Indiepop’d Fridays: a flag flying for losers

About two weeks ago, I heard for the first time the legendary NME C86 compilation. I know, I know. I’ve referenced it here several times in the past without having ever heard it for myself – it’s all a little Tom Townsend-ish, isn’t it? And the answer is, yes (though, in my defense, at least I’ve actually read Mansfield Park). But that’s not the point here. The important thing is what happened next.

I spent the rest of the rest of the week caught in an endless YouTube vortex of Talulah Gosh and Rosehips, relentless googling forgotten Peel Sessions, and scouring eBay trying to trick myself into believing I could afford that Shop Assistants 7-inch. Then I came across this old Guardian article by Manic Street Preacher Nicky Wire and it all sounded so familiar. Well, maybe not all of it. I was two years old in 1986. I wasn’t exactly wearing Pastels badges to McCarthy gigs and publicly denouncing Thatcherism, but the connection to the music thing, I get that. And that title – “The Birth of Uncool” – well….

Because, while I may have an immense fascination with garage punk and believe wholeheartedly in the indie-classical movement, at the end of the day, it’s still Belle & Sebastian lyrics I’m quoting. And if you were to go through my “I’ll get to it in a minute” pile, you’d realize that there is certainly no shortage of brilliant new indiepop out there (upcoming releases from Matinée, Soft Power Records, and WeePop! immediately spring to mind), not to mention all those lost classics from the original C86 era.

So I’ve made the executive decision to begin a weekly indiepop feature. Be it an interview, new single, or grainy distorted video clip from the 80s, get ready to start your weekend with Indiepop’d Fridays. From now until the talent pool dries up (or I get bored), Friday mornings will be dedicated to all things melodic: from twee and shoegaze to jangle pop and anything else that makes me want to dance around with flowers in my trousers.

So let’s start things off with a band from my formative years—the band that indiepopped my cherry, so to speak—back in the late 90s. All Star United produced two brilliant pop records at the end of the last century, including International Anthems for the Human Race, which I consider to be pretty close to perfect. Back in the days when I still fancied myself some kind of stylized post hardcore punk with a heart of gold (I knew all the lyrics to “Full Color” before most of you knew P.O.D. wasn’t pronounced “pod”), All Star United were one of the very few pure pop bands I was willing to listen to. But, unlike my late 90s rapcore collection, those first two ASU albums remain in heavy rotation even now, more than a decade later.

Fun fact: International Anthems also included synth programming contributions from Kip Kubin more recently of the absolutely brilliant Venus Hum. Funner fact: they say, though I can’t confirm it, that in college, Ian Eskelin, lead singer of All Star United, lived in the same dorm and on the same floor I lived on as a freshman. I want so badly for this to be true.

A Picture Perfect EP from Strawberry Whiplash

Picture Perfect EP - Design by Jimmy with image from Gordon
Picture Perfect EP - Design by Jimmy with image from Gordon

Once upon a time, I told you about a band from Glasgow. No, not that one. Not that one either. This one. At the time, Strawberry Whiplash were coming off the release of their debut single “Who’s in Your Dreams” on Matinée Recordings. With it, Sandra and Laz (the same man behind Bubblegum Lemonade, also on Matinée), found an audience well prepared to be seduced by their brand of fuzzed-up C86. And now, this month, Strawberry Whiplash are back with their follow-up, the Picture Perfect EP (and, dare I say it, it nearly is).

Strawberry Whiplash reach a degree of excellence in the opening measures of this EP that few bands can even dream of and, even more impressive, manage to sustain it throughout all four tracks without ever becoming pretentious. Sandra’s vocals are hypnotic and intoxicating; delivered with such a straightforward, unassuming sweetness that the listener would certainly feel like the scum of the earth for turning a deaf ear. And yet, the fuzzy (at times, even crunchy) sound of Laz’s guitar, keeps things from ever turning saccharine.

And the Picture Perfect EP has the sixties stamped all over it. The title track features the perfect simple sixties drumbeat, reminiscent of just about every good song released from 1961-1965, whilst “Celestial” betrays shades of Strawberry Alarm Clock in between bursts of organ, a la The Doors. “Hay in a Needlestack”, with the prominent pairing of a glockenspiel doubling Sandra’s vocals on the refrain, is by far the pinnacle of sweetness on this EP. The EP closes with “Falling Through”, which is, quite simply, quintessentially Strawberry Whiplash.

I’ve been spinning this EP since Saturday. I must have listened to it about a bazillion times by now. At 11 minutes, this is not a difficult feat to accomplish, made all the easier by the fact that the band’s trademark brand of shoegaze-y C86 is particularly easy to swallow. My only issue with this picture perfect EP is that I wish it was longer; now that would be even perfecter.

You would be well advised to head over to Matinée and make your purchase as this release is limited to 1000 copies. However, if you’re the sort of person who likes to try before you buy, you can download the title track, “Picture Perfect”, here.

MP3 – Strawberry Whiplash, “Picture Perfect”

Piney forest – Piney floor – Piney Gir

Photo by Julius Beltrame
Photo by Julius Beltrame

Here it is! The first of my three most anticipated albums of 2009 is here (or at least it will be on 14 September). If you want to know more about Piney Gir, read this post, because there is so much to cover with The Yearling (16 tracks totaling about 50 minutes), that I don’t want to waste space regurgitating old information. So, to begin with, let me say this:

The Yearling is even better than I’d hoped it would be.

This is a far cry from Piney’s first album, Peakahokahoo, but those who, like me, fell in love with her early electronic tinkering, will not be disappointed. Blended alongside folk, twee, and jazz elements are shades of that retro Casio keyboard sound (a PT-20, to be exact). Mostly, this manifests as a sort of undercurrent, riding beneath and propelling forward about a dozen tracks, but in other places, such as “Early Days” (which bears a stylistic resemblance to “Janet Schmanet” from Peakahokahoo), it plays a more prominent role.

The album opens with “Hello Halo”, a sort of slowed down, gypsy-less hot club jazz ditty with guitar and violin supporting the simplest lyrics on the album, and the first of three miniatures that provide some of the most endearing moments on the album. The meat of the album begins with the second track, “Say I’m Sorry”, which also happens to be one of the highlights of the album for me. This is more straightforward C86 than I ever thought Piney Gir could get, right down to the handclaps and jangly guitars (all that’s missing now is the glockenspiel). “Say I’m Sorry” flows right into “Blithe Spirit”, which you may remember from that old entry I mentioned earlier. And whilst, in listening to the two songs in succession, one may be inclined to believe that, whoever this girl is, she must have died of twee fever, the sentiment is still a wee bit creepy. I love it.

A few tracks down the list, comes the next (and my favorite) miniature, “Blixa Bargeld’s Bicycle”, ostensibly about a bicycle for sale. Yes, perhaps it sounds like a simple vocalise and maybe you don’t need a bicycle, but “say you have a toothache / and you need to see a dentist / and you don’t know how to get there. / You could always ride a bike”, and wouldn’t you like to know Mr. Bargeld was selling his before moving to Shanghai? I thought so. The last of these miniatures is the a cappella “199 to Elephant and Castle”, a tiny, textless interlude opening with a bit of bus driverly wisdom and bridging beautifully the gap between “Abelha – Bumblebee” and “Lion (I Am One)”.

Speaking of which, “Lion (I Am One)” is an interesting number and another one of my favorites. With its opening Beat era cool jazz walking bass groove, it sets a chill, stalking tone for the track to come. With the introduction of some extra noise about halfway, this track becomes something akin to a shoegaze version of Audrey Hepburn’s café dance scene from Funny Face. Also of note here, is what could possibly be considered a bit of involuted songwriting: “I walk the forest across the floor / A piney forest / A piney floor”. Lewis Carroll would be so proud. “Oleanna”, which follows, about a man scouring the country searching for the woman of is dreams, is probably one of the more radio-friendly tracks on this record. (Incidentally, it features some fine Spanish diction on Piney’s part.)

The album closes out beautifully with the flute and harp accompanied “Love Is a Lonely Thing” (which reminds me, for no good reason, of Chet Baker’s “Born to Be Blue”), the considerably folksier “Weeping Machine” (one of the darkest Piney Gir songs I know: “I clean my house the best I can / discarding every hair and flake of skin, / so I can start again in a space that’s mine”), and ends on the more lilting, sing-along style of “For the Love of Others”.

Yes, it’s true that I still haven’t heard Piney Gir’s second album, Hold Yer Horses, but somehow, after having listened to The Yearling, I don’t feel so bad about that. Yes, I’d still like to hear it, but this album is so good, I am inclined to believe those who are calling it her masterpiece. It is more focused than Peakahokahoo and consistently entertaining. Having listened to this album eight times already today, I am about to get back in my car, where it is sitting in my CD player, waiting for me and it is likely to stay there for several days. Kristin says the mark of a great album is the inability to pick one favorite song. My favorite track from The Yearling has changed three times over the course of writing this review. It is just that good. It will be out on Hotel Records in the UK starting Monday, 14 September with a US release planned (I think) for some time in October. You owe it to yourself to buy this record and listen to it on repeat until you die.

A Sundbergian sliver of daylight

Photo by Alison Wonderland
Photo by Alison Wonderland

I know, I’ve been talking about this for a long time (here, for instance, and here, and here) and, before you ask, no, it’s not here quite yet. The School’s debut LP, Loveless Unbeliever, is slated for release in October, so you have still a couple of months to wait (for you Druids out there, that’s one autumnal equinox – two full moons for you werewolves). But far be it for me to go more than 45 seconds without thinking of my favourite Welsh pop purveyors or the album which is quickly becoming the most exciting thing to happen in 2009 (and it hasn’t even happened yet!).

Thankfully, for those like me, suffering – willfully, faithfully – from twee fever, The School have preempted their LP with the release of a split 7” (Searching for the Now 6) on Slumberland Records this week (the School take the A side with two tracks from George Washington Brown, the latest nom de rock of Pete Gofton, Kenickie’s Johnny X, on the flipside). Of course, if you’ve taken my advice in the past and visited The School on MySpace, you will recognise their cover of Left Banke’s ‘And Suddenly’. The School are perfectly equipped to pay homage to these pioneers of baroque pop with their uncanny evocation of the 1960s girl group sound with a pinch of C86 and just a dash of Camera Obscura. The performance is so well executed, in fact, that it is difficult believe that this is a cover song at all and even more difficult, still, to stop listening. When you’ve had a month like I have, this is the music that keeps you alive; listen to it about a dozen times, and suddenly, the world is full of sunshine.

You ought to know, however, that this song will not be on the album. This is the only release planned for this track (except for the B-sides and rarities collection bound to be compiled in about a decade in celebration of the band’s inevitably illustrious career). And, as if that is not enough of a reason to entice you to open your pocketbook, there are two tracks (‘End of the…’ and ‘Twin Towers’) by George Washington Brown on the B-side. No, he is not likely to be mistaken for The Angels or Shelley Fabares, but is still well worth your attention. So check it out on the Slumberland page. You will not regret it, because, as I’ve said before, at any given moment, The School are reminiscent of everything that you love about music.

Another record you can’t buy here, or “Why I am the indiest of them all”

New album from Nina Persson’s other band A Camp today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m still excited.

In light of the admittedly surprising success of Dutch Week, we will probably have to sponsor a Welsh Week sometime soon. I swear, this has nothing to do with the fact that I have a weakness for Welsh accents or that if I were ever fortunate enough to meet a woman who spoke with one that she could have me do her bidding with the mere utterance of a few words. Nor has it to do with the fact that Hay-on-Wye is reputed to have more bookshops per capita than any other municipality in the world (be still my heart!) or that Doctor Who and Torchwood are filmed in Cardiff (David Tennant!!!). It’s just that they make so much good music. (Ok, so maybe it is a little bit about the accents.) But can you blame me? Based on that description, it sounds like Heaven on Earth.

For now, we’ll stick with one band (the Handbook’s second Welsh act to date), Cardiff’s 60s pop throwbacks, The School. Put simply, the band are, at any given moment, reminiscent of everything you love about music. “Let It Slip”, with its handclaps and shoop-pop background vocals has the distinct ring of the early 60s girl groups (The Angels, Shelley Fabares). “And Suddenly”, a cover of a Left Banke song, is layered with Beach Boys-like harmonies. “I Want You Back” is the School at their Belle & Sebastianiest, reminiscent of the indie idols’ Dear Catastrophe Waitress era brand of tweeness with a hint of Camera Obscura. And “Kiss You In the Snow” would make a perfect centerpiece for an Indie Handbook Christmas compilation (if we were ever allowed to make one). I love love love this song. All of this is executed with a dash of Northern Soul and maybe even a hint of Glaswegian C86.

The albums. There is a 7-inch on bubble gum pink vinyl and another four track EP. “All I Wanna Do” was also included on the Rough Trade Counter Culture 08 compilation released back in February. So, there you go, three more reasons to resent the hip hop dominated American music scene and the skinny jeans indie hipster counterculture.

Visit them at theschoolband.blogspot.com and on Twitter and, of course, on MySpace. Seriously guys, you need to listen to this one, or we will never be friends.

P.S. How amazing would it be if we were allowed to make a Christmas compilation?! I am totally serious about this. Write your MP! Pester your congressman! Beg your favorite band (the nice ones, anyway)!

This is the International Tweexcore Underground

In many ways, the city of Glasgow is a driving force behind The Indie Handbook (and not just because I am of Scottish descent and not-so-secretly wish I could live there)–it is also the home of indie gods Belle & Sebastian (and one of my celebrity crushes, Isobel Campbell). No, this is not about Belle & Sebastian, seminal as they may be, you already know how fabulous they are. This is about fellow Glaswegians, Strawberry Whiplash, a band with one of the best names I have ever heard.

Strawberry Whiplash are Laz McLuskey (who writes the songs, plays the instruments, and also records as Bubblegum Lemonade) and someone named Sandra (who sings the songs that Laz writes). You probably wouldn’t actually have to listen to Strawberry Whiplash or see a list of their influences to have an idea what to expect, a photo of Laz with his classic red Rickenbacker would be sufficient. But for those of you not as presumptious as I am, think of that jangly C86 guitar sound with a Velvet Underground fuzziness (see also: “Factory Girl”, a musical homage to Warhol’s “poor little rich girl”, Edie Sedgwick).

The band is part of an impressive lineup on Santa Barbara’s own Matinée Recordings (including Bubblegum Lemonade, Cats on Fire, the Electric Pop Group, and the Hermit Crabs). I will probably refer to this roster a lot in the future. But right now, I am only concerned with the distinctive, cutting Rickenbacker jangle and Isobel Campbell-like vocals of Strawberry Whiplash. They have released one EP, Who’s In Your Dreams, all of which you can hear on their MySpace.

My favorite thing about Strawberry Whiplash: they are self-defined “part-time indie popsters” with real jobs, like we are, but we (much to my dismay) do not live among the Scots (and their intoxicating accents).