Monday, January 16, 2017

I Know You Know: A Look At The New One From The Proper Ornaments (James of Veronica Falls, Ultimate Painting and Max Of Toy)

The new one from The Proper Ornaments is a thing of modest perfection. Foxhole, out here on this side of the Atlantic on Slumberland Records this Friday, offers up a set of quiet-yet-precise indie rockers that are, nearly, as significant as those made by the bands that these 2 guys are normally performing with.

James Hoare, he of Ultimate Painting and Veronica Falls, and Max Oscarnold, he of Toy and Pink Flames, were friends first (according to the press materials) and band-mates later. That sort of makes sense as the recordings here -- stuff like "Memories" and "I Know You Know" -- suggest a wealth of languid Sundays spent bonding over classic Zombies sides, late-period Teenage Fanclub albums, and select tracks from Big Star's Chris Bell. At their very best, The Proper Ornaments make stately chamber pop that charms like a warmer version of something off of Floyd's Obscured By Clouds ("The Frozen Stare"), or a less-VU-obsessed version of Hoare's own Ultimate Painting ("Bridge By A Tunnel"). On something like "Cremated (Blown Away)", the light effect is similar to that of a spry early McCartney solo track, while "Back Pages" echoes The Byrds and The Beau Brummels in fine, memorable ways. If the band bring a classic Eighties DIY-slash-C86 approach to this sort of stuff, they are, clearly, mentally stuck in "1969" to reference another highlight here. Still, this sort of backward-looking stuff works spectacularly here.

Bridging the Lou-abides vibe of mid-period Feelies numbers with a sort of less angular take on the art pop of Felt at their most inward-looking, The Proper Ornaments make sublime tunes that owe as much to The Zombies, or Lennon, as they do to Yo La Tengo and early Lilac Time. Foxhole succeeds brilliantly by ratcheting back the big gestures and large moments. By doing this sort of thing so well, and without seemingly breaking a sweat while chasing past pop ghosts, the boys in The Proper Ornaments have elevated this kind of music beyond the rote revivalism it would have become in other hands. Instead, this material is vital and full of life even as it seems to quietly slip into your ears and stay.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that 2017 is unlikely to see an album that does what it sets out to do so well. Utterly infectiousness and possessing a subdued glory that is hard to deny, Foxhole by The Proper Ornaments is an album every bit as wonderful as those produced by the other bands featuring James Hoare and Max Oscarnold.

Foxhole will be out on Slumberland Records this Friday. Outside of the USA, check out Tough Love Records. Follow The Proper Ornaments on the band's official Facebook page.

[Photo: Uncredited promo pic]

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Do It Now: A Look At The Fab New Half Japanese Album On Fire Records

That the new Half Japanese album is worth listening to is a given. The band's been making indie of the highest order before we even had a term for this sort of thing. What's remarkable this time out is how direct and accessible this band's tracks have become. Not only is Hear The Lions Roar, out Friday on Fire Records, one of the best Half Japanese releases in quite some time, it's also surely going to be seen in the future as one of the best albums of 2017. And in this grim, grim year, we need all the hope we can get.

The line-up of Half Japanese this time out is John Sluggett (guitar, keyboards, timbales), Gilles-Vincent Rieder (drums, percussion, keyboards), Jason Willett (bass, keyboards), Mick Hobbs (guitar, glockenspiel) and Jad Fair (vocals). Together, the effect of these players is, perhaps, a bit more seamless than other line-ups in the recent past. Still, the power of the Half Japanese material is really thanks to Jad Fair's unaffected-and-heartfelt delivery as vocalist and front-man.

Of course, there's the usual kind of fascination with alt-culture (b-movie love in "Attack of the Giant Leeches"), and forceful optimism (the title track), and the sort of ramshackle fuzz-punk fans of this band have long come to expect ("Here We Are"). For all the moments here that feel familiar, there are loads that surprise. "The Preventers" explores a more languid texture for the tune-age, things unfurling at a deliberate pace like a rough, near-blues piece. Elsewhere, Jad Fair delivers one of his most beautiful compositions in the direct "Do It Now", an ode to love and one of the most life-affirming and simple things I've heard in quite some time.

Other places on Hear The Lions Roar see this similar sort of music-making from Fair and his crew. "It Never Stops" shines like a ray of sunshine, a tune full of the usual optimism that Fair brings to his recordings even if he's distracted by fears of the "fury of the wolfman" lyrically. On the spry "Super Power" Fair allows the band to skip through a near-ska rhythmic pattern as he croons over the top. The cut shows the risk-taking this line-up is willing to engage in in 2017, next to the Cure-like hook that underpins "On The Right Track", Fair penning his own riff on "The Lovecats" here.

One has to thank Jad Fair for making so much good music for so long. If he had simply decided to go the route of resting on his laurels, or touring some revival circuit for old indie guys, it would be understandable and acceptable. What he's done instead is assemble a pretty tight outfit and offered up some of his best recent material to start 2017. Hear The Lions Roar is full of bright, invigorating alt-rock that makes me smile. There's nothing too heavy here but in its simplicity Jad Fair has somehow tapped into something beautiful and real. Emotional in the way that old Robyn Hitchcock recordings could be, and unaffected in delivery throughout, the songs of Jad Fair and Half Japanese here are marvelous and simple. I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this record.

Hear The Lions Roar by Half Japanese is out on Friday from Fire Records. Follow Half Japanese on the official Jad Fair website.

[Photo: Uncredited promo pic from label]

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Turntable Exiles: New Tunes From New D.C. Supergroup Foxhall Stacks (ex-Minor Threat, Government Issue, Jawbox, and Velocity Girl)!

Such a new proposition that they don't even have any cool band shots up on their Facebook page yet, but what they do have is a pair of killer tunes. Foxhall Stacks is a new D.C. supergroup. Featuring Jim Spellman (Velocity Girl, The High-Back Chairs), Bill Barbot (Jawbox, Burning Airlines), Peter Moffett (Government Issue, Wool, Burning Airlines), and the legendary Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Government Issue, Dag Nasty, The Meatmen), Foxhall Stacks make sharp, punchy power-pop that the indie world needs more of.

The band dropped their first bit of music tonight and the 2 cuts are superb. The cleverly-titled "Turntable Exiles" throws down like the best tracks from Superchunk, Dag Nasty, or even D.C.'s other supergroup, Dot Dash. The flip, "Worried", is more conventional but no less affecting. Recalling the more memorable numbers from The Posies, circa Frosting on the Beater, or even Sloan, this one hints at the strong heft of this band's brand of power pop.

Now, after you've played these tracks a few times, get ready for the band's upcoming gig at Comet Ping Pong on January 21. Details here.

Follow Foxhall Stacks via the band's official Facebook page.

[Photo: Bill Barbot]

Monday, January 2, 2017

Play New Split Single Video Here To Clear The Dust Of 2016 From Your Minds!

Jason Narducy -- better known as the bassist in the Bob Mould Band, touring bassist for Superchunk, and other stuff -- has written and performed perhaps the perfect end of 2016-song in his Split Single guise. Spin this to clear the dust and cobwebs and negativity of 2016 out of your mind and then get ready for a (hopefully) better 2017...even if El Trumpf is in the Oval Office.

Metal Frames, the new one from Narducy's Split Single, is out now. It's a fab record and it was a shoe-in for my recent Top 20 Albums Of 2016 list.

More details on Jason Narducy and Split Single via the band's official Facebook page.

[Photo: Marina Chavez]

Sunday, December 18, 2016

My Top 20 Albums Of 2016

The first thing you're gonna notice in this list is the absence of some big names. Yeah, David Bowie put out an exceptional album right before his death early in 2016, and a few other mainstays of the indie world released records this year that pushed at the edges of their established sound. Still, I was a bit brutal this time around. It's not that these were necessarily the albums that I played the most in 2016 -- heck, I probably played the reissue of Kaleidoscope World from The Chills more than some of these selections; and the release of the complete Third from Big Star made that band's music just as current and vital as a lot of what's here -- but that these are the ones worth highlighting, the ones that seemed to grab my attention, held my interest, offered something special, inspired me.

And, it's worth noting that this list is only albums proper, hence none of the fine EP releases that graced my year are here. So no 2016 offerings from Angelic Milk, Chemtrails, The Close Lobsters, Tony Molina, or Butterfly Child.

So, all that being said, here we go. Here's my list and in no particular order beyond release date (roughly). Links to the bands' websites and labels are in my original reviews (linked where available).

My Top 20 Albums Of 2016

1. In Search Or Harperfield by Emma Pollock

The former Delgados singer offered up one of her best solo releases with 2016's In Search of Harperfield, a lyrical-and-lush rumination on aging and family. Cuts like "Old Ghosts" offered an aching understanding of what it means to care for one's parents in their old age.

2. Spilt Milk by Pete Astor

Pete Astor was the leader of both The Loft and The Weather Prohets but one didn't need a knowledge of those bands' back-catalogs in order to appreciate the buoyant Spilt Milk. The Slumberland Records release began a year of exceptional releases for the label, and signaled the start of a new era for this underappreciated songwriter.

3. Wolves Of Want by Bent Shapes

Did someone mention Slumberland Records? The latest long-player from this Boston crew, on that label, was an absurdly catchy affair, indie hooks ringing throughout. Stuff like "New Starts in Old Dominion" was smart-not-snarky and a number -- like so many here -- with some of the biggest hooks of 2016. So many cuts on Wolves of Want didn't leave my iPod for the last 12 months that it feels like I've been loving this one for years.

4. Searchlights by Dot Dash

The D.C. quartet turned up the volume in 2016 and -- full confession -- I didn't quite dig this new one on first listen as I expected to despite being a huge fan of the band. A few more plays did the trick and everything clicked for me. Searchlights is louder and longer than earlier Dot Dash releases but it's also one of their best releases, Steve Hansgen now a strong, firm presence in the production of the group's sound. The Minor Threat legend joins these other D.C. legends in cranking out power-pop of the very finest caliber, with "Woke Up Saturday Night", in a video shot by Lorelei/Sansyou drummer Davis White, being a prime example.

5. Antares by Tone

Speaking of D.C. legends, these cats have been producing superb music for decades. Antares was the 2016 release from Tone and it rewarded fans of this band, as well as casual listeners, with the sort of muscular post-rock this outfit has staked their lives on. Blurring lines between genres here, the return of Tone was one of 2016's blessings for a listener.

6. Actual Entity by Lake Ruth

Actual Entity by Lake Ruth was the surprise release of this year for a lot of people. The band, featuring Hewson Chen from The New Lines and singer Alison Brice, put out an album that managed to echo past greats like Pram and Komeda while offering up something stately, otherworldly, and haunting.

7. Tonight's Music by The Moles

If anything, The Moles, fronted by superb songwriter Richard Davies, didn't make things easier for listeners. A dense album packed full of cryptic references and difficult melodies jutting up next to lush ones, Tonight's Music was one of this year's most rewarding listens.

8. The Glistening One by Sansyou

This D.C. trio offered up one of 2016's best albums with The Glistening One. If Sansyou doesn't use a vocalist, it doesn't really matter as they still manage to make what can only be termed "catchy" music. Full of hooks that recalled Cocteau Twins, Ride, and Johnny Marr, this trio's tunes blended multiple sub-genres within the indie world with ease.

9. Here by Teenage Fanclub

Of course the return of Teenage Fanclub was something to be applauded. That the results were as excellent as those found on Here made that applause even louder. Their sharpest set in ages, this album charmed and offered up downright life-affirming music from these indie legends.

10. La Arana Es La Vida by Kid Congo Powers and The Pink Monkey Birds

I'm still mad that I was sick the last time this lot played D.C. 'cause I'm sure the show I missed was just as much of a sonic riot as La Arana Es La Vida is. The newest one from Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds offered up the soundtrack to the greatest party in the world, or only the psychotronic one running in your head like an old B-movie.

11. Adult Contemporaries by Ablebody

I didn't really expect a band with 2 members of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to sound like this. Anton Hochheim and his brother Christoph offered up the O.M.D.-influenced Adult Contemporaries and each cut here was a pleasant bit of ear candy. Echoes of past bands like Altered Images and Associates abounded, and yet Ablebody were serving up something modern and forward-looking at the same time. Superbly constructed, performed, and produced, Adult Contemporaries still deserves far more attention even as the year winds down.

12. Wordless Wonder by Real Numbers

Sounding like every C86-era band that inspired Mike Schulman to start up Slumberland Records in the first place, the music of American band Real Numbers was more than a note-perfect recreation of an earlier set of indie classics. Wordless Wonder offered up chiming number after chiming number. And yet, for all the nods to the past, the tunes here charmed in fresh ways. One of 2016's most listenable records starts here.

13. Lost At The Party by Terry Malts

The punk-pop band Terry Malts, pictured up above, re-invented itself in 2016 and dropped the superb Lost At The Party. Sleek Eighties edges and strong New Wave hooks were the key ingredients this time out and if Terry Malts didn't sound much like they had in the past, they sounded like one of the best bands operating in this country in 2016. With every cut a gem, Lost At The Party was one of the best releases from Slumberland Records in a banner year for the label.

14. Beneath a Yellow Moon by I Have A Tribe

I Have A Tribe is Patrick O'Laoghaire, more or less, and the band released one of the most haunting records of 2016 with Beneath A Yellow Moon. Doubt me? Spin "Buddy Holly" and other numbers from this record in the car when you're alone and driving late at night. Beautiful and aching, the music of I Have A Tribe, carried forward by Patrick's rich voice, surprised me in a year full of musical surprises.

15. Ten Hymns From My American Gothic by St. Lenox

Let's face it, if you asked me to simply name the best record of 2016 there's a very good chance I'd say this one. Ten Hymns From My American Gothic by St. Lenox is smart, emotional, brave, and bold big music. I've never heard anything like this, frankly, and each time I play it something grabs me, whether it's the humor of "Conspiracy Theories" or the poignancy of "People From Other Cultures".

16. Metal Frames by Split Single

Metal Frames may have featured the drummer from Superchunk and the bassist from Wilco but the sound of this act was entirely fresh. The superb power-pop cranked out by the Jason Narducy-fronted Split Single was bright, listenable stuff. The kid's now a real peer to those acts he's played with (Bob Mould, Superchunk, Guided by Voices).

17. The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo by Cory Hanson

I never ever would have expected that the singer from Wand would have offered up something like this. The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo revealed Cory Hanson to be a genuine chamber pop force. Echoes of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith were here, but there were also bits that sounded like old Van Dyke Parks records. Lush, lyrical, and altogether haunting, each tune on this one is perfectly crafted and entirely affecting.

18. We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest

The end of a bad year saw one thing to excited about: the surprise return of A Tribe Called Quest. Offering up one of their strongest releases, the Tribe, with contributions from the late Phife Dawg recorded before his death, delivered a thing of force in We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. Brilliant blasts of lyrics and an excellent selection of samples filled We Got It From Here..., and this is exactly what hip hop, and the the world, needed in 2016.

19. Another's Blood by Young Romance

I had literally been waiting for years for this one and I wasn't disappointed. The debut full-length from London duo Young Romance, Another's Blood, offered up bright indie mixed with traces of shoegaze and C86 stuff. Claire and Paolo delivered on the promise of those early singles with one of 2016's most concise and sharp releases.

20. Love And Cannibalism by The New Lines

Featuring Hewson Chen from Lake Ruth and Davis White from Sansyou, 2 bands that appear elsewhere on this list, The New Lines make similarly affecting indie. While there are moments here on Love And Cannibalism that do indeed owe a debt to Silver Apples, or Stereolab, or The Velvet Underground, what makes the music here so memorable is how effortlessly those sorts of influences are blended together in the service of utterly unique tune-age. This is a release that will reward over time and one that reveals something new each time I spin it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My Top 20 Tracks Of 2016

There's no way that 2016 can be rated as a good year for music considering the deaths of David Bowie and Prince early in these 12 months. So many acts favored by those of my generation were peers of those 2 giants, or a performer that was influenced by those 2 artists. And, frankly, little released in 2016 is going to endure in quite the same way that "Life on Mars?" or "Purple Rain" endures.

Still, a lot of bands and singers put out some great tunes over the course of the last 12 months and I did have to whittle this down a bit to get to my usual 20. So, offered up in no particular order, is my list of the 20 tracks that really grabbed me in 2016.

Kenifan's Top 20 Tracks of 2016

1. "I Can't Give Everything Away" by David Bowie (from Blackstar)

The final cut on the final album released by Bowie during his lifetime, "I Can't Give Everything Away" has taken on a grim subtext for listeners now. Looking for clues to to the singer's disease, and the secrets he kept while suffering so long with it, listeners can revel in this song's beautiful melody and vocal performance as it closes what is an otherwise bold and jarring (in spots) Bowie album.

2. "Really Something" by Pete Astor (from Spilt Milk)

The most recent solo album from the one-time Weather Prophets and The Loft front-man is a thing of beauty. Seemingly revitalized by being on Slumberland Records, Astor is in fine, fine form on Spilt Milk, nowhere more so than on "Really Something", the first single from the record. Winsome indie like this is always to be cherished. Welcome back Pete!

3. "Never Comin' Back" by Golden Daze (from Golden Daze)

The cut that jumped out at me from the debut from L.A.'s Golden Daze was the catchy-yet-understated "Never Comin' Back". Sure, the rest of Golden Daze is nice but this low-key number really stuck in my head throughout the year.

4. "Realization Hits" by Bent Shapes (from Wolves of Want)

I had a hard time narrowing down what Bent Shapes cut was gonna make this list. There are so many smart, infectious numbers on the band's debut, Wolves of Want, that I was really struggling for a bit. "Realization Hits" won me over instantly and I defy you to get this hook out of your head.

5. "Like Kids" by Suede (from Night Thoughts)

On an otherwise dour album, "Like Kids" soared. Suede sounded more alive than they had in ages and, dammit, if that wasn't a great, great hook (even if the rest of Night Thoughts was nothing like this one).

6. "Make Me Like You" by Gwen Stefani (from This Is What The Truth Feels Like)

I never bothered to get the new Gwen Stefani album but I certainly ran to my computer to buy this number from iTunes as soon as I heard it on TV. "Make Me Like You" is a rush of Altered Images-style New Wave pop that is quite possibly this year's catchiest mainstream single. One of the few songs on this list that my wife and I liked in equal measure, "Make Me Like You" is a burst of sunshine.

7. "Crooked Cop" by Beverly (from The Blue Swell)

I didn't think that The Blue Swell from Beverly was quite as good as the band's first album. Perhaps the absence of Frankie Rose contributed to that feeling, but who knows? That may be an oversimplification. Still, "Crooked Cop" charmed on the strengths of a superb melody. With a hint of shoegaze, this throwback indie number remains one of this band's very best numbers, and proof that this act probably didn't need Frankie Rose after all.

8. "Searchlights" by Dot Dash (from Searchlights)

D.C.'s own Dot Dash took a lot of chances with 2016's Searchlights. The band's longest record to date, and maybe their loudest, Searchlights seemed to signal that the group had finally fully integrated Steve Hansgen's guitar into the Dot Dash sound. No longer seeming like a power-pop group with a member of Minor Threat in it, Dot Dash had figured out a way to blend the pop and punk influences churning up from the members' past lives, even while turning the amps up a bit louder this time around.

9. "Rebel Black" by Angelic Milk (from Teenage Movie Soundtrack)

The song on this list that I played the most in 2016 was "Rebel Black" by Angelic Milk. The Russian band dropped a fine EP, Teenage Movie Soundtrack, on my favorite current label, PNKSLM, but it was this first single that blew my mind this year. Absolutely perfect as far as I'm concerned, "Rebel Black" could very well be my favorite cut of the year.

10. "Under London Skies" by The Close Lobsters (from Desire and Signs EP)

Few things made me as happy as hearing new music from The Close Lobsters in 2016. The legends were back, with the Desire and Signs EP, and "Under London Skies" seemed to be both a look back and a start in a new direction for the Scottish pioneers.

11. "Pretty Fucking Sick (Of It All)" by Joanna Gruesome (from single of the same name)

The Welsh trouble-makers were back in 2016, even if only for a one-off single. "Pretty Fucking Sick (Of It All)" is probably the punk-iest thing released on Slumberland Records in quite some time and it's aces. A blast of pure energy, the band seems to sum up a lot of the negative vibes in this most negative of years.

12. "I'm In Love" by Teenage Fanclub (from Here)

The first single from the fine new Teenage Fanclub album, Here, "I'm In Love" is also one of the band's most lyrical releases in ages. Channeling a whole lot of Big Star this time out -- maybe more than they normally do -- The Fannies here offer up one of the very best love songs in recent memory. Sublime and affecting every time I spin it, this is "I'm In Love" and if you don't love this, you probably should stop reading my blog.

13. "Seen Everything" by Terry Malts (from Lost At The Party)

The new Terry Malts album, Lost At The Party, served up a stylistic about-face for the Slumberland Records mainstays. If "Seen Everything" and the rest of the album offered up a slicker ride than earlier Malts releases, the long-player and single were still parts of a smart bit of indie business. Harnessing influences that ranged from The Nerves to New Order, Terry Malts cranked out one of their best albums with this one and "Seen Everything" was clearly a highlight.

14. "In A Moment" by Warm Sun (from single of the same name)

The newest D.C. super-group is Warm Sun. Featuring Basla Andolsun (Beauty Pill), Jason Hutto (Aquarium), Renata Ocampo, and Devin Ocampo (Faraquet, Medications, Deathfix), Warm Sun channel the best bits of The Dream Syndicate and Opal to make compelling indie with a trace of the West Coast about it. A new act, the band has only dropped a half-dozen cuts on Bandcamp so far with the standout being the sharp "In A Moment". Here's hoping that 2017 sees more music from Warm Sun.

15. "Blind Hills Chapel" by Diamond Mind (from Heavy Metal Sunshine)

Diamond Mind's Heavy Metal Sunshine is a fine album but it's not gonna make my 2016 'best albums' list. That said, this cut from the record was a shoe-in for this 'best tracks' list. The Bowie-isms of "Blind Hills Chapel" seemed very affecting in 2016, never mind that the number sounds like Rufus Wainwright covering the Thin White Duke more than it sounds like the late, great singer himself. Still, it's a haunting cut that I found hard to shake this year.

16. "Thurgood Marshall" by St. Lenox (from Ten Hymns From My American Gothic)

I was a bit late to the party when it came to St. Lenox but, dammit, am I on-board now! The busy "Thurgood Marshall" is unlike anything you've heard this year, or probably in this century, and it's also a good deal more inspiring than most of what passes for indie these days. Invigorating, intellectually stimulating, and hella catchy, this ode to the late Supreme Court Justice is one of the best cuts from one of 2016's very best albums.

17. "Our Own Devices" by J. Robbins (from the single of the same name)

Even as he teased about a new Channels record on Facebook, D.C. legend J. Robbins was also releasing new music under his own name. The shoegaze-y "Our Own Devices" married some awesome guitar noises with a strong pop hook. Sounding a tiny bit like an early Medicine release here, the post-Jawbox J. Robbins has not so much mellowed with age as he has harnessed a new set of sounds.

18. "Dis Generation" by A Tribe Called Quest (from We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service)

The brightest ray of sunshine in 2016 was the surprise return of A Tribe Called Quest. If the new album carried traces of Phife Dawg -- the rapper having thankfully recorded some new material before his early, tragic death -- tracks like "Dis Generation" belonged to energetic front-man Q-Tip. Bouncing along on a few buoyant samples from "Pass The Dutchie" by Musical Youth, "Dis Generation" made me happy and glad to be alive. When was the last time a rap single did that, am I right?

19. "Which Part's The Dream?" by The Jet Age (from single of the same name)

D.C.'s The Jet Age did not release a new album in 2016. They did, instead, drop a set of 6 new songs that hinted at a pretty darn good album to come in the new year. Narrowing down these 3 song-pairs to the best single number for this list wasn't easy. But, finally, the unique instrumental mix of "Which Part's The Dream?" easily secured this cut its place here. The way that the guitars from front-man Eric Tischler come in over top of drummer Pete Nuwayser's fine stick-work is a sublime thing on this expansive number. Anchoring all of this is, as always, the Geezer Butler-like bass-work of Greg Bennett. Even without the dream pop-style vocals, this single would be one of the best recent Jet Age releases. I can hardly wait for the next album!

20. "Aeons" by Chemtrails (from Love In Toxic Wasteland)

Pretty much everything released on PNKSLM gets my attention 'cause -- let's face it -- the label has been on a roll as of late. That said, this blast of C86-ish business immediately captivated me. A burst of pure noise pop of the very best kind, "Aeons" from Chemtrails may be full of lyrics that smack of some sci-fi dystopia, but the tune itself is a buzzsaw of promise, and one of the only genuinely chill-inducing indie-pop singles of the year. Hard to categorize, "Aeons" is a unique blend of earlier genre classics with something entirely modern.

[Photo: Wikipedia Commons]

Friday, December 9, 2016

Same Old Madness: A Look At The New Ministry Rarities Compilation

In Autumn 1988 I started working at the Record Co-Op in the Stamp Student Union building at the University of Maryland. I had dropped out of college, was a few months away from re-starting at community college, and more than a year from actually going to the University of Maryland. Still, working on campus in a record store was my dream job. I envisioned -- somewhat correctly -- that my daily retail life would be spent selling students the best new college rock -- (what they called this sort of music then) -- and that I would be sort of a taste-maker in the shop. The deal-breaker -- the cut that could clear the store sometimes -- was "Stigmata", the 1988 breakthrough single from Ministry. It goes without saying that in Autumn 1988, "Stigmata" was just too abrasive for some techno fans. For others, it was the welcomed stab of genuine danger that this kind of music desperately needed.

But, truly, the word "breakthrough" is probably the wrong term as Ministry already had a fan-base in 1988. Earlier singles and albums had given the band the sort of recognition that placed them among bands like Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, and Erasure. Sure, Ministry had an edge even then but their spark of genuine danger wasn't apparent right away. All that being said, rarities from the early years of the band are now collected on the new compilation Trax! Rarities. Out today via Cleopatra Records, the collection highlights the best material from the very beginnings of the career of Al Jourgensen and Ministry. Poised somewhere between what's on releases like Twitch and sides on Wax Trax!, the songs here retain a certain edge despite the bits that sound a tiny bit dated.

What's here -- live cuts, demos, spin-off project numbers -- presents a robust picture of the full genius of Al Jourensen. If material like "Love Change" sounds like early Depeche Mode, stuff like "Game is Over" is more interesting. Hints of late-period Killing Joke pop up here. If Jourgensen is not quite the industrial godfather he would become later, he's at least nudging himself down darker paths than some of his peers in this era. If a remake of "Same Old Scene" reveals Jourgensen to have been beholden to the usual stylistic tropes of the new wave of the early Eighties, there's something here in this Roxy Music cover that hints at a fuller potential. The previously-unreleased "I See Red" sounds remarkably like what Reznor would do on the first Nine Inch Nails release, Reznor himself totally in debt to what Jourgensen was doing in that time period. Certainly closer to industrial styles than anything groups like A Flock of Seagulls or Erasure were doing then, Jourgensen's Ministry was a group that was inching towards the outer edges of the alternative scene. Far closer to that revolutionary stuff is the spin-off project stuff here on Trax! Rarities. "Don't Stand in Line (Dub Mix)" by Pailhead throbs with techno promise, while a Revolting Cocks cover of "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John is the blueprint for so much of what would come later. In 1988, Jourgensen perfected the industrial crossover, clearly, and yet the move was not an attempt to generate sales as much as it was to get asses onto the dance-floor even as the material got harder and harder and harder. While the majority of Trax! Rarities offers up various windows into the genesis of the early Ministry sound, stuff like Revolting Cocks' "Drums Along the Carbide" shines a light on what Jourgensen would unleash later, the fury of the beat sublime.

Wax! Rarities by Ministry is an essential peek into the mind of Al Jourgensen. His reputation climbing as the years progress, Jourgensen essentially created a genre starting in 1988, even after he had had some real successes earlier in more traditional areas. If the new wave on this compilation is not as dangerous as that techno stuff, it's at least inventive and forward-thinking. For that reason, this compilation is a must-purchase for fans of Jourgensen's various projects, and even casual students of alternative and industrial music in America's recent past.

Out today on Cleopatra Records, Wax! Rarities by Ministry is available now. Follow Al Jourgenson via his official website.

[Photo: Brian Shanley]

Thursday, December 8, 2016

I Had A Dream...That New Jet Age Tunes Were Up On Bandcamp!

In a clever bit of band marketing, the fellas in The Jet Age have decided to release new tunes in 2016 two-at-a-time. We've had a few of these music drops this year but perhaps none has been as strong as today's offering.

"The Glow Won't Fade" ups the Jet Age formula with a subtle build-up that manages to showcase drummer Pete Nuwayser and bassist Greg Bennett as much as it does singer-guitarist Eric Tischler. All the players here are at their peak powers and the instruments sound perfectly balanced in this mix. The cut builds and grabs a listener even as the music veers into controlled chaos.

"I Had A Dream" is a step into more familiar territory. Recalling stuff from earlier albums like 2011's Domestic Disturbances, the number finds Tischler in superb form, vocals and riffs up-front in this new number's sharp (and smart) mix. Waves of near-shoegaze-style feedback wash in behind him as the rhythm section keeps things grounded.

Hopefully 2017 will see a new full-length release from The Jet Age. This D.C.-area band continues to make music that seems essential and vital to me, and they are still capable of surprising me when they venture into new stylistic and sonic territory. Criminally underrated as I've said before, The Jet Age remain one of the very best bands in the nation's capital.

Until the new record drops, and after you've bought all the cuts released in 2016, you can follow The Jet Age via their official website, or their official Facebook page.

[Photo: Glenn Griffith, 2015]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Do Not Go Gentle: A Look At The New Reissue Of John Cale's Fragments Of A Rainy Season

I guess I could say that my odd multi-year correspondence with John Cale began because of a song on this album. In 1998 I worked for Jane's. I got a message that a customer was having trouble with a subscription to one of our email newsletters and the name was "Kale". I called, heard that delicious Welsh accent, and suddenly realized I was on the phone with the Velvet Underground legend, a guy whose name I knew how to spell correctly. Long story short: I was wise enough to not pepper him on that call with a bunch of VU-related comments. Instead, I mentioned some more obscure releases from his back-catalog, notably his Dylan Thomas-inspired album, Words For The Dying (1989). A few cuts from that release are spread out on Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992), Cale's superb live album. That release is being prepped for a 2-CD reissue and that version is going to drop on Domino this Friday. Here's my take on this live album, more on my multi-year correspondence with Cale at a much later date.

John Cale has always been an artist hard to pin down as a solo performer. He's flitted from classical to rock to new wave to torch songs and back again. His prodigious talents allow him this luxury and he usually makes those leaps look easy, his mastery of each form so complete that this genre-hopping has never seemed dilettantish. And perhaps the best, most basic way to understand Cale as an artist -- to grasp this Welsh gentleman's command of so many styles -- has been to dive into Fragments Of A Rainy Season. First released in 1992, the album gained attention for Cale's timeless interpretation of the late Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", or Cale's own tortured run at "Heartbreak Hotel", more horrific than anything the King could have ever imagined in a pill-haze. But more than as a showcase for those 2 incendiary covers, Fragments Of A Rainy Season works best as a career overview of this musical genius. Here, on this new edition, the work has been expanded, the bonus cuts thankfully removed to the second half of this set and the first live set largely intact.

Tackling the Thomas material on the piano, the melodies of his compositions based around the poems "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and "Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed" retain their radiance, the sharp angles of Cale's score plonked out by the Welshman himself. The material from Words For The Dying works on the keyboard, especially so if you know the orchestral versions of these cuts. Elsewhere, Cale tackles numbers from his older records on the guitar, "Guts" and "Ship of Fools" getting by on a good deal of Dylan-style appeal. "Style It Takes" from 1990's elegant Songs For Drella still sparkles like a ruby, while "I Keep A Close Watch" remains the most perfect Sinatra song never essayed by Frank himself. Mixed in among the bonus cuts are rough live stabs at the Velvet Underground nugget "Waiting for the Man" as well as "Antarctica Starts Here", which shines as one of Cale's absolutely best compositions in terms of tune and lyric.

This new 2-CD set of Fragments Of A Rainy Season doesn't alter my opinion that the live album is one of Cale's most essential releases. Sure, the bonus tracks are nice to have but there was little worry that anything could diminish the perfect presentation of the original release. Still, the extra numbers expand the overall impact of this set, some of them showing a rougher Cale than those cuts on the original edition itself. Think of this as the shiny, simple distillation of Cale's genius now made shinier, more perfect, more direct, each piece adding to the overall effect. In some remarkable way, this is Cale's "best of" disc. I can imagine some kid today gorging on the first few Velvets' releases, then starting his Cale quest with this career-spanning disc much the same way I might have started on my education into Lou's solo stuff with Rock 'n' Roll Animal. But more than Lou's somewhat turgid release, John Cale's Fragments Of A Rainy Season is a dynamic live album, the finest set of solo Cale tunes one could possibly cull, performed by the man at arguably the height of his second, or third, career peak -- (he's had many). What I'm trying to say, man, is if you own some VU stuff and no Cale albums, start here, preferably with this new 2-CD version.

The essential Fragments Of A Rainy Season from John Cale is out on Friday via Domino.

Follow John Cale via his official website.

[Photo: Uncredited from YouTube]