Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks : Sparkle Hard

I think it’s safe to say that Stephen Malkmus the solo artist has outlived the legend of Stephen Malkmus the dude in Pavement. His output with Pavement, which lasted between 1992 and 1999, was five Pavement records, several singles, and two Silver Jews albums(I’m sure there were one-offs here and there.) From 1999 on Malkmus has released seven albums under his own name and with the Jicks, two Silver Jews albums, a live record covering Can’s Ege Bamyasi, and some tracks on Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There soundtrack.

More than the work, though, Stephen Malkmus has become this singular character in the world. The dude that so doesn’t care whether he’s cool or not that not caring has made him cool. If he feels like going thru a scarf-wearing phase then by God he’ll wear scarfs. And he’ll do it with zero irony. He’s a doting dad and a devoted husband and has no problems taking his kids to school and buying groceries while his wife works. He has no qualms discussing his Pavement glory years but doesn’t long for those indie rock beginnings, nor does he find them precious. He’s a go with the flow kind of guy and that’s what makes Malkmus so damn endearing.

Well, that and the music.

For me it’s been a journey to find my in with Stephen Malkmus. While I appreciated the work he did with Pavement, Brighten The Corners was the only album I truly dug. It wasn’t until Real Emotional Trash, his 2008 album with the Jicks, that I locked in with Malkmus. I don’t think the guy gets enough credit for his guitar work. He’s actually a pretty brilliant player, and Real Emotional Trash is a prime example of that. He’s also a hell of a songwriter, too, but I’d lock into that later.

On Sparkle Hard, his seventh album post-Pavement, Stephen Malkmus does what he does best: he writes catchy(and quirky) pop songs. To my ears, this is his best album in ten years. This record is a near-perfect amalgamation(or a-malkmus-mation? sorry) of everything that’s come before, but with a newfound focus and deft sonic touches that brings the Jicks into the now. Not all of those touches work for me, but for the most part this is a brilliant album.

Album opener “Cast Off” begins beautifully with acoustic piano and Malkmus singing in earnest before his guitar rolls in like a storm-a-brewin’ out at sea. That guitar tone is legendary, and thru the years he’s honed it in to laser precision. This de-tuned and crushing sludgy riff that emanates from a variety of Fender guitars is really what pulled me in. “Cast Off” is classic Malkmus and the Jicks. “Future Suite” is all wonky rhythms and tasteful melodies. The guitars almost have an Allman Brothers tone to them. Very Pig Lib-era Jicks. “Solid Silk” is a big and bold, with a dreamy quality in the strings layered over top.

There’s a couple tracks Malkmus breaks out the auto tune, and while it doesn’t completely ruin the songs for me it’s not really something I’d want to hear more of. “Rattler” is a good track that’s held back by modern tricks for the tone deaf singer(you can sing, Stephen.)

There’s plenty of future classics on here, too. “Shiggy” is all buzzing riffs and summertime feels, while “Middle America” might be one of Malkmus’ best songs since “Vanessa From Queens”. It’s the breezy, sentimental track we need from Stephen Malkmus right now. “Kite” and “Difficulties-Let Them Eat Vowels” are the big epic tracks that show Malkmus’ love for letting songs work themselves out, regardless of how long it takes. There’s also an amazing country-tinged, whiskey-burnt track called “Refute” that he duets with Kim Gordon on that is essential listening. It sounds like A.M.-era Wilco, but with Malkmus’ deft touches.

I still may not completely get Stephen Malkmus, Pavement, and all the historied weight that comes with the early 90s indie rock they helped to define, but that’s okay. I have fully come to realize and appreciate the gangly genius of Stephen Malkmus. I see his place in the rock canon, and Sparkle Hard stands as one of his best albums yet. There’s growing old gracefully, and then there’s growing old graciously.

Malkmus is definitely the latter.

8.1 out of 10

 

Beach House : 7

It took me a bit before I truly could appreciate the magic of Beach House’s music. The Baltimore band’s appeal eluded me their first couple records. What I’d heard off of Teen Dream and then Bloom was nice in a passerby sort of way, but I didn’t know what all the accolades were about. What I heard was sort of a slow motion version of Cocteau Twins, but maybe a little sadder.

Then on a whim I bought Devotion at my local record store and things  began to make sense. It was a slow motion melancholy hidden under programmed drums and droning keys. Victoria Legrand’s vocals were a little raspy, but contained in them a wisdom of the soul beyond her years. The more you listened the more you felt you were hearing someone’s true essence being relayed through song. Alex Scally built these musical mazes for Legrand to get lost in and ruminate on life and the sadness that sometimes comes along with it.

What I’ve eventually discovered is that Beach House’s music is something that comes across simple at first, but reveals many more depths and layers with repeated listens. Teen Dream and Bloom proved to be little masterpieces, but for my ears Depression Cherry is one of their best. It dials down from their previous records and settles into a slow motion melancholy that comes to a beautiful and crushing finale with “Days of Candy”.

So as not to fall into a rut of sorts, Scally and Legrand went into their new album 7 with louder ambitions. They brought in producer Sonic Boom(aka Spacemen 3’s Peter Kember) to add some weight to the band’s bottom end. The result is a harder Beach House, but one that still retains the dream quality of their sound that they established over ten years ago with their debut. As with each of their previous records, every spin of 7 reveals a deeper beauty and a more complex emotional weight than before.

The first thing you notice with Beach House’s excellent new LP is it’s louder. They’ve taken their sleepy sound and have added a metallic sheen, a byproduct of Sonic Boom’s deft sonic touches. Album opener “Dark Spring” jumps from the speakers like My Bloody Valentine, but smoother and with less blunt force. I never thought Beach House needed to be louder and more gruff in their delivery, but “Dark Spring” makes me second guess that. There’s a vitality here that wasn’t there before. Those songs from the ether have been woken into a fever dream. “Pay No Mind” lulls back into Legrand and Scally’s usual dreamy state, but with more emphasis on the low end. “Lemon Glow” pops and flows like some lost 80s radio hit; a song you know you know but you’re not sure why. This is the proto-Beach House sound. It’s familiar and inviting, but with a noisier vibe. It’s Beach House, but with an industrial lean.

Beach House, for my money, never have to veer from the sonic world they’ve created. It’s a familiar place that I want to go to because I know what to expect and that I understand it’s place in my head. It’s nostalgic, but for something that never existed. Except for in the heads and hearts of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally. Lucky for me it’s an imagined world that I often long to be in. “L’inconnue” is one such imagined world. It opens like the petals of some exotic flower, inviting you in to exist within its colors and aromas. Legrand sings palates of hues; blues, pinks, whites, and deep reds. The simplicity of the beat lulls you into a place of near transcendence.

Beach House are transcendent.

Elsewhere, “Drunk in LA” captures some of that Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil magic. This is a near perfect track thanks to a mournful mood with an unexpected uplift hidden just under the surface. “Lose Your Smile” lives within the past and present. It has the sound of an old 60s European pop track, a Cowboy Junkies b-side, and something very current and vital. “Girl of the Year” is awash in dense, lovely keys. It’s regal sound and Legrand nearly whispering “You slide out on Sunset, Head west on Marest” takes you from your surroundings and drops you into her world. “Last Ride” spans over 7 minutes and ends the album quietly, in contrast to it’s noisier beginnings. It ends in a wall of subtle guitar squall that disappears into the ether.

Sonic Boom succeeds in expanding Beach House’s carefully-curated musical world without shaking things up too much. His touch is felt in the denser low end and noisier aspects of some of these songs, but this is still very much a Beach House album. It nods to Phil Spector-like sonics, 4AD melancholy, and an otherworldly feel that Beach House have perfected. 7 is an absolute stunning record of dark beauty and melancholy mood, and one of their best albums yet.

8.7 out of 10

Language : Plymouth EP

Language as a whole hail from Brooklyn. But apart the members, which include Omar Afzaal(gtr, vox), Charles Sloan(bass, vox), and Wes Black(drums, vox) all arrived in New York from different directions with ambition and a singular desire to create great art. If you’re at all familiar with Language’s work then you know their sound is jagged like post-punk but adventurous like the best art rock from the late-70s and early-80s. Listening to their 2015 debut EP Remus was like a shot of Polvo and Deerhoof through the lens of EVOL-era Sonic Youth. There was an edge, but with a sense of abandon. Junket EP followed in 2016 and had more of a sense of urgency(no part in thanks to the political climate at the time.) The Brooklyn trio had tightened up their sound to a well-oiled machine, with almost King Crimson-esque precision.

We’ve arrived at 2018 and the political climate hasn’t gotten any better kids. Two years ago saying it couldn’t get any worse really felt like a truthful statement(I think preppy White Nationalists holding Tiki torches in Charlottesville and christian conservatives giving the President a pass on an affair with a porn star says otherwise.) One thing that has gotten better since 2016 is Language. They’ve signed a record deal with goodeyerecords and are presenting the world with their brand new EP titled Plymouth. Afzaal, Sloan, and Black have put plenty of shows and sweaty practices under their belts and their new EP shows it. It’s a tour-de-force of aggression with a purpose.

“Where To?” opens the EP with a tribal feel. Language create a gritty explosion of noisy guitar and jungle rhythms that seem to say things are getting real and we know it. “Game Piece” is the heaviest Language have gotten. They move through the track with sheer punk authority, yet there’s still a playfulness in the delivery that truly grounds the song. Afzaal lays down some effective octaves with his guitar while Sloan and Black create a rock solid rhythm section. “Standing on a new rock, kinda like the old one” Charles Sloan sings on the title track as the guys absolutely scorch the earth around them. This is a big old rock and roll track that you won’t be able to get out of your head.

Elsewhere, “Into And Out Of” borders on proto-metal with an absolute blistering guitar and drum attack. The EP closes out with “Square Winds”. A jagged post-punk number that practically melts the speakers. It’s like the Descendants and At The Drive In banged this one out in some Midwest basement while neighbors worried the end was nigh.

Language have upped themselves with each successive release. Plymouth EP shows this Brooklyn three piece continuing that trend; becoming heavier, wilier, and catchier in the process. Once the last song ends you’ll want to listen to it again. And again.

Plymouth EP is available everywhere May 18th via goodeyerecords. Preorder the cassette here.

7.9 out of 10

Phantom vs Fire : Swim

I’ve been sitting here trying to wrap my brain around the beautiful and mysterious Swim by Phantom vs Fire for a few days now. I’m still struggling to put into words what’s going on here. While it could sit comfortably in the imagined soundtracks genre, I think to label it as such would be doing the extraordinary work Phantom vs Fire’s sole composer/creator Thiago C. Desant has put into making the dream-like world contained on Swim. The pieces do feel as if they’re accentuating scenes and moods, yet there’s so much more going on here.

Simply put, this is a one of a kind album that you must immerse yourself in to truly appreciate the magic it contains. You need to open your brain to its alien worlds and meticulous production values and explore the darker corners, as well as the lighter ones. Swim is a mysterious world that begs you to get lost in it.

The wonderful thing about Phantom vs Fire is that you can’t pigeonhole the sound. Desant mixes organic and synthetic instrumentation wonderfully. Woozy synths collide with grandiose strings, acoustic drums melt into syncopated, robotic rhythms, and symphonic structures give way to old school electronic. All of this makes for a dream-like state as you lose yourself in Swim. Something like album opener “Breathing”, for example, gives you the impression of walking thru the hallowed halls of an ancient structure. As the song moves along tension rises as strings quicken and tighten, as if the floor is disappearing under your feet. Title track “Swim” bounces in on staccato strings and airy drums and vibes. This is not the norm, and that’s a very good thing. “The Beach House” has an almost island feel in the rhythms. As to not completely let you get lost in the Caribbean vibes, some electronic wooziness is added to throw you off a bit. “Nightmares and Dreams” lays down some dread. Think 80s late night horror, but with modern touches. Desant seems to revel in the tiniest of production and sonic details, which makes this track a smorgasbord for the ears. The piano touches give this track some NIN weight.

Desant works within the realm of film composer for sure. He builds scenes, moods, and emotions as if he’s guiding us through a story. There is a dichotomy of moods here. On one hand you have what feels like old school soundtrack vibes, complete with woozy synth structures and the rhythmic waves they ride in on. On the other hand there are these producer-heavy tracks that ache to be played for a club and a sweaty crowd.  Something like the pulsating “Atlantic” leans more towards the sonic worlds of Arca and Baths as much as it does Carpenter and Frizzi. It’s delicate percussive clicks and snaps push along the melodic tension beautifully. “Nightwalker” floats along on a cloud of unease and sickly synths. It permeates a certain kind of dread that invites repeated listens. Then there’s the exquisitely subtle “VHS Hypnosis” that starts out with a Boards of Canada lean but sinks into rather Gothic waters. This song is a perfect example of all the voodoo Desant works with to create his unique sound. “The Invisible Sea” is yet another example of the creative work being done here. All the musical pieces seem to swirl together into a kaleidoscope of sonic textures and unresolved tension.

Thiago C. Desant’s Phantom vs Fire seems to be a project of endless ambition and emotional release. On Swim there’s a sense of putting in everything plus the kitchen sink. A lesser artist might’ve made a mess of this record, but Desant’s steady production and engineering prowess weaves together these sonics with precision and deftness.

Swim is a bold statement from a bold artist.

8.1 out of 10

 

 

 

Broken Lamps : Turn Signals

You hit play on Broken Lamp’s debut Turn Signals and you’re instantly transported to some alternate universe. A universe where every person you meet seems to be hiding something, every woman is alluring but dangerous, and people can still smoke unfiltered Lucky Strikes on commercial flights from Milan to New York City. At every turn you could meet your fate at the hands of a psychotic killer, ancient witchcraft, or a hot and alluring(but dangerous) model named Bibi you met at a Milan discotheque the night before. Broken Lamps taps into the late 60s and early 70s world of Giallo films and smoke-filled French coffeehouses with a blend of jazzy drums, buzzy synth, and electric piano with psychedelic flourishes. Turn Signals is a breezy shot of secondhand grooves and eerie vibes.

Broken Lamps is the work of multi-instrumentalist Eric Bowr. The music is described on the band’s website as “Original library music inspired by cult cinema and rare film soundtracks of the 60s and 70s.” I’d say that sums up the vibe of this record perfectly. I like this bit even more. It’s a description of how the album came together. “Turn Signals is a compilation of experiments written and recorded by Eric Bowr in the fall of 2015. The title depicts a sense of awakening to ones presence in a flawed society suggesting self transformation.” That last part about self transformation really makes sense while getting lost on Turn Signals. Library music in and of itself is different bits of musical identity created for the sole purpose of being used in film and TV where they are needed. These tracks have a feeling of scoring various moods and scenes.

Take a track like opener “Anamnesis”. I could hear this opening some early 70s Mario Bava film about murder, mayhem, and buxom brunettes. It’s fiendishly groovy and with Bowr’s use of real instruments, as opposed to the one man synth operation, the song breathes and expands like a living creature. “The Next Left” continues that Italian vibe, but with more movement and absolutely exquisite production by Bowr himself. It’s obvious Bowr is a student of those macabre films of the 60s and 70s. Both Gothic and classicist, the sonic world we’re led into is very nostalgic, but never gimmicky.

Elsewhere, “Cat’s Eye” feels like a drive thru the French countryside with the top down and Catherine Deneuve in the passenger seat. “CXLIV” goes full Goblin with a very Dawn of the Dead vibe. “Absent” is a beautiful piano interlude, while “Gallows” is a melancholy acoustic number with a “spaghetti western in space” feel to it.

Broken Lamps’ Turn Signals is a moody musical appetizer filled with eerie vibes, colorful musical moods, and enough musical nods that will allow you to put together one hell of a film in your head as you’re listening. “Turn Signals is the story of a life held hostage with death as the final release.” Death is indeed the final release. Or you can hit play again on Turn Signals, resurrect, and live to listen to Broken Lamps another day.

7.6 out of 10

Dr. Dog : Critical Equation

I can remember driving 5 hours one way to Louisville, Kentucky to see Wilco at Slugger Field back in late summer of 2007. My wife and I were deep into Jeff Tweedy’s world at that point. I’d lost count of all the times we’d seen the Chicago band by then, but what was one more drive? One more show under our belts? The opening band was a Philly group called Dr. Dog. The name put me in mind of a Henson Muppet creation, but when these 5 guys hit the stage as the sun was dropping in the west and they sang a 5-part harmony version of the Star-Spangled Banner all visions of muppets were gone. The set that proceeded was a gritty, jangly group of soul-inflected indie rock, the likes of which I’d never heard. Part GBV, part Feelies, and a healthy dose of Beach Boys harmonious earnestness.

Wilco were great as usual that night, but Dr. Dog stole the show.

Besides a 5-hour drive in the middle of the night on I-65N and what would turn into a nasty case of pleurisy, I left that show a fan of Dr. Dog. I immediately bought up everything I could which was Easy Beat, Takers and Leavers EP, and their newest We All Belong. We All Belong, to this day, is one of my favorite albums. Pure, gauzy soul and pop with a touch of mildew-y age. Brian Wilson’s touch for vocalization and a wilted Grandaddy musicality sprinkled with Philadelphia’s storied soulful musical history. It pretty much hit every mark.

I continued to follow Dr. Dog along with each successive record(Shame, Shame might be their best.) As time moved on, though, their sound became routine with little detours. Not a bad thing when you find your voice, but once a band settles in there’s not much to distinguish one record from another. I’ve got Easy Beat, We All Belong, and Shame Shame. What more do I need?

Dr. Dog have just released their tenth LP called Critical Equation. Like what’s come before, it’s a beautifully orchestrated group of songs that bring together all their influences and sonic quirks to an even tighter, more honed-in sound. New ground broken? Not really. But I think Dr. Dog have the prescription for what’s ailing us all, if you ask me.

Going down the song list describing song after song is kind of pointless. If you’ve read this far, than more than likely you know what to expect when jumping into a new Dr. Dog record. Lead singers Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman still go back and forth singing. Where before there was a distinction between their songs, now it feels as if they’re both on the same wavelength. Even their vocals are melding together. This now gives Dr. Dog a cohesion that wasn’t quite there before.

This time out the band keeps it in second gear for the most part. Middle of the road janglers like album opener “Listening In” are scattered throughout the record. The band’s use of pacing and McMicken’s crackly vocals give the track a touch of age, which is pushed even further by farfisa organ and tasteful psychedelic touches. “Buzzing in the Light” might be one of the best Dr. Dog songs since Shame Shame‘s “Jackie Wants A Black Eye”. There’s a solo John Lennon vibe with this track. It seems to have formed perfectly. “True Love” is another highlight. It’s like a modern Buddy Holly song, or an early 80s Marshall Crenshaw song with Buddy Holly flourishes. McMicken’s “Heart Killer” has an 80s feel to it. Upbeat and fun, for sure. Closer “Coming out of the Darkness” starts out with Scott McMicken going for a Richard Manuel vocal and nearly getting it. The song has the usual Dr. Dog groove and settles in nicely.

There was something magical and sort of eerie about those first few Dr. Dog releases. The combination of the lo fi 4-track vibe, the wobbly multi-part harmonies, and the strangely familiar pop chord progressions gave you the feel of finding some long lost treasure from a band decades gone. It was like this ethereal version of The White Album put thru an early 90s indie rock machine. These Philly guys have grown up and expanded their sonic palate considerably since Easy Beat, way back before ‘dumpster fire’ was included in Webster’s Dictionary, but they haven’t lost that timelessness in their songwriting. They haven’t lost that ghostly, aged magic that made those early albums so endearing. Critical Equation is proof of that.

7.8 out of 10

Landing : Bells In New Towns

Connecticut’s Landing are a band that seem to evolve and reshape with every new album. On their 2015 El Paraiso Records debut Third Sight it was a slightly psychedelic, slightly ambient affair with hints of delicate dream pop thrown in for good measure. But the velveteen hushes on that great album were just a fraction of the sonic world Landing have haunted for what is now nearly 20 years of making records, seemingly under the radar. The husband and wife duo of Aaron and Adrienne Snow met in college back in the 90s and found partners in art, as well as life, in each other. Along with Daron Gardner and several contributors over the years, which now includes John Bent, Landing has explored everything from 90s indie rock to Komische to late 80s 4AD titans over several self-released albums and EPs.

Landing is the best band you may have never heard of.

 

On their second release for the Danish El Paraiso Records Landing have reeled in the hushed ambient tones and woozy psychedelia for a more driving sound. Bells In New Towns recalls everything from Neu! to Dinosaur Jr to Ride to Lush, all of which goes into the Landing machine and comes out through buzzing amps and monitors as something slightly new and off kilter. There’s a real urgency in the driving rhythms and bass lines that make this record an all out summer record. There’s still plenty of contemplative moods here, but this one also really rocks.

Right out of the gate, Bells In New Towns changes things up from last time. “Nod” opens the album in an explosion of drums and distorted bass that sounds like a decidedly louder and more rocking shift from last time. Wavering electronics hang in the air as Adrienne’s vocals faintly tease over music that would’ve been right at home on MBV’s Glider or Tremolo EPs. Aaron’s tenure in shoegaze/dream pop band Kindling might’ve rubbed off onto this amazing track. “By Two” feels slightly more wistful, with airy keys and acoustic guitar opening the song. The vocals and drums come in and give the track a more driving feel. Long car rides and contemplation seem proper to go with a song like this. “Gravitational VII” is an exquisite synth piece. It feels like getting lost along the way in a glowing cloud of memories. Hallucinatory, but in the best way possible. “Bright” is all out driving, motorik beats with heady synthesizer giving the impression we’ve traveled back to Berlin, circa 1974. It sounds like Kraftwerk-inspired shoegaze.

Bells In New Towns, even with more pop-oriented tracks, feels more exploratory than even the ambient tones of Third Sight. There’s a feeling of movement on this record. A forward motion into the unknown. Landing sounds like a rock band here. Not that they weren’t a rock band, but these tracks push that notion right into your ears.

There are moments of hazy contemplation, though. A track like “Secret” has the artful spirit of Popul Vuh mixed with the dream pop grandeur of The Besnard Lakes, while “Gravitational VIII” pushes those analog dreams further into your brain with synthesizer circuits dotting your cerebral cortex. “Fallen Name”, however, is an absolutely gorgeous pop track. Lilting like the best Yo La Tengo but dreamy like Auburn Lull, the track achieves a certain kind of personal transcendence not often found nowadays. On the flip side, “Wait Or Hide” is both jagged guitar and psychedelia rolled into one. Slightly more Sebadoh than Dino Jr. The tranquil “Second Sight” closes out the record with chiming sonics and big sky openness.

With Bells In New Towns, Landing turn up the amps and the urgency in their songs. Where Third Sight was like a waking dream, Bells is wide awake and forward motion to something, or someone, of significance. This album sounds and feels like a classic indie rock record in the making.

8.3 out of 10