Purple Mountains – s/t (Drag City)

I wrote David Berman a letter over twenty years ago. At the time, I was inquiring to see if he would be interested in recording a Jandek cover for my then fledgling label who was organizing a tribute album to the mysterious Texan. I never heard anything. Years went by, and the record I was working on eventually came out. Then one day out of the blue, a printed postcard popped in my label’s PO Box, it was basically the post card equivalent of an away message from him. It explained how behind on correspondence he was. Even in the early aughts, it was a gentlemanly and quaint way to communicate. Sadly, no Jandek cover ever materialized, and in some ways to me, his final album credited to the Purple Mountains feels a lot like that postcard. Lost in time, and arriving at a time when you need it most.

In my few years of experience writing record reviews to what feels at times like an invisible readership, I’ve found that there’s a risk you run talking about an album that you’ve gotten too close to. Things usually seem to turn out better when there’s some degree of distance between yourself and the material or artist at hand going into the experience. So, I’m going a bit against my own rules by attempting to tackle this album. To make matters more complicated, when I started this review DC Berman was here, and now he is gone. This devastating loss will forevermore cast a shadow on this amazing set of songs that teem with dark humor, melancholy and his unmistakable brand of poetic beauty. It seems trivial now to go on about how wonderful the Stones informed groove is on “Darkness and Cold,” or the shimmering ethereal beauty of “Snow is Falling in Manhattan,” especially in light of what happened.

There’s a Dylan lyric that goes, “You can always comeback, but you can’t come back all the way.” Berman returned for one last set of richly rewarding songs that detailed a life teetering on the brink of the abyss.  After a year ten year absence, he offered the world a final clutch of deeply autobiographical songs that wrestled with universal feelings as earnest as a Mother’s love, the legacy an artist leaves behind, the problem of a subtle God, and deep feelings of loneliness.  This tragedy will now make it impossible for some to view these songs as anything more than a harbinger of the ending that was soon to follow. Which is a shame, considering how much this album has to offer the world independent of the fate of its creator. He was one of the best songwriters my generation had. We should all feel fortunate he left behind so much art that will continue to inspire, entertain, and comfort us in the sad times ahead. He even managed to leave us one last parting gift. We should all treat it accordingly.

Order the album via Drag City.

Robyn Hitchcock – Sunday Never Comes 7” (Tiny Ghost Records)

Much like his hero Bob Dylan, psychedelic folk-rocker, Robyn Hitchcock seems to have embarked on a never-ending tour of his own. His latest single, Sunday Never Comes, seems tailor made for the merch table on said tour. Following 2017’s particularly strong self-titled effort recorded in collaboration with producer Brendan Benson, this new self-released 45 was recorded in his new adopted hometown of Nashville with a crew of local Beatles freaks (Buddy Hughen, Patrick Sansone, and Ryan Brewer), and features two new tunes which the artist himself describes as “distilling everything about The Beatles except their commercial appeal.”

He’s not wrong; Hitchcock takes the work of the fabs along with Dylan, Barrett, Reed, and Ferry (to name just a few of the canonical artists that have taken up a permanent residency in the artist’s noggin) and refracts them through his own unique musical prism. The A-side “Sunday Never Comes,” is anchored by a snaking Velvets informed guitar line that lurks under layers of tremolo, while Hitchcock’s lyrics employ a hallucinatory dream logic while simultaneously working as meditation on time and memory.  The flip side, “Take Off Your Bandages,” drags the kaleidoscopic sounds of 1966 into 2019 with a track inspired by the activism of the students at Stoneman Douglas High School.  For longtime fans of Robyn’s work and those new to the artist’s peculiar catalog of songs about buildings and food, this new single is either a great reminder he’s still here or a short introductory course to the artists’ modus operandi.  We heartily recommend grabbing a copy before it evaporates or time destroys us all like a Mexican god.

Buy the single here (now on alluring pink vinyl) direct from the artist.

Alex Chilton – It Isn’t Always That Easy 7” (Be With Records)

By 1969 Alex Chilton has most likely sensed the looming demise of his group The Box Tops, and was looking for a way out. He was only 16 years old in 1967 when he scored the biggest hit of his entire career with “The Letter,” thanks in no small part to his growling gravel voiced singing. But after two years of almost non-stop touring and recording sessions, the wheels were definitely starting to come off the bus.

The two songs captured on this single (wrapped inside a sleeve featuring a candid photo of Alex catching a nap on the same studio floor he cut these demos on nine years later) capture the artist in transition between the soulful crooning of The Box Tops and the Anglophile informed sound of the tragically doomed Big Star. The demos presented on here were recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with engineer Terry Manning whom Chilton befriended while working on Box Tops recordings there. One of the most striking things about these tunes is that these are probably some of the earliest recordings that capture Alex singing using his natural tenor voice that he would later utilize to great effect in Big Star. “It Isn’t Always That Easy,” is a dark slice of downer folk which reflects the isolation of constantly being on the road and having his musical vision stifled by producers looking for the next big hit. The flip side by contrast is a way more optimistic piano driven number that still has one foot in the some of his soon to be prior group’s sunny pop impulses. While not probably the best place for neophytes to jump in, it’s just simply a pleasure to hear some unheard (at least, to these ears) Alex sides on vinyl for the first time, especially from so early on his career in a period when the possibilities of where the artist would follow his muse were still wide open.  By the end of the sixties, Alex would be free again to find a new illusion.  Welcome to the future.

Order the 7″ via Be With Records.

Honey Radar – Ruby Puff Of Dust (What’s Your Rupture?)

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Listening to Honey Radar’s latest album Ruby Puff of Dust reminds me of that scene in High Fidelity where Jack Black’s record store snob character in the film creates an instant demand for The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.’s by playing it in the record shop owned by John Cusack’s character in the film. If I’m being honest, I’m not that crazy about Jack Black or The Beta Band (there goes the former insufferable clerk in me rearing its ugly head), but the truth of the matter is that any shop employee worth their salt who attempts the same stunt with Honey Radar’s latest will definitely be sending those crate digging heads to the shop counter when they hear it in exactly the same way.

You might ask why, and that would be a fair question I suppose. I’ve been listening to this record a lot the past couple weeks trying to pinpoint the exact reason for that. Here’s the best answer I can come up with. The group specializes in a potent cross-hybridization of 1990’s lo-fi indie and 1960’s psychedelic garage, cut with just enough d.i.y. mystique to make the whole thing irresistibly cool. Imagine classic lineup era GBV trying really hard to cut Piper at the Gates of Dawn in their basement, and you’ve got something pretty close to what these guys are up to. If the above couple of sentences has got you feeling pretty enticed, just wait until it hits the in-store play rotation at a record shop near you (if one still exists). I guarantee I’ll see you in line.

Buy the album via Bandcamp.

Smug Brothers – Attic Harvest (Gas Daddy Go! Records)

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For fans of Midwestern lo-fi indie rock there’s something instantly familiar about The Smug Brothers latest effort Attic Harvest. Maybe it’s the sonics created by the Tascam MKIII 4-track cassette recorder that captured the songs presented here, or maybe it’s the fact that drummer Don Thrasher was in on the ground floor of the mid-90’s lo-fi boom playing drums on such early Guided By Voices classics as Same Place the Fly Got Smashed and Propeller, as well “I Am A Scientist” and “Gold Star For Robot Boy” from Bee Thousand.  At any rate, this record is sure to light up the pleasure centers of the brain for those who like myself who grew up around the time of, and loved those early GBV records as much as I did along with albums of their ilk by acts such as Pavement, and Sebadoh.

Label press indicates that these guys have been at the wheel for a long time, as this release appears to be lucky number 13 (and the group’s first foray into vinyl) with the brothers recording this one in a power trio configuration consisting of core members Kyle Melton (guitar/bass/vocals) and the aforementioned Thrasher on drums along with new recruit Scott Tribble to flesh out the sound adding guitars and keyboards to the proceedings.  While there’s plenty of jangling fuzzy guitars, faux English accents, and hooks to recall days of indie past like the excellent “Rare & Double Clutch.”  The album truly reveals itself when it tries to push beyond those parameters like on the sneaky lo-fi pop of “Reminding Penumbra,” or the acoustic psychedelics that gleam on “Learn From The East.”  For those who wish the dream of the 1990’s never ended, perhaps it’s time to check in with the Smug Brothers you just might end up walking away with a record under your arm, and earworms for days.  Party like it’s 1994.

Order the album via Bandcamp.

Various Artists – Sad About The Times (Anthology Recordings)

ARC064_Various-Artists_Sad-About-The-Times_WEB-STANDARDListening to Anthology Recordings’ collection of obscure 70s FM wannabe superstars Sad About The Times is a bit like tuning into a classic rock station beamed in from an alternate universe. Instead of Uncle Lou taking us for a “Walk On The Wild Side,” Randy and The Goats introduce us to the “N.Y. Survivor” or instead of the harmonies of CSNY, imagine Kevin Vicalvi’s “Lover Now Alone,” in steady rotation for the last 40 years. These are just two examples of the aural delights, and cognitive dissonance that await the listener on this double LP.

As implied by the compilations’ title there definitely is a sense of melancholy that hangs over much of the music collected here. Most likely the result of a hangover from the idealism from the 1960’s that came crashing down or maybe it was just too much wood paneling. It’s hard to say for sure.  Most of what’s collected here runs that gamut from power pop to gorgeous loner folk, though there are some psychedelic rock elements that linger on tracks such as on Oliver Klaus’ “Here Comes The Sun,” and Space Opera’s “Holy River.” It’s hard to deny the acoustic beauty of Sky’s “Sing For Me,” which channels the same sort of shimmering downer acoustic vibe that dominated side 2 of Big Star’s #1 Record or Antonia Lamb’s tale of an outlaw on “Wolf.”  Hoover’s “Absolute Zero,” with its minor key bleakness gives Neil Young’s ditch trilogy a run for its money.

Unfortunately, at the time there was only so much room on radio programmers’ playlists, and only so many slots at the top.  The music presented on here sank mostly without a trace, and doomed the artists to obscurity.  Now in our modern age, we’ve got plenty more ways to hear.  So it seems fate has given these songs a second chance at being heard, which they certainly do.  A lost history awaits the listener.  What a bunch of beautiful losers.

Buy the album via Anthology Recordings.

Doug Tuttle – Dream Road (Burger Records)

11183_JKTWhen listening to Doug Tuttle’s latest album Dream Road, one is immediately struck with how much of a sonic architect this guy is.  It’s of little wonder his other gig is building guitar effects pedals.  Tuttle musical specialty is spinning the paisley patterned sounds of yesteryear into something instantly familiar yet fresh.  Every analog sound from the swirling mellotrons to the backwards guitar solos are in exactly the right place.  It’s the musical equivalent of a rec room with shag carpeting, a beanbag chair, and a top-notch hi-fi with good record collection. I reckon his guitar tone is most likely the envy of at least a few boutique lurking guitar snobs as well.

On his fourth solo album and debut for Burger Records, he seems to have settled into a comfortable groove with his own brand of gentle psychedelia, leaving behind the fragmented approach of his prior record Peace Potato.  Tuttle also folds some new sounds into the mix including a little bit of Nashville twang that creeps around the edges, and even a little AM Gold on the effortless sounding light pop of “Did You Need Someone.” Even though he seems to have settled into more conventional song structures, and expanded his sound pallet some, there’s a feeling of restlessness that seems to hang over Dream Road. The album is bookended with two songs “I’ll Throw It All Away,” and “Fade” that both appear to find the artist at a crossroads. Let’s hope he’s not ready to pack it in yet, especially with albums as good as this issuing forth on a regular basis.  Even though the pay is probably terrible (but probably better than writing record reviews), we need guys like Tuttle building cool effects pedals and fighting the good fight to keep the torch aflame.

Buy Dream Road via Burger Records.