It’s a record-tying, bad luck week of records in Indie Basement as I review THIRTEEN new albums from US Girls, The Church, shame, Super Furry Animals‘ Gruff Rhys, The Raincoats‘ Gina Birch, Field Music‘s David Brewis, Dougie Poole, Model/Actriz, En Attendant Ana, Unloved, Death Valley Girls, and Night Plow, and new goth box set Young Limbs Rise Again – The Story of the Batcave Nightclub 1982-1985.
You are probably thinking with 13 album reviews, that must be everything that’s out this week. No! In Notable Releases, Andrew reviews Algiers’ excellent new album, along with Gorillaz, Miss Grit, and more.
What else happened this week? A lot. Bratmobile announced their first show in 21 years; Richard Hawley and Mark Eitzel both have (separate) musicals being staged now;
Have you checked out the Indie Basement section on the BV shop? It’s virtual shelves are stocked with records selected by me, including New Order, The Cure, Broadcast, Cocteau Twins, Beach House, Naima Bock, New Pornographers, The Beths, Sleaford Mods, Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach, Deerhoof, The Raincoats, and much more.
Head below for this week’s baker’s dozen of reviews.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: U.S. Girls – Bless This Mess (4AD)
Meg Remy finds inspiration and killer dance grooves in motherhood and the pandemic on another fantastic U.S. Girls album
U.S. Girls began as a solo project for Meg Remy who would sample vintage girl group 45s, deconstruct them and use the parts for her arty, low-fi protest songs but by the time of Heavy Light, her third album for 4AD, she was writing and recording with a seven-piece live band that included her partner Max Turnbull. That album was released on March 6, 2020, right before things went pear-shaped. During the pandemic she published a memoir, 2021’s Begin by Telling, and gave birth to twins. Bless this Mess was made almost entirely while she was pregnant, and is a reaction to both Heavy Light and Begin by Telling, that was lyrically fueled by the unmoored panic many of us felt during lockdown.
Unable to work with her band, and not wanting to replicate Heavy Light’s process anyway, Remy collaborated remotely with a wide variety of musicians and producers, including Holy Ghost!’s Alex Frankel. Jane Inc’s Carlyn Bezic, Basia Bulat, Turnbull, Marker Starling’s Chris A Cummings, and Roger Manning (Jellyfish, Beck). As good as Heavy Light is, Remy feels more at home with drum machines, synthesizers and samples and she puts them to great use here.
This may be the funkiest U.S. Girls record to date, and is absolutely packed with bangers, from the electro-fueled tale of urban flight, “So Typically Now,” to the loping, cockeyed strut of “Just Space for Light,” the ’80s lite Greek mythos groove of “Daedelus,” the pure disco of “Tux (Your Body Fills Me, Boo),” and album closer, “Pump,” that uses a sample of Remy’s breast pump for its bassline. While Meg remains a razor-sharp lyricist, motherhood and the pandemic has shaped her outlook here, with a strong undercurrent of fatalism. “Nothing is wrong, everything is fine,” Remy sings on the album’s Springsteen-eque centerpiece “Future’s Bet.” “This is just life” is a sentiment that’s echoed in Bless This Mess‘ sweet title track. When every day seems crazier than the next, the only answers to the world’s many problems may be to make the best of the situation — and dance.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: En Attendant Ana – Principia (Trouble in Mind)
Wonderful third album by this Parisian band is winsome while packing a punch
Much like “quirky,” I’m pretty sure no artist wants to be labeled “winsome.” Even though the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “attractive or appealing in appearance or character” (who wouldn’t want to be that), there is a backhanded compliment connotation that leans toward whimsical or saccharine. With a fondness for jazzy melodies, shimmering guitars, and cheery trumpet, not to mention Margaux Bouchaudon’s sunshine glow vocals, Parisian band En Attendant Ana are decidedly winsome. But they’re not wimpy. Those jazzy chords are played with confidence, the rhythm section lays down a serious groove, and Margaux is no wallflower and can really belt it out when needed. The band are all serious players, capable of dramatic tone and tempo shifts that are unexpected but never jarring. Principia is En Attendant Ana’s third and best album, their most assured and appealing statement yet. Head to centerpiece “Wonder” for the album in a single song, one that begins as gentle as a lullaby but in which you can hear their cranked amps and fingers on the strings while Margaux coos. Instruments join in, quietly at first, but build up a head of steam until the whole band is just letting it rip — a swirling sea of furiously strummed guitars atop a propulsive motorik beat and Margaux’s clear and powerful voice. This is my definition of winsome.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #3: Gina Birch – I Play My Bass Loud (Third Man)
Raincoats founding member Gina Birch hasn’t lost her spark one bit on her first-ever solo album
“Sometimes I wake up and I wonder, ‘What is my job?” Gina Birch rhetorically asks, only waiting a second to answer. “I play my bass loud.” The Raincoats co-founder has been playing her bass loud for over 40 years but for the last two decades it’s been more of a tangential pursuit, as her interest in filmmaking led her to a career as an in-demand music video director. (Her CV includes videos for New Order, The Libertines and more.) Using digital editing programs kept her current with computers, though, which in turn led to dabbling with GarageBand and making music again. Through her longtime friend Vivien Goldman (who also had started making music again after many years) she met producer, fellow bassist and Killing Joke member Youth who encouraged her to take those rough GarageBand demos and do something more with them. The result is Birch’s first-ever solo album, a real statement of purpose titled I Play My Bass Loud.
“The album distills my years of musical, political, and artistic life with these genre-breaking songs,” says Birch. “It’s a personal diary using sounds and lyrics, full of fun, rage, and storytelling.” That about sums it up. Youth has a way of coaxing the best out of artists, creating a comfortable atmosphere that allows them to be themselves, and it’s clear that he and Birch hit it off. I Play My Bass Loud is terrific, funny, whipsmart, angry and never less than entertaining — a protest album that doesn’t forget to dance. That’s all exemplified on “I Will Never Wear Stilettos,” that has her singing, “My feet are ecstatic in Doc Martens / They love Blue Suede Shoes / They love white Polish waitressing shoes / Never wear Jimmy Choos” over dubby electronic backing. Songs play like signboards, but feel more inclusive and defiant than didactic, even on a JAMC-ish, hissing force-of-nature song like “I Am Rage.”
The album treads a lot of musical and lyrical ground, from an electro-dub tribute to Pussy Riot, to the Breeders-esque crunchy indie rock of “I Wish I Was You” (one of a few tracks featuring Thurston Moore), the swaying “Feminist Song” that reunites her with The Raincoats’ Ana Da Silva, and the simmering album closer “Let’s Go Crazy” (not a Prince cover). Youth keeps the production frayed around the edges — “[He] likes my passion and my bad guitar playing,” says Birch — but never sloppy, and feels just right for the maker of Oddyshape. Whether or not Gina makes another record remains to be seen, but I Play My Bass Loud is a strong argument for doing so.
Gruff Rhys – The Almond & The Seahorse (Rough Trade)
The Super Furry Animal frontman’s first work-for-hire soundtrack mixes gorgeous instrumentals with the quirky pop songwriting he’s known for
Gruff Rhys is no stranger to film. He’s co-directed two quasi documentaries with Dylan Goch — Seperado! and American Interior — and has now composed the soundtrack for two features by writer-director Celyn Jones. The second of those is The Almond & The Seahorse which stars Jones, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Rebel Wilson, and sounds as quirky as anything else the Welsh musician has been involved in. The synopsis: “An archaeologist and an architect fight to re-imagine a future after a traumatic brain injury leaves them adrift from the people they love.”
While in some ways The Almond & The Seahorse has Rhys making music to specifically fit the dramatic arc of the film, he also has such a distinctive musical style after 30 years in the biz that there’s no question who has made it. Mixing instrumental score and original songs, it is more varied than any one other Rhys album to date — solo, SFA, or Neon Neon — but also plays out like a career overview. There are spacey, introspective ballads mixing piano, mellotron strings and warm horns (“Orea,” “Amen,” “Liberate Me From The Love Song”), bouncy acoustic pop (“Sunshine And Laughter Ever After”) and danceable synth-rock (“Layer Upon Layer,” one of his most immediate pop songs in ages). There’s also “People Are Pissed,” the anti-Boris Johnson protest song he released a year ago but was made for the film.
There’s a short album of Gruff Rhys songs within The Almost & The Seahorse, but you shouldn’t skip the instrumental score which features primarily in the back half of the album, It’s genuinely lovely stuff, with compositions — closer to instrumental folk rock than traditional film score — that flow seamlessly together like a river running through a Welsh forest. i haven’t watched The Almond & The Seahorse yet but listening to the soundtrack makes me want to even more than i did before. Gruff has yet to be involved in an unworthy project.
The Church – The Hypnogogue (Communicating Vessels)
Forty some years into their existence, these Aussie psych legends are making some of the most vital music of their careers
Australian band The Church are best known for their 1988 album Starfish and its hit single “Under the Milky Way,” but for most of their long run they’ve made heady, dense psych rock armed with a wall of guitars. Frontman Steve Kilbey may be the only original member of the band at this point, but the current lineup is in especially fine form on their first album in six years. Which is a little surprising, as a prog rock concept double album from a band 43 years into their career does not sound like something I’m in a hurry to hear, but it turns out I am wrong. While the album’s concept — set in a dystopian 2054 where a “North Korean scientist and occult dabbler” creates a machine that “pulls music straight of the dreams” — is a little beyond me, the music and melodies are pretty spectacular. Kilbey is in great vocal/melodic form and the current lineup rivals the ’80s/’90s era of the group, with all respect to Marty Willson Piper and Peter Koppes. They deftly swing from chiming 12-string dreampop (“I Think I Knew,” “Albert Ross,” “Aerodrome”) to dark, tripped out guitar jams like the spectacular title track. Would The Hypnogogue work better with four less songs? Maybe, but we are no longer in an age where The Church are competing with U2 for shelf space at Tower Records, and they are clearly inspired here and have earned a right to go long. When someone of Kilbey’s tenure says he thinks their 26th album is “in our top three records,” I am prone to eye roll, but you know what? He may be right.
Model/Actriz – Dogsbody (True Panther Sounds)
The debut album from this arty NYC band is imbued with a post-punk attitude from multiple eras
Nostalgia tends to run on 20 year cycles which means the mid-’00s are back and as someone who was in NYC at the time and has fond memories of those days, I am here for it. At least some of it, like my rent back then, and my hearing. Model/Actriz, who have actually been part of the NYC fringe for the better part of a decade, seem like they could’ve actually held their own in 2003, with a fierce strain of arty technopunk that sounds like it was forged in an abandoned flame-cut steel factory. Drums fire like jackhammers, a machine gun of kickdrums, guitars shear off slices of metal like a hot knife through butter, and singer Cole Haden wails lines like “I remember thorns shredding my palms!” Dogsbody, their debut album, is fueled on twitchy, relentless energy that rarely lets up over its intense, dark and deadly serious 38-minute runtime. The only respite is pretty closer “Sun In,” which you could be forgiven for thinking was the algorithm skipping to another artist after the album finished. Dogsbody is not exactly “fun,” but it is cathartic and, like the groups it feels inspired by (Liars, Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, !!!), is probably best experienced live and loud in a sweaty packed club with strobes and smoke machines. In lieu of that, listen to Model/Actriz as loud as you can stand.
Unloved – Polychrome (Heavenly)
‘Killing Eve’ soundtrackers turn bad vibes into great music on their second excellent album in less than a year
Unloved, the noirish trio of Jade Vincent, Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes who provided much of the soundtrack for Killing Eve, are back with a new record, coming a mere six months after releasing double-LP The Pink Album. Both were recorded during the same sessions and what was just supposed to be just one album turned into two distinct works. Polychrome is leaner and meaner, darker and weirder than Pink, but also somehow bigger in scope. There’s more of an emphasis on rhythm, as well as ballads that go gloriously widescreen into an oversaturated sunset. Highlights: “I Did It” is a sleazy stomper worthy of Wednesday Addams while “I Just Stop” is a high drama, bleeding mascara epic worthy of a Bond film (if directed by Gregg Araki). The album also has two gorgeous, dreamlike ballads that live up to their awesome song titles: the harp-laden “Thank You For Being That Friend, You Know, The One You Never Want To Say Goodbye To,” and “It’s Hard To Hold You Close When The World Keeps Turning.” Polychrome lacks the big pop songs and big name guest stars (Jarvis Cocker, Jon Spencer) of Pink, but its concentrated, bad-vibes glamor hits harder.
Dougie Poole – The Rainbow Wheel of Death (Wharf Cat)
Dougie Poole is still thousands of miles from Nashville, but this Brooklyn country singer plays it just a little more straight on his excellent third album
Dougie Pool is my kind of country artist. Musically, he’s a traditionalist, but lyrically very modern and writing from unusual perspectives and about subjects that don’t involve six packs and pickup trucks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) 2020’s Freelancers Blues had a sardonic wit that enlivened his twangy tales of urban ennui, feeling trapped, and vaping on the job. The album’s style was not tongue-in-cheek or mocking; as a thoughtful guy from Brooklyn he wrote what he knew while using country constructs to get there. For its follow-up, Dougie took a slightly different tack. The songs are more direct, more from the heart, and so was recording, working with producer Katie Von Schleicher tracking them live with his band. He’s still coming at things from a unique angle — the album’s title uses a dreaded and familiar computer malfunction as a metaphor for existential stasis — but it all feels a little more universal, whether its songs of friends and family he’s recently lost or the fear that you’ve wasted your life. Dougie’s still in Brooklyn but Nashville doesn’t feel quite as far away.
shame – Food For Worms (Dead Oceans)
The London band stretch their wings on their most ambitious record yet
London band shame have been around for nearly a decade but they still feel like wild-eyed whippersnappers. That impression could change with their third album, Food For Worms, which is their biggest, most ambitious record to date. Written and partially recorded while on tour, there is an immediacy here that was absent from Songs of Praise and Drunk Tank Pink, sounding like they just walked off stage, drenched in sweat. That sizzle energizes most of the album, be it manic rippers “Six-Pack” and “The Fall of Paul” or more introspective numbers like “Adderall” and “Orchid.” Producer Flood, who has worked with everyone from U2 to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, keeps things loose and live sounding, giving shame’s anthemic songs lots of headroom. (In an era when records are mixed for cheap earbuds, the dynamics here are impressive, allowing for wild sonic swings.) Food For Worms gets better as it goes too, with the album ending on two of their best songs — the clattering, danceable “Different Person” and swaggering beer-soaked ballad, “All the People” — that make you excited to see where the band are headed next.
Various Artists – Young Limbs Rise Again: The Story of the Batcave Nightclub 1982-1985 (Demon)
’80s goth is having a moment and this new compilation, centered around legendary ’80s London club The Batcave, is here with the soundtrack
It’s a good time to be a classic goth. Siouxsie Sioux is back. So are Love & Rockets. Depeche Mode have a new album, The Cure might actually release their long-in-the-works Songs of a Lost World. The Sisters of Mercy are touring the US for the first time since Obama was elected and are playing enough new songs live for a double album (though they never seem to find time for the studio).
It’s fortuitous timing, then, for this new compilation centered around storied early-’80s London club The Batcave. Run by Ollie Wilson of Specimen, it was the epicenter of the UK goth scene and while only open for roughly four years, it cast a long, dark shadow that can still be felt today. Young Limbs Rise Again tells the story of the Batcave through the bands that played there, from powerhouses like Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, The Cult, Soft Cell, Gene Loves Jezebel, Virgin Prunes, The Birthday Party, and The Cramps, to some of the fringier bands on the scene, and more. A lot more if you opt for the deluxe box set version which comes on six vinyl albums or five CDs. There’s also a double-LP edition that is more affordable and sticks to the hits.
The deluxe box set’s biggest selling point for me is the 80-page hardback book that features new interviews, essays and liner notes, plus flyers, photos and other Batcave ephemera. (They should really sell it separately.) It also goes deep, musically, adding songs from everyone from Throbbing Gristle, The Fall and Echo & The Bunnymen to a disc tracking goth’s glam roots with songs from Roxy Music, T-Rex, Eno, Iggy, Sparks and more. But the two-LP set has almost everything the average casual goth fan could want…with a few exceptions, as is usually the case with these genre comps that don’t have the biggest budgets. Most notably there’s no Bauhaus, nor offshoot Tones of Tail. But really Young Limbs Rise Again does an excellent job shining a light on a time and place that preferred the dark.
These compilations rarely officially hit streaming services but there’s usually some Spotify user out there who puts together a playlist, as is the case here:
David Brewis – The Soft Struggles (Daylight Saving Records)
Inspired by Colin Blunstone and Astral Weeks, the first album by Field Music’s David Brewis under his own name is unlike anything else in his discography
David Brewis is one half of long-running UK indie group Field Music (his brother Peter is the other half). He’s made records on his own as School of Language but The Soft Struggles is his first album under his own name. Inspired by Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Colin Blunstone’s One Year, David entered the studio with the songs’ arrangements all worked out, sheet music given to his players (including his brother), and recorded as quickly and as live as possible. “I was happy for this set of songs to go where the musicians and the situation took them,” Brewis says in the album’s liner notes. “And if the songs, and my singing, couldn’t hold the whole thing together then at least we would have a curious vanity project to file away in the bulging Field Music archive.” The Soft Struggles is quite beautiful, full of jazz-influenced arrangements, fanciful orchestration and unabashedly personal and heartfelt songwriting that is unlike anything else in his discography. Apart from it being terrific, that is
Death Valley Girls – Islands in the Sky (Suicide Squeeze)
L.A. psych-garage vets tap into the cosmic oneness on their fourth album
The title to Death Valley Girls’ fourth album came to bandleader Bonnie Bloomgarden while she was bedridden from a mysterious illness that lasted five months. “When I was sick I had to sleep most of the day,” Bonnie says. “I kept waking up every few hours with an intense message to take care of the island, feed the island…I have no idea why, but making music for the island kept coming up…I started to wonder if it would be possible to write a record with messages of love to my future self. This was really the first time that I consciously thought about my own suffering and what future me might need to hear to heal.” Islands in the Sky is loaded with catchy psych-rock affirmations to the future. The band’s signature gang-vocal style also now feels totally realized, as if a mass cosmic consciousness is here reminding us, “You are what you see / And what you eat / And how you breathe / Not what you think you need to make anyone else happy.”
Night Plow – Night Plow (We Are Busy Bodies)
Whatever you think a record by Sloan’s keyboardist and Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ bassist might be, ‘Night Plow’ is probably not it
The words “Night Plow,” to me, conjures images of solitary work, a giant behemoth vehicle clearing roads under snowy moonlight. What kind of music would that be? Slow and ambient, perhaps with power electronics undertones? Definitely icy. Well in the case of Canadian duo Night Plow — Bowie Blackstar bassist Tim Lefebvre and Sloan keyboardist Gregory Macdonald — that’s not entirely off base. The pair, who have never actually met in person but both worked on New Age Doom’s collaborative album with the late Lee Scratch Perry, cite Brian Eno, Pye Corner Audio and Nine Inch Nails as influences on their debut album. Night Plow is plenty atmospheric and definitely chilly at times, but it’s also pretty beat oriented, throwing in nods to trip hop, jungle, two-step and drum and bass. They also have plowed into some uncharted territory — “Get Down” sounds like a major laptop malfunction in the best possible way and could definitely scrape ice off pavement.
PS: While Night Plow is about as far away from Macdonald’s other band, Sloan, as you could imagine, the cover art was painted by Sloan drummer Andrew Scott.
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