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Wooden Shjips

With certain types of recreational drug use, or even meditation for that matter, there’s a point when the subject becomes detached from their current surroundings – a shift in time, an outside looking in feeling of calm introspection that lets slip the boundaries of pressing matters. In this stasis, somewhere between numbness and bliss, exists V the latest record from Wooden Shjips. The band seems to toss around that this is their “summer record” and to be sure there’s plenty here that compliments the staunch humid nights of mid-August swelter – Ripley Johnson’s guitars dripping through layers of wet reverb like condensation down a can, tempos slowed to a molten crawl, and bass that can’t be contained by rolled tight windows. More than merely a seasonal accoutrement, though, this record is a balm, a respite, a state of mind – or in the spirit of summer – a vacation from the current mudslide of daily life that threatens to consume us all.

With V the band has softened the focus on its trademark sounds – the fat, motorik rhythm section that slaps like waves against the breakwater, the sunlight suffused guitars that sparkle and ripple in equal measures and Johnson’s vocals that billow and diffuse in a cloud of vapor overhead. The enveloping warmth of this particular iteration of the band has added a few new moving parts as well. Are those strums peeking out of the haze on “Already Gone?” Were there always this many slinking keys in the Shjips’ universe? The vacation vibes bring on a prog haze that holds over from the lighter half of Moon Duo’s last experiment in duality and it feels like a missing puzzle piece found under the couch, perfectly cut to relieve the anxiety that was created in its absence.

Along with Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin’ Bajas) the band has created a perfect headphone record, adding further to the escape hatch mentality of the album. The aforementioned elements dance across the headspace in sketchbook animation while the bass acts as a barrier to the worries, realities, information overload and creeping dread that’s become a constant weight in 2018. For forty-two blissful, nebulous minutes Wooden Shjips let the listener breathe before the waters rise again. Best to gulp in a few last breaths, drop into the airtight bunker b ‘n b of sound and enjoy because those waters show no signs of slowing any time soon.





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The Love-Birds

In the wake of their Empty Cellar debut single, a sparkling tangle of jangles and clear-sky hooks, San Francisco’s Love-Birds wound up on the radar of a new generation thirsting for guitar’s pop prominence. They funnel the energy of that short-form stunner into an LP that proves they have a deft hold on jangle’s cross-generational evolution – tapping into The Byrds, 12-string history while echoing alt and indie pop hallmarks from R.E.M. to The Flaming Groovies and Teenage Fanclub. They even drag the rudder through the South Hemisphere, picking up nods to The Go-Betweens and The Chills then cold-press all this history down to a record that feels instantly familiar while still coming out fresh as a bay breeze in spring.

While they’re definitely pulling down a full set of sleeves, practically polka-dotted with hearts beating for the past, they swerve the stamp of college-town cover band looking to stun with their ability to belt out “End of the World As We Know It” sans crib-sheet. Instead they’ve bound up the control board glow of late night nineties college radio and, with the aid of San Francisco strummer and legend in his own right Glenn Donaldson, offered up a record that’s intangibly catchy, bittersweet and buoyant. The album captures that feeling when the airwaves were just right and the lo-watt station two towns over came in crystal clear at 12am, letting a few late-night discoveries blossom into lifelong obsessions.

On In The Lover’s Corner, the band feels comfortable picking at songs of love unrequited and scratching the itch of nostalgia that a good many likely have for an era with more to offer than the packaged in amber playlists built on hits rather than heart. The Love-Birds are helping helping further the left side of the dial even as the dial disappears from view.



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Alex MacFarlane – “Planetarium Nights”

While there are plenty of great Aussie indies to keep on radar Hobbies Galore seems to be kicking up the dust quite nicely this year. With releases by Stroppies, Blank Realm and a tape issue of the debut Green Child album, there’s quite a bit of talent to be had. A cornerstone of the label, however, has been solo releases from Alex MacFarlane a fixture in Twerps, The Stevens and Teen Archer. The latest 7″ sees MacFarlane working through jangle-pop structures with prog-blocked overtones. There’s a slight dissonance that doesn’t always pop up in his other works, but at the core this is still prime Aussie jangle that’s a testament to MacFarlane’s prowess.

Standouts “Good With Little Numbers” and “Starter People” push this way beyond solo sketchbook fodder, proving that MacFarlane has plenty of hooks in his back pocket and a warped sense of pop that burrows under the skin. He fleshed it out with instrumentals that writhe and twist with synths and curls of noise. While I’d never balk and new Twerps or Stevens material, this release in particular begs for more from the artist solo. This one’s slipping out quietly but that’s no excuse to let it slip by completely.

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Unlikely Friends

Tacoma’s Unlikely Friends rope together members of BOAT and Math and Physics Club for a dose of power pop and shaggy indie that holds a candle for the ‘90s recipe: quirk times hooks equals solid gold. BOAT existed on the periphery of indie pop blogs for some time in the early aughts and this stands as a natural progression of their scruffy four-track pop aesthetic. Taking cues from latter day Apples in Stereo, mid-period New Pornographers and pretty much any point in Fountains of Wayne’s catalog while sprinkling in a dash of early Shins pacing on the slower cuts, the band’s sophomore tape inflates their humble pop pretense to towering proportions. It’s easy to lump the band into the box of slacker rock, hell the band even does it themselves at times, but there’s more drive here than that epithet would let on. There’s Pavement in their veins and a click track backing beat but when Unlikely Friends hit that hook sweet spot their pop feels like its bound for a bigger budget.

Leaning into the plurality of downer themes floated on buoyant hooks, the band never suffers from pushing their power pop formula into saccharine territory. Far from it, they wax poetic on stagnation, homesickness, love (naturally) and well, baseball, quite a bit of baseball actually. The album is a bold shot across the bow of 2018 and an antidote to an overabundance of garage-flecked power pop, giving the genre back its bittersweet core. This is likely to get lost between the cracks of 2018, it came out in January and I find it just now floating to the surface. That’s no reason to miss out though, there’s plenty to chew on here and like BOAT before them, there are too many gleaming moments hidden under the rough exterior to ignore.

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Parquet Courts

I’ll be honest for as vital and nervy as I found Parquet Courts’ Light Up Gold I strayed over the last few EPs and albums. Human Performance and Sunbathing Animal left me slightly cold and I’d just snoozed over the collaboration with Daniele Luppi. Where Light Up Gold poured out of the speakers rough and ragged, some of the short format offerings felt cut with kid scissors and looking to papercut on purpose. Though the band’s NYC pulse still held strong, they needed another spark on their tinderbox tendencies towards blunt Modern Lovers rubdowns and city life injustices.

Seems like Danger Mouse was just the thing the band needed to right the tiller and his production on Wide Awake gives the band a much-needed car battery to the nipple, shocking their apathy to ire transition into form and grinding their post-punk impulses into just the drug they need to incite the action espoused by their lyrics. Wide Awake is far and away the band’s peak, crackling with an energy that befits the early 30’s epiphany that you’re not the person you want to be and you’re losing time to transition.

In the process of finding their footing they’ve honed their core impulses, this is still a band weaned on VU, The Feelies and the aforementioned Jonathan Richman (so much Richman) but now they’re absorbing eclecticism with the appetite of David Byrne and invoking the erratic execution of early pop Eno. They drop junkyard funk into the mix, they pull tempo turnoffs in mid-song and when they slow things down this time, they pine and preen while captivating rather than blending towards the wildflowers on the wallpaper. For all the clutched pearls that followed the DM production announcement he’s done the boys a solid and kept their trademark angles intact while splashing a good ton of color on the final design.


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Mary Lattimore

The harp has always had a precocious edge in contemporary music. But while the instrument is often used as a baroque folk accoutrement or as an ornamental touch on an otherwise fairly staid pop song, Lattimore uses the instrument to transport the listener to quiet pastoral hideaways perched on the edge of grand panoramic views. The harpist uses her chosen muse to combine classical sweep, subtle processing and field recordings to create crystalline worlds trapped in amber and nestled inside of rural hollows.

In some ways Hundreds of Days enters like a gorgeous minimal house perched on old farmland. The stark angles seem almost too crisp to touch, and though the bas relief cut against rolling hills and sparkling waters seem just slightly out of place with each other, its intended as an idyllic getaway. The problem being that the yoke of modernity is forced onto nature, dragging along the rigidity of city life with it. Hundreds of Days does in fact begin as a calm respite, a meditative retreat, but begins to skew just slightly off over time. As the album progresses that discord of the modern and the natural becomes more apparent, resulting in the warbles and darkening skies of “Baltic Birch.”

That song acts as a kind of break in the façade, the first drop into the water that sends ripples across the glass surface. Following the rationalization that there’s no forcing the two worlds together in harmony, the final track, unadorned and somber sweeps through like a sigh. Finally leaving behind the glass castle, this is where Lattimore communes with nature, faces mortality and finds peace. The record is nothing short of masterful and warrants a place on the list of modern composition high watermarks.



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The Ivytree

Back in the spring of 2006, when this blog was just finding its footing as a flyover mp3 site on Blogger, the blossoming psych-folk boom was a large inspiration. In particular the works that huddled together under the Jewelled Antler Collective felt like they needed amplification. A homespun collection of works that eked out in small press formatis (CD-Rs and the problematic yet enticing 3” CD) in the years prior to the site’s creation, the label was a hub of folk scuffed by field recordings and softened by tape hiss. At the center of that hub was Glenn Donaldson, who’d recorded as The Blithe Sons, Thuja, Giant Skyflower Band, Birdtree, Ivytree and, at the time was gaining ground with Skygreen Leopards. Donaldon’s, plaintive falsetto and filmstrip grained folk embraced the home/field recorded aesthetics that summed up much of the best psych-folk of that particular era and he helped dozens of likeminded artists find a home.

Seems that composer and label head Sean McCann would agree with the impact Donaldson had around the time and he reached out to publish a compilation of some of Ivytree’s best moments. What he wound up with instead, as Glenn dug through his archives, was a collection of unreleased Ivytree songs that present a whole new slew of material that’s just as captivating as the existing works (which are largely relegated to an EP, album and one side of a split 12” with Chris Smith). Ivytree has always stood as the coinflip to The Birdtree – both visions of Glenn’s solo folk captured in harmony with nature and seeping through the speakers as fragile and warm as a sunbeam and alternately cool and humid as deep forest moss.

The songs here pick up the tradition of earlier works, conjuring bittersweet moments of solitude, echoing around headphones and speakers like cave walls and tree canopies. That these sat in storage seems an injustice that’s just now being righted. After all these years, the Ivytree songs still have he same ability to transport the listener to open fields with soft breezes and I’m grateful to Recital for bringing this out to the world. If you’re unfamiliar with the original works do yourself a favor, start here and then tumble down through Ivytree and Birdtree’s early records for some of folk’s most unheralded gems.




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Bonnacons of Doom

The ephemeral Bonnacons of Doom have built their reputation in the live setting – making ritual, costume and anonymity part of their show. While they might not be the first psych band to don robes and masks, they’re certainly coupling the pageantry with potency for a psychedelic storm that’s heavy and haunted. This time around the lineup consists of members of Forest Swords, Mugstar and Youthmovies – all of whom decamped to Hookworm’s Suburban Home studios for a crusher mostly composed in one take. On tape the band’s aesthetics have little bearing on the experience, unless you as a listener are prone to fixing a mental image of the band in place for the duration of a record. Stripped from the visual trappings their music still holds firm though, retaining a sense of rite and ritual, blending drone, an appropriate amount of doom and religious vibrations into an album that’s fraught with visceral punch.

The label is not so off base to compare the band to Amon Duul II, they’ve got the same impulse to draw out improvs into ecstatic lengths, but there’s definitely a level of growling fury that might not have found its way into Duul’s work. Singer Kate (off with the surnames here) heightens the stakes on the agony vs ecstasy dynamic that burrows deep into Bonnacons work, pushing her vocals into non-syllabic acrobatics that singe as hard as the solos. BoD utilize the build and release model like any good Doom acolytes, and the payoffs are well worth it here but don’t just come for the clearcut burn. The band prove that their meditative thrum and cataclysmic comedowns in the aftermath of guitar destruction can be just as entrancing. The band’s debut arrives fully formed, leaving behind any claims of gimmickry on stage. What’s left of your eardrums you can mop up on the way out.

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Josh Doss

Flying way under the radar, this tape from Lexington songwriter Josh Doss snuck out on Was Ist Das last month and its packed with hazed late-night gems tipping on a fulcrum of damped down boogie blues and sore-throated Americana. Doss’ delivery has a way of sounding like your old Tom Petty tapes got left in the dust and sun too long, crackling and warbling with a slow draw delight. Aesthetics aside though, Doss knows his way around country-twanged chooglers that swagger with a strange menace, shouldering their way through fellow patrons to dance woozily in the open floor of last call calm. Doss breathes worn leather epithets over a simple setup that favors plodding bass and copper strums. The fidelity’s got all the charms of room mic house show capture, but that humble draping seems to suit Doss just fine. Sheen would only make these songs squint.

Though he draws from a wealth of ‘70s outlaws for inspiration, on a contemporary level the album feels like a kindred spirit to the great and elusive Golden Gunn LP that saw Steve Gunn and Hiss Golden Messenger team up a few years back. Like that treasure, Don’t Let Your Time Pass You By is bound by a debt to the night, to the bar and to the dirt. It reeks of loose tobacco, wooden bar tops that can’t let go of last night’s beer and the dank, humid cold of mid-October at 3AM. Already feeling like a private press holy grail in its own time, Doss’ cassette is worth digging up while it lasts.




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Sarah Louise

Though Sarah Louise has let loose her vocals with her pastoral duo House and Land, her upcoming LP for Thrill Jockey marks a shift away from her typically instrumental trappings under her solo guise. On Deeper Woods her voice is prominent and transfixing, pushing her nimble passages out of the Appalachian blues that she’s been drawing from and into a darker, and as the title might suggest, deeper territory. In addition to her transcendent vocals, Deeper Woods pushes further into the psych-folk trenches than either her previous efforts, burning a bit of cinder and sage at the edges of her songwriting and pulling from the wells of Susan Christie and Six Organs in equal measures.

But to call this simply a folk album is to dismiss the work that Louise is doing here. On “The Field That Touches My House and Yours” she weaves those yearning vocals over a bed of synths and restrained piano, eschewing guitars entirely and pushing her headlong into the realms of somber ‘70s songwriters burdened with a heavy heart and a shadowed soul. She draws out some of the fullest realizations of her shipwrecked croon yet, radiating woe and bolstering songs with sighs of violin, nudges of bass and raindrop keys that all set this album adrift into a sea of sadness.

Up to this point Sarah Louise has been no lightweight, but with Deeper Woods she announces her intent to capture every ear in the room, to snuff any trace of conversation with her gravitational pull. This is a watershed moment for Louise and she’s left us with an album hits like a downpour – heavy, cool, beautiful and beguiling. This feels like just the beginning for Louise but its refreshing to linger in her creation.


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