Categories
Interviews

Pumice

Pumice

Stefan Neville, of the lo-fi damaged pop project Pumice, is one of experimental pop’s true unsung heroes. The New Zealand native’s creations are a mixture of perfect pop hooks and left-field noise, accordion sea shanty dirges, and field recordings. This blend reached (in this writer’s opinion) a fantastically warped peak on 2007’s epic Pebbles album. At times ugly, beautiful, scary, and hypnotic, it sounded — more so than his other material — like a singular insight into the mind of unclassifiable musical genius. Recently, I spoke with Neville via e-mail about his sound and the seemingly endless inspiration that inspires it to flow.

• •

According to the prolific discography on www.softabuse.com, you’ve been recording music for about 16 years. How has your sound evolved over that time?

Well, I’ve been at it probably longer than that. The first tape, Yi Jun, was compiled from a few years worth of stuff. Me and Sugar Jon started Pumice when we were 16; I’m gonna be 36 in September. I dunno how it’s evolved other than pretty naturally, like my graying hair and rotting teeth.

Stefan Neville

Soft Abuse
Stefan Neville

Is there any chance any of this long out-of-print early material will see release again?

Maybe. I’ve thought about it, but it’s hard to find motivation to go through the suitcase of tapes and do the work. Do you need to hear it? There’s probably some gold from back in the day, but it’s probably better if you just imagine what it sounds like.

Can you describe your songwriting process? How much of your work is pre-written before recording versus simply having an idea of what you’re aiming for and working with it while in the midst of recording?

It varies. There’s no recipe. I recorded a song yesterday from a stupid riff that had been hanging around for about a year. I was walking with a friend with a wonky leg the day before and I thought the wonky rhythm of his steps might make that riff less cheesy. I added wonky drums, slapped some words on it, and they stuck.

One of my favorite things about Pumice is the fact that you can take great pop melodies and, through the recording process, dirty them up, and make them sound really gloriously gnarly (like “Eyebath” off of Pebbles or “Worsted” off Yeahnahvienna). Is this an aesthetic choice on your part? A simple result of the equipment you’re using? A combination of these?

I just try and make them sound good to me. I don’t like thinking about it much, but they are meant to sound the way they sound. The worn recording heads on my old tape machines do add something, but most of the grit exists in the air before the sound gets to the microphone. I think the records are a good example of what I sound like.

I read a quote from you in reference to the Persevere 7″ you recently put out that makes it sound as though you make the best attempts at making music despite deteriorating equipment. Could you talk about what kind of equipment you use (recording/guitar/accordion/etc.)? How long have you been using it and what kind of beating has it taken? Do you impose any limitations on yourself during the writing/recording process?

Instruments come and go. My guitar got smashed several times traveling around the world, but you can’t kill it ’cause it’s already dead. I keep playing it out of a mix of perversity and poverty. Struggling makes it better. If you can’t play it properly, it won’t sound ordinary. I always love it when a drummer tries to keep playing as the kit is disintegrating around them, or when a guitar player is too drunk to plug in their pedals. I remember playing once with Gfrenzy, where he made us bind our fingers up so we couldn’t play properly and so we would play more futuristic-ally. I do want to say that I take great care with my equipment though. I roll up my cables properly.

Helen Greenfield

You’ve released material on pretty much every kind of media available (CD/vinyl/cassette). Which, if any, is your preferred form for your releases and why?

I like vinyl, but it’s the music on there that matters and making this music in New Zealand, you’re lucky to get a recording released on any format.

Can you talk about your experiences self-releasing your material versus having labels handling the pressings? Does it feel strange at all to have the majority of what you’ve recorded unavailable to fans aside from your latest releases?

I really like self-releasing, but it’s pretty futile to make it work from NZ on any kind of big scale. You get some nice small run, handmade homemade releases here, like the lathe cut records. Something with a bit of love in it always goes a long way, but there’s only a small audience here and crippling postage to the rest of the world (if you’re putting out vinyl anyway). The nearest pressing plants are in Australia where one of them is run by cowboys and the other is all boutique and expensive. Even if you got something pressed the thought of posting them back to NZ only to be sold and posted back overseas again is enough to sink my spirits. I’m actually funding this LP by Olympus that’s out soon and Soft Abuse records is managing the pressing from Minneapolis, to my eternal gratitude, else it just wouldn’t be possible. Working with labels depends on the people. Soft Abuse is an absolute joy to work with. I owe Chris Berry, Soft Abuse founder, heaps. There are Pumice CDs going back to White from 2003 all still available. That’s pretty good going I think. The vinyl will always run out ’cause its collectability is part of the reason it sells. Everyone panics and scrambles for it, but there usually seems to be enough to go round. It will all end up on blogs anyway. If you wanna hear it, you’ll find it.

How did you get together with Chris from Soft Abuse?

I asked Glenn Donaldson (of the Jewelled Antler collective) if he could recommend a good label for the Yeahnahvienna album and he said Soft Abuse is the right home for you. Chris sent me some of his releases and I knew he was right. Luckily Chris agreed to do the album.

Can you tell me about your new project, Olympus, and what’s in store for Pumice as far as recording and touring go in the near future? Any chance you’ll be playing more American dates?

Olympus is a duo with Pat Kraus who is one of my favorite musicians. See www.kraus.co.nz for some of his solo stuff. We have been recording together for about three years. It’s good wonky music. If you know our solo stuff, I think it sounds like what you would expect the two of us to sound like. We had about three different useless ballbag labels crap out on us with this album, Bold Mould, so i decided to do it myself. It’ll be out in a couple of months and available from Soft Abuse where you can also get the just reissued Pumice, Pebbles and Quo, albums on cassette, too. Pebbles will also get an LP reissue at some point. I got lots of releases coming up. A Pumice 10″ out really soon on French label Doubtful Sounds. A rock band I play drums and synth in, The Coolies, have an LP out soon on Chapter Music from Australia. I recorded that one and I’m pretty proud of it. There’s a Matthew De Gennaro & Stefan Neville cassette coming out, a CD-R of Pumice live-to-air radio sessions, and another duo I’m in with Antony Milton called Sunken, which will have a LP on Emerald Cocoon Records. I’ve spent the first half of the year actively not making any new music and trying to be a proper human being. It didn’t really work, so I’m admitting defeat and just started recording some new Pumice. As for touring — I dunno, man. The thought of more touring makes me feel sick. I’d never say never, but it’d have to be something special for me to consider it.

How have your touring experiences been? Were there any specific tours or shows that put you off it or is it just the endlessly traveling long distances and playing for possibly sparse audiences that did it? Do you gig in New Zealand very much? When you play live is it just you or do you enlist a backing band?

I’ve had some wonderful times on tour, but it’s really bad for me. I find it lonely and self-serving, superficial and soul destroying. I’ve just done too much of it. It’s always gonna be at least $2,000 to fly to the Northern Hemisphere and it’s rare that I will make that back. Because of that, I always try to make the most of it and tour for three to six months. I can’t pay rent while I’m away, so I return to NZ in pieces with no home to go to. It’s too much. I have a bleak perspective on it at the moment. It might be okay to tour with a band, have some mates along, but that is even less financially viable. I haven’t played in NZ since last November, but I mostly like touring NZ so I can see my friends up and down the country.

Lastly, New Zealand has gotten quite a bit of attention over the years for its pop music scene. Are there any NZ bands, contemporary or otherwise, you really like who you feel haven’t gotten proper recognition?

Some contemporaries I rate: The Ghastlies, Backyard Burial, Devoid of All Mercy, Kraus, the Aesthetics/Crude, Strange Girls, Evil, Sign Of The Hag, Full Fuckin’ Moon, Mr Sterile Assembly, Octopus, Dirk Diamond, and WITCYST — who honestly makes the rest of us look like try-hard babies. Gfrenzy has turned his hand to animating lately. It’s worth a look here: www.youtube.com/user/dadandtracy

All-time favorites that helped make me the man/musician I am: Tall Dwarfs, Hand of Glory, Economic Wizards, The Terminals, Axemen, The Kiwi Animal, Frybrain, Grommet, Patea Maori Club, and Dadamah.

Soft Abuse: www.softabuse.com

[Editor’s note: Though Jon “Sugar Jon” Arcus has chosen not to participate in Pumice for the past ten years, he is still a member of the band. Apologies to Jon, Stefan, friends, and fans for the misrepresentation in a previous version of this story.]

Categories
Music Reviews

Drunken Barn Dance

Drunken Barn Dance

Grey Buried

Quite Scientific

When Saturday Looks Good to Me keyboardist Scott Sellwood first formed Drunken Barn Dance a few years ago, he laid some ground rules: keep the number of tracks on each song to a handful, throw out a song if it requires more than a couple takes to record, alcohol is required, and have fun. It’s a formula Sellwood has followed from the project’s days as a solo outfit through Grey Buried, his first full-length, and first release with a full band. This approach keeps everything both raucous and organic; there isn’t a single instrument overdub on here.

Opener “The Last Desperate Stand of the Last Fair Man” is a prime introduction. Both feverish and joyous, it jitters on a quickly strummed acoustic guitar riff before shortly opening up its rhythm section and guitar leads for a powerful, summery explosion. Similarly, the great “A Winter’s Tale” careens around with a heady late night buzz of Greg McIntosh and Scott DeRoche’s harmonized guitars, and drummer Ryan Howard and bassist Jim Roll’s quick-pulsed beat.

Acting as a counterpoint to this whirlwind rock are tracks like the gentle, dark psychedelica of “Tapo Canyon Drowning” and “Time Spent Underground.” The former’s slow, flowing drone pays homage to the echoing, sparse landscapes of the west, while the latter’s ghostly arrangement rings out like a beautiful memory. Sellwood’s masterful ability to take a simple refrain and make it stick like a call to arms is exquisitely illustrated on this song’s statement of, “look out below, we’re above ya.”

The band’s pure recording techniques help ensure that the power of the DBD live experience translates on record. The album’s centerpiece, “No Love,” builds from a folk rambler to a brimstone burner over the course of its six-minute run time. It’s the best example on the album of the solid musicianship of all these performers and their ability to play off of each other.

People used to make the claim that The Hold Steady was America’s best bar band. That group has seen a bit of a change in mission statement in recent years. Drunken Barn Dance are more than worthy heirs to the title. Their music taps straight into the heart of the Midwest’s nostalgia, hard-luck characters, and love of solid rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s all done with drinks raised in salute.

Quite Scientific: www.quitescientific.com

Categories
Interviews

Frontier Ruckus

Frontier Ruckus

Ryan Etzcorn, Matthew Milia, David Jones, and Zachary Nichols

Julie Roberts
Ryan Etzcorn, Matthew Milia, David Jones, and Zachary Nichols

Mystical realism, a mixture of factual and fantastic elements, is a concept perhaps most embodied by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the world of music, Michigan’s Frontier Ruckus stands virtually alone in laying claim to this type of storytelling. Songwriter Matt Milia’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness and impressionistic study of southeast Michigan’s cultural and commercial landmarks and the depths of disuse to which Detroit and its surrounding areas have fallen ring very true to anyone who has spent a significant portion of his life in the Rust Belt. There are nostalgia, despair, hope, anger, and pride in equal measure. Milia’s songs aren’t simple, blanched historical documentation; they’re personal and sometimes incredibly oblique love letters and pleas of a creative young man from an economically dead state with a story to tell. Milia’s musical cohorts painted a beautiful backdrop for these tales, pulling from deep traditions in Stephen Foster-styled folk and bluegrass, the free-flowing tendencies of jam bands and the feverish psychedelia of the Elephant 6 collective on their 2008 debut The Orion Songbook, and significantly broadened their palette to an almost orchestral grandeur for their new release Deadmalls & Nightfalls. I recently spoke with Matt Milia after the group had completed their first appearance at Bonnaroo.

• •

First off, tell me about the band’s history. How did you all meet each other and how long have you been playing music together?

Well, Davey Jones [banjo] and I began playing together about eight years ago while attending the same all-male, Catholic high school in suburban Detroit. It was very exciting and exploratory to have a sort of partner in experimentation and creation. We called ourselves Frontier Ruckus even in those most nascent stages and performed in public for the first few times at a place called Xhedos in Ferndale, Michigan — just young and giddy, flirting with whatever kind of reaction we could get out of our immediate world. We played a bunch of weird shows, including one in the lobby of a hospital, and that’s where we met Eli [Eisman] who would become our bass player for the first few years. It wasn’t really until my freshman year in college, in Wonders dormitory at Michigan State University that I began to write some of the more developed songs that would come to shape the early identity of the band. In my sophomore year there, I met Zach Nichols through a sort of want-ad I put out for someone who could play singing-saw, trumpet, melodica, etc., and he somehow happened to play all three. For me, Zach was instant musical and personal love at first sight, and he indelibly altered the texture and depth of what we were doing for the better right off the bat. Soon after that, I met Anna [Burch] as well and subsequently our drummer, Smalls [Ryan Etzcorn], through her — all of us living there in West Circle. I can still remember the first time we ever tried playing with Smalls, in the basement of Landon Hall where I lived. He set up his drums and confidently started hammering out our songs, picking up the weird time signature switches and idiosyncratic accents without a problem. I had never even imagined what those songs could sound like with drums, and I knew then that it was going to be a completely different beast of potential intensity. And Anna — I met up with her for the first time, just me and her, to try singing together and she harmonized note for note every melody with such ease. Our voices together created another result that just sounded very right, but which I had not at all expected. I mean, I had sensed that I needed these certain components and that’s why I sought them out, but I had no notion going in as to how complete they would make it feel for me. One of our first gigs as a full band was the MSU Battle of the Bands, which we won. [We were] overcome with an ecstatic rush of accomplishment and encouragement. I can still feel some voltage from that initial young and probably absurd excitement, and I hope it never disappears because it’s that rare pure euphoria caused by naive surprise toward the boundlessness of creation, luck, collective construction, and so on.

Frontier Ruckus has undergone some line-up changes since the last album. Who is currently in the band and in what form do you see the band taking?

The current lineup is myself, Davey, Zach, Smalls, with our good friend Brian Barnes on bass. The energy and intimacy within the current group, between the members, is incredibly focused and unified. Some things, situations, and priorities had just changed over time, understandably so, and the way the band was couldn’t really continue. We kind of creatively recharged and the modern configuration is truly energized and honed in on a certain vision of what we would like to create.

When were the songs for Deadmalls & Nightfalls written? Were there any holdovers from the last album?

They were all written after the Orion collection and formed this separate mythology unto itself. The first of the set were written in the summer of 2007, which was a profoundly low time for me for some reason, living in a tiny sweltering room which had a sliding glass door leading out to stirring summertime East Lansing. I was terribly lonely, unoccupied, and down on myself, full of single-minded desire for companionship to a crippling extent. I ended up securing some unbelievable companionship that many of the other songs respond to, obsessing on this holy kind of time that was the winter of 2008 leading into the summer and fall of 2009. The last of them were written in the winter that followed, with a lot of cold, icy imagery of danger and estrangement from previous warmth or safety.

This album has a fuller, richer sound to it. There are a number of tracks that include keys, and horn player Zach Nichols sounds like he’s created deeper arrangements throughout. On your last album, The Orion Songbook, there was a more ghostly, ephemeral quality to the arrangement and orchestration, which I’d likened to the sound of a ghostly Civil War marching band. What brought about this change? Did you consciously approach writing and arranging songs differently this time around?

I guess it’s impossible to deny a certain attraction towards grandeur this time around, for several moments of the album. There are also moments that are extremely sparse that maybe exaggerate that presence when it’s there. But the mood and lyrical desperation of a few of the songs were just so desirous, vitriolic, and intense that I guess we naturally sensed a demand for reflective instrumental delivery via many layers of brass, which we love and make no excuse about loving. Horn harmonies are by far one of our favorite effects and mainstays. Zach and I have so much fun working out those arrangements, and dressing lyrical phrases and images in these heavy moods of blaring breath. If it sounds a little indulgent then perhaps it is, I don’t know. The desires and situations inherent to the songs had a certain indulgence to them to begin with, so I guess it makes sense.

There are a few songs (such as “Ontario”) where I hear a little bit of a Red House Painters/Mark Kozelek influence in the unhurried way the music rolls along. Have you (or any of the other band members) been particularly influenced by any new music since you recorded the last album?

It’s really funny you say that. Mark Kozelek was a fairly regular soundtrack to that aforementioned lowdown summer. I think you could definitely go as far as calling him an influence. Many varied artists from Bruce Springsteen to WHY? to Judee Sill to Ennio Morricone all could’ve possibly inspired this or that.

Frontier Ruckus

Julie Roberts
Frontier Ruckus

One my favorite aspects of Frontier Ruckus is the lyrics, which is kind of a rarity for me. Telling stories through song is perhaps the defining characteristic for most folk songwriters. I feel like your lyrics, though, are a blend of concrete reality and a very poetic, metaphoric interpretation. On Orion and Deadmalls (especially “Pontiac, “The Nightbrink”) you reference specific places/landmarks that people from southeast Michigan are intimately familiar with. It’s a very honest appraisal of Michigan’s beautiful and ugly sides. I feel like this kind of specificity and your interpretation of it are pretty rare among songwriters right now. Can you talk about this kind of specificity (the locales, the recurrent themes of urban decay, and the resultant mixture of nostalgia and melancholy) in your songwriting? Do you approach songwriting with the idea you are creating, say, continuing chapters in a story/myth, or do you write each song on its own terms?

Using very specific locales and fixtures of memory in my songs, often by name, is pretty deliberate. I basically catalog places as a means to organize and memorialize my experience as to feel some sort of agency or comforting grasp on it. The more I can just list or anchor my physical world and wake into a song, the more I am comforted in believing that perhaps that place or memory is less likely to slip away from me forever. It really is a therapeutic and psychological device. To me, the physical world and its fixtures are the very containers of memory. That is why the “deadmall” is a main theme of this new album, or vacant sports domes like the Silverdome [the former stadium of the Detroit Lions] — just these enormous and seemingly permanent tomb-like receptacles where I can fantastically dump the impossible burden of the past, emotion, and memory in their million infinitesimal existences. In the same way that my entire experience connects in strange and abstruse ways and the way all the locales of my memory or the vast grid of Metropolitan Detroit are jointed in infinite mysterious connections, I believe the different songs I write concerning it all are connected as well and part of the same unified creative stab I am perpetually making toward comprehension of it all.

“Does Me In” is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s a tender outpouring of emotional ups-and-downs between the narrator and Mary-Lynn (a character who appears a number of times on the album). Could you talk about the story behind this track?

If a narrative is to be detected in this song, then it is based off of a camping trip I took with my girlfriend to Manitou Island [by ferry] in Lake Michigan which is a nice microcosmic wilderness. It speaks to the overwhelming wonder contained within some gorgeous and rare periods of time, especially when crystallized through the beautifying lens of memory — love in such abundance that you don’t know how to handle it or approach it without a destructive fear. Mary-Lynn is a complex character in the album. Even the etymology of the name itself is something I don’t even know if I feel comfortable divulging. Mary is also my mother’s name, for example, to illustrate a potentially quite disparate instance of its usage.

Have you been writing any new songs? If so, how has touring and being away from home affected your subject matter?

I have been writing a ton of new songs. The only problem with being on the road all the time for writing is the lack of prolonged privacy to really sit down and knock something out in its entirety. I get lots of fragments. I am always collecting images, lyrical phrases, and rhymes though. Home and memory are things I can write about anywhere, often magnified or intensified even by the distance and commotion of travel. The new songs I’m writing actually seem to be turning out, for lack of a better word, poppier. I like the idea of pairing complex lyricism with catchy melodies. I am being drawn to sugary chord progressions, and there seems to be no fighting it. Been listening to a lot of ’50s poppy rock and roll — Everly Brothers, Bobby Vinton, the stuff with a key change in every song and lots of minor 4ths. Studying the tricks.

You’ve recently finished from a tour of Europe and an appearance at Bonnaroo. Any places particularly stand out? What’s coming up for you for the summer and after you release the new album?

London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels — it was all pretty fantastic. Bonnaroo was a unique and intense experience as well. We’re just very grateful for the array of rich experiences that we find ourselves coursing toward. We will be touring the US pretty continuously into fall and plan to have some time to recharge, write, and possibly record this winter.

Frontier Ruckus: www.frontierruckus.com • Ramseur Records: www.ramseurrecords.net • Quite Scientific: www.quitescientific.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Pumice

Pumice

Persevere

Soft Abuse

Pumice’s Stefan Neville’s brand of lo-fi transcends the genre’s standard signpost of simple 4-track tape hiss. With Persevere, one of his most recent 7-inches, he makes the statement that his ability to make music isn’t hindered by the constant deterioration of his musical and recording equipment — it actually serves as a benefit. Side A features “The Dawn Chorus of Kina,” a ramshackle instrumental that begins with natty guitar chords scraping against the steady pulse of bass and blown-out drums. It doesn’t take long for this groove to disintegrate into a stutter-stop clatter of angular melody and, later, into a washed-out build and bloom of drums and almost-peaking spines of guitar. It’s a beautifully skuzzy nugget of music.

Two covers make up the B-side — Michael Hurley’s “Open Up” and The Axemen’s “Pacific Ocean” — and they’re both given a relatively spare treatment. The former has double-tracked guitar and vocals which don’t always quite sync up and create a kind of drunken disequilibrium, while the latter consists of slack-key ukulele, a brief flourish of accordion, and a vocal turn from Neville that sounds like Stephen Merritt singing at a melancholy luau.

One of the few true lo-fi innovators left in indie music, Neville has a mountain of releases under his belt and Persevere is a fine place to experience his genius for the first time.

Soft Abuse: www.softabuse.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Cotton Jones

Cotton Jones

Rio Ranger EP

Quite Scientific

There is something purely joyful about Cotton Jones’ Rio Ranger and it’s hard to put a finger on it. These ex-Page France members keep prolifically refining what they’re about and this 6-song EP is the sound of them falling deeply and perfectly into their groove. Where the preceding EP Archery saw songwriter Michael Nau fusing the darker, hazier aspects of Mazzy Star and The Doors, this release completely shakes off those late night blues and replaces them with a woozy giddiness. Opener “Only Minutes Young” boasts a vocal melody lovingly culled from Jay & The Americans “Come a Little Bit Closer” before turning into an organ-rich testification with the refrain shared by Nau and his wife Whitney: “there’s no sun looks as good as my sun, there’s no love, love’s good as my love.” “Nicotine Canaries” is a shuffling soul number bathed in reverb, echo and showcasing the shimmering analog sounds of an omnichord. “Don’t Got a Lotta Time” lumbers on a thick bass line and impeccably recorded drums — the drums in general on this recording versus Cotton Jones’ earlier material are captured exactly right — give the song a physical pulse to carry the emotional sentiment. Whitney Nau turns in her first solo vocal turn on the sweetly smoldering “Always Feeling Good.” She and Mike have a vocal dynamic that works as well as Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, but it’s a treat to hear her on her own. The simple interplay between guitar leads, organ drones and a rock-solid rhythm section rule closer “Where You Stop For a Minute,” but the song’s declaration that “home is where you stop for a minute and clean your teeth” tells the story of how happy these folks are with the travelin’ band lifestyle. Make no mistake, this is one of the best bands out there right now, both live and on record, and this document is their finest yet.

Quite Scientific: www.quitescientific.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Lightning Love

Lightning Love

November Birthday

Quite Scientific

I once interviewed a musician who told me that the strength of a song is best determined by how it sounds at its most stripped-down. Weaker songs can get a boost with overdubbing, tweaking in production, and through any number of other bells and whistles, but quality songs don’t need much beyond the melody and rhythm to fully engage. Ypsilanti, Michigan’s Lightning Love, over the course of the 11 songs on their debut November Birthday, turn out some of the best minimal pop in recent memory.

Keys, guitar, and drums — with momentary support from cello and accordion — are all that the trio uses in creating their bouncy electro-pop sonic palette. Singer/keyboardist Leah Diehl has a great sense of melody and composition; her melodies are simple and time-tested. The intricacies come from the arrangements, from each group member’s ability to know when best to step in and out of the spotlight.

“Girls Are Always Wrong” and “Good Time” are staccato bursts of pitch-perfect nervy pop. The former boasts a bouncy digitized beat and burbling synth leads that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Missing Persons album. On the latter, the keys have perfect textures, the drums have a great ’80s snap to their production, all of which provide a joyous release for Diehl’s plea: “I can’t help having a good time.” No one can begrudge a band for that sentiment, especially when it yields music as good as this.

Quite Scientific: www.quitescientific.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Picnic

Picnic

Winter Honey

Seksound

Picnic is from Estonia, a country that doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a hotbed of ’90s dream pop revivalism. However, Winter Honey, the group’s debut LP, is a convincing enough statement to embed them on the musical map. There are a number of obvious points of reference on this disc — check the perfect homage to the Sundays on opener “Too Fast” and the sublime evocations of Lush in “Two Worlds” — but the band’s material is far from a reiteration of these forebears of melancholy pop. Tracks like “Love Song for an Imaginary Lover” and “Oko” have a Spartan, echoing darkness to them that recall Low’s slowcore crawl. On the other end of the spectrum, “Shareware” and “Carrot Street” rustle up the messy, playful lo-fi cacophony of the C86 movement. More modern electronic trappings also show up in the down-tempo beats of “Deltaplane” and the lilting synth swells on “Who Do You Love?”

While the instrumentation shines throughout these shifts in style, Marju Taukar’s vocals are the true highlight. She captures the breathless melancholy of these genres exquisitely.

It’s likely this release will slip below a lot of people’s radars, but it’s definitely one to track down if the halcyon days of 4ad and Rough Trade Records still hold a place in your heart.

Seksound: www.seksound.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Ulaan Khol

Ulaan Khol

III

Soft Abuse

Steven R. Smith is back with the final installment of his triptych under the Ulaan Khol moniker. Anyone familiar with the noisy miasma he’s wrought on the first two sections will be amply prepared for the nebulous guitar flotsam that Smith slowly peels out. Ulaan Khol is still space rock at its most minimal and restrained. There’s a cold beauty in moments like “Track 3” and “Track 6” when echoing, tremulous guitar notes hang in the air, reverberating like slowly diminishing afterthoughts. These atmospheric pieces tend to lead the music to the more composition-oriented territory. “Track 2” is a full-blown raver, with frenzied drumming and a thick tangle of heavily psychedelic power chords; it’s a bludgeoning counterpoint to the soft-focus aether surrounding it. “Track 4” comes across a little like the great Japanese psych-folksters Ghost. Smith’s acoustic guitar strum and clattering drums keep this number close to the dusty terra firma, bleary synth, and bass drones that keep things somnambulant. Overall, Ulaan Khol has proven to be a productive outlet for Smith, one that he’ll hopefully revisit if reflective feelings to soundtrack uncharted celestial bodies should strike him again.

Soft Abuse: www.softabuse.com

Categories
Music Reviews

City Center

City Center

Cops Don’t Care 7″ / Spring St.

M’Lady Records / Quite Scientific

Although he’s best known for his lo-fi orchestral pop outfit Saturday Looks Good to Me, over the course of his music career, Fred Thomas has plumbed just about every sub-genre of indie rock. His latest project, City Center, with former SLGTM drummer Ryan Howard, is an experimental hybrid of all of these past sounds — weirdo pop, punk, lo-fi noise, field recordings, etc. The most consistently exciting thing about City Center is its chimerical sound.

The A-side of the Cops Don’t Care 7″ is a woozy, pulsing, and dirty C-86-esque number that nearly touches the transcendence of shoegaze though its sunburst-distorted guitars. It’s made all the more endearing because of its lack of grandiosity; it careens around just like good fuzz pop should. The flip side, “Heat Isn’t the Word,” is the epitome of nebulous composition. Guitar notes and bass pulsations hang in the air, gently wrought through effects pedals and the echoes of seemingly endless darkness. It’s so gorgeous and minimal, a heavenly antithesis to the terrestrial noise on the A-side.

It’s impossible to see the divisions in Spring St. despite its make-up of four songs. There’s California-pop guitar jamming, noise record bass throb, late-night house party chatter, synth slowcore, and delayed/looped psychedelia among other linking sonic incidentals. It’s the duo’s most effective and texturally rich sound collage statement yet. It’s like a conglomeration of the snippets of sounds of a bustling city heard through an open car window, and it’s wonderful.

City Center: www.citycenternyc.blogspot.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Overloaded Ark

Drag City

Ghost’s Masaki Batoh and The Espers’ Helena Espvall have been cultivating a productive relationship these past two years. They released a self-titled album in 2008 and toured the US in support of it. In 2009, Espvall was welcomed into Batoh’s Ghost collective for their most recent US tour. Just a few months after that wrapped up, the duo released their second collection of songs, Overloaded Ark.

As with their first collaboration, Espvall and Batoh’s work is equally about putting new interpretations on existing work as it is about composing their own. Of the nine tracks that make up the album, five are covers of disparate national and temporal origins: there are back-to-back songs — “Sueno Con Serplentes” and “Pro Peccatis Suae Gentis/Nun Fanget An” — that were written by a Cuban singer-songwriter born in the 1940s and a Franco-Flemish classical composer from the 1500s, respectively.

The experimental filter Espvall and Batoh fashion over this project is something of a marvel because there’s such a graceful unity to all of these tracks. They accomplish this largely by drawing from unusual regional folk instruments from all over the world and combining them in previously untested ways. The opener “Little Blue Dragon” is perhaps the best example of this, featuring warbling Eastern pipes and shambolic banjo each vying for rhythmic lead.

In keeping with Batoh’s psychedelic tendencies, there are a number of drone tracks that break the 10-minute mark. The title track is one of these beasts; it rides on a tribal drum groove that’s overlaid with phase-shifting ambient hiss, but grows more organic as acoustic guitar and strings take the spotlight in turn. There are moments of intensity and restraint and these peaks and valleys keep everything engaging.

“Until Tomorrow” and the gorgeous closer “Sham no umi” are jams more in line with Batoh’s full-time outfit, Ghost. They’re rife with a space-folk quality that feels airless and huge, like careening slowly through the upper layers of the atmosphere. These tracks along with “Sueno” highlight the pair’s exquisite vocal melodies.

Avant-folk of this style and simplicity is such a rarity these days that one hopes Espvall and Batoh can keep mining the rich fields of traditional regional music for many releases to come.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com