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Paint Thinner

Invariably when Detroit is thrown down as a geographical pinpoint, thoughts turn to soul, funk, proto-punk, and to the Aughts’ onslaught of garage. More recently, though, with an abundant availability of warehouse space and relatively lower living costs, noise and art-punk have hunkered down in the Motor City as well. Not such a stretch, considering the same has been true of anchor points just south in Columbus and Cleveland, and as a native of Michigan, I can’t think of any better forms to express the pent-up frustrations of six months of frigid climes pinned to the creeping permanence of strip mall sprawl. Its in this climate that Paint Thinner make their move. While the band isdefinitely not garage, they aren’t exactly punks by design either.

The group (which pulls members from Human Eye, Terrible Twos and Frustrations) hovers in the crevices between noise and punk, soaking in the acerbic juices that once fostered Wire’s transition away from streamlined punk strategies and towards something more sinister. There’s a lot of tension at play in the band’s songs – builds that don’t necessarily resolve, a chewing of strings, a twist of discordance that gives the album an overcast pallor. Like Sonic Youth, Royal Trux, and Television before them, though, the band tends to find their best moments in emerging from noise just slightly to play with catchier forms, before lurching back into the churn.

The bulk of The Sea of Pulp, however, raises its head above the noise barrier only to establish forms and then it tugs between the dirge draggin’ modes of the ‘90s and the more introverted dropouts of Slint and their ilk looking to find bliss between the pedals. There are some genuine moments that raise this up, but also a few that lose steam in the pot. In the end the album runs on the unexpected ninety-degree twist, as perhaps most articulated by their admitted influence in Syd Barrett. While Barrett might have been truly lost in his own musical non-sequiturs, Paint Thinner seem to always be eyeing the crowd with raised brows. This makes that unexpected twist, rather expected by the end of the record. Lots to love here, but perhaps it feels like we’ve been down these roads before.



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Snapped Ankles

Taken out of the context of their stage gimmick (instruments built into logs, ritualistic forest costuming) the music from London’s Snapped Ankles has always stood on its own. The band’s sound glides the knife edge between Krautrock and post-punk in a satisfying way – marrying the motorik grooves of Neu and Can to the caustic accusations of The Fall and the brittle tension of Wire. On their previous album they used the combination to explore shades of paganism burrowing under the veil of modernity. Now they go one shade heavier and a few steps deeper with an album that’s built to blow out the prosperity gospel from the inside and topple the creep of gentrification with the power of art-punk. Or so it would seem.

The themes on Stunning Luxury send up the corporate culture and indulgent inclinations of the developers and agents of change that seek to gentrify the landscape of Snapped Ankles’ warehouse scene. Class War and art-politik have always had a place in post-punk and they continue the tradition quite nicely, welding the rumble-funk of Liquid Liquid to the smirking slash of Gang of Four. They’re taking on the creep of capitalism’s basest impulses with a beat battered mirror – sucking the helium out of mindfulness, microdosing, and money management with equal vigor.

All the subversive slapback doesn’t mean a thing, though, if its not digestible and that’s where Stunning Luxury finds its foothold. The band’s catchy enough to underscore the best promotional clip on the power of positive thinking. It could easily integrate into the culture that they’re seeking to shred. Whether that means they get co-opted or they make a few middle managers think twice remains to be seen. The transformative power of music vs. capital isn’t a winning ratio in 2019, but the album remains an enjoyable ride with well-deserved targets nonetheless.



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The Snakes

While there’s definitely a shagginess that’s pervasive to the new wave of the Aussie underground, there has also long been drippings of post-punk smudging the sidewalks of OZ. Melbourne’s Snakes don’t quite embrace the bleak bludgeon of, say, NUN, Naked on The Vague, or Slug Guts, but they’re definitely hanging just around the other side of the dumpster from their more nihilistic takes. The band embraces a kind of chaotic sleaze that comes crawling through the speakers on their debut for Anti-Fade. Their ethos isn’t built on precision and puncture-perfect geometry like so many of their ‘70s forbears. Perfection isn’t The Snakes’ style. The Snakes are here to brood, break strings, chew noise and spit sand in the faces of the punks, goths, and the pop-preeners alike.

On their eponymous debut the band is channeling the chaotic careen of ‘70s new York – flailing against the walls in cheap ripped cotton like Richard Hell, but adding in some sour-stomach organ riffs as if they’d recruited Frank Rodriquez right out of The Mysterians, then traveled West and packed him down into Mabuhay Gardens to back members of The Germs and Pink Section. Before they can congeal in that mold, the band slides back East to pick up sneered seances from PiL, and Wire’s dalliances with pop and noise. The record is short and sharp, on the edge of genres, and never fully aligning itself with a sound for too long. It whips by so quickly that you could crane the neck trying to take it in, but the minute it clicks to a close the damage it divvies is sizeable. A lot about the record feels dashed off, but punk and its lineage into starker strains never promised a plan, only a reaction. That’s just what slithers out of the speakers with Snakes on the deck.






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Frankie and the Witch Fingers

Frankie and the Witch Fingers have long found a home here at Raven Sings the Blues. From the garage gutwrench of Heavy Rollers to last year’s psych-soul shakedown, Brain Telephone, the band has been burning more ozone than most and I can’t get enough. Impressively, after that synapse-singer from last year, they’re back and burning on a bigger scale with a double LP for new home Greenway Records. The band doesn’t take a break it seems, and that urgency finds its way into the work. In fact, ZAM’s entire ethos is breathless in nature, boiling their fuzz-dipped licks into a psychedelic steam that’s born to singe.

Taking a few cues from fellow lysergic warlocks Oh Sees, the band is melting down details from Krautrock, funk, soul, psych, and space then ladling them into the loving cup atop the alter of Hawkwind. They’re irradiating the populace with enough high-beam hijinks and amplifier fry to bring on bouts of fuzz-fed hysteria and truth be told; the band has rarely felt more in their element. Barreling down Main like a Tarkus tripped out with half-stacks, rippin’ cracks in the pavement, ZAM is the maelstrom made flesh and set to scorch. This LP certainly isn’t made for mediation, so it’s best to buckle in. ZAM is made for mayhem and motion – grinding out grey matter melters with deadly precision on every track.

While the bulk of the album sees the band in full-form freakout, they do take things down every now and then, just to air out the fallout and survey the damage. The all too brief respites roll the record in a sultry scent of electric sex, slipping into the husk of rock n’ roll’s promise and pulling the straps tight. Thing is, ever time the band turns down the burner, you know they’re only waiting to grab the electrodes, double-charge the groove and send it tearing into town like an acid-fried golem. After an hour or so of psychedelic chaos, they slip off into oblivion and never look back. This is a record built on excesses and its all the better for never reigning in its scope. If you’re prepared to unlock a third, fourth and fifth eye and huff in the fever sweat of the soul, then look no further.




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The Stroppies

Melbourne’s Stroppies have been building to their debut album for a couple of years, issuing a couple of great EPs for Hobbies Galore and another for Tough Love, who pick up their new LP, Whoosh, as well. Culling talent from South-Hemi bands Boomgates, Twerps, Blank Statements, Primetime and quite a few others, the band’s practically dipped to the pits in jangle-pop’s pedigree and they don’t disappoint on the longform listen. The band has a particular fondness for Flying Nun’s sweet n’ shaggy shake on the genre and they flip through shades of The Clean, Able Tasmans, The Bats, The Verlaines and even a touch of Look Blue Go Purple over two sides of sprightly strums and woozy organs.

The playful hand-off of vocals between Gus Lord and Claudia Serfaty adds a breeziness to their sounds, and like many of the best in the Nun stable before them, they aren’t content to be crowded into the corner with your ten-a-penny janglers. They purloin from many of the bags belonging to bands that laid the groundwork for this type of sound – letting the strings ring one minute, then buttoning them down into a rubbery twang the next. They splash enough organ on a few of the tracks (like the excellent “Cellophane Car”) that it seems the speakers will get slick with sound. They speckle the record with hooks, but aren’t too hung up on crafting anything approaching pristine.

Besides bouncing the lead back and forth between Lord and Serfaty, the band embraces the kind of dented harmonies that have long found a home among the Aussie underground. They all lend a hand in giving the sing-a-longs a sense of perfect imperfection. Which, come to think of it, seems to be the crux of The Stroppies sound altogether. The band is like a gorgeous vacation shot hung slightly askew, steeped in nostalgia, calm, and charm. Which isn’t to say that the album retreads the past. The Stroppies know their influences and use them as anchor points, but they let Whoosh soar of its own accord. The band has created an album that feels worn in, but worthy of keeping on repeat. I’d snag it now before it winds up collector fodder for future generations.



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Ulaan Passerine

Steven R. Smith shines yet again under the Ulaan Passerine moniker. Having recorded under several aliases over the years (Hala Strana, Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Markhor) Ulaan Passerine is typically his most devastating and doom-laden handle. This time he cracks the sky and brings more rain over two tracks of somber guitar and anxious strings. The first side, “Evening,” embodies the slow slip of the sun below the horizon, though in Smith’s world it seems that the orange and red hues of late summer are always to be replaced with an overcast pall of barren early winter. Its hard not to hear the wind through the trees and pick up a pang of dread when the mid-section starts clanging. There’s always been something cinematic to Ulaan Passerine and a sense of pursuit is driven through the fibers of this track. Whether that pursuit is human or just nature catching up and gnawing at the bones of the listener, it remains to be seen.

The track, in contrast to some other works under this name, resolves into some sort of calm – a peaceful moment that shows a side of Smith that’s all too often hidden. His works are so typically fraught that its nice to hear his playing used to calm and heal rather than to spike the flight or fight response. But, present as ever, the darkness returns as we ease into side two’s “Dawning.” The feeling here is less fear and more resolve, a trek bourn out of duty with a heavy yoke of obligation tugging on the soul as it opens. As the piece moves into its second movement (each side seems to be split into three movements) that feeling doesn’t ebb, it just seems that the subject of Smith’s composition has moved closer to certain death.

The track, like the first, also resolves into a sense of calm. Whether its victory or a well earned death that ends this piece, only Smith knows. How no one has picked him up as a composer of scores is beyond me, but this should act as a good resume for anyone looking to soundtrack a gritty Norwegian thriller. As much as I enjoy the tension, though, New Evening was welcome in its third movement focus on light and air. It’d be great to have a whole record that drops the dread and just basks in this amber hue. This is not that record though, tread lightly and listen deeply.

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Martin Frawley

While the name Martin Frawley doesn’t won’t jog immediately for some folks, the name Twerps might. The Melbourne-based songwriter headed the band over the last few years until both his relationship and his band dissolved – the two events inextricably linked. In the wake of such upheaval Frawley seemingly let the world get on top of him, as the album’s standout “End of the Bar” recounts in a Trees Lounge-esque tale of becoming a permanent fixture always over the limit and lamentably acting in ways he’d live to regret. The album also paints a picture of coming to terms with the loss of such an important piece of one’s life. Over the course of Undone at 31 Frawley contemplates the constant second guessing of loss, the joy of finding a partner, and the work of letting them go.

In Frawley’s case that involves (as “Just Like The Rest” details) finding a way to not only walk alone, but sing alone as well. The record reflects the more solitary tone in both his lyrics and the music. Twerps were never a particularly overwrought band musically, but Undone bests them at their own minimalist game. The songs are steeped in austerity – morning plunks of piano, single guitar strums, the lonesome whinny of violin – and the weight of loss is felt from the very corners of the record.

Now while the road to hangdog troubadour is never one wrapped in joy, the upside here is that it seems to truly suit Frawly. The handprints of ‘70s loners are all over this record – from his Townes masquerading in Nilsson’s bathrobe delivery on “Does She Want Me?,” to the picking-up-the-pieces epiphanies of Gene Clark. Most have had the bottom of the world drop out from them every once in a while, but it seems that Martin has managed to translate that sense of disarray into poignant sketches about picking the pieces up and fitting them back together, even when that means trying to cram those pieces into a life that somehow seems too small now. We all have to get our shit together sometime, but at least now we have a soundtrack to ease burden.


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Chronophage

Austin’s Chronophage are straddling genre lines with the hodgepodge confidence of the all-stars of late-night college radio circa ’86. Their latest LP, Prolog For Tomorrow swerves between the amphetamine growl of Pere Ubu, the aloof allure of Kim Gordon, and the clangin’ twang of Meat Puppets with an ease that seems uncanny. They charge through the loose knit niches of Swell Maps at their most maligned and take a dirt bath in the discarded tape trails of Television Personalities. The record is a beast of many mantles, but they pull it off with a collage-core spirit that works as long as you don’t bend your brain too much trying to pin them down.

The record embraces a wet-towel-stuffed-under-the-door fidelity, crackling with electric energy, but also just crackling. Yet, warts and all, sounding like Sebadoh tapes left out in the rain and respooled with a pencil, they can’t help but warm your heart a little too. Everything about this record is brittle and bruised. It is imperfection come to life in black plastic wonder. Yet that imperfection is what makes it stick in yer teeth – gnawing at the gums until you’re forced to pay attention. There’s a kernel of pop rolling around in their dirt bin all right, but like so many muck scrapers before them, they can’t help but let it take a backseat to the glory of the din. Behind the bracing attitude and wild swings, though, there’s a ton of charm and some genuine hooks that’ll keep you coming back for more.




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Sunwatchers

Following the searing burn of their previous album, II, is no easy feat but it seems that Sunwatchers are more than up to the task. As the band flings themselves into Illegal Moves, they tear another hole in the cosmic quilt – shredding the mind and invigorating the soul. Every minute of the new LP is built to launch the listener through a full-body wormhole in space and time – hurtling enough sax n’ skronk one minute to bend the brain, and cooling out the curdle the next with a rippling display of Kosmiche calm. In the world of Sunwatchers Free Jazz, Psychedelia, Krautrock and Space Rock are all on the same temporal plane – either that or once the needle drops we all inhabit several simultaneous universes that have converged on a single aural vessel to enter their plea for a balance between harmony and discord.

They were dipping into the well of electric Miles with shades of Ayler before, but that was then and this is now. Now there’s less mercy, less need to return to the structures that serve. Now the band is hot-gluing High Rise and Pharaoh Sanders to the tail pipe of Hawkwind’s space ship and letting the jagged edges tear up all the no wake zones along the Universe’s glowing canals. Now the band is slicing bits of Sun Ra’s Ark and tying them to the bumper of a biodiesel-powered minibus with Alice Coltrane (whom they cover as well) on the 8-Track at top volume – spreading an aura of defiant calm to the huddled masses. Now they’re building war cries and lullabies for a time when talk is rendered irrelevant so only the splatter of feedback and the warble of synths will communicate the proper level of dread and dreams and anger and anguish.

I said before that there’s no better moment in time for a band like Sunwatchers to exist, and I stand by that statement. The band is recording the moment the wave crashes and rolls back. Not only are they standing at the fray, but they’ve got the thread in hand to pull apart the seams as they tumble headlong into the unknown – taking us with them.



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Cochemea

In a year that forces the question of the right to exist within borders to the forefront, Cochemea Gastelum’s debut LP for Daptone seems almost as presciently political as it is a tour of cultural force. Bestowed by his parents with a name that means “they were all killed in their sleep,” Cochemea comes with a born-in reminder of disparity. Drawing as often on the rhythms of his Yaqui and Mescalero Apache ancestry as he does on ‘70s jazz-funk fusion and Mexican huapango traditions, Cochemea brews a potent picture of the bedrock diversity that drives the true heartbeat of America. Gastelum has described the record as a call for unity – a reminder of what melodies and rhythms bind us rather than what differences divide us. There’s no denying that he’s woven a tapestry that so finely crosses cultures its difficult to see the stitches, but getting the masses huddled under it for comfort is another challenge entirely.

The reliance on indigenous rhythm, chants that feel like prayers, and playing that not only invokes movement but meditation are all pushing the record past any standard fare jazz or funk records bubbling up in 2019. Like Sons of Kemet’s acclaimed LP from last year, this is an album constantly in conversation with culture. Its attempting to bridge genre, genealogy, heritage within the boundaries of a country that’s constantly at odds with its own revisionist history of who’s land stretches between those shining seas.

More than anything, though, this feels like a record that’s a reflection of self, rather than an amalgam of taste, time, and tenure. Gastelum’s worked with everyone from the Dap-Kings and Antibalias to Beck and Amy Winehouse, but this is a deeper dive into what makes a person whole, rather than what makes a person move. While not a tangible word is said over the album’s course, the subtext hums loudly. The chants draw out the salt from the wounds. At its core, All My Relations strikes a balance between melting pot mentality and patchwork precisions – as Gastelum and his cohorts erase the divisions between genre they’re careful not to completely wear away the imprint each culture leaves on the music. They’re reminding listeners that we’re only the latest to dance across this particular dirt, and lines or no lines, we won’t be the last.



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