Tuesday, February 9, 2016

There Are No Times Like These Ones: My Look At The 2 Superb Earl Brutus Reissues From Cherry Red Records And 3 Loop Music

Dear God in Heaven, they were a magnificent band, weren't they?

The only thing that took the sting out of the death of David Bowie for me was to hear these records from inveterate Bowie-acolytes again in January. Earl Brutus put out just 2 albums and they are both, thankfully, back in print now in fine fashion thanks to the folks at Cherry Red and 3 Loop Music. For those of you who know these albums, the bonus discs on each release will only further solidify your appreciation of these glorious unhinged bastards. For those of you who have previously only read about this lot, prepare to have your minds blown.

The 1996 debut album was called Your Majesty... We Are Here and, in some weird way, that title nodded in the direction of both Queen and The Sex Pistols, as did the music within the grooves. In some similar style to what Oasis managed to pull off on their early, rowdy, rafter-shaking and raucous flip-sides -- the ones where they sound like they are finally admitting to being Slade and not trying to be the Beatles -- Earl Brutus took the previously contradictory glam and punk legacies of their native England, threw them up against one another, rubbed, and...rawked. Gloriously.

Your Majesty... We Are Here seems more direct and simultaneously more experimental than parts of the next album. The result here is a sonic slap in the face but one which you love, from a dominatrix you will gladly pay again and again. The brash and cheeky "Navyhead", "I'm New", and "Male Milk" send the album off to regions of glory before the decidedly disturbing "On Me Not In Me" -- a tart's description of services, if one's to believe the press materials with this reissue -- takes things into areas last explored by Throbbing Gristle, or even Pulp before they hit the big time. The singalong "Don't Leave Me Behind Mate" pitches the late Nick Sanderson's vocals down a deep well and the overall effect is like Joe Meek producing The Jesus and Mary Chain...while playing a Mud record. Did anything else sound nearly as imaginative as this in 1996? Has anything since?

For all the bold, upbeat stuff here on Your Majesty... We Are Here, there are also tracks that veer into the realms of nearly-dark electronica ("Curtsy"), and others ("Life's Too Long") that seem like big choruses that never need to end.

The bonus disc of Your Majesty... We Are Here offers up treasures like the wickedly-titled "Mondo Rotunda" or "North Sea Bastard", but it's stuff like the sly "Like Queer David", all faux-string passages and near-Jarvis-cooing, that makes a listener marvel. One of the highlights here, this track mashes up about a dozen things into a blender to produce the sort of indie-pop that made the Nineties not entirely a waste.

Elsewhere, there are a few remixes on this bonus disc, and the most interesting is probably Suicide's Alan Vega's take on "On Me Not In Me" which renders the already odd song a bit odder and colder still. Bold but not nearly as essential as the original version.

The band -- Stuart Boreman, Nick Sanderson, Jim Fry, Gordon King, and Rob Marche, and Shin-Ya Hayashida - took their act to Island Records for 1998's Tonight You Are The Special One. Rather than suck up to the majors, the Brutus lot managed to amp up the weirdness, even if the thing sounds a bit cleaner in audio terms. Big album opener "The S.A.S. and The Glam That Goes with It" -- named after a videotape that had footage of an S.A.S raid jutting up next to a glam doc -- is the sort of thing that makes me want to flip over a table every time I hear it. Gleaming and sleek keyboard lines underline a thoroughly raucous rock-noise whirl as Sanderson rails against "quiche lorraine attitudes" and such. If the rabble ever storm Parliament, one can only hope that they are playing this on boom-boxes as they march through London. As radically abrasive and catchy as "God Save The Queen", this cut gives me chills and remains one of the weirdest ways to rock that my iPod holds in its bowels. This one is bliss, really.

If "Midland Red" continues the experimental excursions of the softer songs on the first record, then "God, Let Me Be Kind" refines them into something heartfelt -- dare I say that? -- and beautiful like Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie with a metallic underpinning. "Come Taste My Mind" is a noble stab at the charts but it's up to the absurdly lovely "Don't Die Jim" to prove the genius of Earl Brutus once and for all. Sanderson's treated vocals warble over an acoustic guitar as tinkling keys behind him lead the song higher and higher to make this the sort of song that, oddly, is like some punk version of a Brian Wilson ballad. Warped, out there, and yet gloriously adventurous and affecting, this is pure Brutus; I have little idea what Nick's going on about here but, dammit, when that Ronson-esque guitar kicks in, a little tear wells up in this old rock fan's eye every single time. Yeah, I know, that none of this makes sense on paper, and what I'm grooving on here is the sort of thing that would be a tough sell to new listeners. Still, I'd put this one up against anything in the Radiohead canon.

The album still contains its share of rockers ("East"), but the glory of Tonight You Are The Special One lies in those numbers that push the envelope -- the Numan-on-Bolan weirdness of "Edelweiss", for instance.

The bonus disc for Tonight You Are The Special One contains a few live rarities, a William Reid (The Jesus and Mary Chain) remix of "Come Taste My Mind" and the glam-stomp of "Larky", a 1999 one-off single. They probably had little inkling at the time but this, the sorta last official Earl Brutus release, perfectly sums up the charms of both albums in one cut. "There are no times like these ones" the late Nick Sanderson roars and he's certainly right. There would be nothing like this lot again, try as the surviving members might in the still-admirable The Pre New. Grab this release again if you already have it for this cut and wonderfully-titled oddities like "Gypsy Camp Battle" and "England Sandwich" -- you know as well as I do that somewhere Morrissey was grousing that he didn't come up with that title first, eh?

Taken together, Your Majesty... We Are Here (1996) and Tonight You Are The Special One (1998) are 2 of the best albums that unfortunately found themselves released in the midst of the Britpop boom. Thoroughly and wonderfully more British than any Noel Union Jack axe, the tunes on these releases are the products of English eccentrics with amps, goons with chops, yobs with a vendetta, the last drunk in the pub blaring his way through "Starman" with tears in his ears and bitter spilling out of his glass.

Perpetually underrated even after the tragic early death of frontman Nick Sanderson, Earl Brutus remain the great lost U.K. band. Thank God in Heaven that Cherry Red and 3 Loop Music resurrected these. Hey, the albums have never been far from my side but I was happy to get them again for those bonus discs alone. Superbly assembled and remixed, these 2 records contain more wit than most Moz releases, more bluster than a brace of Slade singles, more edge-riding than Thom Yorke's so-called risky music. Earl Brutus had no equals and one realizes how hard it is to even compare this music to any of the band's peers from the era, or even earlier eras despite some avowed Bowie, Bolan, and Numan bits sprinkled throughout. Your Majesty... We Are Here (1996) and Tonight You Are The Special One (1998) by Earl Brutus are both available now via Cherry Red and 3 Loop Music.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Early Notice About How Great This Quilt Album Is

Quilt make music that recalls Unrest and Yo La Tengo. There, do I have your attention now? The band's upcoming album is called Plaza and it's out very soon on Mexican Summer and it's fantastic.

Opener "Passerby" unfurls like the Velvet Underground, or even Luna, while the blissful and catchy "Roller" charms like any Bridget Cross-sung song from the peak days of D.C. area indie-pop legends Unrest. Most of Plaza is similar and just as delightful.

Quilt is John Andrews (vocals, drums), Anna Rochinski (vocals, guitar, organ), Shane Butler (vocals, guitar), and Keven Lareau (vocals, bass) and the band's music seems most memorable when Anna is taking the vocal duties. That said, when one of the guys in the band -- not sure which one -- takes over on "Searching For" the results are just as good and the tune bounces along like Luna, or even The Feelies. This is superb American indie-pop and I'm sort of embarrassed that this band dropped 2 albums before this that sort of slipped past me.

If "Padova" recalls the Sixties-leanings of bands like Ultimate Painting in some small way, then "Your Island" nods in the direction of old Mazzy Star cuts but with a good deal more pep. Plaza ends with "Own Ways" which rattles in the manner of Jefferson Airplane, or even early American alt-rock like The Swimming Pool Q's.

Plaza is a wonderful surprise. Quilt seem to be experts at blending a few influences into something fairly fresh and unique. Languid and catchy, the tunes here are all charmers. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go buy their first 2 albums.

You can follow Quilt via their official Facebook page or via their official website.

A Few Words About The Lovely Dream-Pop Of Winnipeg's Living Hour

I realize that dream-pop is a loaded term. It's a term that would have been a better word to describe the breadth of music on the recent "shoegaze" box set on Cherry Red Records, as "shoegaze" doesn't always do the trick. That there are still bands making music as splendid and beautiful as the work of those pioneers is something to be happy about as a music fan, as is the music of Winnipeg's Living Hour.

The band is set to drop its self-titled debut album on Lefse Records in a matter of days and I'm here to sing that record's praises. If the wonderfully-titled "Summer Smog" recalls late period Cocteau Twins, or even 4AD winners Swallow, then "Seagull" offers up something close to what could best be described as a rather catchy take on Slowdive's expansive dream-pop. There's that word again!

Perhaps my favorite track is the gloriously languid "Steady Glazed Eyes" which charms in the style of those slower, early Lush numbers. Living Hour closes on the nearly Sigur Ros-like "Feel Shy" which unfurls with a sense of deliberation and ease, all careful bliss mapped out by these players.

Living Hour by Living Hour is a superb collection of the sort of dream-pop one wishes more bands made with this degree of skill these days. Serious without being too pretentious, this is one for fans of Mojave 3 or The Moon and the Melodies. Out in about a week or so on Lefse Records, Living Hour by Living Hour should be on your radar.

Follow Living Hour via their official Facebook page or via their official website.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Somewhat Early Review Of The Splendid New Album From Pete Astor (The Loft, The Weather Prophets) On Slumberland Records

I kept putting off reviewing the fabulous new album from Pete Astor, Spilt Milk, mainly 'cause the "official" release date is February 12, 2016, and I didn't want to rave about this one too early, you know? But then I keep seeing people post pics of the "vinyl" on "social media", and I knew that Slumberland Records indicated that they were going to ship pre-orders early, so I thought: why not just go ahead and join in with the growing chorus of people telling you how good this one is?

In case you need a refresher, Pete Astor was the leader of The Loft and The Weather Prophets, and he's also done stuff under the Wisdom of Harry banner as well. This time out, he's tried a relatively direct approach and paired up with James Hoare of Ultimate Painting and Veronica Falls to offer up Spilt Milk. The album is so good and so effervescent and charming that it seems somewhat silly to cast a critical eye at the music contained herein, not that I even need to be at all critical.

Stuff like "Very Good Lock" recalls the third album from the Velvet Underground, or early Lou solo stuff, and it doesn't hurt that James from Ultimate Painting -- inveterate VU fans -- is on board here as sorta album co-pilot. "My Right Hand", blogged about me earlier here, charms on the back of a supple melding of influences -- a hint of Dylan on this one, maybe? Better still, it could be a trace of Tom Verlaine that I'm hearing in the rhythms of this cut.

Elsewhere, Astor seems to be able to channel both halves of that wonderful Go-Betweens formula with some cuts ("Good Enough") nodding in the direction of the work of the late Grant McLennan and some others ("Mr. Music") venturing into Robert Forster territory.

What's remarkable about Spilt Milk is how unlike Astor's earlier stuff it sounds. It's not that he's entirely shunning his Loft past -- (be sure to read my interview with some of the members of The Loft from last year when the Cherry Red Records Creation Records box set came out) -- it's that he's expanded his sound significantly and the range of absorbed influences seems broader here. Still, there would be nothing wrong with Spilt Milk sounding like a Weather Prophets album but it doesn't, and that's a great thing when the results are cuts like "Sleeping Tiger", all buoyant wistfulness and yearning.

Spilt Milk closes on "Oh You", a cut whose instrumentation broadly recalls some of the tracks on those 2 wonderful Ultimate Painting records. Working with James Hoare has loosened up Astor and things feel natural here, on this album closer and the rest of the record. Credit must also be given to some of the other players on this release: Pam Berry (Black Tambourine, Glo-Worm) on vocals, Jack Hayter (Hefner) on pedal steel guitar, Alison Cotton (The Left Outsides) on viola, and Robin Christian (Male Bonding) and Susan Milanovic (Feathers) on drums. But, yeah, a lot of this sounds like Astor sitting down with Hoare to make something very similar to those Ultimate Painting records. And saying that is my way of giving this LP a huge compliment.

Pete Astor's Spilt Milk is a remarkably warm record and that counts for a lot in 2016. If the album is not showy in any obvious way, that's something to be admired. Astor, like that rare breed of songwriter in today's world, can pull off this sort of thing and make it look effortless. The music here, on gentle, ruminative numbers like "Perfect Life", for example, is not going to set the world on fire but it is going to light a little spark in the hearts of long-time fans of this man, his many bands, and the associates he's assembled on this very nearly-career-defining turn. Spilt Milk is yet another example of the rich new strain of music being mined by artists on Slumberland Records. Like the folk-indie on that Withered Hand album -- also on Slumberland Records and also featuring Pam Berry of label boss Mike Schulman's legendary Black Tambourine -- the tune-age on Pete Astor's new record blends a few genres with ease to produce something better than the majority of what passes as indie-pop these days.

Spilt Milk by Pete Astor is out on Friday via Slumberland Records in the USA.

Follow Pete Aster on his official website.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Quick Review Of The Sublime New Album From Nap Eyes

This is music that defies easy categorization. The band's home label, Paradise of Bachelors, mentioned some obvious touchstones (The Clean, Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed) while describing the sound of Nova Scotia's Nap Eyes but, really, the overall effect is decidedly more complicated.

The band's new album, their second, is called Thought Rock Fish Scale and it's out on Friday via Paradise of Bachelors. It is an album of carefully pitched, sometimes delicately unhinged, music. If "Click Clack" sounds like a whole lot of early New Zealand bands, then "Alaskan Shake" offers up a sort of spin on John Cale's more straightforward material. Nap Eyes - Nigel Chapman (vocals, rhythm guitar), Josh Salter (bass), Seamus Dalton (drums), and Brad Loughead (lead guitar) -- have a sound unlike much else I've heard lately and there's both a real sense of pop-craft here even as it juts up against a more languid musicianship. Things expand in interesting ways and Chapman's vocals add a sort of world-weariness to the cuts that I found quite moving as a listener -- that melodic slow-down and "Could it be me?" refrain near the end of "Roll It" towards the conclusion of Thought Rock Fish Scale. Taken as a whole, this is a superb record that modestly recasts the sort of indie-pop you've known and loved for so long into something else entirely.

Thought Rock Fish Scale by Nap Eyes is out on Friday via Paradise of Bachelors. Follow the band via their official Facebook page.

The World's Easiest Job: A Review Of The Fabulous Reissue Of Lolita Nation By Game Theory From Omnivore Recordings

This was the one that broke them big...at least as big as they'd ever make it. This was the album that reached a certain critical mass among the college rock masses. In an era of great double albums (Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and the next year's Daydream Nation), 1987's Lolita Nation was Game Theory's stab at making a great double album. It was, in many ways, the perfect representation of the band's sound and POV and a wholly perfect crash-course into the genius of Scott Miller as a songwriter and performer.

Lolita Nation, out Friday in a fabulous deluxe expanded edition from Omnivore Recordings, is a power-pop classic even as Miller pushes the boundaries of the form in weird ways all over this release. If some cuts like "Little Ivory" sound a trifle like other Mitch Easter-produced bands (R.E.M., for one), stuff like "We Love You Carol and Alison" chimes much like tunes from Easter's own Let's Active. Lolita Nation remains not only a showcase for Scott Miller and the rest of Game Theory but a pretty good example of why bands sought out Mitch Easter as a producer in the Eighties.

There are moments here that rock a bit harder than one would expect ("Not Because You Can") and others ("Together Now, Very Minor") that are a good deal trippier than tracks on earlier Game Theory releases, and still others that are weirder still (the chirpy and manic Three O'Clock-like "The World's Easiest Job"). But, on the whole, Lolita Nation still charms over the course of its 27 cuts. Certainly more odd than I had remembered it being, the album still remains a sort of skewed power pop primer. Ringing hooks abound and one can hear the sort of alt-rock that surely influenced and informed bands as diverse as Pavement, The Posies, and Guided by Voices later on.

All over the 27 songs on Lolita Nation, it's clear that Scott Miller had a knack for smoothing the rough edges of his art into something palatable. I mean, "The Real Sheila" sure as hell sounds like a big Top 40 hit but, yeah, that was never gonna happen. One imagines Miller trying to write the big pop classics but being smart enough, perpetually, to know he was never gonna be Journey. It would be up to contemporaries R.E.M. to somehow remake themselves and their diffuse and somewhat murky college rock into the sort of thing that MTV could pump out to the kids. In the same year that "The One I Love" was getting played by Casey Kasem, one could be a bit angry at the grim reality that it was Stipe, not Scott Miller, that was hitting the Top 10 in America.

How do you improve an album that's already a masterpiece? Well if you're the good folks at Omnivore Recordings you pump this reissue full of rare and previously unreleased tracks, demos, and live cuts; heck, Disc 2 of this version of Lolita Nation could be released on its own to waves of praise. There are radio sessions aplenty where Scott Miller and Game Theory try their hand at classics from Joy Division, The Sex Pistols, and The Smiths. The tracks are all uniformly interesting and not one really feels like a goof; one can hear Miller's love of this music shine through even as he tries to replicate it to somewhat mixed results. Elsewhere, Game Theory crank their way through a rough live version of "Public Image" by P.i.L. The result is something closer to alt-rock than it is to punk and it's like Miller discovered plutonium here by getting at the pop heart of Lydon's screed. There are also a few different versions of album cut "The Waist and the Knees" including one with decidedly Budgie-like drums by Gil Ray. The official version of Lolita Nation is 27 tracks and this bonus disc nearly matches that with 21 rare cuts. Taken as a whole, this is the ultimate Game Theory listening experience. The band hit a peak here that they'd never quite reach again and, in some ways, it's the best work Mitch Easter's ever done as a producer and I say that as someone whose friends have been produced by the guy (D.C. band Dot Dash).

The liner notes booklet tells the story that's not quite contained in the grooves of the album itself and there's almost nothing to fault here in Omnivore Recordings' presentation of Lolita Nation. Perfectly put together back then, Lolita Nation itself represents a high mark in American alt-rock from an era when it was probably being still called college rock by most people. The album is certainly far better than the majority of what passed for smart pop in that era -- listen how Miller makes Elvis Costello's "Tiny Steps" sound like his own song on Disc 2 -- and it's a grim irony that a band that had been produced by Mitch Easter (R.E.M.) was sadly watering down its sound and climbing the charts even as another, perhaps better (in some ways) band was being produced by Mitch Easter only to remain ignored by so many. Taken together with the 21 rarities on Disc 2, the 27 cuts on the official release showcase Game Theory's charms, and Scott Miller's genius. Fans of Scott Miller, Game Theory, and Lolita Nation are well-served here and, if anything, the work put into this release grants the late Miller and his crew the sort of attention they always deserved. As a whole, this release will be counted as one of 2016's best, and most essential, reissues.

Lolita Nation by Game Theory is out on Friday via Omnivore Recordings.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Few Words About The New Field Music Album (Out Friday On Memphis Industries)

I'm here today to share my opinions on the new Field Music album, Commontime, out Friday, February 5, 2016, on Memphis Industries. This is a difficult task in front of me 'cause I feel sort of torn. If I highlight the positives -- like the wonderfully supple and charming "It's a Good Thing", all Andy Partridge-meets-Steely Dan goodness -- then I'm probably going to do a poor job as a reviewer by mentioning how much of the album, if not disappointed me, at least left me slightly cold. I suppose Commontime is a grower for those of us not firmly in the Field Music camp?

Readers of this blog will remember the joy with which I greeted the Brewis brothers' work in SLUG, but that saw them pushing their own boundaries a bit. Commontime, flawlessly performed and expertly arranged as it may be, does not necessarily force them to take too many risks. One listens to something like "But Not For You" and hears moments to captivate, for sure. The problem is that too many songs here so too similar in tone and temperament. If Field Music are clearly influenced by late period XTC, then imagine if Moulding and co. had produced an entire album's worth of "King for a Day" -- yeah, it's a great single but that doesn't mean that the world needs a full album's worth of the track.

"I'm Glad" pops with admirable fire and there are hints here that Field Music are trying to push things a tiny bit and make at least the drums a bit harder. I suppose one could look at Commontime as a sort of refinement of the Field Music sound. Things here are sleek and little is wasted. The Brewis brothers and their associates have managed to purge a lot of stuff from the sides of their sound. Listening to this and knowing little else that they've done, a listener could be forgiven for thinking that the brothers only owned a few records...all of them by China Crisis, Steely Dan, King Crimson, Little Creatures-era Talking Heads, or XTC.

Now, look, I realize that that sounds like an awesome pool of sounds to whip up together and, okay, on lead single "The Noisy Days are Over" the music takes on an impressive degree of indie-pop bounce. Elsewhere, on the quieter "They Want You To Remember" or "That's Close Enough for Now", things relax and the urgent, propulsive pop seems more heartfelt and human. But, those facts don't make me entirely love the album overall.

Field Music fans are going to find a lot to love on Commontime, and I will too...once I put select tracks from this one on a mix, divorced from the similar-sounding songs on the parent album. I try to only write about stuff I like on this blog, and that's why there aren't too many negative reviews on here. And, really, this is not a negative review, per se, but, rather, an expression of mild disappointment that Field Music continue to make music that's somehow too perfect, and that the wit or spark seems, at least to this listener, to have gone a bit.

Commontime by Field Music is out on Friday via Memphis Industries. Follow Field Music via the band's official website, or the band's official Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Early Notice About The New Fall EP On Cherry Red Records

By this point, The Fall make up an "you either get it, or you don't"-sort of proposition. More than even the Grateful Dead, they are the sort of long-running institution that perpetually expands a very loyal fan-base. And, yeah, I hate the Dead, but I'm making a point.

Unlike Garcia's crew, The Fall produce music that's actually good and challenging and no matter at what stage you jump on the Fall bandwagon, you can easily submerge yourself in the music of this band. Somehow, over 4 or 5 decades, Mark E. Smith and his ever-changing crew have managed to continue to make music that remains utterly the same and art that constantly evolves. Now set to release a 34-minute EP called Wise Ol' Man, out in a few weeks on Cherry Red Records, this version of the band features a line-up of Elena Poulou on keyboards, David Spurr on bass, Peter Greenway on guitars and effects, Keiron Melling on drums, and -- of course -- Mark E. Smith on voice and everything else. The EP is a suitably raucous affair and it's highly recommended. Was there any doubt!?!

The title cut rides in on a wave of pounding drums and Smith's older-but-not-so-subdued vocals, while "All Leave Cancelled" takes a more experimental route over the course of 8 minutes, hesitant and nervous rhythms clanging and clanging. The nearly dance-y "Dedication (Remix)" leads into another version of the title cut, and then "Venice with Girls" roars in -- peak Smith, peak Fall, "Bombast" shoved into a sack and transported by night into the 21st Century. The splendidly-titled "Facebook Troll/No Xmas for John Quay" crams a whole lot of Fall racket into a handful of minutes. Part Beefheart and all Mark E. Smith, the cut is nearly the highlight of the EP. Things close with another version of "All Leave Cancelled", all low, rumbling menace.

Wise Ol' Man doesn't rewrite the Fall playbook but, dammit, if it doesn't sound exactly like a Fall record; it roars in all the right ways, and clatters admirably.

This U.K. institution remains a machine of glorious noise. I pray I never know what Mark E. Smith is raving about but I also pray that he continues to make music for a long, long time to come.

Wise Ol' Man by The Fall is out in a few weeks on Cherry Red Records. Further details on the Cherry Red Fall Facebook page.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sugar Your Mind (And Still In A Dream): A Look At The New And Impressive Shoegaze Box Set From Cherry Red Records

In case you didn't know, that pic is of one-time 4AD band Swallow whose "Sugar Your Mind", included here on Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze 1989-1995, a 5-CD set out Friday from Cherry Red Records, illustrates the conundrum presented by the term "shoegaze" itself. I mean, somehow in the ensuing 25 years, the sounds of 4AD Records acts and genuine shoegaze acts are being written about as if they were both coming from the same place. Perhaps they were, in a sense, but my memory is vivid and I worked in record stores in the era and I can remember when the lines were drawn a bit more obviously, and scenes didn't simply blend into one another for the sake of historical convenience.

Still, one must admire the folks at Cherry Red Records for casting a wide net in crafting this impressive set. It's worth noting that the very term "shoegaze" wasn't in wide use until 1991 and, prior to that, there was no real term to define all this stuff. If you talked about C86 bands, you were talking about bands on that seminal NME tape and many more of that generation who were inclined to have tunes anchored by jangling guitars; if you were talking about the "4AD sound" you were usually talking about something ethereal like Cocteau Twins, included here, and bands who wanted to produce music like that of Fraser, Guthrie, and Raymonde. But, hey, a lot of that was borderline goth too -- at least initially -- and the arrival of 4AD bands like Throwing Muses and Pixies upended the very idea that there was a "4AD sound" at all; I can vividly recall a few of the cool kids in this city at record shops in 1988 or so claiming that they hated all 4AD bands...until Surfer Rosa dropped. That kind of changed the dynamic, admittedly.

But, with the benefit of hindsight, we can use the term "shoegaze" in a far, far broader sense. What that means is that this box set takes in everything from admitted C86 followers (Velocity Girl), Creation Records stalwarts (The House of Love), and American noise-niks closer to the Velvet Underground's legacy than they were to the fuzzy charms of stuff like Slowdive (Galaxie 500, The Flaming Lips).

Here's the part where I indulge in a little personal history and nostalgia. I know those kids up in that pic (though I don't know Brian Nelson personally even if I know who he is). I can remember when Archie Moore (Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, Lilys) walked into the Record Co-Op carrying the first Slumberland Records release. I couldn't believe that this guy -- one of the few people I knew at the time who knew C86 stuff, and My Bloody Valentine sides -- had made good on his fan-love of this kind of tune-age and created music that was worthy of being compared to his influences. Still an Anglophile at the time, I remained in that era a bit skeptical of any American act attempting to try their hand at "shoegaze" -- or whatever term we used for this music back then, 2 years before that label was bandied about -- and I probably should have paid more attention at the time to the tunes on that first Slumberland Records release. A few other people I knew from my time in College Park, Maryland record stores -- Bridget Cross (original singer for Velocity Girl, soon to be in Unrest -- a 4AD band!), Kelly Riles (Velocity Girl bass player and a man of impeccable taste in that era), Pam Berry (Black Tambourine lead singer and one of our best vinyl customers) -- are on this box set through the work of 2 bands (Velocity Girl and Black Tambourine) featured on that first Slumberland Records piece of vinyl.

I rattled on above to prove a point of how rare a thing it was in 1989 to know people who knew these bands and this music -- even a record store employee had trouble finding other like-minded music fans -- back then. Equally rare was to be even tuned in at all to a sound that was about to revolutionize the music world before there was even a term to describe it. All this was before grunge broke big, even though it's worth noting that the 2 rival "hip" underground genres bubbling up in 1989 were grunge, thanks to the early singles coming out on Sub Pop, and "shoegaze", even if those of us seeking out and bonding over Loop and Spacemen 3 (see pic below) releases were still sort of not quite sure what our movement was.

So, in some sense, by casting a really wide net, the folks at Cherry Red have re-captured some of that initial thrill of discovery circa 1988-1999 over the course of this set. By covering bands not necessarily "shoegaze" (as we'd think of that genre now), Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze shows that the genre itself was rather amorphous at the time, entirely fluid, and one that bridged multiple scenes. For example, I knew people who grooved on the Nuggets-era inspired freak-outs of Spacemen 3 and Loop and yet these same cats were ones who'd never think of picking up anything on 4AD, least of all albums from Cocteau Twins or Pale Saints. Alternately, I can think of a few folks who were down with the "ethereal" stuff represented by the Cocteaus, or Slowdive, who'd turn their noses up back then at the rather grubby fuzzy-ness of an early Flaming Lips cut.

But here, in the midst of a not-really-chronological collection, those tracks add up to make a set of 5 pretty good-to-great mix tapes, more or less. Rather than offer a history of a genre, Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze is more a survey of a sound, a series of snapshots of a scene -- or scenes -- gravitating towards noise and feedback and bliss. If disc 1 is dominated by the big names (Loop, Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain), it's disc 2's job to show how the whole "shoegaze" scene -- even in its infancy -- birthed a whole lot of great music among C86 devotees here (College Park, Maryland's Velocity Girl, erroneously called a Washington [State!?!] band in the liner notes), and bands who were far too good to stay pigeonholed for long in the "shoegaze" ghetto (The Boo Radleys, Swervedriver). Still, this CD is basically the sound of 1990-1991 with the big names offered up on this one (Cranes, Lush, Ride -- shown below in that order).



Disc 3 shows some progression of the genre, even on a track from another College Park, Maryland-area band (Lilys), a super-rare Th' Faith Healers track, an untypical 4AD band (Spirea X), and a song from the next-best-thing-to-Stereolab that this compilation can offer (Moonshake). Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze hits a sort of peak here on what may be the most consistent disc of the 5 discs of this set. If the first 2 were full of the familiar big names, disc 3 is the one that sort of surprises with even second-rans like Smashing Orange shining here in context next to the heavy hitters of the era (Spiritualized, Moose, Curve).

And there are still 2 more discs of this collection to go!

With the exception of some big tracks from Adorable and Swallow, disc 4 offers up more obscure stuff, even as it kinda slots one of the best US bands to attempt something approaching "shoegaze" onto the tail end of this one (Swirlies, shown in the second pic below). And speaking of American acts who tried their hand at this kind of thing, "Winona" by Drop Nineteens (pictured in the first shot below) surely remains one of the essential "shoegaze" tracks to ever come out on this side of the Atlantic. Props also to the curators of this one for selecting my fave Medicine cut for disc 4 ("Aruca"). The song blurs the lines between noise-rock and "shoegaze" and very nearly destroys the conventions of the genre in a blur. Was there anywhere for this style to go after this one?

The stuff on disc 5 is very loosely "shoegaze", okay? In fact, I'd say it was a damn stretch to ever consider Luna a "shoegaze" act but, hey, I guess if you're gonna throw a Galaxie 500 cut onto this collection then it makes sense to include Luna. But that only raises the question of where's Damon and Naomi, an act who were far closer to "shoegaze", or at least the genre as it was represented by the likes of bands like Cranes on this set. By the time that Seefeel came along, the genre had morphed into something else. And, try as the curators at Cherry Red might, bands like Bardo Pond and Mercury Rev were never, even at their noisiest, "shoegazers". I mean, if they were than I guess Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth were too? Of course not.

Still, the inclusion of so much music from so far out of the strict limits of the genre only serves to highlight the strengths of the "more-is-more" approach of Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze. More a survey of the progression of indie from the simple melodic grace of the C86 flowering of acts and on to the expansive mind-altering explorations of bands on the Creation, 4AD, and Slumberland imprints, Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze works best as the ultimate mix tape of an era. Mingling up Brit and American acts with a degree of abandon makes it virtually impossible to see which US acts were inspired by which UK bands, especially when they are presented out of chronological order. Even given that, what a listener can hear is a certain affinity that transcended borders and styles to overwhelmingly color an entire generation of acts. See kids, it wasn't grunge that changed the world but, rather, Loveless (1991) that did, as I explained before in this post that tells the tale of my accidental meeting with Kurt Cobain when I went to see Loop and Nirvana was the opening act (along with D.C. noise-niks Thud).

Really, "teen spirit" moved the sweaty masses but there were loads of us searching for import singles from Ride at the time. Much like how as millions were being moved by the Beatles, there were pockets of resistance having their lives changed by the Velvet Underground, it was a bit like that here on this side of the Atlantic in 1990 or 1991 with Soundgarden ruling MTV and the "cool kids" reading Brit music papers for the latest news on acts like Spiritualized or Lush. It was as if you were speaking a secret language if you knew some of these bands back then. Sure, the term "shoegaze" may not have been heard until 1991 but, at least among certain people, it was a genre, even if one without a name, before that, as Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze illustrates by the volume, and volume, of music here.

That the first burst of "shoegaze" creativity would carry the genre and style forward for at least another 5 solid years remains sort of hard to believe now. The genre was, as this set shows so well, so spread-out and diffuse as to make longevity nearly impossible. You weren't there to follow much of this first-hand? That's okay 'cause you can at least ingest the whole of the "good stuff" via the 6+ hours of "shoegaze" genius found on Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze, out Friday via Cherry Red Records.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Quick Look At The Maximum Riffage Of Emotional Mugger, The New One From Ty Segall (Out Now On Drag City)

Much like Robert Pollard, Ty Segall pillages the past to prolifically pump the present full of riffs. The cat is unstoppable, am I right? Continuing on from a string of superb releases of late on Drag City and its various imprints, Segall just dropped Emotional Mugger on Friday. It's a gas, obviously, but I'm here to break it down for you cats and kittens.

Opener "Squealer" cranks things up immediately and the title cut, paired here with another song into "Emotional Mugger/Leopard Priestess", takes things back to 1968 again. Think the Stones in their Satanic phase jamming with the boys in Blue Cheer. Segall can do this sort of thing in his sleep but, thankfully, he still brings a degree of conviction to this stuff. Case in point, "Breakfast Eggs" simultaneously channels both Marc Bolan and Syd Barrett and that Segall pulls it off speaks volumes to his skills in these genres.

"Baby Big Man (I Want a Mommy)" very nearly strays into early Devo territory, while "Mandy Cream" recalls both Lennon's "Cold Turkey" and early punk stuff from the United Kingdom. "Candy Sam" -- Ty's "Telegram Sam"? -- riffs impressively with the drums expertly mixed for maximum nodding with headphones on. Similarly, album closer "The Magazine" is trippy and closer to something post-punk than it is to Ty's usual well of acid rock and Nuggets-era influences.

Ty Segall has managed to exert a high degree of quality control as he has continued to pump out rockers like Emotional Mugger. The album, out now on Drag City, is another set of winning riff-riders and wannabe acid jams. It's concise and bold, brash and melodic. It is, of course, another superb set from Ty Segall.

Follow Ty Segall via his official Facebook page. Emotional Mugger is out now via Drag City.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cannot Keep A Secret: My Review Of The New Emma Pollock Album (Out Next Friday On Chemikal Underground)

Has it really been 6 years since the last Emma Pollock album? Really? Well, I'm here to tell ya that it was worth the wait. In Search of Harperfield, out Friday, January 29, 2016, on Chemikal Underground, is as fine an album as any that Pollock has performed on. And that's very high praise indeed considering that she was one of the members of The Delgados.

Her last album, 2010's sublime The Law of Large Numbers, was a collection that broadened the sound of her solo material, first heard on her debut album under her own name (2007's Watch The Fireworks). And, similarly, In Search of Harperfield takes Pollock's art in new and beautiful directions. Read on!

"Cannot Keep a Secret" opens the LP with a pensive and brooding number that gets at the central themes of this record (the passage of time and ideas of age), while "Don't Make Me Wait" nods in the direction of something more accessible thanks to big hooks and a break near the chorus that is positively euphoric.

"Alabaster" and "Clemency" reach into the past to call up the sound of the The Delgados again, all dark folk and insistent chords, and that trip into her own recording past reaches a small peak on "Intermission" where the music takes on hues best described as sounding like something off of a Michael Nyman soundtrack. Emma Pollock's vocals here are assured and warm and somehow more direct despite the music's attempts at making things a bit mysterious. "Parks and Recreation", the first big single from In Search of Harperfield, throws out big riffs that make it immediate and catchy and in line with early Badly Drawn Boy, or even Elbow tracks. Big props to Pollock's hubby, one-time Delgados drummer Paul Savage for his work on this number as his playing is bold and it anchors the cut perfectly. Added kudos to Malcolm Lindsay for the arrangements on this one and elsewhere on the album.

"Vacant Stare" and "In the Company of the Damned" are a bit jaunty, while "Dark Skies" unfurls on the back of a gentle guitar line and a chill-inducing Pollock vocal performance. As she dips into Gaelic, presumably, the themes of the album become apparent and one can hear her wrestling with family concerns and her place in Scotland. The strings swell and one thinks, oddly, of the best moments on Rewind The Film (2013) by the Manic Street Preachers. Like those guys, Pollock has figured out how to let her place of birth inform her art without making the resulting piece of work too specific as to not be universal in its appeal. "Monster in the Pack" offers a bit of ruminative folk before the final track on the album appears.

If you come into this album knowing that Emma Pollock was going to attempt to deal with the death of her mother and the illness of her father through this album's music and lyrics then listening to "Old Ghosts" will be a moving experience for you as a listener. Clearly the highlight of In Search of Harperfield, this song took on added poignant meaning for me, as it will for many fans of a certain age who've got parents in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. The idea of approaching one's parents as people first and not just your parents is not a radical concept but it's sometimes hard to do. Look, my parents are reasonably healthy and even I tear up a bit every time I play this one. "Old Ghosts" is, simply put, one of the 5 best tracks Emma Pollock has ever performed on and one would not be exaggerating in saying that this was a highlight of her career as a singer and writer. This one is the equal of anything on Hate by The Delgados and I can think of no higher praise than that, frankly.

Emma Pollock has again hit a peak as an artist. It may have taken her 6 years to release a new solo album but it was, honestly, worth the wait as In Search of Harperfield is moving and affecting in ways that little other indie-pop is in 2016. Without a doubt, one can trace a level of quality from the earliest Delgados recordings, on to her tracks on that sublime Fruit Tree Foundation album, and here on her third solo album. Very, very few artists create music that is at once this serious and light on its feet. Accesible and arty, Emma Pollock has managed to make something uniquely personal here that should have wide, wide appeal beyond the borders of her native Scotland. As an artist, Emma's surprised this listener once again and made me consider matters of family and matters of the heart. In Search of Harperfield rewards a listener, that's the short version of my review.

In Search of Harperfield by Emma Pollock is out on Friday, January 29, 2016, via Chemikal Underground.