Thirty-two years after the Olympia, Wash., trio flubbed its first notes on tape, Beat Happening’s amateur appeal remains evergreen. Cherry-picked from albums, EPs, singles, stray tracks and prior compilations, best-of Look Around isolates the bed-headed soul that Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford breathed collective life into. The apparent naiveté of songwriting and lyricism alike was informed by a curdled knowing. This resulted, often, in lo-fi dualities made all the more transfi xing because hooks were never in short supply. Scorched dirge “Nancy Sin” could function as double-dutch staple or blues-club standard; secular jangle homily “Angel Gone” deigns to damn via the faintest empathy. The rickety, Lewis-sung “Foggy Eyes” is a Polaroid of 20-something lovesickness that endures in its stark emotionality. One can imagine young campers singing “Other Side” around a fi re or from opposite ends of a game of Capture The Flag— yet it translates so easily to an adult frame of mind that the line of separation thins. As underground sacred texts go, we could do far, far worse.
Will Johnson’s bottomless well of quality songcraft has obviously not hit a lull since the demise of his quintessential guitar-rock quartet, Centro-matic, last year. On the contrary, Swan City Vampires is almost an extension of the Centro sound, at times fl ailing back to the art-folk quietness of a South San Gabriel record, the alternate moniker of Centro-matic when the amps are down and/or nonexistent.
Opening with the familiar cacophony of sound emitted by Johnson and his guitar in the form of “Paradise, Basically,” the instrumental dissertation sets the tone for what follows sonically. The six-minute-plus “Nameless, But A Lover” leaves plenty of room for sonic drudgery and repartee; his sparse-yetpoignant lyrical motif seemingly says more with wood, wire, ivory and drums than mere words. Ultimately, Johnson does it again, one of the best (and underrated) songwriters of our generation.
Even as an avowed Ty Segall acolyte, I’m having a harder and harder time telling his various projects apart. While Fuzz started out as a means for the garage-rock wunderkind to explore progressive, proto-metal territories, it’s more recently become “the one where Ty plays drums.”
That’s not to say that the simply named sophomore album from the power trio isn’t a monolith. Segall’s lurching rhythms are once again augmented by Charles Moothart’s blistering guitar noise and Chad Ubovich’s thundering bass lines. While Segall dominates vocally, with “Say Hello” and “The 7th Terror” being particularly seething standouts, he’s not afraid to share the spotlight this time around.
Though only mildly collaborative, II is just as thrilling as many of Segall’s finest works. The urgency of Twins and the menace of Slaughterhouse (not to mention the sunbleached psychedelia of Lemons) are all present here. Try as he might, Ty Segall has yet to release an album that doesn’t sound like Ty Segall, and the world’s a better place for it.
French producer Ludovic Navarre scored a major crossover hit with 2000’s Tourist, achieving a sensitive fusion of jazz improvisation with sampling and post-production electronics—while at the same time clinching a certain car-commercial chic that gave listening to the album an unfortunate (if not entirely unpleasant) aftertaste of being marketed to. Fifteen unaccounted-for years later, he’s popped up again to work much of the same marketer’s-dream magic, this time taking the dusty sounds of Malian desert blues—and its delta-bred American cousin—as his primary inspiration and source material.
While that concept, and its execution, are less innovative than they might have seemed a decade ago, the album’s meticulous smoothness belies just how much Navarre takes onto his plate here, and how deft a balancing act he pulls off: weaving together swirling balafons and dry, scraggly ngoni and kora lines with trans-Atlantic peals of blues guitar and harmonica, along with his familiar jazz instrumentation, while nimbly intermingling shuffling African polyrhythms with swing and light-reggae grooves and a soft deep-house undercurrent. It’s world-class vibe-out music, equally well-suited for deep headphone listeners and SkyMall soundtracks alike.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Chills mainstay Martin Phillipps has a lot on his mind on Silver Bullets, the beloved New Zealand outfit’s first album in nearly 20 years. Income inequality and class warfare (“America Says Hello,” seven-minute-plus mini-suite “Pyramid/ When The Poor Can Reach The Moon”), intolerance (“Tomboy”) and love (“Warm Waveform,” “Molten Gold”)—arguably the heaviest subject of all—are dealt with firmly and frankly, couched in Phillipps’ timeless, jangly melodies.
Phillipps is downright angry on the searing “America Sells Hello,” its harder-rocking, urgent tempo quickening as his blood pressure rises: “The everyday people aren’t free, and they know they’re never going to be/With the powerful keeping them hushed as the tyrants get noisy once crushed.” But he’s also endearingly earnest throughout Silver Bullets, and it nearly gets the best of him on the penultimate “Tomboy,” a dramatic, borderline corny tale of gender-based childhood bullying and regret: “It’s a haunting recollection of that schoolyard taunting for a girl who wasn’t weak/I bet her blood was boiling, spoiling for a fight/ We called her tomboy, though we knew it wasn’t right.” Phillipps is so genuine and warm, his heart in the right place, the song ends up being compelling despite any lyrical misgivings.
“Molten Gold” ends the proceedings on a joyous and—dare we say—optimistic note, with Phillipps proclaiming that love has healed him. That’s always good for what ails you, of course, even when— much like Silver Bullets—it can take an eternity to arrive.
Ms. John Soda’s not the most reliable German electro twee-pop group out there, but when the band shows up, it comes to play. For Loom, their third record in 13 years and first since 2006’s Notes And The Like, Stefanie Böhm and Micha Acher have expanded their ranks with a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist, but end up sounding as minimalist as ever. And that’s a good thing, of course. Böhm’s hot, droney vocals remain Ms. John Soda’s most alluring aspect, always whooshing sibilantly over gentle beats and dulcimer melodies. “Sodawaltz” and “The Light” sound like something you’d hear in some freeware Portal mod. “In My Arms” and “Hero Whales” are gorgeous and dancey like vintage Kitty Craft. “Hi Fool” and “Oh Seven” are the oddball hits you wanna play all day.
Urge Overkill was misunderstood in real time; it’s unlikely the band will join Archers Of Loaf or Pavement in the playlists of 20-somethings who crowd-source their underground history (shame, because their reunited incarnation is pretty strong). Truth is, between a bad initial stretch and a really bad flameout, Urge Overkill made an album and an EP of top-shelf whatever-you-want-to-call-it. The opening hit cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” is skippable, but the remainder of Stull makes this the EP in question. They were always ahead of the curve, be it covering a Bloodstains/Killed By Death obscurity (the Alan Milman Sect’s “Stitches”), summoning Crazy Horse for the beautiful “Goodbye To Guyville” (yes, where Liz Phair got the term) or prematurely force-feeding an excellent take on Cheap Trick to the indie underground. This reissue effort is format-focused on bringing the 10-inch vinyl version back into the fold, so while there’s no bonus material, the first 500 do come on white wax.
For almost a decade and a half now, Richard Hawley has been perfecting and refining his own self-contained musical world. It’s one that recalls that twilight period of the late ’50s and early ’60s—just after the initial Technicolor explosion of rock ‘n’ roll and just before the onslaught of the Beatles and the Stones. It’s a world where Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” plays on a permanent loop, the Everly Brothers rule supreme, and Roy Orbison gives hope to the lonely and lovelorn. It’s music that’s unashamedly bruised and romantic. Introspective, poignant and frequently gorgeous; abetted, to great effect, by the erstwhile Pulp guitarist’s burnished, smoldering croon. There’s no wayward excursions into dubstep or industrial metal here—indeed, after 2012’s comparatively raucous Standing At The Sky’s Edge, it’s pretty much business as usual with Hollow Meadows. And that’s a good thing. These are brooding songs of love and loss and life, music for grown-ups in the best possible way, music for people who’ve lived. It might not win any new converts, but Hawley loyalists will love it, and rightly so.
Indie long ago declared its undying love for the Velvet Underground; history lessons are no longer required. But what may represent a slightly less-known chapter of the band’s backstory is the origin of its final recording with Lou Reed, 1970’s Loaded: The album’s title, far from being the drug culture double-entendre that most likely suspected, was instead the band’s tongue-in-cheek reminder-to-self that it was meant to be its hit-single machine, the record its new record company wanted “loaded with hits.”
But being the Velvets, that effort failed—spectacularly—resulting in an album chock-full of some of the most melodic and memorable work the band ever produced (“Who Loves The Sun,” “Rock & Roll,” “Sweet Jane,” “I Found A Reason”) that nonetheless belly-flopped in its quest for an audience beyond its previously established base. It’s entirely likely that you already have this (vinyl, CD, download), but a few reasons to consider plunking down for it again: remastered versions of the 1970 original in both stereo and mono, a newly remastered version of 1972’s Live At Max’s Kansas City (recorded by Warhol crew member Brigid Polk on a portable cassette player and documenting Reed’s final performance with the band), as well as a remaster of the widely bootlegged Live At Second Fret, Philadelphia, 1970, as well as the usual treasure trove of b-sides, demos and working sketches of songs-in-progress.
Even for those among you not necessarily a member of Team Doug Yule and that particular era of the Velvets, this reissue defi nitively covers the fi nal chapter of Reed’s time with the band that not only established his street cred, but launched him headfi rst into his solo career.
It’s a 35-song, five-record boxed set of live Drive-By Truckers recorded over three nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco—if that doesn’t make your dangly bits tingle, I’m not sure what would. The Truckers built their reputation and devoted audience with fi erce, fi ery live shows, road-dogging their way across the globe, spreading the gospel of Southern Lit rock, and It’s Great To Be Alive captures all the gritty glory. It’s Great digs deep in the DBT catalog with long-loved classics like “World Of Hurt” (the song that gives the set its name), and new favorites like “Grand Canyon” get big work-ups, stretching the songs to epic dimensions. It’s Great manages to create a cohesive set that engages the listener at each turn, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been drinking since track one, side one.
—Sean L. Maloney