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Rat Columns

One of the joys of following David West’s evolution as Rat Columns has been his incredible ability to absorb styles and genres and constantly shift the idea of what defines the band’s sound. The early records were dark and sheltered, a far cry from 2017’s excellent, and hard to pin down Candle Power. With just a quick EP in between, the new record shifts once again, jettisoning the focus on jangle-pop and synth-pop poles in favor of a larger power pop sound. If anything, though, Pacific Kiss is one of the most concise and consistent records West has ever done, outside of his solo LP from a few years back.

The guitars are brought out into the sunshine to glow and purr under the dawn. There’s a rather fun immediacy to the new record that comes through in the keys supplied by Joey Fishman. HIs touches give the LP a resplendent pop shimmer, aided and abetted by the background vocals of Amber Gempton and Raven Mahon (The Green Child). That’s not to say that the moodiness of West’s past has gone completely by the wayside. When he skews melancholy there’s still the draped emotionality that has long marked his songwriting, just dressed up a bit in production and punch. This is West at his best, picking out the gilded pieces of his past few records and melting them down into the polished pop geodes that populate the new record.



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The Boys With the Perpetual Nervousness

On their sophomore LP, the lengthily named The Boys With the Perpetual Nervousness dig into a wealth of US power pop and ‘80s collegiate jangle that might fit in well with the recently sprung set Strum & Thrum. The record carries an earnestness that’s admirable, playing its heart-stung swoons without hint of tongue near the cheek. The Boys are wrapping their heartache in a cavalcade of hooks that are rather hard to ignore as they flip through an alternate history radio station where Superdrag’s second LP got the praise it deserved, Teenage Fanclub topped everyone’s list over Nirvana in ’91 and Matthew Sweet kept on writing songs for Choo Choo Train rather than split solo. It’s a world where emotional honesty never quite went out of style and perfect pop simply meant that the chords got bigger and brighter.

On paper, as out of fashion with the zeitgeist of pop as it might sound, the band pulls it off with a freshness that doesn’t seem so much like they’re holding onto the past as traveling that alternate timeline in earnest. The strums are huge and swimming around the speakers, the keys crisp as a ray of sun and the harmonies tend to warm the heart even when the tone swings bittersweet. I’m always going to be a sucker for a record that goes this hard on mining the melancholy ache that lies between the jangle and strum, but even without my admitted bias, it’s hard not to admire The Boys for the sheer audacity of their ardor. It’s possible that this may get lost in the froth of music coverage in 2021, but as with some of the most admirable pop albums, there’s a very good chance that Songs From Another Life will find a niche that reveres it for the double stacked hooks and cardigan-clad care that’s gone into it.



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Daniel Hecht – Guitar

Each year that passes there are still corners of the musical consciousness to dig and redeliver to a waiting audience. The reissue label field is getting dense, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some genuine gems finding their way back out of the past. Daniel Hecht’s 1973 debut Guitar is just such a treasure that’s somehow evaded reissue until the tail end of last year. Hecht has the benefit of bridging the academic and field approach to the instrument. While he was classically trained in theory and composition, studying at the North Shore Conservatory in Illinois, he didn’t really begin his musical career until living on a commune years later, studying the works of Mississippi John Hurt and sitting in on conversations with Moondog, who would encourage him to record his guitar works.

He’d go on to record a few other records, with a couple winding up self-released on his own Dragon’s Egg imprint before finding camaraderie with John Fahey and releasing his final record on Windham Hill in 1980. Though his undisputed masterpiece remains this debut, a raw outpouring of country-folk, with a slightly complex edge simmering underneath its skin. The record has remained out of print, though not inescapable to collectors, since shortly after its release and now Telephone Explosion imprint Morning Trip are re-releasing it back rightfully into the racks alongside a new surge of acoustic pickers. For years I’ve heard Hecht’s name tossed among influences of players that strayed from the more usual fare and figurehead fingerpickers, but its nice to see this shared with a few new generations who might come to it with little knowledge other than its a beautiful piece that’s finally getting a proper due.



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Tarotplane

Brand new LP this week from PJ Dorsey’s Tarotplane brings new shades to the artist’s catalog. While his past outside of the moniker may have seen Dorsey work within the realm of minimal techno, that side doesn’t often find its way into the DNA of Tarotplane. The A-side weaves new sonic structures into his Ash Ra Tempel explorations, letting the austerity of the Raster-Norton set design the interior of the album’s cosmic vessel. Field recordings bump against the measured pulse of electronic burble in manner that’s exacting but not cold — an artificial environment that’s got some moss growing between the cracks of its polished exterior. The tension between the motorik snap and the environment overtaking it builds subtly until it cracks completely on the second side.

The natural world opens wide as PJ hits the second portion of the album — the shift brings sounds that might feel more familiar to Tarotplane travelers. There’s a lushness to “Light Under Water” and the temperature drops quite a few degrees, with the listener submerged into damp chills — humid and haunted. The second side evokes alien landscapes. The manicured craft from the first side crashed into unfamiliar environs that glow and glower — light playing off the shadows in unfamiliar ways. Its not entirely sinister, not entirely inviting. There’s a sense of wonder between the groans of the synths that’s eventually consumed by a homesick ache as the guitars begin to wind their way around the headphones. Horizontology works as a kind of sound journey, and its marking some of Dorsey’s best works yet. Turning the dial of expectations on Tarotplane, but never leaving the cosmos he calls home.




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Ryley Walker and Kikagaku Moyo

As Ryley’s Husky Pants label continues to bloom into a fertile ground for experimentation, here it becomes a necessary hub of documention some of the guitarist’s historical high water marks as well. The set on Deep Fried Grandeur was recorded live at Le Guess Who? in 2018. The Utrecht festival boasts a long history of collaboration and genre-defining/defying performances, and the meeting of Walker and Kikagaku Moyo on the stage is a performance that practically beged to be documented, pressed and pondered. This is exactly the argument for live records done right. With Cooper Crain mixing it down in Chicago post performance, the record quite honestly bears few hallmarks of a live record. There are no surges of applause, no banter, just the assembled players finding their way around the cosmic cloud for a touch under an hour.

The pieces are truly two halves of a whole experience, the time needed to flip is just a breath between sonic sculptures, haunted and hungry. Molten wax guitars, percolating sweat rhythms, sonic symbiosis and, well as the band so succinctly puts it — deep fried grandeur. Sometimes the best phrase is already cast. This performance proves essential for both KM fans and collectors of Ryley’s ever-growing pieces of his live improv pantheon. Another Bandcamp holiday is upon us, the least you can do is give some love to this near-perfect documentation of mind-fry goodness.



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Sky Burrow Tales

Seems like a day to burrow deep into the psychedelic core and with the release of their debut, Seafarin’ and Backporchin’, Austrian duo Sky Burrow Tales seek to mine a nebulous fold between the cosmic float and body buzz drone. The album opens with the sprawling expanse of “Polaris,” which sets the pores alight with vibrations before they scrape towards something more ephemeral. Finding their way tumbling into the blissed states of Headdress and Brightblack Morning Light, the pair have a way with corralling the last light of day and funneling it through the speakers. The songs on the record are interlaced with the lapping of field recordings which have the effect of submerging the listener into shallow water to float while the sounds foam all around them. The record washes from sun-streaked serenity to a more tightly wound ambience that pulls in from Barn Owl and Steven R. Smith, but the waters never let us linger too long in the eddy of fear.

The pulse levels out and the mind fuzz returns, the sky going gummy once again and the air becoming humid with the melt of guitar. I appreciate an album that settles into a recline, laying back while the players embrace the edge of the horizon and map its contours. The record balances bliss with anxiety, nature with machine in ways that pull the listener from locked to lax in a matter of minutes, but the journey feels less chaotic than that might let on. The pair let us all float, with moments of fighting the freedom that might bring. While the seafarin’ might be less obvious — more submerged than navigating the straights — the backporchin’ is front in center and much appreciated. Let the currents take you here and even when the dark creeps in, know that the light will be just around the next bend.



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Oh-OK – The Complete Reissue

As HHBTM notes, there seems to be a bit of an resurrection of prime period Athens indie going on. With reissues of Pylon and Love Tractor already scratching the surface of the scene’s reach, it seems only fitting that Oh-OK would be next. The band might be most famed for the inclusion of Lynda Stipe, younger sister of Athens’ most famous musical Stipe. The band formed just as Pylon were beginning to go their separate ways and the band’s rubberized punk carries on quite a bit of the sound that Pylon would explore, albeit in a more compact fashion. Stipe along with Linda Hopper would form the band in 1981 and as luck or more likely proximity would have it, they wound up opening for R.E.M. in their first show, leading them to follow in Pylon’s footsteps signing to DB Records the following year.

The band’s output isn’t robust, but there’s no real filler in their scant catalog. The compilation rounds up their two EPs — 1982’s Wow Mini Album and 83’s Furthermore What 12” alongside a handful of live recordings of songs that never made it to tape and two songs “Random” and “Courage Courage” which were set to be their final 7” before they broke up but were never released. An overview of the band’s work has made it to CD/Dig, but this marks the first time its made it to vinyl since the two EPs were first released. As usual, HHBTM is killing it with the details here and the comp is necessary, not just for Athens music fans, DB completists, and post-punk nuts, but for anyone looking for a good solid pop slap in the face. Years later this still sounds as vital as it did in the early cradle of the ‘80s.



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The Clouds – “Tranquil”

I’ve gotta give credit to Optic Nerve, their campaign of jangle pop singles reissues has been admirable, especially in a time when the feasibility of making money on a 7” seems slim. Yet, they carry on bringing back releases from The House of Love, James Dean Driving Experience, Meat Whiplash, The Loft and more with an ear for some of the best of the era. Next they’re shining a light on Scottish one-offs The Clouds. The band issued this single on both 7” and 12”, adding an extra track to the larger format, though the the ON folks squeeze all three onto the smaller format here, making this a unique pressing aside from the previous Subway issues.

Despite only recording the one single, the three songs here are all fairly killer. The band was anchored by the songwriting pair of brothers, John and Bill Charnley and the title track actually became a bit of a hit, reaching up to number 13 on the UK indie chart in 1988. “Tranquil” is a bit more woozy than the b-sides, with jangles bordering on power pop. The flip sides find the band digging further into the charms of jangle n’ twee, with “Get Out of My Dream” actually feeling like the strongest track here. The addition of “Village Green” is a great touch, showing the band’s punchy side. All of the singles in this series have been worth nabbing, but this one is a notable gem among the bunch.



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Rob Noyes

A month in and already 2021 has been a banner year for instrumental guitar. While the year might not get another voice as singular as Yasmin Williams, this sophomore LP from Rob Noyes is certainly doing its best to keep pace. Built around an affinity for texture and dynamics aside from virtuosity, Noyes is admittedly working more through the Kottke style than either of the other usual suspects — shunning an overly blues base or overt raga dependence. Noyes’ playing is full of life and delightfully shy of an antiseptic studio feel. The room around him seems as much a part of the record as the strings and fingers. Even through the speakers its almost as if the sun can bee felt streaking through swirls of dust, imprinting itself on the listener. An audible sigh and creak of a chair just add coloration to the pieces, as natural as the bend of a string.

The tempos run rampant, built less on theory than on nature and feel. It’s easy to get swept up in the feelings that course through Noyes’ pieces, always seeming to need a catch of breath by the time a song skids to a stop. Like his muse in Kotke, Noyes channels the sun, scattering notes where they lie and letting the sparkle set the tone. For that, despite Rob’s heavy intonation, the temperament is quite gentle, spinning through the speakers in resplendent hues. When Noyes does let the sunshower of strums die down his picking is patient and delicate, webs woven in the moments just after the clouds part. With Arc Minutes Noyes has created a hopeful respite for all of us. It’s most appreciated, for that alone.




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Terry Gross

Despite what has to be one of the most throwaway band names of the year, the trio of Phil Manley (Trans Am, The Fucking Champs), Donny Newenhouse, and Phil Becker bring a serious dose of mind flay to the table. The three are all connected to the Bay Area studio El Studio as owners and engineers and the band simply got together testing out new equipment in the studio space. Turns out quite a lot of those late night extended jams had weight, and with Manley on guitar, that’s not hard to believe. The guitarist has been a guiding force not only in Trans Am, but as a producer behind the boards on albums from Citay, Barn Owl, The Fresh & Onlys among others, with engineering work on tons more. With Terry Gross, he lets loose a massive sonic scorch, tearing at the cosmic veins with enough amplifier punishing riffs to force open a black hole or two.

Thankfully in experimenting with their gear, the trio kept some tape rolling and the ad hoc vibes lend a vital bent to Soft Opening. Newenhouse and Becker spread down a bedrock that never lags behind Manley’s clear cut crush, tumbling with a cavernous growl that keeps the pace on tracks that push up to almost twenty minutes. Honesty, I’m never gonna turn down an album that opens with a song called “Space Voyage Mission” and that kinda sets the tone from there. Hawkwind fortified pounders that get thick in the mix leave the band chomping down on the psychedelic tailpipe and exhaling a lungful of tar-laced mind shakers. The record is huge and heavy and lost in a Bermuda Triangle of punishing psych groove that’s hypnotic in its moments. I recommend strapping in for the ride.



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