Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » January
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The shoegaze sound reigned supreme in England from the late 1980s through the early 1990s as bands like Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Lush, The Boo Radleys, and Chapterhouse, to name just a few, had decent commercial success, some even denting the UK top 40. That phenomenon quickly gave way to Britpop, however, and groups either tweaked their sounds to stay relevant or quickly faded away. In America, though, shoegaze was never very big, clearly playing second fiddle to the grunge scene. As a result, a subculture of sorts began to emerge as Anglophile bands like Black Tambourine, Lilys, The Ropers, Springhouse, Drop Nineteens, and Smashing Orange all made great records and developed devoted followings.

Today, shoegaze (or neo-shoegaze, if you will) is as strong as ever in the US. Heavier sounding bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and A Place To Bury Strangers have had strong commercial and critical success, while indie labels like Loveless and clairecords have remained true to the faith for many years, keeping those fans in-the-know very happy. That latter imprint is responsible for putting out two of the more accomplished American shoegaze records in recent years as a result of working with Tears Run Rings, a collective including Laura Watling, Ed Mazzucco, Tim Morris, and Dwayne Palasek, all formerly of The Autocollants. They’re joined by Matthew Bice, who formed acclaimed indie label Shelflife with Mazzuco.

Since the group’s spread over the West Coast in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, they record via file sharing. Despite that less than organic approach, it’d be tough to argue with the results. Their 2008 debut Always, Sometimes, Seldom, Never was full of engaging melodies, shimmering guitars and wide open hypnotic tones –  a stunning update on the heavenly sounds of groups like Slowdive and Kitchens of Distinction.

Distance even avoids the sophomore slump. In fact, the album could almost be viewed as a sequel to Always, Sometimes, Seldom, Never. Like its predecessor, the album is bookended by two lush mood-setting instrumentals, “Happiness 3” and “Happiness 4.” “Reunion” is heightened by some very Ride-like melodies and fuzz guitar galore, while “Forgotten” shimmers like a cross between early Slowdive and, strangely enough, Joy Division/New Order (the mesmerizing bass sounds are Peter Hook-inspired). Even the title track’s a magnificent work of art as Tears Run Rings are able to encompass everything endearing about the shoegaze genre.

In a world, musical and otherwise, that seems to be developing a “post-” something or every passing day, the genre most popularly described as post-rock seems now to be appropriate for soundtracks in which only chords and instrumentation can truly capture a feeling or a story. No more words.

Well, Taiwan, you have a good representative of this beautiful, wordless rock ’n’ roll genre in Aphasia, to be sure. The four piece from Taipei have been around in some form or another since the 1990s, but The Crocodile Society of Aphasia is their North American debut LP (originally released in 2008, it is just now receiving distribution here with a little help from Arts & Crafts). Coming on the heels of the band’s first work, soundtracking the 2007 Taiwanese independent film Summer’s Tail, Aphasia shows how far they’ve come from succinct instrumentalists to living, breathing, feeling musical storytellers.

Beginning with “Behind the River,” the record’s tone is set immediately to evoke substantial emotion. The slow, steady picking of the lead guitar is a reticent opening of a story into the ears and then into the mind. Its repetitive build is soon swooped over by high-altitude backing guitar work. The two play a sweet musical game until a final strum-strum-strum builds into a heavy electric guitar and gives way to a distorted finale.

“Deep Spring,” “Rainy Season,” and “Graduate Travel” (yes, the slow and tender songs have aloof, poetic coffeehouse names) are all cut from the same cloth, yet deliver different musical messages with discreet nuances.

“Deep Spring” reaches its heaviest point earlier than the other aforementioned songs, before meandering through guitar chord-dom and drum-rolls. “Rainy Season” actually sounds like sitting through a rain storm, although the rain showers in Taipei are apparently vastly inspiring and damn frightening at points. The song’s guitar-bass-cymbal droplets from its intro swell to a maelstrom. The wonderment-cum-guitar spaciness on “Graduate Travel” lead to a deep and brutal guitar swirl only to break down into studied drum and guitar call-and-response.

But the band can mix it up, tossing in challenging musicianship that ranges from the speedy epic “MetalTank” to the progressive poppiness on “The Freedom Highway.” “This is a Go” is an inspired and jagged version of grunge repositioned in the musical genre canon. And in “Good Morning! Taipei” the quartet closes the album with the crawl and creep of multiple instruments’ reverb, lost in the musical mist. The guitar and drums play an innocent game before pointing toward the heart and a crescendo, then plummet into a barrel-roll of guitar-bass effect and into the greatness of Aphasia’s musical society.

The influence behind the project was simply everyday life and the way it works in modern Taipei – it’s a Crocodile Society, if you will. Just like the record, sometimes it seems to drone on forever, following some rote pattern. But an introspective look and listen can reveal the nooks, crannies, and tales played out by guitar, drum, bass, and some pedals. It’s the perfect way to tell the story of one post-rock band’s musical perspective in this post-modern world.

There’s a scene in Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There where Julianne Moore plays a particularly impassioned Joan Baez-like folk singer staring at the world in a haze. The shot in the film is directed out at the audience with the peculiar visionary stare that Ms. Beaz made so popular. The passion or almost rapture that Greenwich Village’s folkies brought out seems like a distant memory today. It’s a little shocking, though, to see someone of our contemporary era given license to emulate a peroid so tumultuous yet so creative. The seriousness of the Villages’ politics and the zeal which their folk troubadours enunciated such values has rattled and rolled folk music ever since. Such a face became the image of folk and those trapped between the Pacific and Atlantic heard little of Bert ​​​​​​​Jansch, Anne Briggs (who might have been more impassioned than even Ms. Baez)​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​, and others in Europe’s folk movement.

Ólöf Arnalds​​​​​​​​​​, an Icelandic woman, is helping to bring such a face of folk forward. Her peculiar vision of folk shares qualities with Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, but where Newsom leaves room in her lyrical mansions for contemplation, Arnalds fills a song with her unique qualities. “Vinkonur” sounds startlingly like Newsom’s work, only Arnalds’ voice is tempered in remarkably different ways. Her lyrics are the song’s center, and the compositions don’t diddle; these are songs cut with the precision of a rock band. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​”Jonathan” is all meadows and springs, bells perk up, refrains climb flowered hills, and Arnalds isn’t going to let anything spoil her mood in this spare four minutes of splendor.

Arnalds also dispenses with the necessity of English: in her lips, Icelandic is a language that’s accented vowels and rumbling consonants produce cadences​ that English’s brutish puritanical lips can not imagine​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. It is a language that desires in smoke trails,​ that’s octaves tear at the listener in beautiful refrains, that’s very waveform suggests liberties the American accent ignores​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​. It just sounds cool and, at times, the foreign tongue and pentangle instrumentation really do sound like a Harry Smith European folk anthology.

Arnalds’ instrumentation is more straight ahead than Newsom’s. These songs aren’t tapestries with secret rooms rather like Anne Briggs; Arnalds prefers a more straight ahead approach. The songs all seem to lead back into her gaze – they need her. Innundir Skinni is, in general, a needy album: it needs you attention, it needs your love, it needs you to listen to each and every song with rapt attention. While a few of these numbers, such as “Crazy Car,” could be cut, the album as a whole is a sonic world that simplifies many of the complications found in folk in the past few years.

Touches of Nick Drake drift through these songs; film soundtracks are made but the images are lost, snow falls in this forest, things get dark, the gates open, we ride unicorns through the snow, it is a wonderland. What made emo not work was the waiting, it was that the songs needed patience, but Arnalds’ folk can make two minutes of wordless wonder into a slow progression leaving you wanting more. Patience is a virtue in her music. The success of Newsom and Banhart will bring to light others in their scene, but Ólöf  Arnalds does make her jewels precious if not as jarring as her genre’s leaders.

Welcome to The Punch Line. On a monthly basis (content and lifestyle permitting), I’ll be reporting on all the new developments in that staggeringly broad world that has come to be known as “indie comedy,” whether it be big-budget concert DVDs and CDs, feature films and TV series, or self-released stuff taped at the local chuckle hut. Documentaries and books will be covered as well, regardless of the amount of lip moving it may require on my part. [Comedians and labels out there: if you’ve got something you think I might like, hit me up here care of Skyscraper.]

2010 was a good year for indie comedy fans. Big guys like David Cross (pictured above), Paul F. Tompkins, and Brian Posehn released new albums, while Louie C.K. launched a hit TV show (Louie on FX), Patton Oswalt issued a memoir (Zombie Spaceship Wasteland), and Zach Galifianakis continued his transformation into a full-fledged Hollywood movie star (The Hangover, Due Date, Dinner for Schmucks). Veteran comedians and life-long metalheads Jim Florentine and Don Jamieson made the most of their talents for five seasons on That Metal Show and new jacks like Hannibal Buress and Kyle Kinane released debuts. Don’t even get me started on Todd Barry opening for Superchunk. Like I said, things have been good. Of course, Greg Giraldo’s passing does cast a bit of a shadow on the proceedings, but for the most part the laugh fodder has been ample.

It’s been interesting to see how comedy and music had each other’s back as their respective trades take the hit financially. The new David Cross record is on Sub Pop (as was the last Patton Oswalt effort) and Posehn continues to assert his metaldom by dropping discs on Relapse. All of these heavyweights bring solid material to the table. For those of you who like to judge a book by its cover, BRIAN POSEHN’s Fart and Weiner Jokes should be your kind of disc. Don’t get it twisted: this isn’t a Blue Collar Comedy Tour low-brow kind of vibe, but baser subjects are soundly addressed, including but not limited to masturbating while cuddling, wives who fart and blame their husbands, weed, and the invocation of Slayer to negate homosexual acts. It’s worth checking out, even if Posehn insists on recording metal tunes with bros like Chris Adler from Lamb Of God and the oddly ubiquitous Scott Ian. Luckily, those tracks are sequestered at the end of the album.

DAVID CROSS has taken six years to release a new record, though he certainly has not been idle, appearing in scads of movie and TV roles. He has returned to the recorded medium with a release called Bigger and Blackerer, which appears in three different formats – a TV version followed by CD and DVD releases – each containing exclusive content.  The show came on the heels of a month-long sold out theater residency in London, and Cross brought his A-game to the packed Boston crowd.  Usual Cross touchstones of drugs and religious material are present, along with newer jokes about Skymall, Coors Light, and a couple DVD bonus clips from 2004. Watch and listen to all three.

Speaking of consuming in threes, upstart internet comedy engine A Special Thing Records offered a three-fer of comedy EPs including PAUL F. TOMPKINSYou Sir Have Fooled Me Twice, GREG PROOPSProops Digs In, and Fossil Record by DAN TELFER. It’s a pretty decent trifecta. Tompkins is always great, sort of a West Coast (yes, I know he’s from Philly) Todd Barry, albeit with a smoother delivery. This EP is extra stuff from the recording that yielded another AST release, Freak Wharf. I was only really familiar with Proops through Whose Line Is It Anyway, a program I utterly loathe. Had I known he was as smart and bitter as he is, though, I would have signed on sooner. Proops is another Los Angeleno, although he started off in San Francisco. His mindset is much more Northern Californian and, consequently, Hollywood sacred cows are skewered. Wonderfully enough, there’s nary a bit of improv. Call that a win. Bringing up the rear in the show slot is Dan Telfer, a Chicagoan who seems to specialize in the science end of sci-fi. Not as bad as it sounds – and he hates geese, which is a huge plus personally – but may fall on the bad side of the nerd comedy tracks down the line. He plays the nerd middle ground between the Oswalt-ian comic fan and the Posehn-ian metal vibe, that of course being Star Wars and Voltron. Worth a look.

More of a sure thing is HANNIBAL BURESS (pictured left) and his My Name Is Hannibal. He’s from Chicago, has written for SNL over the last few years, and is now on the 30 Rock writing team. In his off time, he has a regular gig at the Brooklyn Knitting Factory and does stand-up akin to the set captured on this record. It’s truly good, covering interpersonal relations and the benefits of owning metal arms. The pickle juice material kinda fucks with me, but I think that’s more a reflection of my own issues than anything else. Get it from the good folks at Stand Up! Records and revel in the fact that Hannibal and Slipknot have now shared a record label.

Another guy from the Midwest I’m digging is KYLE KINANE. Naming all the tracks on his debut, Death Of The Party, after the tracks on Cheap Trick’s Dream Police (1979) was a step in the right direction. He backs it up for the most part, although let’s not run with the idea that Death is a comedic Dream Police equivalent. He’s good, sort of an indie rock Brian Posehn with a Mitch Hedberg spin on things.

For those of you who enjoy comedy documentaries, the BILL HICKS portrait, American: The Bill Hicks Story, is a must-see. Initially a BBC program, it follows Hicks from his days as a teen tearing up the Houston comedy scene through to his rise to fame and tragic death from cancer at age 32. No US deal as yet for the feature, but there’s a trailer and more info out there. Stateside Bill Hicks fans should check out the new Rykodisc CD/DVD set called The Essential Collection. It’s got two DVDs of unreleased video stuff as well as a two-disc unreleased live set. Both American and The Essential Collection are authorized by the Hicks family, if that’s of concern to you.

That’s my time, but tune in soon for more comedy coverage….

Photo of David Cross: Ryan McGinley

They’re 40 minutes late when I receive a text message from the band’s tour manager. “We’re at the Holland Tunnel. Hit a little rough traffic. Be there soon.” I’m sitting in the near-empty back room of the Cake Shop, a café by day and arguably the best small venue on New York’s Lower East Side at night. They’re playing the same T. Rex record on infinite loop.

When the band arrives, bassist Mike Lightning and drummer Darkus Bishop get out of the van and shake my hand. Wesley Patrick Gonzalez, singer and guitarist, needs to rest his voice. The band just got in from D.C. and tonight’s show at the Bowery Ballroom marks their second straight gig with American labelmates Superchunk.

I offer to buy the pair drinks. Bishop goes in for a coffee. Lightning, upon discovering there’s nothing in the way of juice on the menu, opts for an iced tea, something the Briton can’t quite wrap his mind around. “In America,” I inform him, “we put ice in everything.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but it sounds like a good thing to say.

This is the last leg of a fairly short tour for the London-based band. “Only about two weeks,” Lightning explains. “The main reason we came out was to do a record.” Adds Bishop, “We did gigs to make it worthwhile to come over.” New York is only a brief pit stop, though.  It’s off to Chicago tomorrow for eight days of recording. “What’s in Chicago?” I ask. Of course, I know the answer to the question. “Steve Albini’s in Chicago,” Bishop responds. It’s an obvious answer, particularly amongst musicians who came of age after the release of Surfer Rosa (1988) and In Utero (1993). “Bands like the Pixies and Nirvana influenced everybody,” Lightning says simply. “It’s the same for us.”

Not bad for a second record, particularly given the fact that its predecessor, In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s (Merge, 2009), a titular wink to King Crimson’s 1969 debut, was recorded, in all places, below what band members insist is the only music store in the whole of Europe stocking just ukuleles. Well, almost. “They’ve got a few banjos,” Bishop interjects. “Underneath there’s a studio, and that’s where we record – that’s where, up until now, we’ve recorded everything.” “The guy who runs it is friends with a lot of our friends,” explains Lightning. “It’s not just a basement. When we were younger, we didn’t have any money and he gave us a really good deal.”

There were a handful of EPs and a couple of singles, the latter of which all involved have chosen to forget. “Now it seems [they] are quite rare and hard to find,” Lightning adds. “They’re just crap things we did ages ago.” Fast, fun, and funny, those early releases are the sort of thing one doesn’t come across too often in a scene with the unfortunate habit of taking itself far too seriously at nearly every turn. “After doing a few singles, EPs and things, the album just naturally came about,” Lightning tells me. “At that point, we actually knew what we were doing, and the songs were better. It’s good to wait.”

I tell the pair I’d read somewhere that they’d gone into the studio with the intention of recording a punk record. “It kind of is,” Bishop responds. “I think it was kind of intended to be a real, real punk record,” Lightning quickly interjects, adding, “and we just got kind of full of ourselves, musically.” “Yeah, yeah,” Bishop adds. “We got hanging ‘round with organs. There was just shit around the studio.”

“Yeah,” adds Lightning again. “I think it’s very difficult to believe the hype when people keep saying you’re a punk band. The three of us are very punky, but you kind of want to say, ‘Well, actually, no. Fuck you. We’re like the Beach Boys.’ You go into a studio thinking, ‘We’re going to be punk.’ But when you actually get there, you decide, ‘No, actually, the Beach Boys are better.’ “

The band, it seems – lead signer Gonzales in particular – subscribe to the notion that the last thing written is, in fact, the best. “Some songs on the record we wrote the morning we recorded them,” explains Lightning. “‘Diana’s Hair,’ for example, just kind of came together when we started recording.”

“There are a hell of a lot of songs that never even made it,” Bishop continues. “I couldn’t even name them.” “Wes is the songwriter,” says Lightning. “He’s incredibly prolific. Even now, we came out to America with one idea of what the next record was going to be and since we’ve come out, the order and songs have changed three or four times. They’ll probably change again before we get to Chicago.”

It’s a process that has the habit of pushing songs out of the group’s set list before they’re recorded or even fully formed. And even though Let’s Wrestle is about as far away from that ukulele store basement as possible for record number two, the ensemble still foresees the possibility of re-writing – or at least re-arranging – under the watchful and sometimes moody eye of Albini. It’s something afforded them by choice of lodging. “We’re also staying in the studio,” Bishop says, referring of course to Albini’s Electrical Audio. “So there’s going to be no escape. The moods are going to be running kind strange.”

And while the surrounding and circumstances are quite different, Lightning insists the band’s successes haven’t done much to alter Gonzales’ source material. “I think it’s a similar subject matter. It’s pop songs masking misery in different ways. I think you’ll be surprised. It is quite miserable. It’s not Radiohead, but it’s quite miserable. This is going to sound kind of pathetic, but I think any kind of emotion is fuel to a successful band and successful songwriting. Wes would probably say the same thing. He’d say it a bit more eloquently, probably, than ‘emotion makes good songs.’”

As for the sound, Bishop is championing that old punk sound again. Meanwhile, Lightning – who announced shortly after recording this album that he’d be leaving the band to return to school – tosses out the word “professionalism” to the chagrin of the drummer. “There’s been a real change in the way we’re playing music,” he tells me. “There’s a level of professionalism, perhaps, that comes from being on tour for so long.”

“I don’t know if you mean ‘professionalism,’” Bishop responds. “It’s tighter.”

No gospel choir on this record? I ask.

“No,” Bishop answers, simply enough. “That would be cool, though.”

Photos: Pat Graham

Some things change and some things seemingly do not. Japanese all-female, pop-punk trio Shonen Knife have made only moderate adjustments since forming in 1981.

Over the years there’ve been personnel shifts – vocalist/guitarist Naoko Yamano is the sole surviving original member – and some stylistic alterations. The band’s gone from adorable amateurism to Ramones-like perseverance. But Shonen Knife’s weathered fad-conscious hipsterdom. In the early 1990s the band was championed by American indie artists Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Redd Kross as their brand of punkified pop became mainstream – the band has not, and their brief stop at a major label (Virgin) didn’t last. Their English releases are now handled by Good Charamel Records, which distributes many Japanese music endeavors and was started in 2003 by former The Goo Goo Dolls’ bassist Robby Takac.

Despite a lower profile, though, Shone Knife has remained busy. They had a successful 2009 North American tour as documented on the recently distributed DVD, Live at Mohawk Place 2009. Last year Charamel brought out an English-language version of the 2007 Japanese-language record, Fun! Fun! Fun!. That was followed by this English-language rendition of Free Time, formerly issued as a Japanese-only edition in early 2010, as well as a return to the States for a tour.

Free Time, a 13-track, 45-minute outing, finds Shonen Knife on familiar ground. Yamano crafts songs related to her standard topics: sweets (“Rock’n’ Roll Cake”), cute animals (“Capybara,” concerning the world’s largest rodent), fanciful creatures (“Monster Jellyfish”), playing music (“Do You Happen to Know” and “Star”) as well as the mundane incidents of daily life (“An Old Stationary Shop”).  The question some may ask is can a 30-year-old pop-punk band keep anyone interested with yet another assortment of basic riffs, clear-cut rhythms and willfully naive lyrics? Shonen Knife fans probably will say yes, others who bought Let’s Knife (1993) or Pretty Little Baka Guy (1986) may not see the sense of buying this newer material, though.

Over the years, Yamano has shifted from childlike, punked-up pop to material reflecting her fondness for hard rock. So, while the guitar riffs are more confident and technically precise than in the 1980s, and the rhythm section (bassist Ritsuko Taneda and latest drummer Emi Morimoto) maintain an effective, straight-up rock beat, the music now seems less charming and more journeyman-like. For example, remove the vocals from “Rock’n’Roll Cake” and there’s a pedestrian, indie rock arrangement. But Yamano’s broken English and lyrics about making her ideal desserts provide a Shangri-Las meets Weezer-esque demeanor. There’s a bit of the same foundation on “P.Y.O. (Pick Your Own),” a catchy ditty regarding the selection of a favorite flavor, which evokes followers such as Dressy Bessy or Cub.

Hard rock with whizzing bass lines, upfront drums and guitar amps turned up to ten permeate several pieces. A current-events diatribe, “Economic Crisis,” begins with brooding bass before pummeling eardrums with a hardcore stance similar to Bad Religion. It might appear incongruous to hear Yamano scream about worldwide recession while slashing out blistering guitar lines – her solo shows she’s obviously been practicing to the Epitaph imports that no doubt are part of her CD collection – but the track proves Shonen Knife is not stuck in a rut.

By contrast, the quirky, Kinks-ish “An Old Stationary Shop” focuses on a mom and pop shop in Yamano’s neighborhood. The cut includes psychedelic-pop guitar, a Ringo Starr-type backbeat and writing that shares Ray Davies’ sentimental affections. Another nod to 1960s pop shows up during the Merseybeat-tinged “Love Song” during which Yamano explains why she doesn’t write romantically-inclined tunes. “Love songs are all over the place, ‘cause people in the world like you listen to love songs/I don’t know, maybe I have a strange mind/‘I need you, I want you,’ musty phrases embarrass me.”

Free Time soaks in progressively, though. Taken in its entirety for the first time, the disc doesn’t have the sort of impact classic Shonen Knife undertakings possess. But ingested in small doses, cut by cut, and listened to with some attention, the subtle enticements sink in – the fuzzy guitar underlining “Star” or folksy acoustics that underpin amiable sing-a-long “Capybara.”

There are two bonuses as well. One is the initial Japanese-sung performance of “Rock’n’Roll Cake,” which is more aggressive and slightly faster than the English-language translation. And in a thumbs-up to old-school Britpop, there’s a stripped-down, eight-bit electronics rendering of “Capybara” ending the program and taking the notion of whimsical to a whole new level.

Naiveté can be a beautiful thing. Plenty of stellar albums have been made by would-be musicians with little knowledge of the equipment at their disposal, just a wide-eyed desire to produce something magical. From Sam Phillips’ early experiments in echo-laden rockabilly to The Ramones’ incendiary proto-punk, artists from all genres have overcome their limitations to create music of stunning depth and originality. Holed up in a tiny studio with a bunch of instruments she’d never played before, former WEAVE! drummer/vocalist Nicole Turley has come close to doing just that on this debut Swahili Blonde LP. Channelling the twin spirits of Beefheart and Zappa, Man Meat is a percussion-heavy slice of funk-infused psych-jazz with roots in dub, no wave, and Krautrock.

Opener “Elixor Fixor” is a brooding near-instrumental, all haunting aahhhs and crash cymbals railing against bass-heavy riffs, while album highlight “La Mampatee” cold filters Studio 54’s sleaze-disco through layers of lysergic garage. Fusing Haight-Ashbury psychedelia with the good-time funk of The Fatback Band’s Street Dance, Man Meat is a free-form blur of styles and genres. Jumping from bruising indie-dance lifted straight off New Order’s hard drive (“Red Money”), to late 1960s blues-rock packed with Cream-era Clapton riffs (“Dr Teeth”), to a bad trip through The Lion King soundtrack (“Tiny Shaman”), it’s a startling album indeed.

A classically trained dancer, Turley made the transition to music when she was invited by a close friend to join a new band in the making. Told that her lack of experience wouldn’t be a problem, Turley’s natural affinity for rhythms, patterns, and beats made her the ideal choice for drummer with Seventh Sea. When the band folded, Turley did spells behind the kit with Blood Everywhere, Licorice Piglet, Black Umbrella, and WEAVE! before embarking on work as Swahili Blonde.

Initially conceived as a DIY project in which Turley would write, play, record, and mix everything herself, Swahili Blonde soon evolved into a collaborative effort featuring a stunning array of musicians. Guest appearances from Turley’s partner and former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, violinist Laena Myers-Ionita (The Like), bass player John Taylor (Duran Duran), and multi-instrumentalists Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) and Michael Quinn (Corridor) add some much needed structure to Man Meat‘s off-kilter avant-rock.

It’s not perfect by any means; at times Turley’s ideas feel underdeveloped. Through sheer imagination, though, she has crafted a playfully inventive album with far more highs than lows. Juxtaposing the unconventional and the commonplace, Swahili Blonde’s debut is a vibrant exploration of percussion-heavy jazz-pop interwoven with child-like experimentation.

The Trip is the first solo undertaking from the elegant and studiously measured voice of Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. The effort begins with “One Million Year Trip,” the opening bars of which seem to allude, consciously or not, to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Crisp, cool, and characteristically dispassionate, Sadier’s music initially risks lapsing into sonic wallpaper. Lacking any visceral qualities, her undeniably lovely delivery sometimes undermines the content of the music here. But that’s how Stereolab always operated, too.

Take a sweet, simple song like “The Girl From Ipanema,” for example – territory which Sadier and Stereolab owe and pay significant respect. Despite Astrud Gilberto’s plain, even awkward delivery, the slight tune remains ripe with passionate intensity, a characteristic often missing on The Trip. It’s a relief when, on a sleek, slow song like “Fluid Sand,” guitars and drums finally crash in. If passion isn’t found in Sadier’s delivery, it needs to sneak in occasionally through the music accompanying it.

So you write a review up to this point only to learn Sadier forged this album partly in response to her sister’s recent suicide. How then do you respond to this information? What additional light, if any, does this fact throw upon your listening experience? What level of reconsideration do you owe the proceedings? Can some of that passion missing from Sadier’s almost clinical delivery be found in her lyrics? Yes, it can. “My little sister’s voice / Forever muted, inaudible,” she sings on the opener. “She went on a million year trip / And left everything behind.”

Now, despite the casual tone and pace of Sadier’s voice, the lyrics pierce. Their breeziness proves brutal. This isn’t just another Stereolab album, even as you’ll certainly hear that band’s unmistakable influence. It’s an elegant and thoughtful effort, laced with grief and steadily reflected upon.

The aforementioned “Fluid Sand” surprises, too, when Sadier sings calmly of “a type of suicide,” referring not only to her sister’s untimely death but also to her own failure to live life to the fullest. It’s fair then to say, Sadier’s dispassionate pitch and pace match the material quite appropriately. And when “Fluid Sand” does jolt to life, there’s more meaning to that awakening than may appear at first listen.

Amidst the original material, Sadier tosses in a few brief instrumentals allowing subtle shifts in mood. She also tenders a handful of covers, including a relatively jaunty version of “By the Sea,” initially performed by Wendy and Bonnie, as well as the highlight, “Un Soir, Un Chien,” a chilly, intentionally anachronistic chanson in the Serge Gainsbourg vein. Her rendition of “Summertime” slips in at under two minutes, delivering the standard calmly without a scintilla of passion Ella or Billie would’ve given it. Ah well, we shouldn’t expect her to break out of her refined delivery. After all, she has expectations to keep.

Sadier’s voice remains a gorgeous thing throughout The Trip. New listeners and long-time fans shouldn’t be surprised the singer can deliver such an immaculate product here: beautiful music for the chronically disaffected among us.

Before the advent of the magical entity we call the interwebs, the world of hardcore punk was a mysterious one, the black arts of which were passed on via the underground in a convoluted version of telephone. Radio played a big part in spreading the word, as did touring bands. But, as the touring circuit for punk rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s was hardly the replacement for backpacking through Europe that it has become today, the fanzine became the means by which the punk thirsty for knowledge discovered other, presumably more idyllic, scenes far from their maddening towns.

Early on in the punk movement, British fanzines like Mark Perry’s Sniffin Glue and Shane MacGowan’s Bondage served as mediums for spreading punk rock’s message. On this side of the pond, Legs McNeil and his Punk zine partners John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn spread the disease from the island stronghold of Manhattan, with L.A upstarts Flipside and Slash soon following suit on the West Coast. All these things codified punk rock for the average curious punter. With that regimentation came editorial opinion and the ushering in of the now time-honored debate as to what is truly “punk,” or at the very least “good.”

Fast-forward to the American Midwest: 1979. Three years in, punk rock had been around long enough Stateside to morph into an American subset deemed “hardcore punk,” a sect that could be argued to distill the movement down to a more music/less fashion driven entity. That is not to say that the players were King Crimson worshipping musos, but suburban Midwestern youth who didn’t have the luxury of dying their hair blue and ditching town for London or L.A. yet still wanted to purge their inner bile did so through menacing yet strangely everyman bands like The Fix, Negative Approach, and The Necros.

East Lansing, Michigan, punk Bob Vermuelen made his initial mark on the zine scene with 999 Times, appropriately enough completely about the London punk progenitors. Fellow Lansing homeboy Dave Stimson fell for punk in Michigan but upped stakes to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he immersed himself in punk records and skewered sacred cows via Lehigh Valley punk rag Invasion.

Stimson eventually returned home to Lansing, where he took photography and art classes at the local community college. Vermeulen was paying the bills as an elementary schoolteacher. After a chance encounter with Stimson resulted in a prolonged spate of drinking, show-going, and record buying, the idea of doing a fanzine was posited, then undertaken. Dubbed Touch And Go, the zine was financed by Vermeuelen (now going by Tesco Vee to avoid issues with his day job) through his school salary and laid out by Stimson at the community college photo lab. Vee printed T&G #1 in a short run using the school Xerox machine and the rest was history.

Over the course of the four years and 21 issues that followed, Touch & Go documented the Midwestern scene. In doing so, they also talked a lot of shit and eventually fostered the record label of the same name. Touch & Go Records released early material by Midwestern hardcore stalwarts The Fix, The Freeze, and Vee’s band The Meatmen. The first T&G release was from Maumee, Ohio, juggernauts The Necros, whose bassist Corey Rusk was mentored both literally and figuratively as a wee punker by Stimson and Rusk. Rusk eventually paired with Vee to run the label from 1981 to 1983. When Vee and his wife relocated to the Washington, D.C., area, the label helm was passed to Rusk, who relocated the operations to Chicago and continues to run the label’s limited operation to this day.

Thirty years on from the initial production of entities called Touch & Go, The Fix vocalist Steve Miller (no relation to the Space Cowboy) has joined forces with Stimson and Vee to produce an amazing anthology of the complete 1979-1983 run of Touch and Go fanzine. Published in phone book sized form by music nerd wet dream come true Bazillion Points (itself an independent entity founded by renowned rock scribe Ian Christie), Touch And Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83 reproduces each of the issues in full, along with issues of 999 Times, essays, and 20 or so pages of period flyers and correspondence. Stimson, Vee, Miller, and Rusk all contribute remembrances, as do contemporaries John Brannon, Henry Rollins, and Ian MacKaye. Still others who have been influenced by Touch And Go pay tribute, including Chunklet publishing and design magnate Henry Owings, who will hopefully drop his long gestating tome on Amphetamine Reptile Records in this book’s wake.

Readers hoping for Christigau or Bangs-ian insight should be advised that these DIY journals are very much the product of the Midwestern scene and the two (young, drunken. loudmouthed) men who produced it. In other words, be prepared for scathing diatribes about clubs, labels, and, in some cases, obscure people who no longer exist and were hardly of influence then, backboned by a stiff sexual and scatological underpinning that may shake the average MRR reader to the core. Your potential issues aside, great interviews abound and there are scads of record and show reviews. Local pride has T&G championing the likes of Necros, Minor Threat, and The Freeze in their pages, but one can also scratch a chin to their admirable yet curious championing of Clock DVA and Big Country.

Those that are not of the mouth-breathing record collector set should fear not. Touch And Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83 is an entertaining read regardless. Scene drama rears its ugly head over the four years, as do the issues that arise from having an actual bank robber as a correspondent. Armchair punk historians will find such material engrossing, but Touch And Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83 is just as compelling for its collection of period artwork and photography. Raymond Pettibon, Pushead, and Naomi Petersen all appear in the pages, alongside DIY ads for then up-and-comers like Glen E. Friedman. Regardless of your angle of approach, Touch And Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83 is an amazing work that will appeal equally to the average fan or the total rock nerd. Respect due to all the parties involved in its initial publication and present day props are to be lauded on Bazillion Points for keeping DIY music publishing alive with amazing, high quality releases like these.

Crocodiles are a duo from San Diego consisting of Charles Rowell and Brandon Welchez (formerly of the post-hardcore band The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower). Though they hail from temperate climates, their acclaimed 2009 debut Summer Of Hate was definitely no Beach Boys, theramin-heavy, sunshine trip. Rather, it owed much, much more to the dark, druggy sounds of icons such as Suicide, Spacemen 3, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Summer Of Hate‘s “I Wanna Kill,” “Refuse Angels,” and its title track boast spooky tremolo, brutal beats, nasty feedback, and most importantly, they’re catchy as hell. Sleep Forever isn’t a huge departure from the debut, however.  And like Summer, Sleep Forever contains only eight songs and clocks in under 35-minutes – the band again refusing to waste time on excess.

Blending together all the influences prominent on Crocodiles’ debut, Sleep Forever adds a tad more experimentation. Tracks like “Stoned to Death” and “Hollow Hollow Eyes” sport Krautrock rhythms pounding like a Mack truck racing down the Autobahn. On the other side of the spectrum, the lovely “Girl In Black” and, especially, the masterful closer “All My Hate and My Hexes Are For You” come off like the dreamier side of Spacemen 3 with hypnotic drones and lush instrumentation (the latter is about the prettiest ‘fuck you’ song you’ll ever hear).

The more typical sounding Crocodiles tracks on Sleep Forever are stone classics, belonging on jukeboxes worldwide. The absolutely fantastic title track (released as a pre-album seven-inch single with a bewitching fuzzed-up cover of Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In the Heart” as the B-side), is ridiculously catchy, bordering on a bubblegum shoegaze nugget sounding like a cross between The Telescopes, Jesus and Mary Chain, and 1960s sunshine pop. The staggering “Mirrors” begins with dreamy drones before soaring to epic heights like the best of The Church or Echo and The Bunnymen. Perhaps the album’s highlight, though, is the infectious “Hearts Of Love,” which combines a catchy melody with a crushing wall of sound capable of putting a huge smile on Phil Spector’s face.

As a companion piece, Fires Of Comparison is a digital-only EP available for free download on the Fat Possum website. All four of these instrumental tracks are as engaging as Crocodiles’ two proper albums. The none-too-subtly titled “Kill Joe Arpaio” attacks the controversial Arizona anti-immigration sheriff with a heady brew of experimental beats and talk show samples, while “A House With Skin Like Yours” explores similar psychedelic ground as The Black Angels. The brief title track is an experimental throwaway, but the EP closes on a high note with the exquisite “Hearts Reprise.”