What we're listening to
A Synthetic History of E.M.A.K. 1982-88
This banana-yellow retrospective comp devoted to a small collective-group of electronic musicians in Cologne, Germany offers a number of John Carpenter-like pleasures. E.M.A.K. member Kurt Mill provides two of the best. The vaguely sinister bass line, otherworldly organ, and synth stabs of "Bote des Herbstes" would fit in perfectly alongside tracks from Carpenter's soundtrack for Christine (1983), and "Filmmusik" has a dancefloor as well as cinematic appeal. A fun document of a time when sampling was being invented and Commodore 64s were making music.
THE FRESH & ONLYS
Play It Strange
(In the Red)
A half-dozen or so listens in, this is shaping up to be the best album by SF's Fresh & Onlys to date, thanks in part to its widescreen production (the album was recorded by Tim Green). With its Duane Eddy twang, ghost harmonies, propulsive rhythms, and dovetail lyric about bickering between dying forms of media, "Waterfall" is as terrific as it is catchy. I kinda wish the group would slow down the tempo from time to time for more variety, particularly because they seem more than capable of pulling off a big ballad. But not many groups can evoke both Morrissey and late-period Damned while sounding like themselves, and "I'm All Shook Up" offers exactly the kind of irresistible classic rock 'n' roll its title promises.
The Nightmare of J B Stanislaus
In 1970, when The Nightmare of J B Stanislas was released, Nick Garrie was young, blond, and beautiful. But one need only look to Scott Walker at the time to see that pop idol looks and ambitious melancholic talent didn't necessarily equate to record sales. Garrie's debut album isn't as dramatically symphonic as Walker's solo efforts of the time, but it features beautifully lush orchestration. His purple lyrical style — which bears some similarity to Donovan's — and gentle choir-schooled voice meet up with strings to best effect on the plaintive "Can I Stay With You?," a love song to a girl in his French lit class.
Last summer I saw Small Black play after Pictureplane and before Washed Out on a chillwave triple bill of sorts that was disappointing in terms of how the sound translated to a live context. At the time, Small Black came off as the closest to an actual band, calling New Order to mind in terms of sound if not songwriting caliber. A year or so later, with a chillwave backlash in effect, Small Black's debut album arrives amid a blogosphere's worth of dodgy enthusiasm about the latest microgenre du jour: drag (or haunted house, or witch house). You can hear some trendy witch house elements in the production of New Chain, especially the album's variety of woozy and wheezy speedball sounds, but Small Black is far more musical and melodic than the wretched hype-magnet Salem, and fond of vintage hi-NRG touches. A little pretty goes a long way, and at least "Search Party" and "Photojournalist" have incandescent moments.
Kudos to Fat Possum for reissuing this hard-to-find 1972 T. Rex all-time great, which moves from high point to high point as quickly as Marc Bolan's lyrics find new nicknamed characters to describe. Every once in a while — say, on "Baseball Ricochet" — Bolan's playful language is a bit too nonsensical for its own good, but glam gems such as "Telegram Sam" and "Metal Guru" are matched by most of the album tracks. One peculiarity — how much the riff of "Chariot Choogle" resembles Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," recorded two year earlier.
Califia: The Songs of Lee Hazlewood
There are all kinds of treats and discoveries to be made within this grab-bag of Lee Hazlewood obscurities. Who else could write a song called "The Girl On Death Row," not to mention deliver it with the authority of a winking Johnny Cash? (Turns out the song was for an American International Picture that went and changed its title.) Califia also includes some squalling girl-pop by Hazelwood's early flame Suzi Jane Hokom and his later muse Ann-Margret, and a number of guitar-themed gems penned for his buddy Duane Eddy. It all closes with a song in German by the formerly "Little" Peggy March.
To hear how extraordinary Weekend can be, check out "Age Class," a rock song of instant classic status because of its furious guitar, ghost rider breakdown, and Shaun Durkan's vocal, which builds to a crescendo that grasps extremes of love and death from the repeated line "There's something in our blood." Sportsis an always-promising and sometimes powerful debut album, with a peculiar track sequence — its first half is erratic and largely opaque, but it hits stride with "Age Class" and the songs that follow. The Bay Area group's antecedents range from Joy Division to Ride to the Wedding Present but they're already on their own path. I'm excited to hear where they go next.