Wednesday, April 28, 2021

APRIL 2021

Freelove Fenner - The Punishment Zone [Moone] 
Having recently released such charmers as Lithics’ Wendy Kraemer EP and Tashi Dorji’s and John Dieterich’s Midden, it’s not surprising that Phoenix’s Moone Records would have an ace up its sleeve. The Punishment Zone is the first recording in seven years from Freelove Fenner, the Montreal-based trio that gave the world one of the best songs of the last decade. Freelove Fenner’s music exists out-of-time to a degree due, in part, to the group’s eschewing of 21st century recording methods (digital software, screens, etc.) opting instead for a 100% analog and fastidiously documented recording process. The results bear this out as each collection of songs they release is ornately crafted and polished by hand to a stunning gleam. 

The biggest reason to get excited about a new Freelove Fenner record is that they simply don’t sound like anyone else. At least nobody I’ve heard. I can put on my rock critic cap and get sort of close: a more dexterous Young Marble Giants, a sprightly version of Run On’s marimba-led tunes or the negative image of The Raincoats where the ragged edges and loose threads are perfectly hemmed, the blaring and scratching supplanted by purring and gliding. The Monochrome Set with a heart of ice? Maybe Marine Girls fit in there somewhere? None of those comps are really satisfying or especially accurate. Freelove Fenner is certainly entrenched in the last four decades of indie pop (particularly the kind emanating from across the pond) but somehow emerged a hardened gem with a clarity index all its own. 

Well, if artist comps aren’t going to work, I better start throwing adjectives out. If “crystalline” had a sound then here you go. The Punishment Zone is effervescent but never sugary, like what I imagine an extremely expensive bottle of champagne to taste like. I’ve settled on “lucid dream pop” for my shorthand descriptor of the band’s music. It’s narcotic but in perfect focus; no sounds are blurred or buried. No sound is misspent. In fact, the record ends with “Whatever Grows” which is built on a chugging synth riff, a far cry from anything in the shoegaze sector. Yet, I can’t escape that listening to The Punishment Zone in broad daylight makes me feel like it’s midnight. The record’s opening notes of “Find the Man” play in my head constantly, like the clandestine password to gain entry to a nocturnal club of unfurling shadows and occasional shafts of diffuse light. The crisp groove of “New Wave Pool” is something that will never permanently vacate your mind and the carefree jaunt of “Perfect Master” will make you feel happy. That’s right, this record will make you happy! What more could you hope to gain from a spinning plastic disc? 

Diamonds take time and so do Freelove Fenner LPs. Immaculate doesn’t happen overnight, The Punishment Zone took seven years! You could wait another seven years for a new Freelove Fenner record, but you’d be a damn fool when you can hear a new Freelove Fenner record right now. I suggest you live in The Now. 

Dan Melchior - Odes [Cudighi] 
An instrumental solo guitar album is a your-mileage-will-vary proposition in my mind. Albums of the ilk, generally speaking, are reliably enjoyable but there’s also so damn many guitar players out there recording instrumental guitar albums. You have to be doing something truly different or otherwise special to stand out from the crowd. And as a guitar player, there’s a particular hurdle that any such album needs to clear: is listening to someone else play guitar more engaging or rewarding than me actually grabbing my guitar and playing myself?

This cassette, Odes, by the prolific punk-of-all-trades Dan Melchior clears that hurdle. Melchior has released a shit ton of records; I haven’t heard most of ‘em (though I recommend the two he did in collaboration with Russell Walker (The Pheromoans) for Kill Shaman) but I definitely hadn’t heard him in an instrumental mode before. Sadly, Odes has a tragic inspiration as Melchior dedicated the album to his late wife Letha Rodman Melchior. 

The first side is fantastic from the moment you push Play. The plaintive acoustic guitar in “Louisiana Honeymoon” sets the tone, drifting listlessly until joined by a second glistening guitar forming a magical partnership. As someone who enjoyed a Louisiana honeymoon, the track brings up lovely memories for me. “The Story of Love” hits me hard every time, my eyes start watering when I hear the first few notes. It’s this quality that makes Odes so special. 

There’s no technical virtuosity on display, each song features two (maybe three?) tracks of guitar, one playing a cyclical arpeggio and the other improvising in consonant fashion. It’s simple, but very pretty. However, the way Melchior recorded the songs is instrumental to their beauty. Recorded on a 4-track and a karaoke machine with the reverb button engaged, notes emanate and drift from the fuzzy ether, blending and blurring with one another. “Night Song” truly sounds like a song playing in someone else’s memory. Incidental sounds and imperfections pop up in subtle ways giving the music a genuinely human character. 

An analog signal, and its inexact and unreproducible harmonic nature, is as close an inanimate entity gets to an organic lifeform in my estimation and Melchior uses this to express so much without uttering a single word. Odes is a testament to the literally indescribable power music holds and the depth of feeling it can imbue. It’s repetitive. It’s meditative. It’s mournful. It’s truly remarkable. 

Preening - Dragged Through the Garden [Ever/Never] 
Last time I checked in on Oakland’s Preening, I said they are the only neo-no wave act I’ve gotten on board with since my teen years. That fact has remained. Their sound hasn’t changed drastically since then, still most clearly channeling James Chance and his merry band of petty criminals, but I do think Preening comes across a bit more refined on Dragged Through the Garden, a new 12” on Ever/Never, the trio’s first release of the 2020s. I know “refined” is a ludicrous word to use in the same sentence as Preening, but the chaos is more cleverly controlled and consistent on Garden so what do you want me to say? “Distilled” is too clinical and I quite like the mental image of Preening earning a certificate from Emily Post. 

Previously, I would have said while Preening doesn’t forsake the groove but they never let it get in the way of their skronk, but the sword swings both ways on Garden. The rhythm section of Alejandra Alcala (bass) and Sam Lefebvre (percussion) are totally locked in over all 12 inches, delivering on-point, unconventional patterns throughout, grounding the songs without sacrificing the least bit of oddball intrigue. Speaking of oddballs, Max Nordile (name a band, he’s been in it) heads up the rag tag trio putting his lungs on full display whether heaving frequencies through his saxophone or not. In the past I’ve stated I prefer Alcala’s vocals (who sadly provides only secondary vox on the record) and that Nordile’s vocals are kind of annoying. On Garden though, his voice seems to have taken on a new Boredoms-like character, so either Nordile’s vocals are exactly the same as they’ve ever been and I’ve just finally grown accustomed to them, or he’s found the right brand of annoying vocals that tickles my fancy. 

“No Season” immediately stood out and stuck with me after a single listen with Nordile’s “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na no season!” whittled into my brain with a pocket knife. Easily the catchiest number here. Off kilter sax lines drive “Economy Head” and “You Gave It Away” in an almost Psychedelic Furs-ish fashion (think “Dumb Waiters”) while Alcala and Lefebrve edge “Autocon” just a little into the mutant disco direction, suggesting the trio might be capable of ushering in a full scale 1980 NYC renaissance on their own. “Face/On” (from Greasetrap Frisbee) remains Preening’s high water mark but it’s got competition in “Rapt Fashion” calling to mind a guitarless take on the esteemed Ex Models and their ability to meld spastic abrasion and contagious hooks. 

While the trio homes in tightly on history’s no wave rippers, the end of each side brings a left turn of sorts. “Red Red Lava”, for instance, is more in line with Nordile’s whacked out solo work, curdled no-fi slop with a sax melody struggling to find its way out. The EP’s finale, “Extortion (Version)” was assembled by Andy Human (name a band, he’s also been in it) and Brett Eastman who mixed and mastered the record. I’m pretty tired of the lazy tacked-on “dub version” thing so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it after spotting it at the end of the tracklist. To my pleasant surprise, the track actually isn’t all that “dub”. Instead it’s a bit more reminiscent of early industrial-experimental-whathaveyou acts like Cabaret Voltaire or This Heat. From what I can tell, Human and Eastman pulled all the sounds from the previous 15 minutes and sculpted them into a mechanical lurch that belies the funked up wig outs that preceded it. Plus points for subverted expectations. 

Spiritual Mafia - Alfresco [ANTI FADE/Ever/Never]
From “In a Big Country” to the Fairlight to Lubricated Goat, Australia has an ironclad claim as one of the most important countries in rock history. It’s certainly one of my favorite countries rock-wise; I buy any interesting-looking record I come across if I can confirm it originates from Australia. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed. I’ve even fantasized about doing a write up just on Australian records I have in my collection, but let’s face it, I don’t even have enough time to stay on top of the stuff in the mailbox that I should be reviewing. Fortunately for me, the debut LP by Spiritual Mafia is the best of both worlds. It’s a brand spankin’ new mailbox arrival and a bonafide Antipodean top end killer. 

From its inception, Ever/Never has been a US pipeline from the land of Oz having put the likes of Australian ex-pat rockers DeGreaser, Ballroom and The Wilful Boys in American earholes. Meanwhile ANTI FADE has spent the last decade documenting the heavies of the Australian scene. So even though the ragtag gang, assembled from across the far reaches of the land down under (there’s even a banana bender in the bunch), is a complete unknown, it’s got some unfuckwithable backers making you take notice. Once you hear Alfresco though, it makes sense why those bastions for good tunes would be all about these guys. The record is a bloody bonzer! Miraculously, Spiritual Mafia has emerged with their own sound from day dot. ...That’s no small miracle. 

Alfresco is loaded with paeans to outdoor dining, taking baths and lounging poolside. That makes them sound like they could be a shambling goof troupe with a gutful of piss a la Taco Leg. But oh no, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Spiritual Mafia sounds imposing (but not abrasive). The lyrics are quotidian (yet sinister). The singer sounds like Dugald Mackenzie (RIP) but on sedatives. (I like him.) Spiritual Mafia gives off a curiously casual vibe, like they’re barely lifting a finger yet still rock hard enough to put you in an ambo. I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quite like them before. 

The first thing you hear is the single note staccato guitar of “Lunch”, not so much a kick in the pisser as an insistent, mounting pressure on the pisser like a swollen prostate. It gets the pulse pounding and the bass thumps the track to life as the singer literally invites you to lunch. “Body” pulls the same trick with a good 30 seconds of the same chord before dropping the hook in arguably the catchiest tune on the record. Atmospheric turntable scratching crops up on “Body” and all over the album. Lest you think there’s a wave of neo-nü metal acts plaguing the golden shores of Australia (that’d truly be the last wave), Spiritual Mafia employs turntables like fellow Aussies The Stickmen used to, casting a spectral pall over the proceedings. Take your party elsewhere. 

Speaking of partying, “Smiles” is a quasi-KC & the Sunshine Band cover, making liberal use of the lyric “That’s the way I like it” in a tonedeaf deadpan. I’d definitely party with the bros but they got a softer side too. Put your sunnies on and relax cause the tight little number “Poolside” is actually filled with beautiful melodies if you really listen. You'll be ready for a cuddle in the sunshine in no time.

It’s hard to say which track is most memorable, but the two 10+ minute behemoths at the end of each side certainly make an impression. “Hybrid Animal” is a psych-grunge dirge jam with a distinctly Australian flavor. Alice in Chains meets Exhaustion? I don’t know what the constant shouting of “three legged dog” means but it makes perfect sense. (Maybe I’m onto something with that Alice in Chains bit?) Has there ever been an “Australian PIL”? Cuz Spiritual Mafia might be it after slinging the hefty bass groove on “Bath Boy”. Synth swirl drowns everything out at one point turning the hypnosis hallucinatory. I’m sure the lyrics have a sordid connotation that I’m blissfully unaware of so I’ll just take them at face value and sing them to my daughter while I give her baths. Finally some dad rock for the discerning listener. No surprise it came from the land down under.

Six songs not a minute wasted. Find me a better record this year. Go on, find one! Grab a coldie cause it’s gonna be hard yakka mate. 

Vicious Fence - Dropout [Total Life Society] 
Vicious Fence - Primitives [Total Life Society] 
Vicious Fence is a newish band led by Cleveland-based Matthew Wascovich and featuring members of Mudhoney, Urinals and AuxOut fav, Slovenly. Debuting with simultaneous 7" singles (with a studio album reportedly in progress) Vicious Fence is wasting no time. 

Given the past sonic transgressions of this motley crew, the most surprising thing to me is how “classic” Vicious Fence sounds, which isn’t a bad thing in the least. There’s a punk heart beating inside satisfying, decades-tested songwriting moves. That each song is stuffed with a hearty dose of Hammond B3 organ surely adds to the retro-now vibe. 

Of the four songs across the two singles, “Dropout”, is the easy pick. A rollicking two minutes that demands repeated needle drops after the first go round. A terse riff is dressed up in flanger with aforementioned organ moves propelled by heavy toms. The flipside features the pensive, downcast “Same Cell Different Paint”. Attacking from a different minor-key angle, the band dares to invoke the classic Brainiac refrain “nothing ever changes” (ballsy move for an Ohio-based band) and acquits itself well. Wascovich’s vocal style reminds me of someone that I still haven’t been able to identify and it’s driving me crazy. I guess I’m gonna take that failure to my grave. It’s a classic, complete single: rave up on side A, ramp down on side B. 

The other single is good too and a bit different. “Primitives” rolls along with a wistful bounce, congealing into an unexpected mid-tempo blues stomp. An easy groover to be sure. “Primitives” is backed with a track called “Humanoid Front” which suggests there might be some Edge/Creed brain scanning going on but the number is 50s rock & roll to its core with a seesawing chord progression in the chorus. 

All in all, two quality singles made by seasoned vets. I’m curious to see what they do across an entire album.