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The Men

While a longtime fan of The Men, I have to say I slipped on the last record and didn’t get it into my life when it came out in 2018. That proved a mistake, as they trio picks up the journey began there among the glowing embers of Mercy. The band, led by Nick Chiericozzi, has never been tied to a genre wholesale – mining the bittersweet, and often dark underbelly of rock that moved from their noise-laden beginnings to the last whiskey, jukebox bombast of Tomorrow’s Hits and New Moon. Drift brought down the lights quite a bit from where they were positioned prior to 2018. There’s a lonesomeness to the record, but also a coiled danger that’s considerably palpable. They brought the sax that had opened up the wooden dancefloors of their ’13-’14 run to a new oil-slicked prominence. Notably, the record also let in a few other new impulses – country sway and a tendency to push the guitars deep into the crimson.

The impulses that were forming like rain over Drift pour down on Mercy with a cool simplicity. The band careens a country calm on opener “Cool Water,” while ushering their acoustic moments into turns of bottomless desperation and ache in “Fallin’ Thru” and the shuttered twilight of the title track. In these songs there’s a stillness that’s escaped the band’s past catalog. These songs are scars but wear it well. The other side of the album brings as much heat as The Men ever have, though. While their noise-coated early days certainly had teeth, there’s something much more savage lurking in the guitars on “Wading in Dirty Water” and “Children All Over The World.”

While portions of this might fit in well with the current crop of the Cosmic Americana seated set, the band’s almost an inverse of the sound. They find the same grooves and hit the same body high burn, but there’s a darkness here, not unbridled joy, rather the exhumation of demons through the wires of a thrice fixed amp. The vapors of carcinogenic choogle burning through tubes at a ferocious frequency. There are many points of entry for a band with the longevity of The Men, but this chapter, begun with Drift and flung open wide with Mercy seems to be one of the band’s most potent.



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Dragoons

Coming in pretty quickly after the band’s 2019 record Dragoons Are a Band!, the Aussie quartet’s latest scraps their past formula in favor of a wider sonic vista. While the last record still had plenty of ambitions for an indie-pop record – launching songs into extended breakdowns and gilding them with a light dose of extraneous instrumentation – on Horrorscope, those impulses have been elevated to the fuel that drives the album. While there are still songs rooted in grit-teethed indie grind and blunt force post-punk (“Horrorscope II”) the album plays with form, fusing psych-jazz itches and instrumental interludes into an album that plays like a suite of songs rather than merely an assortment of likeminded tracks.

Slashed with sax and soaked in organ, the record tips the scales between the fury of The Fall (something they share with members’ other band Clamm) and a proggier direction that’s lit on the coals of groove. Giving post-punk soul, the band plays like Parquet Courts pairing up with Al Doum & The Faryds. The angles smooth, but they still seem to cut just as deep. If this is the direction the band aims to wander then I’m game to follow them down into the dirt. While their peers are content to jangle and scuff their hooks with the scent of the ‘70s downtown debris, Dragoons seem to be searching for a singular spice, and for the most part they’ve found it. It’s a short shock of a record, but it’s proving to be one that I’m eager to return to again and again.

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Bardo Pond – Adrop / Circuit VIII

Oof, almost too late with this one, despite the LP having been released just last Friday, but there’s still time as long as good outlets hold out. Pretty sure if you’re landing on the shores of Raven Sings the Blues that familiarity with Bardo Pond is a given, but I’m not one for assumptions. Philadelphia’s reigning noise wranglers have fallen under many banners from psych to space to noise and experimental – each assessment is 100% correct and can’t be divorced from the other. The band is a force of nature and that force is on full display over this two-record reissue of their ‘06/’08 releases for Three Lobed — Adrop and Circuit VIII. Both records were part of CD series that the label put together in these respective years. Adrop was only available as part of the “Modern Containment” collection that included Hush Arbors, Kinski, Mirror/Dash, Mouthus, Sun City Girls, Sunburned Hand of the Man, MV & EE with the Bummer Road, and Wooden Wand and the Omen Bones Band. I believe it was that last one that brought me into the TRL awareness in the first place, but the set also opened up a world of post-Matador Bardo Pond to me that was more sinister and more visceral than they’d ever been on the mini-major.

Adrop works in movements and they push a cloud of static through the heart of a dying sun. The record saws at the consciousness and proves that the Pond is not an average psych band by any means, defying any usual metrics at the time. The following set, Circuit VIII is equally scorched and unsettled, having found its way into the label’s next series “Oscillations III.” This series found them alongside fellow travelers Bark Haze, Tom Carter, GHQ, Howlin’ Rain, Magik Markers, The Michael Flower Band, Lee Ranaldo, Vanishing Voice, and Jack Rose. Eschewing movements, but operating in much the same way as Adrop, Circuit VIII is one longform piece that travels from deep, volcanic growls to tender acoustic tears. It’s a record that, much like its predecessor, defies convention or categorization, but as any Bardo collector might surmise, also elevates the form of mining cosmic vibrations beyond what many of their peers were doing at the time. Side note: that “Oscillations III” box contains one of the very earliest Robert Beatty covers and is worth nabbing a CD copy for this as well. Nice to see the label pack these two back together and set them aloft on vinyl as well. Both of these CD series were pretty formative in terms of how RSTB came about, so its got a special place in my heart.




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Lavender Flu

With the new Lavender Flu LP now locked on the table, the band moves from their hunker-down home recorders to a proper studio, and while the fidelity cops less crackle, their gutpunch rock still remains. They exorcised the bulk of the noise in their heads with last year’s imrov jammer Admiration for A Dancer. Now, they’re following the scuzz laylines that were unearthed on Mow The Glass and this next chapter’s just as sunk in glorious muck. No surprise that Gunn had some noise shivers to shake out, with a past spent in The Hospitals, the sounds in Lavender Flu are practically radio pop by comparison. Yet, like Philly’s feedback chewers Purling Hiss, he’s taken the project from low-fi amp burning habitats to cleaner confines without losing that spark that set it alight in the first place.

The record even contains what might amount to The Flu’s most tender moment on “No One Remembers Your Name.” The standout acts as an oasis of ache within the confines of Barbarian Dust, dredging up some nice Johnny Thunders moments of quiet desperation. The rest of the record isn’t quite the calm respite that this presents, with the band riding thick fuzz riffs and the curdled comfort of hooks that owe more to New Zealand pop by way of the volume punish pulse of Afflicted Man and Volcano Sun than they do to any modern sunny day strums. Gunn and co. slide through the motor oil VapoRub vibes of the record before finally descednding into darkness. Then, after the comedown dirge of “In League With Satan,” the band caps the whole record with a bit of the crusted Cakekitchen-like jangles that cropped up on Mow The Grass. This is definitely the clearest vision of the band.

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The Great Divides

Aussie export The Great Divides let loose a sweet and unfussed vision of jangle pop on their new cassette for Spoilsport. Like fellow Aussies The Goon Sax, who share a few aesthetic impulses with the band, The Great Divides are barely out of high school as their first album is released. Recorded by Dusty from fellow RSTB fave Dag, there’s a humble hummability to the record. Short and sweet, but packed songs that extol heartbreak and the kind of uncertainty that could only hope to accompany someone just entering adult life in these complex times, this ticks a lot of the right boxes around here. The band namechecks The Sea Urchins and The Clean, so if nothing else, the kids are all right after all.

There’s practically no flash to what The Great Divides are doing. There are hooks, but they amble rather than agitate. The sounds is spare, like the listener has dropped in on the band in their kitchen or bedroom, but don’t let that make it sound lo-fi. The record is intimate and confessional, a half-smile shared between friends that they’re just now letting us all in on. It’s a great jump start for the band. Can’t wait to see where they head from here.




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The Tubs – “I Don’t Know How It Works”

The first couple of offerings from Perfect Records, the collaboration between Joanna Gruesome members and Mark Dobson from The Field Mice, have highlighted members of the band post-dissolution. Where Ex-Vöid blend JG’s knack for melody with some spark-changed guitars, The Tubs invests in Sarah Records-styled jangle that feels as timeless as ever. “I Don’t Know How It Works” is a bittersweet tumble down the tubes with organ swells and aquamarine-hued harmonies that can’t help but hurt as much as they heal. The song picks at jangle with a ruffled charm, feeling at once like the most put together track from members of the Gruesome family, yet still one that doesn’t subscribe to the notion of perfection.

The flip is a slightly more driven pop nugget that’s got strains of The Chills and The Bats in its DNA, and could easily crop up on latter-day offerings from either. Both sides are absolutely stunners and here’s hoping that as this label progresses they continue to highlight the crossover chemistry of members from the ranks of Joanna Gruesome while also roping in some likeminded folks along the way.



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Traffik Island

Even when the first couple of tracks from Sweat Kollecta’s Peanut Butter Traffik Jam came filtering out, it seemed like a fever dream timeshift, not to mention a headscratcher for fans of the band’s past output. Zak Olsen’s (ORB, Hierophants, The Frowning Clouds) solo psych dugout always took a different tack than his collaborative endeavors, which ranged from Sabbath fuzz to post-punk. Under the Traffik Island signature he’d largely stuck to the psych-pop formula – laconic strums, wisps of folk, and tape-hiss veneers gave most of his works the feeling of a lost private press reel stuffed in storage and found by rabid collectors on a lucky afternoon. From his split with Sleepyhead through last year’s Flightless debut proper, Nature Strip, the formula seemed set… or at least locked within the same cloud of strange smoke. So, when the follow-up arrived and shucked the whole framework, I was intrigued to say the least.

Zak keeps the psych, and maybe a bit of the pop, but puts the folk away for the moment. At least in any conventional sense he has. The record adopts an electronic haze and a crate digger’s ear for dusty grooves, propulsive beats, and lush atmospheres. Much in the mode of something out of the Peanut Butter Wolf, DJ Shadow, or Egon bag, the record repurposes the ideals of Library recordings from the ‘60s and ‘70s and knocks funk, Krautrock, and lounge into a candy-colored vision that swirls with light and sound. While the format might feel like a throwback in more than one way – to both the ‘70s inspirations and the late ‘90s methods of hot-gluing them together – the record is a complete journey that works so well that it, again seems like a private press found in a dorm room dig, just update the time frame about 30 years or so. The best part is that the record works together like a soundtrack to an unseen film – I’d imagine somewhere there’s an animator that needs to get on this. Bright colors only need apply.



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Six Organs of Admittance

There’s always a need to celebrate when a new Six Organs gem tumbles down the belt, and his latest Companion Rises sees Ben back in fine form. Shedding the constrictions of his Hexadic system, which marked his last couple of releases, the album is locked back into the smoggy-eyed smolder that marks some of 6-orgs’ best works, though this time around he’s subbing a crinkled dose of technology in place of splicing tape and overdubbing percussive takes though the night. While there’s always the possibility of hampering the formula and making it feel like a digital copy of a copy that’s somehow both too crisp and yet still off-center, the addition of programing sits seamlessly into Chasny’s style. The programmed percussion still lollops with the same skitter those old hand drums did and that’s part of what makes it click.

Atop the patter of virtual sticks, Chasny lets the guitars do what they do best in the context of Six Organs – they tangle into ornate nests of notes, they singe themselves with a delicate fury, they rest the ornaments of production in a hammock of six-string security. What’s more he makes synthesizers singe in the same manner, pushing their production to the most organic edges of the mechanical spectrum. They ring and burble like replicant technologies, hardly aware they aren’t grown from the ground. When Chasny fuses the future with the past his bio-organic burn feels like an evolution of sound – nylon strings bending around in circular paths that lead forever down in repeated loops of copper wire and crushed circuits. The spark of guitar fury is still there like a wick bound to set the songs aflame and the blaze is beautiful – full of warmth, subtle flickers of orange and yellow, and an ashen ending that feels transformative.



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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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