Indie Basement (11/20): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
It's another big edition in Indie Basement so let's get right into it. This week: The Cribs return with their best album in a very long time; UK electronic duo Bent return with their first album in 15 years; Kelley Stoltz heads to the '80s for his second excellent album of 2020; post-punk/industrial icons Cabaret Voltaire release their first album in 26 years; King Gizzard have more notes than usual at their disposal on K.G.; Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas team up for a third album of superior bubblebath disco; and U.S. Girls backing band Badge Epoque Ensemble make terrific '70s-style jazzy grooves on their second album. Plus: a 40th anniversary edition of The Specials' second album and a 20th anniversary edition of Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump.
If those nine things are not enough new music for you this week, head over to Andrew's Notable Releases where he reviews another nine, including Megan Thee Stallion, Tombs and Liturgy. Other Basement-approved stuff from this week: Sloan have a new vinyl b-sides comp; UK band Dry Cleaning are back with their first single for 4AD; and have you heard Bill Callahan & Bonnie Prince Billy's cover of Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues"?
Head below for this week's reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: The Cribs – Night Network (Sonic Blew)
Gary, Ryan and Ross Jarman remind you why you loved them in the mid-'00s on The Cribs' best album in ages
The Cribs have always felt like underdogs to me, a scrappy trio of brothers from Northern England that exuded a for-the-people attitude, turning their noses up at rockstar bullshit even during that three year period when Johnny fucking Marr was a member of the band. The music biz will take its toll on even the most grounded groups, and Gary, Ryan and Ross Jarman came this close to calling it quits following the release of 2017's 24-7 Rock Star Shit, when they suddenly found themselves dropped by their management, and learned that through contract loopholes that all their albums that they thought they owned had been sold off to other companies. An opening slot opening for Foo Fighters at Manchester Stadium in 2018 might've been their last-ever gig but a pre-show talk with Dave Grohl gave them new hope. Grohl's very rockstar advice — "fuck 'em, who cares, just make music" — also came with an offer for the band to make a record at his 606 studios in Los Angeles.
They took him up on that offer and here we are with Night Network, easily The Cribs' best album since 2009's Ignore the Ignorant if not 2007's Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever. This is The Cribs you remember, the ones who could throw in a joyous, punchy "Whoa-oh" at the end of any chorus. The ones who channeled the wide-eyed wonder of Jonathan Richman through the dreary weather of Northern England and the shambolic energy of K Recs and Kill Rock Stars. (And yes a little Libertines.) Even though they were still fighting to get rights back to their records, you can tell they were enjoying making this record.
You'd think with what they were going though, this might be an angry record, but the mood on Night Network is hopeful and energetic, with a little, welcome dark streak running through. "Running Into You," "Never Thought I'd Feel Again," and "Siren Sing Along" rival "You Were Always the One," "I'm A Realist," and "Mirror Kisses" as the band's catchiest, and they strike a poignant chord on "Earl & Duke" (about Ryan and his wife's dog, Earl. who died a few years ago) and the Beach Boys-esque opening track, "Goodbye," which works to put their recent woes into context (and in the past). They even re-teamed with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, who appeared on Men's Needs and who here provides some signature guitar noise on the excellent "I Don't Know Who I Am."
Gary and Ryan, who live in Portland and NYC these days, both just turned 40 this year and while the big melodies are back, Night Network is not some attempt to recapture their youth. It does, however, seem to have found them reconnecting with their love of music and the joy of being in The Cribs and the feeling is infectious.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: Kelley Stoltz – Ah! (etc) (Agitated Records)
The hits keep coming on the San Francisco DIY pop true-believer's second album of 2020.
“I was guzzling wine at my favorite bar in San Francisco, the Rite Spot, and the entertainment that night was some local opera singers singing along with a big video screen showing a collage of various operatic moments with subtitles," says Kelley Stoltz of the origin behind his new album's curiously punctuated title. "One particular subtitle, ‘Ah! (etc)’, made me laugh, I thought it was a perfect description of life — the joy of existence against the etcetera of it all, the struggle.”
Ah! (etc) is Stoltz's second album of 2020, following Hard Feelings which found him dabbling in late-'70s Nick Lowe-style pub rock. This one has no high concept, just 12 unbelievable catchy songs performed in Stoltz's sweet spot — somewhere between '60s garage pop and '80s new wave, though heavier on the latter this time around.
He's never been shy about wearing influences on his sleeve, and fans of '70s mutant pop and '80s Sire Records will probably not have a problem spotting them this time. "Been listening to Lloyd Cole, remembering my younger years," he sings on "Darkness Too," one of the album's best songs. "Guess some things never change," he notes, before paraphrasing Lloyd's title track to Rattlesnakes, "A girl still needs a gun these days." There's also "Never Change Enough" that throws in a sparkling, jangling riff straight out of Aztec Camera's High Land, Hard Rain.
Meanwhile, Kelley's love of Echo and the Bunnymen (he actually played in their touring band over the last 10 years) feels especially pronounced this time. "Never Change Enough" swipes a riff and a 12-string from "The Killing Moon" while "Dodged a Bullet" sounds like something from the Grey Album as covered by Brian Eno in 1974. Actual Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant shows up on two songs: delivering some of his signature six-string style on "The Quiet Ones" and then a spoken word outro on the tropical "Moon Sky" which also features harmony vocals from former Dance Hall Crashers singer Karina Denike.
Elsewhere on the album: "Some Other Time" goes Big Star power pop, "She Likes Noise" is amongst the most fun songs he's ever made and, speaking of, closing track "Having Fun" digs a VU style groove to great effect. Kelley has never made a bad record but Ah! (etc) feels especially inspired. Keep 'em coming.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #3: Bent – Up in the Air (Godlike & Electric)
UK downtempo duo return in suave, chill form for their first album in 15 years
There are few sounds more instantly soothing than a Hawaiian-style slide guitar drenched in reverb. That's the first thing you hear on Up in the Air, UK duo Bent's first album in 15 years. Of the many Y2K-era downtempo duos whose low-key beats soundtracked hair salons and chic hotel lobbies, Bent were always my favorite, bringing a playfulness and sense of mischief to their chilled out grooves They also were not afraid to drop a banger, either, or dig through forgotten records for samples, like on "Always," from their sublime 2000 album Programmed to Love, which turned the Norrie Paramor Orchestra's 1962 song "Always in My Heart" into house heaven.
Back to that Hawaiian guitar, though. That's from "Take 15," which might be a reference to their time away, but here they are like they never left, as an electronic bass line bobs by like a buoy, and washes of iridescent synth and harp samples swell like waves. It's fun, it's gorgeous, it's Bent. Thank the pandemic for the resurrection of the group and reconnection of Neil "Nail" Tolliday and Simon Mills who each came up with ideas for four tracks before passing them off to the other.
Tolliday and Mills, who have made ambient records on their own over the decade or so, have not lost the ability to layer sounds; that it's always hard to tell what's being sampled and what's being played is part of Bent's magic. Up in the Air is their most chill album to date, leaning heavy on bachelor pad E-Z listening, like the flute-laden "Eagle and Swan," the sax-y, Balearic bliss of "Come on Home," and the proggy, folky "Remove All Clocks." Still, the best tracks are the ones with a beat and a strong hook, like "Misty" which has a bit of a lush Kings of Convenience vibe to it.
Then there's the album's irresistible single, "Friends," that takes a page from "Always," basing the warm, inviting house track around jazz standard "Just Friends," layering it with elegant piano and strings (and enlisting the great Ashley Beedle for a remix). The record could use another track like it, but Up in the Air is a welcome return and lets hope it won't be the last we hear from Bent.
Cabaret Voltaire – Shadow Of Fear (Mute)
Now with just Richard H. Kirk behind the controls, industrial icons Cabaret Voltaire release their first album in 26 years.
When Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson formed Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield in the mid-'70s, there were no samplers; they relied on loops of audio tape on reel-to-reel machines for their dadaist found-sound collages which would be foundational in the burgeoning industrial scene. Kirk is the sole Cab now (Watson left in 1981; Mallinder in 1994), having revived the name for shows in 2014, and he's just released the first Cabaret Voltaire album in 26 years. The group mutated frequently over the years — formless noise to slick dance music — and the their forward-thinking M.O. remains on Shadow of Fear. “The mission statement from the off was no nostalgia," Kirk says. "Normal rules do not apply. Something for the 21st Century. No old material.” Don't expect buzzsaw tracks like "Nag Nag Nag" here. Made with minimal equipment, Shadow of Fear is a mostly low key affair with dubby electronica not miles away from The Orb. Kirk's cut-and-paste sensibilities are still intact, with news footage and other soundbites woven though the album. As Cabaret Voltaire, he still also knows how to imbue a palpable sense of dread, too. The neighborhood may have been cleaned up, but Cabaret Voltaire's industrial roots still show.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – K.G. (Flightless)
King Gizzard's 16th album in 10 years is another exploration of "microtonal tuning"; they're also dabbling in electronics but there's no question who made it.
Giving Bob Pollard, Oh Sees and Ty Segall a run for their prolific money, Australia's King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard just released their 16th studio album since forming 10 years ago. After experiments in boogie and thrash, new album K.G. finds the band making a sonic sequel of sorts to 2017's Flying Microtonal Banana, in that it's another record that uses quarter-tone tuning. What does that mean? More notes to play with. Songs have a bit of an Eastern tilt — Indian śruti music uses microtonal scales — but I'm not sure the average listener (this writer included) would notice if not explicitly told about it apart from wondering "hey, is that a sitar?" However they arrived at the finished product, K.G. is an enjoyable King Gizzard record, whether they're giving us windswept acoustic psych ("Straws in the Wind"), groovy flower power jams ("Minimum Brain Size") or galloping spaghetti western rock ("Ontology"). K.G. also marks the group's first real forays into electronic dance music, and "Intrasport," which dabbles in acid house in a Charanjit Singh sort of way, is promising enough to warrant further exploration. As a band who clearly enjoys the challenge of high concepts and creative challenges, we may see it happen.
There's also a new King Gizzard live album out today.
The Specials – More Specials 40th Anniversary Edition (Chrysalis)
The 2 Tone icons' underrated second album gets a half-speed remaster at Abbey Road.
The Specials and bandleader Jerry Dammers' label, 2 Tone, helped herald in a second wave of ska in the late-'70s, promoting racial unity (it's baked into the label's name) while right-wing organizations like The National Front were looking to start trouble. One of the things I love so much about 2 Tone, beyond all the great music and the message, is how all the major groups involved evolved so quickly. The Beat were almost pure pop by their third album, and Madness turned ska into their distinctive, decidedly British "nutty" sound that made them enormously popular in the UK throughout the '80s. The Specials, meanwhile, were changing at such a rapid rate it was all they could do to record a second album before splintering into different factions; they would break up less than a year later, after the release of 1981 single "Ghost Town."
You can feel the push and pull on More Specials, which was released October 4, 1980. They had not totally abandoned the sound that made them famous, but light ska-tinged tracks like "Do Nothing," "Hey Little Rich Girl" and their cover of jazz standard "Enjoy Yourself" were miles from the manic, punky Specials of "Nite Klub" and "Do the Dog." Dammers had also become fascinated with lounge and easy listening, which would manifest itself on songs like "Stereotypes," "I Can't Stand it" (a duet between singer Terry Hall and The Selekter's Rhoda Dakar) and "International Jet Set." More Specials has aged very well, thanks in no small part to Dammers' production which brings classic ska/reggae aesthetics to their new, gentler sound and fits nicely in-between their classic debut and 2019's very good Encore.
More Specials has just gotten a new 40th anniversary edition, with a new half-speed master from the original tapes at Abbey Road studios for maximum fidelity, presented as a 45RPM double album. It also comes with the original 7" single — featuring "Braggin' & Tryin' Not To Lie" and "Rude Boys Out of Jail" — that was included with the album's initial pressing. It would've been nice if there had been a third disc of non LP tracks like "Ghost Town" and "Rat Race" that were included on the 2015 double-disc CD reissue, but maybe some of that will get excavated in 2021 with some sort of "Ghost Town" anniversary.
Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump ..... on a wooden piano (Dangerbird)
Grandaddy's second album, The Sophtware Slump, turned 20 this year. It's classic that made the Indie Basement Best Albums of 2000 list, where I wrote:
Grandaddy really figured out their sound and worldview with their fantastic second album, featuring frontman Jason Lytle's absurdist tales of mundanity and stress in our increasingly tech-reliant world, set to a blend of '90s indie rock, glammy synthphonic flourishes (Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev's influence loomed large in 2000), and twangy country. The concept album imagines a world full of alcoholic robots, sad computer programmers, lost pilots, stuntman Evil Knevil, and forests made of discarded appliances that Lytle makes relatable with his empathetic style and a hard drive full of earworm spacerock pop…somehow it all sounds even more relevant now than it did in Y2K.
For its anniversary, they've put together a box set featuring two albums worth of rarities, including the Signal to Snow Ratio and Through a Frosty Plate Glass EPs all for the first time on vinyl. But the centerpiece to the box set, which is also getting a standalone release, is The Sophtware Slump ..... on a wooden piano, a very literal new version of its 11 tracks played by frontman Jason Lytle on an old wooden piano. The cover art makes a pretty good joke with the title too. The songs, which were already pretty melancholy become beautifully, achingly so with these spare arrangements. When he sings "I gotta get outa here" with this version it really hits you in the gut, and "Jed the Humanoid," which was already funereal, becomes genuinely heartaching. "Acoustic" albums can sometimes feel like cheap marketing ploys, but Lytle has made a record that truly stands on its own.
Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas – III (Smalltown Supersound)
Two of Norway's finest makers of electronic music reteam for a third collaborative album of housebound downtempo disco
If you need more chill than the new Bent album (see above) can provide, Norway's Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas are here to help. This is their third collaborative album and first in 11 years. "Our partnership is very democratic—we never turn down each other's ideas. And if it goes wrong, we blame it on the other guy," Thomas jokes. "The tracks that Lindstrøm sent me this time were almost like standard house tracks. I already had an idea of what I wanted to do, so I forced those tracks into new shoes and dresses." Those new shoes are more like bedroom slippers this time, and the dresses a robe, as the six tracks on III are superior bubblebath disco that's groovy enough to dance to, but probably won't motivate you to leave the house. During these pandemic times, that is a selling point.
Badge Époque Ensemble – Self Help (Telephone Explosion)
Toronto collective release second album of jazzy, flowery, soulful grooves.
As you may or may not know, Badge Époque Ensemble, are a Toronto collective who are led by Maximilian Turnbull (aka Slim Twig) and have helped Meg Remy bring her two most recent U.S. Girls albums to full band life. Like those records, the Ensemble excel at jazzy, soulful music that brings to mind '70s disco, funk and TV and movie soundtracks. Self Help is an exceedingly cool listen that recalls, at various points, the early psychedelic days of Sesame Street, Lalo Schifrin scores, Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, Roy Ayers, Minnie Riperton, and the themes from S.W.A.T. and Ironside. It's all electric piano, saxophones, flute, and lots and lots of bongos. (Hear all that in a nutshell on the excellent "Just Space For Light.") Vocalists this time include Remy and Fucked Up collaborator Jennifer Castle, but Self Help succeeds almost entirely on groove.
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