The Man Downstairs is a new self-released collection of demos from the singular, and always psychedelic Robyn Hitchcock. This record (or in this case the now quickly becoming charmingly anachronistic CD) seems to pull the off the hat trick of of being perhaps slightly better than the album proper that these rough drafts were intended for, which in case you were wondering was his 2014 album The Man Upstairs, a Judy Collins inspired collection of half covers and originals cut with legendary producer Joe Boyd. The songs presented on Downstairs share none of the same originals or cover selections with the album they were potentially intended for, making this an entirely new listening experience. Boasting a more direct and unfussy sounding approach, it features covers of such towering musical specters such as Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Townes Van Zandt, and Bob Dylan slotted next to Robyn’s original material. The originals presented on here such as “I Pray When I’m Drunk,” and “The Threat Of Freedom” hedge into an isolated sounding acoustic mode not unlike the approach utilized by the artist on some of his most classic works like 1983’s I Often Dream of Trains, and 1990’s Eye. Given our current state of isolation, it might be time to pay a visit to the man downstairs. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a slide into autumn with a side order of existential dread.
My first introduction to the music of Bill Fay was sometime around 2004. Reissues of his first two albums (1970’s Bill Fay and 1971’s Time of the Last Persecution) were making the rounds. A circular hype sticker adorned the front of both of the reissues featuring a choice quote from Uncut that read “The missing link between Nick Drake, Ray Davies, and Bob Dylan.” I was sold, and once I got the chance to wrap my head around those albums, it was apparent his music did indeed slot right in next to the songwriting giants name-checked on the front. Fay’s records quickly became close companions of mine, as my job at the time saw me trekking often alone across the Pennsylvania wilds with Fay’s songs of life, death and apocalypse reaching across the chasm of time to connect in a profound way with another soul via my silver iPod mini. It’s the kind of human connection via art that seems apt for music as deep as Fay’s. What he managed to convey as far as songwriting achievement goes on those first two albums is something that few artists might hope to achieve in a career, never mind a pair of albums that luckily snuck out before his record label pulled the plug.
Bill would however prove to be a hard guy to keep down, and time proved to be very kind his slim body of work whose existential concerns which might not have proved ideal for the hit parade, but resonated with a small cult held in awe by his songwriting gifts. He briefly popped his head up from the underground in with the formation of The Bill Fay Group in the mid-seventies (with the resulting sessions the group recorded eventually released a few decades later as Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow). Things went dark again until 2012 when Fay re-emerged with Life Is People, and the follow up Who Is The Sender in 2015.
Countless Branches is the third album since his unlikely return, and it’s a brief and stunning beautiful eight-song collection (the deluxe version features some additional tracks and alternate takes, and in this writers opinion worth seeking out). The album boasts spare yet effective production, which places Fay and his piano front and center. On this collection, which was pulled from across his decades of writing, feature lyrics that are so spare they cut to the bone. His eloquently spartan words choose to ruminate on the themes as universal as familial love, and one’s continuing search for divine and spiritual meaning. One could see this as the final chapter in a trilogy, which he began with his reemergence in 2012. Fay started musical journey by metaphorically planting himself in garden on the opening track on his debut album, now fifty years on his songs spread out like endless branches from the mighty tree that sprouted out from that proverbial sapling with songs that continue to influence and inspire generations of musicians and writers. Fay closes the record with a simple sentiment that in the end when everything else has been stripped away that only love remains. It’s a sentiment that acts not only as a perfect album closer, but also a perfect bookend to his entire discography. Whether this is Fay’s final statement remains to be seen, regardless Countless Branches is a disarming tower of song that, in spite of its spare approach, is easy to get lost in.
Order the album via Dead Oceans.
It starts with cold digital silence and ends with a field recording of what sounds like people milling about a train station. Sandwiched in between these two extremes lie Russ Waterhouse’s (formerly of Blues Control) latest album. I remember Waterhouse first popping on my radar around the turn of the century. I seem to remember spray painted cassettes arriving in the mail. A few years later, I recall catching Blues Control (a duo which featured Waterhouse along with partner Lea Cho) playing a local Scranton haunt sometime around 2009. Their record Local Flavor looked great on the merch table, and sounded even better on my turntable at home after the show.
With the aforementioned duo currently on an indefinite extended hiatus, Mr. Waterhouse stands alone again with his latest album 1 Minute 2 Midnight. Consisting of two side long explorations, what we have here is some prime one-man electro racket. The first side features “Hopewell,” a piece anchored by minimal rhythmic digital tics and glitches which gradually build in intensity to a white hot freak out while the second half’s “Too Many People” seems to blend field recordings and spacier electronic moves into a deeper ambient space. The whole thing flows like the work of an artist determined to obliterate the past, and ready to step out on the rocky grounds of a new uncertain path. Godspeed.
Buy the album via Drag City.
I first met Lou Rogai sometime around the turn of the century at a basement show in Scranton, PA. I don’t quite remember why I was there. It was probably just because I saw a flier hanging up somewhere, and I was desperate to find some like-minded musical souls in such a small town. It’s important to keep in mind that this was a time before social media bound us all up in its tendrils, and making connections with others about matters such as art and music was not as easy then; especially in an area as unwieldy as this particular and peculiar corner Northeastern Pennsylvania which I still call home. I recall that evening he played a wonderfully spare acoustic set that was head and shoulders above most of the other local stuff I had encountered up to that point. After the show we chatted, and I traded him one of my hopefully amateurish cassette demos for one of his CD’s. Credited to Lou, the EP was titled Empty Throne. I recall the music being a shimmering and dusty mix of Springsteen era Nebraska mixed with the influences of his then indie folk contemporaries.
We periodically kept in touch, and when I next heard from Lou, things had changed. He was no longer a solo artist. The nom de plum he was operating under now was Lewis & Clarke and the sounds he was creating had expanded, and so had the personnel. Things were in widescreen now; the expeditionary party had been formed. Over the ensuing years, Lou and I ended up working together on a U.S. release of the group’s debut album Bare Bones and Branches before we both moved in to other things. People to this day still ask me about their cover of Jandek’s “Nancy Sings,” that the group cut for a tribute album to the enigmatic Texan for my label back in 2005.
But time as they say, does indeed march on. I suppose I’m thinking about those early days for a few reasons, mainly because for the first time since that tentative (and now very scarce) early EP was released almost twenty years back that Lou Rogai is releasing a new record Cathedral under his own name again. The other reason is because his latest work is very concerned with time and memory. Bubbling underneath the album’s shimmering surfaces of ambient, folk, and neoclassical textures, lies the albums’ central mediation on how we relate to our past, and find refuge in places both physical and temporal. I imagine that if you listened to Lou’s first EP followed back to back with his latest offering, it would create the same kind of cognitive dissonance that would occur if you watched the first episode of Mad Men and then went directly to the series finale.
Cathedral makes it pretty obvious this is man who has been on a journey both artistic and personal. On the album’s three-movement 17 minute piece, Rogai strips away the confines of song structure, submerging himself in the slipstream, so to speak. While the the music featured on the second side entitled Music From Essere Amato spins like an elegant collision between Morricone and the Rachel’s. It’s funny how a lot of the time, the most vital work an artist produces occurs when they ditch the roadmap, and drive towards the unknown darkness on the edge of town. That’s definitely what’s happening here, and for those listeners with open mind; it’s certainly a trip worth taking.
Order the album via Veriditas Recordings.
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.
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.
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.
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.