Archives for category: International Pop Underground

If you love Dumb Things as much as I do you’ll adore Renovator’s Delight, the solo+friends band of Dumb Things guitarist/ vocalist Madeleine Keinonen, who has just released a first album “Bark All Night”. It’s delightfully melodic and jangling guitar pop, and “Head In The Clouds” here could be a long lost Magick Heads song. It’s a beauty. The whole album is.

The phrase “renovator’s delight” is a real estate agent’s euphemism for an old ‘character house’ that has seen better days, requiring re-piling, re-plumbing, new electrics and replacement windows, bathroom kitchen etc. In other words, a money pit. However your commitment of $11 AUD for the digital album or $32 AUD plus postage for the LP of “Bark All Night” is a sound investment. No hard work required here, but many hours of rewarding listening guaranteed.

As with Dumb Things, Renovator’s Delight does the simple stuff exceptionally well. Guitar & bass, drums, Keinonen’s unaffected vocals, and some additional texture from clarinet, violin, and, well, bowed saw of course. As with Dumb Things, Keinonen’s lyrics are observational, slice-of-life stuff, and work with the homespun music and arrangements.

“Bark All Night” seems to display as much of a strong stylistic link to southern New Zealand jangle pop past (Robert Scott and his bands Magick Heads, and The Bats) and present (check the forthcoming album by Jim Nothing if you like your laconic jangling guitar pop served with violin), as there is to the legions of Australian jangling guitar pop icons past and present. Quietly essential.

As bonus content, here’s the video for the opening track “Bucket of Water”:

Ben Woods is now two albums deep into a singular journey to the heart of “Antipodean Gothic”. His first solo album “PUT” set the scene, but retained something of the recognisable guitar-pop roots of his previous role as wielder of a Gibson Flying-V guitar in bands like Wurld Series etc. His latest journey to slowed-down weird-pop is “Dispeller” and the opening track is “Fame”:

“Fame” is a strange, slow, woozy thing. Reminds me a bit of The Everly Brothers’ “All I have To Do Is Dream” but this dream is an unsettling, disorienting one, in which the dreamer is slowly falling, forever.

“Dispeller” features less guitar than “PUT” – and what guitar there is if often stripped to the minimum – and more piano, and also more sonic musical – and anti-musical – sound treatments assembled, stretched, twisted, distressed, disordered…

As “Fame” indicates there’s melodic pop still at the heart of the warped songs, and many haunting moments among the sonic ruins. Woods is joined on vocals by Charlotte Forrester (WOMB) on two tracks and Lucy Hunter (Opposite Sex, Wet Specimen) on one, adding additional spectral counterpoints to Woods’ soothing croon. The album may take a few plays to re-orientate the listeners into this world, but once settled these songs are things of strange beauty.

There are moments throughout “Dispeller” that remind me of the DIY sonic experimentation of Tall Dwarfs, the damaged pop of Sparklehorse, and the hypnotic minimalism of Spaceman 3. The overwhelming sense here is of classic slow pop music warped and twisted through a kind of Twin Peaks lens; a deeply personal performance beaming from the Black Lodge’s Red Room.

“To other New Zealanders, Christchurch seems to be a desolate, xenophobic, flat city, which in the wake of a series of natural disasters is being sparsely put back together by a bunch of brutal development moguls. It’s also a city with a thriving indie rock scene, unspoiled by commercial interests and held together by bands all drawing from the same small pool of members and venues. Christchurch has a rare grit.” [From the Bandcamp notes to “PUT”]

The name’s Nothing. Jim Nothing. I like my secret alt-pop agents under-stated, DIY, and a bit rough-hewn around the edges. I like them even more when they arrive with a new album out of nowhere after several years of, well, nothing, and floor you with strange, unexpected new sounds. In this case, lo-fi, DIY, cassette release Jim Nothing has simultaneously fulfilled, exceeded, and confounded early promise. Collaborating with an avante-garde violinist/vocalist Anita Clark (Motte) is an unexpected turn for a shambling jangling fuzzy guitar pop Nothing. On the strength of the two initial songs released ahead of Jim Nothing’s “In The Marigolds” album in September, it’s a glorious combination. Here’s “Yellow House”:

It’s been 7 years since the initial run of 2 cassette EPs and a split cassette EP with Wurld Series. Since then Nothing’s alter-ego James Sullivan has been busy in all manner of bands, including drummer for Salad Boys. This time round the ubiquitous Brian Feary is drumming, while also recording, mixing, mastering “In The Marigolds”. Feary is the heart & soul of Christchurch’s underground DIY scene and Melted Ice Cream Records, a 21st century Chris Knox if you like, without the jandals and shorts.

But it’s the pairing of melodic string instrument talents with violinist and vocalist Anita Clark (her own extraordinary sound explorations under the name Motte) that gives these two initial songs (and presumably the whole album) an unexpected melodic richness and sonic balance. Clark’s violin parts on “Yellow House” evoke the dark drone spirit The Velvet Underground’s John Cale in the verse, and the melodic flight of The Go-Between’s Amanda Brown in the chorus.

The album is released on vinyl – a white and black option – and will have a European release too via Meritorio Records in Madrid, Spain. It was an instant “Buy Now” for me on the strength of these two tracks. Can’t wait to get lost in the marigolds with Jim Nothing in a few months when this is fully released.

Adiós Amores hail from Seville, Spain and their first album brings together a string of three glorious 7″ singles they released in 2020 and 2021 plus two new songs to start and end the album. The album is cheekily – but accurately – called “Sus Mejores Canciones” (“Their Best Songs”). And what songs these are. It’s hard to pick just one song to represent what’s on offer – should it be one of the frenetic flamenco surf guitar pop songs featuring fairground keyboards, the bhangra (?) disco song that closes the album, or one of the beautifully arranged melancholic 60’s-styled guitar pop songs? “Charlotte” falls into the latter category, and also showcases the duo’s twinned vocal harmonies:

The duo of Iman Amar and Ana Valladares are from the south of Spain, geographically distant from the main centres. Perhaps it is the way that musicians in out-of-the-way places (eg: here in Dunedin) can sometimes draw creative inspiration from being outsiders, and not being caught up in whatever the ‘zeitgeist’ may be in the music industry at the time, but there’s something of the imagination and sonic world of Adiós Amores that sets itself apart from much else I can think of.

First time I heard the album (thanks to a Monorail Music newsletter when the Glasgow music shop made it their album of the month) it reminded me of the lurid, strange films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. I can’t remember the soundtrack music in those films, but this is the sort of music that would fit perfectly.

The songs and arrangements and interwoven voices have an air of 1960s European pop about them. But for every melancholic classic pop tune like “Charlotte” here there’s a frenetic hybrid explosion of sound, combining twangy surf guitars, fairground organ, and Flamenco castanets, and even some exotic dancefloor disco on the closing “Noche Illuminada”.

Tāmaki Makaurau/ Auckland sound designer/ composer/ writer/ musician/ singer Frances Libeau’s recorded and performance sound project i. e. crazy returns with a textured electronic/ sound collage swamp-pop ode to the watery parts of the city’s harbour fringe, “Wetlands”:

The song has some ‘trip-hop’ electronic vibes, but its industrial whirr and clatter is rendered almost organic by the sonic arrangement here where the music and non-music sound layers entangle each other to emulate the claustrophobic sticky warm air, ripe with decay, and the cross-hatched thickets of plant-life crowding the edges of swampy coastal marsh wetlands.

It’s a perfect setting for a typically unsettling lyrical reflection inspired by frequent visits to Western Springs’ Lakeside Te Wai Ōrea park.  As the song progresses there’s also a lush and woozy cinematic orchestral tone colours the soundscape too. Dank and dark of course, but also ultimately weirdly uplifting. Here’s to more in this vein.

The i. e. crazy website has a recorded music page which has a reverse chronological journey through one of the richest and deepest catalogues of NZ alt-pop-craft. Go explore it – all the way back to Dear Time’s Waste – if you are not familiar.

…And while we are in Ōtautahi Christchurch, and still with Melted Ice Cream Records, here’s something completely different from Local Tourist, also released last month. “Colors” is the opening track from a quiet album of introspection called “Other Ways of Living”:

“Other Ways of Living” also features the bassist on the previously featured Best Bets album, Joe Sampson. He’s more familiar as a guitarist, cranking out sublime noise with a variety of Christchurch bands (T54, Salad Boys, etc.) and it’s as guitarist and bassist that he appears here, but in a more subdued, reflective mood.

US born songwriter Erin Umstead was living in Christchurch, New Zealand and frequenting local live music venue Darkroom where she met bassist/guitarist Joe Sampson (Salad Boys, T54) and drummer Rory Dalley (Ben Woods Group). Local Tourist formed, However, the pandemic and visa complications halted any chance of extensive touring and Umstead was forced to leave her adopted home, but not before the group recorded this album, over her last few days in New Zealand.

The album is an immersive listen. If you are familiar with the work of Wellington’s WOMB, and American Analog Set, then you will understand the power of introspection.

While we are talking about guitar pop bands apparently influenced by the likes of Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements, velvet Crush, etc., here’s another storming album, this time from Rangiora/ Christchurch band Best Bets. “The Point” here from Best Bets first album “On an Unhistoric Night” is the same kind of bold opening statement of power-pop goodness that “The Concept” was on Teenage Fanclub’s “Bandwagonesque”.

Best Bets were formed by drummer/vocalist Olly Crawford Ellis and guitarist/ vocalist James Harding (both formerly of Christchurch punk band Transistors). They released an EP “Life Under the Big Top” in 2018, with James’ brother Luke and Matt Phimmavanh completing the lineup, before Joe Sampson (Salad Boys, T54) joined afterwards on bass.

Some of those punk roots from The Transistors show through here at times on the album. When that punk approach is mixed into Best Bets big brazen power pop it sometimes evokes the wild euphoric guitar-pop enthusiasm of Doublehappys, which is a good place to be.

Let’s leave the last words to Best Bets: “this is a band with day jobs. They’ve not yet had a hit. The album was made on a shoestring budget in a lock-up in Ōtautahi Christchurch. They care about writing great songs, doing it themselves, and defining their own style whether or not it’s the sound of the week, or the year, or the decade.”

Here’s a welcome guitar pop resurrection of sorts, a contemporary UK band channeling some of that magic melodic jangling power-pop associated with the likes of Big Star, The Replacements, and Teenage Fanclub et al. Ex-Vöid, formed by Joanna Gruesome singers/ guitarists Lan McArdle and Owen Williams, take those familiar precursors and add an occasional blast of hardcore punk ferocity to keep the sweetness under control. “Chemical Reaction” is from the album “Bigger Than Before” recently released on UK label Prefect Records, and also New York punk label Don Giovanni Records.

“Bigger Than Before” is jam-packed with ultra-melodic pop hooks. I was playing Teenage Fanclub’s classic early album “Bandwagonesque” earlier today before coming across Ex-Vöid. There’s something about the paired lead vocals, the harmonies, the lyrics, the fuzzy jangle and glorious songcraft here that is just as thrilling to hear today as “Bandwagonesque” was all those years ago.

Prior to this album, McArdle and Williams released two EPs as Ex-Vöid: 2018’s Ex-Vöid and 2019’s Only One. McArdle departed Joanna Gruesome in 2015 after fronting the band in its earliest years, last appearing on the group’s second album Peanut Butter. Williams was also in Grubs, and Two White Cranes along with Roxy Brennan, one of the two singers who replaced McArdle in Joanna Gruesome in 2015.

In additional to the previously mentioned former Joanna Gruesome members Ex-Vöid is completed by bassist Laurie Foster and drummer Jonny Coddington. The album is said to be recorded in just over an hour in a studio in Hackney, with minimal overdubs and no breaks, which may explain the uncorked energy here.

While we are back in the world of shoegaze… one of the best – and least known – UK shoegaze era bands is Secret Shine. They were released on their Bristol hometown independent label, Sarah Records, which was perhaps better known at the time (inaccurately) as a ‘twee pop’ label. Secret Shine are still releasing classic shoegaze pop in their distinctive style today, 30 years after they started. Here’s their track “Lost in the Middle”, another highlight of the recent essential compilation of contemporary recordings from Sarah Records associated/ derived bands called “Under the Bridge”:

The perfect pairing of the voices of Kathryn Smith (vocals and keyboards) and Jamie Gingell (bass and vocals) with the sonic miasma of guitar from Dean and Scott Purnell provides the basis for this gloriously melodic song with deliberately ambiguous lyrics, they say, as a meditation of sorts “about total absorption in, or totally letting go in, an experience.”

My introduction to Secret Shine came 30 years ago via their track “Take Me Slowly” on a another various artists compilation “Birth of the True” which was released on tiny Liverpool independent label Sugarfrost in 1992. “Take Me Slowly” from that compilation is one of the great obscure classics of early 90s shoegaze.

Secret Shine don’t just release their best music on various artists compilation albums though. As well as their first album on Sarah Records in 1993 there have been further albums released this century. A CD compilation of Secret Shine’s Sarah Records releases (two singles, the “Untouched” album and “Greater Than God” EP) called “After Years” released on US “modern shoegaze” label Clairecords in 2003 which is worth tracking down, although everything on that (and more) is available from Secret Shine on Bandcamp.

The music on the “Under The Bridge” compilation – released on Skep Wax Records, a label set up by Sarah alumni Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey (Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research, Tender Trap and now The Catenary Wires) – retains all the essential elements of what made the Sarah Records catalogue so important in the 90s. As the Skep Wax website explains:

Time has moved on, but this coterie of ex-labelmates is making music that is as pure and as idealistic as ever.  Every track on Under The Bridge is a pop gem. Some are punk rock, some are indiepop, others are dreamy swirls of fuzz.  Some are gentle, some are some are full of rage, but all of them are defiantly sensitive, literate and full of DIY spirit.  The bands on this compilation are flattered, maybe, that people spend serious money bidding for 7” singles of their old songs.  But they are far more excited about the music they are creating today.

Back to NZ, where’s there’s been a flurry of new releases as summer turns to autumn downunder. One person Ōtautahi/ Chr istchurch-based shoegaze pop enigma T. G. Shand (Annemarie Duff) has just released a new song “Little Sieve” also available as a very limited edition lathe-cut single.

Compared to the preceding single “Seats” released in December – a thrilling mix of electro-clash of Curve-style crunchy drum-heavy layered guitar rock, clattering post-punk bass, Cocteau Twins-style liquid guitars and a hyper-melodic chorus of layered heavenly voices – “Little Sieve” here dials back the noise for a blissful a lighter-than-air atmospheric dream-gaze-pop song, delivered in a vocal version and in an equally wonderful instrumental version mixed with field recordings.