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.
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.
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.