Friday, January 31, 2020
From time to time, I come across the new-paradigm music chat including the whole “what’s the point of record labels nowadays?” thing. In my opinion, it’s not an argument worth having because the philosophy that motivates such a question values recorded music in an enormously different way than it has been throughout its history.
Perhaps hiring a PR company to help get you social media followers and a place on a Spotify playlist is a more effective way to play a tent at Coachella. Perhaps us record buyers are just a forest of trees waiting to be wiped out by a streaming tidal wave. (But let it be known that we are having a hell of a lot of fun listening to our stereos while we wait.)
An artist creates and a label curates and both qualities are necessary and important to music lovers. Most music is bad, and there is more bad music being "released" than ever before. Entering the fourth decade of the online era, labels may be less important for the infrastructure they provide (though I don't necessarily agree with this) but far more important for the curatorial work they do. Releasing records (and tapes and CDs) is expensive and labor-intensive. The fact that a record exists means that somebody truly loves it and believes in it so much that they think others will love it too, and consequently assumes the risk that others won't.
This release, an EP titled Wendy Kraemer by Portland, OR’s Lithics, is a case in point as to why I love record labels (keep in mind I’m not talking about media conglomerates). Wendy Kraemer was first a tour tape thrown together by the band in 2017, consisting of home recorded demos and outtakes and was likely destined for ephemeral status as little magnetic mementos for a clutch of Lithics fans. But Moone Records, obviously one of those Lithics fans, loved that tape so much that it felt compelled to put hundreds of copies out on 12 inches of 45rpm vinyl. Being a record label goes beyond merely sharing your obsession but also trying to create an obsession for someone else (or with any luck, many people)—to make your obsessions become other people’s obsessions.
Lithics are rooted in the late 70s/early 80s; such as the sinewy sounds of Wire, Au Pairs, and various no wave acts but filtered through the placid minimalism of Young Marble Giants and the decade's oncoming development of indie pop. There's a lot of energy lurking in Lithics tunes but they keep it tightly bundled under Aubrey Hornor's stiff-lipped, somewhat somnolent voice. Lithics are chock full of potential energy, if you can remember your high school physics class. There is an anxious precision to Lithics’ songwriting and performance which creates a compelling contrast with the sketchbook nature of Wendy Kraemer. There are no song titles or a track listing given, and each side of the record is unbanded. Moone really labored to preserve the original tape experience (e.g. no skipping tracks) which is another idiosyncratic move that contributes to the unique vibe of the record.
The first side features tight bass lines and geometric patterned melodies you'd expect from Lithics but you also get some flutish feedback breaths over jazz drumming, unidentifiable musique concrète handheld sound collage and what sounds like a recording of playback of a practice session recording. My favorite moment in Wendy Kraemer arrives during the first side with a great little tune featuring multi-tracked vocals and two guitars, one being a normal sounding electric guitar and the other sounding like unamplified electric guitar like they aimed a microphone at the bridge or maybe duct-taped a contact mic between the pickups. The bass is so locked in that it wasn't until the track ended that it dawned on me there were no drums present. It's an unusual approach yet the result is easily identifiable as a Lithics tune.
This is the first Lithics record I've heard but I do recognize a couple songs on Side B having heard them on various radio shows. The second side mostly eschews the patchwork nature of the first for straightforward demos, and really good sounding demos at that. Their most recognizable song “Edible Door” (or recognizable to me since I can recall the name) appears here in less polished form but no less tight with the bands nervy chops on full display. (I might even prefer this version.) These guys must practice a lot, Wendy Kraemer often doesn’t have the typical feel of the homemade sloppy, mistake-laden rough draft that these types of releases usually amount to. They’re like those bothersome students that bring in their rough drafts to peer review groups and could already get an A turning the paper in as is.
The first song on Side B sounds great, bristling with jagged riffs tied together with a stealthily infectious vocal hook. Oddly enough the following song reminds me of Kate Bush's "Under Ice" despite being a completely different kind of arrangement (one with an odd mechanical sounding kick drum). The end of the side slips into more jammy territory and muffled vocals before fittingly concluding with the sound of a cassette being rewound.
In a rare event that will surely never happen again, I am actually posting this review before the record has been released. Wendy Kraemer is officially being released next Friday, February 7th but it's already available for pre-order on the Moone website.
I previously reviewed the fourth installment of Betwixt & Between, an ongoing split series by banjoist Jacken Elswyth where he pairs a different artist with his own work each time out. Elswyth's side was quite enjoyable and Quinie's side really got my jaw dropping so I was eager to hear what sounds lie in wait on the next installment.
As usual Elswyth kicks things off, here with three tracks. Opener "Sweet Lemeny" begins in a bit of a raga-inspired mood backed with a persistent harmonium drone before morphing into frenetic Fahey-isms in the track's second half. Elswyth's choice of instrument, clawhammer banjo if I recall, allows him to work in these established modes but introduce a new take on them. The bright, percussive timbre of the banjo produces an entirely different feeling than we've come to expect with these approaches to music making. "Improvisation for Banjo (22.4)" features fierce, speedy fingerpicking and is certainly the most wild-eyed of the bunch. My favorite moment of Elswyth's material comes near the end, where it sounds like he perhaps grabbed a bow and raked on the strings without missing a beat before concluding the piece. Its jagged coruscation is an unexpected thrill and the piece is richer for it.
Consonant and pleasing to the ear, the final piece "Last Chance Set" is vibrantly active and brimming with adventure; it would be a treat to hear it soundtrack pretty much any movie that's ever been made about Appalachia. I enjoyed my first experience with Elswyth on the last installment of Betwixt & Between but, unless my ears deceive me, I think he's getting better.
Alula Down is a duo that sounds like it could be one person, and that is by no means a bad thing. They create spare and elemental versions of English folk songs that come off as quite haunting without any overt gothic posturing. Each of the four tracks is constructed with the bare minimum of materials. A beautiful, somewhat chilly voice, a single track of acoustic guitar and subtle accoutrements depending on the track (birdsong, wheezing drone, a bed of looped voice). Alula Down reminds me of early Caethua which is a very good thing, though they come off as even more stoic and concentrated. The duo provides a foreboding version of "Sweet Lemeny" which is a true highlight. Based around a stone-faced, cyclical guitar pattern, the track makes for a fascinating contrast with Elswyth's interpretation. The avian duo of "Three Ravens" and "Blackbird" that closes the disc is pitch perfect as well. I could eat a whole plate of these things.
My most joyous record store moment in recent memory is finding this Shop Assistants 12" at an affordable price. The limey blokes across the pond have the luxury of picking this beauty up dirt cheap but not so here in the western United States. "Safety Net" is a glorious tune, immediately evocative of that angel-voiced 80s Scottish sound. A pure dose of hard-driving c86 sugar rush. It's a rollicking number built on chugging bass, thumping toms and soaring guitar riffs, the kind that lives in your head forever after a single listen.
The two songs on the second side are good too. The pop stomp of “Almost Made It” rolls with a big time guitar break and the lovely closing ballad "Somewhere in China" anticipates the many somber Belle & Sebastian earworms to come. This is simply a public service announcement to grab this record if you are fortunate to have the opportunity.
Don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep up this baby-themed record review gag but I think I've got at least another six months in the tank so I hope you're getting used to it. This month's selection takes its name from one of the most important items you can have in your baby-care arsenal (especially now that my kid is starting to eat solid food): sons of Detroit, MI, The Bibs.
I actually don't know much of anything about The Bibs (apparently they are some kind of Heath Moerland-less (Sick Llama, Tyvek) configuration of Roachclip—which is also a band I'm not too familiar with). I have the Spacecase Records Podcast (excellent listening of new and old while you do the dishes, I recommend it!) to thank for putting The Bibs on my radar after they put "Fine Wine" on one of the episodes. I was hooked and shortly after, like some sort of divine gift, From the Fish Houses showed up in the new arrivals bin after a long, frustrating day.
Emblazoned on a small scrap of paper tucked in the jacket is the insignia "recorded on Tascam four track." Immortal words that get the hair to stand up on the back of my neck every time. There is certainly a Flying Nun vibe on Fish Houses, or at least a post-Flying Nun vibe after the Kiwis infiltrated the water supply of American college-aged rock bands, so if that's in your wheelhouse (and come on, it should be in everybody's wheelhouse) then this record is worth a look. One of The Bibs is named "Chris Durham" and that is a Flying Nun name if I've ever heard one.
"Fine Wine" is a small laundry pile of sloshed vocals, killer carnival-lite organ melodies and a jaunty rhythm section. The recipe is so, so simple but it's also perfection. The track feels like a lost classic that's been sitting in some burnout's closet since 1983 finally getting unleashed upon the world decades later. You gotta hear it.
Elsewhere in the ramshackle collection, "Slow Curves" has that great cardboard box drum sound and marks The Bibs' biggest effort at penning a pop hit, which is to say not all that much effort coming from these bummed strummers. If I really squint (like really squint) I see some hazy slacker-rock version of Nirvana's "Lounge Act" in "Afternoon", a rare uptempo ditty. The opening trio of "Trenches," "This Was" and "Already Gone" makes for an unvarnished entry into Fish Houses's lonesome sounds, nestled among the lingering ghosts on the cassette they recorded over. Live drums that practically sound like a drum machine, bleary eyed slow motion picking patterns and an organ that makes a habit of hiding out in the background whispering handsome countermelodies from time to time. The Bibs indulge in the fragile sound of the single coil pickup and love their single notes, I don't think they strum a guitar until four songs into the record. I have the feeling that as the years go by I'm going to be digging this record more and more.
The worst thing I can say about Fish Houses is that "Fine Wine" is so fucking great that the album's other tracks can't match it. The vast majority of recorded music doesn't come close either, so as far as "worst things" go that's pretty damn good.