Indie Basement (6/18): Kings of Convenience, ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ The Catenary Wires, Marina Allen, more

Say goodbye to Spring and say hello to this week’s Indie Basement: Kings of Convenience are finally back with a new album (worth the wait? spoiler alert: yes); avant pop duo Sparks get the great documentary they deserve courtesy director Edgar Wright; Marina Allen updates ’70s folk pop beautifully on her debut; The Catenary Wires (Amelia Fletcher & Rob Pursey of Heavenly, etc) come out of their shells on Birling Gap; and a look back at the Sound of Young Glasgow circa 2008 with Bricolage.

If you need more new record reviews, Andrew writes about Angélique Kidjo and more in Notable Releases. If you need more posts from this week with the Indie Basement Seal of Approval there’s plenty: I love the debut single from Wet Leg; Piroshka pay tribute to Vaughan Oliver on their new single; La Luz‘s new single is great too; and Sally Shapiro are back.

Also: I interviewed Kings of Convenience’s Erlend Øye about their new album.

It’s the last weekend of spring and on Monday it’s officially summer which means the days start getting shorter. Use your weekend wisely!

Head below for this week’s reviews.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Kings of Convenience – Peace or Love (EMI)
It’s been 12 years since their last album but Norway’s “Quiet is the New Loud” duo haven’t lost a step.

“It seems like a comeback, of course, but it doesn’t feel like a comeback,” says Eirik Glambek Bøe, one half of Norwegian folk-pop duo Kings of Convenience, of their first record in 12 years. “It’s been a very slow-burning project. We’ve fooled ourselves many times into thinking that now we know how to make records but the moment we’re in the studio we realise that recordings are really about capturing magic. It’s very, very hard to make something sound simple.” Perfectionists rivalling Kevin Shields, albeit on the other end of the sonic spectrum, Bøe and Erlend Øye have been finessing the 11 songs on Peace or Love for a long time. While such constant, meticulous polishing can buff the charm out of things, Kings of Convenience have never sounded off-the-cuff and the pristine nature of their music suits this attention to detail. They are like a Wes Anderson film, even the untucked shirt on an extra is considered down to the last stitch and left perfectly rumpled.

Not that there are a lot of extras in their world. “Quiet is the New Loud” was a clever title and ethos for the first album and that phrase has surely flipped a few times over the last 20 years but Bøe and Øye stay mostly hushed. They are bonsai gardeners, pruning the songs and arrangements down to the bare minimum, often just guitar and voice, as on “Comb My Hair,” and “Song About it.” Their pursuit, however, is more of the perfect feeling than the most flawless performance. Though they are aiming for both.

As lovely as the sparest songs are, the ones with slightly more robust arrangements are more compelling. This is a more immediate, easily digestible album than 2009’s Declaration of Dependence, and their fondness for bossa nova runs bright on “Rocky Trail” (a first cousin to Riot on an Empty Street‘s “Misread”), “Fever,” “Angel,” and “Catholic Country,” one of two songs to feature Feist and it grew out their collaborative sessions at Berlin’s PEOPLE Festival (The Staves get a cowrite credit on this one, too). Feist and Kings of Convenience should make a full bossa nova album together.

The other Feist collaboration on Peace or Love is “Love is a Lonely Thing,” a more somber song that also underscores the album’s themes — that love is hard, fleeting and most definitely not peaceful (but probably worth it). “Love is pain and suffering / Love can be a lonely thing,” they sing, but then point out “Once you’ve known that magic, who can live without it.” “Washing Machine,” which closes the album, is its bitterest, most beautiful pill. “I lost count how many times I’ve tumbled round inside your washing machine,” Øye sings, “Hung myself out to dry to regain some of my self esteem,” before deciding he’s had enough. “Go and find somebody else.” There are a couple of bright spots: “Angel” is playful and, like its subject, promiscuous, and Øye has a field day with “Fever” double entendres.  Peace or Love, a title that works as a great conversation starter, is not demonstratively different than their three other albums but there’s alchemy in Øye and Bøe’s guitars and voices, which feels especially precious as infrequently as we get it.

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)

In Edgar Wright‘s very entertaining new documentary, Sparks are described as “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and he proves that right off the bat, with a montage of talking head interviews with a whole bunch of famous people — Thurston Moore, Flea, Beck, New Order, Duran Duran, Fred Armisen, Mike Myers, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman Palladino, Jane Wiedlin, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jack Antonoff, and many more — waxing enthusiastic about Ron & Russell Mael and the quirky, glammy, operatic pop they’ve made over the last 50 years. Having been a massive fan himself for years, Wright got frustrated that nobody had made a documentary about them yet and decided to do it himself. The parade of celebs can’t hold a candle to Ron and Russell’s charisma and wit, though.

The Sparks Brothers is Wright’s attempt to make an all-things-to-everyone film that both explains who they are and why they are so beloved to a small but devoted segment of the population, but is also meaty and in-depth enough to appeal to the already converted. He mostly succeeds with both, tracking their lives from growing up and going to school in Los Angeles in the ’60s, to starting the band, their initial success in the UK (Brits took to their weird, glammy sound more than Sparks’ home country), their late-’70s synthpop reinvention (with help from Giorgio Moroder), their New Wave ’80s, and their accepted roles as cult artists who would continue to make great album after great album adored by a devoted few (and most of the Netherlands). Wright also touches on Sparks’ love of film and their dalliances with the form, like appearing in ’70s thriller Roller Coaster, almost making a film with French master Jacques Tati, and their upcoming movie Annette that they made with another French master, Leos Carax (and is the opening film at this year’s Cannes).

The Sparks Brothers also manages to be very much an Edgar Wright film, and fans of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Vs the World will find many of the director’s signature stylistic touches have made it over to the documentary form. If there’s a critique to made, it’s that Wright is too thorough, too indulgent in his fandom. Every album up to the making of the film — well north of 20 —  are covered at least a little and at 2 hours and 20 minutes it is probably about 40 minutes longer than it should be. But I also don’t know what you’d cut and as a fan it flew by.

One of the most interesting aspects is this film almost entirely sidesteps the normal arc of rock docs, avoiding conflict almost entirely. There’s no strife between Ron and Russell, no talk of rock star partying, no TVs in the swimming pool, no Icarus-like fall from the sun, no traumatic childhoods. Even when backing bands are given their walking papers (as happened a few times over the last 50 years), former members interviewed for the film seem ok with having been dismissed, accepting that it was what the Maels needed to do to move on. The only real antagonist is public indifference. We also get a lot of time with Ron and Russell, who are witty and thoughtful, but always at arms length. There’s not much of a window into the Mael’s private lives, but that is ok. You don’t cultivate an image the way they have just to let everyone in to see their messy bedrooms. Sparks are not just like us — any of us — and Wright realizes that that’s what makes them so special.

The Sparks Brothers is in theaters now and will hit streaming and home video later this year.

You can read our interviews with the Maels and Wright. To go along with the film, Edgar also put together a “Sparks for Beginners” playlist which is a great overview of the Maels’ genius:

Marina Allen – Candlepower (Fire)
Can’t wait for Weyes Blood’s new album? This L.A. artist’s terrific debut scratches a similar itch

Los Angeles singer-songwriter Marina Allen makes clear-voiced folk pop that’s a direct descendent of The Carpenters, Linda Perhacs, and The Roches. Working with Chris Cohen collaborator Ben Varian, Allen has created a transfixing debut that exhibits a wide breadth of talent and ambition that is, above all else, a showcase for her crystal clear voice that can go from a low whisper to soaring highs. (No doubt she will be compared to Weyes Blood and for a first record it’s not unwarranted.) Candlepower is also a record of great restraint — the seven songs all hover around three minutes and pack in a lot of memorable moments and imagery on a collection that could easily fit on one side of a vinyl record. Marina hooks you right away with “Louise,” opening with delicate guitar, electric piano and her voice that is flute-like in its clarity. But then the song opens up into an autumnal, melodic pop tableau straight out of 1972 and Candlepower stays there for the rest of its duration. The songs are colored with saxophone, harp, flutes, and all manner of pleasing psychedelic production touches — sometimes very trippy, like on the out-there “Believer — but it’s always in service of the songs, and Marina’s marvelous voice. Candlepower is a great appetizer, bring on the main course.

The Catenary Wires – Birling Gap (Shelflife / Skep Wax)
Indiepop power couple Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey find their groove with their latest group.

As mentioned at least a few times in this column previously, Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey are UK indie royalty, having played in such jangly, “twee” groups as Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research, Tender Trap and, since 2014, The Catenary Wires. Up until now, The Catenary Wires were the gentlest group Rob and Amelia had led, with a delicate folk sound that focused on their voices. But with Birling Gap, they’ve expanded to a five-piece band and returned to pop, making an album that absorbs the 30+ years of music they’ve created together and heads in new territory. You can hear sounds of the ’60s (“Face on the Rail Line,” “Always on My Mind”), Morricone-esque soundtrack music (“Three Wheeled Car,” “Cinematic”), as well as the kind of Big ’80 chart pop they might have turned their noses up to at the time. (There’s also a song about ’80s pop, the utterly charming “Mirrorball.”) It’s an album about getting older and being ok with it, as well as their continued love of music and each other. Birling Gap is their most expansive record to date, featuring lush arrangements that enter XTC/Prefab Sprout territory at times. It suits them and their voices well.

Bricolage – 2005/2009 (Creeping Bent)
Travel back to the mid-’00s when Scottish pop was all the rage: Bricolage’s sole album is the Sound of Young Glasgow across generations.

In the mid-’00s Scotland was hot. Franz Ferdinand drew the spotlight on Glasgow and all of a sudden there seemed to be a whole bunch of jangly, danceable bands releasing records. Those included: The 1990s (led by Alex Kapranos’ former Yummy Fur bandmate John McKeown) and The Royal We who released the great “All the Rage” single and would soon thereafter splinter off into Sexy Kids (who would splinter off into Veronica Falls). Also part of that scene were Bricolage who really embraced the whole of Glaswegian indie across the decades. They toured with Franz Ferdinand, worked with former Subway Sect frontman Vic Goddard, and got Altered Images guitarist/drummer Stephen Lironi to produce their 2008 self-titled debut. (Lironi also put out the album on his Creeping Bent label.) It was the only album they’d make but it’s an overlooked gem, steeped in Orange Juice, with Graham Wann’s voice at times a dead ringer for Edwyn Collins’ warble. Anthemic earworms “Footsteps,” “Turn U Over” and “Looking Takes the Want Out of Wanting” all sound like lost singles on famed Glasgow indie label Postcard (the original “Sound of Young Scotland”), with a windswept romantic charm that comes with rich harmonies, boundless enthusiasm and slightly out of tune guitars. (There was also just a little Strokes in there too.) Creeping Bent have just reissued the album but only on CD from what I can tell (who does that in 2021?), which is odd as there are plenty of original CDs from 2008 available on Discogs for next to nothing. For that matter, the US vinyl edition that was released by Slumberland can be picked up still sealed for $5 or less. Nonetheless, spotting this reissue in a UK record store’s New Releases newsletter had me pulling the album out for the first time in a very long time and I was pleased by how many songs I remembered. The album features all five of their 7″ a-sides plus seven songs that coulda been singles. Worth picking up for cheap, or just listening to on the streamer of your choice.

Looking for more? Browse the Indie Basement archives.

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