Category Archives: New Releases

KLEENEX GIRL WONDER – Vana Mundi LP

Album: Vana Mundi

Artist: Kleenex Girl Wonder

Label: KGW.ME

Release Date: April 20, 2018

https://kgw.me/

The Upshot: After several spins of this album, its anthemic qualities begin emerging, and once they do, you can’t get ‘em out of your head, earworm style.

BY FRED MILLS

The proverbial “sleeper” in every sense of the word: Graham Smith’s umpteenth release bolts out of the gate in uncompromising fashion, courtesy the brashly abrasive riff of “Practical Effects,” a slice of dissonant pop marked by his nasal vox and complementary/adversarial vocal harmonies. It sets the listener up for a potentially uneasy listening experience. And yeah, that voice is an acquired taste, the kind that almost turns sour by the time you flip the album from side A to side B—did I mention that Vana Mundi arrives on digital and sweet, delightful 180gm black vinyl?—for “The Mesomorph,” all a-focus with double-tracked and harmony-abetted vocals.

But c’mon Mr. Reviewer, you say, haven’t you given, ahem, heroes of yours who are also idiosyncratic singers, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Richard Hell, plenty of passes over the years? Correct; and as with those musical icons, Graham Smith has a hard-to-pin-down emotional and sonic quality that eventually charms one out of his or her critical tree and makes ‘em a believer. In another era, Kleenex Girl Wonder would’ve been a flagship act on New Zealand’s vaunted Flying Nun label, in all their shambling-yet-mesmerizing glory. Early Merge Records releases also come to mind, as Smith uncannily intuits how to be shouty and passionate at the same time—not a small task. After several spins of this album, its anthemic qualities begin emerging, and once they do, you can’t get ‘em out of your head, earworm style.

Oh, and just to obliterate my entire argument about those idiosyncratic vocals: There’s a track called “Impossible Shadow” that, with its tingly indie-pop arrangement and massed vocal harmonies, clearly marks Smith as a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys acolyte. It’s a lightbulb moment, and a sonic epiphany. This dude’s a rare talent.

DOWNLOAD:  “Sounds Good,” “Impossible Shadow,” “Sunday Night Fever”

MATT DORRIEN – The Key of Grey

Album: The Key of Grey

Artist: Matt Dorrien

Label: Mama Bird Recording Co.

Release Date: April 27, 2018

http://www.mamabirdrecordingco.com/

The Upshot: A remarkable, enjoyable album from start to finish by a very Nilssonesque singer songwriter.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

The comparisons between Portland-based musician Matt Dorrien and Harry Nilsson are nearly impossible to avoid, but that’s certainly not a negative thing. From the opening piano chords of his debut, In the Key of Grey, you can’t help but think of Nilsson at his peak, heartbreakingly maudlin at times. And elsewhere, like on the song “Pretty Little Thing” you hear snatches of Randy Newman at his most sardonic.

The album is a pretty big departure from his previous work in the folk-focused, guitar band Snowblind Traveler. Along with the Nilsson and Newman influences, Dorrien also tosses in some Tin Pan Alley touches, including a little clarinet and saxophone mixed throughout the 10 songs here, adding to a feeling of timelessness.

Maybe the fact that it’s just so rare in 2018 to hear a piano-led album that those influences instantly come to mind, but it’s just as likely that Dorrien’s knack for story-telling and lyrical deftness is what’s leading to the comparisons. Regardless, The Key of Grey is a remarkable, enjoyable album from start to finish.

DOWNLOAD: “Baby I’m Lost,” “I Can’t Remember” and “Maybe This Time”

 

AHI – In Our Time

Album: In Our Time

Artist: AHI

Label: 22nd Century Records

Release Date: July 13, 2018

https://ahimusic.com/

The Upshot: Canadian indie soul-rocker, with his “young Springsteen” vibe, may be poised to break big.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Although AHI (pronounced “eye’) is not know much outside of his native Canada – and to be honest, not even known by many there – he’s just put out a record that deserves a big audience and will hopefully lead to it.

In Our Time, his sophomore effort, defies obvious categorizing. It could fit in with the quieter Indie rock fare of Iron & Wine or The Decemberist, just as easily alongside Stevie Wonder or Prince in his quieter moments or a slew of modern folk artists.

The first thing you notice about AHI is his deeply commanding voice that somehow manages to be both soothing and gravely at the same time. But once you start to finally focus on the words he’s singing you realize the key ingredient to his future, inevitable success are the lyrics. Much like a younger Springsteen, a number of the songs here focus on getting out (the sublime “Five Butterflies” being the best example) or avoiding exploitation (the powerfully quiet protest song “We Want Enough”).

Though AHI may not be a household name right now, if there’s any justice In Our Time will take care of that shortly.

DOWNLOAD: “The Architect’s Hand,” “Five Butterflies” and “We Want Enough”

 

SPIDER BAGS – Someday Everything Will Be Fine

Album: Someday Everything Will Be Fine

Artist: Spider Bags

Label: Merge

Release Date: August 03, 2018

www.mergerecords.com

The Upshot: A trip over to Memphis to record their new album was just what the doctor ordered, as it most certainly has injected a new, creative energy into the N.C. band. (Vinyl fans will also want to know that it is available on eye-catching purple wax—check the photo, below.)

BY BARRY ST. VITUS

The notorious Spider Bags have been rocking the Tar Heel state for a dozen years, led by (doesn’t appear too) ‘Dangerous’ Dan McGee. After a four-year drought of fresh Spider squeezin’s—go HERE to read our review of their 2014 gem, Frozen Letter—we’re blessed with a deluge of juicy tunes, perhaps their tastiest to date. Boy howdy!

Recorded and mixed on vintage equipment at Bunker Audio in Memphis, rejecting new-fangled editing software, and purposely try and create a danceable, roots of rock ‘n’ roll record, which is what you do in Memphis. According to McGee, “Rock and roll just sounds better there. I swear.” The trio now features Steve Oliva on bass and Rock Forbes drumming, but, being in Memphis means having lots of other talent on hand to incorporate. Helping fan the flames are Matt Hoopengardner of the Golden Boys, Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus, Jack Oblivian, multi-instrumentalist Seth Moody, and most of the Memphis Dawls. On top of this gaggle, a Moog and an old synth modulator guitar pedal were liberally used throughout, providing a fresh flavor to their sound. It’s been said that if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit. There is no bullshit to be found here.

The Moog is skillfully brought to bear in the kick-off number, “Reckless,” a heady, mid-tempo rocker, a perfect taster of stuff to come. Classic ‘Bags velocity is achieved next with “Oxcart Blues,” followed by “Alligator.” Good, pounding beats, showing you how it should be done.

You can lose your heart in “Burning Sand,” prominently featuring the aforementioned synth modulator noodling around and embellishing the number to great effect. “Cop Dream/Black Eye (True Story)” is sheer sharp-stick-in-the-eye punk, lasting an entire minute. Much fury is unleashed. Shorter-faster-louder! Another drastic shift in tempo brings up “My Heart is a Flame in Reverse,” a throwback to some early twangers like “Waking Up Drunk” and “So Long A Rope,” dripping with regret and remorse.

“Tonight, I Walk On the Water,” is another quick-but-efficient head-banger. “Ninety Day Dog” whips up a frenzy with an electro-hoedown, replete with wild fiddling and soaring pedal steel that could raise Gram Parsons. Probably my favorite cut. Striking out in rather new direction, “Apocalypso” plods slowly along as in a syncopated dream sequence. An impressive departure from what they’ve done previously.

Like it started, the album ends with an equally impressive piece, “Rollin’ With the Flow,” a great closer, where lots more synth is utilized in the outro, to walk it out the door. A damn tasty song on what is most certainly a very scrumptious record.

It’s obvious that a trip up to Memphis was just what the doctor ordered, as it most certainly has injected a new, creative energy into the band. Of course, the chemistry imbued by the helping hands and producer were significant to the end product. Let’s hope that McGee doesn’t require four years to produce the next one, but, he’ll know where to go to make it happen.

DOWNLOAD: “Ninety Day Dog,” “Apocalypso,” “Rollin’ With the Flow,” “Burning Sand“

 

BLACK COFFEE – Take One

Album: Take One

Artist: Black Coffee

Label: self-released

Release Date: April 20, 2018

https://www.facebook.com/officialblackcoffee/

BY TIFFINI TAYLOR

Have you ever wondered what happened to rock’n’roll? Have you ever wondered how a band can be formed? Well, for Black Coffee it is all about meeting others that you just have good chemistry with. Let’s be real: Rock’n’roll is all about chemistry. These three guys met and formed and it is all a big bang theory from there. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Black Coffee is following in the great resurgence of rock that Blacktop Mojo and Joyous Wolf have brought back. Take One is the debut album from Black Coffee and it rocks!

“Creamer” sets the soul on fire with riveting vocals, a great song to start the multi-faceted music on this album. Pulling from blues and rock, this is what talented musicians sound like. The first single is the second song on the album, “I Barely Know Her,” a straightforward number that would make the Seventies proud, with a fantastically blazing guitar solo that will knock your socks off and the clothes off the ladies.

Another notable song here is titled “Monica,” one that will melt your soul, with a heart pounding sound only made better with strong vocals. Meanwhile, “Born to Lie” is wonderful in the composition of the music itself, also with nice vocals but the sounds are the true standout. And “The Traveler” has the best beginning of a song that this journalist has heard in a very long time. The vocals are sweet, and the sound is reminiscent of the Sixties/Seventies era—six minutes of heaven.

A song to rock out to, “Psychedelic Red” offers a drum beat that will hit you in the head like an episode of Dr. Who and, overall, it is a tune that would be first track on a time-traveler’s playlist. “Fade” (something this band will not do; they are here for the long term) has a hard hitting, catchy, and memorable sound. “Away” (this band will not be going “away” anytime soon, either) is the ninth track and it is all about the guitar, and what a lovely, pleasant guitar sound it is. A great track for a long road trip, this is added to my playlist now.

This trio is made of drummer Tommy McCullough, guitarist Justin Young, and vocalist/bassist Ehab Omran—Black Coffee. A good way to wake up is to put this album on and drink it up. Their debut shows what gifted artists these three are and I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to offer on future albums. I can’t wait to check their live show out as well. If you are looking for a new rock outfit that will blow your mind, then look no further: Black Coffee is what rock has been waiting for. Listen and enjoy.

DOWNLOAD: “Creamer,” “Psychedelic Red,” “I Barely Know Her”

 

EUREKA CALIFORNIA – Roadrunners LP

Album: Roadrunners

Artist: Eureka California

Label: Happy Happy Birthday To Me

Release Date: May 04, 2018

www.hbtm.com

The Upshot: What would you say to a near-perfect amalgam of Elephant 6, Flying Nun, and classic Velvets/Feelies?

BY FRED MILLS

How the hell did I miss out on—overlook—this smokin’ Athens, Georgia, duo? Just consulting their artist page at the esteemed HHBTM label’s site yields a slew of releases, with at least two prior LP/CD releases from the label to their credit. (Their official website indicates that this new one makes a total of four albums and “a lost CD” to date. Oh, and they also used to be a 5-piece.) On the basis of this wonderfully noisy, delightfully indie-garage-poppy album—which, for all you fellow vinyl fans, can be scored (for the time being, at least), on sweet orange wax—one would have to say that there’s still something in that Athens water. Good to know the municipal powers that be haven’t removed the lysergic-o-nogens that the B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M. dumped in the reservoir all those years ago.

Add the Elephant 6 musical mafiosos to that list of usual suspects, because Roadrunners does have that telltale E6 lo-fi-goes-psychedelic ambiance to it. Whomping lead track “MKUltra” (now there’s a “telltale” kind of song title) careens hither and yonder via the band’s patented guitar/drums setup, a brash mashup of vintage c80 shambling pop and blazing Amerindie rock; while the thrumming “Time After Time After Time After Time”—no, it’s not a Cyndi Lauper trib—injects a distinctive Feelies/Velvets vibe to cement the Eureka California alliance with the E6 collective. And the drop-dead masterful “How Long Has This Been Going On?”—no, it’s not that played out classic rock hit—has, what with its brisk, part-jangly/part-grungy riffing, akimbo rhythms, and yearning vox, is quite possibly the best Flying Nun Records song never recorded by a Flying Nun Records combo.

This group stands a good chance of being my favorite discovery of 2018. If Check back with me in late December, but meanwhile, here’s your opportunity to make a similar discovery. If there’s any justice in the world, the talented young lady and young man here will eventually be winking slyly all the way to the bank.

DOWNLOAD: “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” “Mexican Coke,” “Time After Time After Time After Time”

THUMBSCREW – Ours / Theirs

Album: Ours / Theirs (2 releases)

Artist: Thumbscrew

Label: Cuneiform

Release Date: June 22, 2018

http://www.thumbscrew.net

The Upshot: Developed simultaneously during a residency in Pittsburgh, these two records represent a creative explosion on the avant-jazz trio’s part.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has already released one album so far this year, but that’s clearly not enough. Not when she can do two more, out the same day, with her band Thumbscrew. Comprised of Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew has been putting its distinctive spin on the jazz trio concept for the past half a decade, to excellent effect on these third and fourth albums. As might be guessed from the titles, there are practical differences between the LPs – Ours features originals by each member, while Theirs presents the trio’s unique takes on various standards and obscurities.

Anyone who’s heard any of the principals’ work under their own names will know what to expect here – compositions and arrangements that push the envelope of acceptable jazz behavior without quite crossing over into free/avant garde territory. Fujiwara is a free roving percussionist, as apt to play around the beat as on it, encouraging everyone to explore the musical territory instead of going from point A to point B. Halvorson gives free reign to her unique style, sounding like she’s jamming along with a melody that only she can hear. She occasionally uses effects, especially a watery digital delay, but she mostly allows her thin, semi-acoustic tone to rule. A veteran bandleader and formidable composer in his own right, Formanek grounds the performances with his round tone and easy swing, but he colors outside the lines when appropriate.

It’s Formanek’s pieces that tend to stand out on Ours – the perfect balance of melody and experimentation on “Cruel Heartless Bastards” and “Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle)” gives everyone room to rumble and the listener a tune to grasp, while “Unconditional” brings the record to a close with its most beautiful song. That’s not to say Fujiwara and Halvorson slack in the writing arena – the former’s “One Day” moves from ballad (of sorts) to blazer so subtly it’s sublime, while the latter’s “Snarling Joys” playfully kicks off the record with a near-perfect statement of the band’s intent. There’s a sense of whimsy behind the performances, especially Halvorson’s, a sense of serious chops being used for lighthearted effect. That doesn’t stop any of the musicians from getting down to business when it’s time to do so.

Theirs is, if anything, even more mischievous than Ours, as the trio clearly enjoys taking songs like Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous,” Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” and Jacob Do Bandolin’s “Benzinho” apart and putting them back together again. There’s no malice in these adventurous arrangements, however – these players treat each part of a tune with respect, if not exactly reverence. They’re simply trying to make each piece their own, while still retaining the spirit of the original, whether that’s the trio’s exploratory arrangement (of Johnny Smith’s arrangement) of Evelyn Danzig’s “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)” or a straightforward swinging take on Stanley Cowell’s “Effi.” An easier place to begin for Thumbscrew neophytes, Theirs is more accessible than its sister collection of original material, though perhaps not quite as daring.

Developed simultaneously during a residency in Pittsburgh, the two records represent a creative explosion on Thumbscrew’s part. Each record is a fine an example of the artistic combustion inherent in a gathering of especially creative people as you’re likely to find this year.

DOWNLOAD: Ours: “Words That Rhyme With Spangle,” “Cruel, Heartless Bastards,” “Snarling Joys” / Theirs: “Benzinho,” “The Peacocks,” “Scarlet Ribbons”

 

BEN BOSTICK – Hellfire LP

Album: Hellfire

Artist: Ben Bostick

Label: self-released

Release Date: June 29, 2018

www.benbostick.com

The Upshot: Yeah, Hank woulda done it like this.

BY FRED MILLS

Coming on the heels of last year’s self-titled debut, L.A.-by-way-of-South-Carolina outlaw country rocker Ben Bostick’s Hellfire (available on vinyl as well as digital formats) lives up to its title, delivering eleven tore up/tore down honky tonk anthems guaranteed to put the club’s beer sales through the roof for the night (and maybe even prompt some post-show, late-night lovin’ among club patrons that bears fruit 9 months later). Salty, sexy, and as swaggering as it comes, the album finds Bostick and his crack backing band storming through a mélange of music that suggests a hard-drinking summit between hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Jerry Lee Lewis, and fellow newcomer Sturgill Simpson.

Such are the pleasures of such tracks as the Big Easy-infused “It Ain’t Cheap Being Poor,” the hard twangin’ title track (a call-and-response slice of Bakersfield rockabilly), a sinewy ditty titled “Work, Sleep, Repeat” which, believe it or not, Bostick wrote as a line-dance number (and armed with that knowledge, you can definitely picture it as such while it plays), and a lowdown nasty blues that is more-than-appropriately-called “Feeling Mean” (think Ray Wylie Hubbard doing Muddy Waters). All in all, Hellfire is one complete Saturday night, pressed up on 12 inches of heavy vinyl, just itchin’ for the needle to drop.

DOWNLOAD: “Feelin’ Mean,” “The Outsider,” “It Ain’t Cheap”

LAVENDER FLU—Mow the Glass

Album: Mow The Grass

Artist: Lavender Flu

Label: In The Red

Release Date: July 06, 2018

http://www.intheredrecords.com

The Upshot: Nowhere near as rough and sweaty as frontman Chris Gunn’s Hunches were, or even as noisy as the first Lavender Flu album, but it’s got a dream-soaked inevitability to it that’s pretty damned beautiful.

JENNIFER KELLY

This second full-length from Hunches front man Chris Gunn’s psychedelic garage project meanders beguilingly through hazy garden paths, a bit cleaner and more acoustic than the 30-track Heavy Air, but still engulfed in droning, indefinite hum. Like the earlier Lavender Flu album, Mow the Glass is a sharp departure from the Hunches’ rowdy to the point of unhinged-ness, Stooges-MC5 amped blues punk tradition. Here the NW foursome — Gunn, his brother Lucas, Hunches drummer Ben Spencer and Eat Skull’s Scott Simmons — cleaves closer to the fuzzed transcendentalism of Greg Ashley, Skygreen Leopards, even Beachwood Sparks.

Still even in the most lotus-petal-strewn, hippie gnostic tracks, stabs and shouts of rock protrude. “Follow the Flowers,” a flickery, tambourine-dragging pipe dream rouses itself for a burst of emphatic guitars, a shout of “You must return to me, return to me, return,” before nodding off again. “Dream Cleaner,” does the opposite trick, letting big thick bands of distorted guitar and raucous kit-battering drums dominate, but breaking for a day-dreamy interval.

“Like a Summer Thursday,” the Townes van Zandt cover, is one of two songs that also appeared on the first album. Here, cleaned up and clarified, embellished with liquid country guitar twang, the cut floats like a helium balloon, lingers like a psychedelic sunset. The other cover is folk eccentric Jackson C. Frank’s “Just Like Anything,” opened up from its folk-picked origins with double guitars and wailing “aah aahs” into something wiggy and wild and expansive.

Lavender Flu also returns to “Demons in the Dusk” this time, paring it down so that you can see the muscle in its surging guitars, its clattering, crescendoing rattles of drums. It’s nowhere near as rough and sweaty as the Hunches were, or even as noisy as the first Lavender Flu album, but it’s got a dream-soaked inevitability to it that’s pretty damned beautiful.

DOWNLOAD: “Like a Summer Thursday” “Demons in the Dusk”

 

DOM MARIANI & THE MAJESTIC KELP – Hi Seas

Album: Hi Seas

Artist: DOM MARIANI & THE MAJESTIC KELP

Label: Invisible

Release Date: March 02, 2018

http://www.dommariani.com

The Upshot: Veteran Aussie rocker’s surf/instro incarnation serves up an aquatic gem.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Few – indeed, very few – musicians boast a track record as consistent as Dom Mariani’s. The Australian singer/guitarist has never made a bad record, no matter what the project – the Stems, the DM3, Datura4, the Someloves, the Stoneage Hearts, the DomNicks. That includes the Majestic Kelp, Mariani’s instrumental combo. Though often touted as a surf outfit, the Kelp is far more than that, as fourth LP Hi Seas makes clear.

Fronting a combo consisting of veteran Kelps (bassist Stu Loasby, guitarist Steve Mancini) and newcomers (drummer Todd Pickett, steel guitarist Luke Dux), Mariani makes pit stops at several instrumental locations. There’s the Santo & Johnny-like twang of “Blue Olive,” the Ventures-like swing of “Francisco Street,” the acid folk balladry of “Silver of Gold,” the haunted folk rock of “Song For the Boatman,” the dusty choogle of “Freeway Ace,” the fifties-style doo-wop of “Angel Angeline” and the ocean-at-twilight balladry of the title track, which also boasts vocals. Surf rock isn’t forgotten, either – cf. “The Spider and the Sailor,” though even it doesn’t sound much like Dick Dale.

The Kelp proves itself not only versatile, but constant – no matter where the music wanders, the band’s personality remains. Hi Seas isn’t a survey of the kinds of wordless music Mariani likes – it’s a cohesive work with an artistic through line, and yet another gem in a catalog of never-misses.

DOWNLOAD: “Angel Angeline,” “Song For the Boatman,” “Freeway Ace”

Read our 2016 interview with Mariani HERE.