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Self-Quarantining with Seven Inches, Volume Two

Given the overwhelming success—I finished and posted it, which counts as success in my book—of my previous entry of the Social Distancing Singles Club and the arrival of six reinforcements from Reckless Records in Chicago and my recent reorganization of my seven boxes of singles and the lack of any specific plans for today or any day in the foreseeable future, I’m having another go at listening to and writing about a tall stack of seven-inch singles in one day. Today the number is twenty-five. As the saying goes, “not all heroes wear capes.” I could wear a cape right now though, I’m sure it would amuse my kids.

Emeralds / Fresh Air, Soundesign, 2009

Emeralds' Fresh Air

The Cleveland-based electronic trio Emeralds compiled quite an interesting discography, in which they put five “proper” albums (including the logical starting point for newcomers, 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here) and approximately a million supplemental releases (a closet full of cassettes, splits, EPs, and singles) more typical of a noise act. Their set-up—arpeggiated synths, analog synths, and guitar—allowed for plenty of room for exploration, with tracks ranging from concise and melodic songs (“Candy Shoppe”) to driving arpeggiated material (some of the soundtrack to Stranger Things is incredibly close to Emeralds’ territory) to drifting, pastoral soundscapes. And yet I’ve largely stuck with Emeralds’ major releases or its members’ solo works (Mark McGuire’s Get Lost and Steve Hauschildt’s Tragedy and Geometry in particular) without diving into that vast amount of additional material. This single is a toe-dip, but a promising one; the first untitled song is in the melodic vein and a superlative way to start my day, and the flip is less structured but no less inviting.

Rafael Anton Irisarri / “Hopes and Past Desires” b/w “Watching as She Reels,” Immune, 2009

Rafael Anton Irisarri's 'Hopes and Past Desires'

My initial exposure to Rafael Anton Irisarri was through a few of his collaborative ventures: in 2012 he teamed with Benoît Pioulard as Orcas, and “I Saw My Echo” was a showstopper on their self-titled debut (I need to spend more time with 2014’s Yearning), and in 2017 he worked with Julianna Barwick on Thesis 10, a four-song EP that scans very much as “Would you like to hear Julianna Barwick with processed synths behind her vocal loops?” (unsurprisingly, the answer is “yes”). I saw this single as I flipped through Reckless’s digital catalog of seven-inches and ordered both it and his 2019 album, Solastalgia (which appears to need a second pressing). The b-side of the single, “Watching as She Reels,” is particularly great; Irisarri elevates an already compelling combination of muted synths and piano with an extraordinarily affecting cello performance. As you would expect from a ten-year jump in his catalog, Solastalgia occupies a different space, somewhat reminiscent of mid-period Tim Hecker (Harmony in Ultraviolet and An Imaginary Country), but darker and more introspective.

Les Savy Fav / “Hold onto Your Genre” b/w “Meet Me in the Dollar Bin,” Monitor, 2004

Les Savy Fav's 'Hold onto Your Genre' b/w 'Meet Me in the Dollar Bin'

Les Savy Fav evaporated a year or two after their 2010 album Root for Ruin (its songs sounded better live, but don’t they all), with Seth Jabour and Syd Butler joining Girls Against Boys’ Eli Janney in the band for Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2014. (You might think that having those musicians and adding Marnie Stern a few years later would make the show appointment viewing for me, but sleep wins out, time and time again.) They played a couple of shows around the beginning of 2019 and I wondered if anything new would come out of them, but so far, nothing major. Not the best time for a reunion tour, but here’s an idea: put Inches out as a 2LP set. The compilation of nine seven-inch singles originally came out in 2004 as a CD/DVD combo, and featured many of Les Savy Fav’s best songs, including the two on this particular single. It’s true that some of the singles are not hard to come by, but the ones with the best songs, like “We’ll Make a Lover Out of You,” “The Sweat Descends,” and “Meet Me in the Dollar Bin,” are not found in the dollar bin. (I was amused that the sides on my copy of this single were mislabeled, with “Meet Me in the Dollar Bin” playing as the a-side, which is how it should have been anyway.) Reissue this material, throw in the DVD if you so desire, tour when/if the world comes back to normal.

The Karl Hendricks Trio & Mothra / Hooked on Hobbit, Egg Yolk, 1994

The Karl Hendricks Trio / Mothra split

I have plenty of memorably strange seven-inch sleeves, but this split single marked the first time that the record was housed in a fuzzy-textured shirt with a Velcro catch. I’ll buy any vinyl I find from the dearly departed Karl Hendricks, the Pittsburgh indie rocker whose casually scorching leads and humorously confessional lyrics appear on, by my count, nine albums and nine singles, not all of which made it to vinyl. (My personal favorite, 2003’s The Jerks Win Again, was CD-only.) Hendricks also played bass for Damon Che’s Thee Speaking Canaries on The Joy of Wine and Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged, endearingly idiosyncratic and hard-hitting collisions of math-rock and Van Halen cosplay. This particular single is what the kids refer to as a “deep cut,” with Hendricks’ “Catch the Wind” chalking up as a ramshackle, buzzed tale that was smartly kept off of one of his albums. I was previously unfamiliar with Mothra, but judging by their Discogs page, the sleeve design is more in their wheelhouse, with their lone single packaged in red felt and their only full-length album coming in a CD “box.” It would’ve been nice if their sound had been related to the beloved Rodan, but instead it’s fairly nondescript, flanger-heavy indie/alternative rock from the early ’90s.

Pissed Jeans / “Sam Kinison Woman” b/w “L Word,” Sub Pop, 2010

Pissed Jeans' 'Sam Kinison Woman' b/w 'L Word'

I don’t have a great excuse for taking this long to get into Pissed Jeans (long, unbroken stare after typing that phrase), but my gateway for their sludgy, hardcore-derived rock was the band’s hysterically funny videos for “The Bar Is Low,” “Romanticize Me,” and “Bathroom Laughter.” Some bands have inventively humorous videos and dead-serious music, but Pissed Jeans thrive on the juxtaposition between the stereotypically masculine profile of their music and Matt Corvette’s lyrics, which undercut every angle of such perceived bro-posturing with self-deflating commentary and/or willful stupidity. Case in point is the b-side of this single, “The L Word,” a forceful trudge of a song with the lyrics “Love is a word I use to describe / The way I feel inside / I love this pie / I love a good surprise / I love Velvet Sky / I love the Flyers.” It ruminates on those thoughts for six minutes, although according to this informative Facebook post that dives into the song, somewhere there’s a CD-R with a version that goes on for thirteen minutes. I also ordered a copy of the band’s fourth album, Honeys. Corvette runs a monthly music blog called Yellow Green Red that is an excellent read, support your local blogger.

Zach Galifianakis & Ted Leo and the Pharmacists / “Up in Them Guts” b/w “Rock N Roll Dreams'll Come Through,” Chunklet, 2008

Zach Galifianakis / Ted Leo split single

A few years before he broke out in the mainstream with 2009’s The Hangover, Zach Galifianakis released this comedy rap song, which is somehow way, way dumber (and more enjoyable) than even the stock “My name’s So-and-So and I’m here to say / I love rap music in a major way” default. Every aspect of the song is remedial, and yet Fiona Apple appears to drop the hook in the chorus (“If you show me your fanny pack, I’ll show you my fanny”) and the list of call-outs in the outro, returning the favor of Galifianakis appearing in her video for “Not About Love.” (I return to Galifianakis and Will Oldham’s video for Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” once a year and it always delivers.) Chunklet pressed the song, along with a Best Show-related Ted Leo and the Pharmacists track, on a seven-inch in 2008, and I got the “hardcore” cover edition. Ted Leo’s song on the flip side, “Rock N Roll Dreams’ll Come True,” is an excellent, catchy dose of the power pop you’d expect from Leo, although it’s actually written by Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster and originally performed by the Gas Station Dogs on WMFU’s The Best Show. Coming after “Up in Them Guts,” it also serves as a necessary mental reset on what music usually sounds like. Fiona Apple sadly does not appear on it.

Paul Newman / ...Please Wait During the Silence, Twistworthy, 1997

Paul Newman's ...Please Wait During the Silence

Paul Newman was a primarily instrumental band from Austin with two bassists, one of whom named Paul Newman (no, not that Paul Newman), who played a mix of math- and post-rock, with occasional touches of post-hardcore and emo. This 1997 single was their first release and the liner lists their shows to date, all of which were in Texas, only one of which was at a wedding reception. They hadn’t quite found their sound yet—when I learned that a friend once dated Paul Newman of Paul Newman, I asked her if he lived in a chorus pedal factory—and “Clear Baby” goes heavy on the ’90s emo semi-screamed vocals. They released two albums on Trance Syndicate Records, both of which I have on CD somewhere, one album on My Pal God that I own on vinyl, and a final album in 2005 on Emperor Jones that I don’t recall having heard. This particular single was included on a 2001 My Pal God CD compilation of the band’s non-album work called Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the Songs , which also featured “Way to Breathe, No-Breath,” their contribution to a great split single with the band Sonna in which they each played the same song in their respective styles. Drummer Tony Nozero also played in the band Drums and Tuba, bassist Edward Robert is also in I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, and guitarist Craig McCaffrey designed the sleeves for a ton of Kranky Records releases.

Light's 'Turning' b/w 'Presence'

Light / “Turning” b/w “Presence,” Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1995

I was unfamiliar with the UK-based space-rock / drone artist Light until coming across his 1996 LP Turning at Chicago’s Dusty Groove Records a few years ago, but there were enough signifiers that it would be of interest to me (came out on Wurlitzer Jukebox, the cover looks like something from Kranky Records, related to Flying Saucer Attack) that I took a chance and picked it up, finding this single shortly after at Reckless. It’s interesting that “Turning” does not appear on the album Turning, but “Presence” is the better song anyway, reminiscent of Windy & Carl’s drones with an addition of rhythmic textures. He released two other albums and two additional singles, none of which I’m particularly compelled to track down, but would buy on the cheap if I encounter them in a discount bin.

Colin Newman / “B”+ 2, Beggars Banquet, 1980

Colin Newman's 'B' + 2

Oh to have been a fly on the wall in a meeting between Beggars Banquet and Colin Newman in 1980 when they were discussing which song to release as the single from his post-Wire solo debut, A–Z. That album is not always easy listening, a trait I suspect was quite intentional, and despite some logical choices in “& Jury” (one of my favorite songs ever), “I’ve Waited Ages,” and “Order for Order,” the album was preceded by “B,” an atonal, if weirdly catch near-instrumental track, interrupted only by wordless screams. Furthermore, it was accompanied by the bizarre video for “B,” which has costumed anti-performances. While I strongly believe the album would have gotten more commercial success if “& Jury” had been the lead single, there’s an interesting trade-off at play. “& Jury” is more straightforward than the rest of A–Z, while “B” tempers expectations for the melodic post-punk that Newman delivered in Wire, framing the album as a standoffish art-rock statement. And while the end result is somewhere in between those two poles, listeners hoping for ten more songs like “& Jury” would have been headed for disappointment. This single features two b-sides: the lurching “The Classic Remains” and “Alone on Piano,” a stripped-down rendering of the haunting track that would later appear in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.

Electro Group / “Line of Sight” b/w “All Star,” Omnibus, 2000

Electro Group's 'Line of Sight' b/w 'All Star'

I absolutely bought this single at Parasol Records because of its packaging, which slid marbled blue vinyl into a cloth bag with a button on it. I’d never seen a sleeve quite like it, and the fact that I ultimately enjoyed the music still comes a distant second to “Oh that’s the single with the cloth bag!” in my memory banks. Electro Group hailed from Sacramento and played a heavy form of American shoegaze, reminiscent of the Swirlies, All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors, Lilys’ In the Presence of Nothing, and of course My Bloody Valentine, with feminine-inflected vocals and more prominent bass than most other groups in the genre. I have their 1998 debut single, “Lifter” b/w “Green Machine,” and their 2000 debut LP, A New Pacifica, on vinyl, but was unaware that they returned in 2017 with the album Ranger. Revisiting “Line of Sight” and “Allstar” (mercifully not the Smashmouth song that haunts me), I’m gently encouraged to spend some time with those other two records in my collection and see how they developed later.

Dot Allison / “Colour Me” b/w “Tomorrow Never Comes,” Sub Pop, 1999

Dot Allison's 'Colour Me' b/w 'Tomorrow Never Comes'

I heard Dot Allison because of Arab Strap’s remix of “Message Personnel” from her 1999 solo debut Afterglow, which stretched the song out to nearly seven minutes with slide guitar and meditative vocal layering. (It was good enough to be included as a bonus track on the regular pressing.) I was unfamiliar with her past in the UK electronic group One Dove, which came up recently when their producer, noted electronic mogul Andrew Weatherall, passed away. As for her solo work, I only know Afterglow (its first two songs are included on this Sub Pop single, perhaps as a way to expand her audience) and its 2002 follow-up, We Are Science, which took a chillier, more explicitly electronic approach to the production (although Mercury Rev apparently helped produce a few tracks). “Colour Me” is closer to what I remember of Afterglow in its late-stage trip-hop trappings, while “Tomorrow Never Comes” is a sometimes compelling, sometimes off-putting combination of bland adult contemporary pop, alt-country, and folk.

Benoît Pioulard / Flocks, Blue Flea, 2009

Benoît Pioulard's Flocks

I recently picked up a different Benoît Pioulard single from Encore Records and had a conversation about the Michigan native’s catalog, which is ever-expanding and a touch overwhelming. His 2006 debut Précis was one of my favorite albums from that year, a surprisingly melodic combination of hushed folk, slow-core indie rock, and texturally rich post-rock. I initially tried keeping up with his output, but like Emeralds, there’s an a-path of major releases and a b-path of minor releases, and I found myself lagging behind by 2010’s Lasted. He keeps releasing albums, I keep hearing about them and thinking “I should check that out,” but two things typically diminish my momentum. First, the hooks of Précis don’t pop up often enough; second, I always suspect I’m missing out on the release that would properly pull me back in. Adding to this conundrum is how, when I have picked up a single like Flocks (which I fittingly got at Stormy Records a few years ago, given that it was released on Windy & Carl’s label Blue Flea), I’m happy to revisit his sound. Half of Flocks is more structured than some of his later full-lengths, with the a-side “Maginot” offering both a nice vocal melody and a neat harmonic line before its droning outro, while the b-side “Alaskan Lashes” is a formless instrumental. More of the former, please.

Sonna / “Kept Luminesce” b/w “Mirameko,” Static Caravan, 2000

Sonna's 'Kept Luminesce' b/w 'Mirameko'

Sonna was a Baltimore-based post-rock band, whose members included guitarist Jeremy DeVine (the proprietor of Temporary Residence Limited, the label which released most of the band’s music) and drummer Jim Redd (who later joined Tarentel). I don’t know if I first heard them from their split single with Paul Newman, on which they performed a slower, lush take on “Way to Breathe, No-Breath,” or their 1999 EP These Windows Are Pistons (the opening song of which is tremendously evocative of lightly falling snow), but I later picked up their 2001 LP We Sing Loud Sing Soft Tonight and this single. “Kept Luminesce” is halfway between a crescendo-free post-rock song and the lighter pop touches of The Sea and Cake, with the vocals residing in Sam Prekop’s restrained register as the drums shuffle briskly underneath. “Mirameko” is an instrumental with intertwined, mostly clean guitar lines, masticating on melodic phrases. It wasn’t long after I picked up and enjoyed this single that Temporary Residence included it on the 2016 non-album material compilation Keep It Together.

Jud Jud / X The Demos X, No Idea, 1997/2007

Jud Jud's X The Demos X

Two anecdotes about this single from storied a cappella hardcore duo Jud Jud: First, if you’re a new visitor to my house and you are unfamiliar with the storied a cappella hardcore duo Jud Jud (and not an elderly relative), there is exceptionally strong chance that I will play the entirety of this single before you leave. Look, that’s the deal. Second, when I moved from Massachusetts to Michigan last summer, I did that drive three times in a little over a week and a half (drove sixteen-foot rental truck, flew back, drove my car and the pets, flew back, drove my wife’s car). In order to maintain consciousness / sanity while driving, I made an extraordinarily long playlist to put on shuffle. At the time I meant to write about that experience and that playlist, but in hindsight, I was too busy driving from Massachusetts to Michigan to write about what music I listened to while driving from Massachusetts to Michigan. The biggest take-away from the playlist was clear, though. Any time that a Jud Jud song came up, it brightened my mood. Just a sheer delight to be driving through western New York and have “X Rounds of Jud Song X” come on.

Season to Risk / “Mine Eyes” b/w “Why See Straight,” Columbia, 1993

Season to Risk's 'Mine Eyes' b/w 'Why See Straight'

Allen Epley of Shiner / The Life and Times has a podcast called Third Gear Scratch in which he talks with artists (primarily musicians) about their work and lives, and one of the more interesting episodes for me was his talk with Steve Tulipana of Season to Risk. Not only because it addressed how Shiner essentially used Season to Risk as a farm team for new members (most notably Paul Malinowski and Tim Dow, but Josh Newton and Jason Gerkin also played in S2R), a point of discussion which was more cordial than expected, but also because Season to Risk is one of the more baffling acts to get a major-label deal. They are not, to say the least, listener-friendly. Their 1993 self-titled debut, on which both of these songs appear, nudges the grinding, atonal rock of The Jesus Lizard and Helmet a step closer to Headbanger’s Ball, but as much as Epley enjoyed doing the “Mine Eyes” vocal on the podcast, they are not a particularly catchy band. Their sophomore record, 1995’s In a Perfect World, is merciless and pummeling to a degree that few records in my collection match, and it’s exponentially more interesting to me than their debut. Absolute commercial suicide, though. I haven’t played Men Are Monkeys. Robots Win. or The Shattering in ages, but I recall them having at least a few shreds of melody in the mix.

Bob Mould / “Classifieds” b/w “Moving Trucks,” Creation, 1998

Bob Mould's 'Classifieds' b/w 'Moving Trucks'

I saw Bob Mould for the first time last fall when he played at The Ark in Ann Arbor, and in advance of the show, I read his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody and did a little catch-up on his more recent solo work. The book was a mostly compelling look into his upbringing, the formation of Hüsker Dü, his interpersonal disagreements with various band members, his long-term relationships, and the gradual evolution of his personality (when it happened, Bob Mould Club DJ and Electronic Artist was a surprise, but there was a build-up to it in his life). The show was solid: he played a lot of his newer solo stuff, some Hüsker Dü material, a scant few Sugar songs; his signature guitar tone was largely at odds with the vaunted acoustics of the venue; it was nice to be one of the younger audience members for once. The solo album which sourced this double a-side single was 1998’s The Last Dog and Pony Show, which at the time was promised to be his final guitar album (Narrator: “It was not”). At the time I loved Sugar’s catalog but hadn’t heard any of Mould’s prior solo work, and in hindsight, that’s probably for the best, since this was his most direct line back to Sugar at the time. These two songs, along with “New #1” and “Skintrade,” were the highlights of the album.

At the Drive-In & Burning Airlines / “Catacomb” b/w “The Deluxe War Baby,” Thick, 2000

At the Drive-In / Burning Airlines split

Thick Records was a Chicago-based independent label that put out a lot of picture-disc seven-inches, typically skewing more punk than my usual tastes. I picked up a handful of these singles over the years (Edsel’s “Perched Like a Parasite” is the next one that comes to mind), but none were quite as anticipated as this Burning Airlines / At the Drive-In single from 2000. At the time, Burning Airlines had put out the front-to-back great Mission: Control!, and (if memory serves), ATDI hadn’t yet released Relationship of Command, which would follow later in the year. I was, and still am, far more interested in Burning Airlines’ “The Deluxe War Baby” than At the Drive-In’s “Catacomb,” even though the hype for ATDI at the time was overwhelming. (I remember a friend writing a glowing review of In/Casino/Out for my online magazine Signal Drench.) “The Deluxe War Baby” reappeared on 2001’s Identikit, where its vaguely country-ish lead still thrilled, while ATDI re-recorded their song as "Catacombs" as a Japanese bonus track for Relationship of Command. When At the Drive-In blew up, I assumed this single would be hard to come by in the future, but copies remain relatively inexpensive.

Füxa & Bright / “City & Metro” b/w “How I Reached Home,” Darla, 1997

Füxa & Bright split single

This split single features two aesthetically dissimilar artists from the Darla Records stable. The two-piece Füxa hails from Detroit, playing experimental, mostly electronic music that exists somewhere between Stereolab’s retro-futurism, Windy & Carl’s pastoral drones, and Spacemen 3’s narcotic psych-rock. I have a couple of other scattered releases from their considerable discography, most notably their entry into Darla’s Bliss Out series (1997’s Venoy). Their contribution here, “City and Metro,” starts off like an instrumental Stereolab outtake, and then moves into darker noise in its second half. The Emeralds of the ’90s? Bright was a guitar-rock band from Brooklyn, channeling some amount of Kraut-rock in their hypnotic approach to repetition. They also made a Bliss Out record, Blue Christian in 1997, but aside from another single of theirs that I have (which is in a blue poly sleeve, as opposed to the pink one found here), I’ve spent the most time with their 2005 swan song Bells Break Their Towers, which has a couple of extended, ten-plus-minute-long tracks that leaned into their best tendencies. Their leader, Mark Dwinell, is now a member of the Kranky Records band Forma, whom I had already meant to check out and now will actually check out.

Shannon Wright / “A Tin Crown for the Social Bash” b/w “You're the Cup,” All City Hobo, 1998

Shannon Wright's 'A Tin Crown for the Social Bash

I finally got to see Shannon Wright perform a few years ago when she opened up for Shellac in Providence. Her tours, along with her vinyl releases, primarily occur in Europe these days, and I’m not sure if that happened before or after her 2004 collaborative record with French musician / composer Yann Tiersen, but it’s a shame American audiences don’t appreciate her more. Her evolution from the fairly nondescript indie rock of her ’90s band Crowsdell (I have a few of their releases and they’ve never registered) to the slightly askew acoustic compositions of her earliest solo days (which include these songs) to the increasingly intense and experimental Days of Tacit and Dyed in the Wool to the alternately thrashing and delicate Over the Sun was a tremendous arc, and I would be making a huge mistake to dismiss her more recent work as less essential. (One of my record store regrets is passing on the original vinyl pressing of 2007’s Let in the Light in a store in Milan, in hindsight that was the obvious place to get it.) Last year I picked up a copy of her solo debut Flightsafety on vinyl and two thoughts prevailed from a recent spin: first, “Floor Pile” remains astounding; second, hearing the word “quarantine” repeating a ton in “Captain of Quarantine” has taken a decidedly different resonance.

Boy's Life & Giants Chair / “Worn Thin” b/w “Ever Present,” HitIt!, 1995

Boy's Life / Giants Chair

This split single is a battle of the “Is there an apostrophe in this name or what?” bands, and the fact that Boys Life appear on this single as “Boy’s Life” and as “Boys Life” on all of their other official releases causes me no small amount of consternation. They win the battle, not through the apostrophe-insertion trickery, but by virtue of “Worn Thin” possessing greater dynamic range than Giants Chair’s “Ever Present.” (Important note: the Shiner song on Starless is called “Giant’s Chair,” with an apostrophe.) Their command of transitioning between intense, tricky Midwestern rock and cavernous empty space is the most striking aspect of their 1996 LP Departures and Landfalls (reissued on vinyl by Topshelf in 2015), and you get enough of a taste of it here. “Ever Present” is a solid, gear-churning Giants Chair song, just not quite up to the nod-inducing “Single File Accident” from 1996’s Purity and Control. Giants Chair got back together in the last few years and put out Prefabylon last year, which I will listen to at some point, I swear.

Girls Against Boys & Stanton-Miranda / “She's Lost Control” b/w “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Virgin, 1995

Girls Against Boys / Stanton

I heard Girls Against Boys’ cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” in roughly the same timeframe as hearing the original, having picked up both A Means to an End: The Music of Joy Division (the tribute compilation on which both sides of this single appear) and Permanent (Joy Division’s 1995 greatest hits compilation) around the same time in high school. As far as applying your own aesthetic to a cover, GVSB’s “She’s Lost Control” is a triumph, beefing up the clicking rhythm section of the original with the group’s signature two-bass assault and Alexis Fleisig’s pummeling drums. (Said it before, will say it again: he’s one of the most underrated drummers.) I won’t deny that it loses some of the haunting resonance of the original, but it’s a different take. Stanton-Miranda’s cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is less successful, as her smoothly melodic vocals disarm the composition of its tension. I recently saw Stanton-Miranda’s name in the credits for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (The Feelies play a high school reunion!) and learned that she also had a tiny part in The Silence of the Lambs.

The One Up Downstairs / The One Up Downstairs, Polyvinyl, 2009

The One Up Downstairs

I was unaware of this pre-American Football band when I lived in Champaign from 1999 through 2005, learning of it when Polyvinyl unearthed these recordings in 2009. Mike Kinsella and Steve Lamos’s involvement are less interesting to me than the other half of the group, David and Allen Johnson, who then formed Very Secretary with former Braid drummer Roy Ewing and violinist Rachael Dietkus (both of whom were also in the short-lived Days in December with Castor’s Jeff Garber). Given all this crossover, the existence of another scrambling of familiar names did not come as much of a surprise to me, nor did the actual music. It sounds like a halfway point between the mannered indie rock of Very Secretary’s 1999 debut Best Possible Souvenir and the carefully arranged emo of American Football. It’s not as good as either of those bands, but hey, it exists. Mike Kinsella only singing while David Johnson played guitar is interesting, however, since after Very Secretary broke up, I heard that Johnson no longer wanted to sing, and instead wanted to bring a different singer (supposedly Compound Red’s Greg Steffke) into the group.

The Most Secret Method / Blue, Self-Released, 1996

The Most Secret Method's Blue

The Most Secret Method were one of DC’s best-kept secrets, with their debut LP, 1998’s Get Lovely (issued by Slowdime), ranking among the finest albums from that era of the scene. They put out a second album in 2002 called Our Success and called it quits, leaving singer/guitarist Ryan Nelson to join plenty of other bands. Deep breath: He was in Beauty Pill for a while and contributed the ecstatic title track to the You Are Right to Be Afraid EP [now his wife, Erin Nelson, is in Beauty Pill]; he formed Soccer Team with Melissa Quinley, and their 2015 album Real Lessons in Cynicism was quietly wonderful; he was in the Kalamazoo band Minutes, who pressed too few copies of their fire-spitting records; he was in Routineers, who released one CD and I’ve never heard of them before this instant. As evidenced by the cover of this single and most of his other bands’ albums, he’s also a striking visual artist. They self-released this debut seven-inch, and while they improved considerably by Get Lovely, there’s still plenty here on both the driving DC post-punk song “Blue” and the bass-led instrumental “Perfect Plan” to keep listeners’ attention.

Rex / “All” b/w “Nayramadin Orgil,” Southern, 1995

Rex's 'All' b/w 'Nayramadin Orgil'

Another mid-’90s indie band that has fallen out of the discourse, Rex was an interesting combination of various trends of that time: slow-core (they featured Codeine’s drummer Doug Scharin), Oldham-esque indie folk/country (particularly in their instrumentation), and post-rock. They released three full-length albums, one EP, and three singles, but I first and foremost remember them for the lead track on their 1995 self-titled debut LP. “Nothing Is Most Honourable Than You” is a back-porch dirge with rickety production, a devastating cello line, wounded vocals, and a still-surprising guitar solo. I would be lying if I said anything else in their catalog meant as much to me as that song, even their second album, 1997’s C, which is better written, better performed, and better produced. This single also came out in 1995, and I don’t know if it preceded the album or not, but there’s a greater degree of clarity to the recordings here. Both songs are nice if somewhat inconsequential, “All” is a pleasant, late-night ode, while “Nayramadin Orgil” is an instrumental that eventually features a mouth harp.

Loscil / Sine Studies 1, Jaz, 2013

Loscil's Sine Studies 1

Loscil is one of the few Kranky Records mainstays who has eluded my obsession. I’ve tried to get into several of his full-lengths, but found his brand of ambient to be slightly too cold, too electronic for my tastes. I saw him open for A Winged Victory for the Sullen at T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge (RIP) and enjoyed zoning out during his set but wasn’t emotionally invested like I was during AWVFTS. This single is the only Loscil release that I own, and I distinctly recall picking it up at Aquarius Records in San Francisco (RIP). It’s technically impressive—a smart pairing of deep bass notes and sine wave melodies—but my mental picture involves standing in a temperature-controlled, fluorescent-lit room, watching LED lights flicker on servers.

Self-Quarantining with Seven-Inches

A few years ago I started listening to my age in seven-inch singles on my birthday. It helps that I don’t mind embodying a Hard Times piece, not that committing to a bit has ever been my problem. The hurdle for my last birthday was that my stereo was still in the shop, so I indefinitely postponed this yearly ritual for a better day. As horrible, horrible luck would have it, I don’t have anywhere to be this Sunday, so why not self-quarantine myself with at least thirty-nine seven-inch singles? (Fake edit: I made it through listening to and writing about forty-five 45s. Well, some of them play at 33 1/3. I've included Bandcamp / YouTube links whenever possible.)

The Gotobeds' Definitely Not a Redd Kross EP

The Gotobeds / Definitely Not a Redd Kross EP, Chunklet 2017

My other Gotobeds singles were compiled on the heartily recommended Fucking in the Future +5, issued by Comedy Minus One in 2017, but fortunately, this joyous, energetic cover of Redd Kross’s first EP is a great way to start off my day. Fun fact: my kids love The Gotobeds. They especially love the song “New York’s Alright (If You Like Sex and Phones),” and almost every time I cover up the ribald parts of the opening lines—“New York’s alright if you can get your dick sucked / Collegiate display of post-classic head-fuck”—with a well timed cough because I’m not ready to have that talk with them yet. Fortunately, there's no harm in them using a Gotobeds can koozie to hold seltzer cans.

Protomartyr and R. Ring / A Half of Seven, Hardly Art, 2015

Protomartyr / R. Ring's A Half of Seven

Two Fridays ago I was planning on driving out to Kalamazoo to see Protomartyr perform with Kelley Deal in their lineup, and I was particularly excited to hear them perform the Deal-bolstered “Blues Festival” from this single. It features the tremendously relatable lyric “My brains they run on bad thoughts” and is a highlight of my current running mix, not that I can use the treadmill at the gym for the immediate future. Alas, the show was canceled the morning of, and like countless other shows, I can only hope the country recovers at some point so it can be safely rescheduled. In the meantime, Protomartyr’s new single “Processed by the Boys” has an all-time great video and their next album Ultimate Success Today is due in May. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how good R. Ring’s “Loud Underneath” is on the flip of this single; I picked up the band’s Ignite the Rest album in Chicago last year and was glad to hear it again.

Warpaint / “NWO (Redux)” b/w “I’ll Start Believing,” Rough Trade, 2016

Warpaint's 'NWO Redux' b/w 'I'll Start Believing'

I’ve kept an eye on Warpaint since they released their first EP, but I’ve grown considerably fonder of their melodically charged post-punk over their last few records, particularly 2016’s Heads Up. Early on they had a “sum is less than the whole of its parts” problem, with songs like “Elephant” often getting tripped up by awkward transitions or shoehorned hooks. I credit the addition of drummer Stella Mozgawa with ironing out their songwriting process; their songs excel when built up from the foundation of Mozgawa and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg (who often carries the melodic load, Peter Hook–style). I don’t know if these two songs, which I enjoy as much as anything else in the band’s catalog, would fit smoothly on Heads Up, but they certainly deserved a better fate than an import-only single.

Arab Strap / “Hey! Fever” b/w “Girls of Summer,” Chemikal Underground, 1997

Arab Strap's 'Hey! Fever' b/w 'Girls of Summer'

Arab Strap is stirring again, having recently performed as a duo for a Philophobia retrospective (the album was reissued on vinyl by Chemikal Underground in December), and I would love for another full-blown reunion, given how superb their live sets from 2017 sounded. In the meantime, their discography is exceptionally deep, as proven by this pre-Philophobia single. “Hey! Fever” is a Balearic-tinged pop song with guest appearances from Stuart Murdoch and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian and a lyrical callback to their Arab Strap’s signature song, “The First Big Weekend.” It’s nice, although thoroughly out of sync with a frigid March morning stuck indoors. This studio version of “Girls of Summer” is a faint shadow of the live take from Mad for Sadness (which would easily make my top ten Arab Strap songs), but it’s interesting to hear the starting point for that post-rock rave-up.

The Leap Year / “Knesting” b/w “Dental Work,” Hobbedehoy, 2015

The Leap Year's 'Knesting' b/w 'Dental Work'

I recently picked up Ten Years (Thank You), Hobbedehoy Records’ 2LP anniversary compilation. I bought it for the exclusive song from The Leap Year, the unusually delicate, acoustic “No Badlands Now,” but the collection holds together quite well, a testament to the varied tastes of the Australian label: post-rock, drone, electronic, shoegaze, and even a touch of emo. The Leap Year only has two full-lengths, this single, and that compilation track, but every song is excellent. “Knesting” lurches between slowcore meditation and bristling catharsis in a way that recalls some post-Slint ’90s indie groups (or perhaps a more bipolar rendition of Jawbox’s “Whitney Walks”), and “Dental Work” is sinewy Midwestern rock from the opposite side of the globe.

Windy & Carl / “I Walked Alone” b/w “At Night,” Blue Flea, 2014

Windy & Carl's 'I Walked Alone' b/w 'At Night'

Windy & Carl have a new full-length, Allegiance and Conviction, set for release at the end of this week, and I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to drive out to Stormy Records and buy it from them directly. I bought this particular Windy & Carl single at Stormy during a visit to Michigan a few years ago, and talking at length with Windy was a highlight of the trip. Each time I’ve been there since moving, I’ve had a nice conversation with Windy and/or Carl, and I’ve also accumulated more of the group’s consistently compelling catalog (along with some other excellent records like Kali Malone's The Sacrificial Code). This single ranks near the top, offering two somnambulant dream-pop songs and a hand-painted cover with a vibrant, welcoming palette. I’ll hold off on Allegiance and Conviction until I can pick it up in person, whenever that may be.

Kathryn Joseph / “Weight” b/w “Cold,” Rock Action, 2019

Kathryn Joseph's 'Weight' b/w 'Cold'

My most disappointing show cancellation of 2019 was The Twilight Sad with Kathryn Joseph, a tantalizing import bill that axed its Boston date after James Graham lost his voice. I’ve seen The Twilight Sad a half-dozen times and I’m sure I’ll see them again, but I haven’t seen the bewitching Kathryn Joseph, whose 2018 album From When I Wake the Want Is possesses a gravitational force. She tours far more sparingly than The Twilight Sad, and whether she’ll make it back to North America at all is a legitimate concern. In addition to her own records, Out Lines, her collaboration with Graham and Marcus MacKay, released Conflats in 2017, and I’m especially partial to its closing track, “These Three Desire Lines.” Their voices work very well together and the arrangements allow plenty of space for the duet to breathe.

Urusei Yatsura / Yon Kyuku Iri EP, Beggars Banquet, 1999

Urusei Yatsura's Yon Kyuku Iri EP

I dove hard into the back catalog of Scottish noise-pop merchants Urusei Yatsura a few years ago after finding a copy of their swan song, 2000’s Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura. Their mix of Pavement’s smarts, Sonic Youth’s tunings, and Dinosaur Jr.’s fuzz is right up my alley, and while “Slain by Elf” has been a personal favorite since picking up the single at Rhino Records in high school, I was surprised to learn about so many import-only singles that are just as good as anything that made their records. This EP is the shiniest jewel glistening at the back of their deep-cut cave, offering four superlative tracks. “Kaytronika” and the aptly titled “Still Exploding” are noise-pop gems fronted by Graham Kemp, “Nobody Knows We’re Stars” is Kemp’s self-effacing yet still-kinda-affecting acoustic ballad, and “Mother of the MBK” is a sprawling, dynamic contribution from Fergus Lawrie. I looked in countless American stores for this single before finally biting the bullet and importing it (along with a few other Urusei Yatsura singles) from the UK. I still need to find the single for "Eastern Youth" so I can have the b-side The Hearts You Break, though.

Foals / “Red Socks Pugie” b/w “Gold Gold Gold,” Transgressive, 2008

Foals' 'Red Socks Pugie' b/w 'Gold Gold Gold'

I’m not begrudging their success, but Foals being a very popular band, especially in Europe, is somewhat mystifying to me. The math-rock–infused, melodic post-punk of Antidotes and Total Life Forever (albums I still very much enjoy) possesses greater crossover appeal than, say, Battles, but I hadn’t predicted that they’d be a big Glastonbury act. And yet, that’s what they’ve become, largely trading the latticework guitar parts of “Balllons” and the slow burn of “Spanish Sahara” for chunky riffs and (cough) obvious lyrics on next last few records. Last year they issued the two-part Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, and my interest was reignited by much of part one (and a comparatively small portion of part two). For a single, “Exits” is an endearingly odd duck (the video still has almost five million views on YouTube), six minutes of off-kilter Tears for Fears homage, but that’s the sort of decision I appreciate seeing. (The meathead rock of Part Two’s “Black Bull,” not as much.) A few tracks even echoed the emotional resonance of “Red Socks Pugie,” which broke through the occasionally clinical Antidotes with some post-emo yearning amid its surging tempos.

Speedy Ortiz / “Ka-Prow!” b/w “Hexxy,” Inflated, 2013

Speedy Ortiz's 'Ka-Prow!' b/w 'Hexxy'

The world deserves a Speedy Ortiz singles/rarities compilation. I don’t know how hard it is to find this particular single, which supercharges two songs from Sadie Dupuis’s earliest Speedy Ortiz recordings with full-band renditions, but there’s plenty more beyond it. Early digital single “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan” still graces their set lists (and also marks the point where the band sounded like a band), Adult Swim single “Bigger Party” has one of the best lyrical uses of “shithead” in recorded history, the tracks from Foil Deer’s supplemental EP Foiled Again deserve a physical release (particularly “Death Note,” which has a nasty riff), not everyone got the special edition of Twerp Verse with the bonus single, and several other worthy tracks are floating around (like their Liz Phair cover). Hell, put "Cutco" on there because it would be really nice to have "Cutco" on there. Boom, press a thousand copies. A new Sad13 album is due soon, which means Speedy Ortiz will be quiet on new material for a while, the perfect time to prep a singles compilation.

Shiner / “Semper Fi” b/w “A Sailor’s Fate,” DeSoto, 1999

Shiner's 'Semper Fi' b/w 'A Sailor's Fate'

Shiner’s reunion album, Schadenfreude, is due at the end of May, and you can hear “Life as a Mannequin” now. I’m trying not to overdo it on the advanced single, because I know I will listen to the album as a whole a great deal, but the general vibe is Starless with the knowledge gained from five albums with The Life and Times (who remain an ongoing project that you should absolutely keep up with), and I'm pretty happy with that combination. I’m just as excited about the chance to see Shiner again, provided that circumstances improve enough by the end of May (stares blankly into space). I am, however, faced with one of the oddest concert conflicts in my lifetime. The closest currently schedule Shiner date is in Grand Rapids on May 24th, which happens to be the same night as Hindsight 2020 at Matt Talbott’s bar Loose Cobra in Tolono, IL, where Castor, Menthol, and Honcho Overload will be performing. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d have to choose between seeing Shiner or seeing Castor, I would be exceptionally confused about the future state of the world.

Savak / “Where Should I Start?” b/w “Expensive Things,” Modern City, 2017

Savak's 'Where Should I Start?' b/w 'Expensive Things'

There’s no slowing down Savak, who will soon release their fourth LP (the delightfully titled Rotting Teeth in the Horse's Mouth) since forming in 2015, bolstered by a four-song EP and two singles. “Where Should I Start?” is a propulsive, Krautrock-infused rocker fronted by Sohrab Habibion (formerly of Edsel and Obits, bands with similarly relentless work ethics and consistently rewarding catalogs), while Michael Jaworski sings the brighter “Expensive Things,” which thrives with compositional detail. Savak recently shared a playlist of music from around the globe that was inspiring them lately, and I think that appetite for new and different sounds helps keep the balance of their own songwriting in the sweet spot between fresh and familiar. While this single ranks among my favorite of their releases, the closing tracks from 2017’s Cut-Ups (“I Left America”) and 2018’s Beg Your Pardon (“They Are Not Like Us”) are poignant, politically charged highlights of their ever-expanding repertoire.

Julianna Barwick / “Pacing” b/w “Call,” Suicide Squeeze, 2013

Julianna Barwick's 'Pacing' b/w 'Call'

This Julianna Barwick single is among the best seven-inches released in the last decade and a requisite selection every time I play a large stack of singles. (I previously wrote about it here.) As much as I cherish her full-lengths, especially 2011’s The Magic Place and 2013’s Nepenthe, there’s no better introduction to her serenely calming arrangements of vocal loops and gentle piano lines than the a-side “Pacing,” nor a better instrumental respite to be found than the b-side “Call.” Many of her tracks do more in terms of compositional techniques, melodic inspiration, and instrumental variety, but as a distillation of what makes her so crucial to my listening in the last decade, I direct you to this single. She’s been relatively quiet since 2016’s Will, issuing a four-song collaborative EP with Rafael Anton Irisarri (Thesis 10) in 2017 and the five-song cassette Circumstance Synthesis last year, so here’s hoping that another full-length is in the works.

Sunny Day Real Estate / “How It Feels to Be Something On” b/w “Bucket of Chicken,” Sub Pop, 1998

Sunny Day Real Estate's 'How It Feels to Be Something On' b/w 'Bucket of Chicken'

In theory, I don’t need this pre-album single from Sunny Day Real Estate’s original glorious return in 1998, given that the a-side is the title track to How It Feels to Be Something On, and the ingloriously named b-side (written for the soundtrack to The Crow, from which it was rejected, unlike “8,” which made the cut for the Batman Forever soundtrack) has since been included on the vinyl reissue of LP2. But I’m a sucker for this kind of hand-made sleeve, its textured paper reminiscent of countless other care-in-packaging classics from that era (June of 44’s first three releases, the Rachel’s records, Postmarked Stamps singles, etc.). They were bigger than those bands, but still felt connected to the need for a personal touch. If you haven't heard the William Goldsmith interview on The Trap Set podcast, I highly recommend it, although it is very intense and will likely pull the rug out from underneath your prior conception of SDRE's internal dynamics.

L’Altra / Ouletta, Aesthetics, 2002

L'Altra's Ouletta

From what I can tell, L’Altra (French for “the other”) has been largely forgotten since their modest heyday in the early ’00s, having last released a comeback-of-sorts album with 2010’s Telepathic. Over their original run of a self-titled 1999 EP, 2000’s Music of a Sinking Occasion, 2002’s In the Afternoon, and 2005’s Different Days, Lindsay Anderson and Joseph Costa’s voices intertwined over an evolving backdrop of Low-esque slowcore, infusing their sound with post-rock, chamber pop, folk, and electronic elements as the additional members of their lineup shifted. (Different Days featured both members of Telefon Tel Aviv after Anderson appeared on three tracks from the group’s 2004 Map of What Is Effortless). Both Anderson and Costa released solo records in 2007, If and Costa Music’s Lighter Subjects, and while I enjoyed those releases, it’s clear in hindsight that they work best in tandem. Ouletta’s quiet strength encourages me to revisit those records in the near future. It's one song split into two parts.

Ocampo, Ocampo, and Watt / “Apparatus” b/w “Better Than a Dirtnap,” ORG Music, 2019

Ocampo, Ocampo, and Watt's 'Apparatus' b/w 'Better Than a Dirtnap'

Few tears will be shed over the postponement of Record Store Day this year, as for most people who do not work for the reissues department of a major label, the “holiday” has become a punch-line for the music industry’s worst excesses. But every now and then there’s a legitimate gem released on Record Store Day (or, deep sigh, Record Store Day Black Friday), and last year’s one-off collaboration between Devin Ocampo (of Smart Went Crazy, Faraquet, Medications, Beauty Pill, and The Effects), Renata Ocampo, and the esteemed Mike Watt is one such exception. Anyone familiar with Devin Ocampo’s songs knows that man does not fuck around, and “Apparatus” aligns with his history of excellence, despite the parts being recorded on opposite sides of the country. Watt’s “Better Than a Dirtnap” is a typically idiosyncratic sing-along, a strange song that nevertheless sounds like something you’d known for years. Worth tracking down for fans of any involved parties.

Mogwai / “Mexican Grand Prix” b/w “Slight Domestic,” Rock Action, 2011

Mogwai's 'Mexican Grand Prix' b/w 'Slight Domestic'

Mogwai hasn’t been quite as productive in the last few years, with their last release being the soundtrack to the sci-fi action film Kin in 2018. (The soundtrack is mostly fine, if less than essential, and I will someday make it through more than fifteen minutes of the film, just not today.) It’s not like the band hasn’t provided me with a surplus of material to enjoy—their vinyl, box sets and all, occupy an entire Kallax cube—but I’ve been spoiled by how regularly they issue both top-line and supplemental material. Their 2011 LP Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (which I wrote about at length here) may possess an unquestionably superb album title, but the song selection is somewhat baffling, as the measured, meditative “Slight Domestic” from the b-side of this single and the bruising “Hasenheide” from the “Rano Pano” single each improve upon several tracks from the album.

Pile / “Special Snowflakes” b/w “Mama’s Lipstick,” Exploding in Sound, 2014

Pile's 'Special Snowflakes' b/w 'Mama's Lipstick'

Both songs from this single were included on Pile’s accurately titled Odds and Ends compilation in 2018, which collected a bunch of essential tracks from singles and compilations (other highlights include the “Cut off my dick!” screams in “Big Web,” the roaring forward momentum of “Pigeon Song,” and the open fragility of “Keep the Last Light On”). That does not preclude me from pulling out the original single, however, as both of these songs remain among my favorites from the group, and it’s nice to be reminded of just how great of a scope, in terms of both compositional breadth and emotional depth, Pile could fit onto one seven-inch. “Special Snowflakes” was the showstopper, a moody, dynamic rocker that evoked the almighty Rodan in how deftly it handled the switch from a languid stumble to wide-eyed electricity. But “Mama’s Lipstick” was the revelation here, grasping for ineffable memories from youth as present situations ever-threaten to disintegrate.

Constantines / “Our Age” b/w “Fuckin’ Up,” Arts & Crafts, 2008

Constantines' 'Our Age' b/w 'Fuckin' Up'

The Guelph-based Constantines are one of those bands that feel very much like they should have been bigger, given how immediate most of their catalog sounds in its Fugazi-meets-Springsteen aesthetic. Perhaps they simply came out too soon, given how other bands mining that general territory found more lasting success in the years following the last Constantines album, 2008’s Kensington Heights. While 2003’s Shine a Light stands as their best album, the bridge between the raw energy of their self-titled debut and the comparatively refined songs from Tournament of Hearts, there’s no single song of theirs I revisit more frequently than “Our Age,” the highlight of Kensington Heights. It’s a classic rock song in the way that many trio-era Silkworm songs are classic rock songs, imparting the accumulated wisdom from their younger, dumber years without sounding like they’re talking down to the kids. There’s a wonderful acoustic rendition on the companion EP Too Slow for Love that’s also worth hearing.

Silkworm's 'Into the Woods' b/w 'Incanduce California'

Silkworm / “Into the Woods” b/w “Incanduce California,” Rockamundo, 1993

I wrote extensively about Comedy Minus One’s exceedingly welcome reissue of Silkworm’s In the West last year, and hearing “Into the Woods” from that album on a dusty seven-inch is a good reminder of how tremendous of a job Steve Albini, Tim Midyett, and Andy Cohen did with the remix/remaster of the source material. (There was even a skip before the second verse, to add injury to insult.) I heartily recommend picking up that vinyl reissue (“Incanduce California” is one of the digital bonus tracks) and listening to the episode of Kreative Kontrol with the aforementioned trio of personnel for an enlightening look back at the genesis of the album. Tim Midyett's current band, Mint Mile, just released a double album called Ambertron on Comedy Minus One, but hopefully you preordered that record months ago, had it arrive last week and are enjoying it now.

Tarentel / Two Sides of Myself, Static Caravan, 2000

Tarentel's Two Sides of Myself

The post-rock group Tarentel evolved rapidly throughout the course of their existence, going through phases of ambient drones, rhythmic clatter, and psychedelic noise without losing track of a consistent continuum. Having listened to the spacious, haunting drones of 2001’s The Order of Things earlier this week, it’s hard not to see this two-song single as a bridge between the more typical post-rock structures of 1999’s From Bone to Satellite (reissued with bonus material in 2016) and the comparatively skeletal approaches of The Order of Things. It’s worth noting that these songs were recorded in the same time frame (Summer 1999 and February 2000) as my favorite Tarentel material, the “Looking for Things” b/w “Searching for Things” twelve-inch. All four songs, alone with “The Waltz” from their Travels in Constants release, were compiled on Ephemera | Singles 99–2000, which is my ideal soundtrack for reading.

Helium / “Hole in the Ground” b/w “Lucy,” Pop Narcotic, 1993

Helium's 'Hole in the Ground' b/w 'Lucy'

I shouldn’t be surprised that Helium was so good by their second single; after all, Mary Timony had already been in Autoclave and knew how to write arresting songs. But on “Hole in the Ground” and especially the b-side “Lucy” (which I first heard on the disc of bonus material for formative compilation What’s Up Matador), Timony’s noise-pop instincts impress mightily. I could hear an argument that “Lucy” doesn’t need to extend to six-and-a-half minutes, but until No Guitars, Helium tended to stretch their songs out as they saw fit, and “Lucy” deserves to revel in twisting guitar feedback as much as "Baby's Going Underground" needed to zone out in rhythmic bliss. Both sides of this single were included on the 2017 compilation Ends With And, which, like the simultaneous vinyl reissues of The Dirt of Luck and Magic City / No Guitars, are no-doubt pick-ups for anyone interested in rock music .

Telegraph Melts / “Heilgeschichte und Weltgeschichte” b/w “Goodbye No. 20,” Self-released, 1997

Telegraph Melts' single

Telegraph Melts was a briefly lived cello-and-guitar duo from two familiar names in the DC music scene. Cellist Amy Dominguez was the driving force for Garland of Hours (along with Brendan Canty), and has done guest spots with countless bands likely in your collection (Fugazi, Faraquet, Mary Timony, Jets to Brazil, Beauty Pill, Ted Leo, etc.). Guitarist Bob Massey was also a member of Tsunami for a spell. Together as Telegraph Melts, they released a full-length, Ilium (which opens with the excellent "Septembrist"), on Absolutely Kosher in 1998 (guest percussion from Devin Ocampo!), and this single. A small, but memorable collection of material that straddled the line between experimental, sometimes abrasive compositions (the slashing guitar noise of “Heilgeschichte…”) and beautiful, affecting post-classical arrangements (“Goodbye No. 20”) reminiscent of Rachel’s. I likely wouldn’t have heard of Telegraph Melts without the early MP3-promoting site Epitonic, but I’m glad that I did.

Ganger / “Geocities” b/w “Alessandra and Her Western Fan,” Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1998

Ganger's 'Geocities' b/w 'Alessandra and her Western Fan

The most obvious reference for Ganger is Mogwai, given that both were prominent post-rock bands from Scotland in the mid-’90s (and I saw them on the same mind-blowing, ear-splitting bill at the Metro in Chicago in September 1999), but on this particular single, a more specific aesthetic touchstone would be the Chicago-based band Dianogah, who explored similar two-bass instrumentals. Technically, Ganger’s lineup included guitarist Craig B. as well, but the basses run the show here, and you could slot either of these songs onto a Dianogah record without raising many eyebrows. A few disparate points: first, the title “Geocities” has largely returned to a positive mental image separate from “gross early web site design”; second, “Alessandra…” was originally a song from Craig B. and Natasha Noramly’s band Fukuyama, whose two singles languish at the bottom of my Discogs wantlist; third, I cannot stress how much better Hammock Style is than anything else in Ganger’s generally likable catalog. If you enjoy post-rock and haven’t heard Hammock Style (start with the incredible "Capo [South of Caspian]"), rectify that error.

Dirty Three & Scenic / Split Single, Narwhal, 1998

Dirty Three and Scenic split single

If you’re looking to author some indelible mental pictures while stuck at home, you can do a lot worse for inspiration than the instrumental compositions of Dirty Three and Scenic. I recently listened to Dirty Three’s classic run of albums (1996’s Horse Stories, 1998’s Ocean Songs, and 2000’s Whatever You Love, You Are) and it’s impossible to overstate their greatness. “A Strange Holiday” is on par with those records, a largely piano-dominated lament that gives way to Warren Ellis’s multi-tracked violin in its final minutes. (I recently watched the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, and Ellis comes across as a supremely endearing human being, especially the scene in which he’s directly a children’s choir.) I know Scenic more for guitarist Bruce Licher’s Independent Project Records / Independent Project Press, which upped the ante on record packaging in the ’80s and ’90s, but I own several of Scenic’s impeccably packaged albums on CD somewhere, and their songs are evocative of many things, but most specifically open Western landscapes. “When the Time Comes” is more brisk than ponderous, but it’s a nice complement to Dirty Three’s track.

Beastie Boys / “Sure Shot” b/w “Mullet Head” Capitol, 1994

Beastie Boys' 'Sure Shot' b/w 'Mullet Head'

The Beastie Boys were one of the groups in the ’90s that I generally enjoyed but were inescapable enough that I didn’t feel any need to actively put them on—I’ve undoubtedly seen the video for “Sure Shot” dozens of times—but after Adam Yauch passed away in 2012, I made a more conscious effort to work through their catalog. I appreciate their work in the following order: Paul’s Boutique, the singles from their ’90s albums, their general cultural presence, the entirety of their ’90s albums, and then maybe Licensed to Ill and their later records. Last year I read Book, which is a supremely entertaining read for even fair-weather fans like myself, and worth checking out of your local library the next time it's open. I am glad that I picked up this single at Mystery Train at some point; “Sure Shot” is a classic and I enjoy doing the dog-saying-“I love you” intro, “Mullet Head” is a better-than-you’d expect rocker with a neat snaking guitar part midway through, and the remix, while unnecessary, isn’t unlistenable.

Bloc Party / “Two More Years” b/w “Hero,” Wichita, 2005

Bloc Party's 'Two More Years' b/w 'Hero'

I pulled out Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm earlier this week, and as I do every time I listen to that album, I started thinking about how quickly and thoroughly they squandered its excitement. 2007’s A Weekend in the City isn’t a complete whiff (I like “Hunting for Witches”), but it’s a step in the wrong direction, one which placed too much sonic detritus in the way of the clear, well rehearsed instrumental interplay that drew me into Silent Alarm. (And that was before they started 2008’s Intimacy with a drum break overwhelmingly reminiscent of Chemikal Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats.”) The biggest problem with Bloc Party’s second record is that they could have made it sooner. They had a number of excellent non-album tracks that were left to import singles, as exhibited here by the catchy “Two More Years,” and if they’d simply collected those for Silent Alarm’s follow-up instead of frittering them away, things might’ve gone better in the long run. ("Hero" is a b-side, through and through.) It was particularly noticeable when “Little Thoughts,” another non-album single, popped up in the middle of my American pressing of Silent Alarm, and I immediately thought “This song wasn’t on the album” followed by “Why wasn’t this song on the album?”

Wye Oak / “Spiral” b/w “Wave Is Not the Water,” Merge, 2017

Wye Oak's 'Spiral' b/w 'Wave Is Not the Water'

Merge wisely pressed these two Adult Swim Singles Series tracks to vinyl in 2017, just like they’d done for Wye Oak’s outrageously good covers of The Kinks’ “Strangers” and Danzig’s “Mother” from the AV Club’s Undercover series in 2011. “Spiral” originally came out in 2012, when I thought its danceable rhythms and rolling marimba melody were interesting stylistic divergences instead of signs of things to come. I was wrong! “Wave Is Not the Water” came out in 2017 and is much more in line with the following year’s excellent The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs. Wye Oak has issued a number of digital singles leading up to their five-piece-band tour Join (which was sadly interrupted), and I wouldn’t be surprised if an album including those songs arrives this fall, hopefully with a tour stop in Michigan. It would be wild to see them perform with Andy Stack out front playing bass.

The Fall / Bingo-Master’s Break Out!, Superior Viaduct, 1978/2016

The Fall's Bingo-Master's Break Out!

I was slowly working my way up to it, but after Mark E. Smith passed away in 2018, I committed myself to a thorough appreciation of The Fall. I listened to virtually everything the band released—albums, Peel Sessions, singles, rarities—up until around 2000, at which point I very understandably needed to put the project on hold. If there’s a core truth about The Fall that I can impart, it’s that all of those things are important to understanding the band. I could say “1980 through 1986, that’s the best era, Perverted by Language is my favorite album, a singles collection like Palace of Swords Reversed is the best starting point,” but dabbling doesn’t paint the whole picture. I needed to understand that Smith used the albums for different purposes than the singles, that sometimes the definitive version of a song would appear on a Peel Session before or after the release of the album, because you needed to hear all of the versions (exhibit one is “New Puritan”), that knowing the names on the sleeve was critical, even if only one name truly mattered. (That name? Steve Hanley. Kidding, maybe.) It’s even evidenced here on their first single (the only seven-inch I own from them). The two antsy post-punk songs on the a-side are the appetizer, and the rambling, ranting “Repetition” on the flip is the main course.

Hot Snakes / “I Shall Be Free” b/w “A Place in the Sun,” P U, 2020

Hot Snakes' 'I Shall Be Free' b/w 'A Place in the Sun'

It pays to have friends who will buy an extra copy of a limited-run, available-at-shows-only single and mail it to you, so without my friend Scott, I would not be listening to the new Hot Snakes single right now. These songs will appear on their next album, presumably due in the fall, so if you’re upset about missing out, you won’t languish in misery forever. As per Hot Snakes standards, both songs totally rip / smoke / shred / kill / eviscerate. Whatever trending verb you’ve got, this single does it, the Hot Snakes guarantee. “I Shall Be Free” opens with their telltale melodica, but soon breaks out into a pounding, mid-tempo series of body blows. “A Place in the Sun” is even better, an all-out rocker with a riff near the end of the song that recalls some of Drive Like Jehu’s crazier moments. Let me preorder the next record now and Rick Froberg can blow my twenty bucks on art supplies to keep himself busy.

Fucked Up / “Blink” b/w “The Way We Did,” Fucked Up Records, 2014

Fucked Up's 'Blink' b/w 'The Way We Did'

I’ve played a lot of records this week, but given that my wife is working from home and my kids are attempting to keep up with school, the vast majority of albums qualify as unobtrusive. I’m glad to rotate through my stacks of ambient, drone, modern classical, post-rock, and Kosmiche records, but one day after dinner I put on Fucked Up’s The Chemistry of Common Life, and it felt alive in a way that much of this last week hasn’t. It also reminded me of the times that I’ve seen Fucked Up, and how sweaty those shows are in the best possible way. The Fucked Up live experience may only exist in fantasy right now, but fortunately they have released a metric fuckload of records, and I own a good, if by no means complete, collection of them. A personal favorite is this tour single, purchased at a concert in San Francisco. Both songs rank among my favorites for the band, and I’ve found myself putting it on quite a lot over the years for a small dose of a band that’s often served in overwhelming portions. Apparently it's hard to come by because a box of them fell out of their van on the way to Los Angeles, the classic punk rock mix-up.

The Twilight Sad / “The Room” b/w “The Neighbours Can’t Breathe (Acoustic),” FatCat, 2010

The Twilight Sad's 'The Room' b/w 'The Neighbours Can't Breathe

The Twilight Sad has issued a tall stack of seven-inches that would make worthy choices for today, most recently the “Rats” b/w “Public Housing” supplement to their 2019 album It Won/t Be Like This All the Time (fingers crossed). But it’s hard to pass up a single with one of their best songs on the a-side and an acoustic version of another one of their best songs on the b-side, both from their underrated 2009 album Forget the Night Ahead. (I could make a convincing argument that each of their albums since their rightly heralded 2007 debut, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, is underrated in some capacity.) “The Room” appropriates the insistent, minimal pound of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” for a comparatively warm, if typically inscrutable tale. I’m also partial to the live rendition with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Regardless of the arrangement, it’s all about James Graham’s voice. “The Neighbours Can’t Breathe” strips the jet-engine roar from the album version to reveal Andy MacFarlane’s delicate arpeggios and loses none of its mystery.

Cloakroom / “Lossed Over” b/w “Dream Warden,” Run for Cover, 2014

Cloakroom's 'Lossed Over' b/w 'Dream Warden'

Cloakroom was scheduled to open for Caspian in Detroit this spring, but like many others, that show was postponed indefinitely. They’ve toured in the last year, but haven’t released anything since 2017’s Time Well, which was my introduction to their blend of Hum’s guitar tones, Pinebender’s crawling tempos, and Songs: Ohia’s wounded emotions. The a-side of this single appears on their 2015 album Further Out (its closing track, “Deep Sea Station,” is one of those songs I’ll play a half-dozen times in a row), but its b-side is exclusive to the single, and features Hum’s Matt Talbott, who produced Further Out, on vocals. I know Hum is still threatening to release a new record one of these years (“It’s almost ready” I’ve heard, quite a lot), but “Dream Warden” is a few ripping Tim Lash leads shy of being a fantastic Hum song.

St. Vincent / “Krokodil” b/w “Grot,” 4AD, 2012

St. Vincent's 'Krokodil' b/w 'Grot'

Another rare instance of an essential record being released on Record Store Day, this St. Vincent single might be my favorite thing that she’s released. St. Vincent played a set of Big Black covers in 2011, and it’s hard not to hear “Krokodil” as embodying that abrasive spirit. That isn’t to say that it’s pale mimicry or uninspired tribute—“Krokodil” certainly has the manicured arrangements of Strange Mercy in its DNA as well—but it’s an exceptionally interesting direction for her to take given how fast her star was growing at that point. “Grot” is even better, as Annie Clark caustically delivers power-structure critiques over a slow-motion collision of enchanting vocal loops and super-heavy, warped riffs. On one level it’s disappointing that she didn’t pursue this direction further or longer, on another level perhaps it’s the exact right amount to pursue this direction.

The Mekons / “Where Were You?” b/w “I’ll Have to Dance Then (On My Own),” Superior Viaduct, 1978/2018

The Mekons' 'Where Were You?' single

As someone who counts 1985’s Fear and Whiskey among his favorite albums, it’s slightly embarrassing that it took me this long to properly explore The Mekons’ earliest recordings when they were in the same post-punk class as Gang of Four (literally: both bands formed at the University of Leeds). Some of this delay came down to availability, since they’re a band I mostly listen to on vinyl, and while I had been able to find copies of their key records from the ’80s and early ’90s with relative ease, I simply didn’t run into 1979’s The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, 1980’s self-titled album, or their early singles in American record stores. Some of this delay came down to reputation, as their early days are often discussed as being an art school lark that never took itself very seriously, especially in contrast to Gang of Four. Fortunately, Superior Viaduct has reissued their first two singles and their debut record, and my immediate takeaway from spending adequate time with this era of the band is that it’s far, far better than reported. They possessed a freewheeling, egalitarian artistic spirit, but they wrote post-punk songs that were just as good as their compatriots’. Here, “Where Were You?” evokes a more lighthearted track from Wire’s Chairs Missing and “I’ll Have to Dance Then” nicks some of Gang of Four’s funkiness.

Scout Niblett / No More Nasty Scrubs, Drag City, 2012

Scout Niblett's No More Nasty Scrubs

Last year I read Erin Osmon’s Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost, an enlightening and eventually very harrowing look into the life and death of the Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. captain. The book discusses how Molina gave Scout Niblett’s demo to Secretly Canadian, which led to her signing with the label, and how they would share a split single. I had seen her name before, but didn’t know anything about her, so when I checked out Wikipedia, I learned that 1. we are birthday buddies 2. she released a single with covers of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” and TLC’s “No More Scrubs.” I made a mental note to find that single, and as if fate had deemed me worthy, I found a copy at Dearborn Music a few weeks later. Her rendition of “Nasty” is appropriately sassy and drum-heavy, but it’s her sober, bluesy take on “No More Scrubs” that rewards that initial connection with Jason Molina. Granted, covering an R&B song is far more of a Will Oldham move, but Niblett does both sides of this conceit justice. Now I need to make a mental note to find more of her records.

Wire / “A Question of Degree” b/w “Former Airline,” Harvest, 1979

Wire's 'A Question of Degree' b/w 'Former Airline'

I own two copies of the most essential Wire non-album single, given that I’d bought this original a few years before all of their early singles (most of which I did not previously own) were collected in the Nine Sevens box set. But it’s hard to complain about having another copy of “A Question of Degree,” one of Wire’s best tracks, and the platonic ideal of guitar-driven post-punk. The flip is, in a particular sense, an accurate prediction of the upcoming 154, as “Former Airline” buries what could have been a straightforward post-punk track in layers of abrasive production noise (horns, strange sounds, guitar slashes—who knows). As with 154, it works because of what accompanies it. I can listen to all of 154 because for every unsettling “Indirect Enquiries,” there’s a perfectly crafted “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” to help it go down.

Stereolab / “Solar Throw-Away” b/w “Jump Drive Shut-Out,” Duophonic, 2006

Stereolab's 'Solar Throw-Away' b/w 'Jump Drive Shut-Out'

Seeing Stereolab on their fall tour last year was one of my biggest priorities and toughest logistical challenges; I had to make an educated guess as to where I would be living at the time, and thankfully, I correctly surmised that I would be closest to their Detroit date. It was worth all of the stress to finally see them perform. Laetitia Sadier has a completely enchanting stage presence, Tim Gane seemed thoroughly pleased to hyper-strum on the side of the stage, and substitute bassist Xavier Muñoz Guimera handled those exceptionally dexterous bass line and the dearly departed Mary Hansen’s background vocals with jaw-dropping aplomb. They played the songs I wanted to hear the most—“Crest” and “Jenny Ondioline”—but showed that any song from their vast catalog could be captivating. Over the next few months I worked through their series of expanded reissues, seven in total, and at no point did I wish that there was less to go around. Next up, to the best of my knowledge, is Switched On Volume Four, another collection of non-album material, which I presume will include this single. I genuinely couldn’t remember what these songs sounded like before putting it on, but the a-side is a particular treat with its mid-song shift. Will we get new Stereolab music? Who knows, but I’m ready and waiting if they do.

Errors / “Magna Encarta” b/w “Ganymede,” Rock Action, 2010

Errors' Magna Encarta' b/w 'Ganymede'

It’s a bummer when you have to come to your own conclusion that a band is done making music—such is (presumably) the case with my beloved Scottish post-electro band Errors. Their last record was 2015’s Lease of Life, for which they did comparatively little touring (no live footage of this material is on YouTube), and it now seems safe to say that the inventive, vocal-heavy synth pop of that album marked their final evolution. I’m glad that I was able to see them at Great Scott in Allston in 2012, and especially appreciative that they performed “Magna Encarta,” my favorite song from the group. It marked the farewell of original guitarist Greg Paterson, who left the group before 2012's superlative Have Some Faith in Magicto pursue dentistry, and over its six minutes there’s a still-impressive array of terrain covered, from poignant slide guitar leads, to subterranean video game level neuroses, to wordless yet emotive vocals. It easily ranks among my favorite songs from the last decade. The b-side, “Ganymede,” is comparatively slight, but tonight I appreciated its womb-like enclosure.

Braid / “Please Drive Faster” b/w “Circus of the Stars,” Polyvinyl, 1999

Braid's 'Please Drive Faster' b/w 'Circus of the Stars'

It’s somehow been only five weeks since most of my Twitter feed was griping about Vulture’s Top 100 Emo Songs instead of worrying about their potential doom, but time flies when you’re vastly overrating American Football. I kid—mostly. As much as I like American Football (albums one and three), it remains a brain-breaking thought that a band who was mostly an afterthought in Champaign, where I moved to for college in 1999, would be the most heralded, influential act in emo twenty years later. If you’re familiar with Upright Citizens Brigade bits, it’s like asking the robot, “How come?” I just can’t wrap my head around it. If I were a betting man and had to pick one Champaign band to take that crown, I would have said “Oh, it’ll be Braid” in a split-second. Their last show was on my first night in college and it was packed. People cared about their string of posthumous releases. Other bands aped their sound. Post-Braid act Hey Mercedes was on every bill in Illinois for a solid year. Am I saying that Braid deserves to be the most heralded, most influential emo band? No, not really. I’m happy to pick and choose from most of their catalog prior to Frame and Canvas and this single, which was later included on Movie Music Vol.1. Their legacy isn’t half-bad: they enjoyed several reunions and put out a solid full-length with 2014’s No Coast. But if you presented two anonymized paths and asked me which one would be American Football’s and which one would be Braid’s, I would have been dead wrong. Don’t trust me on anything.

Lower Dens / “I Get Nervous” b/w “Johnssong,” Gnomonsong, 2010

Lower Dens' 'I Get Nervous' b/w 'Johnssong'

Jana Hunter had been making music for years before forming Lower Dens, but it remains impressive that the group formed in 2010 and released Twin Hand Movement the same year, given that it’s such an assured, thought-out debut. The element that stands out to me about both “I Get Nervous” and the non-album b-side is how ’50s pop is foundational in the sound—the reverb-heavy guitar, the slow-dance tempos—and yet neither song sounds like an explicit throwback. After enjoying Twin Hand Movement, I was floored by “Brains,” the lead single for their sophomore album, 2012’s Nootropics, and how it felt like the future in a way that few songs do. (I put it on a few months ago and it still does sound like the future.) Given the penchant for dramatic stylistic shifts (and the departure of the other original members of the band), I shouldn’t be surprised by Lower Dens’ switch to mining of ’80s synth-rock on their last two records, but I haven’t found as much about those records that engages me as on their first two.

Michael Beach / “Curtain of Night” b/w “Electricity,” Tall Texan, 2019

Michael Beach's 'Curtain of Night' b/w 'Electricity'

Australian native and periodic Oakland resident Michael Beach released one of the best records of 2017 in Gravity/Repulsion, which recalls both American classic rock staples and New Zealand rock imports over its eight songs and twenty-six minutes. There are short records and there are concise records, and Gravity/Repulsion is the latter, but even within its tidy runtime, there’s a sense of sprawl and space to “A Vision of Modern Love” and “Freddie Dreams of Mars” that most artists would waste hours trying to capture. This single introduces his new backing band, The Artists, with one original song, the affable and immediate “Curtain of Night,” which slides on like a well worn pair of jeans that somehow hasn’t developed an embarrassing hole in the crotch, and one cover, a coiled, tense rendition of Peter Jefferies’ “Electricity.”

Polvo / “Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress,” Merge, 2011

Polvo's 'Heavy Detour' b/w 'Anchoress'

I never miss an opportunity to harp on the greatness of Polvo in general and post-reformation Polvo in specific, so when I saw the largely slept-on “Heavy Detour” single in the box, I pulled it out over some classic competitors. This single came out between 2009’s In Prism and 2013’s Siberia (which may be the best Polvo album if you let me talk at you for a half an hour), and the a-side is exclusive to the single, while the b-side was re-recorded for Siberia. “Heavy Detour” is a Dave Brylawski–fronted track, and I suspect fans are slightly cooler on those songs than ones Ash Bowie sings, but it’s a solid track. (Is one of my main arguments in favor of Siberia that Brylawski’s songs are every bit as good as Bowie’s on that album? It sure is!) The synth strings are a key component and there’s a groove to the song, both elements that Polvo generally avoided but work well here. Bowie’s “Anchoress” is an interesting case—there’s this version, an alternate take that was available as a bonus download, and the final version that made Siberia. I enjoy this version for its differences (much more prominent synths, a funny vocal “Yeah huh” from Bowie before the outro), but the Siberia version hits the proper, slightly somber tone.

The Paradise Motel / “Drive” b/w “Drive (Mogwai Mix),” Infectious, 1999

The Paradise Motel's 'Drive'

In the early days of filesharing, songs were often mislabeled in hilariously egregious ways, but a subtler mistake accompanied my original encounter with Mogwai’s remix of The Paradise Motel’s cover of The Cars’ “Drive.” It was simply labeled as a Mogwai song, no mention of The Paradise Motel. I don’t think it took long for me to learn that it was a remix (not that I learned anything about The Paradise Motel in the process), but I still enjoyed its exceptionally minimal, digitally processed lullaby rendition of that Cars song. Last year, I came across a cheap copy of this seven-inch, and heard the unaltered cover for the first time. It’s pleasant and similarly minimal for the first half (the vocals lack digital processing), and then a very prominent string arrangement elbows its way into the song. That arrangement mercifully fades, but the calm has been broken. Mogwai’s version focuses on the original synth melody and the digital layers over Merida Sussex’s vocals. It never peaks, it just glides. It’s exponentially better than the source material.

Wipers / Alien Boy, 1980/2019

Wipers' Alien Boy EP

I don’t actually believe that Greg Sage existed in a vacuum, sealed off from the rest of punk and post-punk in Portland, OR, but when I listen to the Wipers’ music, it feels disconnected enough from the trends and techniques popular elsewhere at the time that I can at least entertain the thought. This EP includes “Alien Boy” from their debut Is This Real? along with three outtakes from those sessions. It feels very much like a bridge to their next release, 1982’s Youth of America. It invokes that record’s mood—its paranoid, lonely, nervous energy—but with the three non-album tracks fitting on the b-side, not Youth of America’s sense of scope. “Voices in the Rain” in particular has the sing-speak delivery that’s used a number of times on its follow-up.

Concert Review: Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox at The Sinclair

“An Impartial Overview,” Jawbox’s chosen title for their reunion tour, works only in theory. Perhaps the band themselves can look upon their back catalog with the dry objectivity promised by that lyric from “Chinese Fork Tie,” but for fans of the band, approaching the group’s first proper tour dates since 1997 (a humble, presumably unintended finale on Valentine’s Day in Rochester, NY) with anything close to detachment is an impossible order. The 2009 performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was both blessing and curse: it was wonderful to see Jawbox’s four members on the same stage again, gracing a new audience with the brilliance of “Savory,” but what if that short set was truly the end? For the next decade, I crossed names off the wish list of bands I’d initially missed due to youth or stupidity, but Jawbox remained in all caps. Its members weren’t all hibernating: J. Robbins added to his considerable catalog with Office of Future Plans and his just-issued solo album Un-Becoming while the instrumental Bells≥ pushed Zach Barocas’s considerable chops. There were reasons not to reunite, of course, but if their former single-mates Jawbreaker could do it, why not Jawbox? By the time “An Impartial Overview” was finally announced in January, how could impartiality be expected?

Jawbox at The Sinclair

It’s been 23 years since I could conceivably have been impartial about Jawbox. I first knowingly heard the DC band on MTV’s 120 Minutes, presumably with the July 7th, 1996 debut of the human Kerplunk video for “Mirrorful” from their 1996 self-titled album. Their appeal was immediate yet lasting: urgent, melodic guitar rock loaded with lyrical and compositional depth. The reason I taped 120 Minutes was to find music that offered more, that engaged me more, and “Mirrorful” did just that. The distrust of the slanted histories (“Annex and index / Mirror too perfect”) I undoubtedly read that year in social studies resonated strongly, but the combination of J. Robbins and Bill Barbot’s parrying guitar lines, Kim Coletta’s clear and forceful bass, and Zach Barocas’s ingenious fills made me pick up Jawbox on my next CD-shopping excursion. And as was the case with many of the indie/alternative bands I found via 120 Minutes or college radio, the album tracks grabbed me as much, if not more than the lead single. Wrapping my head around the complex rhythms of “Won’t Come Off,” the explosive dynamics of “Desert Sea,” and the lyrical enigmas of “Absenter” kept Jawbox in rotation and prompted purchases of their earlier records, which offered different, but similarly rewarding combinations of immediacy and lasting intrigue.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox announced their break-up on their web site in 1997, but said site offered a literal gateway to like-minded music. Kim Coletta and Bill Barbot ran DeSoto Records (inheriting it from the members of Edsel), and every order I made with DeSoto brought along a new favorite band: Burning Airlines, Shiner, Juno, The Dismemberment Plan, Beauty Pill, Faraquet, and others. In contrast to many other independent labels, their release schedule was manageable and their hit rate was near-flawless. If they released it, I would buy it and almost certainly love it. None of these bands were carbon copies of Jawbox, which makes sense: if musicians were smart enough to like Jawbox (and in turn, be liked by Jawbox), they were smart enough to do something different and compelling on its own accord. (That statement applies to DeSoto bands, but not all of the bands influenced by Jawbox. The deepest reaches of my CD collection will attest that it was quite possible to sound very much like Jawbox without retaining their creative spirit.) It’s worth noting how much timing factors into my Jawbox-centric worldview: if I’d been five years older and/or had cooler friends, I would’ve learned about Fugazi first, then worked my way through the Dischord catalog and found out about Jawbox that way. Instead, the major label gambits of both Jawbox and Shudder to Think introduced them first and encouraged me to work my way back to Dischord.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Jawbox’s legacy in 2019 resides primarily within the context of intelligent, inventive guitar rock (that doesn’t skimp on melody), which, as ever, does not dominate the zeitgeist. A flash of mainstream influence came when the Deftones covered “Savory,” but Jawbox’s musical DNA lingers on a smaller scale. Many of my favorites from Exploding in Sound Records’ roster, past and present, display some degree of Jawbox genetics: Grass Is Green, Speedy Ortiz, Two Inch Astronaut. Other bands, like the ever-recommended Hammer No More the Fingers, have come into my radar thanks to J. Robbins’ production credits. Availability is the other side of legacy, and fortunately Jawbox’s records have been reissued by DeSoto via Dischord and remain in print. These reissues are not extravagant, vault-emptying collections. True to the Dischord mindset, these carefully remastered pressings exist to maintain a presence, to allow people to hear the records if they so choose. While it would be nice if Jawbox were the beneficiaries of a major critical re-evaluation, the concept of revisiting these records with fresh ears is a conundrum to me: at no point did I stop listening to Jawbox.

Judging by the first two official shows of An Impartial Overview, I am not alone in maintaining my Jawbox fandom for the last twenty years. After a warm-up show in Baltimore, Jawbox came up to Cambridge to play two nights at The Sinclair. It took time for the venue to fill up the first night—I joked about babysitters running late—but by the time Jawbox hit the stage, personal space was at a minimum. The opening acts for the respective shows deserve mention. Friday’s opener was the Philadelphia-based Second Letter, whose lineup includes Burning Airlines drummer Peter Moffett (who also handles the drums for J. Robbins’ Un-Becoming and Bill Barbot’s new band Foxhall Stacks). The five-piece delivered a layered combination of epic guitar rock, power pop, and early ’00s post-emo. My interest waxed when they leaned into the bigger riffs and waned when I recalled bands like The Gloria Record. The opener for the second night was Brooklyn’s LAPêCHE, whose two most recent releases (the 2017 LP The Second Arrow and the 2019 EP Spirit Bunnies) were recorded by J. Robbins. Vocalist/guitarist Krista Holly Diem maintained a careful balance of melancholy and melody over her band’s considered arrangements, and Spirit Bunnies is worthy, quick introduction.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

As Jawbox launched into “Mirrorful” to start their Friday set—a fitting rewind to my initial introduction—I was immeasurably pleased that all four members were on stage. I’ve seen enough reunited/reformed bands with substitutes to appreciate a full turnout, and all four members of Jawbox were essential to this equation. I’ve seen J. Robbins play some of these songs acoustically, drawing out their melodic depth, but on these nights he was totally galvanized. Bill Barbot had exited from Burning Airlines by the first time I caught that band, so seeing him on stage helped me gain a new appreciation for and understanding of his role in Jawbox. Not only does he excel as a foil (he absolutely nails the falsetto outro of “Cornflake Girl”) and periodic lead vocalist (“Tongue” and “Breathe”), his heavy chord progressions are critical to songs like “Desert Sea.” I tried picturing any other drummer navigating the minefields Zach Barocas laid out on For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox and simply could not; in hindsight it makes perfect sense that Jawbox could not continue after his departure in 1997. Kim Coletta was the stand-out of both evenings. I’d never seen a performer beam with such joy, a contagious feeling that was explained by a second-night anecdote about her current day-job of teaching third-graders. In contrast with wrangling a room full of nine-year-olds, playing bass on stage for the first time in over two decades has to feel pretty great.

In the months leading up to these shows, Jawbox posted numerous photos of their basement rehearsals to their Facebook profile, which assured me of the obvious: they did not take this opportunity lightly. They needed to sound like an active band and they pulled it off. I can safely say I saw Jawbox, not a nostalgia-fueled simulacrum of “Jawbox” (an admittedly narrow distinction that’s nevertheless at the heart of why some reunions fall flat). With over twenty songs each night, the set lists highlighted the depth of Jawbox’s catalog, prompting relatively minor grumbles from even the staunchest devotee over exclusions (three such candidates: “Spit Bite,” “U-Trau,” and “Excandescent”). The lone representative from their debut album was “Grip,” which felt like less of a token inclusion and more of a demonstration of how much they could improve that material. Novelty’s finest moments made the cut, including the updated lyrics for “Static.” For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox (along with essential b-side “68”) correctly comprised the bulk of both evenings, showing how those albums have only improved with age.

Jawbox at The Sinclair

Two particular songs stood out. The number of phones raised to record “Savory” confirmed its place as Jawbox’s most beloved song, a sentiment that was upheld by masterful performances both nights. “Tension and release” is the go-to expression, but “Savory” is more tension and relief, the latter represented by the deep exhale of the elongated “Easy now” section. What struck me was how well they underplayed that passage—not only was it quieter with regard to volume, it was gentler in terms of picks hitting strings and sticks hitting drums. Few bands command such restraint, let alone while playing their most cherished song to a rapturous audience twenty-two years after an initial split, and as much as I enjoyed them throwing their bodies into up-tempo tracks like “FF=66” and “Won’t Come Off,” the luxurious lulls in “Savory” stuck with me the most. I couldn’t fathom these sets without “Savory,” and yet shortly after it on both nights, Jawbox pulled a truly unexpected card from their sleeves for the encore: a cover of Drew O’Doherty’s “The Robbery” (here’s my video from night two). J. Robbins had recently relayed his fondness for the song, perhaps tipping Jawbox’s hand, but I doubt O’Doherty—who shared the bill for J. Robbins’ two Boston-area acoustic dates over the last decade—had any expectations of Jawbox playing one of his songs. Merely getting back together was supposed to be the big surprise, not adding a new song to their repertoire, but true to form, Jawbox never settled for simple.

Jawbox’s members were sheepishly grateful for the audience’s ongoing enthusiasm, noting with bewilderment that these shows marked the first time in the group’s existence that they had a multi-night stay at a venue. I suspect that most people in attendance wished that residence could continue longer, both for further opportunities to see the band and to delay the sense that these shows may truly be it. I hesitate to accept such finality, however. Not only will I hold onto the thin shred of hope that Jawbox may re-reunite again down the road, but I know that their records have held up this long, and still offer mysteries to solve and pathways to pursue.

Reviews: Silkworm's In the West

Silkworm's In the West

Silkworm’s In the West originally came out on CD and cassette on Seattle’s C/Z Records in 1994. I don’t recall specifically when or where I picked up a copy, but I can feel the accumulated grime on my fingertips from flipping through CD bins searching for it, triggering a Pavlovian response to go wash my hands. In the West lingers in that context, the feverish nightmare of its cut-and-paste cover art sharing an early-’90s aesthetic with countless other denizens of those bins, even as its contents far surpassed its now-forgotten neighbors. A quarter century after its initial release, Comedy Minus One honors In the West with its first-ever vinyl pressing, updating elements of its cover art but retaining the unsettling spirit of the original, blackened layer of dust not included.

This half-measure feels appropriate, as In the West deserves to be brought into 2019 but cannot be fully extracted from 1994. “Dated” is typically derogatory, but context is not, and In the West benefits from understanding its place within Silkworm’s development. After working through a series of demo cassettes during their infancy in Missoula, Montana and move to Seattle, Silkworm released their debut album L’ajre in 1992, followed by a string of seven-inch singles and the …His Absence Is a Blessing EP. There are flashes of excellence during those early years, later collected by Matador in the 2CD Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then: ’90–’94, particularly Tim Midyett’s affable “Slipstream,” Andy Cohen’s defiant “Scruffy Tumor,” and Joel R. L. Phelps’s reference-setting cover of The Comsat Angels’ post-punk classic “Our Secret,” but as the compilation’s self-effacing title acknowledges, they hadn’t figured it all out yet. In the West is the first point when their various influences and individual songwriting voices congealed into a whole, a process that would be furthered just eight months later with the release of its follow-up, Libertine (which is also once again on vinyl via CMO) then blown up by Phelps’s departure.

A congested timeline to be sure, but In the West was a significant milestone. Recorded by fellow Missoula native Steve Albini (dutifully uncredited), stylistically it bears far closer resemblance to early ’80s post-punk, like Mission of Burma or the aforementioned Comsat Angels (Waiting for a Miracle, Sleep No More, and accompanying singles only), than most of their contemporaries. I doubt their adopted homebase of Seattle did them any critical favors; In the West had just enough early-’90s scuzz in its guitar tones for unfocused scribes to absentmindedly sort them into the grunge pile, where their songwriting approaches would be decidedly out of place. (Not that critics, then or now, always bother to differentiate who’s singing which songs.)

The most nagging detriment of In the West’s 1994 date stamp has thankfully been corrected: the remix/remaster job for this reissue is a night-and-day difference from its original release, which suffered from era-typical muddiness and a thin mix that shackled drummer Michael Dahlquist’s considerable power. Starting with 1996’s Firewater, Silkworm’s albums carried a reference-quality combination of space, punch, and clarity—exemplars of Albini’s “the sound of a band in a room” engineering ethos—and this update brings In the West in line with those later recordings, which is no minor achievement. In the West is a dramatically different experience with a palpable rhythm section. It officially sounds like a Silkworm album, not a dry run at one.

In the West, then and now, is a uniquely dark album in Silkworm’s catalog, equally explosive and implosive. With the possible exception of its predecessor L’ajre (I’ll take the zero on the homework of revisiting that album), In the West is Silkworm’s heaviest guitar rock record, with Andy Cohen and Joel R. L. Phelps frequently churning thick chord progressions into clouds of noise, a practice that Libertine largely abandons. These storms are dynamically balanced with unsettling lulls, passages where the guitars vanish and minimalism takes over. There are deep-rooted melodies on most songs, but the up-tempo tracks skew more rocking than overtly catchy, with no earworms like Libertine’s “Couldn’t You Wait” or Lifestyle’s “Treat the New Guy Right.”

Typical to Silkworm’s democratic principles, In the West features a nearly even split between the three songwriters, but my reductive take on their respective approaches—Tim Midyett as the introspective, casually funny romantic, Cohen as the black-humored, semi-historical storyteller, Phelps as the nervy font of psychodrama—hasn’t quite settled yet. Midyett’s four songs are caught between Missoula and Seattle, youth and adulthood, with “Garden City Blues” ruminating on the mixed feelings of a return home, rousing from quiet reservations to unencumbered emotions. “Punch Drunk Five” evokes Montana in the final few lines of its hormonal rave-up, while the rocking “Incanduce” flits between staying, going, returning, and running away before being overcome a monstrous, low-slung riff. The most atypical Midyett contribution is the eight-minute “Enough Is Enough,” which gradually arcs from whisper to roar along with its uncomfortable lyrics about a pushy date. There are moments of humor in these songs, most notably the exasperated “Aw Jesus Christ!” in “Punch Drunk Five,” but Midyett’s search for himself and/or someone else tends to be lonely, over-excited, or frustrated, not poised. The stellar “Garden City Blues” is his best song on In the West, in possession of perspective rather than in pursuit of it.

In one sense, the quick synopsis of Andy Cohen’s songwriting applies to his trio of songs here: pitch-black humor coats almost every line (“Go into the woods and live with the bears / That way you can kill someone and nobody cares,” “Then I grabbed a drowning man / I used him for a raft”), loose narratives put Cohen’s voice in violent, unsavory characters, and why yes, that is a reference to General Pershing in “Dust My Broom.” In another sense, they leave you wanting more than the synopsis: Cohen improved dramatically over the next few albums in his ability to imbue potentially unlikeable characters with affecting depth (see Firewater’s trio of “Slow Hands,” “Tarnished Angel,” and “Don’t Make Plans This Friday”). This concern doesn’t matter much for “Dust My Broom” and “Into the Woods,” whose riffs scorch the earth like Sherman’s March to the Sea, but the slow-boiling “Parsons” never leans out of the lyrical darkness and is most compelling during its instrumental bridge.

It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which Joel R. L. Phelps ratchets up the intensity level on In the West; whether quietly repeating a line in a shell-shocked trance or howling loud enough to wake the neighborhood, Phelps commands dramatic tension like few other songwriters. “Raised by Tigers” (which I wrote about more extensively at One Week // One Band) condenses a wartime novella about the younger brother left at home into five masterful minutes. The initially sparse “Dremate” takes heart-on-sleeve to the utmost extreme, turning over the promise “Bare to you my heart” and its myriad ramifications before bursting into flames with the screamed refrain “Say that you will.” The bass-driven post-punk of “Pilot” closes In the West in an intriguing way, given the hair-raising climaxes of Phelps’s other two songs. The lyrics give full warning of what might come—“When I collide it will be something to remember / When I fall from the light it will be something to remember”—but even as Phelps teases a full-out yelp in the final minute, he pulls back, teetering on the precipice of that fall. Instead of the mammoth chords that shook many of the preceding songs, dual leads snake over the bridge, with Phelps’s wordless vocal accompaniment a welcome touch. Phelps excels on In the West at establishing and maintaining this unblinking level of intensity, but an entire album in this headspace would be draining. Phelps’s songs benefit from the shorter, punchier tracks like “Into the West” and “Incanduce” elsewhere on In the West; on Libertine and his solo / Downer Trio records, his wider range of approaches heightens the truly bristling moments.

To my knowledge, there’s no established hierarchy for Silkworm albums, no consensus ranking. You get to Silkworm albums when you get to them, and getting them doesn’t necessarily mean getting them. It took years (and the life experience acquired during those years) for me to fully appreciate Firewater, which finally clicked and became one of my favorite Silkworm records. Ranking them according to a perceived objective sense of quality misses the point: Libertine is a different experience than Firewater, which is a different experience from Developer, and so on, and the greatness of Silkworm comes from the range of those experiences. There are days when Lifestyle is my favorite Silkworm album and days when It’ll Be Cool is my favorite Silkworm album. This reissue puts In the West fully in the conversation. The songs were always there, but that old mix? It was work, a smudged lens distorting artistic intent. Now In the West is on a level playing field, and I understand its experience in a way that I hadn’t previously. It’s a darker, heavier experience than its brethren, and there will be days when that experience fits and days when it doesn’t. But 25 years after its release, and probably 20 after I first heard it, I get In the West. Maybe there’s still hope for L’ajre.

A valuable postscript: Almost two hours of bonus material is included in the digital download for In the West, and while little of it qualifies as essential listening for people who don’t self-identify as Silkworm devotees, that tag absolutely fits me and my appetite for ephemera, demos, and live recordings. Phelps’ rendition of the Christina Rossetti-penned Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Midyett’s yearning, “UK Surf”-esque alternate take on “Incanduce” (Dahlquist wrote on Silkworm’s web site “I think we tried to play quiet to mock some asswipe club owner, played ‘Incanduce’ in this sort of American Music Club way, and liked it enough to record it”) originally appeared on seven-inches and then Even a Blind Chicken, so they are both the best and most familiar tracks included here. (“Midwinter” is a precursor to Phelps’ more recent contributions to Comedy Minus One head Jon Solomon’s WPRB Xmas marathons, a few of which are available here.) There’s a raucous live rendition of The Dream Syndicate’s “Halloween.” Five songs are represented via seven direct-to-DAT demo recordings from 1991, including a pair of hyperspeed run-throughs of “Dust My Broom.” There are six individual live songs and a full 1993 set from Chicago’s venerable Lounge Ax, and the performances resonate through the mixed recording quality.

2018 Year-End List Extravaganza

Top 20* Albums of 2018

I’ll put the big link before the blathering: New Artillery Top 20* Albums of 2018.

Given the absurd amount of year-end lists cluttering The Internet, there shouldn’t be any sense of achievement for making one, but this list is the first I’ve finished since 2013. Every year since then I’ve worked on a list and made decent progress toward completion: selection, writing, design, formatting—just not finishing. Part of that failure is par for the course. I’ve gone thousands of words into pieces intended for this site and never shepherded them to the end. A larger part is the prevailing sense that my experience with a year of music will never be “complete” enough to put a stamp on it. I attempt to keep up with noteworthy releases from a year of music, get hopelessly behind, play Polvo’s Siberia a dozen times, realize there are fifty albums I need to hear before making a list, and think “Maybe next year is when I’ll hear everything of note.” But that is impossible, and I’m reasonably proud of continuing to add some previously unfamiliar artists to the stable of favorites who released a new record that I unsurprisingly enjoyed a great deal.

Here are ten additional songs that I enjoyed from this year, listed in alphabetical order.

The Beths / “Future Me Hates Me”

I just heard it this week, but The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me was nevertheless quite close to finding a place on my albums list. I first heard the New Zealand group on Jon Solomon’s 30-hour Christmas marathon on WPRB when he played their cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and he mentioned on-air that he still needed to check out their record. I made that same mental note, and Future Me Hates Me is an energetic, hyper-melodic indie pop album. Its title track is by no means the only keeper—I could have picked “Not Running” or “Little Death” without hesitation—but the overlapping vocal melodies in its final chorus are what sold me on the album.

Blanck Mass / “Please (Zola Jesus Remix)”

At this point, Benjamin John Power has been more productive in his solo project Blanck Mass than his ostensible main gig, Fuck Buttons. Over three proper full-lengths, a handful of EPs, and a smattering of worthwhile ephemera, Power has explored arpeggiated-synth ambient, BPM-crazed cardio-fuel, terrifying industrial, and warped-vocal catharsis. The four-track World Eater Re-Voxed EP compiles four remixes of songs from Blanck Mass’s astounding 2017 LP, and the clear highlight is Zola Jesus’s goth-club reimagining of “Please.” It starts off slow, but the crossing vocal lines in the final minutes wipe away memories of the stellar source material.

Christian Fitness / “Hamsterland”

I’m in the midst of writing a longer piece on Andrew Falkous’s one-man-band Christian Fitness (which hopefully will come into existence before 2023), but if you’ve never ventured beyond Falkous’s main gigs of Mclusky and Future of the Left, the closing track from Christian Fitness’s fifth (!) album, Nuance – The Musical is as good of a place to start as any. Driven by an elephantine keyboard lead (at least I assume it’s a keyboard, Falkous does some great work with guitar tones in CF), “Hamsterland” is at once calm and frenzied. “This is the bit at the end,” Falkous announces with a minute left in the song, and the lyrical zingers drop like bombs.

Let’s Eat Grandma / “Donnie Darko”

I first encountered this teenage experimental pop duo’s name on a show flyer at Great Scott in September. As much as I appreciate comma jokes, even outright groaners, I wasn’t expecting to see one while waiting for The Gotobeds to take the stage. A few months later I’d seen enough recommendations for LEG’s sophomore album, I’m All Ears, to finally check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised by the kaleidoscopic array of synth-pop textures. Not all of their ideas work, but it’s hard to complain when there’s such an incredible amount of them crammed into 52 minutes. With apologies to the blown-out hooks of “Hot Pink,” the club dizziness of “Falling into Me,” and the earnest slow-build of “I Will Be Waiting,” the record’s highlight is its eleven-minute closing track, “Donnie Darko.” Taking I’m All Ears’ penchant for sprawl to an extreme, “Donnie Darko” sounds like a previously unimagined collaboration between Lorde and Fuck Buttons.

Llarks / “What We Find Now”

Rehashing Chris Jeely’s resume would take an entire paragraph, but I first heard his music via selections of Accelera Deck’s Narcotic Beats on Epitonic in 1999 (which officially stopped existing this year), and I’ve followed his evolution through any number of sub-genres since then. He’s no less prolific with his latest nom de plume, Llarks (2018 LP Like a Daydream was preceded by the Metallic Summer Sea EP), but there’s a calmness and serenity to ambient compositions like “What We Find Now” that feels like the long-deserved resolution to an often-restless creative journey. My immediate point of comparison is Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, which are lofty heights indeed.

Midwife / “Forever”

Madeline Johnston followed up Midwife’s excellent 2017 LP Like Author, Like Daughter with the four-song Prayer Hands cassette, a slow drip of morphine for the bedridden. These lugubrious tracks would make perfect sense on Kranky Records, recalling the label’s “Going Nowhere Slow” t-shirt. You could peel away gossamer layers of fuzz for hours without reaching Johnston’s unaltered vocal tracks, and yet there’s still a clear emotional impact to lyrics like “I want to feel / Forever / I don’t know / I don’t know how” drifting in the ether.

Mogwai / “Donuts”

I’ve been a Mogwai fan for more than 20 years now, so please recognize the restraint needed to stop myself from nudging their soundtrack for the sci-fi movie Kin (which I still haven’t seen) into my top albums list by default. It’s not undeserving of praise, mind you—like 99% of Mogwai’s material, it is extremely listenable, and the final third comprised of moody post-rock explorations “Guns Down” and “Kin” and the up-tempo vocal number “We’re Not Done” is excellent—but on the whole, I prefer last year’s superb Every Country’s Sun. The highlight of the soundtrack comes at its midpoint, with the slowly pulsing synths of “Donuts” evolving into a neon-lit, mid-tempo stomp. It absolutely deserves inclusion on the next update of the six-LP best-of compilation Central Belters (which is now one proper LP and three soundtracks out of date).

Protomartyr / “Wheel of Fortune”

2017’s Relatives in Descent remains in regular rotation, but Protomartyr supplemented that tower-crashing achievement with the four-song Consolation EP. Vocalist Joe Casey is accompanied by The Breeders’ Kelley Deal (an arrangement that previously produced the superlative “Blues Festival”), and “I decide who lives and who dies!” is a chilling refrain for the pulse-of-a-nation-that’s-bleeding-out primacy of “Wheel of Fortune.” Every line cuts deep—“Wrath for sale and it is always Christmas,” “Your time is coming / That is our promise / If you’re not around your children will do,” “A man with a gun and a deluded sense of purpose / A good guy with a gun who missed”—but the wounded desperation of the song’s closing passage is truly haunting: “If you ever smile on me / Please let it be now / I wonder if you’ll fool me this time.”

Savak / “They Are Not Like Us”

Give me another month or two and Savak’s Beg Your Pardon likely makes my albums list, capping off a busy year-plus in which the group has released two LPs (just imagine I made a best-of-2017 list and the politically charged Cut-Ups is on it) along with two additional European singles (“Where Should I Start?” b/w “Expensive Things” and “Green and Desperate” b/w “This Dying Lake”), all of which are recommended. But right now, my brain’s trying to process a huge stack of records and every time I put on Beg Your Pardon, I end up focusing on the greatness its closing track, unintentionally slighting the eleven songs that precede it. “They Are Not Like Us” starts off as a slightly melancholic mid-tempo rock song about being disconnected from friends’ (presumably political) viewpoints, but halfway through, a wordless vocal part emerges over the insistent bass groove, and elegiac horns take command. Eventually everything gives way to those sighing horns, and there’s a minute-long requiem to close the song and the album. I know I need to play the rest of the album, but my desire to hear the final two minutes of “They Are Not Like Us” over and over is taking precedence at the moment.

We Were Promised Jetpacks / “Hanging In”

They released their debut LP slightly later than Frightened Rabbit or The Twilight Sad, but I still associate We Were Promised Jetpacks as part of that generation of Scottish indie rock bands. More meat-and-potatoes rock than either of those groups, WWPJ are now four albums deep into a discography that has occasionally struggled to surpass the ecstatic blast of their first single, “Quiet Little Voices.” Every album has a few songs channeling that electric charge, but The More I Sleep The Less I Dream is their first record that doesn’t lose my attention at some point. It’s tighter than its predecessors, the range of tempos and emotions is more noticeable, and choosing a single highlight is a challenge. I’ll go with “Hanging In,” a song that sways as well as it struts, that eventually builds to an explosive charge, but would have been great even if it hadn’t reached that climax.

Reviews: The Life and Times' The Life and Times

The Life and Times' The Life and Times

The recent vinyl reissue of Shiner’s mammoth Lula Divinia was a welcome marker of my twentieth year of listening to Allen Epley’s music. Whereas many other musicians in my circa-1997 heavy rotation have either lost my interest or lost their commitment, Epley has been a model of creative consistency with Shiner and The Life and Times. Lineups have shifted, aesthetics have evolved from Midwestern math-rock to sinewy shoegaze, yet the touchstones of Epley’s craft remain resolute: strong vocal melodies, often tinged with melancholy; slyly complex arrangements punctuated with immensely satisfying riffs; and a rhythm section with its own gravitational pull.

With their fifth, eponymous LP, The Life and Times has surpassed its primary predecessor in both duration and output. After switching rhythm sections for 2005’s debut LP Suburban Hymns, the trio of Epley, bassist Eric Abert (Ring, Cicada), and drummer Chris Metcalf (The Stella Link) has remained stable (aside from a brief dalliance with Traindodge’s Rob Smith) and has their approach locked down. Records lean in different directions—the shoegaze sonics of 2006’s The Magician EP, the cinematic scope of 2009’s Tragic Boogie, the brass-tacks immediacy of 2012’s No One Loves You Like I Do, the melodic surges of 2014’s Lost Bees—but each fits firmly within the group’s catalog as a whole. Both last year’s all-covers Doppelgänger EP (worth the download) and this self-titled LP operate in a middle ground of these leanings, assured of their stylistic parameters.

Reliability doesn’t make for a particularly sexy narrative—“Excellent Band Continues to Be Excellent”—but the songwriting on The Life and Times earns the group another long-term residence in the aforementioned heavy-rotation pile. Its bookends are the album’s longest and strongest tracks, each mining a familiar Epley lyrical motif: “Killing Queens” explores the thin line between adoration and obsession with falsetto verses and a roaring, slide-enabled chorus riff, while “We Know” sees midlife ennui haunted by creeping dread, as spaced-out chimes give way to Chris Metcalf’s pummeling outro. “Dear Linda” emerges from its shoegaze cocoon to find bracing clarity via the rhythm section. The colossal bridge riff of “Group Think” recalls Shiner’s finest moment, the ascendant mid-song interplay of “The Situationist.” “Out Thru the In Door” splits the difference between slippery post-punk verses and a sing-along chorus worthy of the Zeppelin smirk in its title. Abert leads the practically dance-ready “T=D/S,” his bass flipping between notes before opening up in the swirling chorus. The alternately dreamy and anthemic “I Am the Wedding Cake” undercuts its romantic overtures with a striking inclusion of “I don’t know you” in the chorus. Only the languid breather “Falling Awake” fails to leave much of an impression, but it does clear the deck for the pulsing instrumental “Dark Mavis.” Nine songs in a tight forty-one minutes, with each song inhabiting its logical residence in the running order.

It would honestly be easier if The Life and Times had a dramatic narrative, if Allen Epley became a hermit after The Egg and reappeared sixteen years later with a long-overdue reminder of what made his music compelling in the first place. But I’ll take the commitment to a regular release schedule and to the road, I’ll take the stack of worthy releases that have maintained my interest in that span. Whether The Life and Times sifts out as the finest in their catalog is up for debate—it’s certainly in the running—but the best thing about the group’s discography is that convincing cases can be made for virtually all of their albums.

Reviews: Atoms and Void's And Nothing Else

Atoms and Void's And Nothing Else

My most anticipated album for ten years running has arrived.

I first heard demos for Atoms and Void’s And Nothing Else sometime in 2005, back when the group was called Ghost Wars and debuting new material on MySpace was normal. To say the project intrigued me is a vast understatement: this collaboration between former Juno singer/guitarist Arlie Carstens and longtime Damien Jurado cohort Eric Fisher faced the immense task of following up my favorite album, Juno’s 2001 opus A Future Lived in Past Tense (which may get an overdue vinyl reissue in the near future). Those initial demos offered a range of possibilities: the IV-drip blues duet “Destroyed, The Sword of Saint Michael,” the alternately plaintive and thunderous post-rock of “Waves of Blood,” and the gentle humanism of the half-instrumental “Lay Down Your Weapons.” Less Dischord and DeSoto, more Kranky and Temporary Residence Limited. The distance from Juno’s dynamic post-punk was evident in these recordings, but even greater in the process, which abandoned Juno’s five-member line-up in favor of a long list of guest musicians steered by Carstens and Fisher, inspired by the legendary sessions for Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. No, this record would not be a simple sequel to the life-affirming expanse of A Future Lived in Past Tense, but its potential as a spiritual heir was evident from that handful of songs.

No one could have predicted that this potential would take a decade to realize. Dual catastrophes derailed completion of the demos: Eric Fisher’s laptop was stolen in 2006 and the back-up hard drive storing the ProTools sessions was corrupted, leaving the group with only .mp3 mix-downs of the sessions. Repeating the recording process was not an option: reassembling the geographically scattered array of guest musicians would have been a logistical impossibility. Years passed while Carstens and Fisher wrangled with data-recovery services in ultimately futile attempts to reconstruct session architecture. Enthusiasm for the material remained, but momentum was constantly undercut by all-too-familiar varieties of major life events: family illnesses, friends passing away, exhausting new jobs, constant travel. Every few years I’d hear a tantalizing new demo or receive an encouraging progress report, reinforcing my belief that at some point, the album would come out, but seemingly every hurdle was thrown at Carstens and Fisher, even the theft of the group’s original name by a litigious electronic artist.

Despite fate’s cruel, repeated intervention, And Nothing Else finally exists, released digitally in September (on my birthday, no less). Even “The Architect and the Atomizer” offers a red herring of hair-raising guitar rock. After a moody rise and fall laced with strings and piano, Carstens’s checked delivery ignites into a final-minute fire-and-brimstone sermon. Lyrics like “Three years of reprieve / Does not erase a lifetime of grief / Living on your knees / When the water closes there’s nothing left to see / There’ll be no legacy” recall the get-your-shit-together ferocity of “The French Letter” and “You Are the Beautiful Conductor of this Orchestra,” but it’s the only time Carstens assumes that voice on And Nothing Else.

“Lay Down Your Weapons” hits the reset button on listener expectations for the rest of the album, both sonically and lyrically. It resides in the Talk Talk / Bark Psychosis school of post-rock, with carefully arranged piano, an expressive bass line, and subtle electronic surges supplanting distorted guitars in the instrumental palette. It, too, has a Juno throwback, with its opening lines (“Your son / Wanted to talk a nap / So we closed his casket / And tried not to look back”) echoing similar tragedy in “When I Was In ____” (“Your son’s hands stayed warm / Long after he died”). Its previously instrumental second half now completes that sentiment, with multi-tracked vocals urging to “Lay down your weapons / And lay this love to rest / The wanting, the waiting / Will not take you there.” Whereas A Future Lived in Past Tense called for action, “Lay Down Your Weapons” fittingly recognizes that some circumstances are outside of our control, and no amount of struggling or reaching will bring proper closure.

What’s left, then, is mostly quiet contemplation. The lilting “Feathers From a Bird” floats on piano and clarinet, and its brand of ambient classical fits nicely into a growing prominence of that style. “Waves of Blood” continues the instrumental trend but increases the volume with its merger of Mogwai guitars and the double-drummer approach of Fugazi’s The Argument, manned here by Eric Akre of Treepeople/Built to Spill/Juno and J. Clark of Pretty Girls Make Graves. The crashes help raise the album’s heart rate, but the pairing of melancholy guitar and Rhodes melodies highlights the song. “For Sharon, With Love” is the first of the album’s piano ballads, an elegy (“We tried to walk in the light / But we died in the dark”) whose loneliness is embodied in the noticeable action from the keys. Given its somber surroundings, the brightness of “Golden Shivers,” a pulsing Phillip Glass / Steve Reich homage, is quite welcome. “Destroyed” adds a few overdubs to its demo version, but its skeletal feel remains, leaving nothing in the way of its haunting, mythic rumination on guilt. (Trivia: The closest Atoms and Void came to a live performance was Carstens singing a few bars of “Destroyed” during the soundcheck for Juno’s 2006 reunion shows in Seattle.)

The album’s centerpiece is “Virginia Long Exhale,” a song unveiled in 2005 and updated with a near-finished version two years later. It starts out simply enough—“We go down / To the lake”—and dodges instrumental tension with its careful blend of clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone, Rhodes, and both acoustic and electric guitars. (Drums occasionally appear, but if quizzed on their presence, I would have likely answered incorrectly.) But Carstens breathes devastating emotion in both hushed baritone and expressive falsetto into the song’s water imagery, rotating through a number of possible connotations—childhood games, baptism, suicide—before settling on the image of a body slowly passing away. In the midst of paralyzing grief, we rely on ritual (“This is what we do / When we know / Not what / To do”) to guide loved ones and eventually ourselves to the end. “Virginia Long Exhale” is supremely sad, supremely beautiful.

Whereas “Virginia Long Exhale” lingers in funereal repose, Eric Fisher’s “The Earth Countered” follows with a nervous energy. Layers of wordless humming, flickering acoustic strums, and distant drumming support Fisher’s lone lead vocal turn on And Nothing Else, but the most unsettling element of the song is the eerie calm with which he delivers “You won’t feel a thing.” After single-minute “Lowercase Blues” clears the decks, Carstens’ atmospheric piano ballad “The Conductor” has room to resonate. It’s not as focused lyrically as “Weapons” or “Virginia,” but there’s luxuriant depth to the arrangement, with woodwinds, Jenna Conrad's backing vocals, and echoing guitar softening each piano chord.

And Nothing Else closes with “This Departing Landscape,” which initially continues the trend of near-whispered Arlie Carstens piano ballads. Its scant few lines—“Things go wrong / The light will fade / The dawn will come / And this too shall fade away / But oh, oh, oh / I wish you could have stayed”—encapsulate the album’s themes of loss, renewal, and regret, but the gradual, determined swell of bob-and-weave guitar patterns and ringing piano chords offers a sense of closure and optimism that didn’t seem possible back on “The Architect and the Atomizer.” And Nothing Else is a heavy, often tragic record, but thanks to “This Departing Landscape,” I don’t leave it dwelling on tragedy or guilt, but rather with the feeling that those weights have been lifted.

And Nothing Else is a deeply personal record, both for Atoms and Void and my own listening history, but its translation of specific experiences into emotional connections is exemplary. “This Departing Landscape” generalizes those experiences into “things,” and given the long-term perspective of the album’s decade in development, I transpose write my own narrative from that era into the album. My father succumbing to cancer, my grandmother passing away at 100, my daughter being born. There’s no answer to the easiest question about And Nothing Else—“Was it worth the wait?”—because its excellence is fused to those events in my memory. Yet few albums can carry such a load (Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense foremost among them), a point that’s been underlined hundreds of times in the last decade with each album that didn’t measure up to the hypothetical Atoms and Void album I would one day hear, to the tangible Atoms and Void album that now exists. Perhaps one day there will be another Atoms and Void album (there is more material, like the cut-loose rocker “The Elephant in Your Womb”), a vastly different record that would speak to vastly different experiences, but I’ll apply the patience learned since the initial Ghost Wars demos to any potential timetable.

Reviews: Survival Knife's "Traces of Me" and "Divine Mob" Singles

Survival Knife's 'Divine Mob'

The past year and a half has been generous to Unwound devotees. Between the excellent Live Leaves (a document of their five-person tour line-up for the Leaves Turn Inside You originally intended for release in 2003), Numero Group’s Record Store Day 2013 delivery of Justin Trosper and Vern Rumsey’s high-school band Giant Henry’s unreleased album Big Baby, and Numero’s comprehensive, immaculately designed box set of Unwound’s early days, The Kid Is Gone (the start of a must-own series of reissues, continuing in March with Rat Conspiracy), there’s an embarrassment of riches. Hell, you can even buy t-shirts again. What’s lacking from this steady stream of legacy protection is an actual reunion. No tour dates, no new material, as per the Fugazi model.

If you can accept that Unwound won’t be reforming to unleash Leaves Turn Inside Two or hitting your local club to doubled ticket prices, you’re in a good place to hear Justin Trosper and Brandt Sandeno’s new group, Survival Knife. Like any number of second-acts from 1990s staples (Burning Airlines, Jets to Brazil, Evens, and especially Hot Snakes), Survival Knife faces an inevitable, somewhat unfair comparison to their beloved predecessor, one I’ll dive into instead of attempting to avoid. The four available tracks from Survival Knife recall compact rockers from Repetition and Challenge for a Civilized Society (“Corpse Pose,” “Data”) with some of the mechanical precision stripped away. The hard-rock/hardcore directness infused in Survival Knife’s shout-along choruses was absent from much of Unwound’s art-damaged catalog, particularly the sprawling Leaves. And yet Trosper’s musical DNA hasn’t been completely altered; the mutating guitar parts and verse vocal delivery are immediately identifiable as his work.

If you’re forced to choose between the two seven-inch singles Survival Knife issued in 2013— “Traces of Me” b/w “Name That Tune” on Sub Pop; “Divine Mob” b/w “Snakebit” on Kill Rock Stars—pick up the latter. The Sub Pop single is worth checking out if not faced with an unlikely hypothetical situation (two Unwound fanatics come across one copy of each single at precisely the same time…), but “Traces of Me” feels unduly restrained when compared to the abrasive energy and bigger riffs of “Divine Mob” and the Meg Cunningham-howler “Snakebit.” I prefer Survival Knife when it’s held to my throat.

2013 (and 2012!) Year-End List Extravaganza

Top 25 Albums of 2013

First things first: You can view (and sample!) my top 25 albums of 2013 and my top 12 albums of 2012.

Yes, it took me a full year to finish a list for 2012. Yes, it only has twelve albums. No, that doesn’t necessarily imply that 2012 was “a terrible year for music,” nor does my doubled selection total mean that 2013 was “a great year for music.” (Any time I see those grand declarations, my eyes roll into the back of my head.) I listened to fewer albums in 2012, many bands I’d usually slot in by default had an off year, and I had less time and enthusiasm in December to complete a list, let alone replicate my exhausting review of the previous year’s contending titles. Comparatively, tons of bands—familiar and unfamiliar—issued worthy albums in 2013, I regained some energy for listening to and occasionally writing about music, and my wheelhouse genres of angular indie rock and ambient had strong years. I’m unwilling and unprepared to objectively declare 2013 a fantastic year in music for all tastes, but for mine, it certainly was. Subjectivity strikes again!

In case two year-end album lists isn’t enough, here are some supplemental selections.

Ten Honorable Mentions from 2013:

Eight Excellent Seven-Inch Singles from 2013:

  • Alpha Cop / Carton, Split Single
  • Julianna Barwick, “Pacing” b/w “Call”
  • Daria / Office of Future Plans, Split Single
  • Fat History Month / My Dad, Split Single
  • Future of the Left, Love Songs for Our Husbands
  • Loscil, Sine Studies I
  • Lower Dens / Horse Lords, Split Single
  • Speedy Ortiz, “Hexxy” b/w “Ka-Prow!”

Two Sources of Ongoing Ethical Conflict

  1. “Free” concerts offered by shoe companies: I enjoy not paying for things as much as the next guy, but tripping over future landfills worth of Vans promotional garbage at The Walkmen’s potentially final show in Boston and seeing “Converse” emblazoned on the chest of The Men’s bassist has forced me to recognize that corporate back-slapping always has a price.
  2. Band-circumventing vinyl reissues: I enjoy re-buying beloved 1990s albums that I already own on CD way, way more than the next guy, but 1972 Records’ Stereolab reissues are almost certainly sourced from those very CDs instead of the original masters and have no involvement from Tim Gane or Duophonic, while Shop Radio Cast’s wish-fulfilling pressing of Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut cut Matt Talbott’s attempts to reissue the album on his own terms down at the knees. (Fortunately, he has a stockpile of original copies you can occasionally buy.) Labels, be more like Numero Group and add value to your reissues by actually involving the artists who created them. Bands, be proactive in reissuing your catalogs so that shady operations don’t do it first. Record collectors, investigate the origins of the reissue you’re holding before you plunk down $27.99 on it.

Two New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

  • Actually finish reviews and features: If I merged my partially and mostly completed posts from the last two years, I’d have a damn book.
  • Keep reminding myself about that first resolution: I'll have a headstart on months of posts, at least.

Reviews: Girls Against Boys' The Ghost List EP

Girls Against Boys' The Ghost List EP

Unlike some of their similarly reformed ’90s indie rock peers, Girls Against Boys (the unfamiliar should consult my primer) aren’t returning from the hard stop of an acrimonious break-up. Their decade of relative inactivity since the Jade Tree–issued You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See was still marked by the occasional live appearance—specifically, the Touch and Go 25th Anniversary Block Party, All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Don’t Look Back, ATP vs. Pitchfork, and a 2009 European tour; generally speaking, anywhere I was not living at the time. Their 3X bass expansion unit could still boot up when called upon, but as a fully functioning machine, GVSB had gone into standby. I’d have to subsist on their consistently excellent discography, particularly their trio of superlative LPs on Touch and Go, and cross my fingers that one of these appearances would be in my time zone.

Three surprises greeted me in 2013: first, Girls Against Boys announced a brief East Coast tour, including a stop at Great Scott in Allston; second, a pairing forged at the Absolutely Free Festival in Belgium made its way to the American bills as well, with The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow accompanying GVSB for part of their set; third, The Ghost List EP was announced for a fall release on Epitonic. Of the three, new material was the stunner. (David Yow keeping it in his pants was a close second.) It’s one thing to issue an EP after a decade of heavy touring, but with only sporadic events on their calendar, Girls Against Boys weren’t the likeliest candidates to present new songs.

Not that I’m arguing with this development. Similar to Superchunk’s post-hiatus records, Girls Against Boys slip comfortably back into their trademark sound on The Ghost List. Its five tracks occupy terrain between the well-oiled machinery of House of GVSB and the up-front melodies of You Can’t Fight…, constructing a veritable bridge over the questionable production values of Freak*on*ica. Despite being assembled from a mix of half-finished song sketches and newly authored tracks, The Ghost List doesn’t prompt a round of when-was-this-song-written like My Bloody Valentine’s M B V.

With only five songs spanning eighteen minutes, The Ghost List wisely avoids filler. Opener “It's a Diamond Life” struts with distorted keyboards and emphatic Eli Janney background vocals while Scott McCloud glares at both one-percenters (“It's a crystal system”) and those overeager to join them (“I don't know what I want / But I want it a lot”). “Fade Out” accelerates from trot to gallop on its chorus, flying by in a scant 2:20. The subtly meta-critical “60 > 15” ("I've heard your volume kills / I’ve seen your psychic thrills") confirms GVSB's rhythm section's continued ownership over mid-tempo pummeling. Despite GVSB’s ongoing emphasis on rhythm, “Let's Get Killed” offers one of their clearest melodies to date, on par with the highlights of You Can't Fight... and “One Dose of Truth” from the Series 7 soundtrack. Finally, “Kick” recalls the genuine malice lurking on Girls Against Boys' mid-period classics. Its orchestral stabs are a successful new addition to their repertoire, even though the EP’s emphasis on trademark-renewal didn’t mandate a step forward.

Here's the only drawback: The Ghost List proves Girls Against Boys can hold their own as a fully reunited band in a modern context, but it doesn't necessarily dictate that they will. The geographical and logistical hurdles that prompted their decade layoff from recording still exist: Scott McCloud lives in Vienna and focuses on the comparatively chill Paramount Styles, Eli Janney is a NYC-based recording engineer/podcast host, Johnny Temple has his hands full with Akashic Books, and Alexis Fleisig drums for three other bands (Paramount Styles, Obits, and Bellini). Maybe a full catalog reissue like Numero's exhaustive Unwound box sets would prompt an overdue critical reappraisal (“Yes, indie rockers did have sex in the 1990s”), further touring, and more material, but the roulette wheel of vinyl reissues could instead land on more stealthy repressings from Touch and Go. I’d prefer the former, obviously, but The Ghost List would stand as a worthy final chapter if Girls Against Boys go back into standby.