Recent Releases Rounded-up: Black Hearted Brother, The Stargazer Lilies, Youth Code, Wooden Shjips, Sean Proper, more

November 21, 2013

More recent release reviews at THIS PAGE.


Black Hearted Brother: Stars Are Our Home

As if knowing the debut album by alumni of Slowdive (!) and Seefeel (!) could hardly live up to expectations, Black Hearted Brother decided to far surpass them. Quite simply, this might be the best shoegaze album I’ve heard all year. It very well might even be the best indie/rock album I’ve heard in the last ten, but that would risk committing some pretty bold hyperbole. So let’s leave it at the best 2013 has to offer.

Drawing from krautrock, shoegaze, space-rock and 60 years of pop music traditions, soaring melodies glide over expansive sonic landscapes that somehow manage to be evocative of the past without being derivative (though “If I Was Here To Change Your Mind” definitely takes a page from the Spiritualized songbook). Ironically, this might be the only shoegaze record in the last few years that doesn’t bear almost too-strong a Slowdive influence. At times the album toes the stadium rock line (Verve and Suede are hinted at), but the mood is kept intimate and sincere.

Bands like Arcade FireColdplay or Muse could take a lesson here on how to paint with broad, epic strokes without coming off as brash poseurs and do gentle without seeming like ineffectual drips—but I doubt they’d have much interest in doing so. Anyway, Stars are our Home is a ball hit way out of the park.

5 Space pop masterpieces out of 5 Master shoegazers back at work

The Stargazer Lilies: We Are The Dreamers

If you were, say, a shoegaze stormtrooper, We Are The Dreamers is the shoegaze you’re looking for. Don’t let any strange old dream-pop Jedi hermits tell you otherwise. Do these ex-Soundpool members lay it on thick as honey? Sure, they do. They may as well have named the band The Shoegazer Lilies. But thank god. Melodies! Washes of filtered reverb! Sweet as nectar vocals! It’s everything great about nu-gaze front-runners Soundpool (and Slowdive and Cocteau Twins, naturally), but refined and distilled into a tonic to rival the best releases on 4AD and Creation in their heyday. If not for Black Hearted Brother, this would be the shoegaze record of the year.

4.85 Languid psychedelic waterbeds out of 5 Dream ships aloft on solar winds

Youth Code: Youth Code

This could very well be my new favourite record of the year. The year in question being 1987. Though in that case it has some stiff competition with Front 242‘s Official Version and Nitzer Ebb‘s That Total Age. Not to mention Skinny Puppy‘s Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate. These are all artists referenced by the brilliant EBM revivalists Youth Code who take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the genre. Gloriously regressive and devolutionary. True, there’s nothing quite as immediately catchy as “Headhunter” or “Violent Playground” on the LP (though “Let The Sky Burn” is pretty damn close), but it’s not entirely necessary to have earworm hooks in EBM—just that jackhammer, chest compressing, beat and that mechanical bass sound peppered with guttural screams and old movie samples. Plus, it gives the duo somewhere to grow on the next album which I’m already salivating for.

4.875 Cyberpunk jackhammers out of 5 Howling emaciated Belgian canines

Sqürl: Ep #1

Jim Jarmusch has been improving Jozef Van Wissem‘s records of late by providing background feedback drones for the lute virtuoso. In fact, one of the 4 tracks is exactly that—minus the lute (the literally titled “Some Feedback For Jozef Van Wissem“). The rest is pretty much what you’d expect from the ghost-white pompadour wearing art-film director. Droney noise-rock with a slight Memphis vibe. Not quite fully-formed, but a portent for great things to come from this combo.

4 Droning art-rockers out of 5 Velvet Elvis Undergrounds

Black Joe Lewis: Electric Slave

This platter starts off like Sly Stone run through Jimi‘s octave pedal, slinks into some Jon Spencer-ish garage rock, procedes funks it up James Brown-style like he did with The Honeybears, and ends up bashing out a pretty violent set of socially conscious, fuzz-soaked, classic R&B party tunes. It’s sort of everything Lenny Kravitz might have been if his back up band consisted of members of Mudhoney and The Thing. Which, in my book, is a pretty rad concept.

4 Fuzz-funk ’68s out of 5 Booty-shaking psych-rockers

Disappears: Era

No Steve Shelley on the traps this time (which is here nor there). And they’ve gone goth. Kinda. Or darkly post-punk at least. They definitely sound a bit like Bauhaus. Which is perfectly okay with me, but anyone looking for more of their slightly The Fall-ish take on krauty psychedelic desert  fuzz from their first three albums might end up scratching their heads. Well, that’s just too bad for the scratchers. Bauhaus is awesome and they should open their minds. Maybe by trepanning their way in with that itchy finger.

4 Ex art-rock krautsters out of 5 Bat loving modernists

Wooden Shjips: Back To Land

For the last few years my perennial review of Wooden Shjips/Moon Duo releases is a lament the dude keeps making the same (brilliant) fuzz-rock record over and over, but with the contradictory desire that he doesn’t abandon his trademark sound altogether if he does pull himself out of the Suicide/kraut rut he’s expertly dug for himself.

Turns out that “next time” is Back To Land and it’s where the Shjips finally start gaining traction on the steep walls of that rut. There’s a more songwritery feel to a few of the songs—the title track almost has a pop-hook even!—which strengthens my suspicion that Wooden Shjips, Psychic Ills, Woods,The Men and possibly Crystal Stilts are all slowly converging on the same point. That point is somewhere in the desert, possibly Burning Man, playing as a Grateful Dead tribute band. But that time is a ways off in the future yet, and maybe none of them will be around that long. We can only hope.

But more immediately Back To Land is the Shjips first record in a while that isn’t entirely superfluous next to the rest of their catalogue. Still, taken in that context, it’s a smidgen lackluster. When I recently saw them live in Toronto, my impression was any single number was fantastic—but the set as a whole was pretty boring to sit through. I had to so some real zen in-the-moment work to keep myself engaged. The band seemed to be having the same problem. Anyway, the record suffers a bit from this as well. There might be a bit more variety in the tempos and rhythms and directions and subtle vocal melodies than on their previous records, but not enough to hold my interest in a vice-like grip like their older, sloppier, more impassioned discs. Still, any one track taken on its own is fantastic.

Hopefully Back To Land is a first baby step towards a truly brilliant record, it’s just too bad they couldn’t skip a step.

4 Garage-fuzz kraut-droners out of 5 Desert drifting astronauts

Bardo Pond: Peace On Venus

Similarly stuck in their own rut, the latest by Bardo Pond offering sounds, to my ears, if my memory serves, exactly like their last album on the Fire Records label. Which wasn’t too different from a lot of their older albums. Perhaps there’s more flute this time, it can be hard to tell. Anyway, if you’re uninitiated to the Pond‘s full-on psychedelic fuzz-gaze, k-hole, brain-melting waters, then Peace On Venus as good a place to dip a toe in as any. For those who’ve dipped a toe, or waded in up to their knees, it might be too much of the same old, same old. It’s still essential listening for fully-baptized devotees (such as yours truly), of course.

4 Droning fuzz-rockers out of K-hole extremists

Daniel Bachman: Jesus I’m A Sinner

Improving on his previous outing, Daniel Bachman adds a few more ingredients to his mastery of American primitive, finger-picked acoustic guitar virtuosity. The John Fahey influence (i.e., wholesale mimicry) is tempered this time by the likes of Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull and, relative newcomer, James Blackshaw. Bachman has really become an astoundingly good player whose only shortcoming is he hasn’t yet found his own voice. Jesus I’m A Sinner suggests he’s travelling the right road to do so. Ultimately, the lack of a unique “voice” or “sound” doesn’t detract at all from the enjoyment of listening to the record—only that it might possibly be superfluous depending on how many Jack Rose or Leo Kottke, etc, records you already own, and how deep a fan of solo folk-guitar instrumentals you are.

3.95 Masters of folk guitar out of 5 American primitives

Sean Proper: Design Engine

Telling a similar story as (one time Dying For Bad Music label-mate) Daniel Bachman, acoustic finger-picker Sean Proper uses slightly rougher language on Design Engine. It might be unfair to compare the two, but it seems inevitable. While Proper lacks some of Bachman’s chops, he makes up for it with an earthy passion which makes his record a touch more engaging. Again, the ghosts of his influences loom over the proceedings, but by the album closer (“Foundation“), he manages to inject a little more of himself. Design Engine is similarly flawed as Bachman’s record, but in different ways. Conversely, it’s similarly brilliant, but in different ways. The roughness in the production gives it a slight edge for me (could be the reverse for you, depending on your sensibilities).

4 Masters of folk guitar out of 5 American primitives

La Luz: It’s Alive

Modern retro surf-pop. Meaning La Luz go back to the ’90s, when the ’90s was going back to the ’60s, but adding a hint of that more contemporary Best Coast/Dum Dum Girls sound. In fact, it’s so much like a mash-up of Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet and Cub, it makes you wonder if that isn’t exactly what they intended. Incidentally, you could swap-in The Ventures and The Shangri-Las in that comparison and it’d still be as accurate. I should point out, that’s not a criticism. Whatever route they took, La Luz come a lot closer to the magic of something like the B-52‘s or Pixies than bands directly influenced by those bands. It helps their songs are a stronger than those of most of their surf-influenced indie cohorts. It feels like in the past few years a lot of bands have been dressing up sub-standard material in these sounds and getting away with it, fooling critics and audiences with a style-over-substance slight of hand. Not to say La Luz is going to expose them as emperors wearing no clothes, but if you’ve been feeling the fatigue of lackluster indie-pop of late, you may find It’s Alive to be a refreshing beach breeze.

4 Beach party bonfires out of 5 Queens of surf guitar

Crystal Stilts: Nature Noir

The Crystal Stilts serve up some more Velvets by way of Doors by way of Modern Lovers down-tempo psych-garage. This is the 2013 model and it runs about as smoothly as their previous outings—if you liked the trip before, you’ll enjoy this ride too. Perhaps even a little bit more as a tune like “Sticks and Stones” is accessible, catchy and bordering on radio-friendly (though maybe only in 1968 or 1992).

As expected, Nature Noir is a soupy stew of cavernous reverb, indecipherable prelude-to-Quaaludes vocals, warbly tremolo guitars and sloopy-doopy drums. Drop in and tune out, baby. It does ,however, reinforce the notion that Woods, Wooden ShjipsThe Men, Psychic Ills and Crystal Stilts are converging on that same point and eventually there’ll be a pop implosion somewhere between Brooklyn and North Hampton that’ll take out the entire Eastern Seaboard in a mushroom cloud of paisleys, bongs and love beads. Not a bad apocalypse.

4.5 Indie psych hippy shakers out of 5 Boho hobos from SoHo


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