The Focus Group

Julian House again picks up his mantle as The Focus Group, spreading Radiophonic frequencies out into the ionosphere with precision, ingenuity and a glint of madness in his eye. The crux of The Focus Group has always acted like a high pressure drill, tunneling through human consciousness and presenting the core sample of childhood fears and delights alongside the useless ephemera and practical static that gum up the works in the average human brain. There’s bits of pop magic stuck in the mix here, but its littered with the lint of noise and jumbled into an organization that would befit a Burroughs cut-up.

Still, despite the chaos, he manages to evoke the low wattage flicker of a bare bulb projecting animation through cellophane on the walls while you sleep. Stop-Motion Happening moves like dreams, drenched in half-remembered facts and saturated with colors almost too rich for human consumption. This is the magic and the terror that House evokes. He’s a mad scientist of memory, plowing past the surface scratches that the likes of The Books, Boards of Canada and his own collaborative muses, Broadcast, have made their bread and butter. His approach, fittingly, is more on the level of visual art than that of musician. The album feels like it might easily soundtrack a gallery and have a dozen or so accompanying pieces that fit all these sparking wires together.

That dreamlike quality also puts him in league with film Auteurs like Michel Gondry, another artist trying desperately to capture the moment between sleep and awake. House’s work evokes the disorientation of signals that get trapped inside our many heads. He’s filtering and processing the data but it’s hard to figure out what’s noise and what’s important. That conundrum, in fact, seems to be the root of modern anxiety. House has put his finger squarely on the flashpoint of modern madness – what goes, what stays, where to look next, who to believe in all this? He’s not offering a rubic, but he’s at least showing us that someone else is having as much trouble quashing the noise as we are.




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Psychic Temple

Chris Schlarb doesn’t work in half measures. Despite bubbling under the surface, rolling out releases on Asthmatic Kitty and Joyful Noise, he’s pulled down some banner contributors on his last couple of records, including Mike Watt and Terry Reid. While last year saw him go full ambient to reinterpret Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, he’s cut the rudder back into the laconic psych-pop that permeated his previous full length, Psychic Temple III. With Reid in tow on PT IV, along with a stuffed studio of contributors, Schlarb constructs an album full of California comedown psych for unseasonably cool nights.

Schlarb has spent a lifetime picking through styles and lurking in studios and the attention to detail shows through the seams of PT IV, but only after pulling at the threads a bit. On first listen the album has an effortlessly casual quality that’s easy to sink into. After peeling through the layers the breeziness subsides to reveal a meticulously crafted album helmed by a songwriter with a producer’s heart. Stitched together with a run of interludes that make the album flow with ’70s grandiosity, Schlarb has found a way to tap into the bereaved soul at the core of adulthood’s mantle with a heavy sigh and a silken delivery.

This is far from an album of hits or singles, it’s an album that can hardly be parsed at all and that stands as its greatest achievement. Schlarb rifles the pockets of jazz, psych, country and blues to fit the pieces into a bittersweet sigh that’s stretched into forty minutes of sanctuary from the greater world. It’s’ hard to deny the draw of respite and harder still to resist returning for another dose.




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Teenanger – “Fun Forgot”

Canadian post-punks Teenanger put together a pretty solid collection on their eponymous LP, but “Fun Forgot” sticks out as an obvious highlight. In the clip, the band pairs the elastic bounce of the track with some real bummer summer hi-jinks and true teenage emotions. The video winds up a pretty perfect accompaniment to the song’s letdown lessons and in general the package is a fun ride. Short and sweet and snapping like gum during study hall, this is playlist fodder of the highest order.

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The Radiation Flowers

Straddling the nebulous line between shoegaze and psych-pop, Saskatoon’s Radiation Flowers bathe in the warm amplifier glow of Spacemen 3 if they’d been playing split singles with Galaxie 500. Summer Loop, the band’s latest offering feels like it might stop vibrating about three minutes after the needle comes to a rest. The album is draped in a shimmer of lush production that sets Shelby Gaudet’s vocals in a languid landscape well suited to her dream-smeared delivery. They kick the switch nicely between gauzy float and a snakebite flash of fuzz that rears its head on heavier tracks, though, this is an album primarily about setting a narcotic mood. Far from an ardent dynamic shifter, Summer Loop is more concerned with laying the listener into froth than taking a good layer of skin off in the process.

The grooves stretch out, feeling around sonic fjords for hand holds in the rippling darkness, proving the band is more than just effects draped over drones. They make a case that they can hang with the Space-rock contingent on “Summer of Burnout,” a swirling instrumental that takes time to build out aural plateaus that run on par with some of this year’s other great psych records, including labelmates Mt. Mountain. Cardinal Fuzz has made its case as a well of psych inspiration and Radiation Flowers fit the bill nicely, up an comers with the right records on their shelves and some room to grow into themselves.


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Premiere: The Lovebirds – “Ready To Suffer”

San Francisco is full of guitar rock of the jangled variety but rising above the typical Mission fray soars The Lovebirds. They’re packing a satchel full of chiming chords here, but rather than throw a nod to SF’s ’60s roots, they channel College-ready literate charmers and powerpop dandies alike, drawing a line from the Groovies on down to Elvis Costello and Teenage Fanclub waiting in the wings. “Ready To Suffer” flicks at the subconscious, feeling familiar in a way that pushes it out of time, like a lost b-side from the archives of any of those bands.

It certainly doesn’t holler fresh-faced kids about town, that’s for sure, but that’s to the band’s credit as scholars of their influences. Add to the quality tunes some mix n’ master duties from RSTB faves Glenn Donaldson and Mikey Young respectively and this is a tight package and prime introduction to a band to watch.




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The Stevens

Sharing members with The Twerps and Boomgates puts The Stevens in good company, but though they echo traces of the current new wave of Aussie bands, the group also taps into classic leanings in a bigger way than many of their compatriots. Trading out lo-fi grit and soft focus production for a tougher skin of meaty hooks and power pop thump alongside the requisite bag of jangles, Good is rooted in an alternate ’70s where the radio eschewed the sexual sweat of blues-baiters for a good dose of post-punk and anxiety.

As with their previous album, A History of Hygiene, brevity isn’t in The Stevens’ wheelhouse. This one clocks in with eighteen tracks, though to be fair that actually pulls back the reigns a bit on the last one’s twenty-four piece spread. They make good use of the material, though, using their songs to explore corners of their sound without feeling too much like they’re in need of an editor to put the indulgences in the bin. Plus, when the band is on, they’re on, threading the needle of angst with just the right amount of brain battering earworms. A solid sophomore effort that skirts the slump and puts The Stevens up on the chain of Aussie bands to keep your eyes on.




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The Fresh & Onlys – “Impossible Man”

Stripping down to their core for this record, Tim Cohen and Wymond Miles continue to be consistent muses to each other, pushing their collaborative work harder than ever before. The latest single off of their upcoming Wolf Lie Down is one of their most driving and insistent songs in a long time. The band’s always benefited from framing Cohen’s lyrics in a lush backdrop of Miles’ alt-psych, making them heir apparent to the College Rock kingdom. As they grew legs, they pushed their sound out of the garage roots that birthed them and ventured well into lusher pastures, leaving their last album, House of Spirits, awash in a tangle of textures. Now, they return to a bit of the bite that anchored Long Slow Dance, bringing along the lessons learned and lived on Spirits. This one reminds me of the gnarled version of “Vanishing Cream” from the band’s excellent single on Plastic Spoons (a gem if you find one to pick up). Suffice it to say that, in that respect, “Impossible Man” ranks as one of the band’s most enduring hooks and a peek at what feels like a real jump forward for the veteran band.


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Jon Brooks

Ghost Box drone slinger/synth wizard Jon Brooks has been an integral part of the label’s evolution, popping ’round in banner releases from The Advisory Circle, Pattern Forms, Hintermass and The Belbury Circle. He’s also been running a string of great releases out of his own Cafe Kaput, the latest of which takes shape as Agri Montana. The record is constrained to two instruments, the Buchla Music Easel and ARP Odyssey and as is often the case with self-imposed restrictions, the handicap becomes a decisive advantage. The resulting album, inspired by Alpine landscapes dives into the heart of ’70s synth work with an icy resolve that keeps emotions at an arm’s length, wandering around human ties with the kind of detachment reserved for Sofia Coppola films that should be packaged and released solely on filmstrip and cassette.

The record does have an isolating feel to it, that perhaps brings to mind the mountains if your idea of a trip to the mountains involves a lot of staring out the window contemplating the fragile line between life and death. The synthetic buzz and opposing emptiness give me flashbacks to the artworks of Alex Da Corte’s Free Roses, feeling just as much a soundtrack to his glowing, sterile surrealism as it could be to the Alpine hills. By the end of Agri Montana the listener is sanded down and numb, giving everything around them a darkened hue and plastic finish.

While that might sound like an undesirable outcome, it’s not such a sour deal to put a layer of plexiglass between oneself and the greater world’s sinkhole slide of late. Brooks creates a set of sonic hackles that protect and repel an onslaught of overwhelming emotions too abundant to parse and too weighty to bear alone. That distance is abundantly welcome, at least around here. If you do need a shock back to life, then Brooks’ other release from this year, the gorgeously pastoral Autres Directions should pump some color back into your cheeks. The two act as a nice dichotomy on hope and hopelessness for the modern age.


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Beaches – “Void”

Aussie psych stormers Beaches are back after what feels like an almost unbearable hiatus (last album was 2013). Though to be fair, the ladies that make up the group have rather a lot going on, with members sharing duties in Love of Diagrams, Scott and Charlene’s Wedding and Panel of Judges among others. The group pushes the pedal down even harder on their motorik psych sound, fizzing like the ragged spirits of Spacemen 3, Neu!, Loop and Popul Vuh had all infected them simultaneously and were fighting for space. “Void” is shrouded in cavernous echo (just like I like it) and pulsating with a rhythm that all but glows. They drop in a touch of space-laced synth to keep it interesting and with that, anticipations are high for this double LP monster to drop later in the fall. Chapter Music is pushing the gems out this year, and this chalks another one up on the board.




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Major Leagues

Aussie quartet Major Leagues makes good on some solid EPs leading up to their Popfrenzy debut. The band has fully embraced their woozy, sun-streaked pop on Good Love, saturating every second with a humid giddiness that stretches far longer than the runnout on the last track. They edge delightfully into dream pop, pushed by a slight jangling undercurrent that sparkles so subtly and persistently that its hard not to squint at the glimmer. Harder still is resisting the impulse to inhale deeply the narcotic vocals of Anna Davidson, who anchors the album with her willful restraint.

When she does break out into a full on pop charger (“It Was Always You”) the rush is that much sweeter, knowing that the band could tumble headlong into indie-pop bounce at any moment, but they choose to polish their opalescent hooks to a gorgeous shimmer. They trade exuberance for a permanent holiday of cool and composed, an album full of textures that teases its way into your heart handily. This one’s an instant hit that only grows roots with repeated listens.

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