Soft As Snow – Deep Wave (Houndstooth)

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I wouldn’t normally expect from a new group playing music heavily inspired by ’90s electronica, but this Nowegian duo do just that yet they’ve won me over. While the music is a creative brew of lo-fi industrial klang and menacing trip-hop paranoia, I’m mostly here for singer Oda Egjar Starheim’s stunning vocals. A bevy of effects and heavy reverb make it almost impossible to discern what she’s saying, or even what language she uses (it could be English for I know) but her vocals are mostly a mechanism for delivering melodies and texture, not narrative. This approach creates a shoegaze-like air of mystery and confusion that at times reminds me of The Cocteau Twins. Soft As Snow (whose name comes from a My Bloody Valentine song-title) explores a variety of tempos and dynamics on Deep Wave, but they’re best on songs like the title track and “Sleep Slip”, where they slow things down to a crawl and give listeners a chance to marinate inside the hypnotic moods they’ve created. An unexpected joy.


Wire – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154: Deluxe Edition (Pink Flag)

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When Wire originally released these three albums, once a year between 1977 and 1979, they weren’t just on the cutting edge of the late-’70s British rock vanguard; they were a step ahead of everyone else, consistently injecting incredible new sounds and ideas into the art-form. I would argue that, outside of Brian Eno, nobody brought more interesting sounds and concepts to the table then Wire did in the 1970s. Yet, despite the critical praise they received, the London group never really enjoyed the same level of success as their punk and post-punk peers (PiL, Joy Division, Gang of Four). It’s a shame their bankbooks weren’t the same size as their talents, but I understand why. Wire were always a bit too obscure for the mainstream, they never presented an identifiable image – you could stare at a band photo for 20 minutes and still not recognize them on the street an hour later – and always deployed overtly intellectual ideas born out of an art-school background. This approach, perhaps best typified by song-titles like “French Film Blurred” and “Map Ref. 41N 93W”, was brilliant, but it wasn’t going to win them many fans in the Sex Pistols/Clash set.

Their 1977 debut album Pink Flag, sounded closer to punk rock than anything else in the Wire discography. With twenty-one songs whizzing by in thirty-five minutes there’s a strong argument to be made for its influence on the first wave of hardcore punk bands, many of whom covered songs from Pink Flag. However, even if the album frequently reveled in punk’s directness and simplicity, Wire’s take on the genre never resorted to the cheap posturing and sloganeering that so many other British bands latched on to. Sprinkled in among Pink Flag’s hyper-speed attacks were a few slower songs like “Reuters” and “Lowdown” that pointed the way forward, building the framework for the post-punk scene that would rise in Pink Flag’s wake. If most punk bands sounded like they were taking a flamethrower to society, on these songs Wire sounded like they were ordering a drone strike; colder and more clinical, but just as deadly. While you could never accuse Wire of playing it for chuckles like The Dictators or The Rezillos, bouncier songs like “Three Girl Rhumba” (which Elastica borrowed for their hit “Connection”), “Fragile” and “Feeling Called Love” at least dropped hints that Wire might in fact have a “fun” side.

Pink Flag was a defining statement in punk-rock minimalism, yet by the time the album came out Wire were already looking ahead to a more expansive sound that would be 1978’s Chairs Missing. The band were advancing at such a fast pace, that a concert from the week Pink Flag was released featured just two songs from that album in the set-list. Wire were still an aggressive band on Chairs Missing, but producer Mike Thorne placed more emphasis on texture and ambience, adding all kinds of guitar effects, keyboards and synthesizers to the mix. While some critics felt the album revealed Wire as closet prog fans (“French Film Blurred” and “Marooned” sounded like a malignant Pink Floyd), expanding their sonic palette made it possible for Wire to bring the obscure ideas behind songs like “Outdoor Miner” and “I Am The Fly” to life. Now they could write a song called “Being Sucked In Again” that actually sounds like the listener is being sucked in (though it’s unclear exactly what mechanism they’re being sucked into). Even with their newly developed penchant for ornate studio effects, at their core Wire were still a hard-hitting band. “Sand In My Joints” and “Too Late” were both close cousins to punk rock (the latter nicely covered by Yo La Tengo) and I’ve always thought that someone like Voivod or Tool could do a great cover of “Mercy”.

If Chairs Missing placed Wire within the post-punk vanguard, their 1979 follow-up, 154 (named after the number of concerts they’d played at that point), found them practically moving beyond rock music altogether. The tempos were slower, the vocals more arch, and the atmospheres that once surrounded their songs now were the songs. By expanding their sonic palette even further on 154 Wire imbued songs like “A Touching Display” (which features a viola), “A Mutual Friend” and “40 Versions” with an other-worldly quality that could be considered as influential on future goth and shoegaze bands as early Wire songs like “12XU” were on punk. The band (and it seems strange to call the version of Wire heard on 154 a “band” as they rarely ever sound like four guys recording music in a room) were on a creative high, but they soon began pushing the avant-garde limits of their music past their breaking point. The post-154 tracks on the first of the album’s two bonus discs are a clattering mess – all idea, with no execution. The 154 tour would confuse fans even more with all new songs and a Dadaist stage show. The band broke up soon thereafter, though they would reunite twice, and are still active.

All three albums are remastered, though I don’t hear much difference from the last round of reissues from 2006. They also each come with an 80-page book of photos, lyrics, interviews and other ephemera. I only received digital files of the music to review, so I can’t offer any comments on these. Lastly, each album comes with bonus material from singles, demos and alternate mixes, some of which has never been officially released until now.

The demos are an interesting addition. They’re consistently well recorded and demonstrate just how solid the band was, even when stripped of the bells and whistles they would gain in their album recordings. More interestingly, the demos debut a few songs that never made it onto the albums, and also offer up fresh looks at some familiar tunes via different arrangements or alternate lyrics. It’s also interesting how the demos for Chairs Missing sound more like Pink Flag-era recordings, and the demos for 154 sound like they were recorded for Chairs Missing. Surprisingly a few of Wire’s earliest, and punkiest, demos didn’t make the cut, with songs like “Just Don’t Care”, “TV” and, um, “Mary Is A Dyke” left out in the cold.

If you’ve never heard these albums, I recommend buying all three immediately and repeatedly basking in their genius. However, even serious fans who already know what I sometimes refer to as “the holy trinity” back-to-front, will find a new set of wonders to marvel at within these expanded editions.

Wand – Perfume (Drag City)

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If you were a fan of Wand’s first four albums, their latest EP, Perfume, is an opportunity to figure out the kind of person you are – specifically whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. If you’re an optimist, you’ll note that the opening title track successfully combines the attack of punk and metal with the musicianship of prog-rock. You’ll also be impressed with drummer Evan Burrows, who’s comfortable playing complex rhythms without sounding like he’s showing off. You’ll also enjoy the psychedelic instrumental piece at the end of the track, which lasts about as long as the song-proper. “The Gift” will sound like the best song Radiohead left off their last two albums and “Pure Romance” will transport you back to that time in the ’90s when alt-rock dominated the musical landscape. Closer “I Will Keep You Up” ends it all on a sweet and tender note – like those world-weary space-ballads Spiritualized does so well.

Now, a pessimist will hear something completely different. They’ll find that these seven songs don’t form a cohesive whole. They’ll bemoan the recording, which is more lo-fi than the usual highly-manicured sound you get on a Wand outing. They’ll scoff at how much the title track sounds like Yes, think “Town Meeting” is a grating mix of VU’s “The Gift” and Bernard Herrmann’s music from the shower scene in Psycho, and they’ll call “Pure Romance” dated, and wonder how a song that comes out a few days after this review was published can already sound like an artifact from 1995.

The thing is, both sides are right. Perfume has some flaws that can’t be overlooked, but it has a lot of thrilling music too. Maybe it’s not the best thing Wand has ever done, but it’s still a more rewarding listen than most of what passes for “alternative” or “indie” these days.

Bad Times – Streets Of Iron (Goner)

Album origin stories don’t get much more modest or banal than Streets of Iron. Basically, it goes like this: In 1998 three friends (Eric Oblivian, Jay Reatard and King Louie Bankston) met up in Bankston’s hometown of New Orleans, spent one day learning these 14 songs, and another day recording them onto cassette. They called themselves Bad Times to reflect the bleakness of their lives at that moment (for example: Reatard, after recording the album, returned home to Memphis and found that his mother kicked him out of the house while he was gone). Bad Times played one show, in Normal, IL – a place which I know nothing about except that, according to Google, it exists – and that was it. Of course people are still curious about Reatard’s music since his untimely death in 2010, so it makes sense for the album to get a 20th anniversary reissue, with a pair of previously unreleased songs making their debut here.

But, Reatard fans, before taking the plunge, know that Bad Times fall somewhere closer in sound and spirit to his early recordings with The Reatards than his better known solo albums from the back-half of the 2000s. First of all, the fidelity stinks. These songs were recorded on cassette and it shows. Then there’s the vocals which are more often than not full-throated screaming. Lastly there’s the extremely misanthropic lyrics which trace their lineage back to the more amateur end of the late-’70s and early-’80s underground punk and hardcore singles spectrum, complete with teenage tales of alienation, frustration and ugly sexual deviance. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) its warts, Streets of Iron is a pretty addictive listen. The energy is there, and while the songs are crude, beneath all the layers of spit and puke lurk some serious pop smarts which elevate material like “Trapped In The City” and “Listen To The Band” beyond their crud-punk origins. I even like the band’s loose Gary Glitter piss-take,”Glitter Boys”, and the early-GG Allin-isms of “You’re So Lewd”. Streets of Iron may only contain the smallest hints of the side of Jay Reatard that everyone grew to love a decade later, but how many other cassettes recorded in a single day still sound this good 20 years on?

Various Artists – How Is The Air Up There? 80 Mod, Soul, RNB & Freakbeat Nuggets From Down Under (RPM)

Unlike their next door neighbors Australia, New Zealand bands never made a big impact beyond the island in the 1960s. However, it makes sense that New Zealand, an English-speaking country with a large UK immigrant population, would have a thriving rock scene in the wake of Beatlemania. That scene is celebrated on this three-disc set named after the killer garage-rock song by The La De Da’s that opens disc one. While there’s no sonic indicators of a New Zealand-specific take on mid-’60s music – these songs could all easily pass as the work of British groups – the unifying factor here is how hard these bands play it. Their guitar fuzz stings a little harder, the rave-ups get a little louder and the vocals screams are a bit more unhinged than the kind you’ll find on the average comp of mid-’60s British unknowns. To get an understanding of the kind of raw no-frill rock these guys and girls were laying down, you only need to look as far as the bands they covered – The Pretty Things, The Kinks, The Creation, The Yardbirds, Small Faces, Them and The Who. Five of these songs already appeared on the second Nuggets boxset (and they’re all front-loaded early on disc one here), but a ton of impressive lesser-known material gets aired out too. The first two discs are great from start to finish, but I find myself coming back to the thumping beat of Tom Thumb’s “I Need You”, the lethal fuzz overdose on “Hurtin’ All Over” by The Pleazers, and the Pretty Things-esque savagery of the previously unreleased 1966 song, “Ugly Thing”, by the Coassacks. If you love the harder end of mid-’60s rock, then there’s plenty of it to be had here, with detailed liner notes bringing you the stories behind each of these bands. My only beef is with the third disc which features a lot of the same bands as the first two discs, but covers their forays into blue-eyed soul, a genre I never cared for. All the cheesy horns and Motown-lite affectations sound real toothless following the high energy attack of the first two discs.

Top Ten Albums of 2017

Pre- (r)amble: I have to admit it – I wasn’t paying as close attention to new music in 2017 as previous years. The growing demands of work, family and moving homes, made finding the time to listen to new records much more of a challenge. Perhaps that’s why my top ten list leans a little harder on old favorites than previous years. Or maybe those people just made the best records. Either way, here’s my top 10 favorite new albums from 2017.

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1. Mark Lanegan Band – Gargoyle (Heavenly Records)
Gargoyle is Lanegan’s 2nd consecutive album where he fuses his dark musings to ‘80s-style electronic beats. Like its 2014 predecessor, Phantom Radio, it’s the best album of the year.
Full review

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2. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy (Artificial Plastic)
The first Jesus and Mary Chain album in almost 20 years picks up pretty much exactly where they left off. Re-using a bunch of songs they’ve recorded on different projects since disbanding in 1998 is perhaps a bit lazy, but those songs are great, and having them back in action is a thrill.

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3. Sparks – Hippopotamus (BMG Records)
Even though they’ve been going at it since the early-‘70s, this was actually my first exposure to Sparks’ music. The Mael brother may be senior citizens now, but their twisted take on pop music is as sharp and relevant as ever.

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4. Robyn Hitchcock– Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc Records)
Over 35 years into his solo career Hitchcock releases a self-titled album which features him fronting a full-blooded rock band for the first time in about a decade. All ten songs are great, but “Raymond and The Wires” is my favorite. Nobody else would start a song with lyrics like “My eyes have seen the trolleybus, on her pneumatic tires”. Genius.

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5. Mick Harvey – Intoxicated Women (Mute)
Mick Harvey’s final album of Serge Gainsbourg covers has him focusing on Giansbourg’s duets with women. I kinda wish he’d keep making more albums of Gainsbourg covers.
Full Review

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6. Warhaus – Warhaus (Play It Again Sam)
Warhaus are a relatively young Belgian duo that fit in seamlessly with latter-era Lenoard Cohen, Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan, Tom Waits and the like. If there’s any soul left in the music world hey should start getting some recognition real soon.

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7. Guadalupe Plata – Guadalupe Plata 2017 (Everlasting Records)
Another European band, this time from Spain. They play dark blues music that reminds me a bit of The Gun Club, if they were a little more Morricone and a little less Ramones.

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8. Black Angels – Death Song (Partisan Records)
I was a little hard on this album when I reviewed it because I was hoping that The Black Angels would write something a little deeper this time out. Well, even if Death Song is frequently as shallow as its jokey title, there’s still enough powerful psych rock here to keep me spinning it again and again.

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9. Stag – Midtown Sizzler (Self Released Records)
Just good solid ‘70s-inspired rock on this Seattle band’s debut. “Bedazzler” is a slice of T. Rex glam-pop nirvana.
Full review

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10. Gnoomes – Tschak! (Rocket Recordings)
I don’t know much about Gnoomes, nor do I own Tschak!. While I feel a bit weird including an album that I’ve only heard a few times on Spotify, Tschak! reminds me of a modern day take on classic German experimental rock of the 1970s. Faust, Neu and Can are all deeply embedded in the grooves, but Gnoomes’ execution of these ideas is thoroughly modern and cutting edge.

Stag – Midtown Sizzler (Self Released)

This is Stag’s debut album, but the Seattle band is made up of rock vets you may know from their prior work in bands like Alcohol Funnycar, Sanford Arms, That Petrol Emotion, The Mellors, and couple of others. Stag’s “thing” is a potent concoction of ’70s power-pop, punk and glam that’s refreshingly ignorant of the past few decades of “progress”. It’s the kind of stuff greying rockers of a certain vintage (myself included) go nuts for, and sure enough Midtown Sizzler delivers the rifftastic rock’n’roll thrills we all want but rarely get these days. Stag doesn’t go to great pains to mask the inspirations behind their songs, and half the fun of the album is playing “name that influence” for it’s brief twenty-five minute runtime. “Come On” is pure Faces pastiche, “Rosemarie” is a Cheap Trick-ified stab at early-Who, and there’s a feint hint of The Saints’ soul-punk explorations lurking beneath the surface throughout several songs. The band peaks on “Bedazzler”, an almost perfect recreation of anthemic early-’70s glam rock a la T-Rex and Gary Glitter. I don’t know why songs like this can’t be hits anymore, but it’s a damn shame. The only song I didn’t really connect with is the Badfingers-style ballad “Pictures”, which is decent but not affecting enough to warrant it’s spot among all those upbeat rock tunes. Even with that one miss, Stag’s opening volley has something exciting for people who like their rock fun and pretension-free.