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Happy End – Happy End

Its been a long time coming, but many of the essential Japanese albums from the psychedelic era are now coming back to the reissue circuit. While most were represented in the CD-heavy aughts boom, the trickle back to vinyl has been slow for some, and even then it’s been limited to imports in many cases. With the reissue of the Hosono catalog through Light in the Attic, the artist’s other pre-Yellow Magic Orchestra work is now creeping out from the corners. Last year Survival Research reissued Hosono’s early band Apryl Fool, a band that would stand at the beginning of his journey into the modern musical heart, and now they’re continuing with the band he skipped onto next, Happy End. While the band’s sophomore LP is probably the most widely known, their debut hardly anything to dismiss offhand. Alongside Eiichi Ohtaki, Shigeru Suzuki, and Takashi Matsumoto, the latter also of Apryl Fool, they began move away from the blues that held sway of the Fool and into the strains of country rock, folk and lightly flecked psychedelia that would prove pervasive in their American counterparts. The difference here is that the band made the insistence on keeping the lyrics in their native Japanese, possibly alienating Western audiences at the time, but endearing them to their local crowds.

While it seems only natural that Japanese bands might sing in Japanese, at the time the Western influence was so strong that it was seen as almost a given that English language was the only path to prominence. This led to the Nihongo Rokku Ronsō or Japanese Language Controversy, a debate that the success of this album and the subsequent Kazemachi Roman helped to settle. It’s easy to see how this album catapulted the band to success — with a combination of soulful songwriting, adept musicianship that easily incorporates and melds their various genres, and hooks that should have transcended any language barrier — the only true curiosity is that the album didn’t crossover beyond their country’s bounds at the time. There are elements of CSNY, Moby Grape, and Quicksilver Messenger Service at play, especially in the three-part harmonies working their way through the folk forms, but the leads on Happy End tend to push further than most US/UK bands ever let themselves wander. In every sense this is a killer album that outstrips similar fodder that ruled international charts at the time. Very glad to see this back in print and hoping that this is the beginning of a run of the rest of Happy End’s catalog for US audiences.



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Vacant Gardens

The debut LP from Vacant Gardens plays on a lot of favorites around here, combining the blissful descent of shoegaze with the drawn curtain comfort of bedroom synth pop for a record that’s immediate and personal but still evocative enough to splash your inner emotions across the stereo spectrum in an effusive pink haze. Doesn’t hurt that the band is built from a couple of past familiars as well, with the duo consisting of Glenn Donaldson (Skygreen Leopards, Art Museums, Reds, Pinks and Purples) and Jem Fanvu (Tune-Yards, Cavity Fang), operating a bit outside their typical pop enclaves. With touches of Pale Saints, Curve, and early Creation-era Ride and Slow Dive in the mix, the pair carves at the frothing bouquet of Dreampop with a deft hand that lets on their dedication aesthetics come to the forefront. Many have tried to capture the same aesthetics but they usually come up as a cheap facsimile, Vacan Gardens don’t ever even catch whiff of such knockoff tendencies. They are ripped out of time, and beautifully so. The entire album glows with a backlit brilliance, radiant and ambient at the same time.

The sounds come seeping out from the speakers with curls of fog that obscure hooks in the maw of feedback fanged guitars. Jem’s vocals carry a heartbroken twinge that twist the knife between the lungs and lets the blood flow from the listener. The pain is pleasure, though, in this case. Every song is bittersweet manna from a disinterested heaven, that comes billowing out at the listener, bringing the pang but letting the listener float away on a cloud of narcotic churn to balm the burn. I fear this might slip between the cracks of public consciousness in the goldfish memory of 2020, so don’t let this pass by without absorbing the delightful ache that Vacant Gardens bring to the most overcast evenings, dragging you down with them in blissful delight.




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The Holydrug Couple – “Vértigo/Valle de los Espejos”

Sneaking out on their Bandcamp this week, RSTB fave The Holydrug Couple have a charity EP set to benefit those wounds and affected by recent Chilean protests. Both sides of the 7” are covers from Chilean ‘60s band The Blops, who brought American and British rock n’ roll into the country — emulating The Beatles, The Doors, and other exports of the era, but interpolating their own native perspectives as well. Holydrug picks out two early cuts from the band focusing on a deep cut from The Blops’ debut album alongside a b-side from the ’71 single “Machulenco.” While both deviate from The Holydrug Couple’s usual deep valley euphoria, they present a nice take on the songs while drawing a line to some of their own influences. The single is being offered in a scant physical run of, or you can pick it up digitally on the band’s Bandcamp. Worthwhile to nab this one and spread some relief.


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Joe Ghatt

This one’s been lingering on the fringes of haze for a while now, surfacing as a limited cassette on Third Eye Stimuli back in the first half of 2019 and now resurfacing from Six Tonnes de Chair on LP. Ghatt’s a vibe channeler in the modern tradition, soaking his sound in the sepia tones and dust scratch aesthetics of the ‘60s, but keeping a modern touch of breezy songwriting in tow. As such Banana Sludge employs fuzz guitars with wild abandon and seats them into velour lounge settings full of hazed memories. He’s adept a letting his hooks grow around the brain and there’s often the feeling of sinking into the rug around you as the sounds grow muffled, the incessant creep of shag carpeting pairing with mushroom tea to pleasing and perplexing effect. That’s what makes Ghatt’s vision of nostalgia-vision work. Its not a clear representation of the past, more often it’s the feelings coming back in blurry shapes and hung on repeated phrases.

Midway swinger “Mammon” might exhibit this the best with an instrumental incessantness that’s flanked by voices calling from beyond the periphery. By the time the song is over it’s hard to remember where it started, and by then Ghatt’s back into the hammock and strumming a white linen lounger that drips with brass and a humid dose of echo. Over the run of Banana Sludge, Ghatt transmits through the temporal plane – his voice breathing down the grating of a ribbon in the room, but the backing band emanating from the ether, following his every move from beyond time. Sure, it’s all facsimile, but, hey they give awards to the designers that can copy period pieces with gleeful frequency every year. Why not applaud the effort? Ghatt’s found the threads that hang tightest and pulled them around us all on this one.



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Karkhana

The arms of Karkhana spread wide and embrace rivulets of noise, experimental eddies, psychedelic jazz, and raga rotations. The band pulls in players from Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul alongside Montreal’s Sam Shalabai (Land of Kush, Mosasses, Shalabi Effect) for a sound that’s decidedly progressive while adhering to a traditional core of Middle Eastern tones that mesmerize and massage the soul. The overlap with fellow Unrock outfit The Dwarfs of East Agouza is apparent both in the band’s membership and approach. Like The Dwarfs, Karkhana tumbles down darkened alleys of rhythm and sound – polyrhythmic textures and lightning sharp strums dart from all directions. Underneath the group threads sine wave warbles that give off the impression that the songs are being broadcast through dodgy UHF streams, picking up interference from unknown or unwanted sources seeking to dampen their bootleg bounty of musical shred.

Bitter Balls is only the band’s second true album, but they’ve shared sides with Sir Richard Bisiop & David Oliphant and cut a few EPs and live documents that hardly make this indicative of a mere second outing. The band feel well oiled and locked at an instinct level with each other’s improvisations. The noise rolls seamlessly into groove out of nowhere, then dissolves into gnarled wire workings once again, leaving the listener never able to rest their reflexes. Who wants that kind of listen anyway, not when Salabai, Louca, and their cohorts can reform the rarefied air into something sour and sensuous all at once. It’s a prickly record, but one that should interest quite a few who find solace at this site.



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Tapiman – S/T

Always good to see some of the crucial reissues I picked up 15-20 years ago making a new round for those that still can’t find those originals anywhere below scandalous prices. This ’72 LP from Spanish trio Tapiman is one of those rediscoveries from the early ‘00s that still resonates today. Lit on the savage burn of guitar by Max Sunyer, the album trades heavy, powerful riffing (that woulda made the Sabbath crowd proud) with nimble prog touches pushing the album beyond mere proto metal curio. Pinned to a rhythm section that keeps Sunyer’s guitars from floating into the bilious clouds of smoke, the band’s songs were a masterclass in heavy-bottomed yet smart runs.

They fill the second half out with spaced organ and and a stab at Thin Lizzy frizzle meets post-Canturbury noodling from later period Soft Machine. As a whole, the record rounds itself out to embrace a wider palette than the average thunder cruncher from the time period. The band could embrace softness, power, and prog flights of fantasy. The Spanish scene often gets shorted at the time, but this along with Truck and Storm always feel like lost classics to me. Plus, that cover is a damned selling point if you ask me. The pink skull is definitely one of the reasons it founds its way into my hands in the first place. New issue has expanded liners and pics.



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Matthew J. Rolin

Finally hitting a week where I can catch up on all the great LPs in the pile, many of which come from the esteemed Feeding Tube. This one’s for the fingerpick freaks out there, and while it hits the heartstrings of those weaned on Fahey and, more importantly, Kottke, it appears that Rolin has a more modern thorn in his side. The artist comes from Cleveland garage and psych outfits (most notably Nowhere) that ramble far less than they hop through the haze. After a shift to Chicago Rolin ditched the echoplex dreams for acoustic inflection, leaning heavier on the new class kickers like Ryley Walker, Daniel Bachman, William Tyler, and Richard Bishop more than the Tompkins Square set for his inspiration. No matter what the inroads, though, the impact remains the same. Like American Primitive dominoes the influences trickles through in his playing and he enters into the new class alongside Itasca, Kendra Amelie, and Joseph Allred as carriers of the torch.

Influences aside, the album is a refreshingly vernal take on the form. Tracks tumble and sparkle with life. His runs are rapid, but cut through with a slide-blues dissonance that sides with passion over precision. There’s a forlorn quality to songs like “Siren” and the appropriately titled “Neverendingness,” but Rolin works his way through mourning, meditation, and celebration all in good time as the record unfolds. There’s been a staggeringly great run of new fingerpicked music over the last decade and this is a lovely addition to the roster. Just check out that Ryley curated Tompkins Sq LP for a taste (Rolin’s included) to really get acquainted. This one’s getting scarce (my fault for not giving it some love sooner) but where you find it, you should certainly pick it up.



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Arbor Labor Union

As Arbor Labor Union returns home to their Georgian roots, and home to Arrowhawk, the label where they began, they find another type of roots suit them as well. The band’s brief sojourn with Sub Pop might have escaped your grasp, if you weren’t paying attention over the last couple of years, but I’m sure it had an impact on them. The band scrubbed themselves clean and cut back their hairiness for I Hear You, but as accomplished as it was, it also lost a bit of the fun that imbued the band with their sense of joy. That fun and froth returns to New Petal Instants and the band wind up with, by all accounts, their best yet. Dipping into their instincts to jam a track into the choogle-slicked waters of the current indie-psych pocket of rock that includes Garcia Peoples, One Eleven Heavy, and Howlin’ Rain, the band finds a home in ramble n’ rollick that can’t sit still.

ALU always knew hot to land a riff, but here they don’t stick it with the precision of a champion athlete, but rather let it slide like a kid pushing the boundaries on a backyard ramp. They “pick a boogie” and let it loop, sliding and skidding on the way down to the ground with a bit of reckless flair. That sense of not playing it safe makes the album feel like its bigger than the Cosmic Americana crush its attempting to squeeze. It’s a band recapturing their spirit and coming off better for it. The group synthesizes the spirit of Southern Rock and adds to it the complexities and discipline of post-punk. While the two don’t seem to find the mesh in the marketplace, there’s every indication that ALU could crush a cover of The Soft Boys’ “Wey Way Hep Uh Hole” and make it seem like it swung with a smoked-tanned soul all along. Take away the sneer but keep the self-effacing swagger in place and that’s where New Petal Instants lands.



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Elkhorn

This one’s been eking out piecemeal over the last couple of months, but to be honest, its hard to take The Storm Sessions as pieces. Since, essentially, the entirety of the record was put together as longform improvisations, the spontaneity and flow of the songs should hit the listener with the same fluid intensity in which they were conceived. The Storm Sessions is a journey one shouldn’t disembark lightly. Joined by longtime friend and collaborator Turner Williams (Ramble Tamble, Guardian Alien) in the sequestered aftermath of foul weather, the two sides play out with an appropriate ache of isolation that such circumstances might imply. At the heart of “Electric One” and “Electric Two” lies the interplay between Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner on acoustic and electric guitars, their strings as usual, locked into a sonic dive through the dark heart of desperation. Sheppard’s tangle of notes sings in hypnotic, soothing motion before Gardner lets into the improvs with an incandescent electric burn, lending a burnt plastic parlance to portions of the set.

Weaving his way through is Williams who adds shading to the cold confines of the storm with electric bouzouki and shahi baaja. This past autumn I saw Williams lay into the latter on stage with Jesse and it’s a sight to behold. Prowess aside though, Williams is a master collaborator adept at letting his playing lay a bedrock for these improvisations. On the A-side, his playing buzzes around Drew and Jesse in calligraphic embellishment. On the flip, he lays down a thrum that acts as an anchor pulling the two back from the cliff’s edge. Strung together, the three craft an album that’s as engrossing as their double set from last year, records that already stand out at the top of their catalog. With this, they’ve proven that even without planning to, they have the ability to outpace many of their peers with a sheer force of will. We’re barely a month into the year, but this already feels like a defining moment for 2020 musically.


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Dire Wolves

Last year’s Grow Towards The Light was an absolute highlight of the year, pushing the boundaries of Dire Wolves’ sound to further heights of lysergic ecstasy. The band made a bit of a companion piece last year, but it wound up as a merch table totem that was hard to get into the hands of the many, especially from a multi-coast band that didn’t have a sizeable tour. Unless you were at a handful of great shows last year, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Set Times remained out of reach. Enter Centripetal Force, though, who’ve not only revived it, but laid it down to vinyl as well. The record ably amplifies the vibes that were strewn throughout GTTL, expounding upon the grey-hued mists that spring forth from their sound – a mysterious mélange of vocal incantations that seem to meld with the wind, violins that saw at the air with desperate, wild panic, and guitars that singe with subtlety.

Over the four tracks here the band stretch their strengths, packing in as much propulsive chaos as quiet moments of haunted introspection. The latter is particularly apparent on the side two opener “Circle of Friths,” a funereal specter that’s laced with sorrow. While Georgia Carbone might not put forth her woes in discernible language, the pain permeates the soul just as hard through her vocal exhumations. What’s most impressive is that this wasn’t even designed as an album proper, but a bonus for those who were taken by the live experience. Thankfully, Centripetal saw the release for what it was, a vital chink in the bands chain of releases that elevates the ache they put forth last year.



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