Skyscraper Magazine » 2011
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Iceland’s Singapore Sling have been around since the beginning of the decade, yet despite having released four full-length albums (six if you count two seven-song mini albums) the group has remained strangely under the radar. Culling their name from an infamous Greek B-movie (not the famous gin-and-juice cocktail), the group brings to mind the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cramps, and 1960s garage rock (the band’s 2002 debut, The Curse of Singapore Sling, contains a fascinating reconstruction of The Standells’ classic “Dirty Water”). At the least, Singapore Sling should have reached the stature of similarly-inclined outfits such as The Raveonettes, The Warlocks, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  Frontman and main songwriter Henrik Bjornsson is easily as talented as the leaders of the aforementioned.

This was not to be, however. Despite an appearance at South By Southwest in 2003 and the release of their first two albums on American imprint Stinky Records, the band failed to make an impact on the US market – and seemingly elsewhere, too. Subsequent efforts, such as Taste The Blood of Singapore Sling (Sheptone/12 Tonar, 2005), Perversity, Desperation and Death (8mm, 2009), as well as a best-of compilation, The Curse, The Life, The Blood (8mm, 2007), were released on obscure European imprints (my wife had to email the band to find some of these releases, as we couldn’t find them anywhere online). The brand new Never Forever appears courtesy of small UK indie Outlier Records.

This latest album is a bit more subdued and darker in places than much of the band’s previous work. Perhaps it is appropriate that the album was released on Friday the 13th! While one can hear some of the group’s usual trademark influences, the overall vibe is moody and desperate, enhanced by booming Bo Diddley-flavored beats and ghostly, hypnotic drones, not unlike classic Krautrock or pioneering NYC art rockers Suicide. Never Forever opens with “The Nothing Inside,” a fuzzy, skull splitting rocker that holds its own with the best of the Singapore Sling’s back catalog. It is quickly followed by slower and scuzzier numbers like “Freaks,” the eerie and hypnotic “Tunnel Vision,” and the masterful “Sleep,” the latter conjuring up a similar slow burning dirty blues vibe to a pair of The Stooges’ Raw Power classics “Gimme Danger” and “Penetration.” The effortless “Take” is a perfect pop single that breaks up the tension a bit, but the overriding theme on Never Forever, as exemplified so well on the stunning near instrumental title track, is one of glorious desperation.

Detholz! first came to my attention when they opened for Bobby Conn at a small club in Brooklyn a few years ago. I hadn’t heard anything about the band (whose name is pronounced “death holes”) prior to the show, and they were a mystery to my friends as well. We were all intrigued by the name, though, with its Germanic undertones and curiously emphatic punctuation, and decided to show up in time to investigate.

New York isn’t kind to opening bands, especially on weeknights. Though the room was small, cluttered and dingy even by the generous leeway accorded to rock clubs, there was plenty of room to move around among the sparse crowd. This didn’t seem to affect what was going onstage, which appeared to be five guys ecstatically banging out staccato, extremely loud post-disco-inflected power jams. There was a curious dynamic going on between the lead singer – whose stern, declamatory motions didn’t stop him from sliding into falsetto croons – and the keyboard player, who delivered big, party- ready lines with an ecstatic abandon, and the lead guitarist – a reedy dude who sporadically sang a delicate counterpoint amidst all the rhythmic hurly burly.

Such was my introduction to one of the strangest and more intriguing bands currently active in the American underground scene.

I bought a record after the show, which turned out to be Cast Out Devils (2006), the band’s second album, and upon listening to it when I got home, discovered that I was dealing with something much deeper and infinitely weirder than a surprisingly dynamite opening act. For one thing, there were the lyrics, which made pointed references to God, prophecy, faith, and revelation. But these weren’t exactly songs of praise – instead they seemed to be full of doubt, the intense, crippling intellectual kind that nearly drove the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard around the bend and which he painstakingly detailed in his book The Sickness Unto Death (1849).

Musically, Detholz! are a world apart from all things religious or abstract. They take much of their DNA from the twitchy, denatured grooves of Devo, but, in a few intensely creepy sing-speak numbers, you could also hear hints of No Means No, and, in the dual vocals and crisp rhythm section, something of the streamlined melodicism of The Cars. With such brazen musical instincts, it takes a while for the meaning of the lyrics to sink in; but once they do, the ground shifts. Though there’s a strong streak of hedonism in Detholz!, the band’s real concerns are thorny matters of the head and heart.

The band’s new record, Death to the Traitor, self-released as a “name your price” download on the site Bandcamp, only complicates things further. Produced by subversive glam rocker and fellow Chicagoan Bobby Conn, the album is a leaner, more stripped-down affair, with a slight but distinct AM-radio-funk vibe. The spoken-word jeremiads, along with the band’s proggier moments, have been jettisoned, replaced with blunt, compact hooks, delivered with an almost obsessive fervor.

Lyrically, Traitor is a departure as well: it’s preoccupied with brute physicality,  blood, hunger, lust, and the manifold other ills that the flesh is prone to. It’s full of surreal violence, sexual deviance, and bodily turpitude, and if anything, only makes the Detholz! project  even harder to decipher. Skyscraper recently caught up with frontman Jim Cooper via email for a lengthy discussion of zealotry, faith, music, and apocalypse.

Skyscraper: Let’s start with the backstory, for those who are unfamiliar with it. When, where, and how did the band form?

Jim Cooper: Detholz! was initially started as a gimmicky social experiment at Wheaton College [west of Chicago], our alma mater, in the fall of 1996.  Wheaton is known as the “Harvard of Christian colleges” and is famous amongst its alumni for its “bubble” – the insular evangelical force field that seems to surround the place, letting nothing in or out of it.  We endeavored to find whom we deemed the “oddest” cartoon characters on campus and start a novelty band, consciously as a joke, unconsciously as a reaction to the environment at school.  In retrospect, I think we wanted to “rattle the cages” a bit.

As it turned out all of the weirdos turned us down, except for one, James Mitchell, a six-foot tall computer programmer who became part of the “conceptual” aspect of the band at the time.  We were high on concept and low on funds; every show had a theme and a back story, replete with props, costumes, et cetera.  The results were admittedly schlocky.  It caught on, though, and Detholz! became a popular draw on campus.

Musically, at the time, we were playing a sort of low-rent surf-rock.  It was pretty jokey and we didn’t take the songs very seriously – they were just means to an end.

However, somewhere along the line, Detholz! tapped into something deeper.  Within religious circles – especially Christian circles – there exists a tension between the “sacred” and the “profane.”  Post-college, some of us fell into one camp or the other, but many of us remained in the middle.  It’s at times confusing to be pulled in both directions at once, even frustrating.  If anything has defined Detholz!’s music over the years, it has been that tension.

To this day I field questions from Wheaton students inquiring about the band, the timbre of which leads me to believe Detholz! has taken on a somewhat mythical quality at the school.  Sometimes I elect not to answer certain questions, preferring instead to let that “mythos” shape itself.

As a disclaimer, while discussing our roots, I want to be clear: we all have very fond feelings towards our alma mater, and it was a fantastic place to receive an education.  Many of the people I met at Wheaton remain my dearest friends to this day and are people I consider to be among the best, brightest human beings I know.  One advantage a religious university offers is that each student is required to deal with big questions about morality, ethics, religion, politics and philosophy every day.  Wherever one jiggles in the conga line from the sacred to the profane, that environment tends to cultivate more thoughtful, wiser people.

Skyscraper: What was your first show, and how did it go?

JC: We played our first show outside on the quad at Wheaton, October 1996.  After a friend of ours dressed as the devil entreated the crowd with a fake severed head in a bag, we wheeled big James out on a gurney, clad in radiation suits and made up like zombies – it was ridiculous.  Upon the first chords of our opening number, James whipped the sheet off and goaded the audience with two metal lightning bolts.  This kind of kitschy schlock would likely seem tame in most places, but at Wheaton at the time, it was a tad scandalous.  In fact, the local police were called, with reports of “satanic worship” occurring on the campus quad. True story.

The cops did show up, but they stayed for the show and all said they enjoyed it immensely.  Unbelievably, none of us got into any trouble, either.

Skyscraper: How did what I’ll call the “mature” Detholz! style develop? How did you go from  a prankish art band playing low-rent surf to the Detholz! we know and love today? Were there any growing pains?

JC: I’d say the more “mature” sound began with the Cast Out Devils set in 2005-2006.  As we moved into our late twenties and early thirties, the gawky, dorky music we’d played in college no longer held much appeal.  A listener put it well in a message to me at the time.  He said something to the effect of: “with so much musicianship under your fingers, why are you wasting your time writing these ridiculous songs?”  We took that to heart.

There was a painful transition period between our first record, Who Are the Detholz? (2001) and Cast Out Devils.  In fact, I consider those transition songs to be the “lost” Detholz! album.  Some of our completist fans archived those songs – many of which only exist in live or demo form – which I posted on the Detholz! mp3 blog a few years ago (cringing inwardly).  Songs from that period lack focus and are hit or miss, as we cast about to find our voice.

That era did produce “Time Travelin’ Peterbilt Semi,” a song which has passed into Detholz! lore as one of our worst/best.  We played it live exactly once and it was such a colossal flop, someone in the audience approached me that night and said Detholz! was the “worst band [she’d] ever heard.”  Ha!

After posting that turkey of a song on the blog, it still gets requested occasionally and seems to have found an audience… I guess that proves that on the interwebs, there’s an audience for anything.

As a sidebar: our favorite bad review as a band is one from the Wilco tour, a paper in Cleveland who wrote that Detholz! unleashed a “tsunami of suckitude.”

Thankfully, we found our stride and are all very proud of Death to the Traitor.  I’d say overall the lesson we’ve learned as musicians and songwriters is to keep it simple.  Unless your name happens to be Frank Zappa, less is always more.

Skyscraper: What other bands have Detholz! members been in?

JC: Since we’ve been around since Moses was in short pants, we’ve all had the opportunity to play in various outfits.  I play bass for Baby Teeth and Bobby Conn, as well as an instrumental collaboration with Shelby Cinca of Frodus and The Cassettes called Travelers of Tyme.  Travelers of Tyme has been busy this year scoring a documentary film, A Second Knock at the Door, as well as numerous commercials and promo spots, including a highly amusing ad campaign for Vidal Sassoon Germany featuring many thin, middle-aged men in turtlenecks with manicured beards.

I have also had the privilege of doing arrangements for Chicago songwriter Daniel Knox, and he and I are planning a live “symphony” at Lincoln Hall in August and are working on recordings as well.  Daniel’s output is relentless.

Jon Steinmeier (our keyboard player) is a musical dynamo and has played with Mavis Staples, Bobby Conn, Mucca Pazza, and has his own amazing and hilarious hip-hop act, Steinomite. Additionally, Jonny is a music director with New Belgium Brewing Company’s “Tour de Fat” festival, which travels the country for half the year.  Our drummer, Andrew, also moonlights in a new band called Cool Blue Kid.

Skyscraper: Obviously, religion has shaped the band quite a bit, especially in the lyrics. Are you all religious dudes?

JC: That is a complex question as all of us have had very complicated relationships with religion and the world that surrounds it.  Without writing you a dissertation, I will say simply that I don’t think any one of us would be comfortable with the label “religious.”  It’s too loaded a term that conjures pejorative associations with our collective past.  Religion and religious imagery appear often in our songs, as I write all of the lyrics and religion constitutes a large part of my background.

And, so we get this out of the way early, let me state for the record: I have zero interest in persuading anyone to alter their religious or non-religious views via Detholz! songs.  That is a fruitless and silly enterprise and, ultimately, an insult to the listener’s intelligence.  Detholz! is not, repeat not, a “Christian” band.

We are just a band, writing songs drawn from our own experiences.  Our experience with religion and evangelical Christianity is one aspect of those experiences but, obviously, it’s a hot-button issue given the aggressive sales tactics of certain American evangelicals.  When you say the word “Christian” a lot of people immediately raise their defense screens, much like they’re answering a call from a telemarketer: “Christian?  Uh-oh.  Are you going to try and convert me?”  I don’t blame them.

Some of us identify ourselves as Christians, others of us do not.  One of our band members is an avowed atheist.  Our individual spirituality or lack thereof is each member’s personal business.  For 15 years, we’ve all gotten along just fine.

Skyscraper: Have religious issues ever caused any problems for you, from religious or non-religious fans? For instance, I read somewhere that at some point there were actually anti-Detholz prayer circles. True? If so, why?

JC: Ha, yes, that is a true story.  It happened when we were still in college outside of a show in the student union.  At the time, our audience on campus was growing – as I mentioned, we had inadvertently tapped into that uneasy space between the sacred and profane.  Those Wheaton Detholz! shows could get pretty wild as students blew off steam.  In retrospect, we were just college kids being college kids – recreating and horsing around in perfectly healthy ways – but the perceived “wildness” of these shows caused concern among the more buttoned-down types at the school.

There’s another funny story related by a friend of ours who was in a theology class at the time.  When the professor inquired about the status of campus art/culture/morality, one student raised their hand and said something to the effect of “I don’t know what to say about art on campus, but there’s this HORRIBLE BAND…”  She was abruptly cut off by the bell.

To answer your question, yes, we have had scrapes over the years, fan vs. band, fan vs. non-fan… even fan vs. fan!  (There was a fist fight that broke out at a show in Lansing when someone yelled some encouragement to us and another fan misinterpreted it as a heckle.  He clobbered him, sending our drummer’s mother flying!)  I could spend all day recounting war stories, so here’s a select few:

Years back, we played a show at Messiah College in Pennsylvania on Ash Wednesday. Messiah is perhaps even more conservative than Wheaton. Our set drew from our second album, Cast Out Devils, which is loosely based on a period in my life when I rejected Christianity outright.  There was a guy who literally went nose-to-nose with me after the show, accusing me of “mocking his faith.”  I thought he was gonna deck me; had I not responded calmly, reassuring him that I understood and respected his views, he probably would’ve!  That was definitely the most unnerved I’ve ever been by the religious tension that can exist at Detholz! shows. As a cherry on top, they wrote an exceedingly snide and negative review of the show in their school paper that got pretty personal, even misquoted me.  We have not been back since.

One last story, on a more positive note: when we did a stint opening for Wilco on their A Ghost is Born tour (2004), I was approached by a pastor from the Cleveland area.  He was struggling in his church, which was in a depressed part of town.  He said, “You know, when you guys started playing, I thought: hey, are they making fun of me?  Then, as your set progressed I realized, no, they aren’t making fun of me, they are me!”  He thanked us and said the set encouraged him that he was not alone in his doubts and misgivings related to matters of faith.

That comment, and others like it over the years, are what keep us coming back to ring the bell.  There’s nothing more satisfying than creating something that’s meaningful to others.

Skyscraper: Do you consider yourselves evangelical at all?

JC: Again, “evangelical” is a loaded term that means different things to different people.  However, I can safely say no, none of us are part of the American evangelical movement.  In fact, many of our songs were born from my perspectives on the dysfunction inherent in American evangelicalism.  I worked in the church for almost a decade and was very much a part of the evangelical world, though I did not personally espouse the views of my employers at the time. But that’s an interview unto itself right there.

Skyscraper: Have you been influenced by Christian bands or music, past and present, at all?

JC: Not really, though we all had our “Christian music” phase as kids (an evangelical rite of passage wherein you throw away all of your “secular” records.  I cringe when I think about it as I had several records that would be worth a fortune today if I still had ’em…).  Sadly, at the time, most Christian music really sucked.  I missed my secular records immediately upon discarding them.

The landscape’s a little different these days with guys like Danielson and Sufjan Stevens, who are openly Christian yet creating viable art that’s not tailor-made to be sold to people who only buy their music at Family Bookstore.

However, I’m a big fan of Larry Norman.  Some of his songs are so wrenching and beautiful, yet contain the most disturbing fire-and-brimstone lyrical content imaginable. “666” is a good example; we sang that song quietly as a band after we finished recording Death to the Traitor, quite by happenstance.  Norman was no saint, though – he cuckolded the guy that “led him to Christ,” stealing his wife and also had a child out of wedlock who he refused to acknowledge.  So it seems, religious or no, humans will be humans after all.

Another great example is The Louvin Brothers – hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, brawling good-old boys who sang like angels about the evils of drunkenness and the wages of sin.

Music and stories like that have had an impact on Detholz! – they represent the tension between the sacred and profane, which is what many of our songs explore.

Skyscraper: How do you handle the conflicts between the intensely secular world of rock’n’roll and your religion?

JC: Heh, that’s been a source of cognitive dissonance.  For 10 years, I worked as a church orchestra director, so most of the time that meant playing at a dive bar ’til two or three in the morning, then driving out to the church a few hours later to conduct the morning’s service.  Navigating between the two universes got a little dizzying sometimes… but again, that would take a whole separate interview to parse out completely.

Skyscraper: Even though you’ve opened for some pretty big acts, you’ve always seemed pretty DIY. Cast Out Devils was self-released and Traitor is only available digitally. Have you ever had any run-ins with the traditional record industry? Ever been tempted to go big-time?

JC: Detholz! has always been fiercely DIY.  Many bands like to claim that their music “defies categorization” but – without meaning to sound arrogant – in Detholz!’s case that is literally true.  We would stick out like a hairy wart on most label rosters these days.  Also, in the current Internet age, there’s not much a label can do for a band that the band can’t do for itself.  Over the years we’ve had a few nibbles from some indie labels but they never panned out.

I suppose if a label were really, really amped about Detholz! – so amped they’d be willing to throw fistfuls of cash in our direction – we’d probably consider it, but shopping labels has never been a priority.  Maybe 15 years ago when we were full of piss and vinegar…

Skyscraper: I first heard of you when I saw you open for Bobby Conn, during his King For a Day (Thrill Jockey) tour in 2007. How did you hook up with Bobby? He’s done some interesting things with religious themes on his records.

JC: I met Bobby initially through Abraham Levitan, my cohort in Baby Teeth.  Shortly thereafter I found myself playing bass in Bobby’s band, touring The Homeland record (Thrill Jockey, 2004) in the U.S. and Europe.  I’ve been sitting in Bobby’s bass chair ever since (with one brief hiatus).  Playing in his band is like being a kid in a candy store for me.  Bobby has been not only a tremendous musical resource and mentor over the years, but a dear friend as well.  He is one of the most exacting songwriters and engineers I have ever seen, willing to spend untold hours adjusting just one or two knobs.  Additionally he and Julie (his wife and musical co-conspirator) and their kids are all fabulous human beings.

Skyscraper: Did his opinions ever clash with yours?

JC: Bobby is an informed guy with strong opinions, but it’s rare we disagree on musical matters – most of the time, his “mission” was akin to ours during the recording process, so things were pretty simpatico.

Skyscraper: And that segues nicely (I hope) into the new record, which Bobby produced. What did Bobby bring to the process?

JC: Without Bobby’s contributions to Death to the Traitor as a producer, engineer, and guest musician, the record would have never happened.  Death to the Traitor belongs as much to Bobby as it does to Detholz!.

We had never worked with a producer before, but after the debacle that was Cast Out Devils – recorded in four or five different studios on as many or more hard drives, none of which were compatible, ugh – we decided we needed to get some fresh ears into the studio.  Long and short: we were worn out.

Bobby was just as exacting with our music as he is with his own.  For a week, we camped up at Bill Skibbe’s Key Club studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and did nothing but sleep, eat, and record.  We gave Bobby total control over all engineering and production decisions and he wove the process into a total dream.  Making Traitor was one of the most satisfying musical experiences of my life, hands down, mostly owing to Bobby’s expertise at the helm.

We are all privileged to have been able to work with someone of Bobby’s caliber and consider Traitor to be our best effort to date.  A word of advice to bands out there: HIRE BOBBY CONN TO PRODUCE YOUR RECORD!

Skyscraper: What happened between Cast Out Devils and Traitor that contributed to the way the record turned out?

JC: Well, a few things: First, I had a “religious reawakening” of sorts, which Death to the Traitor chronicles.  I view it as a sort of “sister album” to Cast Out Devils.  Where Devils chronicles a loss of faith, Traitor chronicles a return to it, albeit an uncertain and gory one.  Interestingly, the imagery on Traitor is much more brutal and macabre than on Devils

Second, we started experimenting with simpler musical devices, like repetitive bass lines, and focused more on rhythm than upon melody/harmony.  In the past, Detholz!’s music could get a little over-cooked and pointy-headed.  We wanted to write songs that were more straightforward musically, at least to us.

Third, Cast Out Devils was written in my mid-twenties during a period when I was intensely angry about the perceived BS that I had had to endure as a result of my religious upbringing and chronicles that struggle, albeit imperfectly.  It posits a very personal question to which Death to the Traitor is the answer.

I won’t wax on about that – it’s very personal for me and I don’t wish to muddy anyone’s reaction/response to the songs by navel-gazing overmuch.  Suffice it to say that the imagery on Traitor is more Grand Guignol than on Cast Out Devils, which happened quite by accident.  Given that it’s about a return to faith, I thought that was interesting.

Skyscraper: What made you decide to release the record via Bandcamp? How has it worked out so far?

JC: Well, these days, no one buys CDs and they’re ridiculously expensive to produce.  We toyed with the idea of pressing vinyl, but it seemed like too much money for too little yield.

Last summer, we moved out of our longtime rehearsal space and did an experiment: at a festival show, we made piles of our merchandise that had accumulated over the years… and gave it all away!  It was amazing; all of the stuff that had been collecting dust in our basement for eight years magically disappeared!

Personally, I love the donation model of Bandcamp.  It allows the fans to participate directly in the business of the band and gives them the power to assign value to the music they listen to.  We’ve employed the “pay what you want” approach at all of our most recent shows.  Between those that pay and those that don’t, it all evens out in the end.  We gave up a long time ago on making money via Detholz! – after 15 years on this carousel, we’re doing it because we love it.

So for bands like us, the Bandcamp model works really well.  If you’re aspiring to be the next Justin Bieber, maybe try something else.

Skyscraper: I’m guessing that standout Traitor jam “Catherine Zeta-Jones” was written before her bipolar thing was announced. Do you look at that song differently in light of that news? What exactly sparked the idea behind the song?

JC: Funny how certain songs seem to stick more than others. “Zeta” is far and away the most popular song on Traitor, and the most highly requested.  Interestingly, it was also the most difficult to record and mix – it almost didn’t make the cut!

That song actually has little to do with the real Catherine Zeta-Jones.  It’s about Robert Hanssen, the worst Soviet spy in American history. Many of the songs on Death to the Traitor explore themes of betrayal, a central concept in historical Christianity. Hanssen was an FBI official who turned traitor and handed government secrets over to the Russians for over 20 years until he was caught in 2001.  Apparently he is/was obsessed with Catherine Zeta-Jones, an odd tic I found fascinating.  In the end I think he betrayed his country because he hated himself and Catherine Zeta-Jones was his fantasy outlet – a conduit through which he could escape his dreary existence.

As I recorded demos for Traitor, I wrote about them on the Detholz! blog.  The entry for “Catherine Zeta Jones” is here, if you’re interested in the whole “study guide.”

In the wake of the record release, Catherine’s real-life troubles hadn’t occurred to me as the song has more to do with the idea of someone like her – a fantasy woman – rather than the real person.

Skyscraper: Seeing how time, death, and revelation are central Detholz! concerns, what did you think about the recent failed apocalypse?

JC: An amusing anecdote: Rick Franklin, our keyboardist, was hired years ago to play piano at a service hosted by Harold Camping [photo above].  The picture, in this case, says it all: “End Times is Good Times!”

Photos Courtesy: Detholz!

Art history books pretty frequently come off as pedantic screeds with the aim of raising up its author to new heights of authority on any given topic. Well, those are the bad ones. Enjoyable rants about the trajectory of art exist, but usually the good ones dispense with ridiculous high-mindedness and revel in what unifies all of humanity. Ken Johnson, art critic for The New York Times, rejects wading around solely in tangible modernity, instead turning to his enjoyment of recreational drug use and how the practice has wafted into art practices.

Regrettable title aside, Are You Experienced?: How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art explores how getting wasted has come to bear on what one might encounter in a gallery. Johnson almost immediately differentiates between getting stoned on either acid or weed and getting blind drunk. He doesn’t dismiss the later, but explains how smoking a joint, in some cases, enables artist-types to attain a sort of self-reckoning unavailable to Hemingway’s descendants. The one misstep Johnson makes in framing the whole of his book is that he sees the 1960s as instrumental in creating a milieu affording culture makers the opportunity to get high and paint. Or sculpt. Or shoot film and stills. He’s not wrong, but the French fin de siècle birthed works from Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, neither unfamiliar to writing under the influence of various psychedelics. And booze. Then there’s Alfred Jarry. Apart from his miscalculation, Johnson writes up a pretty convincing catalog of modern and contemporary art with unflinching ties to drug-culture, or at least the deadened counter-culture.

Saving Are You Experienced? from being just another chronology of seemingly related works are the personal stories Johnson offers. He recalls smoking pot for the first time, later realizing the 1960s styled psych-dungeons he frequented probably count as installation art, and eating acid. Using his past, none of which he’s apologetic for, Johnson contrives a set of markers that prove an artwork’s relation to getting stoned. In contrast to a healthy selection of art criticism, instead of proclaiming certain works psychedelic, Johnson instead figures the works included here – everyone from the Chicago Imagists to Wallace Berman, Barbra Kruger, Bruce Conner, and countless others – to be tied together by the influenced of drugs and its attendant culture. Not defined by it.

Film, sculpture, prose, and any manner of popular culture gets worked in wherever Johnson sees the right angle. Ken Kesey and the Trips Festival finds mention, mainly for its relation to LSD being spread around the country, but also for the playfulness Kesey’s Pranksters exhibited. It’s a key element to Johnson’s argument. Heavy stuff can be discussed and examined while still coming off as humorous or amusing. What’s actually funny, though, is that Are You Experienced? really feels like a bunch of stuff Johnson likes and wants to show readers. That’s a supreme tenet of getting high.

“Fuck California, you made me boring / I bled all my blood out but these red pants don’t show that,” sings former Gowns frontwoman Erika M. Anderson on her stunning debut album as EMA. A startling anti-ode to the Golden State, standout track “California” is brutal in its delivery. A painful listen, it reveals a songwriter unashamed of baring her soul on wax. A dark deconstruction of the West Coast dream, it’s a violent barrage of pure drone-psych, and a perfect introduction to a musician for whom artistry and honesty go hand in hand.

Inspired by the filmmaking concept of juxtaposing acts of beauty and kindness with bleak surroundings, Past Life Martyred Saints is a haunting combination of drones and static that Anderson says feels like the weather in the Great Plains. Recorded in her own space with the help of a friend’s copy of Pro Tools and an array of plug-ins, the album tries to capture the jarring noise in her head, a sound she likens to listening to crackling oldies radio while driving through a thunderstorm.

An album with nothing to lose, Past Life Martyred Saints was born out of failure: Anderson’s perceived failure with Gowns (who broke up in early 2010 after a five-year stretch), her failure establishing meaningful relationships in Los Angeles, and her failure to complete a concept album based on Native American folk music. A last shot at establishing her musical career out West before admitting defeat and moving back with her parents in South Dakota, Anderson’s do or die approach lends the album a starkness that’s compelling.

Heavily influenced by 1990s rock chicks PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, and Courtney Love, Anderson blends tinnitus-inducing noise with fragile lyrics that explore intense personal angst. Like the country bluesmen of the 1920s  and 30s, she uses her songwriting as a means of self-exorcism, driving away her demons with open-faced introspection. From the apocalyptic rush of opener “The Grey Ship” to the agonising beauty of album closer “Red Star,” Past Life Martyred Saints is nothing short of extraordinary.

The bass player in music today is a much maligned vocation. Despite being arguably the most important part of the average band, even in this post-Flea and Les Claypool world of crossover bass pyrotechnics, bassists are the first to be buried in a mix or criticized for playing too loudly. While this is a most ignominious eventuality, my sympathy is not without its limits. In this deconstructionist world and soft economy, two (wo)man units claiming band status (erroneously, as they are of course duos) are a dime a dozen and the bassist is almost always the first to be shed in that offing. I am all for bass reparations, but the danger of going too far in the opposite direction is always the SVT in the room. Which brings us somewhat neatly to dos.

For the uninitiated, dos is a duo comprised solely of bassists. Even speaking as a low-end practitioner, I can see how that eventuality could be the reddest of flags for even the most discriminating of music fans. Such ambivalence is not without precedent, as for the most part dual electric bass instrumentation is a true horror show, rightfully relegated to trade shows and masturbatory YouTube jackassery. Dos are luckier than most, as the duo can luxuriate in the cachet of having Kira Roessler and Mike Watt in its ranks. In addition to sporting formidable four-string skills, the two are a former first couple of LA Punk Rock™, having served (separately) in the ranks of bands named Black Flag, Minutemen, Twisted Roots, and The Stooges, to name but a few.

The dos players are no strangers to a conventional band structure, but in recent years both parties have stretched out in more improvisational directions. Watt has been a part of a number of West Coast improv collectives for a number of years, such as Banyan, and he has most recently expanding his horizons Eastward to include Right Coast collectives Floored By Four and Brother’s Sister’s Daughter (both with Nels Cline and Yuka Honda, among others) and Far Eastern collabo funanori. Roessler maintains a lower profile via an internet band with Ohio collaborators in between being a full-time ADR supervisor. Dos predates all of those collaborations, spawned from the March 1985 Minuteflag session that saw Watt and Roessler’s bands playing together simultaneously during rehearsals for seminal Flag release Loose Nut (SST, 1985). Initially, Watt and Kira explored two bass material recreationally and only occasionally recording the results, but dos became a much more serious proposition on December 22nd, 1985, when Watt bandmate/best friend Dennis ‘D” Boon was killed in a tragic van accident, bringing the Minutemen to a close. Watt was devastated by the loss to the point of near breakdown. Kira, at the time doing graduate work in New Haven, would send tapes of songs she had written to keep Watt playing. Watt did the same and the resulting duets became the first dos record. Released on Watt’s New Alliance label, the self-titled debut (1986) spawned a musical collaboration that continues to this day.

The most recent recorded project from the duo is dos y dos, released courtesy of new Watt recording entity Clenched Wrench. The release has been a long time coming. Watt had spieled as late as early 2007 that the record was in its mixing phase, but various factors have delayed its release. Those setbacks have made for a jaw-dropping 15 years since 1996s Justamente Tres (Kill Rock Stars), but it is a pleasure to report that dos y dos is now available in all the popular formats. Mixed by Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, the recording features the usual tasteful bass counterpoint over 13 mostly instrumental tracks. There are forays into vocal territory, mostly by Kira, and sometimes not in English, in the case of the Selena cover “No Me Queda Mas.” While the musical relationship has outlasted the marital bond, there is an obvious familiarity and intimacy to the recordings. The two know how play together, but its the way they stay out of each other’s way, whether it be vocally or instrumentally, that makes for such an interesting collaboration.

Even with such bonhomie, dos y dos is a record that is going to have limited appeal beyond old punks and bass nerds. Everything here is tasteful and fun to listen to, but be forewarned: dos y dos is not a choice for the musically unadventurous.

Forgive the understatement, but without dancing too much about architecture at the onset, let us begin by establishing that Mike Watt is a heavy, heavy cat. His role in the punk rock genre is that of bedrock, forged metamorphically through his bass tenures in Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and the solo bands that have featured the likes of Nels Cline, Dave Grohl, and ukelele maestro Eddie Vedder. Recent years have seen him expanding the sidemouse gigs he’s held with J. Mascis and Porno For Pyros to include a respectable tenure in the bass slot for the reincarnated Stooges. Whether driving his own boat or serving under others, Watt approaches every project with the same passion, documenting each in diaries on his web page, every entry affording raw insight into the depth of intellect and neurosis fostered by the pride of San Pedro.

Previous Watt releases, or “operas,” as he would prefer to have them called, have dealt with his father’s tenure in the U.S. Navy (1996’s Contemplating the Engine Room) and an allegorical musical interpretation of Dante’s Inferno as it paralled Watt’s near death experience from a perineum infection in 2000 (Secondman’s Middle Stand). When word trickled out that foray number three was in the hopper, the spiel from Watt was that the record was going to be heavily influenced by the intricately interwoven canvases of 13th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. While few were surprised, the news was met with the usual bemused response from the Watt cognoscenti. The record was going to sound like a Watt record, but how was the Bosch factor going to be incorporated?

More learned folk than I tell me that stylistically, Bosch canvasses are rife with individual characters. Each character takes part in individual actions that coalesce together to form the larger picture. While my Where’s Waldo allegory was met with the degree of eye-rolling one would suspect it would evoke in my Gotham circle, fellow mouth-breathers and lip-readers can consider themselves metaphorically compliant. Watt’s exposure to Bosch came along the same time of the production of acclaimed Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo, an experience that required Watt to revisit a large amount of Minutemen material he had ignored in the wake of the passing of singer/guitarist/Watt best friend D. Boon in a 1988 van accident. In excavating that emotional canon, he was struck by the parallels of the short Minutemen songs and the individual components of Bosch works like “The Garden Of Earthly Delights.”

An inspired Watt took up one of the Telecasters that D. Boon left after his passing and, in typical fashion, ended with 30 tracks – or more accurately, one song with 30 individual parts. Entitled “hyphenated-man”, the record finds Watt self-releasing an album for the first time on his own Clenched Wrench label, backed by his recent go-to sidemen Tom Watson on guitar and Raul Morales on drums. Dubbed The Missingmen, the duo was bombarded with the pieces that comprise the record for the better part of two years before “hyphenated-man” was recorded. Watson was presented the formidable task of translating rudimentary Watt guitar parts into the songs he heard in his head, after which Morales was factored into the equation. Recording took place in two short sessions in Brooklyn almost a year apart at Studio G, with owner Tony Maimone at the helm.

Interestingly enough, neither Morales nor Watson heard any of the bass or vocal parts until the project was completed. One would hope that they were at least afforded the titles to give them direction, as titles like “cherry-head-lover-man,” “lute-and-dagger-man,” and “boot-wearing-fish-man” seem adequate musical markers. They also seem to show that Watt’s current cross-pollenations with Japanese culture in Funanori are permeating his work deeply. Lyrically, Watt has the disjointed flow of Japanese t-shirts. “hyphenated-man” fires 30 short word blasts at you, paired with typically frantic punk-jazz blasts. It’s not a record that is going to engage those unfamiliar with Watt’s music, but for those that have already consumed the kool-aid, “hyphenated-man” is another in an impressive line of ambitious releases from a true pioneer.

Buddy Holly’s enduring legacy has continued to grow since his untimely death in early 1959. In the span of approximately 18 months – less time than Elvis was in the Army – Holly subtly but significantly changed rock’n’roll. Some of Holly’s influential resolve was not immediately recognized, but over the course of subsequent years and decades what he accomplished and did has inspired countless musicians, many of whom started out as fans and some who were born years or decades after Holly’s string of radio hits.

Rave On Buddy Holly – 19 songs spread over 51 minutes – manages to encapsulate much of what made Holly a hero for several generations of musicians, from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. Among the important attributes which defined Holly – and also inform this project – were an independent streak, a willingness to take chances, dismissal of the usual visual trappings (with his bespectacled look and clean-cut, neighborly demeanor, Holly was the epitome of the nice guy next door) and a unique group sound which interlocked rhythm and lead guitars alongside multi-tracked vocals.

This tribute album is not the first homage and hopefully won’t be the last. Another planned tribute, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly, including contributions from Jackson Browne, Natalie Merchant, and others, has an early September release date to coincide with what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday. In 1995, MCA Records issued Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly), a fine, star-studded record honoring Holly, which featured Los Lobos and a bevy of country/folk artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joe Ely, and Nanci Griffith.

This compilation’s co-producer, Randall Poster (music supervisor for Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, and other film directors), did an excellent job of coordinating a disparate artist roster who in turn crafted an array of genres, styles, and sounds to acknowledge and honor Holly’s artistry. The list ranges from Paul McCartney (who still owns Holly’s publishing rights) to Modest Mouse, from Graham Nash (his British beat band The Hollies were named after Buddy Holly) to The Detroit Cobras. Holly balanced his rockabilly ways with sensitive songwriting, and this collection also mixes those contrasts in an egalitarian approach.

The Black Keys open with a minimalist version of the relatively obscure “Dearest,” which Holly did as a mid-tempo, lightly rockabilly song similar to other efforts he crafted at the same time. The Black Keys slow down the tempo, add handclaps and a tempered drum beat and meager, scratchy rhythm guitar to provide appropriate backing for a plea and promise to treat the titular woman right. Simplicity and restraint is also a hallmark of Graham Nash’s album closer, a sublime, orchestrated treatment of “Raining in My Heart,” not written by Holly but one of several strings-saturated pop tunes Holly recorded during his lifetime. The arrangement has Nash’s best vocals in a long time and an unexpected, harmonica-like solo.

In between those pieces is music which vacillates between raw reworkings and complimentary remakes true to the source material, with several unpredicted and sometimes bewildering interpretations. The strangest translations come from McCartney, Jenny O., and Lou Reed. Macca tackles “It’s So Easy.” He pushes slightly distorted vocals and twinned guitars up-front to craft a straight-up rocker which initially starts out strongly. Unfortunately, McCartney inexplicably stops the tune twice to spout some banal drivel, as though he wasn’t really serious about playing an old Holly hit single. Quirky California psychedelic popster Jenny O. keeps the instrumental backing for “I’m Gonna Love You Too” close to Holly’s rendering, but her chirpy-bird vocals sink her translation into parody. Reed turns “Peggy Sue” into a post-punk grinder which blends fuzz-drenched guitars, a throbbing undercurrent of atmospheric darkness, and eddying keyboards. This approach worked well when Reed redid Doc Pomus’ “This Magic Moment” (from Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus issued by Rhino in 1995), where he delivered a reading which dripped with underlying dread. Here, though, Reed simply misses his mark: he might have done better if he had chosen something with interior menace such as “That’ll Be the Day.”

It’s left to Modest Mouse to give the song inspired by John Wayne’s character in the motion picture The Searchers a suitable twist-up. The indie rockers change “That’ll Be the Day” to blend folksy acoustics with a marshy electric emanation. Another noteworthy revision is Florence + The Machine’s electro-New Orleans modification of “Not Fade Away,” which effectively marries a Crescent City tone – complete with bumping percussion, sousaphone, and Ivan Neville’s Wurlitzer organ –  alongside Florence Welch’s soulful voice and her predilection for finding the path never taken before. Credit also goes to this track’s producer, Louisiana-born C.C. Adcock, who wily unites unconventional elements into a joyful concoction.

Another type of Southern soul permeates Kid Rock’s remarkably effective Stax/Volt-inclined variation on “Well All Right.” Kid Rock isn’t known for subtlety or savvy, but he does a masterful job with this horn-fronted arrangement which could have easily gone overboard but maintains a concise course. Patti Smith, Nick Lowe (who these days is sporting a Buddy Holly look), and Justin Townes Earle also supply memorable makeovers that display closer connections to Holly’s original intentions.

Buddy Holly was only 22 when he died in the 1959 Iowa plane crash which also took the lives of Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson – an event immortalized in 1971 by avowed fan and then-little-known singer/songwriter Don McLean, who became famous due to his epic narrative “American Pie” (the full-length song runs close to nine minutes), with a narrative configuration reinforced by the catchy hook “the day the music died.” It is no accident Holly became the first rock’n’roll star to be the subject of a career-spanning box set, The Complete Buddy Holly (MCA, 1979) – a year after the inaccurate 1978 Gary Busey bio-pic The Buddy Holly Story; and there has been a steady stream of Hollyiana, including musicals, plays, upgraded and audiophile reissues of Holly’s work, and more than one working tribute band, all of which continues to come out at a regular pace more than 50 years after Holly passed away. Buddy Holly wasn’t the first rock’n’roller, he didn’t actualize the music’s latent sexuality like Elvis Presley, and he didn’t celebrate the blues roots or American adolescent patterns like Chuck Berry. But as Rave On Buddy Holly makes plain, his influence was just as important as these others, if more indirect and more specifically musical in character and quality.

There are worse problems an artist can have than being pretty much perfect. For every half a dozen bands with an early catalog that betters their latter day works, there are only one or two like Low who have managed to explore new sounds while more or less retaining what made their earliest albums so exciting. Or maybe exciting is the wrong word, since Low’s chief characteristic in those early years was a resistance to brightening the tempos or filling the space of their arrangements with anything more than, well, space.

But with their 2005 debut on Sub Pop, The Great Destroyer, the band began to show something more than the restlessness that began to show itself on 1999’s Secret Name (Kranky). They began to sound more like an honest-to-God rock band, but then 2007’s Drums and Guns (Sub Pop) was a step chillier, with a great deal of electronic and even krautrock-y elements. In shorthand, The Great Destroyer was their rock record, Drums and Guns their edgy, political record.

In many ways, C’mon is more difficult to categorize than those two previous efforts — its breadth encompasses the big but cool-to-the-touch “Try To Sleep,” the grindingly vicious “Witches,” and the intimate doo-wop of “Done.” As ever, the key dynamic rests between guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhwak and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker — there’s something both comforting and challenging in their vocal interplay. Throughout, the songs are executed with a veteran band’s inerrant sense of balance between roughness and assuredness; in places, amps crackle and held vocal notes show their grain, banjos crinkle up from the background noise, and Alan Sparhawk clears his throat at the beginning of “Especially Me.” Yet all the incidental noise is left unvarnished in the way a capable film director will know when a slip-up is what makes a take.

The single most fascinating track is the eight-minute-plus “Nothing But Heart.” The cut begins with Sparhawk audibly plugging in his guitar and slashing through an epic and epically distorted progression, the guitar sounding more in line with his work in side project Retribution Gospel Choir. But just as suddenly, the guitar is restrained, crackles of electricity pinging in the background and Sparhawk’s voice rising up slowly as bass, then drums, then acoustic guitar begin to shuffle in. By a minute-and-a-half in, the lyrics are done, arrested in mid-chorus and looping endlessly on the refrain of the title. It’s a brilliant and bold move, the song swelling as steel guitar rides in, and by the time the giant overdriven guitar returns in force with a countermelody at four-and-a-half minutes, the song is unstoppable. It seems like a consolidation of some of the band’s recent palette-broadening (including Sparhawk’s side project work) and their earlier, more delicate and open aesthetic.

And so, in a long and thoroughly impressive career, C’mon may not be authoritative or a classic; if Low were a Russian novelist, it would be more Demons than The Brothers Karamazov, more late-period excellent than career-defining. But fortunately for us, Low’s last chapter is far from written.

A Neil Young trait that has shaped his longevity is his wide range of tastes. From his teenage years fronting the Winnipeg-based band The Squires to his latest solo sojourns, Young has been a sponge who has absorbed diverse musical styles and genres in his process of creating new music that has almost always been of his own making, rarely derivative or squeezing out material which mimics his influences. That’s the basic premise and focus for director Alex Westbrook’s two-hour, unauthorized, direct-to-DVD documentary film, Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years. Viewers get an exhaustive – and at times tiresome – examination of Young’s inspirations, from early rock’n’roll (Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison) to folk and country (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan) and right up to the 1990s grunge rock movement.

As with almost anything put out by UK outfit Sexy Intellectual and their parent company, Chrome Dreams (which only coincidentally shares a name with an unreleased Young album that has been heavily bootlegged), Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years features very little material from the main subject and quite a lot from a plethora of talking heads, including but not limited to music journalists and biographers. Either due to shoddy editing or more likely copyright protection, Young’s music is almost entirely absent, found mostly in just quick clips from live appearances, movie projects, and television performances.

Despite Young’s non-participation, there is some interesting information and trivia to discover. Early in the DVD, which runs chronologically through Young’s career, viewers can find an interesting tidbit concerning Orbison and how his songs’ melodramatic and emotional undertow affected Young’s future work, in particular in what manner Orbison’s “It’s Over” shaped Young’s fragile and gentle “Birds,” from Young’s 1970 masterpiece, After the Gold Rush (Reprise). Another tidbit: George Harrison was the Beatle which had the strongest impact on Young. One interview subject suggests Young’s “When You Dance You Can Really Love” (also from After the Gold Rush) has a guitar tone and melancholia similar to Harrison’s best Beatles-era tunes.

Westbrook belabors how instrumental rock artists such as The Fireballs and The Shadows encouraged Young’s formation of The Squires, who were initially in the same mold as The Fireballs. Westbrook includes an obligatory interview with former Squires drummer Ken Smyth, who credibly relates The Squires’ 1962 formation and imitative sound. But then the DVD takes one of several unnecessarily lengthy divergences to explain the importance of instrumental rock music, with extended interviews with The Fireballs’ guitarist George Tomsco, who pointedly has no connection whatsoever with Young.

There is not much time spent on Buffalo Springfield, the band that first brought Neil Young to prominence, although there is mention of how much The Rolling Stones stimulated Young’s burgeoning songwriting, in particular how his composition “Mr. Soul” broadly borrows from The Stones’ “Satisfaction.” The Jagger/Richards partnership later exerted more force on Young, which is indicated effectively by a side-by-side melodic comparison between Young’s “Borrowed Tune” (released on Tonight’s the Night, 1975) and The Stones’ “Lady Jane.” How Young was never sued for copyright infringement is a mystery.

When the film shifts to Young’s solo releases, the proceedings pick up a bit, in particular how the Canadian and British folk movements impacted Young’s songwriting. Bert Jansch and Ian & Sylvia were as much a part of Young’s folk-tinted compositions as Bob Dylan, and Young’s folk-rock ambitions bloomed when Young met his future Buffalo Springfield (and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) compatriot Stephen Stills. But again, Westbrook makes another unneeded digression as he lets multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow (Kaleidoscope, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) explain how folk-rock came to exist. His history fills in the blanks, so to speak, but Darrow had no musical relationship with Young.

Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years finishes up with chapters on the punk and new wave era, as well as the 1990s grunge period. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, Young was drawn to the energy, irreverence, and puncturing of pretentiousness offered by The Sex Pistols, Devo (whom Young invited to co-star in his 1982 apocalyptic comedy movie, Human Highway), and Kraftwerk. The music pundits overstate how much Kraftwerk’s synth-driven pop ventures may have instigated Young’s move to electro-pop on Trans (Geffen, 1982) and the film’s over-extended examination of Kraftwerk adds little to understanding the creation of Young’s songs, such as “Computer Age” and “Transformer Man.” The documentary concludes with resurgence and loss. Several Seattle bands lumped into the grunge genre acknowledged Young as an icon, which led to Young’s collaborations with Pearl Jam: Young’s Mirror Ball (Reprise/Epic, 1995) and Pearl Jam’s EP Merkin Ball (Epic, 1995). Sadly there is the linkage with Kurt Cobain’s death, when Cobain’s suicide note quoted Young’s famous line, “It’s better to burn out ‘cause rust never sleeps,” from Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” (from Rust Never Sleeps, Reprise, 1979). Although Young and Cobain were not friends, Westbrook’s film implies that Young was emotionally affected by the loss of yet another young musician.

The DVD extras are minor and include a seven-minute extended Ken Smyth interview where he explains the birth and break-up of the short-lived Squires (Young was more committed to music as a career than the other young men in the band). There are also textual biographies of the interview subjects, such as music scribes Anthony DeCurtis and Richie Unterberger and Young biographers Nigel Williamson and Johnny Rogan.

Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years proves over and over again that Young is a repository of music, which is an acceptable point to attest. But unfortunately the DVD’s various detours and the lack of Young’s involvement keeps this project from being much more than a curiosity, not to mention that reading a couple of Young biographies would suffice just as well.

The Chicago indie band’s ninth album, The Moonlight Butterfly is a laid-back and cool affair.  Producing music of subtlety and nuance, The Sea and Cake sounds suave, a bit continental or cosmopolitan.  Sam Prekop’s trademark vocals are wonderfully light and lissome, always a standout feature of the band.  The quartet is comprised of some notable musicians: drummer and producer John McEntire is a keystone of the influential post-rock ensemble Tortoise and has worked closely with Stereolab, among many other notable musicians; guitarist and keyboardist Archer Prewitt pursues a solo career and is a cartoonist and illustrator; vocalist and guitarist Sam Prekop has released a few solo albums; and bassist Eric Claridge — who played with Prekop in Shrimp Boat from the mid-1980s through 1993 — is an artist, and drew the elephant in profile that graces this album’s cover.

Using space artfully, The Sea and Cake draw from lounge, indie-pop, jazz, krautrock, and analogue electronica.  On The Moonlight Butterfly they quickly draw in the listener with “Covers,” which uses an insistent, hypnotic beat and slightly phased, spacey guitars.  “Covers” flows nicely into the oneiric “Lyric,” which psychedelically shifts between two jazzy chords.  Like the opener, “Lyric” is also atmospheric but gives a sense of constant, steady motion.  The dreamy “Inn Keeping” is another lovely track in that vein, propelled by John McEntire’s steady, controlled motorik beat.

Using vintage synthesizers and a play of repetition and difference, the drum-less but pulsating title track is an appealing homage to 1970s German electronic groups Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.  The Chicago-referencing “Up on the North Shore” is a breezy and handsome indie-pop song with an awesome rideout — by rights, it should be on the radio.   The closer, “Monday,” a mellow, acoustic guitar-based tune, is reminiscent of Air’s “All I Need” from their debut album Moon Safari (1998).  Sometimes I am reminded of another French band, Phoenix, if they were more chilled-out, or Blonde Redhead’s later albums on 4AD Records.  Although different in overall approach, these bands are all sophisticated, thoughtfully-produced, and featuring standout singers.  Oddly enough, the wistfulness and the vocal style that Prekop employs recalls the graceful, esoteric 1990s band Butterfly Child, led by Belfast’s Joe Cassidy.

My only and minor complaint is, with only six songs here (albeit one is ten-and-a-half minutes long), one might be left craving a bit more at the end of this nevertheless fine album. The Moonlight Butterfly is a strong and enjoyable collection of songs that, with the exception of the title track, bears the clear imprint of The Sea and Cake.