Archives for category: Pop Lib

Continuing the electronic music theme from the previous post Vera Vice are an experimental electronic duo from from Tallinn, Estonia, and “Down the River” here is from their 2020 album “Vera Versa”.

Vera Vice are Helen Västrik and Ave Vellesalu. They met at the Estonian Academy of Arts and started by building their first synthesizers in old cigarette boxes, before borrowing equipment from friends and teachers and continuing experimenting with sound, and now creating their music with keyboards, drum machines, analog synths, effect pedals, etc. Prior to this their music experience was singing in choirs, so their initial lack of knowledge and skills in electronic music provided them with the “idea of unsystematic freedom and possible accidental success.” 

Vera Vice’s music inhabits a liminal space somewhere between the bass-heavy dub expansiveness of Australian duo HTRK and the more dreamy pop melodicism of NZ duo Purple Pilgrims. Their voices are an equal force in their music to the icy but colourful electronic minimalism. That idea of “unsystematic freedom” and arts background may explain why their music sounds so distinct and often bypasses the conventions of the genre taking unexpected ambient diversions and creating it’s own introspective sound-world. “Vera Versa” is my first purchase from Estonian musicians – thanks to the power of Bandcamp – and is unlikely to be my last.

Many of us can’t travel far at the moment, particularly to exotic destinations in far off countries. All we have is our imaginations to travel with. Take a trip to nowhere with “This New Heaven” by Fine Place.

Dystopia is a location of the mind, although it’s usually a place our mind tries to take us away from. I’m guilty of referring to a lot of futuristic, synth based music as sounding ‘dystopian’ (as in a music that one may expect to hear in the soundtrack to some sci-fi film or ‘cyber-punk’ book about an imaginary future dystopia). But when the chorus of a song includes the word “dystopia” I’m probably on safe ground with this one.

The visual reference for my personal Dystopia is usually fuelled by ancient memories of train journeys to and from Edinburgh past the Grangemouth oil refinery and petrochemical plant with flare offs lighting up misty winter evenings or nights like a scene from the Bladerunner movie. It has always struck me as incongruous that this was the setting our beloved Cocteau Twins grew up in, and developed their extraordinary musical imaginations in, before escaping from the town in the 1980s. The thing about a lot of music I think about as being ‘dystopian’ is that it is a soundtrack to travelling/ escaping from that real or imaginary dystopia, often with the distraction and/or beauty of the music providing hope of sorts or a kind of relief or escape. If every vision of Dystopia comes with a desire to escape, then every escape journey needs a soundtrack.

Scottish band Simple Minds – in their brief imperious 1980-81 phase between Empires and Dance and Sons and Fascination/ Sister Feelings Call – imagined the cool synth+guitar strange-dancing-in-baggy-pants future we could have had. But it turned out we didn’t deserve that future, so we got the one we have now. At the time their icy cool light industrial motorik funk was the perfect soundtrack to travelling through and beyond the at times dystopian landscapes of industrial Britain.

On the title track of the upcoming album by Fine Place called “This New Heaven” there’s an echo of the kind of shimmering synth and delay guitar background sounds that made those three Simple Minds albums so evocative to me. It’s all a bit lower tech and DIY and all the better for it as the relentless beat propels the song on its journey, background sounds and eerie reverb-washed vocals in tow.

Fine Place is a duo of Frankie Rose (Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts, Dum Dum Girls) and Matthew Hord (Running, Pop. 1280, Brandy), based in Brooklyn, NYC. Their first album “This New Heaven” is: “nocturnal, electronic pop music that charts a way out the post-global, cyberpunk dystopian environment it was crafted in.”

While Fine Place are not from Scotland, their album is being released on Glasgow based label Night School Records, where it joins many other soundtracks to escaping your personal Dystopia which have been released on that fine label by artists like Molly Nilsson, Ela Orleans, etc. I’m a sucker for dystopian synth pop at the best of times, and this first track sounds really good, so take my pre-order money already.

Grangemouth, Scotland

Everyone’s favourite Isle of Wight pop duo Wet Leg return with a new single “Wet Dream”. You have been warned:

Wet Leg (Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers) continue their sardonically absurdist bubblegum buzz-saw pop fun. It’s fantastic intentionally quirky sweet & sour pop, and they craft clever, menacing words that burn: “what makes you think you’re good enough to think about me when you’re touching yourself?”

“Wet Dream” is a welcome reminder of simpler times when the pop charts were not full of earnest careerist formula production pop stars, but had room for a bit of subversive music from leftfield celebrating the mundane aspects of everyday life with droll wit and deadpan delivery – Jilted John’s “Jilted John” and Jona Lewie’s “In the Kitchen at Parties” are a couple that come to mind.

After two quality singles it’s already clear Wet Leg are very good indeed at their distinctive kind of thrillingly off-kilter hybrid cool-but-weird art pop chart pop.

Following on from the previous PopLib post, Ghosts of the Dunedin Music Scene, Auckland/ Hanoi melodic guitar rock band The Roulettes have released a new album of intriguingly undercooked (in a good way) home-recorded demos called “Demosphere”, which includes two unreleased early 1990s Andrew Brough (The Orange, Straitjacket Fits, Bike) songs. Here’s one of them: “Something’s Changing”:

The Roulettes Justin McLean explains: “We  included these 2 previously unreleased songs by Andrew Brough, which we had demos of, provided by Andrew’s brother Don. Andrew taught these songs to me in 1992 when I played in the first version of Bike,” says Justin. “They recently resurfaced on a clip on YouTube of the first gig we played, and I got to relearning them. I always loved these songs, and wanted to share them with a wider audience. I recorded them using Andrew’s guitar.”

Andrew Brough was Justin McLean’s stepbrother, and a musical mentor for bassist Ben Grant and McLean in their first band Funhouse in Dunedin in the 1990s, producing recordings and giving them invaluable advice. There’s something immediately distinctive and transporting about Brough’s song-writing and these two covers of his early post-Fits songs certainly create a haunting goose-bumps reminder of Brough’s soaring legacy as part of that band, from the guitars to the vocals.

All the recordings for the album were done at home in Auckland by Justin McLean or at home in Hanoi by Ben Grant. The idea was to capture the freshness of the demo recordings before they become overworked. Despite – or perhaps because of – those modest constrained origins “Demosphere” is a strong and cohesive collection of Beatle-esque harmony-filled guitar rock well worth your Bandcamp download dollars.  

Das Phaedrus in Dunedin 1991 – Andrew Spittle, Victor Billot, Piers Graham

Das Phaedrus “Ghosts of the Dunedin Music Scene” is the title track from an unexpected new album from Dunedin 90s band Das Phaedrus. Unexpected because Das Phaedrus burned briefly in Dunedin 30 years ago from 1990 to about 1991 or thereabouts, and this was recorded & mixed at Chick’s Hotel July/August this year:

Das Phaedrus is another band associated with prolific Dunedin underground musician Andrew Spittle. Since 1990 Spittle – under his own name and with bands Dating Godot, Das Phaedrus, All Red Cables and more recently Charcoal Burners – has independently released over 40 albums of original music as well as a handful of singles and EPs titles. The earliest releases were cassettes, progressing to Compact Disc and eventually digital releases via Bandcamp.

I’m not sure where the boundary lies between the music of the various bands. I suspect the boundaries are in time or personnel rather than sound because this album is another bewildering exhibition of Spittle’s heady amalgam of hardcore-post-punk-via-shoegaze (part Hüsker Dü, part Ride, part Velvet Crush, part Swervedriver), all as re-imagined from the overlooked, long-forgotten less-celebrated alternative scenes to Dunedin’s celebrated alternative scenes:

“Ghosts of Dunedin’s music scene

Hang your black arches over me

Broken like a rainbow’s light”

The title track is one of the more subdued and reflective songs on the album, imbued with the dreaminess of Cocteau Twins style guitar, and the angelic Beatle-esque psychedelic melodicism of Andrew Brough of Straitjacket Fits/ Bike. Maybe he’s one of the ‘ghosts’ acknowledged here.

The album re-unites the original trio line up of Andrew Spittle (Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Percussion), Victor Billot (Bass Guitar) and Piers Graham (Drums), with the addition of Jeremy Taylor (Vocals, Guitars).

Music made in Dunedin has tended to be invisible to the world – and therefore to much of NZ. There have been rare exceptions – the 1980s and early 1990s saw a scene based around the Flying Nun Records label celebrated around the world. Then, in the 1990s Bruce Russell’s Xpressway label provided a conduit to Dunedin’s yeasty underground scene, and again in the 2010s there has been a further modest interest, facilitated by the accessibility of the internet and perhaps some post-FNR/ Xpressway curiosity.

Spittle is regarded as an ‘outsider’, but most independent NZ music is made by ‘outsiders’, following rules of their own making, or a local spin on a particular overseas style, producing original results along the way. The music on this Das Phaedrus redux recording though would have sounded well at home on the Matador, or Big Cat labels in the 1990s. While it sometimes wears its Hüsker Dü influences loud and clear it is also as timeless as a lot of Dunedin music, which exists in its own alternative universe.

We’ve lost a few of the great British folk guitar players and songwriters in the past 10 years – Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and now Michael Chapman. But there is a new generation of guitar players continuing the tradition, by updating it as those players did, while also maintaining a strong connection to the past. One such guitarist and songwriter is Henry Parker, who has an album “Lammas Fair” out soon. Here’s the title track:

While the song (lyrics and voice) is in the style of traditional 1960s British folk, there’s a more adventurous 1970s exploratory character to the song. Parker’s use of the DADGAD open tuning, combination of acoustic and electric guitar and the non-traditional melodic diversions along the way in “Lammas Fair” bring some more exotic psychedelic rock guitar elements in to the music.

“The album explores an intersection between past and present, using the groundwork of folk music set out decades and centuries ago and moving it into new terrain, as it explores ideas, themes and lyrics that explore both historic and contemporary settings. The title Lammas Fair refers to a historical annual celebration held across Europe on the 1st August, which heralded the first harvest of wheat.”

The Lodger return with a new song (single?) following the release of their impressive ‘comeback’ album “Cul De Sac of Love” which was released back in March and quickly sold out its first LP pressing. “Bewildered” here is a new standalone track – so far anyway…

Bewildered” is another very classy 3 minute slice of melodic and optimistically reflective melancholic pop, this time led by piano. It has a classic descending chorus, and a heap of subtle details in the musical arrangement. It’s a little bit Beatles (“A Day in the Life”) but with an almost Polyphonic Spree twist of unpredictability and lush inner-glow vocal harmony.

By way of a recap for anyone who missed the March post for the single “Dual Lives” which preceded the album, The Lodger – a Leeds, UK trio led by songwriter and guitarist Ben Siddall – went into a decade-long hiatus in 2010. Prior to 2010 The Lodger released a handful of much-loved singles and EPs and 3 studio albums through a variety of labels including Slumberland Records in the States.

The Lodger are masters at capturing the distilled essence of the craft of Pure Pop, an era perhaps most associated with the second half of the 1980s onwards, a period where the UK produced numerous practitioners of the Pure Pop craft like the Lightning Seeds, later period Orange Juice, and also a semi-forgotten band, Frazier Chorus, who released a beautifully melancholy single “Sloppy Heart” on the independent label 4AD before signing to Virgin Records. In fact it’s the honey-on-velvet voice of Frazier Chorus’s Tim Freeman on that song that Ben Siddal’s tone remind me of here. And his lyrics too for that matter, straight from the (sloppy) heart:

how do we get so bewildered
why do we fall apart
love isn’t complicated
we’re just not that smart

Itasca is songwriter and guitarist Kayla Cohen, who abandoned Los Angeles for New Mexico where she wrote her second album “Spring”, released at the end of 2019. Here’s “Only a Traveler”:

Coming across like a world weary Joni Mitchell channeling Nick Drake “Only a Traveler” is built on Cohen’s finger-picking guitar playing, full of subtle complexity, her introspective captivating vocals adding melancholy and mystery to create a powerful but restrained song.

The whole album “Spring” is a quiet wonder. Unhurried and restrained but bursting with surprising musical and melodic flourishes, most notably the delicate jazzy piano accompaniment of Marc Riordan (Sun Araw). “Spring” is not really folk, or country or even Americana, but seems a kind of American Cosmic Music, where the psychedelia may be dialed right back, but so often there in the minimalism of the luminous understated accompaniments and in Cohen’s exploratory songwriting.

As well as those Joni Mitchell/ Nick Drake vibes on “Only a Traveler” the rest of “Spring” at times carries ghosts of David Crosby’s “If Only I Could Remember My Name” and Ry Cooder’s “Paris, Texas” haunting atmospheric soundtrack, while also fitting alongside the music of contemporary songwriter Aiofe Nessa Frances.

Kælan Mikla describe their music as appealing to fans of “dark and dreary music”, but there’s more dark magic than dreariness in the Icelandic dark wave synth trio’s sound, as “Ósýnileg” here shows:

Kælan Mikla was founded in 2013 as an entry in a Reykjavik, Iceland poetry competition, somehow evolving into a dark wave synth trio, releasing their first song in 2015, followed by albums and performing at international festivals. “Ósýnileg” (invisible) is from their upcoming 4th album which they say “will mostly revolve around folklore and fairytales, drawing the band even deeper into their realm of magic and mysticism.”

The music of Kælan Mikla is likely to appeal to contemporary dark wave synth-pop artists like Boy Harsher, and Death And The Maiden.

The New Existentialists are the Auckland ensemble of George D. Henderson (The Spies, The And Band, Mink, The Puddle). They have just released an album called “Poetry is Theft”. This one’s a proper album, as in, recorded in a studio. Last year they released an album called “Didn’t Have Time” which was a collection of works in progress rather than a proper, planned album release. Not that you would notice. Anyway, here’s the wonderful “Flavor of Love”:

Flavor of Love was an early 2000s reality TV dating show series , in which Flavor Flav (of Public Enemy fame) chose to not marry or date any of the winners from any of the three seasons over which twenty different ladies competed for his heart as they live together in a California mansion. It seems the unlikely inspiration for a gloriously wonky piece of underground NZ lounge pop, yet here we are.

Clearly songwriter George D. Henderson has been a committed viewer, investing emotional energy in the romantic outcomes of Series 3, episode 15 (“Parlez-Vous Flavor?”), but managing to turn the narcotic of reality television into a work of wonder; tender, romantic, and funny, from it’s opening refrain “She forgot how her love had been tested/ When he showed her the streets where he’d been arrested”.

The New Existentialists on “Poetry is Theft” are George D. Henderson (lead vocals, guitars, keyboards), Jamey Danger (bass, backing vocals), Ned Bycroft (drums, percussion), and Chris Heazlewood (synth). “Flavor of Love” here also has a beautifully melancholic brass contribution by Don McGlashan (Blam Blam Blam, The Muttonbirds).

When Bruce Russell (The Dead C/ Xpressway Records) explained in 1991 in a review in NZ music weekly Rip It Up: “that since the mid-70s George Henderson (poet, nutritional theorist, connoisseur of the esoteric) has been constantly engaged in an obscure but utterly uncompromising investigation-cum-pilgrimage through the ‘secret’ side of music, thought and the fine arts in this country” he could not have anticipated the investigation-cum-pilgrimage of this “connoisseur of the esoteric” would lead to “Flavor of Love”. But it has.