Spiral Wave Nomads – s/t (Twin Lakes Records / Feeding Tube Records)

SWN cover art-01As a musician, it isn’t always easy to capture that moment in an improvisational situation where the pieces all click together to become something other. That mercurial sound of the players’ subconscious unfolding in real time. The Spiral Wave Nomads manage to pull it off against the odds with their self-titled debut.

Those aforementioned nomads are a duo comprised of Eric Hardiman and Michael Kiefer. Both of whom have put in some serious time in the sub-underground trenches. For the Albany based Hardiman, his resume includes being a member of the psychedelic rock collective Burnt Hills, and his one man ambient/noise project Rambutan; all while curating limited run avant-garde damage on his Tape Drift Records imprint. Kiefer’s prior work includes time with exploratory outfits such as More Klementines, Rivener & the neo-Americana of No Line North. He also runs the Twin Lakes label. This album is a co-release between Twin Lakes, and the seemingly inexhaustible underground wellspring that currently is Feeding Tube Records.

It’s pretty remarkable how full these tracks sound for being credited to a duo, and how much musical ground is covered by Hardiman and Kiefer on these takes.  From the swirling Crazy Horse influenced stomp of “Blue Dream,” replete with Hardiman’s searching guitar leads to the technicolor buzzing eastern drones of “Wabi Sabi.”  While “Floating on a Distant Haze” is content to drift on a sea of serene kosmiche musik waves.

Spiral Wave Nomads is an album electrically charged by the sound of two artists hunkering down for the simple joy of seeing what might happen in the moment, and the results are stunning. Ride the darker wave.

Buy the album from Feeding Tube Records.

Guided by Voices – Warp and Woof (Rockathon)

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Sometimes I think that it must be exhausting being Robert Pollard. Hell, sometimes it feels exhausting just being a casual fan.  After dropping a double album Zeppelin Over China only a few months back, the fading captain sails back into port with another offering under his arm from his most reliable crew Guided By Voices.  The aforementioned album in question is Warp and Woof, and while it’s credited to the same rock solid lineup that has graced the past few exemplary efforts, it feels like a different animal altogether.

The album’s genesis started with an itch by Pollard to record some quickie EP’s following the completion of their last album, however when a boombox writing session produced six fully formed songs in under half an hour, it seemed another album was brewing faster than previously expected.  I imagine this would probably be a surprise to absolutely no one in the Pollard-verse given this guys proclivity for cranking out tunes.  Although this time there seems to be an element of Pollard having his (August by) cake and eating it too, as the material that comprises Warp and Woof was first released a series of 4 7″ EPs (which are the amazingly titled 100 Dougs, Wine Cork StonehengeUmlaut Over The Ozone, and 1901 Acid Rock) prior to the albums release proper.  Although GBV’s label Rockathon issued the following disclaimer about those cheapskates thinking about getting just the EP’s and not the album proper, “Just because you have the 4 EP’s doesn’t mean you have the album! Our Uncle Bob is the king of sequencing.”  As far as that whole thing goes, I think I’m just gonna leave it to the GBV podcast dude, to figure all that out as far as what’s what.  I’m sure that episode should be dropping any day now (if it hasn’t already).

What I do know is that Warp and Woof has a looser more fragmented vibe than anything else that has been credited to GBV’s so-called “new classic lineup” thus far.  For those familiar with the GBV oeuvre, think Alien Lanes or somewhat more recent reference point Let’s Go Eat The Factory.  That’s probably the more spontaneous circumstances of the writing and recording with guitar tracks being cut at sound checks or in a van hurtling at 60-plus m.p.h with Pollards’ vocal tracks being laid down in hotel rooms or small studios.  Unlike the past few albums which featured compositions that were meticulously crafted by producer Travis Harrison, and the group into miniature alternative universe arena rock epics using Pollard’s boombox sketches as the blueprint.  The end result is collection of tracks that whips by faster than the mile marker signs on your way to the next gig with plenty of left turns, and unexpected detours.  Quicker, dirtier, and more psychedelic; should probably be the disclaimer on the hype sticker.  If all this sounds like your cup of tea when it comes to GBV, then perhaps it’s time for another faster than expected motel check in with Uncle Bob.

Order the album via Rockathon.

Gary Wilson – King of Endicott (Cleopatra Records)

Gary Wilson 10x10It seems appropriate that both Gary Wilson and Rod Serling share the same hometown of Endicott, NY as Wilson’s latest album sounds like the kind of music that one of his characters would be playing in a seedy nightclub staked just on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.  The artist known as Gary Wilson emerged from his parents’ basement sometime around 1977 fully formed, covered in flour, and sporting cat eye sunglasses with copies of his breakthrough album You Think You Really Know Me tucked under his arm ready to blow minds.  The music contained on that record was an improbable hybrid of bedroom funk meets the avant-garde with just enough rock ‘n’ roll in its DNA to make it some previously unknown mutant form of pop music.

Things of course didn’t go exactly as planned.  As Wilson’s late ’70’s and early ’80’s attempts at stardom fizzled, the artist retreated back into a self-imposed fortress of solitude in the form of a dead end job with a steady helping of playing regular lounge gigs on the side.  Things picked back up again around the turn of the century with the rediscovery of his aforementioned magnum opus, and he’s been at the wheel ever since pumping out a torrent of releases both new and archival; there’s even been a Christmas album for God’s sake.

The King of Endicott is a love letter from Gary to his hometown, chock full of homages and references to his city of a thousand lights. Wilson seems to be trying to put himself back there with recollections of places and lovers who might be real or imagined, it’s sometimes really hard to tell what’s what in the Wilson-verse, or what exactly is lurking beneath the surface on even the sunniest of musical offerings on here. With lyrics that read more like the artist’s inner monologue than anything necessarily based in reality.  While some of the artist’s edgier musical proclivities have been sanded down with time, what’s remains is the pulse of a drum machine, and a gnawing obsession with wanting to be wanted; peppered with just enough of his trademark weirdness lurking around the edges to make you feel uncomfortably at home.  The King of Endicott makes it clear that Gary Wilson is still here, and still waiting to take on that perfect date to the park in his magic city.  If you’re game for a real sick trip, swipe right.

Order the album direct from the artist.

Bill MacKay – Fountain Fire (Drag City)

cover_1544126457352464Based on the sounds contained on Chicago-based avant-folkie Bill MacKay’s latest album Fountain Fire, it seems apparent he’s been racking up the miles both literally and figuratively.   It’s a dusty gem of an album that slowly reveals its treasures with repeated listening, and feels like a sprawling road trip across a new weird America with a transatlantic flight or two thrown in for good measure.

Album opener “Pre-California,” sets the table in a cinematic fashion, allowing a widescreen view of MacKay’s 6-string sprawl replete with walls of rumbling, and sliding guitars which evoke images of tectonic shifts, and primordial volcanic ooze.  It’s a mostly instrumental set, but the few tracks which utilize vocals are stunners; such as the Janschian English folk moves displayed on “Birds of May.”   It’s a timeless sounding set that hums with a crackling kinetic energy, even in its quieter and more contemplative moments.  Closing with the urgent and apocalyptic sounding “Dragon Country,” MacKay seems to evoke the sound of darkness descending with its nervy acoustic finger picking, walls of tremolo, and sneaky electric guitar lines.  Fountain Fire is an album that evokes powerful emotions and imagery almost entirely via MacKay’s masterful guitar work.  Just hop in the van, and let him do all the driving; it’s a trip worth taking.

Order the album via Drag City.

John Vanderslice – The Cedars (Native Cat Recordings)

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The 11-square-mile area, called the Cedars located in Placer County, California is a mysterious place which boasts all types of unique geological phenomena including Mars-like red slopes, strange mineralized rock formations, and high-alkaline springs that have fostered plant species found nowhere else in the world.  It’s also nearly impossible to access due to barriers both natural and legal.  A place so unique it even has piqued NASA’s interest. It’s also the title, and a source of inspiration for former American Fourtracker, John Vanderslice’s latest album.

It’s easy to draw the parallels between his latest offering and this almost alien world; as there’s almost nothing direct about the musical architecture employed on The Cedars.  Using his Oakland based Tiny Telephone studio as his own sound lab, the impeccably constructed album is filled with the sounds of humming synths, looping drum machines, bursts of white noise, and walls of multi-tracked vocals that all work to weave an unpredictable sonic backdrop which frame Vanderslice’s at times cryptic and others brutally honest songwriting.

The Cedars is a song cycle which feels like the work of a disoriented wandering soul in a world where people disappear, and locations are important. When the album begins, he doesn’t even quite sound like himself at first.  The spiraling dream logic of tracks such as “Spectral Dawn,” have a downright Lynchian zing right down to the mention of a missing girl named Audrey.  I’ve been listening to the album pretty obsessively over and over again the past few days, because it feels like a puzzle just asking to be solved.  The truth of the matter is that there are probably a few pieces Vanderslice deliberately left out of the box just to keep us guessing.  In life and art, sometimes we don’t always get all the answers we want, whether it’s a mysterious stretch of land in northern California, a relationship that dissolved for unknown reasons, or an album of jagged challenging songs.  If you think about it, isn’t it better that way?

Order the album via Native Cat Recordings.

Alex Chilton – Songs From Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None)

AChiltonRobinmini259For a long time, whenever someone brought up the term or referred to The Great American Songbook, my eyes would roll a bit.  Rightfully or not, it conjured images of a crooning Rod Stewart delivering bland covers of American popular songs and jazz standards from yesteryear. Having raised myself on scrappy indie rock, The Velvet Underground, and a little bit of punk in high school, this wasn’t the kind of music that spoke to me in my teenage and early college years. So, when I began to discover the music of Big Star and Alex Chilton, the kind of cool jazz presented on Songs From Robin Hood Lane was pretty far off my radar and frame of reference. Although, I would eventually come around (at least a little).

I first became familiar with the majority of songs collected here when they were presented on the album Clichés which was originally released in 1993.  By the time I got around to it, it was probably sometime in the early aughts.  I ordered it from eBay, and I recall it only cost me a few bucks. The CD cover seemed a little over saturated with color, and featured a photo of a slightly disheveled looking Alex sporting a pair of shades.  The whole presentation just seemed sort of odd.  Especially when I put it on, and was presented with a short, and spare collection of acoustic covers with a decidedly jazz oriented feel. It sounded like it could have been committed to tape in a single evening. At a time when Chilton could’ve skated on the goodwill, and surging popularity of a certain legendary power pop band, the always contrarian Alex threw his listeners another curve ball instead.

Songs From Robin Hood Lane uses the location mentioned in it’s title as a jump off point for it’s focus. The same way the labels’ other recent geographically themed collection From Memphis To New Orleans spends it’s time documenting the best of Chilton’s recordings from the 1980’s once he relocated to the Big Easy. The Robin Hood Lane that’s being referred to here is the street where Alex spent his early childhood. It was here that Chilton began exploring his musician father Sidney’s record collection which included the key discovery of Chet Baker Sings which introduced the young Chilton to an artist who would prove to be a big influence on his vocal stylings.

This new compilation features five songs from Clichés while augmenting it with some previously released and unreleased songs which feature the same jazz oriented style and approach. Some of the additional tracks were cut for a Chet Baker tribute Medium Cool which was recorded with classically trained bassist Ron Miller in 1991, and an additional 1993 session also recorded with Miller.

So, the question here is does it work? Well, if you like your Chilton in crooner mode, then there are certainly some delights to be had on here. The new sequence also makes the presentation feel more like a complete album due to the greater variety of instrumentation. It’s also hard to deny the effectiveness of his readings of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” and the timelessness of “Let’s Get Lost.” Some of the covers fall a little flat for me due to personal preferences for the source material such as his reading of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The main takeaway here is Alex’s lack of pretension and the sincerity in his commitment to interpreting the material makes it worth hearing. Best of all, even when he’s flipping the through the worn and yellowed pages of that old American Songbook, his delivery makes the whole thing glow with all the coolness of a flame that burns blue. Take that Rod!

Order Songs From Robin Hood Lane from Bar None.

Our Alarm Clock – Time Flies (No Label)

326369Time Flies is the latest excursion from Ben Rosenbach’s one-man electronic post-rock project Our Alarm Clock.  Now a Dad in his thirties, he spent most of his formative musical years playing in playing in Christian rock bands.  His latest is a collection on which the worship rock alumni takes us through a secular and mostly wordless song cycle filled with deep pockets of ambient, pop, and post-rock; all of which are all filtered through his spiritually honed inner lens.

It’s an odd juxtaposition to have a set of songs be so polished, yet feel so personal.  While listening, you sometimes feel like he invited you over to audition some of the songs he cooked up in his home studio the night before or while his kid was taking a nap.  The album ebbs and flows in intensity, and moods oftentimes within the same track.  Album highlight “A Sealed Up Secret Wish” starts with minimal backwards-tracked guitars, and slowly builds in intensity until it has morphed into something resembling Godspeed You! Black Emperor, if you could imagine them dressed in their Sunday best, and sporting fresh haircuts.  While on vocal tracks such as “Pictures,” the artist sounds like he’s trying his damndest to work out his existential crises, and unresolved feelings in what sounds like real time.

Time Flies is an album that seems to work best, when Rosenbach allows the listener to glimpse a little more of the man behind the machine, such as on album closer, “Sunrise” which finds him looking up, still seeking the answers, and inviting us to do the same.  While not every track or experiment presented here always works, there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s a real guy at the heart of it trying to get to the bottom of it all through his music.  The world around us would probably be a better place, if more us cast our eyes skyward every once in a while and followed suit.

Buy the album direct from the artist.