Album Review: Van Goose’s “Habitual Eater”

van goose

Van Goose

Habitual Eater

(Cardboard Queen Records)

Van Goose is largely promoted as “Marcy Playground member” Shlomi Lavie’s solo project, which is true but certainly not indicative of what you’re getting with Habitual Eater. Rather, from the opening drum machine and bass on “Last Bus,” the album quickly draws comparison with the works of another prominent Brooklyn artist: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and The DFA fame. In many ways, this album (especially the first half) splits the difference between those two Murphy projects, injecting a healthy dose of The DFA’s more outwardly ebullient electro-disco beats into the framework of original, eccentric, jittery and humorous indietronica/dance-punk tunes.

There’s an argument to be made that there’s no greater weapon for a pop songwriter to wield than ADD, and Lavie makes it exceedingly well on the A-side of Habitual Eater. Tracks generally start minimal but quickly build into towering monuments to hip New York clubs as Lavie ceaselessly stacks rhythms on top of one another like a child curious to see how high he can go before it all comes tumbling down. He’s an imaginative architect, but not an unrealistic one. He crafts polyrhythms from such conventional instrumentation as drums, guitar, bass and synths to more peculiar choices such as Wurli, Synare and Omnichord. These constructions get about as busy as possible without becoming overwhelming or overcrowded, giving the listener an abundance of disparate patterns to follow and compulsively jerk about the brain and body whilst still giving each individual part plenty of room to breathe within the mix.

As a drummer first and foremost, it’d be reasonable to expect that Lavie would have a firm handle on the percussive elements of his music. What’s more surprising is his gift for quirky, endlessly quotable vocal hooks. From “I have no feeling in my upper jaw/ I should have taken the last bus” (“Last Bus”) to “ I laid an egg/ On Mike Myers ” (“Mike Myers”), Lavie demonstrates an uncanny knack for getting a listener to shout clever absurdities along with him. His humor also has a tendency to venture into black territory: “She’s No Pressure” was inspired by the real life story of a woman crashing her own funeral after her husband put out a hit on her and she faked her death, disturbed and subversive subject matter for such a bouncy, radio-ready tune.

If Habitual Eater could be likened to an aerobics tape, its A-side is a briskly paced warm-up and frenetic, challenging early-middle workout. The B-side is the cool-down. “Right Wave” is the closest in form to the opening four and works as a solid pop song on its own, but it lacks much of the infectious charm, inventive assembly and sheer kinetic energy that make “She’s No Pressure” and “Where’s My Guy” such addictive ear candy. “On My Hand” rounds out the tracks that could reasonably be called dance music, but adapts a notably different aura as a cold, brooding sci-fi shuffle: The tempo is knocked down several notches and Lavie’s vocals are sparse, stoic and modulated to make him sound robotic as ray gun-like synths light up the atmosphere. An interesting experiment, but also one that works against Lavie’s natural charisma.

The two songs that end Habitual Eater are even more substantial departures, one a resounding success, the other considerably less so. “On My Hand” and “Right Wave” are good songs that fall victim to the context created by their stellar brethren: such is not the case for “Relax Your Face,” a stiff, awkward, groove-less track that stands as Devil’s Advocate against the argument for attention deficit made earlier. Where “Last Bus” and “Mike Myers” would shift and layer the fringe ideas borne of being unable to settle in thought and then compile them into a focused package, “Relax Your Face” aggressively and stiltedly marches through its runtime without much care. On the other hand, “Wildstar” is phenomenal, easily the crown jewel of the second half, with its breathtaking production and space rock/neo-psych overtones.

Habitual Eater ends up a remarkable debut, positively oozing fun from its every pore through its first half. While the B-side is more of a mixed bag, it still largely consists of relatively well written material and “Wildstar” is a gem. It’s more than worthy of your attention, and more than worthy of dropping “Marcy Playground member” from its future press materials: Van Goose stands firmly on its own.

 

Favorite tracks: “Last Bus”, “Wildstar”

 

 

 

Rating: Recommended

 

You can purchase Van Goose’s Habitual Eater here.

 

This review was originally written for Spectrum Culture and later adapted for Counterzine.

Album Review: Townes Van Zandt’s “Sky Blue”

SkyBlue

Townes Van Zandt

Sky Blue

(Fat Possum / TVZ Records)

Sky Blue is a full-fledged archival album, not a collection of demos or outtakes or some slapdash assembly of cutting room floor recordings scattered about Townes Van Zandt’s career. Of its 11 songs, two are never-before released, six are alternate versions of previously released songs and three are covers. The material was all recorded during early 1973 with Van Zandt’s close friend Bill Hedgepeth. If those ratios don’t persuade you, consider the high frequency of alternate recordings across Van Zandt’s early discography: Our Mother the Mountain, the self-titled album, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, his three most popular studio albums, all feature alternate versions of songs from his debut, For the Sake of the Song. This new collection is as legitimate as any album the man released in the ’70s–perhaps even more so.

For all his immense talents as a singer, guitarist and especially as a songwriter, Van Zandt’s studio catalog has been historically marked by inconsistent production, often of the excessive, ornate variety. The man’s best recordings, 1969’s self-titled album and the legendary live double LP Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (also recorded in 1973) were also his most bare. Sky Blue pushes this even further, not just production-wise, but emotionally.

Label Fat Possum describes the version of “Pancho and Lefty” found here to be an “early draft” of the song, but that makes little sense. The famous, “fully realized” original was released in 1972, the year before this version was recorded, and that was a solid, matter-of-fact rendition of one of the greatest songs ever written. The version recorded on Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas five years later upped its potency. More than four decades later, this so-called “early draft” feels like the definitive recording of the song. The performance is raw and inward, humming and ringing like a lonely hangover in a room with no light. The Eggers studio production found on other albums, frequently characterized by large, sweeping arrangements and dramatic flourishes, often seemed to act like a layer of armor for Townes. Even with his live recordings, there was always a level of guarded poise when communicating directly with his audience, always willing to share himself, but not fully.

All that is stripped away here. Van Zandt’s voice, normally somber, yet clean and stable, strains and cracks as he tells the tale of “two Mexican bandits [he] saw on the TV two weeks after [he] wrote the song.” In interviews, the song’s meaning was described literally, but in retrospect it’s a symbolic fable of self-sabotage: Pancho is the part of himself born for greatness, and Lefty the saboteur bent on killing it. The theory of this reading is given more credence with the Sky Blue version: Townes is connecting on a more personal level with the song than ever before.

This extends to every previously heard Van Zandt original included on Sky Blue. The poetic, beautifully sad “Rex’s Blues” and anti-war epic “Silver Ships of Andilar” already had solid recordings, but removing the polish and the instrumental accompaniment adds even further weight to the words, the phrasing and the picking. In the case of “Snake Song,” this new version salvages a song that was once known for its goofy, over-the-top desert rattlesnake samples and transforms it into the serious self-loathing it should’ve always been. The new ‘smoky’ version of “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues”? Well, okay, it’s still not a stellar song, but it’s better than it was on High, Low and in Between.

The selection of covers are strong as well. Van Zandt’s interpretations of Richard Dobson’s “Forever for Always for Certain” and Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” aren’t drastic deviations, but they do justice to the originals. “Hills of Roane County” is the real standout among this batch. Far removed from the bright bluegrass version popularized by Tony Rice, Townes’ take is cold, ruthless, and calamitous, just as a murder ballad should be.

Finally, both new originals are gorgeous: It’s a complete shock they’ve been buried more than 40 years. “All I Need” feels like something of a weary, long-lost brother to “Rex’s Blues”, characterized by a strong longing for true freedom: “Tried everything to set me free / But my chains keep playing tricks on me.” The title track almost feels closer to Nick Drake than to Townes, with its winding, gentle yet active guitar melody and depressive, nature-linked lyricism. It features some of the best verses the legend has ever penned, both darkly witty (“To me, living’s / To be laughing / In satisfaction’s face“) and just nakedly dark (“No good reason / To be living / Been looking high and low”). “Sky Blue” is so completely clear, one has to wonder if the only reason we hadn’t heard it until now is because he couldn’t bring himself to be quite that open.

Why are we just hearing this material now? Did Van Zandt want to release it, only to be turned down due to the raw sound? Did it not turn out the way he wanted it? Was it intended as an emotional, therapeutic exercise meant only for himself and Hedgepeth? It almost feels invasive to hear, but it’s a powerful listen, and our understanding of the haunted genius is better off for it. It just misses out on being Van Zandt’s definitive statement–the self-titled album is stronger song-for-song–but it feels like this is how the man was always supposed to sound. Sky Blue is a revelation, and essential.

 

Favorite tracks: “All I Need”, “Sky Blue”, “Pancho and Lefty”

 

 

 

Rating: Essential

 

You can purchase Townes Van Zandt’s Sky Blue here.

 

This review was originally written for Spectrum Culture and later adapted for Counterzine.

Track Premiere: MERGE’s “Kingdom Comedown”

MERGE_BC

Not content to rest for any period of time, Nancy Kells aka Spartan Jet-Plex (whose Godless Goddess earlier this year we absolutely loved) has yet another assembly of stirring tunes prepped and ready, this time in the form of a project with frequent collaborator and fellow collective member Berko Lover called MERGE. The second single from their upcoming self-titled debut album, “Kingdom Comedown” sees the duo merge (too easy but it had to be done) Spartan Jet-Plex’s neofolk influenced art pop and Berko Lover’s trip hop into a dense and shadowy shuffle that serves as a harbinger of patriarchal collapse. Marbles in jars rattle and clink, heralding horns blare, and busy electronics swarm like locusts over the ominous, swirling drone and witchy back-and-forth chants. These calamitous, brooding ingredients pool together, forming an image of a dark, ritualistic circle dance conducted in an effort to summon forth an otherworldly power to eradicate tyranny.

 

 

You can also listen to the project’s first single, “Thunder”, below:

 

MERGE’s self-titled debut is set to release April 12 digitally and on cassette via Grimalkin Records. Also scheduled for release is a 7″ lathe cut including “Kingdom Comedown” and “Thunder”. Artwork (featuring childhood photos of Spartan Jet-Plex and Berko Lover) by Elizabeth Owens (whose Coming of Age we also greatly enjoyed).

Tape Review: Sir Babygirl’s “Crush on Me”

52746945_976632226058231_8248016540532736000_n

Sir Babygirl

Crush on Me

(Father/Daughter Records)

Hanover’s renaissance bi Kelsie Hogue has shifted professional creative focus several times over, from theater to hardcore bubblegum music to comedy, and now, electropop with Sir Babygirl. While this career trajectory may imply a lack of focus that does occasionally show itself on her debut album Crush on Me in the self-indulgent reprisals and outro, for the six ‘main’ songs, her wealth of diverse artistic experiences inform each other to craft brilliant sing-into-your-hairdryer-in-front-of-the-mirror pop with captivating dramatic flair and playful self-deprecating humor.

Crush on Me sounds a lot like the soundtrack to an imagined ’90s teen movie, and as much as it recalls turn-of-the-century radio pop (Brittney Spears and Christina Aguilera are listed as influences), one gets the sense that records such as Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and Team Dresch’s Personal Best may have also played a role in forming the unapologetic DIY queer pop princess that is Sir Babygirl. Most of the songs’ lyrics involve Hogue poking fun at herself as a veiled expression of her hurt (a hangover from her work as a comedienne) and involve dating struggles, party anxiety, being a bad friend, and relationship difficulties in general. Vocally, she teeters back-and-forth between art pop and emo/pop punk: the rising, layered self-harmonies on “Heels” recall Coffman and Deradoorian on Bitte Orca, while songs such as “Everyone Is a Bad Friend” and “Pink Lite” bring to mind Hayley Williams of Paramore fame. The album as a whole is riddled with huge, emotional out-pours of breathy, belting angst and skittering, paranoid electronics, which feeds into the idea of Crush on Me being a conceptual anthology centered around feeling awkward and awful, but still finding a way to love yourself. “Heels”, “Flirting with Her”, “Cheerleader”, “Haunted House”, “Everyone Is a Bad Friend”, and “Pink Lite” make up an incredible set of tunes, each one overflowing with an abundance of personality and infectious melodies.

As great as the core material is, the reprisals of “Flirting with Her” and “Haunted House” disrupt what would otherwise be a steady stream of sticky bubblegum pop bangers. They’re interesting in the sense that they less reprise the songs themselves and more the themes associated with them, and they’re well-produced, but they also feel like padding within the context of such a brief album. Regarding the title-track outro: it’s an outro. It’s not nearly as irritating as the meme-like video version (there are only about ten seconds of dull trap beat, siren synths, and high-pitched, repetitive vocals before transforming into something far more likable, as opposed to the full track), and the message of self-love is nice, but it’s still rather under-cooked. These only make up about four minutes of Crush on Me though, and are nowhere near egregious enough to derail it.

Crush on Me isn’t spotless as is and knowing how close it would be as a six song EP is a bit frustrating, but what’s a compelling pop artist if not flawed and a bit frustrating? Sir Babygirl is assuredly compelling, at her best creating hyper-addictive, funny, and emotionally honest modern electropop that’s unlikely to be topped by anything in its lane this year, and she’s at her best far more often than not. If you want to make a theoretical stretch, you could even make the argument that Crush on Me’s diversionary reprises and outro are important in their own peculiar way. Considering the thematic through-line of not simply accepting, but loving your imperfections and reveling in being a bit of a hot mess, perhaps such seemingly unnecessary missteps are in fact very necessary in painting the portrait of Sir Babygirl. Whether you subscribe to that philosophy or not, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much when you’re in the midst of being enraptured by Hogue’s charm, wit, and affinity for a killer hook.

Not to project too much into the future, but if Hogue does decide to “ride out” her crush on the Sir Babygirl project instead of taking up Yu-Gi-Oh! or canoeing, big things are in store.

 

Favorite tracks: “Haunted House”, “Cheerleader”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended

 

You can purchase Sir Babygirl’s Crush on Me here.

Tape Review: “Splixtape”

53023826_334520277173008_7570533205330100224_n

Various Artists

Splixtape

(Hypnic Jerk)

Splixtape is one of an opening trio of tapes from new Alabama label Hypnic Jerk, featuring the talents of psychedelic soundscape artists Prana Crafter, ragenap, Tarotplane, and Horse Apples.

The A-side belongs to Prana Crafter and ragenap. If you follow independent psychedelic music, Prana Crafter’s attachment to this project is likely to be the first thing to stand out about Splixtape. Having swelled up a decent cult following the release of Bohdi Cheetah’s Choice and Enter the Stream last year, he stands as the ‘big name’ here and turns in a couple of predictably great tracks in “Creek Born Mind” and “Daydream in the Arvo Sun (Vision of Captain Trips Cruisin’ Shotgun in Sun Ra’s Ship)”. “Creek Born Mind” has floated around for a while since 2016 as a single and in 2017 as an inclusion on the For the Love of Chris Tressler digital compilation, finding a home on Splixtape nearly three years later. Its age has done nothing to wear on its atmospheric beauty: balancing reverb-soaked electric and acoustic guitar work against each other, awash in ethereal ambiance and the sounds of a running creek, it induces a peaceful, meditative high. “Daydream in the Arvo Sun (Vision of Captain Trips Cruisin’ Shotgun in Sun Ra’s Ship)” plays with many of the same elements, but is a looser, more overtly experimental piece, particularly when morphing into a off-kilter organ solo around the four minute mark which brings to mind an acid trip at a carnival.

ragenap is Joel Berk of sweetblahg, but this project itself is a bit of a mystery. However, that doesn’t preclude him from having what might just be the best track on Splixtape, “mag-nette drags thru”. It opens with warm, relaxed post-punk guitar, intermittently punctuated by twinkling synths before building into an ambient/post-rock piece, and then further mutating into Eastern-flavored psychedelia.

On the flip-side, Tarotplane and Horse Apples contribute a couple of spacey ambient works in “The Hallelujah Rain, Or Sky Mountain & Masking Tape in Endless Agreement” and “A, C, A, C, A, C, A, C, B (x4)” respectively. Tarotplane’s track aims straight for the stratosphere with its wild guitar solo emerging from the clouds like a rocket towards the end of its runtime, while Horse Apples’ replicates the effects of a fistful of mood stabilizers: gentle, steady, and precise.

Perhaps even more striking than the individual allure of each track is how well they all play off of each other, remaining distinct while still forming a cohesive whole that’s rare regarding four-way splits. They feel a bit like scores to scenes from the same film.

Splixtape hits on just about every note a compilation should hope to, introducing the listener to new artists (in the case of ragenap, in the truest sense: I can’t find any other music under the moniker), working as an introductory overview of the types of sounds you can expect from label Hypnic Jerk, all the while coalescing into a release you could easily mistake for collaboration rather than compilation, achieving uncommon sonic unity. A great tape for those looking to take a sprawling, drug-induced walkabout through the forests and the skies.

 

Favorite tracks: “Creek Born Mind”, “mag-nette drags thru”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended

 

You can purchase Splixtape here.

Tape Review: Curling’s “Definitely Band”

52893636_291808748170192_6514112941485195264_n

Curling

Definitely Band

(Copper Mouth Records)

In 1991, Spin notably flew in the face of conventional wisdom when they named Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque as their album of the year, over perhaps the most culturally impactful album of the entire decade, Nirvana’s Nevermind. The decision was met with confusion: Nevermind was the sound of the future, the catalyst for massive overhaul in the landscape of popular music. Bandwagonesque? Sure, it was a great record, but it certainly didn’t set the musical world ablaze. We’re talking about a 27 year old album that peaked at #137 and to this day has yet to receive a gold certification being named as the best of the entire year by one of the biggest music publications of the time, over Neverfuckingmind by Nirfuckingvana. Bandwagonesque was affectionately referred to as Big Star’s 4th by the press of the time, which is something of an implicative double-edged sword.

What does this all have to do with Curling’s Definitely Band? Well, if Bandwagoneque is 4th, you can call Definitely Band Big Star’s 5th (alongside being so much more), and what Spin said about Bandwagonesque for 1991 applies to Definitely Band for 2018: this is the best album of its year.

If you’re to believe all things come in cycles and Bandwagonesque is the reincarnation of the mostly straight-forward #1 Record, then Definitely Band would most closely resemble Radio City: adventurous and quirk-riddled, simultaneously half-broken and flawless. Keyboards are warped to sound nearly like flutes (“Flutter”), perfect pop songs dissipate halfway through their life cycles and re-emerge as saxophone solos lightly decorated with twinkling guitar notes (“Bloom”), and “Four” (only “Four”) is sung entirely in Japanese for no real discernible reason aside from the band feeling like it.

This could all wind up sounding unfocused, and on a surface level it may seem that way, but that’s the point. Definitely Band is a melting pot of influences and a celebration of every great pop band of the past fifty plus years. Big Star might be the most immediately apparent, but while Bernie Gelman’s vocal tone and delivery in particular are frequently dead-ringers for Chilton’s own sweet, evocative croon (check “Pleasure”‘s downtrodden, echo chamber acoustic open and give yourself goosebumps as you attempt to rationalize that he has not been taken over by the departed) and they possess an equally brilliant sense of melody, Curling pick ingredients from the creative gardens of The Beach Boys (reverb, baroque instrumentation, heart-swelling melancholy), My Bloody Valentine (hushed, oft-obscured vocals buried under walls of sugary guitar fuzz), Television (complex Verlaine-esque riffs, rhythms, and structures), and many more to create a distinctive cocktail potent enough to knock you flat. Definitely Band sounds like everything before it and nothing before it, all at once.

Definitely Band is also very much anachronistic. The entire album was mixed and mastered in mono, an unorthodox choice ever since the early ’70s (even Big Star’s catalog only features one song in mono: Radio City‘s “O My Soul”), which aids in evoking a nostalgic warmth that gives it the feel of a record from that period (though it would be artistically impossible back then). Nostalgia is a huge thematic force throughout the album, both musically and lyrically. While the tones, effects, and compositions show a clear appreciation for music’s history, the lyrics also seem to focus on the idea of achieving enlightenment and self-actualization through observation of the past, and using that knowledge to build something new. Curling never truly pine for days gone by, but deeply understand their role in the formation of the days to come. It all matches up exceedingly well.

To a power pop fan in the 2010’s, Definitely Band feels like everything, because it manages to be everything within the span of 34 minutes. The past, the present, the future. New, fresh vegetation given vibrant life by the soil of the dead. Persistently idiosyncratic without ever sacrificing an ounce of emotional resonance or melodic infectiousness. Pop rock’s to-date ‘final form’. Is this the sound of the future? It should be. Turn your 1991 Spin quizzical faces this way:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – Definitely Band

 

Favorite tracks: (All of them but especially) “Radio King”, “Flutter”, “Bloom”, “Mallow”

 

 

 

 

Rating: Masterpiece

 

You can purchase Curling’s Definitely Band here.

Tape Review: Pink Midnight’s “R​-​DA​-​Epoch”

52739795_826917810973434_6980241262469185536_n

Pink Midnight

R-DA-Epoch

(Misophonia Records)

Considering the story behind Pink Midnight’s debut effort, it should come as no surprise that it’s a draining listening experience both emotionally as well as physically. Chronicling Lee Wade’s fight with lymphoma (from symptomatic all the way to remission), R-DA-Epoch represents the physiological and psychological toll taken when your body turns against itself and your only recourses are radiation, will, and hope.

Walls of droning dark ambient stretch and twist the innards to symbolically replicate Wade’s nausea, ebbing and flowing through periods of bilious dulled tones and harsh, violent bouts of agonous noise, while high-pitched, arrhythmic electronics loop, subtly shifting in pitch and pattern to portray anxiety (in a more literal sense, it likely represents a hospital heart monitor). While drenched in sick sweat and riddled with infection, cramped by claustrophobia and shrouded in paranoia, there’s a notable liveliness and fighting spirit that quietly peeks through the viscous muck of discomfort, pain, and fear. R-DA-Epoch‘s cover art looks as though it were ripped straight from a comic book or manga, and in a true-to-life way, this is a classic tale of ‘superhero vs. supervillian’, where after a long, arduous battle, the hero stands triumphant after kicking the villain’s ass and sending them packing with their tail tucked between their legs.

R-DA-Epoch is not the easiest thing to sit through, which is a credit to the project. It effectively translates one of the most terrifying situations a person might find themselves in: being rough itself comes right along with that. However, while it may not be pleasant in the traditional sense of the word, it is a palpable work of art that is very easy to hold in high esteem for its ability to suck you into that hospital with Wade and, eventually, come out the other end with a greater appreciation for health, life, and music.

 

Favorite tracks: “Heart Scan and Chest X-Ray”, “Primary Mediastinal Large B-Cell Lymphoma”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended

 

You can purchase Pink Midnight’s R-DA-Epoch here.