Woods – “Strange To Explain”

News that Woods has an album on the way was among the best reliefs of the year. The band’s been lying low for a little bit, letting themselves ease into their own lives and focus on the label and festival. With the reveal of the first two singles from Strange to Explain, though, they prove that their time to rest has resulted in one of Woods’ deepest, most endearing records. The band revealed the title track this week and it’s a bittersweet, yearning song that tackles strange feelings of familiarity. The band’s sound is fuller than ever, fleshed out from the early days of their psych-folk sojourns into lush orchestrations that nestle into the greenery of their Upstate environs. Woodist fam and RSTB fave Glenn Donaldson (Skygreen Leopards, The Reds, Pinks and Purples) shows up on background vocals and the whole thing sighs into the summer with an ease I hope is just over the horizon. The record is out May 22nd.



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Banshee

In an age that bubbles under with rage, someone needs to tap the crack that breaks the damn. The floodwaters don’t always have to be righteous, sometimes they just need to be cathartic. That’s where Boston’s Banshee come in. Livin’ In The Jungle lets the chaos of the current free with the kind of wild abandon that feels counterintuitive of late. The band are huffing the exhaust from the sinewy side of the ‘70s. Their new LP for Feeding Tube/Cardinal Fuzz is knuckle beaten by the animal instincts of The Stooges, The Deviants, and Dead Boys, but they don’t stay down in the dirt for the entirety of their trip. While a primal thrum is at their core, the band stripes the record with a psychedelic smoke that winds itself around these chiseled rhythms. On “Dawn of Man” the band pounds a glam-stomped beat that reverberates to the bone, but they lace it up with ecstatic strings and narcotic gang vocals. In that regard, they take a good couple of swigs off the hippie hell raiser brand that Hawkwind and The Pink Fairies used to stoke their fires.

Beset with howls and the squalls of horns competing to crack the senses, “Savage Man” is hot to the touch, but the band are pretty quick to inject a good ounce of dry ice dampness elsewhere. Biker-psych isn’t a genre that gets too much love these days, and when it does its never with this level of self-awareness and swagger. Simmer the releases of Hoover III and Zig Zags down to their bits and bottle ‘em and its a brew coming close to what Banshee have concocted. The band aren’t afraid to mix their psychedelic metaphors and I respect that. They’re perfectly happy to dip their throat-shredded ozone burners in the mayfair trappings of hippiedom and it works so well. This one has all the earmarks of a record that’s going to get slept on, so I’m urging you not to be among the poor souls left behind. Crack the windows and let this one echo off the second stories around you.



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2nd Grade – “Velodrome / My Bike”

A twofer video that serves up nothing but smiles and swooning strains, Philadelphia power-pop group 2nd Grade give good reason to be excited for their upcoming LP Hit To Hit. The band is lead by Peter Gill (Friendship, Free Cake For Every Creature) and his songwriting grabs from the power pop tradition by nature, but the ‘90s bracket of the genre by design. Where a lot of others have reached for the Bell/Chilton axis, Early Goovies, or Raspberries, there’s more than a hint of Sweet and Kweller in the bones of 2nd Grade. Its simple, but undeniable pop music for those not looking to muddy the waters. Sometimes all we need is a few crisp chords, sun-streaked skies and a cool breeze of pop to get us through the day. Gill understands this and delivers an album that’s got 24 tracks of bite-sized delights. The record is out May 29th on Double Double Whammy.



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Flat Worms

There’s something fitting about Flat Worms naming their sophomore album after the last safe space in the world from a human contact perspective, while also naming it after one that’s in dire danger from humanity at large. Antarctica is a brittle, brutal, and quite honestly fair assessment of the predicaments we all find ourselves facing in 2020. Even before the proverbial rug was pulled from the amassed nations of the world, the band found themselves in a pessimistic crouch, uncompromising and unrepentant. Who else to bring these brutalities to fruition, then, but the patron saint of disposition himself, Steve Albini. The veteran producer gives little in the way of softness to the band and, in turn, they give little back. The record is fashioned in the mold of ‘90s rock that seeks to bring on a full body itch like an unwashed wool sweater. Though that doesn’t mean its not without comfort.

There are certainly hooks dug into their disdain, but they wear their frustrations on the surface first and foremost. The fire is warm here, but the smell of lighter fluid makes it unpleasant all the same. The L.A. band has been steadily building their sound over the past few EPs and singles — working up a ferocity that breaks loose on Antarctica. Their debut was lean and lanky, but this one’s put on muscle. The bass thunders but keeps its hips limber. They lay down a bedrock of metal bitten rhythm that traces the tail of the Northwest down a rabbit hole lined with Wipers singles, Mudhoney deep cuts, and Green River nihilism. The leads scream from the strain of feedback and bile. There’s been a revival of ‘90s impulses lately, it was bound to happen, but few of the revivalists have dug into what made the crux of grunge vital like this trio has. With this album Flat Worms find that same match strike that melds the hip-thrust hunger of metal with the careening trajectory of punk. Nostalgia be damned, this one feels like its got a talon in ya, and the twisting is both brutal and glorious all at once.



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Romy Vager on Psychedelic Furs – Forever Now

Still plenty of essentials on the way in this strange timeline we’re on and RVG’s sophomore LP is pretty high on that list. The band’s debut was an emotionally fraught, tumultuous record that stood high with ‘80s classics from Echo and the Bunnymen, The Go-Betweens, or Siousxie Sioux. The band has only refined and expanded on that sound with their follow-up, out soon on Fire Records and Feral aims to be one of the best of the year. Naturally, that put the band’s songwriter and driving force Romy Vager high atop the list of inquiries for a Hidden Gems, and she digs further into that ‘80s influence with a spotlight on Psychedelic Furs’ mid-period gem Forever Now. While its predecessor may have gotten all the acclaim for the John Hughes tie-in, this one begs further exploration and Vager explains how it came into her life and the impact its had on her own writing.

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The Hangmans Beautiful Daughters

I’m always game for a retrospective that picks at corners of a scene I’ve overlooked. While pawing through plenty of the C86-era janglers, I must admit that I’ve largely missed out on the works of The Hangmans Beautiful Daughters. Maybe its that the name implies something less rooted in the fuzz-draped pop vein and instead dredges up English Folk overtones. Honestly that should have made me dig in more, not less. While bearing no relationship to or similarities with The Invisible String Band, the group instead takes another divergence from the bulk of the pack that surrounded them. Mentored and produced by The Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy, the group would release their early singles on his own Dreamworld Records and the TVP affiliated Constrictor label. Treacy wrote several songs himself and the band took them from the spare, jangles of his own oeuvre and added layers of thick fuzz, a garage grit, and the kind of lived in cool that radiated off of bands like The Seeds and Velvets before them.

They’d pick at the ‘60s garage canon as well, adding a cover of Shadows of Knights’ “Dark Side” to their pack of Treacy tunes before crafting their own voice. Once rolling the band’s Gordon Dawson and Emily Brown begin to anchor the group with a sound that splits between the jangling ends of The Byrds and the kind of culture that was being dug up by TVPs, Biff Bang Pow!, and early Primal Scream. Aside from the grinding leads, it’s Emily Brown’s vocals that give the band staying power. Her delivery is simultaneously engaging and bored. She’s a beacon that hardly has time for you, but the draw is there all the same. There are some standout female fronters from the period and place, but C86 tends to be a boys club in typical reminiscence about its prowess. The Hangmans Beautiful Daughters round out that narrative a bit. The new collection from Optic Nerve brings together a much needed overview of the band that hasn’t really been explored in detail since a singles comp from ’89 on Voxx. The set is fleshed out with great liner notes from Jowe Head of TVP and Gordon from the band. If, like me, you’ve missed out on the band prior, then this is an essential listen.



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Pacific Range

It’s hard to know what type of tone to strike these days — whether a bath of anger is what’s called for or the cleansing spirit of solace is in order. Maybe the answer is that there are days for both. I’d like to think that the angst of 2020 was far, far from the minds that made High Up On The Mountain, when it was written and recorded. The debut LP from West Coast Cosmic comrades Pacific Range captures a certain strain of calm that’s been sorely missing from my life of late. The album is awash in the salt-scrubbed tones of California and ingrained with the unblemished invigoration of mountain air. While it might not be a West Coast concept, the band captures the aural equivalent of that perfect pitch of blue that comes through in Spring sky — the kind that chases away the clouds of winter, hung with the first tinge of warmth and the the promise of a break from the crushing despair of winter months. The current wave of Cosmic Americana that’s rolled through has oddly favored the East Coast (aside from Howlin’ Rain I suppose) and the bands inclusion in the sunshine sway of the sound feels like it fills a particular gap.

While many of the others are heavily dependent on the Crazy Horse and Little Feat axis, Pacific Range seem to be falling into a more Allman descendent strain, and in many occasions the works of Dicky solo. Sure, they pick up quite a few of the tangential vibes as well — the lesser knowns that found their way in the wake of the Dead, The Allmans and post-Caravanserai Santana. There’s shades of Help Yourself, Mountain Bus, and Turnquist Remedy all threaded through the album. The band trickles down the same tributaries that cut through the canyons and make them their own. There’s a boogie that drives High Up, but there’s something more at play here.

While there’s the familiar deep-seated sway that offers itself up to extended jams in the live setting, there is a tenderness that’s not as present in some of their contemporaries. “Boulevard Indigo,” has a mournful country-folk strain that hangs on the air like dew. “Guiding the Mast” sounds like its was sliced off of either of the last couple of Mapache albums, and its not surprising that the band’s Clay Finch does indeed show up as a guest player among the tracks offered up here. Pacific Range complicate the cosmic winds with their own dusting of bittersweet heartache. There’s plenty here that gives in to the groove but just as much that lets it linger down to a halt, letting the soft breeze suffice as just the right amount of movement. This one seems to have been lost in terms of deserving fanfare, especially out East, but its a necessary pickup in times needing a respite for sure.





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Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears – “Never Wrote A Love Song”

A nice little surprise this week knocks out of Nashville from Sean Thompson’s Weird Ears. The solo/collaborative project of Sean Thompson hasn’t released all that much, but like fellow country-rock killers Teddy and the Rough Riders, its worth keeping an ear to the rail for the bits that surface. This EP in question is a three-song recording of a house party, backed by longtime collaborators Ornament. The band and Thompson find an unshakeable groove on two new songs and give a bit of a live once over to an old fave from the Time Has Grown A Raspberry EP from last year. Thompson admits that while the instrumentals are live in the room he gave the vocals a “Europe ’72” studio treatment after not getting the results on the tape. The combo makes these click. The harmonies are crisp and melancholy and they pair well with the ripple rollicked run-through that the band lays down. There’s a dearth of live energy going ‘round these days so I’d recommend getting in on it when it hits. Let your ears get weird.




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Psychic Ills – “Never Learn Not To Love”

Over the tenure of this blog Psychic Ills seem like such a load-bearing staple that its hard to believe that songwriter Tres Warren has passed. The band evolved through myriad incarnations — mutating lineups and sounds through the psychedelic swamp. Their early record were nerve-bitten and bracing when others were looking to hang onto more of a pop life raft. Then Warren and his compatriots worked their way to a sort of psychedelic ebullience on their final album, Inner Journey Out, a poison-tipped country-psych ramble that stood as one of their best. While its bittersweet to know that there was yet another album in the making that may never reach our ears, this double sided ode to the relationship between Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson is a lovely curio of remembrance. The band tackles both The Beach Boys’ “Never Learn Not To Love,” the song that was based on Manson’s “Cease To Exist” and part of his rift with Wilson over changes made to the final version. The version here is lush and hazy, wrapped in the same sort of beautiful grace that marked their last album.

On the flip they tackle Manson’s original and give it a much starker treatment, letting the two versions stand in contrast to one another — the former a comforting shoulder and the other a cold rebuke. Both versions are quite worth your time, and wind up an essential pickup for any longtime fans of the band’s catalog. Warren will certainly be missed and reworks like this only prove why that’s true.




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Sunwatchers

Sunwatchers continue their devastating streak of the past few years with an album that becomes the balm and the irritant. Oh Yeah? (a delightful pun on their Cool Brave mascot there) is a reflection of turbulent times and the scream into the ether in which to deal with them all at once. While blunt lyricism has its place, there’s also just as overt a necessity for an album that captures the dozens of daily, weekly, and monthly moments of frustration and repels them with a sonic squall that’s caustic and complete. If our current moment has taught us anything it’s that we’re so often at a loss for words these days that the emotional behemoth of 2020 could only benefit from the rhythmic riot and tectonic fury of Sunwatchers. We can only feel truly alive after the baptism of McHugh’s sunstroke riffs and Tobias’ fevered runs. We can begin to live a little lost in the insistent throb of bass and drums flung far into the trance of abandon.

The band leaves melted tire tracks on the crossroads of psych and jazz — never entirely letting themselves choose a single path. The interplay between the members is symbiotic and psychic. They barrel through the barriers like Pharaoh sitting in with Earthless and then push it through the heart of the sun. Much like the block party burndown happening across the Atlantic in Mythic Sunship, Sunwatchers are smelting liquid chaos and tilting the kettle over the agencies that seek to stifle us all in this age of horrors. Riffs lock in and settle into a layer of hypnotism before they’re torn apart from the DNA on down. The band is, as ever, a socio-political powerhouse with a sense of humor, just the kind of talismans we need in an age when we’d be content to yell into the void, if the void hadn’t come home to stay. This one will shake up your year, so grab a helmet and head on in.



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