Markus Acher - Like a Plane [Moone/Morr Music]
Markus Acher - Like a Plane [Moone]
No, that’s not a typo; there really are two different releases titled Like a Plane on Moone Records by Markus Acher. I don't know much about Acher’s oeuvre beyond Neon Golden with The Notwist which was hot shit when I entered high school. For the younger persons in the audience, it was called indietronica back then, but you will know it simply as “indie”. Turns out that Acher has left the ‘tronica behind which is fine by me, that was always my least favorite aspect of Neon Golden. The first of these Like a Planes is an electric blue 10” with each side split between an instrumental melodi-drone piece and a melancholic folk ditty. “You Danced” ambles along simply and sweetly on a churning banjo figue, once again taking me back to high school hearing early Iron & Wine for the first time. The title track is my pick between the two “songs”. Moving fluidly between intimacy and grandeur, the tune is initially very spare until Acher brings in expanded flourishes at key moments while building to a modest crescendo, layering processed autoharps one on top of the other. I might be more partial to the instrumentals actually, the eerily elegiac “*+* (Harmonium)” and poignant “Never Sleep” recall Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine-era film work and have me keen to hear Acher score an entire film. Maybe he already has!(?)
The second Like a Plane
is a cassette tape containing renditions of the four songs on the 10” plus a Blaze Foley cover, all recorded live at Optimal Records in Munich. Acher performs with a quartet of other musicians on a variety of instruments keeping the feel of the record very much intact but adding a bit of idiosyncratic charm. “You Danced” in particular comes alive with a denser arrangement and looser rhythmic disposition. Similarly, the addition of the lovely, insistent viola melody on the title track provides an appealing new wrinkle. Both are worthy versions standing up well to (and maybe even surpassing) their studio-recorded counterparts.
Kyle Bruckmann - Triptych (Tautological) [Carrier]
I’ve heard oboist Kyle Bruckmann in collaboration with Jacob Felix Heule and others but never on his own as he is on Triptych (Tautological), a work of oboe, English horn and abstract electronics. Bruckmann extensively discusses the inspirations and processes behind these pieces in the liner notes, with the key point being that he intended to create an unpredictable environment that would keep him off-balance and uncomfortable as a solo improviser. For his piece “A Spurious Autobiography of John Barth” Bruckmann employed a digital system that randomly generated fragments of his first album chopped up and processed by an EMU modular synthesizer. Triptych features two separate performances of the piece, one where Bruckmann performs live using electronic devices and a second where he improvises on oboe and English horn. The solo performances are, in effect, duets as Bruckmann spars with the digitally rendered ghosts of his past work. I prefer the second piece for the textural incongruity between the randomly-generated electronic sounds and the sound of human lungs pushed through wooden tubes, particularly in the more spacious moments.
Triptych also includes two other pieces. “An Extruded Introversion for Blixa Bargeld” moves, with its inspiration clearly stated, through a world of sputtering electronics and percussive pitter patter. Blending modes of free float and throbbing pulsation. Bruckmann states in the liner notes about this piece that he intended to “make something unapologetically… well, beautiful” and he’s clearly succeeded. Alternatively, “A Fuzzy Monolith for James Turrell” is chillier than the other tracks and seemingly the most concentrated dose. Careful tones dither in a meticulous sound world, prizing absence as much as existence. Restrained but taut with emotional tension. Around thirteen minutes in, a bass tone is introduced and that simple addition changes the complexion of the piece radically. Bruckmann emphasizes why sound is so powerful, its ability to transcend language and cognitive thought to create feeling. I dig it.
Stefan Christensen - Ruby [Ever/Never]
The 2x7” has always been a pet favorite format to me. I own a handful (including some genuine classics like Peter Jefferies’s & Robbie Muir’s Swerve and Psychedelic Horseshit’s Too Many Hits) but I’m always eager to enrich my life with more. Thanks to Stefan Christensen and Ever/Never our lives are one 2x7” richer. Now while I dig the 2x7”, when you get to 3x7”s and 4x7”s and whatever zaniness Stephen Merritt and Mark Robinson get up to, things start getting unwieldy and ridiculous. Just stick the tunes on a 12” please. However, for Christensen, he thinks even the 2x7” format is absurd and that’s what motivated its selection for this release. Ruby is a tragic tribute to Christensen’s friend Rob Talbot who was murdered by corrections officers while in custody and Christensen chose the 2x7” format for its “perfect absurdity… a description that seems tailor made for Rob himself”.
Sparsely littered with run-down instruments, there’s seemingly as much negative space on Ruby as there are sounds plaintively ringing out. There are several fragmented improvisations that focus on particular instruments such as “Ruby” (banjo), “Goffe Porch” (guitars) and “See Things” (wheezing chord organ) as well as unplugged ballads like “Pardon Time” and “Time Elapse”. Given their presumed status as Christensen’s favorite muse, it’s no surprise that “Exact Formations” and “Luxury is God” channel heavy Dead C vibes (in the “Power” sense) and they’re fucking great. (I’m a Dead C guy too!) Hollowed out, blurry bouts, riddled with heartbreak, that don’t betray their tunefulness. A perfectly applied approach for such a tragic remembrance.
Caleb Dailey - Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings: Beside You Then [Alien Transistor/Moone]
Warm Evenings, Pale Mornings: Beside You Then is an excellent new cosmic-country LP from Phoenix, AZ’s Caleb Dailey. Harkening back to the good ol’ days of country (Johnny Paycheck and the like), Warm Evenings is a record that bears the stamp of an auteur though it’s comprised entirely of other people’s songs (including tunes by Gram Parsons, Blaze Foley and Gordon Lightfoot.) Dailey contributes acoustic guitar, along with his husky and winsome voice, and he’s joined by a cadre of players including John Dietrich (Deerhoof), Markus Acher (The Notwist), and James Fella (Gilgongo Records and about a hundred other things). The arrangements incorporate traditional country moves (you gotta have pedal steel, obviously) but also hum, shimmer and twinkle, traveling oblique trailways that avoid the “ambient” clichés that seem to be ruining everything nowadays (or so says this grouchy writer). I’m reminded of fellow brothers of the Arizona desert, Giant Sand (who have their own great covers record Cover Magazine), not so much sonically but in the way that community seems to have shaped the sounds of the record. The ultimate stress-reliever, Warm Evenings is the aural replacement for anxiety medication, a big, warm blanket enveloping you while you gaze at the stars.
Ever Ending Kicks - Small [Moone]
When I saw Anacortes, Washington on the shipping label, my Pavlovian response was “I like The Microphones” and when I dropped the needle on this record, Small, by Ever Ending Kicks my Pavlovian response was “This band likes The Microphones too!” Or Mount Eerie, if you prefer, but to me Phil Elvrum will always be The Microphones. Sure enough, looking at the artist bio, Ever Ending Kicks is the solo project of Paul Frunzi who not only hails from Anacortes but has actually played with Mount Eerie. The track “Big” which arrives late in the album lays out the modus operandi: to embrace being an underdog and to remain nimble and efficient. When Frunzi purrs “I feel small”, you can’t avoid flashes of Phil.
The Microphones made records that despite their raw intimacy and humble lo-fi trappings are quite baroque and proggy. Brimming with as much bombast as quietude. EEK makes a brave choice to go in the opposite direction, doubling down on the quietude and all but eschewing the bombast. There are a few moments here and there such as the atonal strings in the final seconds of “Gone Other”, but overall Small is a positive without a negative, rendering it somewhat inert. My favorite track “Off Camera” stands apart with a section featuring the only instance of distortion, in which Frunzi raises his voice just a hair above a whisper to deliver the immortally genius line “I want to take a fucking chainsaw to your pantry.” The track marks the only point of friction between Frunzi’s voice and a song’s arrangement, and it’s exciting. I wish there was more of it.
In turn, Small is often minimal (at moments, it’s a cappella) and even when full band arrangements are present, they often feel like they’re happening in the next room over. This places a great burden on vocals and lyrics, and your mileage will vary with Frunzi’s fey, hushed wisp of a voice and unfettered vulnerability. EEK embraces the quotidian throughout but no more than on “Arkansas” one of the better songs on the record. Brunzi goes so far as offering the titular place and time of August 2017, when he recalls “struggling with money” and opens up a direct portal into his mind: “I was writing songs about being broken and poor/Now I wanna fix things I was cool with, as long as I’m still elastic”. Where EEK diverges from Mount Eerie is a strong jazz-pop influence that crops up from time to time, the humming organ on the wistful “Small Traits” is a highlight while “Dilly Dally” sounds like Yo La Tengo, Dismemberment Plan and Jamiroquai formed a cocktail jazz combo, and I can’t say I really like it.
In a way, it hardly seems fair to be comparing Small to the likes of The Glow Pt. 2, one of the century’s finest records—not many artists/albums can stand up to this scrutiny—but, on the other hand, Ever Ending Kicks sounds so clearly indebted to Elvrum and Co. that the invitation for comparison is waiting right there in the grooves.
The Exit Bags - Tower of Quiet [Joyless Youth Home Recordings/Drongo Tapes]
Speaking of The Microphones, “Sure, Burn” the second track off of Tower of Quiet, the latest album by Edmonton’s Exit Bags, bears a strong debt to Phil Elvrum’s aural fragility in the same way that The Robot Ate Me did when they showed up some 15+ years ago. While Mount Eerie casts a large shadow over the proceedings, that’s not the only thing The Exit Bags are up to. “Coward Deep Down” recalls Xiu Xiu (another Northwest-y teen favorite of mine) under heavy sedation. Songs drift in and out of the ether, but not in some blissful dream pop way. It’s more like the Exit Baggers live in some spooky old reformatory and they’ve become numb and unconscious to the constant hiss and creaks around them while they play their quiet tunes and occasionally blow them up with the thundering stomp of crusty synth drums.
I assume that Mike (the only Exit Bag referred to by name in the liner notes) is the singer here and I much prefer when he exhibits more confidence in his voice, such as on “One Hundred and Ninth Year” and “Strangled in the Wilderness”. He has a naturally pleasing tonality, reminiscent of Carson Cox on the earlier Merchandise records, and I can’t help but feel he could take the Bags to another level if he went for it. Go for it, Mike!
While The Exit Bags do a great job of shaping a specific atmosphere, the songwriting of Tower of Quiet is a one way ticket to Mopesville and the languorous, unchanging tempo grows dreary over the 46 minute run time. The artist must express what the artist must express, yet I can imagine an Exit Bags armed with some melodic hooks. There are occasional glimmers particularly at the end of the record with the fuller harmonic arrangement of “So Kafkaesque” and the end of “I Don’t Know How The Road Ends” when Mike cranks up the tempo on the drum machine a bit and offers a brief glimpse of what The Exit Bags could sound like if they exchanged lethargy for energy. I’m intrigued.
La Grieta - Askeroso Getxo Sound 2005-2015 [Crystal Mine]
When you’ve been occasionally writing about music for 15 years, every once in a while something really cool that you had no idea existed falls into your lap. All the way from Germany no less! I’m still not sure how it happened since both this artist and label are based in Spain (one of my favorite places to visit when I get out of this country). What brave crusader is out there in Alemania, slinging Spanish tapes to American no-audience blogs? My hat is off.
This seems like quite a special release, as Askeroso Getxo Sound 2005-2015 compiles the complete discography of La Grieta across two cassettes and nearly two hours. Seems like any time I come across some cool thing I find out later that Mattin is a part of it (Billy Bao, Al Karpenter) and that is the case with La Grieta too. Beginning as a duo of Iñigo Eguillor and Mattin, La Grieta released their first album, Hermana Hostia, in 2006. It’s a mix of one-minute-long songs bristling with 90s-ish alt-rock mess and clutter (hell yeah!) and wandering weirdness like the grooveless jazz of “Porvenir Desierto”. Some songs like “Craso Error” split the difference between urgency and elasticity. Kind of like a uniquely Basque take on the Thinking Fellers anything-goes ethos. As alluded to in the title,“Totalmente Inepto” sounds like cavemen who got a crash course in 20th century avant-garde composition.
I really love this stuff; I feel like I unearthed some secretly brilliant missing link in rock & roll history, except, you know, I didn’t. Crystal Mine did. It’s so hard to pick a single track to encapsulate everything that’s happening on Hermana Hostia, but the one I keep coming back to is “Enroskado”: murmured vocals, out-of-tune guitar and drums not quite in sync, unstable voltage fed into the recording machine, all masking gorgeously clandestine earworm hooks. I couldn’t cogently explain why, but I keep replaying it over and over. A true beauty.
Released in 2010, La Grieta’s second album, Decisión, was born in the wake of tragedy as a band member who joined after the debut, Josetxo Anitua (a former member of Cancer Moon), took his life in 2008. It’s impossible to say what the sonic effects of such circumstances are for sure, but La Grieta does move in a more intense, challenging direction on their sophomore effort. Gone are the one minute songs, exchanged for five songs total, most of which last over 11 minutes long. “Obsesión” begins as a sour dirge before a psychotic break midway through melts the stereo into a heap of unbridled harsh noise. The title track is a chorus of power drills surrounded by disembodied voices and discombobulated rhythms. A get a few flashes of Twin Infinitives if the Trux had their shit more together. “Necesidad” features a dark, hypnotic guitar riff haunted by ghostly vocals and insistent synthesized clarion calls. The uneasy rumble of “Resbalando” has the feel of a drum ‘n bass track performed with live drumming (though I’m sure it is manipulated by computer to some extent) complete with creepy barking vocals. The first track, “Otra Vez Hablando Contigo Mismo”, is the only tune not too dissimilar from the sound of the first album though it does feature digitally (and violently) chopped up vocals battling a surging guitar riff. The album is reminiscent of The Dead C’s metamorphosis from noisy rock band to noise band.
Speaking of New Zealand’s most renowned exports, on the first side of 2013's Último Polvo single, La Grieta channels The Dead C in rock star-mode (think “Scarey Nest”) before concluding with an upsetting recording of someone snoring. The b-side, “Hombre Esperando a la Muerte”, threw me for a loop more than anything on the tape because it’s so… normal. That isn’t to say it’s in any way average or boring, it’s really great, but it sounds like a lush goth-rendition of a 60s folk rock tune. At least, until they slow it down in the final seconds to a slur. Último Polvo is an excellent two-hander, what more to say?
The real boon to the die hard La Grieta fans out there is an unreleased EP called 2015 (I bet you can guess the year that it was recorded) but it doesn’t take a La Grieta lifer to appreciate these tunes that have been hiding in the vault. Two tracks over 18 minutes, the rough exterior of Decisión is shed with a slight return to some of the longer, more ramshackle tracks off of Hermana Hostia. “Verdades Que Se Rompen” is a pop tune heavily afflicted with vertigo. There is no sense of stability: drums clatter, goofball synths bubble and plop, out-of-tune guitars twang and keen, yet there’s a pulse at the center of the cyclone funneling the cacophony into the most satisfying of places. The last band I can remember pulling off this trick is Maths Balance Volumes; it is an extremely difficult tightrope to walk. My hat is off (again!) “Despierta Despierta” is a loping stoner-rock lament featuring some hot hornblowing courtesy of Jean-Luc Guionnet. Also good, but more typical in its deviance. It’s a damn shame this wasn’t released back in 2015 but many thanks to Crystal Mine for bringing it out into the world now. Recommended!
Ryan James Mawbey - Eternal Return [Eiderdown]
I know everyone talks about present-day artists living in a post-label world but (good) record labels still offer something valuable to listeners and, by extension, to artists. Case in point: Seattle’s Eiderdown records. The neo-psychedelic outpost has been slanging handsome-looking records and tapes for a decade or more at this point and they are always good. I had never heard of Ryan James Mawbey before and certainly knew nothing about the cassette Eternal Return released by Eiderdown. But I knew it would be good, because they are always good.
Unfortunately, Eternal Return is a somber affair resulting from a “whirlwind tragedy”. The two side long pieces are similar and resonate wonderfully side by side. My favorite aspect is that percussion forms the core of both. The first piece “Snared by a Spider” is built upon hypnotic snare brushes and precisely tuned bass drums. At first, I thought I was being treated to a percussion only track (which I am always on board for) before other sounds enter the fray. Most notably, a tenor sax (I’m guessing, there are no credits) delivers a mournful, echoing call. Occasional piano plinks, plucked strings and ringing bells round out the arrangement until the most aggressive sound on the album rears its head, a sawtooth sub-oscillator mirroring the bass drums vibrations. The rhythm on the flipside, “I Hear it in My Sleep”, is quicker in tempo and less minimalist but no less focused. The arrangement is similar with woodwinds again positioned as the star player. This time they are sprightly and multi-tracked, a tad Glassy if you catch my drift. The piece culminates in icy winds blown by a chilly synthesizer with nary a drum in sight.
I’m impressed with the degree of control and restraint Mawbey exhibits in his compositions. They shapeshift subtly, sometimes imperceptibly, generating emotional resonance as large-scale changes happen a little at a time, just like life. Sensational.
Psuedo Desnudo - Still Underground [Cudighi]
First Man from the Second Millennium, Texas-based Psuedo Desnudo’s prior album, is one of my favorite discoveries from the last couple years. A truly original and irresistible lo-fi record that caught me by surprise, so I couldn’t be more excited to soak in Psuedo Desnudo’s follow up Still Underground. As you might infer from the title, there’s no professional recording budget, no Ric Ocasek in the control room (well, besides the obvious reason), and there’s no problem. Like on First Man, Alejandro Gomez-Leos has expertly forged his own home-recorded hallmark, making recordings that sound strange and satisfying.
Kicking off with “Bathroom in Berlin'' feels intentional, differentiating itself from the loose-limbed, loopy pop of First Man and establishing a new motif of early 80s groove punk (think Tronics if Ziro Baby ever had a proper rhythm section). But knowing that a Psuedo tape never stays in one place for long (and we wouldn’t want it any other way), no time is wasted exploring alternate pathways whether it's the Man Made Hill-ish “Public Key”, the bizarre yet vulnerable “But R U All There?” or the proggy rave up/down “Last Glass into Sand'' replete with bellowing Beefheartian vocals.
Did Joe Meek ever record Carl Perkins? Because it sure feels like it on “Prisoners of War”, a resplendent bit of weirdness. Sounding like a Western balladeer backed by a monastic pirate choir, Gomez-Leos duets with a strangled bugle, and “Prisoners of War” is truly the greatest, strangest song that 1961 never gave us. Equal parts Rawhide and The Outer Limits. “Gimme Your Car”, with its chugging guitar and organ riffs and evocations of mid-century modernity, doesn’t sound like Suicide so much as a tune that would have inspired Suicide to start a band. “Lattice Structure” is a scaled down somewhere nestled between Suicide proper and early Simple Minds. The final two tracks are among the best and take the album full circle back to the pre-goth illegal all ages club in 1980 Europe where Still Underground begins.
First Man is still my preference due to its curious arrangements, and that the chorus of the title track pops into my head unannounced at regular intervals, but Still Underground is a worthy follow up by one of the most compelling artists going right now.
Graham Repulski - Zero Shred Forty [no label]
Hard to believe it’s been four years since the last release by the ever-prolific Philadelphian lo-fi troubadour Graham Repulski. He’s kept busy making records with Von Hayes (including last year’s tremendous Wa La!) but there’s no substitute for unadulterated Repulski. Zero Shred Forty gives us no less than three new fuzzed up classics deserving of the eventual Graham Repulski career retrospective box set (you know it’s coming one of these years). “Failure Jam” and the plaintive, too brief “Rated Violence” both feature lyrics about vampires or other spooky stuff making them strong new additions to future Rocktober soundtracks. Each tune trafficks in the instantly memorable hooks that Repulski is well-practiced in delivering. “Flaming Television” showcases Repulski’s signature stirring caterwaul on its big big BIG chorus. Immediately sliding into the top spot for Graham Repulski alone-in-your-bedroom rock-outs. Sing it loud and proud. I only wish there were live drums on the track rather than a crummy drum machine. Elsewhere, Repulski makes a few forays into avant-balladry (“Zoey the Cat” and “Jinx Pimp”) and most interesting of all is “Boiled Again”. Clocking in at almost five minutes and teetering between strumming-in-the-next-room-over quietude and thumping wall-of-sound bluster, it’s among the most epic and dynamic Repulski jams but still couched in that rich Tascam flavor. Don’t make us wait four years next time, Graham. Pro tip: you can grab Zero Shred Forty and all of Repulski’s past cassettes and CDs (the ones that are still in print, anyway) for mere pennies at his bandcamp. It’s the best deal in town!
Sentry - Perfect Blue Bubbles [Jollies]
I’ve written previously that I am the least qualified person to review techno. I hardly know the difference between Acid House and Deep House. (Actually, do I know the difference?). I’m not really capable of much more than dig it/don’t dig it. But this, Perfect Blues Bubbles by Sentry, I dig. The compositions here are on another level than some stuff I hear. I’m simply lacking in prerequisite vocabulary to properly critique something like this so I’ll highlight some of my favorite moments. “Fly Approves” shows up as a dancefloor crasher, driven by a relentless four-on-the-floor rhythm but it’s harmonically restless. One of my favorite moments of the tape is when a gnawing counter melody materializes 90 seconds in, shifting the track into a minor key. “Donut 2” is the true star here and I don’t think it’s just because it makes me think of eating donuts. It’s because of the alluring yet convoluted melody, egging me on to chase it until my calves start cramping up. “Is This Real?” (unfortunately not a Wipers cover, that would be sick) gets almost operatic at first before the bass throb and kick punch in. Pick any point on Perfect Blue Bubbles and it won’t take long for it to change, Sentry is in a state of constant evolution both rhythmically and melodically. The finale “Workcitipoly” is a plate spinning trick where so many disparate sounds jostle up against each other yet somehow remain in perfect balance. I’ve got a new favorite to play in my brain-rave.
Shabbat - Mohave Sessions [Drongo Tapes]
I work for a company that has a high percentage of Jewish employees and toward the end of the year as the days grow shorter, the office closes a little bit earlier on Fridays in preparation for the Sabbath or Shabbat (or Shabbos as Walter Sobchak prefers when he explains its meaning) which begins at sundown. In order to properly kick off the weekend, we came up with a little tune called “Turn Down Shabbat” obviously set to the tune of “Turn Down For What” by Lil Jon and DJ Snake. This anecdote has no bearing on anything, really, other than I must expose my bias that any cassette called “Shabbat” is automatically going to generate some fuzzy feelings.
In this case, the name is fitting as this tape, Mohave Sessions, is full of fuzzy feelings. Furthermore, the introductory cut is called “Crescent City Sunrise” and while it is unclear whether it’s about New Orleans or the Northern California enclave, I have good memories of both. I’m just warning you, I can’t be objective here. So when Shabbat uncorks aged Tascam elegies (“Van Alden Dirge” and “Summers Out of Reach”) or lets club bangers seep out of pirate radio antennae (“Love Can Feel So Good” and “Almore”) or splits the difference on the epic “Harbor Lights”, I can’t help but wrap myself in a duvet stuffed with tape hiss and turn down my own private Shabbat.