Browsing Category Reviews

Trees – Trees (50th Anniversary Edition)

Now there’s quite a subset of catalogers of the past that would relegate Trees to the cutout bin and 2nd or 3rd tier in their essential releases of the ‘70s. While the band filled a similar swath as Pentangle or, more closely Fairport Convention, to discount them as merely a photocopy is to do the band a grave disservice. Comparisons between Fairport and Trees often come at the expense of Celia Humphris, who may not have the range of Sandy Denny, but hers is a more wounded delivery and in turn gives Trees an imperfect veneer that’s to their advantage rather than their detriment. Where the band truly excels is in marrying the wan English past to (at the time) the acid-peaked present. Folding out of primrose paths, the band expands on traditional songs with a keen ear for when and how to let the psychedelic flame burn and when to let the troubadour impulse carry them further down the wooded path.

This is exactly where Humphris shines, between the knotted riffs and the hallucinogenic tension she’s the common villager to Denny’s noblewoman. The band lays beneath her a tapestry that’s alive with visceral wonder and heady twists and turns. The older tales spin out as they did among many of their peers burnt through with a Wiccan wink that pulls them from the past and into a fevered dream of medieval fantasia. The moves they practice on their debut, The Garden of Jane Delawney set the stage for the originals that would populate the follow-up On The Shore, a record that might be more familiar to some for its Hipgnosis cover than its content. The band creates an imagined trove of traditionals on the follow-up, creating a schism in history with an extended renaissance that’s feels pulled from pulp novels and opium dreams.

With this 50th anniversary collection, Earth rounds up a complete picture of the band, finally elevating them from psychedelic curio into something more deserving of a deep dive. In addition to the band’s two albums, restored and remastered, the set collects two new discs of alternate mixes, early demos, BBC session tracks and 2018 live recordings in London. No doubt there will still be plenty who will see them as only a footnote in the psych-Nuggets column, but I think this collection makes their case quite nicely.



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Barry Walker Jr.

With his stamp already on one of the years best LPs (contributing to North Americans stunning new record) Portland pedal steel player Barry Walker Jr aims for ambient country infamy with Shoulda Zenith. While it occupies some of the same space as his work with Patrick McDermott, the air that Walker is treading here is something more spectral and dangerous than he’s found himself embroiled in previously. HIs last album was another gem, occupying space on Driftless just like North Americans’ previous LP as well. Yet here, he dives deeper into the notion of pedal steel as an instrument and what it can accomplish when torn from its tethers as merely a paintbrush of sadness and ennui in the country canon. On Shoulda Zenith Walker still lets his instrument cry the lonesome cry that can be expected from his steel, but he distorts the the picture over these nine tracks, pushing the instrument to the front of the stage and then letting it growl, pant, breakdown, and blossom.

Now I’m not usually one to quote out the official rhetoric, but Holy Mountain pulling in a cross-section from experimental psych Texans and Japanese Out Rock, is extraordinarily apt. Walker’s finding the friction in country but also the longstanding pain and relief, especially with songs like the title track, which finds the familiar tones of the pedal steel thrown into the froth of feedback, crashing against the urge for calm. Walker riles and relents. For as often as the record strives to chafe, to dismantle the notions of staid lament that the instrument and country provide, he provides just as many opportunities for lightness and tender resolve. “Trinity Payload” knocks the listener into the sea wall of noise, but Walker’s there to scoop up the wreckage of the soul and nurse it back to health with a mournful moment. To cap it, he winds the record down with an old-soul country number that proves how deep his understanding of what he’s dismantling goes — a classic take that lets the album slide into the sunset scarred but not broken.



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Bons – “Ready Reckoner”

Fruits & Flowers have served as an evergreen fount of warbled pop and jangled musings, but now they’re offering up something a bit more curdled than their catalog has harbored in the past. The debut single from Bons brings together a trio of UK players who’ve all found their niche in bands that buzz a bit more than they jangle. Here, as Bons, the trio, augmented with the addition of Aimée Henderson on the closer, land in a tussle between post-punk that’s been dented to remove the sharp corners and an almost pastoral sound that’s begs a bit of comparison to artists on Jewelled Anteler (not coincidentally a precursor to F&F as a label). The band opens the single with their noisiest bout — the crumpled and smeared “Steiner,” but things quickly calm from there. The rest of the EP hovers between the hypnogogic storybook psychedelia of Ghost Box releases and the unsettling ease of something like Blithe Sons. This isn’t pop by any stretch, but its just as fond of climbing under the skin. The record has a hard to pin endearing quality, warm like woolens but just as itchy in the same way.


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Latitude

San Francisco never ceases to throw the pop gauntlet. Whether its jangle-pop, garage sneer, or something less brittle, the town’s weathering their seismic changes, at least in the music sector. The sophomore LP from Latitude works its way into the bloodstream more easily than some of their adjacent compatriots. With a release on Emotional Response, the LP wraps a waft of jangle around ‘80s synth-pop and ‘70s disco hangover. Amy Fowler’s vocals have drawn some larger than life comparisons — with her deep, imploring delivery falling between Stevie and Debbie, though for me it lands in even company with indie mainstay Meredith Metcalf (Music Go Music, Bodies of Water). The songs on Mystic Hotline explore some similar territory with MGM, mopping up the post-disco hangover that the band found so verdant and marrying it with a bit of a post-punk vibrancy that’s rubbery, but rife with the thick, neon glint of keys.

There’s a bucolic restlessness to the album, lounged, yet dreaming of a more conflicted life. The album’s perch between post-punk’s urgency and new wave’s radiant smear gives the album a light tension. The band clearly wants to push towards the rhythmic pulse and angular angst, but they’re not quite as lean and hungry as the genre requires and as such they bleed over into the smudged romanticism of the New Wave queens quite often. The urge to dance is always bubbling below the surface, if not overtly taking the reigns and the thrum snaps Latitude out of complacency. While the band would love to languish in the shadows it’s hard to resist the pull of a propulsive beat and the heat of bodies near one another in thrall to the pulse. The band’s at their best, though, when the slightly nerdy needs of ‘80s pop take over and the synths skew towards arpeggiation and the neon glow squiggles into a discordant shimmy. There’s a gloss here that’s hard to shake, but when the band lets their makeup fade, they’re found out for the endearing pop academics they are.




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The Silence

Masaki Batoh’s output of late has been nothing short of admirable. Between a run of solo albums and his work with The Silence, the man’s pumping out multiple albums per year without the slightest dip in quality. Following up the absolutely crushing Metaphysical Feedback from last year, the band pushes into heavy pscyh Nirvana with Electric Meditations. The record follows its predecessor’s reliance on sax and flute to fill out the shifting landscapes, letting heavy walls of riff and tender folk sidle down psychedelic jazz tributaries. The title track straddles the blend especially well, shifting easily on its feet from electric sweat growl to hushed moments of reflection. The album begins with a similar crash to the gates in “Tsumi to Warai,” which wields sax like a battering ram before letting a snaking bass section writhe against the groove into the opening of the album.

They blister next through a psych-funk simmer, dousing the listener with humid flutes and a tangle of rhythm then wind through the wooded paths that bear the brush marks of his time with Ghost. They get lost in the abstract only to pull themselves from the void of twinkling improvisations and conquer once more. Then, just for good measure, they knock the lid off of a cover of Bo Diddly’s “I’m A Man,” sounding like an outtake from Two Bands And A Legend. The Silence has always seemed like Batoh’s well-oiled endgame — a perfect amassing of players that can finally form the sounds that have haunted his head for ages.

It’s the songwriter at his most varied, but the eclecticism fits together like a puzzle box that’s a portal to a realm of fascinating forms. The panoramas on Electric Meditations are vast and wondrous, and it almost seems like he’s been overlooked in the last few years because people expect spot-on psychedelia from a figure as storied as Batoh. It’s worth shouting, however, that the legend is still plugged into the lysergic portal and passing the visions onto us in records that delight, disorient, and divine some sort of deeper cosmic thrum. Don’t miss out on what Batoh’s been conjuring.



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Kelley Stoltz

There’s no time for stagnation it seems in the Kelley Stoltz catalog. The last two years alone have seen four albums and Stoltz’ quality never slips from view. Ah! (etc) marks the second LP for 2020 and the pair alone are an impressive feat of duality within his songwriting prowess. Hard Feelings embraced a low-slung vision of power pop — an almost quick and dirty album that let a blast of cold air jolt it with life. The record wasn’t too far removed from the fertile garden of hooks and humility that mark Stoltz output, but with its inspiration laid in a cheap guitar and a cheeky pseudonymous side project from Jedediah Smith (My Teenage Stride, Jeanines), it marked a bit of a departure from the darker strains of his pop universe. The schism pinned Hard Feelings as both an outlier and also one of his best offerings. The album was immediate and unfussed. His second wind in 2020 sees Stoltz slot back into his former hallmarks nicely, with the layered pop taking the reins once again and the clouds forming once again over the studio.

While it doesn’t benefit from the same sharp slap of Hard Feelings, the new LP boasts a new wave wash and a cameo from Echo and The Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant. The record pulls the curtains against the sun and sulks a bit, but does so with a flair that can hardly be accused of being dour. Stoltz brings out the synth sway, a strum and crunch in the guitar game and his bittersweet hooks that can’t help but let sighs build up underneath the glossy veneer. In a way this is a continuation of what was built on My Regime — a pliable, chameleonic pop animal that’s trying on new wave and melancholic pop skins and burrowing into the brain with hooks that are subtle, yet endlessly effective. If given an ultimatum to choose one Stoltz LP you need in 2020, I’d have to say that Hard Feelings edges the win, but there’s a lot to love on Ah! (etc).

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The Chills – Soft Bomb

Now if ever there was a shining star in The Chills’ catalog, their sophomore LP Submarine Bells is just that. The record was the band’s major label debut and it’s one of those records I honestly wish I would have found earlier in my life, having come to it quite a few years after its 1990 release. The band’s early edges were softened and their songwriting was hammered into pop perfection. While it achieved the kind of critical praise that will forever let this one swim to the surface if R.E.M. fans and Kiwipop lovers dig deeper into the bench of major label offerings from this time period, its follow-up remains slightly more elusive. I’m sad to say that as much of a fan as I am of the early singles that populate Kaleidoscope World, on into Brave Words, and Submarine Bells it took these much needed reissues of later Chills works by Fire to really let Soft Bomb spend some time on the speakers.

By 1992 The Chills as they’d existed were really gone. The rest of the band left but Martin Philipps remained as did the support of the label he’d signed to. So, in the fashion of songwriters who are hitting outside of the league they’re assigned, he embarked on an ambitious album that stands alongside quite a few other sprawling gems of the era. While albums like Game Theory’s Lolita and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade come to mind, this finds some similarities closer to home with the clever wordplay of Able Tasmans’ A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down. Though perhaps more than any of those, Philipps sought quite actively to make this album into something greater than he’d reached for, employing Van Dyke Parks and ex dB’s Peter Holsapple to help him shape this album into a cycle of songs that fold in and out of one another with a velvet pop touch. Sometimes, though effort leaves its mark quite noticeably, also distancing it from those others.

That soft touch in Philipps’ songs may have ultimately been the album’s undoing, given that it arrived in 1992, a year known more for its embrace of abrasive indie riding the grunge wave than any tender-hearted lost souls. So would end a chapter for The Chills with Phillips writing one of his most ambitious albums, even if it occasionally got away from him a bit. There are plenty of pop moments, and its clear that while Parks only actively contributes to one track here, his inclusive approach to songwriting is felt as a guiding light. That can give Soft Bomb a bit of sea sickness switching moods from one track to the next, especially with the focused sweep of Submarine Bells still fresh in mind. Yet there are also so many true gems interspersed throughout the album that the ends justify his ambitions and in hindsight this is still prime Chills — melding the serious with the sublime. It’s nice to have both of these albums back on the shelves and hopefully now that time and distance have let the dust settle on the angst of 1992, a greater appreciation of Soft Bomb can blossom.



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The Left Outsides / Alison Cotton

Over the last few years, Feeding Tube has amassed an impressive collection of works by The Left Outsides, and subsequently solo work by singer / violaist Alison Cotton. The husband-wife duo of Cotten and Mark Nicholas have carried on the psych-folk torch following the dissolution of their previous band The Eighteenth Day of May. This Feeding Tube and Cardinal Fuzz pull triple duty, reissuing the band’s live set cut to CD-R, A Place To Hide from last year. The set culls quite a bit from the band’s previous studio album All That Remains, though they take pains not to merely recreate the album in the live setting. In the room. The Left Outsides can breathe new life into their works — here stretching the songs into haunted dirges that weep with harmonium and dread. The set’s rounded out with a few covers, one traditional and another a rather beautiful take on a 13th Floor Elevators tune, an inspired choice if there ever was one. The lone new cut is the opener “My Reflection Once Was Me,” a song that ties this release to the band’s new record, Are You Sure I Was There?

The song finds its way into the new album, slated for release next week, but its a changed animal. The harmonium drone is gone, replaced by the low growl of guitar, but Alison Cotton’s singular voice still drives the track with hints of deep furrowed sorrow. The album is a departure from the live set that inhabits A Place To Hide, still scarred with the heavy heart and melancholy that’s present in the duo’s work, but fleshed out into a psych-folk landmark that’s acts as a proper follow-up to the scarred and singed landscapes of All That Remains. As the album wears on the clouds pull in tight, blocking the wan moonlight and calling the mists from all directions. Like Espers, Fire On Fire, or most of the Language of Stone roster, this is a band that connects deep to the currents of UK folk and the dark pull of anguish and hope that have long played a part in it’s legacy. Both pull at each other on A Place To Hide, creating rivulets of tension that scar and soothe.

While they hold court evenly, with both Cotton and Nicholas taking on vocal duties within the new album, the labels have found room for one more Cotton related LP on the roster this year and it puts Alison’s solo works on par with the duo’s elemental sadness. Earlier in the year Cotton released a cassette for Bloxham tapes that saw her balancing the stark viola drones with her voce, playing up her Nico tendencies more than any other on the dock this year. The set opens wit the labyrinthine, 20+ minute “Behind The Spiderweb Gate” and delves deep into the darkness from there on out. The song winds her voice through eddies of glacial sadness leading into the layered beauty and stark mourning of the rest of Only Darkness Now, perhaps the most fitting title in all of the Left Outsides-adjacent catalog. Both Feeding Tube and Cardinal Fuzz have done well to showcase what’s so entrancing about Cotton and The Left Outsides and its quite an enticing spread of albums from them this year. If you’re unfamiliar, this trio is an excellent primer on what’s made the band and Cotton’s contributions so vital over the past few years.

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John Jeffrey

Given that Jeffrey went into these sessions with an idea of progression and improvisation — reaching for the antitheses of composition and structure, the four languid landscapes that inhabit Passage are remarkably fully formed. That’s not to say that the boundaries aren’t permeable. Within the bounds of these hypnotic pieces time and space seem to slip away, but the colors they create in the mind hold fast for each cut. The record is in line with the ambient crawl of the cosmic country class of 2020, and as such this album will sit nicely on the shelf alongside North Americans, Barry Walker Jr. and SUSS. Like those, Jeffrey plays with the drones inherent in the pedal steel and lets them seep into a world of haze that’s formed from synth, laconic guitar strums and the distant shuffle of drums.

Unlike the others, he’s not beholden to the construct, letting the album slide from drones into occasional rhythmic territory. What becomes interesting is how he shifts from the mind-drift sprawl of cosmic impulses into a waking dream that pulses along on an unseen thread. The pedal steel still shimmers underneath the motorik patter but now it squiggles in iridescent turquoise — a comfort from the past like the steady blink of an unset VCR clock seen through collapsing lids. He slides from the pulse of dream state into the meditation of lone contemplation seamlessly. The pieces are definite, but the entry points are infinite.

Make no mistake the word lone is a bit key here. This is not an album for an audience of multitudes. It’s a headphone album that dips into altered states. The album seems to start at dusk when the hues are steeped in amber sinking into a radiant black. No part of this album truly sees the day, again something that sets this apart from the ambient standouts of the year. The others are squinted through a hazed sun, but here we’re left to wander parking lots at dusk, a dirt road just outside of town, the edge of the driveway where the houselights don’t quite reach. There’s a weightlessness in Jeffrey’s record, whether it was purposeful or divined through those sessions by osmosis. By the time the last track cracks dawn might be near, but the morning light doesn’t quite seep into the the structure of the album. Its a wonderfully cool void to slip into for a while and each time through the path seems different than the last.




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Lavender Flu

The second album that makes it way into the ether from Lavender Flu this year is actually a step back in time. Noted as a bit of a ‘lost’ second album, the tracks were recorded just after Heavy Air and they retain a bit of the feeling of that period in the Flu’s lifespan. Unlike the more single-track-oriented offering from earlier this year, there’s a film lacquered over the top of Tomorrow Cleaners adhering one track to another and making it hard to parse it apart. The approach gives the album a feeling of disorienting vignettes in a larger piece. One minute Chris Gunn is rolling into a broken blues fuzz, the next he’s lost in the tape hiss hedgemaze and squirreling away pop pieces for the future. The pieces flip through channels in broken television splatter, letting some songs slip away before they resolve and others push through with dialed-in clarity.

Noise plays a larger part here, again aligning this with Heavy Air’s hounded, sprawling structure, but the further the listener backs away the more this begins to resemble a psychedelic collage that’s less haphazard and more big picture than it might let on if just experienced piecemeal. There are patterns between the punishment of amps and the gelatinous vocals. The pop gems might feel like the most potent but sometimes its the most anxious parts of Gunn’s vision that grab hold — the inter-dimensional angst of “Boca Ciega,” the faded sheen of “Infrathin,” or the somber soul of “Winter Mauls.” I’d have to say that given the two, Barbarian Dust is a more complete picture of Lavender Flu in 2020, but Tomorrow’s Cleaners is more than just a curio of the past, it’s a connective tissue that needed to be acknowledged and it colors in some nice lines in the Flu’s growth.



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