Bill’s Indie Basement (8/23): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week: Australia's Tropical Fuck Storm are back with the mind-melting Braindrops; the measured, lovely debut from Modern Nature (featuring members of Ultimate Painting, Beak> and Woods); Brooklyn's Ghost Funk Orchestra bridge the gap between Marvin Gaye's Troubleman and The Free Design; and Julian Cope's old band, The Teardrop Explodes, get vinyl reissues of their two original albums.
Records out this week that I don't review but are worth checking out include Jay Som's Anak Ko, Redd Kross' Beyond the Door and Ceremony's In the Spirit World. If you need more album reviews, head to Andrew's Notable Releases. And for more Basement-approved music from this week, there's: Skull Practitioners make excellent Gun Club-style dusty punk; and FITTED, which features Mike Watt and members of Wire, is much better than I expected it to be. Plus: farewell Prince Rama, you were always fun.
When Tropical Fuck Storm shared the wild cover art for their fantastic debut album, A Laughing Death in Meatspace, the band's Gareth Liddiard wrote “It sounds like it looks.” That goes for the group's new album, Braindrops, too, whose cover is a horrific collage illustration featuring mutant pizza, Weekly World News cover star Bat Boy, one of the robots from The Black Hole, Pikachu in a gas mask, and other grotesque (but...cool) imagery. Likewise, Tropical Fuck Storm are a sonic Vitamix, pulverizing genres into their own visceral brand of rock n' roll which, with this second album, has become a recognizable sound.
Trying to describe what Tropical Fuck Storm do sound like, though, is a little tough. There are elements of garage rock, punk, goth, electronic music, modern R&B and pop, though none of it coming at you quite the way you think they might. “Everything we do, we try to do it in a weird way. The whole album is full of weird beats, and just weird shit everywhere,” Liddiard says in the album's press release, explaining they purposefully use unconventional equipment to keep them on edge. “We use lots of techno gear to make rock and roll because rock and roll gear is boring, and all sounds like Led Zeppelin.” No one will confuse TFS for Greta Van Fleet, that's for sure.
All four members of TFS sing, and the combination/juxtaposition between Liddiard and bassist Fiona Kitschin, drummer Lauren Hammel, and guitarist/keyboardist Erica Dunn is what really cements their unique sound. There is also an undeniable urgency to what they do, that is even rawer on Braindrops than their debut, that is almost like they are playing and singing as if their lives depend on it. That true whether it's something intimate and personal, like the stormy romance of opener "Paradise," or the funky look at leaders around the world that is "Planet of Straw Men," or the album-closing "Maria 63" which, according to Liddiard, invisions "a Mossad agent traveling to Buenos Aires to assassinate Maria Orsic, a Nazi witch who telepathically got the blueprints for warp drive engines from aliens."
"Maria 63" isn't the most out-there song here, either. "Who's My Eugene?" sets fears of romantic intimacy against the relationship between Brian Wilson and his infamous psychiatrist/manager/songwriting partner, Eugene Landy with a groove that, in a parallel dimension would be an R&B smash. Then there's Braindrops' amazing title track, a tale of psychic unease set to an alluringly funky backing while Liddiard peels off an unending stream of vivid lyrical imagery that is both fantastical and deeply relatable: "you picked an odd time to start feeling strange / and when all’s said and done / you’re just a massive cunt / so stop acting like your problems / all jumped out of a cake."
That may be Tropical Fuck Storm in a nutshell -- larger than than life, totally surreal and yet zoned in on what's really going on. They feel like planet earth 2019.
It's wild to think that Julian Cope, who has become the epitome of the Earth-loving hippie, began his career leading Liverpool's The Teardrop Explodes, who were tipped (and groomed) to be pop megastars. It's also amazing that a record label put so much promise in a group that did as much acid as The Teardrop Explodes. Reading Julian Cope's fantastic first memoir, Head-On, it's amazing anyone in the group survived to be able to speak coherently, let alone remember it all for a book. (One example: on their 1981 U.S. tour, a woman gave Julian a "1000-trip" bag of crystal LSD which they made a massive dent in before having to dump it before hitting the Canadian border.) But The Teardrop Explodes were pop stars, if just for a moment. "Reward," which sounded like a new wave update of "96 Tears" in a dayglo funhouse, hit #6 on the UK Singles Chart and "Treason" and "Passionate Friend" cracked the Top 30, with their two albums, 1980's Kilimanjaro and 1981's Wilder both going Top 30.
Those two albums have been reissued a few times over the years, including deluxe CDs with bonus discs, but here are brand new vinyl reissues which have been remastered at Abbey Road Studios. Of the two, Kilimanjaro is the must own, a record overflowing with ambition, creativity, great songs, and inventive arrangements and production. (Kilimanjaro sounds like The '80s, but not in a bad way.) This has all their awesome early singles where they were basically a post-punk take on '60s garage rock that was both gothy and bright / poppy at the same time, with Cope's commanding, melodramatic vocal style leading the charge. Those include the aformentioned "Reward" (which wasn't originally on the album but added to second pressings), "Ha Ha I'm Drowning," "Sleeping Gas," "Treason," "Poppies in the Field," "Bouncing Babies," "When I Dream," and "Books" which Cope co-wrote with Ian McCulloch and also appears on Echo & The Bunnymen's debut album as "Read it in Books."
Wilder had more money behind it -- Alan Winstanley, who co-produced almost all of Madness' albums -- was brought in as producer, and he brings a distinctive sound to the record, with fretless bass and more keyboards. It's darker and less hyperactive -- not a bad thing, as "Bent Out of Shape," "Seven Views of Jerusalem," and the atmospheric closing track "Great Dominions" show -- but there are less memorable songs. "Colours Fly Away" and "Passionate Friend" are really the only two songs on the album that sound anything like "pop."
Both records were released with two different covers. This reissue of Kilimanjaro uses the more distinctive artwork from the album's second pressing, while Wilder get it's original floral artwork (though I much prefer this one's second-pressing artwork, one of my all-time favorite album covers).
Ultimate Painting broke up last year, just a couple months before their fourth album (and first for Bella Union) was set to come out. (The album's release was scrapped but you can find it if you know where to look.) Jack Cooper, one half of the band, didn't waste too much time forming a new project, Modern Nature. Primarily a collaboration with Will Young, who plays in Beak> and also makes music as Moon Gangs, just released their debut album, How to Live, that also features contributions from Woods drummer Aaron Neveu (who is a semi-permanent member), cellist Rupert Billett and Sunwatchers saxophonist Jeff Tobias.
How to Live sort of picks up where Ultimate Painting's "Bills" (off 2016's Dusk) left off, with drony synthesizers and delicate guitar humming alongside lithe, motorik drumming. But it's Sandgrown, Cooper's 2017 solo album about his hometown of Blackpool, that may have had the biggest influence. “Approaching the album as a film or play made complete sense," says Jack, "and from that came the idea to have a very defined narrative, reoccurring themes and chord progressions, field recordings and a set palette of instruments and sounds." Jack says that every song on the album "came with pages and pages of notes, musical references, films, books, places, words and feelings.”
As labored-over as its creation may have been, How to Live doesn't feel calculated or like a concept album, but it does have a very precise mood and flow. It's a Magic Hour vibe, with Jack's voice rarely going above a whisper and the album's hypnotic grooves politely inviting you in. (If you like American Analog Set's Know By Heart, this is in the same orbit.) The music gets more unrestrained as the lyrical setting moves from tense confines of the city to the wide open countryside, even allowing for some unhinged soloing and festive rhythms before going nearly silent, with the faint hisses of nature closing the final minutes of the record. It's a moving journey that deepens with each trip.
Led by Seth Applebaum, Brooklyn's Ghost Funk Orchestra fall somewhere between classic soul and '60s psych. It's clear Applebaum knows what he wants as the ensemble's new album, A Song For Paul, really nails a certain sound that falls somewhere between Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Free Design and David Axelrod. (The album is also a tribute to his late grandfather, Paul Anish, who played a huge role in Seth's love of music early on.) If you didn't know better, you could be convinced A Song for Paul was actually made in 1969 and this was some Light in the Attic reissue, but it is new. The otherworldly, half-remembered dream vibe would also fit right in on the soundtrack to AMC's wonderful, weird series Lodge 49. (Some of the lighter vocal songs, like "Seven Eight," you could also imagine being in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.) Can you describe an album as an awesome hang? Well, Ghost Funk Orchestra have made it.
Ghost Funk Orchestra play NYC's free Bryant Park Emerging Music Festival on Saturday (8/24) with Tomberlin, Renata Zeiguer and Remember Sports.