2014 Mid Year Music Roundup

2014 So Far – some standout releases across the genres of indie, electronic ambient and all the stuff in between.
I wanted to do a half year round up, and it’s turning into a stellar year for music so I had trouble getting this list down to 30! So here it is, in no particular order, just a bit late! Enjoy…..

Cursing the SeaSeptember Girls – Cursing the Sea
The debut album from Dublin’s all girl five piece band, September Girls, is a noisy pop delight. Think ‘60’s girl group meets ‘70’s buzzsaw power pop meets ‘80’s indie naiveté, like Phil Spector producing The Cramps covering The Jesus & Mary Chain. This reverb soaked, hook laden, lo-fi, wall of sound has been done before by bands like The Raveonettes , but honestly, who cares? They released six singles in less than two years, which is how bands used to work, and this album features six of those songs of dark-hearted, harmonic fuzz-rock laced with urgent menace and chiming guitars. Turn it up!

Psychic 9-5 ClubHTRK – Psychic 9-5 Club
HTRK, originally a Melbourne trio, worked closely with Australian post-punk legend Rowland S. Howard before moving to Berlin and this is the first album recorded entirely as a duo, as their guitarist died halfway through the recording of their last LP. Their sound is slow, textured, dubbed out and distinctly downbeat, employing a minimalist sound design using sub-bass and scattered beats to underpin delicate electronic textures which interweave with melodic and husky vocals. Its elegant and gently hypnotic music, perfect for late night listening and should appeal to fans of the deep and moody songs of the XX.

TransitMr. Sterile Assembly – Transit
Not an actual band as such, but the ongoing collective project of drummer Mr. Sterile & bass player Chrissie Butler, Wellington’s Mr Sterile Assembly’s most recent album is arguably their best yet. Defying genre classification, their music incorporates elements of jazz, rock, punk, improv, indie, pop and post-punk, yet remains oddly accessible….and they can rock! The standard of musicianship is high, with the guests including Jeff Henderson on saxophone, and these are songs with incisive, socially relevant lyrics – some contributed by Dean Hapeta of Upper Hutt Posse – on a CD beautifully packaged with two booklets of lyrics and artwork. This is remarkable music that works with its own internal logic, demanding listener attention, but the rewards are substantial. Probably Wellington’s best kept secret.

MoodymannMoodymann – Moodymann
Don’t be put off by the cover – it is satirical, depicting a cartoon of a character straight out of a ‘70’s blaxploitation movie. Detroit native, Kenny Dixon Jnr, aka Moodymann, has been a key figure in the development of house music since the late ‘90’s and on this, his tenth album, in a slight stylistic shift, he delivers his skewed take on soul music, singing lead vocals for the first time with a delightfully sleazy croon and incorporating live instrumentation. Here, dark hypnotic melodies weave together funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz and R&B into a rich and unpredictable brew, which, incidentally, includes his remix of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’. This 27-track CD version of the album is extra fun, featuring his signature odd samples and vocal snippets between the main tracks, which helps this become a journey into the mind of an intelligent and deeply funky black artist living in contemporary Detroit.

The Green HouseRobert Scott – The Green House
Sitting interestingly alongside the late ‘80’s Bats re-issues is the latest solo album from the Bats’ Robert Scott. This follow up to his excellent 2010 release, ‘Ends Run Together’, again features a set of warm, post millennium porch songs that illustrates how he has matured as a songwriter over 30 years. Possibly too sweet and gentle for the rollicking Bats treatment, Mr. Scott chose to treat these songs his own special way, playing guitars, bass, keyboards and vocals, enhanced by the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Tiny Ruins Holly Fullbrook on five tracks, and drummer Rob Falconer. These are lovely, hushed and gentle songs, free of irony, and performed within delicate arrangements (with the exception of the rocking ‘Vertigo’ which could easily be a Bats song) that are a cool balm for our hectic times.

Someday WorldEno & Hyde – Someday World / High LifeHigh Life
Brian Eno appears to have been re-energised since signing to Warp records and ‘Someday World’, his recent collaboration, with Karl Hyde of Underworld fame, is a surprisingly upbeat and song oriented affair. This is the most we have heard Mr. Eno sing since 2005’s ‘Another Day On Earth”, and it is good to again hear the sweet and nostalgic pop sensibility he is able to convey with his curiously flat but oddly appealing singing style. Funky, upbeat and beautifully produced, the melodies are catchy and there is a pervasive sense of fun. In fact, these two dudes were having so much fun that they released a second album just a few months later that is quite different. ‘High Life’ dispenses with pop structures in favour of long tracks of improvised, abstract, hypnotic grooves that recall Eno’s early collaboration with David Byrne and the playful experimentation and polyrhythms of ‘My Life In the Bush of Ghosts’, though overall these are a lighter affair that may take a few listens but are well worth the perseverance.

A Sound Like No OtherA Sound Like No Other – Milky Joe’s Wellington Mix
Wellington based DJ/producer, Milky Joe, curated and mixed this collection of recent tracks released by Wellington based artists across a spectrum including electronic, ambient and indie bands. This doesn’t have the smooth flow generally associated with dj mixes, but given the variety of material used, that is probably a good thing. A selection of strategically placed spoken word samples, including Douglas Lilburn explaining the origins of electronic music, enhance the transitions from track to track as the listener is moved from the ambient washes of i.ryoko to the cosmic groove of Orchestra of Spheres to the art-rock of Cookie Brooklyn & the Crumbs and on to the lovely indie sounds of Terror of the Deep. If anyone is interested in what is happening under the radar in Wellington then this is essential listening – download here….
https://soundcloud.com/johnheighes/a-sound-like-no-other-wellington-mixed-up-by-milky-joe

SpiderlandSlint – Spiderland – Remastered
I confess to having never heard of this 1991 recording until I started reading rave reviews of this re-mastered re-release calling it ‘the brooding, sinister record that invented post-rock’ and guess what? The reputation is warranted. At the time Spiderland didn’t sell many copies but it become a landmark, eventually influencing bands from Mogwai to Sigur Rós. This is a stripped back, edgy and understated sound propelled by metronomic drumming overlaid with half spoken vocals and chunky repetitive guitar riffs. The pace is measured, with half of the six tracks deadly slow yet, despite the pace the sound remains curiously engaging. Listening to this is like entering a self-enclosed arcane world. “They cultivated this sort of psychic playing,” says Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. “It’s way above other bands and is really emotional. When I heard Spiderland, it was unlike anything I’d heard before. I still don’t know if I’ve heard anything else like it, now.”

Estoile NaiantPatten – Estoile Naiant
Patten’s first release for Warp Records, Estoile Naiant, consists of ten tracks that each go nowhere – but that, according to a recent interview with the artist, is just the point. Influenced by author Jorge Luis Borges, who’s work according to Patten is” incredible in the sense that it produces very convincing, yet completely alien, ways of considering time”, the reclusive UK producer has made a record that is like a collection of abstract expressionist art pieces. Each track begins with a simple looped sound and gradually develops in complexity, some becoming a convoluted, discordant, fascinating muddle and some disappearing into space. Imagine someone letting a pot of milk boil over on the stove just to see what patterns it makes and you have some idea of what this standout experimental electronic record offers.

Reality TestingLone – Reality Testing
It is surprising that UK based electronic producer, Matt Cutler, has produced such a mature and masterful record when considering that he was still in primary school when Detroit techno first developed. One of this year’s standout electronic releases, ‘Reality Testing’ spans genres, wrapping it all up in a warm package that sounds like music you have always known. His early records featured abstract hip-hop beats with electronic textures before Cutler moved towards a more dance-orientated sound and this, his latest, moves on again, taking a more chilled slant that employs the majestic synth pad sound and the simple and lovely chord progressions of early Detroit techno mixed in with a hip hop sensibility. Lone has been quoted as saying that the greatest influences on his music are artists such as Boards of Canada, Madlib and Bibio and by the sounds of this excellent record, Carl Craig could be added to that list.

Orchestra of Spheres – Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music
Not often enough, music turns up that exists within its own unique bubble of creativity and ‘Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music’, recorded in Italy by Wellington band ‘Orchestra of Spheres’ is a good example. Their celebratory and joyous psychedelic sound, propulsive and slightly off-kilter, has evolved since their first release ‘Nonagonic Now’, incorporating a more user-friendly ‘pop’ feel, but the pop of a parallel dimension tribal culture, where it is normal for musicians to make their own instruments from biscuit tins and perform live wearing robes, sequined masks and hats made of cassettes. That music this unconventional, brimming with both mystery and fun, originated from our urban Wellington environment is something of a revelation and stands as a testament to the creative process. Dare to give ‘Orchestra of Spheres’ a headphone listen – it grooves, Jim, but not as we know it.

GhettovilleActress – Ghettoville
London electronic artist Actress, aka Darren J Cunningham, is a contemporary of Burial, and similar to that hermetic musician, chronicles the decay of urban culture via the cold isolation which can be felt seeping through the crackles and hiss of his electronic components as they lurch relentlessly onward. But Actress employs a wider sound palette than Burial, drawn from ambient, industrial, techno, avant-electronica, glitch and minimalism and this is his first album to be released by Ninja Tune. It’s not a pretty world, but it is oddly compelling and rewards deeper listening, as hidden within this finely crafted music, which Cunningham has announced to be the close of the Actress project, there is warmth and a strange mournful beauty to be found.

Blank RealmBlank Realm – Grassed Inn
It has been an ongoing puzzle as to why Flying Nun’s world famous indie sound seems to have continuously bypassed close musical cousins in Australia. But now, the puzzle is resolved, as Blank Realm’s ‘Grassed Inn” is a splendidly ramshackle, noisy and off-kilter take on indie pop that clearly references the classically insouciant Flying Nun ethos and is probably the coolest Oz indie sound since the Birthday Party. While not especially original (“Falling Down the Stairs” could easily be as a Clean song), the band’s sound is committed and earnest in their delivery of these rough gems.

Morning PhaseBeck – Morning Phase
It must be a relief to fans that Beck has followed his previous release – the brilliant ‘Song Reader’, which consisted of lovingly packaged song sheets but no actual recordings – with an actual CD ……and what a great collection of songs it is. His first release in six years finds him returning to the contemplative, lush Beck of ‘Sea Change’ with a deep and reflective work featuring a wide range of musicians and orchestral arrangements. Apparently, he suffered a severe spinal injury before making this record which may account for the subdued feel and mature tone – but it serves him well as this is an understated and beautifully produced record that presents an artist excelling at their craft.

AtlasReal Estate – Atlas
By their third album you are either a fan of Real Estate’s harmonic, sun-drenched, tremolo guitar driven sound or not. For those fond of overt darkness and angst, these pretty, gently yearning songs may sound far too sweet, but for fans this is a beautiful addition to their discography. Not that this collection is angst free, the songs are deceptive in that within the beautiful melodies lurk lyrics about pain, confusion and loss carried by tight, complex arrangements from a band who’s warm and understated sound requires you to listen in to catch their lovely drift.

Pop Ambient 2014VA – Pop Ambient 2014
Since the new millennium dawned, Cologne based electronic label, Kompakt have released an annual compilation from their sub-label, Pop Ambient, which features a distinctive take on the electronic ambient genre. The overall quality has been remarkably high, with only one or two editions drifting a little too close to sugary new age muzak, but this 14th edition is a standout and features contributions from masters of their craft including the Orb’s Thomas Fehlmann, ex-Slowdive guitarist Simon Scott, Jorg Burger, The Field and label boss, Wolfgang Voigt. With hardly a beat to be heard, these compositions offer a subtly hypnotic and enveloping listening experience becoming more dense and textural as the tracks slowly unfold.

Close To the GlassThe Notwist – Close To the Glass
The German band that helped spearhead the indietronica genre with their classic 2002 release, ‘Neon Golden’, were never spotlight grabbers, always appearing to favour working on the periphery, and their first record in six years finds them in similar mode. In the intervening time they have produced a couple of film soundtracks which may have influenced the direction their sound seems to have taken. This is music so subtle and understated that it has the potential to not register at all….but given attention what reveals itself is a sequence of lovingly crafted songs that span the analog / electronic spectrum with confidence and superb musicianship.

Vapor CityMachinedrum – Vapor City
US electronic producer Travis Stewart recently joined the London based Ninja Tune musical community with his release ‘Vapor City’, based on a recurring dream of an unknown metropolis. The record is aptly named, as ‘vaporous’ is a description that comes readily to mind when attempting to do justice to the sublime sound of this release. Travis immerses the loping bass lines and skittering hi-hats of dubstep and jungle in the downbeat swathe Ninja Tune is famous for, employing atmospheric pads, lush piano chords and haunting treated vocal samples to create an enthralling contemporary urban sound. You can even become a citizen of Vapor City by signing up online and get to receive free remixes, but even if you don’t want to live there, this is a very cool place to visit.

Join the DotsToy – Join the Dots
Toy’s second album finds them continuing to successfully explore the expansive soundworld originally established by the early 90’s UK psych rock/shoegaze scene – driving melodic bass, metronomic beats, unfeasibly expansive and effects laden jangly guitars and fey, world weary vocals. Not to suggest that this is boring and predictable music, Toy place themselves within a genre and proceed to deliver a rousing example of their chosen sound. So, while there is nothing especially new to be found here, this remains a confident record and a great listen, especially the wall of sound guitars, and an excellent reminder of a sweetly immersive sub-genre of indie music, released, appropriately enough, on Heavenly Records.

SpiritosoCalexico – Spiritoso – Live with Symphony Orchestras in Vienna & Potsdam
This live Calexico recording is a real treat for fans and an excellent introduction to the band for the curious. Featuring four tracks from their 2013 release, Algiers, including an excellent version of the beautiful ‘Para’, the rest of the selections are drawn from their back catalogue and include ‘Black Heart’ and ‘Crystal Frontier’. What sets this recording apart are the arrangements for two different symphony orchestras which transform the band’s already cinematic sound into epic and majestic masterpieces. The arrangements are subtle and powerful, complementing the band’s sound with sweeping strings, stirring brass and gentle woodwind that add a welcome grandeur to their already stirring songs.

SiberiaPolvo – Siberia
Polvo have been around since the 90’s, releasing four albums between 1992 and 1997 then re-emerging in 2009 with ‘In Prism’ and now this, their sixth record. When delving into their catchy and refreshingly off-centre indie/math rock, it quickly becomes clear that these musos have learnt their craft. The tight yet ramshackle grooves, propelled by crashing drums and melodic bass, feature classic twin fuzzed out guitars that swirl and bubble under the surface, sporadically exploding into classic hooks and wailing air guitar breaks to punctuate the earnest vocals. It sounds too clichéd to work, but it does – brilliantly. Anyone who needs their faith restored in contemporary indie rock needs to listen to Polvo, who remind us just how “…the telescope is broken”.

DustRotor Plus – Dust
Rotor Plus aka Epsilon-Blue, aka Son.sine is the ambient moniker of Dunedin producer Leyton Davies. ‘Dust’ is the third and final instalment of the ambient trilogy he started in 2000 with ‘Aileron’, followed by 2004’s ‘Map Key Window’, all released on his tiny label, The Radiophonics Trading Company of New Zealand. ‘Dust’ fits into the electro-acoustic genre with its dreamlike structure, incorporating periods of silence, field recording, acoustic instrumentation and electronic editing and processing which generally float, but sometimes jump, in and out of the listener’s hearing throughout the three long tracks. Rather than the now clichéd ‘soundtrack to an imaginary film’, ‘Dust’ exists like a well executed abstract painting, not suggesting anything outside of itself but simply is of itself, mysterious and curiously compelling.

Rave TapesMogwai – Rave Tapes
Scottish post-rockers Mogwai continue to develop their predominantly instrumental sound on album number eight, here stepping back from the familiar LOUD-quiet-LOUD dynamic in favour of a more understated cinematic sound – possibly a follow on from the moody soundtrack work they undertook on last year’s release, the score to the French zombie film, ‘Les Revenants’. The subtle shift sideways enables the band to avoid the corner that the LOUD-quiet-LOUD ethos inevitably leads to, yet the music remains as stirring as ever, at times creating a stately grandeur, while at other times submerging the listener in complex, densely layered driving metronomic grooves and slow atmospherics. ‘Rave Tapes’ stands with anything they have done (and yes, there is a track about Satan) and its great to see a band like Mogwai maturing their sound while sacrificing none of their distinctive allure.

House MastersCharles Webster – House Masters
As fans of the House dance music genre will tell you…”house music is a spiritual thing”…. and Charles Webster is the one to lead the congregation! He helped develop the genre known as deep house with its characteristic soulful vocals, jazz influenced samples, dubbed out electronics and relatively slow grooves and has lovingly curated, edited and programmed this double CD compilation from his own personal archive of remixes and original productions. Smooth and sultry, this is a beautiful late night ride into the heart of a lush dance music sub-genre.

CheatahsCheatahs – Cheatahs
A squall of raucous twin guitars announces the arrival of this London band that has taken five years to produce their first album. The breathy melodic vocal lines buried under swathes of rich textured noise recall the heyday of early ‘90’s shoegaze and college rock and they recreate that sound so well that on first listen this could be mistaken for a lost ‘90’s recording. However, further listening reveals a band transmuting those influences into something, while not original, exciting and compelling, like the missing link between My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Junior.

Hot DreamsTimber Timbre – Hot Dreams
Canadian band Timber Timbre’s fifth record finds this excellent collection of musicians hitting their stride. Imagine the soundtrack to a Spaghetti Western directed by David Lynch and you get some idea. The pace is alt-country slow, the vocals are reverb laden, the guitars twang and the entire production is just nicely askew enough to create an original surreal take on Southern Gothic via ‘50’s Americana. “This is Bates Motel schmaltz, with the entire record a decrepit, cobweb-clogged anthology of past styles and vintage genres”.

Sunbathing AnimalParquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
The follow up to 2012’s excellent ‘Light Up Gold’ finds the band tighter, more confident but just as wonderfully wonky and off kilter. Their sound is derived from the spiky, angular post punk of bands like Wire and the Fall, with the chug of VU and the quirkiness of the Modern Lovers all channelled through Pavement, but theirs is a post-modern version, powered by scratchy repetitive guitars and super smart lyrics they are, to quote Pitchfork, “using the past to write their own version of the present”.

EntropicaliaThe Soundcarriers – Entropicalia
It is no surprise that the latest album by UK band, the Soundcarriers, is released on Ghost Box, a label dedicated to the very British sub-genre known as ‘hauntology’, which references Jacques Derrida’s idea that ‘the present exists only with respect to the past’. Consequently, influences abound within the Soundcarriers hallucinatory dreamworld, including the Hammond organ sound of the swinging ‘60’s, the jazz flute of ‘50’s tropicalia, the sweet vocals of Pentangle and the rhythmic drive of the Velvet Underground. With Stereolab no longer around it’s great to know that the Soundcarriers are there to continue the retro future space jazz folk revival!

Only Lovers Left AliveVA – Only Lovers Left Alive – Original Soundtrack
Whatever you thought of indie film director Jim Jarmusch’s recent take on the vampire genre it’s hard to deny that the soundtrack was fantastic, a moody and invocative collection of tracks by no other than the director’s own band SQURL and lute player, Josef van Wissem, which won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Soundtrack Award. The guitars are overdriven, the pace is generally pretty slow and the tunes unfurl like dark flowers. The movie is set in Detroit and Tangiers and the soundtrack is correspondingly divided into two halves – ‘Detroit’ featuring a dense murky sound with lots of feedback, while ‘Tangier’ is lighter, featuring middle-eastern influenced plucked strings. Overall, a soundtrack that stands alone as an accomplished musical work.

Artificial SweetenersFujiya & Miyagi – Artificial Sweeteners
This is the Brighton based UK trio’s fifth album of intelligent beat-driven, post-Krautrock, dance grooves and one reviewer has asked “how does a band this good continue to remain a cult concern?”. They arrived fully formed on their first record and since then have refined their analogue synth, bouncing bass lines, krautrock rhythms and trademark arch, near-whispered vocals to deliver yet another excellent record. If you like up-tempo grooves that appeal both to the hips and the mind then dip into this or anywhere in their back catalogue and you won’t be disappointed.

DVD Box Sets – The Rise of the Long Form Movie

A turnaround has recently occurred within the film industry seeing talented writers, actors and directors turning to television, a medium openly spurned by Hollywood for years previously. This trend is due to the rise of TV series’ as ‘long-form movies’, a concept explained by Martin Scorsese on the DVD extras of the HBO series ‘Boardwalk Empire’. TV series’ are able to present an ongoing story arc over many episodes allowing for deeper character and plot development than offered by the two to three hour duration of traditional movies, and, unlike the strange eternal world of soap operas, they run for a fixed duration and have a conclusion (it is interesting to consider how Coronation Street, short of nuclear holocaust or an outbreak of bubonic plague, could ever actually have a conclusion). Incorporating great scripts, excellent casting, creative directors and skillfully selected soundtracks, the genre was firmly established by the ‘The Sopranos’, the overwhelming success of which was followed by ‘The Wire’ and ‘Madmen’. More often than not the accompanying soundtrack CDs are excellent compilations.

Another early example of this genre worth mentioning is the 2001-2005 HBO black comedy drama ‘Six Feet Under‘, which, over five seasons and 63 episodes, traces the Six Feet Underpaths of the members of a family run funeral business after the sudden death of the father. Dealing with issues including human mortality, loss and sexuality, this outstanding series won nine Emmys and three Golden Globes. The soundtrack is full of unexpected surprises, with tracks popping up by artists such as PJ Harvey, Radiohead and the Dandy Warhols, while Rae & Christian, Fila Brazilia and Photek all remixed the main title theme.

Deadwood’ also won eight Emmys and a Golden Globe for its fascinating and 170px-Deadwood_Season3well-researched depiction of the ‘wild west’ as it probably truly was. The three 12 episode seasons follow the political, personal and social trials of the transient community of the infamous frontier gold rush town that operated outside the jurisdiction of American federal law during the 1860’s, the time of the birth of capitalism, when gold and guns reigned supreme. ‘Deadwood’ also has the debatable honor of attaining the highest expletives rating (fucks per minute) of any TV show ever screened – but hey, they are just telling it like it was. The soundtrack features a great selection of roots Americana, folk, country, delta blues, and contemporary alt-country.

Following are a few recent titles that come recommended:

Treme
The first season of HBO’s ‘Treme’, set in post hurricane Katrina New Orleans, offers a deeper understanding of the famous city that gave birth to wallpaper-treme-1600jazz, and left me with a renewed appreciation for the tenacity of the human spirit. Based on real people and real events ‘Treme’ is about music, people, political corruption and both the fragility and resilience of culture. Part of the appeal of this series is the pace that it moves at – unlike the shows creators’ last production – the tightly wound, plot driven ‘The Wire’, ‘Treme’ is intentionally meandering with a wide focus, similar to a Robert Altman film, but the relaxed manner in which the plot gradually unfolds perfectly suits the sweaty, laid back culture of the American deep south. This technique is especially apparent in Season Two where the issue of corruption is explored. Each episode features at least one live musical performance, while the soundtrack CDs are like a condensed history of black American music. The DVD extras feature discussions with the series’ creators which serve to add more context for keen viewers. Season Three is due on DVD soon and the series winds up with a five episode fourth season scheduled for US screening in December.

Parks & Recreation
People generally hold that Americans can’t do satire, but this series, produced by the same crew behind ‘The Office’ and starring the brilliant comedienne, Amy Poehler, explodes that myth and is, arguably, the funniest show currently running. Season One was good – a warm, smart and funny ParksAndRecreationsingle-camera style mockumentary about local council bureaucracy in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, and the trials of the relentlessly optimistic bureaucrat, Leslie Knope, as she battles red tape in order to get a large pit turned into a park. In Season Two the cast, observably more comfortable with their characters, begin to mine a rich seam of intelligent, deadpan, satirical humor while still managing to maintain a human edge. Seasons Three and Four feature the larger than life, but oddly believable characters delivering tight, side-splitting scripts with utter confidence as Lesley Knope lives her dream and runs for office. The 22 episode Season 5 is due for DVD release soon – and a sixth season is in production. An interesting aside is that the character Ron Swanson – a libertarian who is a team leader for local government – has given birth to a fan-base not seen since Happy Days and ‘the Fonz’.

Party Down
Some US TV shows are too clever for their own good and, despite receiving wide ranging critical acclaim, only survive two seasons. ‘Party Down’ is one Party Down 2 2010 Key Artsuch show, but, thankfully, a cult status has grown and a movie follow up is being considered. This off-beat, deeply satirical take on Hollywood, fame, American culture and the ‘me’ generation follows a small catering crew staffed by world weary Hollywood has-beens and starry eyed wannabes, each assignment offering a different set of circumstances through which to explore the absurdities and complications of contemporary American life and the search for fame and meaning…..as the Chicago Times said: “There is also bittersweet sadness lurking behind these droll, incisive portraits of failure and self-deception”. The cast is excellent, including Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) and Lizzy Kaplan (True Blood), who’s will they/won’t they attraction provides the human through line around which the story unfolds.

Enlightened
Laura Dern, star of David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ and Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’, recently produced, co-created and won a Golden Globe for her acting in the two season HBO series ‘Enlightened’. She plays the role of Amy Jellicoe, a corporate executive returning to the workplace after enlightened-the-complete-first-season-largesuffering a nervous breakdown and going to an Hawaiian health resort where a “spiritual breakthrough” gives her a new perspective. So she returns determined to “make a change”. Writer Mike White (who plays Tyler, her co-conspirator), was inspired to write the series while recovering from his own breakdown: “I’ve gone through a period where I read a lot of those, you know, Buddhist self-help books. When I read those books, I found the advice to be wise and useful. At the time, I was like – I’d love to get at some of this…how our society is so not built around the values highlighted in these books. I felt like there was a story there, so I created Enlightened”. This is an extraordinary HBO production, a comedy/drama, superbly acted, beautifully shot, moving, poignant, relevant and funny. The original score, composed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, is augmented by an eclectic choice of songs from artists including Joni Mitchell, Adele and Marc Bolan.

Girls
To be honest the idea of the trials of a group of twenty something women living in New York didn’t sound particularly original. But how wrong can you girls-the-complete-first-season-dvd-cover-70be? HBO has done it again with this smart, funny and well written comedy drama, Season Two winning the 2013 Golden Globe for Best Television Series. Writer Lena Dunham also stars in the show, playing an aspiring writer, and many aspects of the show are inspired by her own real life experiences. Judd Apatow, producer of risqué comedies such as ‘Knocked Up’, recognized Dunham’s talent and produced the series, co-writing some episodes. His open attitude to sexuality is apparent and as a team they have created a story that is raunchy, touching and funny, featuring realistic contemporary characters. The cool hipster soundtrack is comprised of contemporary indie and r’n’b songs, some of which were written exclusively for the series. Season Three is currently in production.

Breaking Bad
Breaking-Bad-Season-4I waited until the fifth and final season became available before diving in and this story of a mild mannered chemistry teacher turned drug lord lives up to the hype with its not for the faint-hearted, oddly compelling picture of contemporary America. Widely reviewed, ‘Breaking Bad’ has received both popular and critical acclaim, with Season 5 receiving a 99/100 Metacritic rating. For those interested, the DVD extras for Season One include an interview with Vince Gilligan, the show’s writer, about the creative advantages of the long form movie.

Lovers In Monaco – 21st Century Schizoid Band

 

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I mentioned to a friend at the recent Lovers In Monaco gig at the Wellington indie venue, Puppies, that the band seem to be gradually acquiring a following and she commented, “It’s always good to get in on the ground floor of these things”. Getting in on the ground floor for this particular band probably requires patience more than the usual qualities expected of fans, as Lovers In Monaco have performed just three times in the last year.

The band’s first gig was at a sold out midwinter celebration at, of all places, Newtown Bowling Club. Admittedly, the high attendance was as much for the cheap drinks as anything else, nevertheless they went down a storm with people dancing on the tables and screaming for encores until the band had run out of songs, at which point the frenzied horde retired to the bar and proceeded to drink the place dry. A more successful inaugural performance could not be hoped for.

Almost one year later the band announced their second gig, at Seatoun’s Sea Star Gallery, featuring criminally under recognized local electronic producer, Jet Jaguar, as support. This performance has swiftly entered local folklore due to a most unusual mishap best read about via the post on Charles Mabbett’s blog. Enough to say that both performances sounded great fed through the Mayhem Sound System, with Peter May achieving an excellent live sound mix, complemented by the band’s projected backdrop featuring sourced Warhol era video collages. The band had lost a keyboard player but found a drummer since their last gig, consequently their post modern song structures had gained a live metronomic pulse to help drive the distinctive art house krautrock disco underpinned by Nick Guy’s shoegaze influenced guitar drones.

Fans were surprised by the announcement of the band’s third gig just a few weeks later at Puppies, and again with Jet Jaguar as support.

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They are a great band for our schizoid post modern times, who seem to be quite serious about not being taken too seriously. Their Under the Radar online profile simply states: “Prog rap group that spends almost longer setting up than playing. Gear failure while playing live a strong likelihood”. On one hand they are the archetypal band, featuring the standard bass, drums, guitar and vocals lineup, but on the other they are a contemporary electronic combo with each musician also operating an equivalent digital apparatus buried somewhere amid a thicket of wires and leads, while the vocals are delivered through one of two microphones, a normal one or one fed through a voice modulator. Each song features some or all of these elements in assorted combinations.

Half of the songs seem to be about the songs or about the band performing the songs, not in a gangster rap ‘look at how cool I am up here on stage’ way, more in a hipster existentialist kind of ‘isn’t this odd that here we are on a stage making music’ kind of way, a sentiment that is well illustrated by the vocalist’s tendency to leap off stage at regular intervals either to bash a second drum kit or to join the happy punters dancing. The rest of the songs appear to be wry and succinct cultural observations such as “I Shot the Kid” (an early version can be found here).

Can you dance to them? Hell, yeah. Can you stand at the back, stroke your chin and trainspot influences? Yep, and that’s part of the fun.

Guitarist Nick Guy also operates the ambient electronic guitar project, ‘High Harbour’, with free downloads available here……

http://nickguy.bandcamp.com/album/counting-waves

Michael Upton aka Jet Jaguar continues to add to his impressive back catalogue with a current series of free EP’s over 2013. Links and info here……

http://nonwrestler.com/

The Breeders – LSXX: The Last Splash 20th Anniversary Box Set (4AD)

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Craig Schuftan’s excellent book ‘Entertain Us: The Rise & Fall of Alternative Rock in the Nineties’ chronicles, year by year, the commercialisation of indie rock through the 90’s. The Breeders’ ‘The Last Splash’ was first released in August of 1993, just after Seattle’s grunge sound, spearheaded by the massive international success of Nirvana, had brought mainstream attention to the musical underground. Schuftlan observes: “By 1992, many alternative rock bands had attracted the wider audience their adherents had always insisted they deserved. But by the following year, most of these bands were hoping this new audience would go away”.

While touring Europe as support for Nirvana in the summer of 1992, The Breeders’ songwriter and guitarist, ex-Pixie, Kim Deal, read the Marquis de Sade and decided he was “like a kid at a party, determined to show off by doing a cannonball into the pool and making the biggest splash”, which inspired the song ‘Cannonball’ that almost made it to No.1 on the charts and went on to become an indie anthem. Deciding she could be the “biggest badass”, she thought, “Go ahead, Marquis de Sade, do a cannonball, but I’ll be the last splash” and it is remarkable just how prescient this choice of title proved to be for indie rock. 

“When youth culture becomes monopolised by big business, what are the youth to do?” asked Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore in 1991. Over 20 years later we have an answer with online social networks and services such as Bandcamp that foster a fertile new international indie music scene far removed from big business. This development, however, is not without challenges, the most problematic arguably being the microscopic splintering of music into myriad sub-genres within sub-genres which has resulted in the disappearance of any unifying cultural narrative. How this pans out remains to be seen. But looking beyond the “repackaging of alt rock as nostalgia” and the hip academia “canonisation of nineties music”, how does ‘The Last Splash’ sound 20 years later? Pretty damn good I am happy to say.

‘The Last Splash’ actually went platinum in the US, which was quite something for such a wonky record made by two sisters and a couple of friends, most of whom were not especially adept musicians – but that is part of the Breeders’ charm. Because Kelley Deal didn’t know how to play guitar she pretty much made it up as she went along and the clusters, shrieks and squalls of sound she coaxed from her instrument sound as fresh and exciting now as they did then. Surprisingly it is not Kim Deal, who’s ‘other job’ was bass player for the Pixies, who played bass, but UK cellist Josephine Wiggs, who had met Kim Deal when her band supported the Pixies at Brixton Academy in 1989, and she is the one responsible for the iconic opening bass riff of ‘Cannonball’. The ‘token male’ in the band was hometown Dayton, Ohio drummer Jim Macpherson.

Both sisters had grown up listening to ‘70’s hard rock and were later influenced by post punk indie bands such as Wire and Gang of Four, who deconstructed rock. However, for the Deal sisters, these disparate influences held no contradictions, so the sound of The Breeders became a distinctive, mysterious and playful mix of hard rocking riffs and off-kilter porch songs, a hook laden, sassy, noisy delight. Throw sweet harmonies, surf rock, the occasional pedal steel guitar and violin into the brew and you end up with a post feminist indie rock manifesto which has lost none of its appeal over twenty years. 

The re-issue comprises three discs – the original album (NB – intentionally NOT remastered – why fix it if it ain’t broke?), a disc containing all of the band’s EP’s and singles (including cover versions that include The Beatles, Sebadoh and Guided By Voices) and a disc of live recordings (including a BBC Session and an official bootleg) all packaged in a beautifully designed fold out digipak that features all new artwork. 

The band decided to reform for a world tour to celebrate, and headline ATP’s ‘Release the Bats’ festival in Melbourne on October 26 performing ‘The Last Splash’ live, alongside Television performing ‘Marquee Moon’.  So far no news of a NZ show.

2013 Mid Year CD Roundup

I have just set up this blog and wanted to do a brief recap so these reviews pretty much amount to a 2013 mid year roundup of cds that have jumped out for one reason or another…….

DJ Koze – Amygdala  (Pampa Records)
DJ Koze is a man with a mission. He has just started his own label – Pampa Records – which has grown very quickly as a home to some of the most adventurous and fun loving German electronic artists. This, his first full length album since 2005, offers a supremely confident journey into the imagination of a quirky, humorous, wonderfully creative and dam funky electronic producer who obviously likes to see people dancing with a smile on their face.

The Besnard Lakes – Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO (Jagjaguwar)
Formed in 2003 by the husband and wife team of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas, indie rock band, The Besnard Lakes are from Quebec, Canada. Three of their four albums have been nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, and this, their fourth album explores the “story of the introspection of the human spirit during prophetic times featuring a spy or two, maybe more”, via the beguiling concoction of shoegaze, drifting atmospheres and harmony laden doo-wop they have become famous for. More subdued than their previous records this is an engrossing album that rewards repeated listening. A video for the album’s rockiest track, ‘People of The Sticks’ is well worth a look.

Lusine – The Waiting Room (Ghostly International)
American electronic producer Lusine explores an area that spans electronic pop and experimental electronica that results in music that has both a brain and a heart. The production is impeccable as each individual sound shimmers and sparkles throughout a cohesive album that includes widescreen atmospherics, guest vocalists (on exactly half of the ten tracks), warm and friendly beats and the excellent Detroit influenced slow burner ‘February’.

Darkstar – News From Nowhere (Warp Records)
It used to be brain fried rock bands that retreated to the countryside to ‘get their heads together’, so it was enticing to discover what a former hardcore dubstep duo would come up with after doing the same thing while listening to records like Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’ and The Beatle’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The result is a surprisingly understated and captivating Warp release featuring poignant songs delivered via treated vocals underpinned by electronic textures, slow mo beats and sequencers. Warm, chilled and unashamedly lovely, this is an intriguing record that occupies a space somewhere between chillwave and ambient music.

Lapalux – Nostalchic (Ninja Tune)
The diversity of sub-genres that electronic music has produced is fascinating. Artists on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label tend to produce music built on fragments and microsamples from nu-soul and r‘n’b refracted through a contemporary experimental urban lens – which means that this labels’ releases can sometimes be a demanding listen. However, 25-year-old London producer, Stuart Howard, offers a respite with his loosely disordered version of chillwave, featuring guest vocalists to create a refined and subtle self-enclosed sound world that is often abstract, yet remains oddly comforting and extremely listenable.

Blue Hawaii – Untogether (Arbatus Records)
Blue Hawaii are a Canadian duo who create a take on post-modern pop strongly shaped by electronic music production techniques. These are wispy fragile breakup songs, produced using sounds usually found in genres such as minimal house, which inhabit a sensual, bewitching sound world, sparse and somber. Not especially joyous (the main theme is the end of a relationship), nevertheless this is precise, elegant and engrossing music that weaves a spell with it’s looped and layered vocals, electronic textures and restrained rhythms.

Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood – Black Pudding (Ipecac)
Mark Lanegan has been described as “the Tom Waits for the millennial generation” and this record goes a long way to substantiate that notion. His gravel voice has never been more gravelly on this release, for which he teams up with British multi
-instrumentalist Duke Garwood to deliver a record of haunting and brooding alt-country. The alchemy is perfect as Garwood favors sparse, unobtrusive arrangements that give the songs plenty of room to breathe. The guitar playing is excellent and the songs are what one hopes for from the grizzled indie balladeer whose more upbeat songs have titles such as “Death Rides a White Horse”!

Sinner DC – Future That Never Happend (Mental Groove)
Sinner DC have been tucked away in Switzerland working on their unique version of post rock / electronica for the past 15 years. This is their fourth record and finds them fully realizing their “dance music for shoegazers”. They make moody music, predominantly instrumental; with most tracks being propelled by a metronomic 4/4 beat employing washed out guitar lines, hazy electronic atmospheres and the occasional half whispered vocals layered over the top. Atmospheric and textural, this is a sublime and compelling post-millennium, electronic based guitar driven sound without a solo to be heard.

Badd Energy – Underwater Pyramids (Flying Nun)
This new Flying Nun release from local international underground star Coco Solid’s side project is being hailed as NZ album of the year (so far) by some reviewers. This is quite a claim for a record that is little more than an EP – being just over 20min. long (the vinyl version is a 45rpm 12”). However this is such an original sound with so many ideas crammed into the nine short tracks that the claim is arguably justified. It is difficult to find any comparison for this 90’s roots hip hop meets psychedelic 60’s meets 80’s indie sound that sounds like neo pop transmitted from a parallel dimension.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp Records)
The cult status that has grown around Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada has probably, in the long term, done them more harm than good. The unrealistically high expectations that attend such status, impossible to meet, often find artists beheaded on the critics chopping block. So it is great to witness these guys maintaining a low profile and, after an eight year gap since their last release, releasing their fourth record that is as impressive and quietly confident as anything they have ever done. Fans won’t be disappointed to find a characteristically slow moving sound world to explore – less sunny than before but, if anything, even more intriguing.

Stephan Mathieu & David SylvianWandermude (Samadhisound)
A standout example of ambient music featuring German sound artist Stephan Mathieu reworking source material from David Sylvian’s 2004 release, ‘Blemish’. Created as an ambient accompaniment for an iPhone app designed to display Sylvian’s digital photographs, this beautifully produced work, created by passing the original guitar sounds through a processor with no editing or multi tracking, works equally well as a stand alone composition. This technique gives the pieces a warm and improvisational quality, welcome in the often cold edged, highly tweaked electronic music genre. Guitarist and electronics artist Christian Fennesz also contributes guitar to ‘Deceleration,’ the final song on the album.

Public Service Broadcasting – Inform-Educate-Entertain (Rough Trade)
The use of spoken word samples in music is not a fresh idea. Sampladelica, as the technique came to be known, is probably most famous from The Orb’s early 90’s hit ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. However, London duo Public Service Broadcasting, breathe new life into the technique on their debut album which includes a variety of quaint, ironic and often humorous plummy British sound bites, culled largely from pre and post WW2 government propaganda films. Using beats, krautrock influenced guitar riffs and even, on one track, a banjo, PSB offer more than just a novelty record with their entertaining, clever and often danceable historical perspective.

William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops (2062)
Originally released in 2002, William Basinski’s strange and haunting sonic experiment has attained legendary status as a metaphor for the dissolution of the American dream. Listening to an hour long recording of a single looped sample gradually disintegrating into a barely audible static hiss may not sound like everyone’s idea of a good night out but this CD offers an audio experience quite unlike any other – recommended.

Bibio – Silver Wilkinson (Warp Records)
British producer Stephen Wilkinson grew up with a keen interest in both electronic and folk music and successfully spans these genres with his gently skewed ‘electro folk’ releases as Bibio. His sixth album ‘Silver Wilkinson’, released on Warp Records, finds him fine tuning his sound which sits nicely alongside other recent Warp releases such as Darkstar’s ‘News From Nowhere’. Successfully balancing the pastoral and the digital, this is warm optimistic music, sweet without being cloying, which still offers an element of surprise.

Beck – Song Reader : Twenty New Songs by Beck (Youthless)
Beck’s latest release, ‘Song Reader’ is a beautiful artifact with possibly the most elaborate packaging you have ever seen – with one crucial difference – there is no cd included – no vinyl either – and nope, not even a cassette. Yep, that’s right; Beck has released an album without having actually recorded any of the songs! In what is a highly creative approach to the challenges currently facing the music industry, Beck has decided to take popular music right back to the roots and created ‘Song Reader’ as a beautifully packaged collection of sheet music featuring 20 new songs, each illustrated by a different artist paying loving tribute to the hey day of sheet music (sales of which created the first top 40). So to actually hear the songs you have to play them yourself. Alternatively you can go to www.songreader.net where you can hear hundreds of versions of each song uploaded by keen fans from all around the world. Genius.

DVD review – The Whisperer in the Darkness

Think of every old school horror movie cliché you can, add classic film noir lighting, Hitchcock inspired black and white camera work, an OTT original01 whisperer score and actors with their tongues so far in their cheeks that they appear totally sincere and you are half way to getting an idea of what this movie is like. ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’, the second H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society production, filmed in ‘Mythoscope’, is a gloriously low-budget homage to the hey-day of the classic horror movies of the 1930’s when the original Dracula and Frankenstein movies were made – even the opening credits are brilliant. Hugely entertaining, hilarious and just a tiny bit genuinely scary, this lovingly crafted treatment of American fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft’s tale of ‘the Old Ones’ is worth seeing for the steam punk technology alone. Included on the DVD is the HPLHS’s first production, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, a 40min. re-created silent movie, that features our own Wellington on the map the researcher follows while searching the South Seas for the “great Cyclopean cities of sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” Excellent.

For more info and free downloadable props including customizable insanity and death certificates check out the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s website…www.cthulhulives.org

Also worth checking out is the 2005 H. P. Lovecraft bio by popular French existentialist writer Michel Houellebecq – ‘H. P. Lovecraft: Against The World Against Life’.