Song, by Toad

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Mark Kozelek & Jimmy Lavalle – Perils From The Sea

PerilsFromTheSea I am almost a complete Mark Kozelek ignoramus, and I suppose you can probably tell that from the fact that I am only now writing about an album released over a year and a half ago.  At least I know that I like his music – what I’ve heard at least. All I can tell you about Jimmy Lavalle is that he is one of the founding members of The Album Leaf, a band I know the sum total of notafuckingthing about.

Given my music taste it feels like I should really know these guys pretty well, but I don’t, and the only reason I even know about this album at all is from driving Meursault on tour in the States earlier in the year, where Neil kept insisting how fantastic the album was and that I should listen to it.

And so I did. And it turns out he’s right. Not that I ever doubted him of course*.

Gustavo (below) is the song I was first pointed to: a wonderfully specific-yet-vague tune about an illegal immigrant who worked on Kozelek’s house.  The moral ambiguity of the song is what Neil says he loves about Kozelek’s songwriting, and his willingness to accept the role of the bad guy and avoid self-justification when telling tricky tales.

Since then the infamous War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock has emerged and with it the widespread acceptance that Kozelek is a bit of a ‘difficult character’ at times, and I suppose that sort of chimes. If he was a difficult character bathed in self-righteousness then I guess he’d probably have killed his own career by now, but this kind of unflinching acceptance may just about diffuse it enough. Plus, I suppose, his music is fucking gorgeous.

Ceiling Gazing is absolutely lovely, a jet-lagged internal ramble full of pathos and warmth and weird sense of dislocation. It’s not unlike Lost in Translation actually, although that’s a bit of a glib comparison. It’s not alone here either. Caroline is fucking gorgeous too. Actually, they pretty much all are.

The warmth is a permanent feature of the album. Kozelek’s vocal is as distinctive, unhurried and reassuring as ever, and it is accompanied by relatively simple electronic melodies and a little bit of drum machine. It sounds a bit like an omnichord to me, and that is one of my favourite instruments, although I am hardly an expert in pulling apart musical arrangements.

The simplicity means there is a definite uniformity of tone across this – it feels very much like a late-night album for dark evenings, and writing this on exactly such an evening that feels about right. The beat means it’s not exactly morose all of the time, just low key. Low key and absolutely lovely.

Kozelek generally only releases on CD unfortunately, and you can get one here. Damn I wish it was on vinyl.

*Of course I doubted him. The man’s a fucking liability for fuck’s sake.

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Old Earth – A Wake in the Wells

oldearth Old Earth have been something of a favourite around these parts for some time now. We recorded a Toad Session with Todd a year or two ago when he and his girlfriend came over to Scotland, and I spent most of the recent Edinburgh Independent Label Market enthusiastically encouraging people to buy his album from the neighbouring stall, rather than attempting to hawk my own wares.

It’s bloody fantastic stuff though. This album perhaps reminds me more of the feel of the Toad Session, with jangly guitars quite prominent and the buzzy soundscapes perhaps more sparingly embraced.

Todd is pretty clear on how he wants his music to be listened to, and does more than most bands I know to gently but firmly coerce you into a certain manner of interaction. Songs often have no gaps between them, often joined by long, overlapping musical interludes, and it’s not uncommon for three separate songs to be contained in a single track. The songs on this album don’t even have names of their own.

Umhoefer’s rationale is that he is not making pop music. It could be perceived as a rather snotty approach, and I suppose I’d have to accept that interpretation, but I still rather like his way of thinking. None of us are getting rich doing this, so if there isn’t a financial imperative and you don’t have other people’s salaries to pay, then surely the only question to ask yourself is exactly what sort of work you want to put out into the world.

For Todd, that’s a little over half an hour of music which belongs together as a single piece, and which works best when embraced as such. Why should he pander to the requirement of the single, discreet two-and-a-half-minute pop song if that’s fundamentally not what he is trying to do. There are pop songs there, but they emerge from a sort of ground zero atmospheric thrum which seems to undulate through the background of the whole record as a sort of general mood in which the entire thing exists.

It’s like the background of traffic, footfall and chatter which exists all around us in our home towns – it’s just part of the world we are inhabiting, and within that world certain things are off in the distance and others come more sharply into focus when you engage with them. It’s not a revolutionary way of making music, but the clarity of vision and unconcerned determination with which Todd sticks to his ideas are both things I really admire. Plus, of course, it’s a great fucking record.

Get one here on vinyl or digital.

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Becky Becky – Good Morning, Midnight

becky It’s rare that I write about synthy discopop really, but I suppose that’s because most of it leaves me pretty cold. Silver Columns stick in my head as the last time I properly got enthusiastic about this kind of stuff I suppose, and that was fucking ages ago.

It’s an interesting connection though, because Pete (one half of Becky Becky) released some bits and pieces on Fence Records years ago under the name of Art Pedro. It was ramshackle as fuck, but I loved it, and he actually emailed me about this project years ago but I have to confess I never quite got into it.

The other half of the band is Gemma from the now-retired Woodpecker Wooliams project, and perhaps it was her odd but hugely compelling voice which gave me something familiar to latch onto with the Becky Becky stuff. Well that and having it on casual rotation for a long while. Slowly this stuff creeps up on you, you know.

I am not sure why this stands out above all the other similar stuff I don’t like. Perhaps tunes like I Remember, I Remember… don’t try too hard to grab your attention, but succeed despite this. Maybe its the slight theatricality – tunes like The House of the Black Madonna for example. It’s dark without being dense or try-hard, and I suppose just moody and dismissive enough to not just fall into that ‘oh fuck, not another synth-pop album’ trap which so much of this stuff ends up in for me.

Gemma’s voice has a weird knack of being elusive, vulnerable and confrontational at the same time, and this meshes well with the music itself here, which can embrace full-on disco-pop cliché for a while and then subtly drift into something more muffled and odd. It’s like an image which drifts slightly out of focus during the very times you most want it to be clear.

You can get a copy on CD or mp3 from their Bandcamp page, here. It really does leave me wondering why I didn’t properly pay attention the first time.

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Grace Joyner – Young Fools

grace So I don’t like pop music eh, well what about this, you fuckers, what about this? Well I suppose it’s a counter-argument but only kind of. A lot of this is pretty damn morose, and needless to say those are my favourite bits. It does get pretty pop at times, such as Holy, and inevitably that is my least favourite song on the album, but most of this is really good.

Off the top of my head there are a few loose comparisons to give you a rough idea of the kind of territory we’re in here – some of that wounded glamour of Lana Del Rey, a horribly depressed cousin of Nicole Atkins, or perhaps a less affected Angel Olsen. None of these comparisons are that great, but they put you in roughly the right ballpark.

Although I don’t love any of those artists, there is definitely a bit of something in all of them that I like to varying extents, and I think Joyner comes closest to nailing it. This is old-fashioned, but still modern. The synths are moody without being prominent, and the drumming sounds like a drum machine (although looking at the photos it would appear the band do have a drummer).

I suppose, put simply, I prefer this because it is quite lo-fi and stripped back. I remember early Nicole Atkins, and how there was a sort of gloriously amateurish glamour to it.  Lana Del Rey’s album may have been a lifeless, embarrassing mess, but there was something incredible about the direct, unsettling feel of Video Games.  So of course Holy isn’t really my cup of tea, but I think Young Fools is fucking great: bitter and wounded, but fantastically light and elusive.

I’m sure it would be crap for her career to embrace the miserable, weird and the uncomfortable side of her music and move in the direction of the fantastic Powerdove or Lady Lazarus, but I reckon I would love the results. This EP teeters on the brink of either approach – pop or anti-pop –  and Joyner could do either. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and this may just be a digital release, but I am most curious too see what the future holds.

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Threes and Will & Huerequeque – Blue Thirteen

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I played a tune from this on the podcast last week, and I have been listening to it all week. It’s sort of nice that I have found an awesome Estonian band, give Tiit Kusnets on Klassikaraadio in Estonia plays our label stuff over there on such a regular basis.

It’s fair to say, I suppose, that this ain’t really pop music. It is full of harsh distorted amp tones and harsh growls with just the barest hints of the melody buried below, but there is just enough to make it actually eminently – can I really use this word for this kind of music? – ‘enjoyable’ to listen to.

This is being released on Blue Tapes. They are a label I don’t really know much about, but their site is beautiful, they seem really interesting and they have a LOT to say on the subject of releasing tapes as opposed to any other format. They seem to release a lot of experimental and abstract stuff, mixed with spoken word and, well, just interesting, weird shit.

The penultimate song, Hullumeelsuse Mägedes, is perhaps a little boomingly harsh, with it’s cycling, metallic guitar tone. I can see Mrs. Toad casting me slightly nervous looks as this one ground its way into it fourth or fifth minute. And because the guitars operate so low in the EQ spectrum the drums can sound a bit tinny as their low end is almost entirely absent, but for the most part, abrasive as it is, this is a bloody great listen.

The ongoing, persistent rumble of those guitars pretty much makes this worth listening to all by itself.

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BRAAINZZ – Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper

braainzz I’ve written about BRAAINZZ before. They’re weird as fuck, but they happen to be a really rather good band once you get used to all the vocoders and time-warping and general love for making you wonder if you’re listening to music that was made on purpose or entirely by accident when someone had Logic open and spilled a can of fizzy juice all over their computer.

It’s hard to argue with an album where Mrs. God plays cello though, if we’re being honest.

One of the things I like most about them is that in amongst all this perverse, messy nonsense, moments of clarity occasionally appear, just to remind you that this lot do genuinely know what they are doing, and all the weird elements of the music are as considered as any more conventional sounding tunes you’ll hear.

There’s a cracking Walkmen cover on here, for example, and while it doesn’t sound all that much like The Walkmen themselves, it’s actually pretty straight-edged by the standards of this lot. Needless to say, though, they descend into incomprehensible mess pretty much immediately afterwards, just in case you were in danger of getting the wrong idea.

Amazingly, with all these noises which border on the just plain silly, they seem to have a real flair for melancholy music. And actually it works pretty well. Even with the vocoder and the squeaks and the beeps.

Shroom folk. Wyrd pop. That’s what they call themselves. And, as they say, it sounds like nonsense but makes total sense once you listen to the music. I have no idea how or why this lot are good, but they really are.

Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper is their third EP and can be downloaded for free here.

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Allison Crutchfield – Lean In To It

lean You’ve heard me talk an awful lot about Kingfisher Bluez in the past- they released Adam Stafford’s album in North America, and released a Rick Redbeard single quite recently as well.

In fact I reckon if I were living in Vancouver (which a large part of me would love to) then Tim and I might well find ourselves squabbling over the same bands a lot of the time. They have a mind-bogglingly prolific release rate as well, and every time I go to their Bandcamp page it seems there are a small handful of new releases I’ve never heard of before.

One of the latest to go up there is this – a pre-order for an absolutely fantastic-sounding 12″ by Allison Crutchfield which will be available sometime just before Christmas. In other words, soon.

It’s lo-fi pop music, basically, with keyboards and drum machines fleshing out the sound, but most songs relying on relatively simple melodies not unlike the style of Casiotone For the Painfully Alone.

There’s plenty of gravel and distortion in the backing, but for all Allison’s voice is relatively low in the mix, it’s still clear and strong, which means this doesn’t just sound like yet another deliberately self-sabotaging lo-fi pop artist hiding behind their own effects – there is plenty of fuzz, but it is used with care and to really, really good effect.

I love a duet, and standout tunes for me would be the duet with Sam Cook-Parrott on Lupe, a tune he co-wrote, as well as You and Supermoon – all lovely singing, with a really nice sense of strength, brought by the insistent pace of the artificial percussion. It just rattles along, even through the songs which themselves seem to waver a little more.

It may have a slight air of vulnerability to it, but that’s really just her voice, and even so it’s pretty minimal, but these are (generally short) sharp, self-contained pop songs and this is an excellent record.

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Waiters – What For Art Thou

waiters Ahh, Waiters. I was writing about Sex Hands earlier today, and that put me in mind of our first Split 12″, recorded back in the Winter of 2011 I think, and if I recall Waiters were the first band we actually recorded.

I’d had plenty of good results with the Toad Sessions by then of course, but I was still nervous, and the Waiters songs are the first and (and to date still the only) songs where I personally have made technical mistakes which threatened our ability to use the actual recordings themselves.

It turns out that by sheer good fortune we were able to work around my errors and for all they were one of the most low-profile bands on that Split 12″ (except maybe Dolfinz who seem to have quietly drifted off into non-existence) I am still so proud of the songs they did with us – that sense of sad, lazy melancholy still feels to me like some of the best stuff I’ve ever recorded.

I offered to help them record an album in the same way afterwards, but for apparently they wanted to work at a slightly slower and more deliberate pace. It’s a shame, but that kind of thing happens with bands, and you can’t push anyone into something they aren’t entirely comfortable with, particularly not at this level where none of us are getting rich out of any of this.

Anyhow, Jon moving to the States seemed to put the brakes on a Waiters album permanently, but I forgot that a while back they asked me about this recording. I loved the songs, but at the time I said that I thought it would be financially a bit crazy, because 12″s are expensive to press, and you can only really sell a four-song EP for so much.

CF Records in Belfast, however, seem to have disagreed, which is excellent news. They specialise in short-run and limited edition releases, and clearly have a lot more experience in this area than I do, and I am delighted this release has found a way in the end because the songs are fucking ace. If you look at the rest of their releases you’ll see what I mean – so much good stuff.

This stuff embodies so much of the stuff I love about Waiters. I love Joe’s voice – just a little bit flat, in a way, but with such a warmth to it. When he sings sad songs you really do believe him, and for someone who likes sad music as much as I do that’s quite a big deal. The rhythm section chugs along mechanically but a little uncertainly, almost as if it is struggling to hold the whole song together. I don’t think these lads rehearse all that much, so that ‘about to stumble to a standstill’ feel may be simply an aesthetic choice or it might simply be what was actually happening in the room when they recorded.

Grey Matters and Mirror Threat are just gorgeous songs, and classic examples of that thrumming rhythm, slightly plaintive vocal delivery and unobtrusively downbeat atmosphere which make Waiters songs so compelling, and which made me so excited about the first Split 12″ when I pulled them off the desk and started the mixing process. I sincerely hope that between Joe’s stuff with Water World and Sex Hands, Perry’s fantastic Comfortable on a Tightrope stuff and umm… well I’m actually not all that sure where Jon is living now, that they still find the time to keep this band going, because they are bloody ace.

Waiters – Vacillate Wildly from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

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Maston – Opal

maston Looking at the actual purchase link for this album it appears I am actually writing a review from the point of view of only having heard Side 1. Never mind. We don’t do serious analysis here anyway, just pointing at good things and shouting ‘oh look, this is good’ at the internet in the hopes that someone else might take an interest as well.

Looking at the web shop of Stroll On Records you’ll see why I am being a bit blasé about this – their releases are generally excellent anyway, so I am prepared to go out on a limb and say ‘I have heard enough – this is really good’. Have a listen to their Soundcloud page here.

Anyhow, Opal is dreamy, meandering and excellent. The songs can be whole pop songs or wee snippets, instrumentals or simple pop tunes, but it all flows together really well, feeling at times like the soundtrack to a baffling sci-fi film where they never quite resolve what is reality and what is only happening inside your head.

There’s a wistfulness to it as well, perhaps achieved by the sense of vaseline-on-the-lens, blurred romanticism, and at times that sort of stylish 60s film score feel. It’s not by any means an unusual mixture these days, but this is done really well, and is one of those records I just warmed to immediately.

The band’s other work is perhaps a little more upbeat and for all this is a little different, it still actually filters through, providing a nice purposeful sense of rhythm throughout most of this record and preventing it meandering off into blind alleys. It’s dreamy, it’s a little ramshackle, but it’s never just noodling.

Get one here.

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Sex Hands – Pleh

sexhands Listening to this has been a surprisingly nostalgic experience for me. The reason for this is that Gay Marriage, Chandler in a Box and The One Where the Stripper Cries were all recorded and mixed by myself for our first ever Song, by Toad Split 12″ some three years ago, and hearing their proper versions on a full album is rather an emotional experience, albeit in a quiet little way.

Invariably I find myself listening to the album versions of those songs and wondering if they are somehow closer to what the band wanted than what they got from us, or whether they preferred the performances or whether they simply rattled all the songs together in one session and these are just the current versions, rather than any kind of improvement. This is sort of creepy ex-boyfriend behaviour, I acknowledge that, but it’s almost impossible not to fall into the trap.

Without wishing to insult the band, it’s something of a weird thing to find what is basically a smart-arsed concept band by its very definition (all the songs are about episodes of Friends, in case the song titles above didn’t give it away) progressing from a few catchy singles into the relatively legitimate territory of releasing a debut album.

In a way, once you get the joke, you could argue that the band itself doesn’t need to exist much beyond that. ‘Friends? Yeah, right. Oh wait! Holy shit, they were fucking serious!’ and that’s about as far as you have to go.

Except this is a really, really good album. I am not allowed to use the word ‘garage’ to describe them, because apparently they have never been anywhere near a garage, but you know what that means as a sort of stylistic shorthand of course: rough-and-ready guitar pop songs, with plenty of growl, a bit of thrash from time to time and muffled vocals.

And, basically, the tunes are fucking great. From the instrumental guitar intro of Space Song, to the faintly surreal experience of listening to hugely hummable songs like On A Break whilst knowing exactly which intensely tedious dead horse the Friends writers were flogging at the time they wrote all the source material. Christ, that fucking thread just refused to fucking die. But it’s a cracking song.

And this brings me to something which might sound like over-rationalisation: the number of times people go into intense critiques of what depth and what subtlety they find in pop music, when this is almost by its very definition anti-intellectual. It’s shallow and basically frivolous, and let’s see what the writers at places like The Quietus or Pitchfork, where the serious music writing is done, actually make of this. I mean, it’s about Friends, for fuck’s sake, meaning that as soon as you have anything serious to say you are already being mocked by the nature of the record itself. It’s like music writing has been pre-satirised.

So really there’s nothing to be said about this. It’s a weird, silly record with awesome tunes and you should buy a copy because it is hugely enjoyable to listen to. It’s just pop music, I suppose.

Sex Hands – Chandler in a Box from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

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