art-rock. Here they teamed with Giorgio Moroder, creating a hyperactive dance sound that was totally new but still totally Sparks. It was also massively influential (would Pet Shop Boys exist without this album?) and, thanks to some smart production choices, like continuing to use a real drummer, still sounds great today. "The Number One Song in Heaven" and "Tryouts for the Human Race" remain live set staples.

    This 40th anniversary reissue, both the CD and vinyl versions, add a second disc that includes long versions of "Tryouts for the Human Race" and "Beat the Clock," the 7" mix of "Number One Song in Heaven" and other songs, plus the very rare radio ads British comedy icon Peter Cook made to promote the album. It's out March 1 (one day shy of the actual 40th anniversary) via Sparks' own Little Beethoven label and you can preorder that now.

    LIsten to the original album and one of those Peter Cook ads:

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    The Telescopes - Exploding Head Syndrome

    UK psych vets 11th album drones on...in a good way

    Stephen Lawrie has led UK psych band The Telescopes since 1986. Their first release was a split with Loop, and they've managed to drone on (in the good way) ever since, having dabbled in JAMC-style feedback, accessible dreampop, shoegaze (they spent time on Creation Records), and electronic music. Exploding Head Syndrome is The Telescopes' 11th record (and third for German label Tapete) and a retreat from the pure noise of 2017's As Light Return. Here, Lawrie, who made the album almost entirely on his own, goes for a dark, warm and fuzzy sound that's part "All Tomorrow's Parties" Velvet Underground and part "Ghost Rider" Suicide (which is a little like Spacemen 3). There's not much variety in the way of style or tempo or theme: it's a lot of thick organ, blown-out guitar leads, maracas on drums and Lawrie working through some inner demons with his vocals way, way, way down in the mix. As a 37-minute mood piece, though, it's successful... and sounds really good loud.

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    The Fall - Bend Sinister / The Domesday Pay-Off deluxe reissue

    The fall album that gave us "Mr. Pharmacist" gets a reissue with an extra album's worth of great extras

    It's been a while since I've written about a Fall reissue -- and I should say when I wrote that I was originally being somewhat facetious but it has in fact been since September -- but here we have another from the Beggars Arkive. 1986's Bend Sinister was The Fall's ninth album and fell smack dab in the middle of the Brix period that gave them some of their most popular albums. This was also the third and final album they made with the great John Leckie, following the fantastic The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall (my #1 fave LP by them) and This Nation's Saving Grace (most Fall fan's favorite). Bend Sinister isn't quite as fantastic as those two, but it's still pretty great, containing such classics as "Shoulder Pads" (one of their greatest pop songs), "DKTR Faustus," "Terry Waite Sez," and their unforgettable cover of The Other Half's "Mr. Pharmacist" which is one of their best-known singles ever.

    The vinyl reissue, titled Bend Sinister / The Domesday Pay-Off Plus, adds a whole extra album's worth of non-LP singles and b-sides, including the indispensable "Living Too Late" and "Hey Luciani," as well as some other great ones like "Lucifer Over Lancashire" and "Entitled." The CD edition adds even more tracks including Peel Sessions and alternate mixes from the album sessions (which I am anxious to hear as then bassist Stephen Hanley says there's much better version of this album than what actually got released, thanks to Mark E Smith's temperamental ways).

    The vinyl also includes a replica program for the Riverside production of ‘Hey Luciani!', which was a play Mark E Smith wrote about the 1978 death of Pope John Paul 1 and starred Leigh Bowery. The reissue is out March 15 and you can pre-order it now.

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