Friday, May 22, 2015

All Our Songs: My Review Of The Triumphant New Built To Spill Record

I wasn't counting on the new Built to Spill album being so good. I was mildly disappointed with the last studio album and so I had sort of slept on the news of Untethered Moon dropping. But one listen to this record during my rainy commute to work today convinced me that the band, despite a shake-up of the line-up recently, has never sounded this fired up, to use a cliched term. Doug Martsch positively roars on opener "All Our Songs" and when he promises that "Rock and roll will be here forever", one certainly wants to believe him. He sings with a mixture of doubt and conviction that lends those hoary lyrics some real power. The guitar workouts on this cut are, as you may guess, ferocious and full of fire.

"Living Zoo" is equally peppy and it serves as a real showcase for bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere, while "On The Way" adds a twangy guitar hook to a loping beat to produce something close to the closest Martsch will ever get to a country tune. I say "country" only for lack of a better comparison to describe the cut whose lyrics give Untethered Moon its title.

The line-up shuffle prior to the making of this record apparently didn't hurt things 'cause, if anything, things do sound edgier here in spots than on some more recent Built to Spill records. As Martsch explains in the press for Untethered Moon:

"With fewer people it's easier to focus and communicate during the songwriting process," says Martsch. "Also we wanted to make the record a little more stripped-down, a little rawer than our last one."

I'd say they have succeeded admirably. One listen to something like "Some Other Song" should convince you that there's no other band quite like Built to Spill, even in 2015. The strange mix of plaintiveness -- is that a word? -- and trippy exploration is a combination that produces moments of real power and beauty. Any Built to Spill record is guaranteed to have those "magical" moments, to again quote the press release for Untethered Moon.

"Never Be The Same" is the obligatory near-catchy single that distills the appeal of Built to Spill into something accessible and closer to the mainstream than some of the other cuts on this record. But, still, that's not to make this sound like an out there album. If anything Untethered Moon is more accessible than 1997's Perfect From Now On but this is an album that takes just as many risks. It's just that now, in 2015, Martsch has found a way to produce music that remains expansive and accessible. No mean feat, that.

The weird angles of the weirdly titled "C.R.E.B." give way to the straightforward guitar surges of "Another Day" which, oddly recalls for me some old Soundgarden hooks filtered through a sensibility closer to that found on early Dinosaur Jr. records. "Horizon to Cliff" is an achingly beautiful melody of the sort that only Martsch can pull off sometimes. Equal parts Neil Young vocals and Richard Thompson-worthy guitar hooks, the cut is a short one in this band's canon but it's a lovely tune all the same.

"So" features some of the best guitar stuff on the record and that's saying something when you're talking about a Built to Spill album. Untethered Moon closes on the epic "When I'm Blind" which, unsurprisingly, showcases Martsch's skills on the axe. The whole "I got lost!" refrain oddly makes a listener think of some Mark E. Smith rant stretched far beyond its borders as a Fall tune. There's something wonderfully funky and abrasive about this final song and yet it still sounds like a Built to Spill classic. The 8 minutes of this cut fly by as we wait for Martsch and his crew to unleash fury on their guitars and things unfurl atop that constant rhythm section throb. A strange cousin to older Built to Spill cuts like "Time Trap", this one is a ferocious cut that features some of the best Martsch playing of the last decade plus. A marvelous and fitting end to a marvelous record.

Follow Built to Spill on their official website. Untethered Moon is out now wherever music is sold online, or in your small corner of the world.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Heads Up About The Sublime Pleasures Of Nottingham's Debris Slide

Nottingham's Debris Slide are doing things right. They are crafting expansive mind-blowers that defy easy categorization. Part shoegaze, part NYC No Wave, the tunes here on their new record, Araido, are equal parts guitar workouts and near-postpunk head-bobbers. "Education Pt. 1" throbs like Meat Whiplash or early JAMC, while the wonderfully titled "Fantasy Football is Ruining My Life" is punky, early Sonic Youth mixed with a dollop of Spiritualized.

On a cut like "Bury Me" there's a hint of stuff like early tracks from The Verve -- gasp! -- but Debris Slide are a better, less pretentious band. There's a mix of fire and delight in sonic exploration here that made me an instant fan of the band. A lesser act would have stuck with just one aspect of this music and ridden either the fast cuts to shoegaze revivalist glory or tried to make themselves into England's answer to Kim Gordon and her crew.

I highly recommend Araido by Debris Slide. You can find out more details on this band via their official Facebook page.

My Quick Review Of The Scorching New Album From Joanna Gruesome

In the glory days of the shoegaze boom there seemed to be 2 types of shoegaze bands: those that favored melody first and noise second, and those that flipped that equation. If you're gonna peg Joanna Gruesome as shoegaze -- (and it's not exactly a huge stretch to do that, though they defy that tag in many ways, as we will see) -- then they are clearly in the camp with bands who favor a good hook over a good riff. Which is a way of saying that for all the glorious racket on the new Joanna Gruesome record, there's also a helluva lot of melody.

Peanut Butter, out this week on Slumberland Records, is a collection of 10 scorching cuts, all full of feedback and memorable melodies. Fuzzy and catchy, the tunes here on Peanut Butter are sharp, superb examples of the sort of music that few can pull off successfully without looking like mere shoegaze revivalists.

"Last Year" rides in on a pure Bikini Kill wave of aggression before the blissed out chorus takes thing in a whole 'nother direction. What starts as primal riot grrl ends as archetypal Slumberland. And that makes perfect sense to this listener.

"Jamie (Luvver)" is more of that Black Tambourine-sorta goodness while "Honestly Do Yr Worst" nods in the direction of Bis on what are ostensibly the verses while the influence of BT reers its head elsewhere in the song. The push-and-pull between the two styles makes this a complex cut that still comes in under the 2-minute mark. Joanna Gruesome can cram a lot into 120 seconds and there's little fluff on Peanut Butter. Nothing wasted and everything gained as a result.

"There is No Function Stacy" has a propulsive undercurrent which makes one think fondly of forebears like Rocketship while "Crayon", the longest song on Peanut Butter, offers an expansive sound on the guitars while there's the sort of crunch in the mini-rave-ups that seems like the Velocity Girl template updated for the 21st century. "I Don't Wanna Relax" marries an opening blast of Sonic Youth-style feedback workout with early Stereolab rhythms (complete with organ figures).

"Jerome (Liar)" melds those shouty vocals to punkier drumming while "Separate Bedrooms" is cooing, early MBV-esque awesomeness. "Psykick Espionage" boasts an awesome title which makes me, kenixfan, recall the Kenickie cut "Psychic Defence". This tune, one of the clear highlights of Peanut Butter, is an infectious racket that veers between a woozy tunefulness that nearly goes off the rails and vocals that anchor things to a more grounded Punk-with-a-capital-P tradition. The album closes on "Hey! I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend" which ramps things down a bit but only for those closing moments.

Here on Peanut Butter Joanna Gruesome are not re-inventing the wheel but they are taking a few recognizable indie pop devices and refitting them for modern listeners. The genius of this band on this record is the ease and economy with which they blend about 20 different familiar bits in each cut. Far too punchy to be lumped in with other Kevin Shields clones, and too interested in the tripped out edges of melody to be called anything close to riot grrl, the guys and girls in Joanna Gruesome are boldly bridging genres here in an effort to deliver maximum pleasure as quickly as possible. Fuzzy, poppy, and full of hooks like the tunes of The Ramones, The Primitives, or Helen Love, the songs of Joanna Gruesome are things at once familiar and fresh. Nearly every track on Peanut Butter is a textbook example of how to create pure joy for a listener.

Peanut Butter by Joanna Gruesome is out this week on Slumberland Records, or Fortuna POP! outside the United States.

Follow Joanna Gruesome on their official Facebook page.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Sky Is Open: A Quick Review Of The Awesome Debut From Novella

It seems like ages ago that I brought you word of an excellent new tune from Novella and now it's time for me to share my thoughts on their equally excellent debut record. Called Land it's out next week on Sinderlyn and the album is an intoxicating mix of near-shoegaze tropes and bright flourishes of neo-psychedelia. While a song like the wonderfully titled "Again You Try Your Luck" flirts with a style close to what Velocity Girl was doing on their early releases, something like "Sky is Open" is far more expansive and percussive. Recalling The Dream Syndicate and Opal, that final song on the record is one of many that pegs this act as more than shoegaze revivalists.

And let's get it out of the way right now: Yeah, Novella sound a tiny bit like Lush circa Spooky (1992) in some spots. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But you're gonna read a lot of reviews of this band that make that comparison. The band should be flattered, I guess, but also a little angry 'cause they do so much more with their sound on Land.

Take for example opener "Follow" with its bass throbs and cymbal crashes. The cut sounds nothing like any shoegaze band to me and, instead, gives props to acts like The Feelies. "Something Must Change" rocks like Spiritualized trying their hand at a late-period VU number, while "Two Ships" is like "Eight Miles High" as it would sound if played by an early line-up of Stereolab.

Like Stereolab, Novella are, unfairly, gonna get pegged a shoegaze act but, really, that says more about the lack of adjectives in critics' notebooks than it does about the music here on Land. Superbly blending a uniquely heavy rhythmic sound, Novella create mesmerizing near-jams (the wildly catchy "Land Gone") and more expansive attempts at what could only be called space rock. But that's just a lazy way of describing them and does little justice to their entirely unique sound.

Find out for yourself and grab Land by Novella on Monday or Tuesday depending on where you live in this world and when it's released where you are.

Follow Novella on their official Facebook page or on their official page.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Belated Review Of The Superb Debut Album From D.C.'s Mittenfields

I got my hands on this one a few weeks back but in the hectic days of starting my new job I sort of neglected to post my review of it. So I'm here to tell you now, a bit late, that the debut full-length from D.C.'s Mittenfields is a remarkably astute and economical blending of post-punk, American indie, and Pixies-inspired near-punk.

Optimists opens with the blast of the title song which seems to suggest the best bits of Big Dipper before they signed to a major label. "We've Become Numbers" cranks along in a clattering rhythm that seems to recall Modest Mouse, while the wonderfully titled "Telepathic Windows" channels Built to Spill but then morphs into a full-on rager chocked with emotion. Dave Mann's vocals are great on this one.

With 3 guitarists -- Sam Sherwood, Michael Ball, and Donald Seale -- in the band it's hard to know who to credit for the unholy Nirvana-like squall that anchors "Goldmine" so let me just offer a collective "Thanks!" from this fan to all 3 dudes in the band. That cut is followed by "Mr. Hope" which features about 3 kinds of guitar noise backed by drummer Brian Moran's heavy beats on the kit. It's one of the more lyrical cuts on the record despite the noisy bits. Like The Pixies before them, the dudes in Mittenfields seem to have a firm grasp on how to harness chaos in the service of something hummable.

Optimists ends on the epic "Surprise Me" which melds another nod in the general direction of Built to Spill with something else entirely. There's a hint of Neil Young here in the guitar-work on display and the song expands and contracts admirably to sort of sum up the whole experience of this record.

Mittenfields produce loud music that straddles the worlds of influences like Sonic Youth and Band of Susans with more accessible indie rock in the manner of early Superchunk or The Arcade Fire. Optimists is a superb showcase for this band and I firmly believe that they are pushing D.C. punk in a new direction. But I'd still love Optimists even if this wasn't my hometown.

Follow Mittenfields on their official Facebook page and get Optimists via the band's Bandcamp page.

Spin Thoroughly Delightful New Cut From The Yetis Here!

Every time these cats put out a song I swear that it's the catchiest thing they've done yet. And here I go again saying that very same thing.

Allentown's The Yeti's have dropped another one from their upcoming Lonely Tandem Ride EP. This one's called "Where You Goin'" and it's a delightful melange of Jonathan Richman and Arctic Monkeys. I can think of no better way to describe it. This is pop of the very highest order and I cannot wait for these guys to release a full-length record.

For now, follow The Yetis on their official Facebook page and pre-order Lonely Tandem Ride via the band's official Bandcamp page.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Find Yourself: A Quick Review Of The Haunting New One From Jacco Gardner

I hate to use the word "haunting" because it's liable to make people think that Hypnophobia, the new one from Jacco Gardner, is some sort of sad, scary mood piece. It sorta is, but not really. What the album is, more than anything else, is a collection of superb tunes from this performer. Each cut here surprises and the album as a whole seems to transcend genres with ease.

From the Zombies-styled "Another You", to the Broadcast-isms of "Grey Lanes", to the folk-y ramblings of "Brightly", Hypnophobia wastes no time in astonishing a listener. Gardner has crafted the sort of ornate pop that too few are making these days. An easy comparison would be the first Cardinal record from Eric Matthews and Richard Davies but even that comparison would not be quite accurate as Gardner is more interested in textures at times than those 2 songwriters were.

"Find Yourself" struts in like the lost theme song to some Eurotrash flick from the Swingin' Sixties. Both catchy and nearly-psychedelic, the cut is an excellent crash course into what makes this Gardner cat such a fantastic artist.

"Face to Face" adds that whole Broadcast vibe to the barest hint of the sort of thing Sondre Lerche was doing on his first 2 records while "Outside Forever" channels Bowie from before he morphed into Ziggy. The epic "Before the Dawn" is something like a Stereolab cut while the title track is closer to the sort of folk that Syd Barrett would do if he were alive and paired up with Beck at the producer's helm. A marvelous blending of styles, the song, like most of what's here, is sublime and...haunting.

Hypnophobia ends, after the rather short "Make Me See", with "All Over" bringing a decidedly Jon Brion-ish vibe to the record. If other parts of this album recall The Zombies, or The Moody Blues even, this one places things in the 1970s for a moment. The warm keyboard figure and strong drum patterns prevent this song from floating away like a track from a lost soundtrack. The simple melody here is as strong as any pop song's hook.

This LP is really a revelation. Hypnophobia makes a listener an immediate fan of this artist and I'll be really surprised if anyone can spin this record and not go out and try to find anything else Jacco Gardner has touched.

Hypnophobia will be out on Monday or Tuesday depending on where you live in the world. And it's on a bunch of different labels in a few different regions so just get it wherever you can (legally).

Find details on Jacco Gardner on his official website.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Our Way Free: My Review Of The Superb Solo Album From Mac McCaughan Of Superchunk

There was a brief moment in late 1993 when the repeated closing refrain of "The First Part" seemed to be the product of a certain Manchester legend. Listening to that astonishing track from Superchunk's Foolish, I heard then, and still hear now, the echo of the everyday lyrics of one Bernard Sumner of New Order. And surely I'm not the first person to think that "One good minute could last me a whole year!" sounds a lot like -- has the same sense of the revelation of the commonplace as -- a line from "Regret" -- or a similar tune -- from New Order. While the musicians might have been oceans apart in 1993, their styles worlds apart too, there was for me something similar in both tracks in 1993. Both seemed to hit at some sharp awareness of things that was less pretension and more an acute sense of being alive in the moment. That those 2 singles from the year I graduated college remain so dear to me shouldn't be a surprise, or chalked up to the effects of nostalgia.

Borderline anthems both, those 2 cuts are ones that have thrilled me ever since I heard them 22 years ago. While New Order's fortunes were on a decided downward spiral after that single, Superchunk's were only rising. The band became more and more popular and they went from being a noise outfit in the early 1990's to alt-rock survivors and indie label pioneers.

Which is a very heavy sort of reminder of the shadow of Superchunk that is gonna hang over anything this cat touches. Mac McCaughan, founder of Merge Records, main-man behind Superchunk and Portastatic, has done what really didn't need to be done...but what seems like a brilliant idea now that I've heard the record. Yep, he's recorded a solo album.

Non-Believers, out May 4 worldwide on Merge Records is, ostensibly, Mac McCaughan's first solo record. That it sounds like both Superchunk and Portastatic and quite a bit unlike either one is a testament to this guy's talents as a musician and songwriter; he's managed to simultaneously please long-time fans of his bands and go in some entirely new directions on this one.

What it comes down to here, on Non-Believers more than anywhere else, is that McCaughan, like Sumner, is one of the best lyricists in rock simply by virtue of knowing how to write what suits his own voice so well. And there I'll try to dispense with the New Order references.

First single "Lost Again" manages to make weariness sound like something that deserves to be sung about with near-joy. A sort of subdued anthem -- there's that word again -- the cut follows the keyboard-heavy opener "Your Hologram" which seems to sort of lay the template for what's to come on Non-Believers.

If the Yoda-quoting "Only Do" recalls the Boss on certain Tunnel of Love tracks, there's still more youth in Mac's voice here than old Bruce-y ever had after he hit the big time. "Mystery Flu" adds a sadness reminiscent of East River Pipe to the mood of the album while tricking out the track in late Blur electro effects. "Our Way Free" pairs one of the best choruses Mac McCaughan's ever written to keyboard noises somewhere between "Good Vibrations" and mid-period Gary Numan. If that sounds like a mess, it's not. Mac's managed to make this all sound remarkably natural and he's integrated electronic textures better than perhaps anyone this side of the fellas in Radiohead. And his concerns are decidedly more relate-able, I'd venture to say.

On the marvelous "Box Batteries", Mac sounds like he's covering himself -- think Portastatic tracks mixed with the coiled fury of Superchunk at their best. The song, with its backwards looking lyrics, is a rollicking celebration of youthful adventures every bit as affecting as Springsteen cuts. And if that comparison seems forced, it shouldn't as both Mac and Bruce are concerned with "Growing Up" in America, to paraphrase a certain song title. What's remarkable here about "Box Batteries" is that you can hear in your head how this song would have worked perfectly for any of McCaughan's other projects. That he chose to use it on this solo debut speaks to his awareness as a songwriter.

"Smile kid until you know real darkness" Mac warns on "Real Darkness" and if the results are not suitably dour it's due to the warmth he brings to his vocal performance here. Decades of screaming "Slack Motherfucker" have done apparently little damage to this guy's pipes and thank the indie gods for that.

"Barely There" keeps things down tempo, but catchy, while "Wet Leaves" offers up O.M.D.-style sweetness in the sort of track that never would have flown on most Superchunk records. To his credit, McCaughan has broadened his style here considerably and this song is a pretty great example of what he's done so well this time out. And on a record where Mac did pretty much everything, it's worth mentioning how great Annie Hayden's backing vocals are on this one.

Non-Believers closes on "Come Upstairs" which marries a Kraftwerk-inspired set of keyboard lines with some nearly-Fripp-like guitar work to great effect. McCaughan uses those disparate elements to make something very personal and the track, like many here, is wildly catchy on first listen.

On his first solo album, Superchunk's MacMcCaughan has surprised even this long-time fan. Never expecting a release this -- dare I say it? -- soulful, I find myself marvelously surprised at what he's crafted here. If this had been another guitar rave-up, it would have been Superchunk Junior, and if something too lo-fi it would have seemed too much like Portastatic. Pushing himself in new, quieter, directions has liberated McCaughan as a songwriter and he sounds more on fire here than he has in a few years. If that fire is, essentially, a slow-burn, then that's okay too. Simultaneously remarkably restrained and gleefully nostalgic, the 10 tracks on Non-Believers are the sort of things only a guy Mac's age could have possibly penned. That they come off as neither pretentious nor precious says volumes about this guy's skill as a performer.

Apparently knowing when to pull back has been Mac McCaughan's secret all along. A few decades of listening to Superchunk had me convinced that the point was the noise when, in reality, it was really the tension and the winding up. If the best 'Chunk tracks sound like the moment when things are released, the 10 cuts here are largely the build ups. Affecting, touching, and hook-y in a way that nostalgic music usually is not, the tunes on Non-Believers are stunning and the perfect progression for a guy who's written so much stuff that's given me so much pleasure as a listener for so very long.

Non-Believers by Mac McCaughan is out on Monday via Merge Records.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Want To Make It Sound Like Summer? Crank Up The Excellent New One From Peach Kelli Pop As Loud As You Can!

There comes a point where the best music is the simplest music. And sometimes it takes really smart people (those fellas in The Ramones) to make music that remains basic without being...crappy Top 40 tune-age. Which is to say that the new album from Peach Kelli Pop seems so effortless constructed that one could think that it was just tossed off quickly. After all, 10 songs in under 21 minutes is not exactly Tales from Topographic Oceans. However, those 10 cuts are full of sunshine and pep. And they are gonna warm your heart.

Called III, and out now on Burger Records, the new album from Peach Kelli Pop is a blast of hope on a rainy day. The sound of summer throbs out of every one of these songs and for that reason I suspect I'll be playing these tunes a lot in my car the next few months.

Channeling Helen Love and bis in the one-two opening punch of "Princess Castle 1987" and "Shampoo", III kicks off with a bang. And one can only hope that "Shampoo" is named after the UK band and not the product.

"Heart Eyes" multi-tracks the vocals to glorious effect -- think early Lush -- while "Bat Wing" offers up more of the sort of thing that The Flatmates did so well so long ago. "Big Man" may add a tiny bit of semi-snarling menace to things but Peach Kelli Pop are best at the sort of cooing indie pop heard on "New Moon" and all throughout III. Things here wind down a tiny bit on album closer "Please Come Home" but the band never abandon their pop sense. If the earlier songs on III owe a huge debt to stuff like bis, this one is a bit more like something from The Primitives' second album. I realize that that doesn't sound like a huge leap but in the context of III it is.

Still, make no mistake, this is one of the most joyous records I've heard in some time. Every song here makes me happy and that's no small compliment in an era of affected indie rock. Call it twee if you like, but Peach Kelli Pop's music is something wonderful indeed.

Follow Peach Kelli Pop on their official Facebook page.

III is out now via Burger Records.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

My Quick Review Of The Sublime New Album From Turn To Crime

It took one listen to the title track from the new Turn to Crime album, Actions, to make me a fan of the band. The cut, purring like post-millennium New Order, is a supple bit of business. It's insinuating and accessible in ways that some of the other cuts on this record are not. That's not to slight Actions, out Tuesday on Mugg and Bopp, but to highlight the rough edges of this band that keep them from being too polished. The bits that are smooth here are smooth but there's a hint of something bad about to erupt. Consider "Prince of Slackers" which recalls Lou Reed at his best but with the hard drumming of early post-punk acts like Wire. It's a piece of work indeed.

Actions is quite hard to easily pin down and for that reason I sort of feel unequipped to write about it. It's like these cats have been doing something great over in Detroit while I've been clueless about their music all along until now.

"Light" echoes the best stuff from Iggy Pop's sojourn under the shadow of the Berlin-obsessed Bowie. Add in some wicked axe-work behind the vocals and you've got another winner.

A song like "Impatience" shows the influence of Frank Tovey and Fad Gadget while "Without a Care" owes a debt to Bowie's Lodger. But to compare the tracks here on Actions to such worthy forefathers is not to label Turn to Crime as genre-jumpers but, rather, to place them in great company. Lots of acts have admirable influences but few can integrate those influences so perfectly as Turn to Crime. Actions is, so far, the pleasant surprise of the year for me as a listener. I knew nothing about this band before now and after listening to their latest record I want to know everything. It's that good.

Actions is out Tuesday on Mugg and Bopp.

Follow Turn to Crime on their official Facebook page.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Quick Review Of The Super New EP From Spain's The Yellow Melodies

Spain's The Yellow Melodies are a really superb band and pretty much every cut I've heard from them so far has hit the sweet spot for me.

Having previously tried their hand at a Television Personalities tribute EP, the band are now back to offer up 6 slabs of tunefulness as a tribute to the sometimes unfortunately neglected BMX Bandits. Called Students of Life: A Tribute to BMX Bandits, the EP is out this week via TheBeautifulMusic.com and I urge you to grab it.

"Extraordinary" positively oozes cool and it seems to burrow its way further into my brain with each listen. "Girl at the Bus Stop" adds a Swingin' Sixties vibe to the track to offer up something that nods in the direction of The Move. "Your Class", a track that was previously featured on the highly recommended A Brilliant Escape compilation, charms with its catchy chorus.

These 6 cuts are superb examples of how to do upbeat indie pop whether or not you count yourself a BMX Bandits fan or not. Delicious harmonies? Check. Guitar hooks? Check. Nothing wasted in the creation of good music? Check. Grab Students of Life: A Tribute to BMX Bandits as soon as you can.

Follow The Yellow Melodies on their official Facebook page or on their official website.

Students of Life: A Tribute to BMX Bandits is out in a few days on TheBeautifulMusic.com.