Is the sprawling collection of The Offspring CDs in the background image of the Bandcamp page for this album a big hint of what’s in store when you listen to this album from Chicago’s The Christmas Bride? Yes and no. Is there some irony involved with that presentation? Probably and a quick look through the track listing (“Kajagoogoo Head” and “Manic Pixie Dream Boy” come readily to mind) it’s obvious a healthy sense of humor in general and about life’s most absurd and unfortunate moments and situations informs the songwriting. Pop punk’s transmutation of pain and disappointment into self-deprecating poetry set to energetic music is the genre at its best and that dynamic runs throughout this album. It’s essentially a master class in pop punk with distorted melodies akin to what you’d hear on a Hüsker Dü record as on “Cereal Monogamist,” itself a send-up of the concept by taking the title literally for the lyrics. “The Rock & Roll Hippies of Love” is reminiscent of an Alice Donut song in turning an unusual concept into a surreal power pop song. “Kajagoogoo Head” is curiously a hardcore song in the middle of the album that is the mutant child of later Black Flag and JFA. The band’s signature song, “The Christmas Bride,” traces in miniature the un-glamorous origin story of the band working shitty jobs and aiming to do something with more meaning. And despite the deep and playful irreverence of the subject matter and attitude toward most of these songs there is an earnestness and solid sense of song craft that renders it a worthwhile listen beginning to end like an album of solidarity for real human existence and experiences born of genuine feelings that infuse each song with an unexpected vitality. Listen to Dark Romance of a Midnight Wanderer on Bandcamp.
Lead track “drippy tree” is an interesting and comforting collage of retro synth sampling and minimalist beats that pulse and bounce softly like one of those balloons with a grip shaped like an animal head that many people rode around on as kids. And that sort of melancholic, textured atmosphere with some white noise melded with abstract melodies layered with flowing tones and blurred beats that is suggested in “drippy trees” manifests in a variety of ways across the album without ever really replicating the feel of each song. In that way it’s reminiscent of early Aphex Twin but after the advent of modern experimental electronic dance music, tropical pop and deep house. Earth Control Pill pulls ideas together for this album as the title suggests as an organic process of layering wherein the elements complement each other seemingly naturally in the context of clearly technologically produced sounds. Altogether the songs, as sequenced, feel like a slow processing of sorrow by soothing the pains of loss while knowing they’ll never fully go away and the feeling of resignation of that reality. “Fog” strikes a somewhat jaunty note and, in fact, sounds the least like fog of all the songs though may highlight a time of fond memories connected to fog and how magical it can seem on an otherwise sunny morning. Whatever the inspiration or impetus behind this collection of music, it might be described as an ambient version of indie pop with the assembled use of discarded and currently unfashionable sounds to make something beautiful and tranquil with no obvious touchstones in contemporary commercially popular music.
This debut LP from London’s Abjects strikes one as something akin to a frantic, grunge-y power pop record. But in the interest of not getting lazy and being quick to pigeonhole a band, the members of Abjects come from different corners of the world and met up in the UK bringing with them a vastly different set of cultural backgrounds that does give these songs an ineffably different flavor than 90s retro bands that all grew up in countries where the predominant language is English. The rhythms have an urgency yet fluidity that makes it easier to change directions and character rapidly with guitar work and vocals that seem adept at working counter point giving the songwriting an unusual and fascinating dynamism like something one might have heard in early Blonde Redhead songs or out of Velocity Girl.
One thing Bison Bone has always done exceedingly well is not limit its songwriting and creativity to the expectations of a subgenre of music. Yes, it’s coming from the world of country but also psychedelic rock but for the latter not in any obvious way. Its instincts seem inspired more by the hybrid country, punk and psych of the likes of The Flesheaters, Green On Red and Uncle Tupelo than much of the Americana that has come along since where it has not been too predictably been bathing in the musical DNA of early 1970s Laurel Canyon. Bison Bone’s music sounds like there is some real grit and real life experience behind it and paying of dues and not trying to mimic a beloved and trendy style of music. Take Up Trouble is urban honky tonk with the relatable storytelling intact but with a flair for wordplay and thoughtful commentary. What really makes these songs is the little details that bring the song together like the minimal guitar solo in the middle of “Hey Bartender” and the drone at the beginning of “Late December” to suggest memories of coming out of the haze of a memorable dream or of the heatwaves on the late afternoon road following a long day of driving and having a moment of reflection on what it’s all been about.
Like an industrial ambient rendition of a culturally hybridized folk music from a hundred years hence, this latest solo record from Bruce Lamont of Yakuza is akin to an Ian McDonald novel. The latter has written several works of science fiction and fantasy that seem aimed at subverting tropes set in places that aren’t the usual locales for fantastic fiction. The influence of anthropology and straight out cultural concepts outside the developed world is so pervasive his work has a tonality and range that is refreshingly unpredictable. Lamont’s interest in non-Western musical ideas too informs these songs of immersive textures and compound rhythms. With “Goodbye Electric Sunday” the science fiction parallels are obvious but throughout Lamont weaves a series of narratives that are reminiscent of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in sounding ineffably futuristic but as a commentary on the civilization on the verge of collapse of now.
Denver’s Confluence represented a musical rebirth for songwriter Ian Gassman whose work in other bands including his 2000s indie rock band Night Owl. The latter was more in a power pop meets Elvis Costello vein. Confluence was much more math rock in the late 90s and early 2000s sense that one heard touches of in the likes of Modest Mouse and Deathcab For Cutie. Confluence made no bones about nor held up its nose at complex arrangements and guitar solos but all in service to the song. Like it was using its technical skills to have fun and not just to show off. This record came out four years after the band was a functioning outfit and serves as a swan song and a reminder of how Confluence managed to fully integrate indie rock with musical chops and emotionally resonant vocals with a refreshingly unironic earnestness. Fans of LVL UP and Palm should definitely give this record a listen.
Obvious touchstones for the 2016 Eerie Wanda album Hum would be 60s pop stars like Margo Guryan and Françoise Hardy. All of that atmospheric soulfulness and orchestrated sonic details was present in Marina Tadic’s songwriting and recording for that record. For Pet Town, Tadic stripped back some of the seeming orchestration and opted for the use of space and non-tonal atmosphere as well as raw guitar recording, fretting sounds included. The result is a more up close focus in sound rather than the nearly panoramic folk pop of Hum. Same introspective, melancholic lyrics but this time reminding one of the vibe of the Beach House’s 2008 album Devotion conveying a sense of warmth, isolation and reflection on times that haunt you with a sense of comfort and nostalgia.
A welcome return to the songwriting of Mike Marchant who in the 2000s and early 2010s brought an uplifting moodiness and energy to his indie rock bands Widowers and as a contributing songwriter to Houses as well as Mike Marchant’s Outer Space Party Unit. This isn’t as overtly as experimental as Widowers and the Outer Space Party Unit, nor as psychedelic as the latter. Rather it shines on Marchant’s gift for subtle dynamics and vocalizing with strong yet nuanced emotion. Throughout the EP it’s a mixture of texture and bright tones with driven and shaped by the aforementioned qualities. Marchant has struggled with serious health issues for several years at this point and one is tempted to look for that in this set of songs and if it’s there it’s more in the focus of the songwriting to put something together that feels good and honest to perform and worthy of attention beyond one’s consideration shaded by knowledge of his challenges as a human, at least not anymore than everyone faces. As such, Marchant demonstrates here why he garnered such wide attention during his time in Denver because none of this feels rote or desperate to recapture past glory. There is a timeless quality to Marchant’s music because he’s never really tried to fit in with trends while not spending much time mining the past. This EP is a great example of that. It’s not his masterpiece but if this is a comeback it’s better than many we’ve seen.
Pulling apart this record to its components and influences is easy enough because there’s plenty of post-rock informing the guitar ideas, 80s and 90s darkwave and downtempo. But what it really sounds like is if someone got the essence of 80s moody Goth/post-punk but didn’t get trapped there with same production ideas and mood. There’s as much modern electronic pop aesthetic throughout the album like everyone involved is well aware of the likes of Purity Ring, Robyn, CHVRCHES and Phantogram. Composer Jesse Maddox is known more for his work in the world of taiko in Colorado including manufacturing the drums but has had a lifelong interest in dark, industrial music so working with talented dream pop vocalist Angela Cross from Los Angeles with the finished songs mixed and produced by Dave “Rave” Ogilvie of Skinny Puppy fame the project could have been fairly predictable. But it is instead of a deeply atmospheric, sonically rich set of songs including a cover of “Smothered Hope” that shares with the original and deep melancholy and being engulfed with urgent emotions but is more in a psychedelic vein, more Tear Garden than Skinny Puppy. Speaking of the former, Edward Ka-Spel does guest vocals on the stark yet lush and cold “Surrender,” and brings to the song his signature vocals lending a sense of being at the end of one’s struggle with all the things your ego screams to cling to before acceptance of your own mortality sets in.
Doran Robischon was once a guitarist in Gauntlet Hair and since that time there have been hints of a new musical project. Then Shadows Tranquil played shows in the past couple of years. But if you missed them there was no way to hear that music until the fall of 2018. Wander may remind anyone in the know of another Denver band, A Shoreline Dream. But only in that there are the aesthetics of electronic music underlying the songwriting. But there is more noise rock and psych punk behind the drifty push of the songs on Wander. In that way at times one is reminded of Nowhere-period Ride especially when the songs shift dynamics and add expansive layers of atmosphere and percussion only to pull the sounds back and redirect their momentum as the stream of sound progresses. The recording might be a little lo-fi for some tastes but that adds something of a tiny bit of mystique to music that sounds like the musicians skipped the late 90s and 2000s entirely and landed back in 2018 a late entry into the Holy Mountain Records (USA) catalog.
Balancing the humorous with the meaningful and melancholy is a difficult balancing act in music, but T-Rextasy have long since mastered that art and this record simply reveals an evolution in the band’s sophistication of songwriting. “Coffee” has plenty of profane and playful double entendre while articulating a relatable frustration. The songs aren’t merely irreverent surf-ska punk songs, they’re like musical theater pieces for a play about young urban Bohemia but brimming with sharp observations as social commentary and character sketches that explore what it means to navigate the fraught political, economic and cultural environment in America today. Identity, sexuality, class and examination of one’s yearnings are discussed in story form with an undeniable affection and compassion for all the soft and hurt spots in everyone. Fans of the the melodramatic tones employed by Julie Brown in “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” and the teen tragedy songs of the 60s that inspired it will find much to love with Prehysteria.