The Schramms – Omnidirectional (Bar/None Records)

ArtiosCAD Plot

This record came out back in the summer, and definitely crossed my desk then. But it wasn’t really brought to my attention until it was mentioned on the 3 Songs Podcast. For those not familiar, it features former Pavement percussionist and hype man, Bob Nastanovich along with pal Mike Hogan passing the turntable back and forth sharing tunes with each other.  Bob recalled fondly his time living in Hoboken, NJ slinging records, and his fondness for the work of Dave Schramm; who in addition to being a founding member of Yo La Tengo is also the leader of his not so humbly named group, The Schramms. Although according to lore, the name started out as a joke that just happened to stick.

The group’s latest Omnidirectional is an album that according the press release has spent the better part of a decade in the works.  I’m glad it found my ears in the autumn instead of its intended release date, as this wistful collection of songs with its elegant arrangements are much better suited to listening to while the leaves are crashing down.  Omnidirectional is an album that sees Schramm with an itch he can’t seem to scratch, sneaky feelings he can’t seem to nail down, and an emotional geography that seems to subject to change.

The term musician’s musicians seems to get thrown around occasionally when discussing these guys (which in addition to our previously discussed fearless leader, the group also includes features drummer Ron Metz and bassist Al Greller), and I can totally see that. Not many bands can pull off the Brian Wilson informed widescreen mope on tracks such as “Faith Is A Dusty Word,” with this much precision, skill and heart. If there’s a theme that connects these songs, it’s that feeling of uncertainty and doubt that seems to creep in and gnaw at you with tiny sharp teeth as middle age sets in. As Schramm notes on the aptly named “Spent,” “…and we’re happy now, but I don’t know how.” If that makes you think that this album is a real slog through mid-life existential misery though, you would be wrong. It’s a bittersweet collection that pulls you in with a timeless subtle magnetic pull. Whatever direction you’re heading, these songs make for some great companions.

Buy the album via Bar/None.

The Gerbils – Are You Sleepy? (Elephant 6 Recording Co.)

E6022-TheGerbils-AreYouSleepy3000

After hibernating for a decade or so, the Elephant Six Recording Company is relaunching with a promised series of reissues, new releases, and previously unheard gems from the imprint’s deep archives.  The label has decided to kick things off with a reissue of The Gerbils’ 1998 debut album Are You Sleepy? While the E6 collective is best known for the likes of their flagship acts — The Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel, there were plenty more bands that were a part of the collective. The Gerbils in fact shared two members, Scott Spillane and Jeremy Barnes, with the aforementioned Neutral Milk Hotel. But in many ways the band was on a bit of a different trip than any of the above mentioned groups.  Although I suppose there’s something about the fuzzy 4-tracked vibe of tracks such as “Fluid” that definitely seemed to have caught a bit of an On Avery Island contact buzz. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why this album flew a little under the radar back when the album was originally released in 1998, and why that same album is a much needed tonic in 2019.

At it’s core, Are You Sleepy? is a killer lo-fi indie rock album.  Exactly the kind that a lot people were getting burned out on in the year of it’s initial release.  In some ways, I think the whole E6 phenomenon made such an impact back in the late 1990’s was because they took the psychedelic sounds of the 1960’s along with a few 1970’s progisms and filtered them through a then modern lens, ditching alot of indie rockisms of the day along the way while keeping the do-it-yourself asthetic intact. The Gerbils had one foot in both worlds; still lamenting the girl that went without them to catch the Portastatic show, and name checking Sebadoh in between getting their psych on.  When the group does try to get in on some of the more progressive sounds of their peers, like on the experimental “Wet Host,” it sort of falls flat compared to other more indie-pop flavored tracks on the album such as as the hooky opener “Sunshine Soul.”

So, for those who aren’t total record nerds, Are You Sleepy? probably passed you by on it’s initial trip around the sun.  But now it’s back, and it will feel like an instantly familiar yet fresh platter that might make you just a little nostalgic for days gone by when everyone wasn’t glued to a screen, and indie rock didn’t sound like it was trying to sell you a pair of jeans so hard. The dream of the late 1990’s is still alive after all. God bless the Elephant Six Recording Company and all who sail with them.

Buy the album via Elephant 6.

Big Star – In Space (Omnivore Recordings)

Big Star - In Space OV-338

Since it’s release in 2005, Big Star’s reunion album In Space has been ignored by some fans, and derided by others. Now some 14 years on, Omnivore Recordings has decided to bring this album back into the spotlight for a much needed reappraisal.

In order to really get a handle on this album, I think it’s important to understand the context. After the group’s implosion in 1974 following the chaotic sessions that would eventually be released as the group’s third and final album, the group’s only two remaining members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens would part ways. While each would remain involved in music, there seemed little hope that in spite of the cult that had begun to sprung up around the music of Big Star that a reunion would ever happen. That all changed in 1993, where the group seemingly impossibly reunited to play a live gig at Missouri University with Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow rounding out the reformed lineup alongside founding members Chilton and Stephens.

Sporadic reunion gigs followed over the ensuing years. But, other than a one-off track, “Hot Thing,” that the lineup cut for a somewhat ill-fated tribute album, Big Star, Small World, in 1997 (eventually the track ended up making it’s debut on the out-of-print Ryko compilation Big Star Story when the company behind the tribute went belly up), at any rate no one expected a new album. So when the notoriously contrarian Chilton suggested the group record some new songs, I can imagine everyone including his bandmates were somewhat shocked.

Convening in Memphis at the legendary Ardent Studios where Big Star recorded their 1970’s recordings; the plan was to write and record a song a day. At the end of the day, In Space featured 12 tracks (10 originals and 2 covers) with songwriting contributions from all members. I remember there was an almost immediate feeling of disappointment upon the albums’ release. Stringfellow later recalled: “The album was released in 2005 and a year later we found ourselves on the main stage of Primavera Sound, a prestigious music festival in Barcelona. Some 10,000 people in the crowd. Before we played ‘Hung Up on Summer’ Alex addressed the crowd: ‘Here’s a song from our latest album . . . you know, it totally bombed — just like the other ones! But don’t worry . . . 30 years from now you’ll be saying it’s the greatest thing ever!’”

In retrospect, I think perhaps we, as fans of the group might have been a bit harsh. Is it a record that scales to the heights that any of the first three Big Star albums do? The short answer is unfortunately, no. But that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have some nice moments that do a great job of honoring the group’s prior work while pushing the group into some new sonic territory. In Space is a seriously frontloaded album with its first four tracks representing the best the album has to offer. Kicking off with “Dony,” a tune that boasts a crisp autumnal twin guitar groove with Chilton’s vocal delivery a sort of professor hulk amalgamation of all of his various personas from blue-eyed soul crooner, to lounge lizard to reluctant power pop icon.  “Lady Sweet,” drizzles a little bit of daisy glaze on the proceedings that recall some of Radio City‘s hazier moments, “Best Chance,” is classic Jody Stephens power pop optimism in the same mode as Big Star’s 3rd standout “For You.”  While “Turn My Back on the Sun,” is a pitch perfect Beach Boys pastiche. Which makes perfect sense given Chilton’s affection for America’s band, and Big Star 2.0’s penchant for covering “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” live.

After those first four tracks (which would have made a killer EP on their own, mind you), let’s just say your results will vary based on your level of fandom and affection for some of Chilton’s more subversive impulses such as the disco romp, “Love Revolution,” or quirky covers of The Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively” and French baroque composer Georg Muffat’s “Aria, Largo.” While the jam oriented album closer “Makeover,” is a bit of a half-baked commentary on consumerism.

In some ways, it was impossible for Big Star to ever make an album equal to that untouchable trio of 1970’s releases. Those were different times, after all. The guys who recorded In Space were different people in some cases literally, and other cases metaphorically. That doesn’t diminish some of the great music you might discover on here if you open your mind, and adjust your expectations a bit.  It’s still Big Star, and although no one knew it at the time, this was their last time to shine.

Buy the album via Omnivore Recordings.

The Mountain Goats – Welcome To Passaic 7” (Merge Records)

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.

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.