Welcome to the first Indie Basement of Summer. This week: John Grant gets personal on his Cate Le Bon produced fifth album, Boy from Michigan; SAULT drop another great one on us; NYC dreampop act Lighting Bug glow warmly on their new album A Color of the Sky; Justice‘s Gaspard Augé gets prog in his disco on his solo debut; Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips, Moon Duo) blisses out on his third album as Rose City Band; Montreal’s Absolutely Free finally announce their second album; and Saint Etienne‘s Bob Stanley compiles a wonderful collection of post-“Ode to Billie Joe” country.
It’s a busy week for new music and Andrew takes on a dozen of them (Tyler, Lucy Dacus, Backxwash, more) in Notable Releases. If you need more Basement-approved things to look at: I interviewed Bob Stanley and Tessa Norton about their new book Excavate: The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall; YVETTE are finally releasing a new album; Sweeping Promises, who made one of my favorite albums of 2020, will be touring this fall; Tropical Fuck Storm announced a new album; and so did Low and Helado Negro.
There are also a lot of Basement-approved album available currently in the BrookynVegan shop, including classics from Pavement, Guided by Voices, The Cure, Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil, Stereolab, and more.
Head below for this week’s reviews:
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #1: John Grant – Boy From Michigan (Partisan)
Cate Le Bon produces for John’s most personal album yet
“The American Dream is not for weak, soft-hearted fools,” John Grant sings on the title track of his terrific fifth solo album, Boy From Michigan. Grant has always been a master scene-setter and storyteller but this is his most personal record to date, a look back on his youth and how being someone that doesn’t fit into the Nuclear Family image shaped his life and music. It’s a record that’s about the American Dream that could only be made in Iceland with a Welsh artist, the equally idiosyncratic Cate Le Bon, as producer.
The album follows a clear path, from adolescence in Michigan — the G-Funk style title track and the two songs that follow — to moving to Denver as a teenager and coming to terms with being gay in the bible belt, and his escape to Europe. Le Bon’s distinctive, skronky sound doesn’t infect Boy From Michigan as you might expect. Grant is still making cosmic, glammy ’70s-style piano man pop — with lots of proggy synths — but Cate clearly encouraged him to stretch his wings. Mournful clarinet leads “The Cruise Room,” a song about hanging at the Art Deco bar at Denver’s Oxford Hotel, listening to Patsy Cline on the jukebox, on his last night before moving to Europe; “Best in Me” toys with the kind of vintage bleeps and bloops that came out of Sheffield in the late-’70s; and, showing the most Le Bon influence, “Rhetorical Figure” is nervy new wave.
As the album concludes it heads into 2020, offering up takedowns of his birthplace’s obsession with wealth (“Your Portfolio”) and the election. “The Only Baby” is explicitly about Trump, painting him as the inevitable offspring of America: “Well that’s the only baby that bitch could have.” The album concludes with “Billy,” a song which concludes the “cult of masculinity” is to blame for our whole mess. Boy From Michigan is equal parts nostalgic, cynical and angry, with Grant’s signature bon mots peppered throughout, though he deflects with humor less than usual. It’s also a double album (75 minutes) that doesn’t feel bloated, thanks to strong melodies, great production and a clear vision that knew where it was going right from the very start: “You’re just a simple boy from Michigan / And they’ll be doing everything they can to win / So please, please don’t ever let your guard down / And maybe someday you can come back here again.”
ALBUM OF THE WEEK #2: SAULT – NINE (Forever Living Originals)
SAULT‘s Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) were a big part of the soundtrack to my 2020, so it’s very exciting to have a new record from them. The enigmatic group, led by producer Info (Dean Josiah Cover), aren’t ones for telling you about their music, or releasing advance single, so I’m still digesting this one but like the Untitled albums and 7 and 5 before them, NINE is instantly compelling. In addition to their usual mix of hip hop, soul, jazz, R&B, dub, reggae, afrobeat and gospel, there’s a little post-punk to some of these grooves, with dark fuzzy basslines and a low-fi grit on the drums. Thematically the album is still heavy with the events of the last 16 months but there’s humor too — Little Simz contributes to my early favorite from the album, the playful “You From London,” and the album ends on a notes of gorgeous hope with the very Minnie Riperton-esque “9” and the soulful “Light’s in Your Hands.” In addition to Simz, Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Nikolic) and Melisa “Kid Sister” Young are back, too, but the most surprising credit in NINE is ’00s-era UK singer Jack Peñate who gets a co-writing credit on three songs.
SAULT say NINE will only be available to download or stream for 99 days, so get it while you can — it’s a free download from their website.
Lightning Bug – A Color of the Sky (Fat Possum)
Enchanting third album (and first for a label) from NYC dreampop outfit
Lightning Bug have been around for nearly a decade, making ethereal dreampop informed by many of the usual influences but powered by Audrey Kang’s excellent songwriting and clear, soothing vocals. With a new lineup adding extra juice, the band signed to Fat Possum, and recorded much of A Colour of the Sky live. (A first for the band.) “Songs in the past sometimes felt muddled, or I felt lost where to take them,” Audrey said. “But for this one, each song felt like a whole entity from conception.”
A Color of the Sky is Lightning Bug’s most focused, enchanting record yet which also finds them figuring out their own sound. You can still hear touchstones here and there — “The Right Thing is Hard to Do” nods to both Mazzy Star and Robin Guthrie’s Heaven or Las Vegas shimmer — but mostly they just sound like themselves, weaving layers of guitar, strings, mellotron, and harmonies into an enchanting, melodic haze. The gorgeous production doesn’t point to a particular era either, taking elements from ’60s and ’70s psych, folk and pop, ’90s shoegaze and trip hop, ’00s post-rock, Eno’s soundscapes and more. A Color of the Sky is gentle but engaging; the music pulls you into their nebula while Kang sings gently in your ear, evoking peak summer evenings as the sun goes down and fireflies dance in still air.
Gaspard Augé – Escapades (Ed Banger / Because Music)
One half of Justice goes over the top… and keeps on going on his prog-disco solo debut
Perhaps the only electronic group to play in front of a wall of Marshall stacks, French duo Justice have never done subtle. The same goes for Gaspard Augé, the duo’s curly-headed half, whose solo debut goes over-the-top almost immediately and just keeps going from there. While you can definitely dance to some of the tracks, Escapades is a heavily cinematic prog record that fully embraces ’70s-style excess. We’re talking big, Neil Peart-sized drum kits, bigger synthesizers, harpsichords, disco basslines, mass choral vocalization (but not really any “lyrics”), moody atmospherics and glammy touches, all piled high and then covered with gooey, gruyere-laden mornay sauce. Even the cover art is big, with Augé leaping across a rocky, mountainous terrain that has been spiked with a giant tuning fork in what is clearly an homage to classic Hipgnosis-designed sleeves. Escapades is also often rather hilarious, from the harps and theremin on “Casablanca” to the titular shouts on “Hey!” that is easily the most bombastic track on an album where subtle does not exist.
Absolutely Free – “How to Paint Clouds” (Boiled Records)
Finally! Montreal’s electronic/krautrock trio are back with album #2.
It’s been seven years since Montreal’s Absolutely Free — the komische-influenced spinoff of DD/MM/YYYY — released their excellent self-titled debut. They’ve put out a few singles and EPs since, toured, and apparently had a second album in the can four years ago that never saw the light of day. The band are finally back, though, and will release Aftertouch on September 24 via Boiled Records. Given that the album includes 2018 single “Still Life” which, like this album, was produced by Jorge Elbrecht (No Joy, Japanese Breakfast), this seems to be that four year old album finally seeing the light of day.
In any case, the album’s new single, “How to Paint Clouds,” is pretty terrific. Powered by complex polyrhythms, interlocking layers of synths and a soaring melody, “How to Paint Clouds” is a gorgeous flying wedge of art pop about how artists can put meaning into their work, but once it has been presented to the world, their intent is no more valid than someone seeing or hearing it for the first time. As a true companion to the song and its thesis, the song’s video uses AI imaging software that pulled from over 2000 paintings of clouds found on the internet to create its own cloud painting. The closed captions, meanwhile, were created by feeding the vocals into a speech detection software, underlining the point of the song with a surreal pen.
Choctaw Ridge – New Fables of The American South 1968-1973 (Ace Records)
The latest Bob Stanley-curated compilation for Ace Records looks at the new directions country music took in the ’60s after “Ode to Billie Joe”
It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a new Ace Records compilation from Saint Etienne‘s Bob Stanley who had been popping these out at a steady clip over the last five years or so. Bob just told us that it’s more due to record pressing plant delays during COVID than a lack of fresh comps in the hopper, and we aren’t going to have to wait much longer, as Ace just announced Choctaw Ridge – New Fables of The American South 1968-1973. The title comes from a line in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Bob says this compilation “explores a new country sound” that emerged in the wake of that unexpected 1967 hit. “When singers like Gentry, Jimmy Webb, Michael Nesmith and Lee Hazlewood moved from the south to Los Angeles to make it in the music business, they were not part of the Nashville in-crowd and they forged a new direction.”
The artists and songs on Choctaw Ridge show the new sophistication the late-’60s brought to country music, both musically and lyrically. The influence of psychedelic pop and social change and the disillusionment of the early-’70s can really be felt on songs like Lee Hazlewood‘s “The House Song,” Ed Bruce‘s “Why Can’t I Come Home,” Billie Jo Spears‘ sassy, playful “Mr Walker, It’s All Over,” Tony Joe White‘s “Widow Wimberly,” Hoyt Axton‘s “Way Before the Time of Towns,” and Jeannie C. Riley‘s “On the Backside of Dallas.” There are also songs from Dolly Parton, Charlie Rich, Jerry Reed, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers and more. Bob Stanley’s name on these Ace comps is always a Trademark of Quality, but Choctaw Ridge is especially good. You can pre-order it here and while these are never put on streaming services, someone invariably puts together a Spotify playlist with most of the songs and that’s no different here:
In other news, Bob says a new Saint Etienne record is ready to go and should be out this fall. Bob’s book about The Fall is out now and you can read my interview with him about it here.
Rose City Band – Earth Trip (Thrill Jockey)
Blissed out third album from the solo project of Wooden Shjips/Moon Duo’s Ripley Johnson.
Ripley Johnson has been a part of three distinct groups who are tied together with his signature lythe guitar style: psych rock band Wooden Shjips, drony, motorik (and most recently, dancey) Moon Duo and, most recently, Rose City Band. Essentially a solo project, Rose City Band is Ripley at his most tranquil, mixing country, folk and the sort of languid jamminess that recalls The Grateful Dead and Luna. It’s beautiful, relaxing stuff and Earth Trip, the third Rose City album, is especially blissful thanks to the pedal steel work of Cooper Crain (Bitchin’ Bajas, Cave). “I was trying to capture that feeling when you take psychedelics and they just start coming on – maybe objects start buzzing in the edges of your vision, you start seeing slight trails, maybe the characteristics of sound change subtly. But you’re not fully tripping yet,” says Ripley. “Cooper got the idea right away and his mix really captures that feeling.” Johnson and Crain’s styles are a perfect pairing, making for a good Trip whether you understand where Ripley’s coming from or not.
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