Sunday, May 12, 2019

More




Blankenberge
More
(self-released)

I’ve mentioned it here before, but I have never been very fond of the term ‘shoegaze.’  It was originally intended as a slight – relegating bands that use effects pedals for their guitars and eschew grandstanding front men to some kind of irrelevancy.  Whatever.  And nowadays, people who are fans of dreamy guitar pop have mostly come to accept and embrace the term.  I have tried, but the sticking point with me is not the original insult so much as that the term is the complete opposite of how one would describe the music being created.  If you really lose yourself into the powerful wash of the music being performed, who cares if the singer is making a spectacle of himself?

Blankenberge, from Saint Petersburg, Russia, are a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  Their second LP (I’ve got to check out the first!), More, is so musically dramatic that it evokes visions of spectacular vistas, of the heavens parting to expose a brilliant sunrise, of things like the big solar eclipse from a couple of summers ago.  This is music that makes one look skyward and feel the immensity of our world and beyond.  This five piece create music that is urgent, vivid, epic, and brimming with an electricity that sends shivers down one’s spine.

The first three songs are vital.  “Islands” is a perfect introduction.  The slow ride cymbal tap, the low buzz of strummed feedback combined with atmospheric high end notes generate a fairly typical shoegaze base, but then the song explodes with a swell of energy and emotion that is simply breathtaking.  Yana Gusselnikova’s vocals are barely there (similar to Isa Holliday from Slow Crush) as she spells out a story of unrequited love.  She’s lying in wait.  Hoping for a chance.  We’ve all had these feelings.  It’s every day.  It’s silly, yet when you are in the midst of those feelings it is overwhelming, it is just about the only thing on your mind.  “Islands” captures that urgency in spades.  Next up is the unrelenting unstoppable driving force that is “Look Around.”   Wow.  The rhythm section of drummer Sergey Vorontsov (those drums fills are like a machine gun) and bassist Dmitriy Marakiv lock into a tight interconnected pulse for the twin guitars of Daniil Levshin and Daian Aizlotov to paint over with what sounds like a warning beacon.  We don’t know what the warning is for but we’d better make haste.  The warning must be for the tidal wave of noise that washes over us during the majestic and powerful chorus.  Absolutely stunning.  Next up is the stuttering and chiming “Right Now.”  This is one of those songs where the lyrics and music synch up in an intriguing way.  The words urge us to be inspired.  To go out and do the things we always wanted to do.  “Let’s get loud right now!”  The indication is that we are holding ourselves back.  That we are wrapped in self-imposed binders doing what we think we have to do, as opposed what we want to do.  Musically, this song matches this fitful image.  The song is teaming with life, but it keeps building and building looking for release.  There is a burst of escape that is glorious, but despite its intentions that song concludes with what sounds like a vicious internal battle.  It is not so easy to break free of our inhibitions and doubts.

After that intense opening, Blankenberge take a breather with the title track “More.”  It’s a dreamy rumination on the beauty of nature, but also a warning against humankind’s endless greed.  The second half of the album is more deliberate overall.  The songs stretch out and find solace in their surroundings.  The stunning instrumental “Waves” feels like it could go on forever, while the surprising and well placed saxophone adds an added touch of beauty to the lovely “Until the Sun Shines.”  The album finishes with “Fest,” an epic if there ever was one.  The significance of celebrating has never felt so important.  The song brings a poignancy to the proceedings with its depth, and it feels like a triumph – something to celebrate.

This is an album to celebrate!  It’s endlessly exciting to encounter music this alive and this remarkable.  Please give this a listen.




Blankenberge "Look Around"






Saturday, April 6, 2019

Forever Young



Over the years, my obsession with music has led me down a path of often unconsciously steering conversations towards the topic of music.  I apologize to all of my closest friends.  I don’t mean to.  It just happens.  It’s frequently near the forefront of my mind.  Several times, after steering a conversation toward music, one sentiment I’ve heard many times both in passing, in heated drunken discussions, and in one on one thoughtful chats – it generally goes something like this: “They don’t make music as good as they used to,” or “music was much better back in the day.”  You know you’ve heard something along these lines said, or maybe said before.  These types of statements always get my blood pressure to rise, my nostrils to flare, and an inner voice to remind me to take a deep breath.  Listen, I get it, music often makes a bigger impact on people when they are younger.  It’s new and fresh and speaks to us in different ways.  Over time, most of us drift away from music.  Life becomes more complicated.  We get jobs, have families, and have various crises and triumphs.  Our horizons are broadened.  Our priorities change.  The reason such statements eat at me is that there is always good music being made.  There’s more of it coming at us each year.  It may not always be groundbreaking.  It may not change our lives like it did when we were fifteen.  It may seem foreign and uncomfortable.  But some group of people somewhere are being drawn to it.  They are finding inspiration and freedom and joy from it.  This is a good thing.  The past year or so has been fantastic for me personally, despite closing dangerously in on the age of 50.  I haven’t been introduced to this many new artists since I was frantically devouring all things music in my early twenties.  A simple reminder that the music is always out there.  It’s just a matter of having the will to find it.

Since last summer, I’ve been listening weekly to the Big Takeover Radio show put on by the music ultra-fan/aficionado Jack Rabid (available on Real Punk Radio each Monday).  The last month or so, Jack has been celebrating the music year of 1979 – marking its 40th anniversary.  There seems to be a limitless amount of incredible songs from that year – a lot of which I have retroactively discovered.  While listening to these sets the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about great years in music.  Obviously, ‘79 was a good one.  It was when the punk explosion was still occurring around the globe, but also merging into post-punk.  It was when tiny independent labels had been popping up everywhere and creating a truly exciting underground scenes that would prove to be massively influential still to this day.  At the same time, when seen from the macro scale, 1979 was a terrible year in music.  Music sales were slumping to a disturbing degree.  There’s not a lot of hit music from those days (78-80) that has been very lasting.  It’s kind of a dead zone between the soft rock of the 70s and the video driven pop of the 80s.  However, percolating underneath the mainstream were hip hop, punk, noise, goth, industrial, dance and post-punk music.  Not yet finding a wide audience, but the sources of tons of amazing and exciting music.  Still, having said that, I’m certain that there are multitudes of people who love the hits of 1979.  These are the songs they may hold up as the high standard that all future music would be compared to.

For a variety of reasons, generally, music has its greatest impact on us in our younger years.  In our teens and twenties we begin to truly develop our own tastes and begin to make our own decisions.  This is when we kind of break free of our parents influence, and the peer-induced influence of what’s acceptable, and begin discovering things on our own.  This is why I truly believe that so many people find it easy to dismiss new music later in life.  It’s not what they cut their teeth on.  To a certain extent, we’re all guilty of this.  Jack Rabid was 17 in 1979.  There’s a reason, beyond the plethora of incredible music released that year, it’s that he was exposed to this music at just the right time.



In 1986, my mom bought me what turned out to be, I think, a ten year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine for my birthday.  Not too long after I began receiving issues, in came several special editions marking the magazine’s 20th anniversary.  There were best of lists of albums, singles, and tours, I believe.  I learned a lot about rock’s history and took advantage of these issues to investigate a lot of older music and discover more about the history of this stuff I love so much.  I began asking my parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, or anyone older, what it was like when rock-n-roll was new - when it all was considered taboo and dangerous.  Maybe 1956 was the greatest year of music.  I was curious about when Beatlemania hit, and the resulting British invasion – maybe 1963 was the greatest year.  Or what was life like in like 1967 when the pop charts reflected what was popular and sometimes what was the most cutting edge and creative – a concept foreign to a child growing up with fully market researched and analyzed commercial media.  What I learned pretty quickly is that most people really don’t pay attention to this shit.  Pretty much everyone dismissed my questions with ignorance, or complaints about the constant screaming that would drown out the Beatles when they performed live, or with my Mom trying to convince me that she had been a drag racing “hood.”  It was around this same time that I read something about the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) considering a true music fan as someone who purchases more than one album in a year.  This concept blew me away!  It didn’t make sense.  How could anyone survive with a long list of music that they need to have?  I have fully come to realize that music’s importance is very individual and often very limited and transitory for a high percentage of people.

My search for the greatest year of music was quickly abandoned.  So, the question I began to ask myself is what is my favorite year for music?  It’s not so straightforward.  I will never forget the uncommon power of 1985, when I first went all in on music.  That was the year I got a job and began spending all of that income on records.  These records slowly began collecting alongside my dozen or so records I’d gained access to as a little kid.  Yet, the following year, ’86, found me with a CD player and I began to learn about music beyond the Top 40.  I mean, I will forever know albums like The The’s Infected, Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration, Pet Shop BoysPlease, and New Order’s Brotherhood better than I know my own social security number, because they were new and exciting and I only had about fifty albums in the old collection, so I played them all the time.  I mentioned earlier that the past year has been an especially great year for music, for me personally, because of a renewed vigor of discovery and exposure (see explanation here).  I could toss in just about any year, because there’s been meaningful music that has swept over me, and captivated me for a variety of reasons.  For example, 2003 was a rough year of health issues, but defiant, loud, and angry albums by The Lawrence Arms, T.S.O.L., and Killing Joke helped drag me through those medical problems with an indomitable spirit. 

In the end, not that anyone asked, I think I’ve decided that 1992 has been my favorite year of music so far.  It slots in with the age of discovery.  I turned 21 that spring.  I was well on my way when it comes to developing my interests and tastes as far as music is concerned for what has turned out to be a long time love affair.  I had begun trying to write about music.  I had survived a physically and emotionally rough year in 1991, and music felt bigger, brighter, and more important than ever.  A big part of that is because the so-called shoegaze scene was absolutely on fire (great records by Ride, Pale Saints, Catherine Wheel, Kitchens of Distinction, Curve, etc.), so there were new UK import EPs and albums to buy every week, along with a healthy stateside indie scene (Velocity Girl, Small Factory, Swirlies, Versus, Unrest, Pavement, Chainsaw Kittens, etc.) where I could mail-order records directly from the bands or tiny labels.  I found myself acquiring a lot of indie pop and punk records that way.  I remember spending $8 of my last $10 till payday on the brand new single “Goodbye” by The Sundays, when I spotted it on display a record store on my way to the grocery store for food.  Bob Mould unleashed Sugar’s blasting debut, Jawbreaker appeared with the “Chesterfield King” single, Australia’s Underground Lovers astounded me with their Leaves Me Blind album, and 4AD Records continued their US invasion with Belly and the hypnotic Red House Painters.  Even the Cure impossibly followed up Disintegration (supposedly their genius finale) with a solid album, and Your Arsenal showed that Morrissey was not yet finished.  I could go on and on.  Pretty much all of the music that I love from that year still sounds fresh and vital to me to this day.  In 2003, I purchased a recordable CD player.  It’s just like an old school dual cassette deck, but instead you could burn CDs – one to the other.  Since I couldn’t sleep anymore, I set about a project where I would make a compilation disc to represent each of the years of my music fandom.  Of course, I started out with 1992.  I made a list of songs that was ten notebook pages deep – never repeating a band – of great songs for the disc.  I made one disc with 18 songs, labeled it “1992a” and stopped the entire project there.  It was too much! 




In the end, I hope that I never reach a point that I give up the search for new music.  That search and discovery of amazing music has saved my life several times over.  I do not want to be hunkered down with my arms around an Alphaville “Forever Young” 12” single saddened that I never made it to prom and wondering why they don’t make teenage ballads like they used to.  I am looking forward to years ahead that are brightened with music that rivals and exceeds that exciting music year of 1992. 

What has been your favorite year of music?  Why?  What made it special?







Sunday, March 24, 2019

Spool




Spool
Spool
(Testcard Records)

When I first started buying music regularly, CDs were still a relatively new thing (I know, I’m old).  Back in the mid-80s, there wasn’t much selection available on CD and they were like $18-$20 each.  Most titles were brought in on German or Japanese import, which were often closer to $30 apiece, but they seemed exotic and exciting, especially the Japanese imports with the artful Japanese script wrapped around the package and frequently a bunch of bonus tracks not available anywhere else.  Compact Discs were daunting then because of the price, especially since one could buy new a new vinyl album for about $6-$8.  Of course, it’s the exact opposite now.  Vinyl costs a fortune and feels like the exotic option.  The Japanese releases were always from US or European artists.  The idea of a Japanese indie rock band was not a concept in my world back then.  Unfortunately, things haven’t changed a lot.  A few Japanese artists have found small audiences over the past 20 years, but for the most part their music has been ignored by western audiences.  I don’t know if this will change any time soon, but I’ve sure had my eyes and ears opened over the past year or so.  It turns out that Japan has a thriving indie rock scene with a bunch of great bands that are right up my alley! 

Spool, a four piece from Tokyo, may be the best I’ve encountered yet!  Their brand of early 90s sounding shoegaze, psychedelia, and indie pop is incredibly powerful and addictive.  I swear, if their unbelievably catchy song “sway, fadeaway” had been released on Creation Records back in say early 1991 between singles like Teenage Fanclub’s “Star Sign,” Swervedriver’s “Rave-Down,” and Slowdive’s “Catch the Breeze,” it would’ve been right at home and I would’ve hungrily snatched up a copy and listened to it over and over.  In fact, after seeing the music video for their album’s first single, “Be My Valentine,” at the end of 2018, I immediately pre-ordered the album.  The opening track “nightescape,” reminds me a bit of The Heartthrobs, or The Nightblooms with its trippy intensity, while “Let Me Down” builds to an emotional crescendo (and the title sung in English!).  “Shotgun” is a mid-tempo song with a clever repeated organ refrain, and a sing-a-long chorus, even though I have no idea what Ayumi is saying,  Another highlight, “springpool,” later in the album, has a smooth forward propulsion (love that bassline!) that reminds me a bit of Spotlight Kid.  The closing “No, thank you,” manages to be a polite send-off that still manages to blow the doors off the hinges.

Overall, this debut is very strong, already one of the best albums of 2019 so far.  Spool employ a nice variety and the album always feels fresh and engaging.  They, along with the moody Collapse (whose Delirium Poetry EP last year was one of my favorites), could be my new gateway into the far away world of incredible music.  I’m excited to see where this takes me.  Won’t you join me?






Spool "Be My Valentine"




Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Start at the End



Wild Signals
Start at the End EP
(self-released)

“Don’t worry about it / Don’t worry at all” concludes the third song on this spectacular debut EP from L.A. based four piece Wild Signals.  They may be instructing us to start at the end, but I’m going straight to the middle.  “Restless” is my favorite song here amidst five greats, because it encapsulates all of their strengths together into one perfect song.  Vocalists/guitarists Noël Brydebell and Nicole Ridgely display mastery by weaving beautiful soundscapes with chiming, heavily reverbed guitars that will entice any shoegaze fans, while drummer Josh Renkow, and bassist Ben Keysaer add another dimension.  In this case, a powerful thumping groove that matches the floating quality of the song where you can actually “feel your pulse,” but then at the climax of the song, this rhythm section goes a little off the rails with speedy drum fills and a sliding bass line that brings the song to an explosive conclusion, exemplifying the restlessness inferred in the title, despite the calming words.

The busy drums are display elsewhere, giving this band a unique spin on this wonderful style.  “Home” opens this EP with a slow peaceful opening, majestic guitars (reminding of the time I first heard Fur’s “Camomile”), and a stunning vocal, before a bouncing bass kicks in.  Before we know it, the song jumps into a remarkably high speed buzzsaw, while the vocals and guitars remain at their original pace.  It’s an intriguing twist.

“Vauxhall” also has busy drums in contrast to the Habitants-style epic dreaminess of the song’s framework.  It’s as if Renkow is infusing the drum mania of first album Icicle Works (“Bird’s Fly,” “Nirvana”) and Thunder and Consolation New Model Army (“I Love the World,” etc.) to the intricate and deliberate setting.  This might be distracting to some, but I happen to love all of those things.

In case this sounds a little much for you, “Space” is a much more languid song that stretches out nicely providing an opportunity for Brydebell and Ridgely to crank up some string busting noise in what would be an amazing live set closer.

This EP ends with “The Bat,” which is epic and downright stratospheric in its various stages of dramatic development.  I can easily say that this debut has me wanting to hear more.  This may be a debut release, and they are clearly hungry and inspired, and yet they sound like seasoned veterans.  Excellent!





Wild Signals "Vauxhall"




Sunday, February 3, 2019

Tallies




Tallies
Tallies
(Kanine)

This is the debut album from Toronto band Tallies and it feels like I should’ve been listening to this for years already.  Their brand of bright intricate catchy melodies with sharp lyrics is the type of thing I’ve always hungrily sought out since about the time I first heard The Sundays, so this new album already feels like an old friend. 

The album opens with “Trouble,” which begins with a sole drum beat fading in before it suddenly bursts into bright chiming guitars and a rumbling bass and Sarah Cogan warning us poetically that we all need to be more careful and heed signs of potential trouble.    And we’re off to the races, as “Trouble” melts right into the first single “Mother” – an impeccable tune that continues that lesson of questioning things that are going on around us and finding the right path.  Two songs on in and this album had me giddy because it evokes the greatness of the afore-mentioned Sundays (check out the huge guitar strum and bass groove of “Midnight”), The Innocence Mission, and mostly the short-lived Delicious Monster.  Cogan’s strong vocals remind me of a cross between Kristin Hersh and Rachel Mayfield, while Dylan Franklin creates instantly memorable, detailed guitar lines that make this pairing instantly crucial.  Though I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the tight and versatile playing of Stephen Pitman and Cian O'Niell on bass and drums respectively.  The next two songs are maybe my two favorite songs on the album.  “Have You” has Cogan wondering if her partner is really getting her.  The repetitiveness of the “Have You” chorus works well in its building anger and frustration.  I dare you not to let it get to you as well as get it stuck in your head.  “Not So Proud” is where Cogan really shines as she belts out her words with an urgent intensity.

There are plenty of highlights to be found in the second half of Tallies.  “Eden” is a breezy sounding classic with a bridge and chorus to die for, while “Beat the Heart “is instantly addictive and another showcase of talent.  “Giving Up” shifts up the sound a bit with an almost flamenco rhythm.  The album closer, “Easy Enough,” comes out with a stream-lined wide open feel, like the band should be performing on a wind-swept cliff looming over the ocean.  A song like this makes me wonder why the entire world isn’t singing along.

Aside from the crisp sounding “Mother,” most of these songs are washed in a gauzy rainy day haze that reminds of the debut albums from The Ocean Blue and Trashcan Sinatras, which is high praise, but it makes me wonder what this album would be like without the Vaseline on the lens.  Whatever the case, this is an amazing debut and I’m pretty sure I’ll be listening to this one for years and years to come.  I encourage you to explore for yourself.  By the way, the physical versions come with a very pretty additional song “Trains and Snow.” 





Tallies "Mother"


Monday, January 28, 2019

Permanent



Fawns of Love
Permanent
(Test Pattern)

Sacramento based label Test Pattern Records is on fire!  I swear I’ve amassed just about every record they’ve released over the last several years, but this new one, may already be the record of 2019 and we’re just getting started.  I had not previously heard of Fawns of Love until their beautiful, wistful, and lush single “Zine Days” early last year, but it made me an instant fan.  However, much like label mates, Soft Science and their incredible album Maps from last summer, this new release takes all of the band’s best elements and presents them in a wide open clear and concise space.  All of the songs sound huge and vibrant.

Fawns of Love are Jenny and Joseph Andreotti, and Permanent sounds like they snuck into New Order’s recording studio in 1986, right after they recorded “Bizarre Love Triangle,” borrowed their equipment, and laid down a bunch of brilliant songs.  Please don’t misunderstand this.  It is meant as the highest praise.  I cut my musical teeth on that 12” single as a young teenager and vividly remember the day (before weeks passed like days) I purchased it and rushed home to listen to it over and over.  I love the heavy prominent dance beats and that mid-range bass as melodic lead and never tire of it.  The major difference here is that Jenny’s vocals mix with washes of dreamy atmospherics giving this entire album a sincere reflective feel that takes things to another level. 

The album opens with the single they shared late last year, “Someday,” which floats atop a wash of keyboards, a sharp dance beat, and some great percussion.  This is maybe what it would sound like if Julee Cruise release a dance single (I don’t know, maybe she has).  Similarly, “December” continues this thread.  That insistent beat combined with strong atmospherics.  Perhaps the best of the pre-LP singles is “Mournful Eyes,” which builds an incredible amount of jittery anticipation leading up to the warm sing-along multi-tracked vocal of the chorus. 

My early favorite songs (I can’t decide on one) include the majestic sounding “Horoscope,” which reminds me of all-time favorite New Order song “Your Silent Face,” if it had been graced by a vocal from Elizabeth Frazier, along with the sheer catchiness of the title track, “Permanent” (I cannot stop humming the ooohs from the chorus), and I cannot leave out the stunning “Divine,” which is so pleasantly dream-like that it is a shame when it ends.  Every song is fantastic and though there isn’t a huge variety here, the album works very well as a whole and its 30 minutes or so keeps any fatigue from setting in.

In my tiny circle, Fawns of Love are getting a lot of well-deserved attention.  I hope that it continues to grow.  This is magical music that needs to be heard.  The vinyl is limited, so please pick up a copy while you can! 





Fawns of Love "Mournful Eyes"



Monday, January 14, 2019

Don't Look


Young Romance
Don’t Look
(Banquet)

I’ve had a hell of a time getting this review started.  Don’t Look was released back in early November, I first learned of the band in late November, immediately fell in love with what I heard, ordered a copy of the album, received it midway through December and have listened to it over and over again.  I want to spread the word as best I can, because it seems like there has been little attention paid to this deserving record, but the words have not come, so please bear with me.

Maybe it’s in my DNA, as a Pacific North Westerner, but I do love me some guitar/drums two-pieces, and this UK pair are Paolo Ruiu on guitar and Claire Heywood on drums and vocals.  There’s always been at least a few on my radar at any one time, like The Spinanes, Some Velvet Sidewalk, MOTO, early Eux Autres, and Honeyblood – just off the top of my head.  I love the clarity.  The simplicity.  The energy.  Young Romance’s second full length, Don’t Look, hits all of those marks in spades.  There is a singular focus to this album, both lyrically and musically that is appealing.  It has a certain feeling of heartbreak crossed with a powerful determination.

Nearly the entirety of this record is about breaking free of relationships.  This is honestly not something I strongly relate to, not being the dumper very often, and loyal to a fault.  However, this direct collection of songs are easy to jump into and get behind.  The brief opener sets the stage as Claire tells the straight truth to “Alice” that her significant other is a phony (“I know he said he’d change / oh no”) over the top of a grinding guitar line.  The absolutely sublime mid-tempo “Dark of My Shadow” comes on with the line “Where I go try not to follow,” as Claire provides a gentle, but clear and firm goodbye.  I have absolutely fallen in love with Claire’s voice, and this song is where she shines brightest.  Her voice oozes emotion, proving that this decision isn’t easy.  “Prying Eye” comes on like “In Your Head” by Dum Dum Girls before shifting into its pounding and soaring chorus.  It is even more defiant in its message (“I better leave this place / where I can’t see your face”).  The first side closes with the burning two minute scorcher, “Ramona,” which continues the thread of escaping a toxic situation, as she opens the song with the line “I’ll never waste another day with you” in case there’s any doubt. 

Elsewhere, the downbeat “Toughen Up,” is the tender side, or at least more melancholy side of the letting go, as we learn of the struggle – the conflict – and the previous efforts to keep on (“We go over and over and over and over our flaws / but we’re tired of lying and keeping from crying / when all that we know of our life is tattered and torn”).  The endlessly catchy “PDS” comes on like gangbusters as Claire tells us that she’s “leaving here…’cause you know it’s never enough.”  I think you get the point.  This is the end.

My earlier reference to Dum Dum Girls is actually specifically in regards to their Only in Dreams album.  A handful of those songs evoke that early girl group with a modern twist feel and both albums are about goodbyes.  That album has been one of the most powerful for me personally in the last ten years, so this is meant as the highest of praise.  Hell, I haven’t even mentioned three of my favorite songs on the record: the straightforward rocker “By My Side,” the breezy sounding, but heart wrenchingly sad “Bruise Easy,” and the closing “All I know.”

I missed out completely on their debut in 2016 and have since ordered a copy of that.  In the meantime, I will keep this one on heavy rotation.  I recommend you do the same.




Young Romance "Dark of My Shadow"