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.
It’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.
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 Stonehenge, Umlaut 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.