I feel a little intimidated writing this review. As John Darnielle, is a bit of a hero of mine when it comes to both being a writer, and a human. With The Mountain Goats’ latest single, JD tries on the mantle of one of his own heroes, Ozzy Osbourne. “Passaic 1975” details a day in the life of the Ozzman in his mid-70’s prime envisioned through the author’s lens. The lyrics painstakingly detail a world of excess, and isolation that is populated by silk kimonos, blackouts, a gifted teleprompter, Gibson SG’s inlaid with pearl, and a hotel by an unnamed river.
According to Darnielle, the song was not originally intended for inclusion on the group’s latest full length, In League With Dragons, and was instead slated for an entire album devoted to early Black Sabbath and Ozzy homages that was never fully completed. Envisioned by its creator as “a 2/3 Robert Forster + 1/3 Syd Barrett Opel sessions cocktail.” Producer, Owen Pallett, had other plans for the demo he plucked it from a folder of works-in-progress (which the author had sneakily included amongst the proposed albums’ tunes). Envisioning the song as the new albums’ lead single, with an early R.E.M. jangle that the author would have most likely never considered on his own.
While the single’s flip side, “Get High and Listen to the Cure,” might not be contender in the pantheon of all-time great tMG songs; it is however a fun and catchy tune with a warm home-recorded vibe. One of those kind of songs that might make the cut on a mix tape that you’ve been carefully curating to impress the cool girl in high school who wore dark lipstick and sat in front of you in science class.
There’s something about the whole package and presentation that feels like a throwback to those days of finding obscure 7″ singles from your favorite indie rock bands in the pre-internet era. The kind of cherished piece of vinyl you would pick up at an out of town record shop on your way to catch a GBV show that the older bass player in your band drove you two hours to catch. The thing about Darnielle is that he’s always there toiling away at his craft, and he goes out deep. Venturing out sometimes into choppy waters or to depths few of us have the courage to explore. Whether that’s a good long look in the mirror wearing the skin of a metal icon, or channeling his youthful inner goth from days gone by; he’s there reporting from the frontlines. For fans of his work, even brief dispatches like this are valuable and essential.
Buy the 7″ via Merge Records.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Listening 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.