Sunday, May 31, 2015

Best New Music Of The Week? This Single From Cambridge's Tape Runs Out

I think the press for this said the word shoegaze so I feared the worst; in 1991 that term filled me with excitement but in 2015 it invariably fills me with dread. No dread here.

The tunes of Tape Runs Out are haunting and catchy and expertly conceived. To label this shoegaze is to do this music a disservice. Closer to stuff like Pale Saints, or Dif Juz, or even Talk Talk, this is guitar-based indie that skirts the edges of a few genres and seems wholly formed and original.

"Friends" purrs like early New Order, when the band was still trying to sound like Ian Curtis was at the mic, while "Flowers" recalls the moments when David Sylvian could still produce music that hit at something deep inside you. A warm keyboard figure anchors this one but the tune succeeds mainly due to the drums and guitar lines here.

I'm ready to hear much more from Tape Runs Out. While we're waiting for those cuts to surface, we can follow the band on their official website, or their official Facebook page, or via the Ear to Ear Records website.

[Photo: Lauren Marsh]

Awake In The World: My Quick Review Of The Splendid New Chris Stamey Record

I'm still mad at myself that I missed the Chris Stamey gig in Arlington last week. All the more bummed, really, 'cause my buddies in Dot Dash were supporting Stamey at the gig. But, you know, it was a work night and knowing that the alarm bell is gonna ring at 5:30 AM tends to put a damper on me enjoying anything on a work-night, even if it is a concert by a legend.

Chris Stamey's new album, Euphoria, is out next Tuesday on Yep Roc. It is, like everything this cat touches, a crash course in how to craft pop music. Remarkably tuneful and concise, Euphoria is another gem in a string of gems from this guy who started so long ago with the Sneakers album and other early endeavors.

The opener, "Universe-Sized Arms", is, as Stamey's notes on the album indicate, a sort of Psychedelic Furs-sounding tune...even if it was penned by one Ryan Adams. Be that as it may, it's a perfect showcase for Stamey's skills as a musician and singer. "Where Does The Time Go?" is pure AM Gold goodness in terms of melody and hooks. "Invisible" is closer to what Stamey has been doing all along with a nod in the direction of Marshall Crenshaw (who owes a big debt to this guy's work, obviously).

"Make Up Your Mind" and the title tune take their influences from various periods of the Beatles' output while "Awake in the World" offers up a vaguely trippy ballad that seems equal parts solo George Harrison and Harry Nilsson. Sounds like an odd combo in some sense but it works perfectly.

The second half of the album provides a bit more variety as the mood varies from the more uptempo "Rocketship" to the gentle and lyrical "You are Beautiful" and on to "When the Fever Breaks" and its near-bluesy excursions.

Depending on what version of Euphoria you buy or order, you may be getting a sampling of bonus cuts including Chris' cover of "Draggin' The Line" from Tommy James and the Shondells. The presence of Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster on the track makes this more than just a straight cover as Stamey and his crew make the tune their own.

Euphoria is, as can be expected, a remarkably solid set of pop tunes from a guy who knows that that word is not an insult. This is pop of the highest order and I admire greatly guys who can pen stuff like this. Things here are concise and punchy in spots. This is a set of tunes with big hooks that you can easily fall in love with. Every time I play a Stamey album, I usually think: Why isn't this guy more famous?

Well, his place in the books is secure thanks to his past association with The dB's but, still, it would be nice if Stamey had the name recognition of Elvis Costello. Stamey's Euphoria is an effortless blending of American power pop traditions forged in the years following the Beatles' break-up and perfected in the 1980s and after. That Stamey seems to be actually even more consistent now is something that should humble younger musicians. Euphoria is further proof of the constancy of Chris Stamey's pop genius. He's in his prime. Still.

Euphoria is out on Tuesday via Yep Roc.

Follow Chris Stamey via his official Facebook page or via his official website.

[Photo: Gail Goers]

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Heads Up About The Awesome New EP From Expert Alterations, Out Now On Slumberland

If I had known that B'more had a band like this in its midst, I'd have driven the hour or so over to Charm City to see these cats earlier. Baltimore's Expert Alterations are stunningly good. The music on their self-titled EP, out Monday on Slumberland Records, covers a lot of high points in the indie rock canon. This is expertly produced music that manages to meld about a dozen disparate influences into something wholly fresh and exciting.

"Venetian Blinds" rattles like C86 stuff while "A Bell" nods in the direction of The Feelies or early Talking Heads filtered through a more modern postpunk POV. The sublime "Midnight Garden" bridges Jonathan Richman and The Verlaines without breaking a sweat. A haunting tune, this one was burrowed into my brain on first listen.

The bass-tastic "Memory Glands" recalls stuff like Swell Maps (when they were tuneful), as well as bands from the early days of Factory Records (Durutti Column, New Order, ACR). The closer to this EP, "Three Signs", mixes those influences up with the drum-sound from "Can't Be Sure" by The Sundays to offer up something that is both a slashing gem and a rather subdued slow-burner. There's a touch of The Smiths here -- think their Peel Sessions -- even if the vocals are decidedly un-Morrissey-like.

The 3 guys in Expert Alterations have great influences between them and they have managed to easily blend those into music that remains invigorating and new. I thoroughly dig this record and I cannot wait for more tunes from these cats.

Follow Expert Alterations on their official Facebook page.

The self-titled EP from Expert Alterations is out now via Slumberland Records.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Deluxe Edition Of Measures Of Joy From Virginia Wing Is Out Now!

It took one listen to the pulsing future rock of "Estuary" to make me a fan of Virginia Wing. The London-based trio is making music that is currently drawing worthy comparisons to Stereolab and Broadcast and, for those of us who missed it a few months ago, it's now time to get the band's debut, Measures of Joy, in a "deluxe edition" courtesy of the fine folks at Fire Records.

The drum-heavy "World Contact" recalls Ladytron or Goldfrapp more than Stereolab. And that's another way of saying that this music is more spacious in a sense than one might expect from reading some other reviews of this band. Virginia Wing are taking risks here that don't always result in intensely catchy tracks but the risks do result in music that is haunting and memorable.

There's something decidedly old schoool electronica about "A Complex Outline" -- think early Depeche Mode mixed with Chris and Cosey. But the drums are killer here. And those beats are what set this band apart from others trying to do this sort of music.

On a track like "Juniper", things get difficult and the sounds seem to owe a heavy debt to the dense electronica of Fad Gadget when Tovey was on form. This is borderline experimental music anchored by vocals that keep things accessible. Impressive in so many ways, the sounds of Virginia Wing are unlike those of a dozen other bands these days. Adventurous listeners would be wise to get on-board with this trio as soon as possible.

Measures of Joy (Deluxe Edition) is out now via Fire Records.

Follow Virginia Wing on their official Facebook page.

Hear An 18-Track Mix Of Genuine DC Punk History: The Now Rocks The Ska Magic Here!

Hopefully this post will reach a few people who haven't already seen this up on Facebook. I don't know who posted it to Soundcloud but Fluffy, one-time Now associate and long-time (old) 9:30 Club employee, got my attention with this post. There's now an 18-track playlist from D.C. ska legends The Now up on Soundcloud.

I've written before about this band, mainly in this NOWstalgic post, and elsewhere where I've recounted how the late Gene Hawkins (R.I.P.) got my job at the Record and Tape Exchange in College Park when I left that gig in 1988, and how I worked with keyboardist Rich Carlson for nearly 2 years at the University of Maryland's Record Co-Op. So I'll not bore you with my memories again but just post this and urge you to check out tracks from D.C.'s most important ska band who came to glory in an era when Dischord seemed to define D.C. rock. The only other alternative band back then who had no Dischord connection of any kind was probably radioblue.

This playlist from The Now was compiled by friends and members of the band in honor of the late Joe (J.W.) Hill who died last week at a tragically early age. I did not know JW but he was a friend of Rich so I'll send my condolences out to all of his friends and family via this post.

At some point in the future, I'll do another post on The Now should more tunes and pics surface. In the mean-time, here's your crash course in what made this band so great. From the early stormer "Maddening Crowd" to the later, post-Gene "Wind Me Up" (produced by Earl Hudson of the Bad Brains), these cats could swing. More than ska, The Now were deservedly a big, big draw in this town for quite a few years. Dig it!

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.