Sleeper & Snake

Upset the Rhythm brings another stellar Aussie duo to the forefront of 2020 with the release of Sleeper & Snake’s sophomore LP Fresco Shed. Comprised of Amy Hill (Terry, Primo!) and Al Montfort (Terry, Dick Diver, UV Race) the band gives post-punk a rinse in disjointed folk brambles and flanneled jazz touches. What the band does best is capture an unhurried view, almost ambling at times, but without coddling the record in niceties. While they jangle through the folk breeze of “Rokeby” the saw of fiddle and a muffled bleat of sax keep things from ever becoming comfortable. In similar fashion, the band never let their hooks swim too close to the surface. Every time they feel like they might get brisk and wistful, a curdled tone sets us straight. The record is most certainly not meant to fade into the background. Hill and Montfort create warped pop for those already peeking over the edge and it’s a lovely din that demands your attention.

Keys stumble with harpsichord pomp, horns hide in cotton enclaves, and jangles float by in a static haze. There’s something almost inherently cable-access about the album, as if we’re all party to an uninterrupted transmission from an alternate pop universe, framed in yellowed linoleum and second hand shag. The fluorescent flicker inside the Fresco Shed takes a bit of adjustment but soon it hits like a heartbeat pulse. The pair pick out a homespun, earnest batch of songs that refused to be corralled into any contemptible genre. Even when they start to get close to a breezy jangle on “Lock Up The Loose” an amble of harmonica leads us all astray. Any look over their collective resumes assures you that they have the chops to make things easy, but Sleeper & Snake aren’t interested in easy. Somewhere within the labyrinth of the Fresco Shed we’re all lost in the melted sun sway of the band’s subtle charms. Once your internal temperature is reset to their fevered heat ripple, it all starts to make sense.



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Jim Jupp on Caravan – The Land of Grey and Pink

One of the more consistent labels that’s popped up around RSTB over the years has been UK house Ghost Box. The label’s approach to gorgeously layered psychedelic electronic combined with a design sense driven by the legendary Julian House makes each new entry an essential piece of a larger puzzle. The label is headed by Jim Jupp, but he’s not only the driving force behind the label, he’s also one of their stable of artists. Combining a whimsical nostalgia with deep synth atmospherics, he crops up in the guise of The Belbury Poly and The Belbury Circle. Jim’s definitely the kind of deep shelf record listener that the Hidden Gems series was made for, so I couldn’t resist asking for a pick when the latest Belbury Poly album came ‘round this year. He’s landed on a key Canterbury prog classic from Caravan — the expansive The Land of Grey and Pink. Check out how this album came into his life and the impact it’s made.

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Magik Markers

In the gap between Magik Markers Surrender to the Fantasy and 2020 it’s fair to say that the world has shifted, yet the band picks up their distillation of noise-pop and make it seem just as biting and relevant as ever. The group has long had a proclivity for balancing the brutal with the beautiful, wielding grunge-slung hooks alongside skin-flaying noise and tender moments that poke at the new skin underneath the wounds. The formula hasn’t changed but it feels like in their absence Magik Markers only became better conduits for their brand of barnacled pop shakedown. They ooze into the record, slow and primordial with eyes on the skies and heads in the mist as Elisa inhabits the spectral form for “Surf’s Up.” By the time they’re three songs in the sonic briars of “That Dream (Shitty Beach) are tearing at the listener with a thousand tiny cuts.

Both Elisa and Pete took the break from Markers to release solo works that embraced more tender territory and the tidal tone on “Born Dead” is an argument in favor of Ambrogio’s devastating way with a song. Even outside of the context of the album, the song’s layered synths and cavernous vocals relay a darkness and mournfulness that most songwriters never touch. While it would seem tempting to languish, the band jumps right back into the fray, draining the pool and skating in the sun with spot-on aughts noise pop that pulls me right back to an era when Eat Skull, Tyvek, and Times New Viking blistered the speakers for a summer or two.

As with any impulse in the Markers’ quiver, it doesn’t last as they weave further darkness over the last half of the album —plunging the listener right back into the depths that they plumbed in “Born Dead” and “Surfs Up” with closer “Quarry (If You Dive)” and the winding, tortured “CDROM.” The tonal shifts never feel wedged though — surging through bouts of depression and regret balanced with the requisite anger and joy necessary to deal with the overwhelming feelings. While bright spots appear, the album is more contemplative and haunted by the past than any of their previous albums. The lure of dark waters is difficult to resist and like the Markers maybe we’re all not dealing well, but we fight through nonetheless. 2020 is likely a year that we need Magik Markers more than ever. Its good to have ‘em back.




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Joe Wong – “Nite Creatures”

I’ve been letting the Joe Wong (Parts & Labor) cut sink into the skin this morning and its starting to take root. The songwriter and composer might be more well known today for his work with television scoring these days (Russian Doll, The Midnight Gospel, Master of None, etc) but it seems that he’s still got an itch for psychedelic rock, albeit of a much lusher nature these days. His new album for Decca is earmarked with just about as many blissful psych touchstones you can cram in — produced by Mary Timony and mixed in the studio by Dave Fridman, the album brings together Mary Lattimore, Anna Waronker, Steve Drozd, and quite a few others to help Wong drape a bit of velvet over every track. “Nite Creatures” makes great use of Lattimore’s harp as Wong makes a play for Lee Hazlewood spun round in the rotoscope under gelled lights. I know that Wong leans more towards scoring, but from a psych-pop standpoint I hope that after the Lynx Lodge has closed for good, that Tom Patterson can find another mercurial psychedelic show in which to place this one. The Fred Armisen-directed video does little to dissuade that feeling, going for a hidden worlds feel while Wong wanders a Moroccan dressed mansion. The song is from his new LP, out now.



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Fuzz

A new edition of Fuzz is upon us and it’s not long after the album begins before we’re swept under the atomic crush of the band’s monolithic riffs. This time around they make a natural choice in employing Steve Albini to man the boards and his crisp, unfettered approach only hooks a deeper bite into the listener. The band continues to flourish in the power trio posture — letting the space between them seethe and sweat with a fevered pulse. The interplay between guitar and bass is symbiotic, growl met with growl soaked in the electric sweat of elder gods crumbling into ozone and creosote. Ty’s drums spring and tangle, locking into a swing that’s brief before the next power surge suplex from the strings kicks in. Lurking in the background, Albini’s there to capture it all to fresh tape, a fly on the wall watching a band heat the seams of the room to molten magnitudes.

The songs themselves are, for the most part, lean and hungry. They occasionally indulge in extending their fission fry into the six and seven minute marks, but they don’t tend to jam, and under no circumstances do Fuzz noodle. Blue Cheer carved the altar and Fuzz let the blood drip down upon it. The energy in the room is soaked into the tape and beamed through the speakers with a heat that could bake a tan into the listener. It’s hard not to feel the band being excited about what they’re creating, even if its not breaking the mold. They’re more than open about this being an album enthralled with guitar rock and not seeking to move the needle forward, though. They revel in the tumult of noise and the body high bruise of a triple-stack storm of good ol’ face melters. On pretty much all levels I couldn’t agree more. There are times when I need a band to work up an alchemical shift on the old guard, but there are also days, and might I say after this one, even years, when a sonic reducer to the skull is plenty welcomed. Fuzz shake us all to the bones and I’m not the least bit mad about it.


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Larry Schemel on Opal – Happy Nightmare Baby

L.A. musician Larry Schemel’s almost over qualified for the Hidden Gems column, having created a few of them himself. The guitarist has held down time in ‘90s underground faves Kill Sybil/Sybil and Midnight Movies, contributed to The Flesh Eaters repertoire and has been anchoring Death Valley Girls for the last few years. Larry certainly seems like a source of some deep shelf picks for this column so I reached out to see what he might recommend. He picked a favorite that I share as well, opting for the sole LP proper from Opal. Hear how this pre-Mazzy Star nugget came into his life and the impact it has had on him over the years.

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Razorcuts – Storyteller (Deluxe)

It was a hectic summer and I hope you’ll forgive this one slipping beneath the waves for a bit, especially since there wasn’t a lot of dust kicked up about it Stateside. Optic Nerve has done the world a huge favor in reissuing both of Razorcuts essential LPs along with extended bonus discs that cull some key singles into the mix. The band, fronted by Gregory Webster and Tim Vass alongside a rotating cast of contemporaries, exemplified the C86 jangle-pop sound that has smitten so many, yet they’re often left shy of fame in hindsight. The band issued singles on Subway Orginization, Flying Nun UK, Sha La La, Caff Corporation, and Lamia and quite a few of these bits make it onto the second LP on offer here, making this a bit of an indispensable look at the band. Included are the band’s key singles “Sorry To Embarrass You” and “Big Pink Cake” along with harder to dig up splits with The Wolfhounds and covers of The Band.

As for Storyteller itself, the album finds the band in thrall with their own sound — wistful, tender, breezy – a bit of a beacon of light in 1988. The band had worked out their kinks by this point and, while the early singles have an immediacy on display, the lineup for Storyteller finds a thread through Webster and Vass’ influences, tying up sunshine pop, ‘60s jangle from The Byrds to the Beau Brummels, and a big indie heart that places them easily in the Creation roster while never skewing twee. I’ve always been a fan of the band’s follow-up, which acted as my entry point to Razorcuts and the label has also issued this along with a second disc that scoops up the rest of the EP tracks and compilation bits that don’t make it onto the early extras here. I’d recommend them as a pair, even for the casually curious jangle-pop fan. Both records are an absolute delight and the expansion packs here make put a wealth of previously harder to nab material back on vinyl all in one place. Sadly after Mile High Towers the band would crumble and crack. Vass would go on to play with Red Chair Fadeaway, and Webster would start up The Carousel and Saturn V. Notably, though they reunited under the name Forever People in 1992 for a one-off single on Sarah Records, making their indie-pop label trip complete.



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Badge Époque Ensemble – “Unity (It’s Up To You)” featuring James Baley

New goodness today from the upcoming Badge Époque Ensemble and it tumbles further down the well of psych-soul that the band has been pumping the past few years. Slippery and hitting a note of ‘70s Stevie here, the band is scratching that itch for flute-dabbled, organ grooves. The band’s crushed velvet sound has long benefitted from a perfect pairing of guest singers and here they don’t slip. “Unity (It’s Up To You)” features Toronto singer James Baley, who has in a tangental move, popped up on the last U.S. Girls LP following his own Roads in 2017. Baley joins U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy, fellow Canadian Jennifer Castle, and and longtime collaborator Dorthea Paas as the voice of the new BEE on Self Help. The band further augments their Summer of ’74 vibes with a psychedelic claymation video, which seem to be making a nice comeback in 2020. The video comes courtesy of Alex Kingsmill of Beyond Wonderland Films. The new record lands on November 20th on the band’s home at Telephone Explosion.



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Dylan Sizemore on Bruce Haack – The Electric Lucifer

I’ve had the new Frankie and the Witch Fingers on the deck for a while now and it only gets better and deeper with each spin. The record is an interconnected odyssey of psychedelic excess that lifts the listener from this temporal plane and into a parallel dimension of glowing psychosis and psilocybin-induced evolution. The colors in the mind match the visual barrage of Will Sweeney’s saturated cover art and the band has never sounded hungry to cross the time-space rift than now. I snagged Witch Fingers’ driving force Dylan Sizemore to dig deep for a pick in the Hidden Gems series and he obliged with a psychedelic odyssey of his own. Check out Dylan’s take on Bruce Haack’s electronic epic The Electric Lucifer below.

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Jennifer Castle

There’s something quite freeing about the latest release from Jennifer Castle. The Canadian songwriter has always had a charming quality of disarmament, but on Monarch Season she’s created a folk masterpiece that slowly peels back the layers of the listener with each song. By the time the last song fades away into the colors of the clouds, the listener can feel the grass growing between their veins. Its such a natural, unfettered vision of folk in 2020 that the record almost feels as if we’re listening across some extra-dimensional echo from the past or a ripple from a future in which the gardens of the Earth are more tended by the caretakers than they are now.

Castle’s rooted this album in the enduring wonder of nature, which against all odds persists in some of the most amazing ways despite what we throw into the mix. It’s an unlikely beacon of hope in a year of uncertainty — an album centered around the migration of butterflies, yet stretching its winds wide to blow through social upheaval, personal tragedy, and stability brought low by the smallest consistencies. With just an unfurnished piano or strum, Castle can captivate. The songs lap at the listener like night waves, entranced by the silver stroke of the moon. Her voice stretches in the headphones — comforting as cashmere and often feeling twice as delicate — but also so enveloping that it seems no force could ever shake it. If a single tear of quiet release had a soundtrack to its fall, this may well be it.

Castle’s never come this close to hearth songs. These feel at times like homecomings, a soft whistle in to the family to gather from all corners, and the inclusion of a book of sheet music with the LP speaks her feeling of weaving this LP into the fabric of sing-a-long comfort that comes from closeness. Its a bygone pastime to gather loved ones and sooth through song, but Castle makes a good case here.

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