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The Spook School

Scottish indie-poppers The Spook School have touched down among couple of labels that mark the best in twee pop and jumped-up jangle – Cloudberry and Fortuna Pop ¬– and now they tick another box in that succession with a new album for Slumberland. Toughened up and sparkled with some of the band’s best hooks yet, it’s actually a disservice to lump them in with the trappings of Twee, rather this is elastic, anthemic indie-pop to its core. The record swells with a kind of wide-eyed defiance that’s hosting a tug-o-war between earnestness and skepticism. They’re capturing that moment when life crests from indomitable truths of youth to the solar plexus punch of reality. It’s a hard transition for anyone and tougher still is weathering the let down without hardening the heart of the bearer. As they so adeptly surmise, “teenage hopes are never less than perfect, anyway.”

The band whips up the manic emotions of pre-adulthood with a crush of frothing guitars, spinning through vignettes of self-acceptance, self-confidence and self-awareness in dizzying rotoscope. Despite quite a bit of the heavy lyrical matter, the record still comes off as a celebration of youth rather than an exorcism of anguish. Would It Be Different? is bittersweet, crushing, uplifting and damnably catchy through it all. They pick up the yoke laid down by dozens of Scot-poppers before them and they drag the line as hard as a good many of them. This seems like a turning point for the band, out of their fawn legs and onto a surefooted future built on fizzing indie-pop with a dense tether.

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Ty Segall & Freedom Band

As January rolls around each year, it seems that it’s becoming an expected event for Ty Segall to roll out a full length that’s wrapped in his latest personal stamp. The rest of the year is packed with personal projects, side endeavors, producing, and guest spots, but January is where the big statements get laid down. Last year he teamed up with Steve Albini for a record that tempered the fire for some true pop moments. The year prior he’d burnt down all pop notions for a record that embraced the squirm under the skin. This year he unfolds his double-size gonzo gatefold vision of rock history and it’s supremely satisfying.

Freedom’s Goblin not only culls from Segall’s own personal rock alters, with Bolan boogie butting heads with ten tons of pelvis shakin’ riffs, it acts as a bit of a celebration of rock’s excess and endurance in general. The album does its best to let glam stomp rest easy alongside the AOR country of The Band. It repurposes the disco-funk of Hot Chocolate as a companion piece to Contortions-style skronk. It swaths punk’s pummel in the chirping headspins of psychedelia, breaking down the nugget of rock ‘n roll into heavy-panting visions of fret board mayhem doused the hot house sweat of soul-worn horns.

The core of Freedoms Goblin is that it embraces the notion of making a big record. Not that Ty hasn’t made a proper, heavy studio affair in the past, there’s no denying that fact – but what defines this record is its vastness, its heaviness, its excess, and its embrace of those qualities. That’s not to call this a bloated record, on the contrary, it’s stuffed but not waddling from its own indulgences. Instead FG is a house party with a curatorial ear on the DJ, building out a record that unfolds like someone relishing their ability to collect the skattered pieces of recorded history and reinvest those sounds in new songs.

There’s a cracked glee to the record that feels like Segall may never have had this much fun cobbling together an album. In a year that also boasts a record from rock’s own anointed king, Jack White, I think that Ty might have just gone and stole fire for Olympus with this one. He’s proved he’s not only worth mentioning in the same breath as the established court of “rock’s saviors” he’s worthy of topping the list.




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Ilyas Ahmed

Always nice to see a familiar name waft up in the release schedule, especially one from an artist that’s been carving out his nice for more than a decade. Ahmed’s been entrancing the world with his foggy take on psych-folk since 2005’s great Between Two Skies. In the time between that debut and now he’s made time on Digitalis, Immune, Time-Lag, and Root Strata – not a bad little resume, if you ask me. His latest finds the artist landing at UK label MIE, and as expected, it’s full of sunset-hewed folk that’s wound loosely with a netting of gauzy, amp-buzzed production. Ahmed’s in no hurry, never has been, and the yarns on this album unravel with a stately grace that finds some common ground between American Primitive and the hushed 90’s indie of Low or Bedhead.

The record is mostly Ahmed alone, and it feels that way, lonesome and isolated. It’s a recurring feeling in the artist’s discography. He’s born out of a psych-folk aughts school that lionized the tortured troubadour holed up in a cabin with a 4-track by his or her side. Here he enlists at least a little help though, with Jonathan Sielaff of Golden Retriever adding some solemn sax to “Zero for Below.” Closer To Stranger finds Ahmed wrestling, as most do, with strange times and an increasing feeling of isolation in modern society. It grapples with the notion of self and, ultimately finds some sort of a resolve. As he moves further from the static of his early work and into a bit of clarity, Ahmed’s brand of burnt folk ages well and acts as a nice respite from the murky waters of social upheaval.



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Various Artists – “La Contra Ola”

It’s always heartening to see that the wealth of reissue material isn’t hitting dry sands at this point. While the majors scramble to repress issues of records that could easily be found lying in the dollar bin (Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits I’m looking your way) labels like Swiss imprint Les Disques Bongo Joe are digging into the grit and grime of post-punk, exploring the not remotely picked over fertile ground of 80’s Spanish Synth Wave. And while the album could easily act as a companion piece to the great issue Sombras (Spanish Post Punk + Dark Pop 1981-1986) that Munster put out, it picks a little deeper at the wound of Spain’s brittle underground.

As with any compilation of this type there are curiosities and obvious standouts that feel like they should have been part of the national conversation for years. Heading up the standouts is an entry from the woefully named Zombies (no relationship to the UK band) whose RCA single “Extraños Juegos” is a delight that should populate pretty much any post-punk mixtape you’ve got going. There are shades of industrial (La Fura Dels Baus), squirming nerve-pop (Tres) and frantic synth pop (Todo Todo) that seems like someone in the Sega music mill might have been listening in when soundtracking the 16-bit generation (esp. Kid Chameleon). All around, a great collection that shines a light on quite a few acts that have been languishing out of the spotlight for years. If Les Disques Bongo Joe hasn’t been on your radar up to this point, keep an eye for some truly necessary gems.


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Salad Boys

Christchurh, New Zealand has a long standing indie history and Salad Boys seems to take plenty of inspiration from their Kiwipop heritage. There’s a bit of The Bats in the mix, sure, though that probably just becomes DNA for anyone from the town. They dose in a bit of fellow NZ heroes The Chills as well, but the updated sound on This Is Glue is tougher, thicker and more roughed up than either. They come closest to the erratic yet ebullient pop of The Clean. The guitars speak to a love of grunge and garage, driving with a force that’s reckless and rallying in equal measures. They don’t stop at mere gnarled bombast though and that’s what makes this a record worth spinning more than once on the old table.

Peppering in some lush keys and swooning strums, the record is the most accomplished work I’ve heard from the band. They’ve always been kicking in the circles of records that float my way and peak my interest but up until now they’ve always seemed to be lacking that glue to hold their shambolic pop together. I suppose then that the title speaks volumes to their newfound footing and to a confidence in knowing they’ve finally found that spark. The record fizzes with hooks that can’t help but dredge up visions of nineties indie heroes baiting the breath of major A&Rs with money to burn.

They draw on the queasy notions of The Feelies and the heatworn pop of Fountains of Wayne and The Lemonheads. This record pulls them out of the scrappy indie gutter and has them reaching for some rock permanence. This isn’t a record that’s instant in its embrace, but rather a grower that seems to sow fondness with each new listen. While this might not be the one that cements their status its a damn fine start that should pull a few ears their way.




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The Stroppies

Sadly, The Stroppies eponymous tape slipped out in May and I was wrapped up elsewhere and missed it. Then I dropped the ball again when Tough Love picked it up for a painfully brief run of 100 on LP a few months back. Third times a charm though, right? Another scant run from TL puts this one back on the radar and pretty high on the “records you missed out on in 2017” list. As with pretty much the entirety of the Aussie underground, the members of The Stroppies find themselves in many of your other favorite bands – Dick Diver, Boomgates, and The Stevens to name a few, but this lineup begs them entry to the quickly evolving Antipodean canon of jangles and misanthropes in the South Hemi.

The record was cobbled together in kitchen recordings, but doesn’t suffer for it’s humble beginnings. There’s plenty of snap strutting through these tracks, but also a a kind of easy warmth that feels like some friends finding fun in their common loves. Built on a bed of jangles, the band expands the typical young Aussie sound with the addition of tottering keys and gnawing stings that pull this ever so slightly towards the new wave and college rock impulses of The Go-Betweens. It’s a solid set for a debut, pocked with a bit of hiss that makes it feel like a well-kept secret. The Stroppies leaves plenty of wonder as to where they’ll go next. This feels like the early days of Dick Diver and despite the obvious carry-over of Steph Hughes between both bands, it’s ticking off a lot of the same boxes that endeared that band to me with each successive record. These guys are ones to watch for sure.



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CB3

CB3, or less succinctly Charlottas Burnin’ Trio, hail from Stockholm and in the grand tradition of Swedish psych, they echo the the past smoke curls of prog while stoking the fire for a new generation of psych stormers. Heavy, but not dense, the record lays the rhythm section into a black hole pocket and lets the guitars sketch arcs across the listener’s conciousness. They find a balance between their clear pet loves for metal and jazz without wading into the kind of wankery that often bubbles up with bands who fancy themselves scholars of both classes.

Bookended by serene eddies, the band’s tape for UK psych outpost Eggs In Aspic aspires for a prog/space rock permanence and for the most part succeeds, though they could probably push the needle heavier and still retain their sense of agility. That phased pocket that they often suck the bass into could stand a little loosening, letting the rhythm chug whle the storm of drums and guitar unfold. Mid-point highlight “Beware The Wolf” is the band touching the specter of Space Rock with the firmest grasp and the look suits them, though they soon return to the noodling knots that mark their forte. The record shows promise and obvious skill, but also a little greenness that should only ripen on further releases.




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The Green Child

Sometimes it’s hard to resist a combination of favorite forces, and such is the case for The Green Child, which brings together the long-distance relationship of Raven Mahon (Grass Widow) and Mikey Young (Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Total Control). The duo jumps off from their inspirational namesake, Herbert Read’s 1935 utopian, communist, sci-fi novel for a sound that’s slaloming into the valley of retro-futurist synth, with a dollop of jangle. The two have mostly shed their past personas to find common ground in works that are antiseptic, but with a human heart. They dress up in the veneer of ’80s new wave, synth wave and goth and work the weave of the three into an oddly invigorating set for the dawn of 2018. If a certain measure of numbness is anthemic in the new age of world politics and daily life, then The Green Child is a magnetic beacon – part armor, part intoxicant.

The record feeds off of Young’s recent excursions into instrumental synth and it’s apparent that the same inspirations for his entry to Moniker’s “Your Move” series also fueled the bedrock of The Green Child. Though, here he’s less interested in the Kosmiche serenity than striving to balance Mahon’s distillation of icy detachment with the the proper amount of Teutonic cool. By the end, the record finds an even keel in a subdued slickness that wards off the caustic deluge of modern life. There’s something comforting in the future perfect sounds that the band rouses up out of the weeds. With the year just cracking in, The Green Child’s eponymous debut is a balm for these modern times, taking inspiration from somewhat psychedelic and strange texts, to endure some what strange and unbelievable times.





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Ulaan Passerine

I’ve had a longstanding run on the works of Steven R. Smith (Hala Strana, Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Markhor) and he’s never one to disappoint. The veteran guitarist specializes in carving emotion out of frothy noise walls with the vibrations of strings. His works are barren, harrowing, and sometimes laid down at the feet of desperation, but he’s never without slivers of light penetrating the mix. The latest as Ulaan Passerine, a somewhat more pastoral vision of his Ulaan line of projects, picks up the grey-hued yoke and absorbs dread and drought into two sidelong tracks of parched, gnawed-through doom-folk.

The title track flirts with the pluck of guitar before sawing deep into the growling bow work that permeates its majority. The song is almost entirely shrouded from light, dusk-deep in a subtle, yearning need that bleeds sand from the bones. It’s not anchored to pain so much as it’s scarred by it. The ruts of hurt show deep on its face, but in the end the piece raises its chin to the cold and stumbles on elegantly, beautifully with the burden on its back and not a tear stain on its cheek.

The second side is pulled out of the soil some, a blissful hope tasting the first drops of rain in years. Smith knows how to build suspense, tension, darkness, and light into his works and he proves that in his hands the low roll of grey clouds can be a beautiful scene. Both sides capture an artist at the pinnacle of his game, cornering a a niche between folk and neo-classical that’s never going to enrapture the masses, but will light the way for the right kind of lost souls.




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King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Well, look at that, just in under the wire if you’re counting. Two digital albums with physical release dates in 2018 are on the docks but all in all the tally’s come in with the Gizz ringing in the new year five albums richer. Their latest is more of a mop up of sorts than an album with any prevailing theme, at least along the level that the band often maintains. It’s proof that they don’t have any true stumbles in their batch, but there’s definitely a sort of clearinghouse feeling to this one, like they might have had some bits that were kicking around waiting for a home. That’s actually self-admitted, with the band’s Stu McKenzie claiming that the album was more “song-oriented” than “album oriented,” which hasn’t really been the case for the prog-psych think tank since 2014’s Oddments.

Like that album, Gumboot Soup feels loose and without restriction. The songs are free to swerve through the band’s own psych swamp, touching on jazz-flecks and fuzz-cakes in equal measure. Sketches of Brunswick East aside, this is actually some of the lightest fare the band have approached this year, which is always kind of fun in my book. I’ve long been a fan of the band’s waterlogged take on psychedelia – swampy, cold, and clammy but without a match light in sight. They’ve spent several albums looking for the spark that would burn down this world and its nice to feel them lean back into their squirming weirdness for a spell.

Gumboot sees the band get slinky, with Ambrose’s flute snaking as a through line for some true gems here. Song-wise there are some great downbeat moments here. They kick things the opposite direction as well, though, with “The Great Chain of Being” acting as one of the band’s most outright metal offerings, feeling like they might have something much heavier in the books at some future point. Tell you what, if the winds bid a Sleep/King Gizzard collaboration I’m all for it, and this might be the foothold to that reality. Similarly “All Is Known” is straight out of the Nonagon playbook, pulling off their usual tricks amiably. The record, for all its inconsistencies, houses no lack of essentials for the collector and curator of King Gizz’ house of psychedelic oddities. If you’re already in the clubhouse then this should feel like eleven new pieces of a puzzle that’s constantly unfolding in real time. Can’t wait to see what this year holds. Though maybe they should sleep.



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