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.

Jandek – The Ray (Corwood Industries)

It’s been awhile since a package from Corwood Industries has graced my mailbox, and it feels like a visit from an eccentric uncle that you haven’t caught up with in awhile.  Sure, there was a time when you used to drink beer together after work, and ponder the bigger questions that life has to offer.  But then things change, time keeps moving and you lose touch.  Do people still review Jandek albums or for that matter even read record reviews anymore?  In the world of Jandek everything always seems to boil down to a question mark in the end, and that’s probably by design.

Since 1978 the entity known as Corwood Industries has been privately issuing a singular body of work mostly credited to the entity known as Jandek (save for the initial release Ready For The House which was credited to The Units, until a cease and desist letter resulted in a change of plans).  Noted rock scribe Byron Coley in Spin Magazine described this debut as an old dead leaf blowing around the country painted dark purple.  This was just the beginning, and there were plenty more purple leaves to come.  The music issued forth at a steady pace from the mysterious Houston based Corwood PO Box, first as a singular form of avant folk blues that was not for the faint of heart.  As more and more albums sprang forth, additional instrumentation was added, and occasional anonymous collaborators would pop out of the woodwork to add color and surprising twists.  Until Jandek’s emergence from the shadows in 2004 to perform live, no one was even 100% sure if the man who appeared on the album covers was the person behind the sounds presented.  It appears that the representative Corwood sent just happened to bear a striking resemblance.

I spent a lot of time in the late 1990’s staring at those blurry album covers, listening to those records, and looking for clues while pondering the mysteries and motivations of the artist behind it all.  It even prompted me to assemble not just one, but two tribute albums, in part just to help me work out how other people interpreted the otherness of the sounds presented.  Somehow, this all brings me back to Jandek’s latest, The Ray which in a lot of ways feels like a culmination of the work that Corwood started back in 1978.  Consisting of one-hour length piece, it’s also by my estimation the closet the artist has come to something resembling psychedelic rock.  The instrumentation which seems to consist of drums, bass, guitar, and synthesizer that swirl and churn like a maelstrom around that artist’s anguished vocals which read one part twisted inner monologue, and one part conversation with God. The music throughout the piece is ever changing, yet ever the same; it feels like the musical equivalent of driving in a blizzard. While the lyrics telegraph feelings of isolation, deep psychic wounds, and a desperate longing for escape before the narrator seems to resign himself to the will of the divine at the end of the movement. Though it’s hard to say for sure, one gets the feeling the artist played all the instruments on this one, and seems to have taken a lot of the lessons from his decade plus experience playing live with various collaborators to forge something new from the musical language created on such seminal Jandek albums as The Rocks Crumble and Interstellar Discussion.

It’s always tempting to read into such a singular statement as a signal that Jandek’s days of music making may be drawing to close, but fans have been thinking that since the cacophony of “The Electric End” that closed 1987’s Lost Cause album, or the then out of character solo piano piece that provided a coda to 1999’s The Beginning.  In 2003, Corwood promised the makers of the documentary film Jandek on Corwood that the future would be surprising.  Turns out that it was, and I have a feeling that it will remain so, especially if albums as strong as The Ray keep issuing forth from a certain Texas based PO box.

Buy The Ray from Corwood Industries.

Joseph Airport – Diorama Pt. 2 (Joseph Airport Records)

a0430959797_10It’s got to be difficult to be an old school indie rock band in 2019, even one as good as Joseph Airport.  Considering the sea of indifference that most bands of their guitar slinging ilk are forced to sail on in this day and age. I for one am glad they soldier on, especially when the fruits of their collective labor are albums as good as Diorama Pt. 2.

It’s easy to compare the Detroit based Joseph Airport with their good old fashioned angular mid-fi crunch to Dayton, Ohio’s lo-fidelity all-stars Guided By Voices, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But I think that’s a bit like comparing Badfinger to the Beatles. There happens to be a lot connections between the two groups that I think are worth noting. These guys bear the special distinction of being one of only a handful of acts to have a record released on Bob Pollard’s Rockathon Records label that wasn’t directly associated with him. It’s also important to note that guitarist Matthew Cutter is the man behind last year’s excellent Pollard bio Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices. The group’s latest also features tracks recorded with Tobin Sprout; the man who I consider to be the Harrison to Pollard’s Lennon/McCartney when it comes to GBV’s classic lineup. So, the bottom line is these guys pilot an aircraft of a similar design to their mentors. The real question is how well do they fly?

I’m happy to report they manage to hit very few pockets of turbulence on the their latest, and manage to stick the landing. It’s an album chock full of soaring hooks, alternated with just enough mysterious psychedelic & proggy weirdness to keep the listener feeling pleasantly off-kilter. So, if you’re feeling a hankering for those long gone days of the late 90’s with a fresh approach, it might be time to book a flight with Joseph Airport.

Order the album via Bandcamp.