Catching up to all the albums that have been sitting around here for months is getting to be a lot of fun! We were sussed to this one via excellently uncategorizable indie chamberpop rockers Bern & the Brights. On their most recent album Disasters (available from their bandcamp as a free download), New Jersey band Black Water go for a somewhat retro 80s indie songwriting style but with vastly better production values and influences that run the gamut from ska and reggae to dreampop and the occasional anthemic 90s Britpop vibe. It’s a compelling and completely original blend of catchy and hypnotic.
The opening track sets a tone for the rest of the album, darkly reggae-tinged with a swirling My Bloody Valentine edge, noisy but also hook-driven. “At night, we take cover,” is the phrase they run over and over again. The second cut has more of a Britpop feel, like a slightly less herky-jerky Wire. Arizona is southwestern gothic ska with tastily intertwining guitar and bass. “I’d rather die than live one more day in fear,” the singer intones in a quavery voice that adds genuine apprehension. Black Water Song begins with a funky pulse but grows hypnotic and atmospheric, with an ominous bridge featuring distant sirens and outdoor ambience that builds to a cyclotron of guitars – and ends cold, as if the tape just ran out at some random point.
The theme continues where it left off on the next track, Keep Your Eyes Closed, which after awhile starts to sound like an absolutely unhinged version of Ceremony by New Order. The single best song here is the ridiculously memorable, darkly ska-inflected Drugstore Model, rich with layers of reverb guitar, like a faster and more skittish version of the Dream Syndicate. With its noisy, funky verse working up to chorus anthemics, Oh My God wouldn’t be out of place in the Botanica catalog, especially when it switches to a long ska vamp with layers of slamming guitar chords and wild tremolo-picking. The album winds up with the inventive dreampop/soul blend of 7 Years. Solid songs, all of them, not a single miss here: you don’t see that very often. Shame on us for not getting around to it sooner. Since releasing this one, the band has gone through some changes, with an additional vocalist, lead guitarist and a new, supposedly more pop-oriented album due early in 2011. If it bears any resemblance to this one, it’ll be great.
Quick, how many New Order wannabes can you name? This mixtape seeems to have all of ‘em, many of them featured at this year’s Seaport Music Festival. If the original wasn’t enough for you, here are the sons and daughters of Bernard, Gillian and Steve (Peter deserves better than most of this because he’s a good musician whose personal taste in music runs far afield of this catchy but mostly derivative stuff). Let’s see what we have here:
Black Moth Super Rainbow – Tooth Decay. Vocoder vox, hypnotic 80s synth, New Order meets Midnight Starr – catchy and simple. They’re playing South St. Seaport on 7/24.
Blank Dogs – Waiting (mix 2). Uptight, untight drums, early New Order i.e. circa Movement, when they were a guitar band but with a late 80s shoegaze edge. Could be better, but it has some promise.
Casiokids – Verdens Storste Land demo. Closer to the synthy stuff New Order were doing on Brotherhood and afterward
Dan Friel – Ghost Town Pt. 1. New Order as played on a dollar-store imitation Casio through the bottom-of-the-line Guitar Center brand amp
Here We Go Magic – Fangela. Less New Order than 60s psychedelic pop done demo-style with a drum machine and barely demo-quality vocals. A good guitar band like the Motion Sick could have a field day with this.
Obits – Two-Headed Coin. Catchy 60s bass riff, reverb-drenched 60s garage guitar, kinda noir. Best track on the cd so far. Hmmm…ought to check this band out sometime. They’re at South St. Seaport on 7/31 opening for Polvo, supposedly sometime around 7.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Come Saturday. Total Teenage Fanclub ripoff, i.e. middle-period Jesus & Mary Chain without any balls. The first real dud here. How come of all these bands so far, only the Obits have ever heard of a minor key?
Polvo – Beggar’s Bowl. Now this kicks ass! Hypnotic swirling intro, evil growling leads, a stomping rhythm section and then some eerie slightly Middle Eastern flourishes. And how about that flameout at the end, damn! Were these guys the best guitar band of the 90s or what? Sounds nothing like New Order either. They’re at South St. Seaport on 7/31.
Ribbons – Inclusion. OK, back to the New Order wannabes, at least this has some passion and some percussive guitars. New Order play Television maybe.
School of Seven Bells - Face to Face on High Places. Arty, kinda 4AD, ornate synth giving way to trebly, minimal Bernard-style guitar, then the synth comes back. So unoriginal. At least they’re not ripping off Pearl Jam.
Slow Club – It Doesn’t Have to Be Beautiful. Rich white kids with a drum machine taking a pitiful stab at bluegrass. Barf.
Superchunk – Misfits and Mistakes. Yawn, booooring. Strictly for 35-and-overs who miss hearing this garbage at college parties in the 90s.
Versus - Eskimo. Not their best song (Fontaine wrote most of their real good ones) – this is just a simple poppy riff over and over again until suddenly the eeriness kicks in. But then it’s gone. Fast forward…
The Wave Pictures – Just Like a Drummer. Oh jeeeezus…a 30-year-old guy singing like he’s 13. And he uses the word “hipster” in a way that might not be a slur. Puke. Next…
So here’s what you get for free (download it here for the next week): three solid hits, a bunch of ok-to-good stuff and only three real duds. Plus you can dance to most of this. Burn the best of this for your kid sister to help wean her off the Jonas Bros.
Martin Bisi’s indie cred is without question: his resume as a producer includes the Dresden Dolls, Sonic Youth, Live Skull and Black Fortress of Opium, to name just a few of the best. Yet his greatest achievements have been not behind the board but as a songwriter and bandleader. This download-only ep (it’s up at itunes and Contraphonic’s very easily negotiable site) impressively captures the freewheeling noir intensity, out-of-the-box imagination and counterintuitivity that come out so strongly at his live shows. The album features welcome contributions from a like-minded cast of characters, Bisi’s old 80s pal Bill Laswell as well as members of the Dresden Dolls, Balkan Beat Box, World Inferno and drummer Bob D’amico of the Fiery Furnaces.
The opening cut Drink Your Wine is basically punk Motown in the same vein as the Clash’s Hitsville UK with layers of the guy/girl vocals that have come to typify Bisi’s recent work along with a characteristically sardonic lyrical sensibility: “Drink your wine and don’t be silly,” Bisi admonishes: he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Building from a dusky noir intro, disembodied vocals rising over bass chords, Rise Up Cowboy explodes into a pounding art-rock anthem laden with dynamic shifts, layers of evil psychedelic guitar glimmering in the background, Bisi doing an impressive job as Peter Murphy-style frontman. The Damned only wish they could have sounded this apprehensive and ominous.
Mile High – Formaldehyde blends early 90s style Lower East Side noir blues with careening Firewater/Botanica style gypsy punk, propelled by the Dresden Doll’s Brian Viglione on drums. Its companion track Mile High – Apple of My Eye, with Laswell on bass, is a study in contrast, sultry and pulsing, something akin to New Order as done by early Ministry. It’s a vividly sisterly approximation of the previous cut’s menace, which is particularly appropriate in that it was inspired by Bisi’s daughter. With its clever layers of vocals, the final cut, the title track recalls the off-the-rails psychedelic eeriness of Bisi’s previous album Sirens of the Apocalyse (very favorably reviewed here). Essential listening for fans of dark imaginative rock: Bisi has several midwest and New England live dates coming up. You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year – not bad for a little five-song ep.