The 10th album from Irish post-rock quartet God Is An Astronaut is the product of some minor milestones. For one, the group welcomed back guitarist/keyboardist Jamie Dean who had stepped away from the flock for about four years. It also tees the band up for next year’s 20th anniversary of its founding. They couldn’t be in better shape for those celebrations. The nine instrumentals on this new LP are some of the band’s strongest work yet. Dean and guitarist Torsten Kinsella use their arsenal of effects pedals judiciously. They always know when to give the music that extra shade of melancholy or fury. And like all the best post rock, these songs move, shape-shifting and refusing to fall into a staid pattern. It’s the kind of album where you can feel the effort and sweat equity exerted in each rotation of the vinyl. Could the pressing have been a little cleaner and less noisy? Sure, but I’m not sweating the crackles and hum. The music, as ever, wins out in the end.
One of the highlights of 2020 was Real Gone’s vital reissues of titles from the short-lived Black Jazz Records. In just five years (from 1971-1975), the label released some incredible albums that caught the wave where jazz, psychedelia, R&B, and funk were crashing together in delirious ways. The series continues at this early part of the new year with three fantastic re-releases from a trio of unheralded greats. While all essential, my favorite of the bunch is guitarist Calvin Keys’ Shawn-Neeq, a 1971 release that puts a heavy emphasis on rhythm with the help of drummer Bob Braye and bassist Lawrence Evans, but also boasts the x-factor of Owen Marshall who tosses in miscellaneous percussion and blurts from his “hose-a-phone” like firecrackers. While I lean toward that record, there ain’t nothing wrong with Rudolph Johnson’s Spring Rain, a lovely showcase for his silky tenor playing and effervescent compositions, or Cleveland Eaton’s Plenty Good Eaton, a 1975 recording of soulful originals that pushes his bass playing to the front of the line and lets the rest of the instrumentalists jostle one another in the background.
The credits on the back of Douglas Lee’s debut album is littered with unusual entries: musical glasses (wine glasses tuned to pitch with water), suikinkutsu (a Japanese garden ornament that doubles as an instrument), Après-Baschet sound sculpture, shamisen. The kind of instrumentation that depending on which direction an artist chose could result in avant garde soundscapes or some Martin Denny-worshipping exotica. The truth lies somewhere in between. There’s a touch of the space age bachelor pad in these eight songs, but the music is far more inventive and legitimately modern than that—akin to the soundtrack work of Mark Mothersbaugh or Stereolab ca. Mars Audiac Quintet. It’s a delight to listen to, warranting multiple spins to catch all the tiny details and noises that Lee has squirreled away in the corners of each instrumental. While I’m sure the construction and composition of these songs was a lot of work, it also sounds like Lee had a hell of a lot of fun putting this all together. The ebullient spirit is ever present and completely infectious.
Originally released on cassette, the first two full-lengths by L.A. darkwave artist Pale Spring are getting their vinyl bow this month by the ever-reliable American Dreams label. And not a moment too soon. I’m as much of a junkie for tape as I am for wax, but these albums deserve the depth and clarity that a vinyl pressing can provide. Pale Spring (aka Emily Harper Scott and Drew Scott) plays in the synthetic fields that grew the seamy, sinuous electronic sound of artists like Beach House and Cigarettes After Sex. But those acts are missing is a voice as supple and versatile as Emily Scott’s. Throughout these LPs, she slips into tones of yearning, coiled fury, quiet acceptance and liquid sensuality. If you need to know where to begin, I would recommend starting with DUSK. The Scotts truly came into their own here with bold productions that slither and spark like a live wire that you know you shouldn’t touch, and yet…
This third compilation in Light In The Attic’s Japan Archival Series is aptly named as the music on this delightful set falls in a spot directly between the placid ambience of Kankyo Ongaku collection and the more upscale pop found on Pacific Breeze comp, both released in 2019. There’s a calm beauty to be found in the 14 tracks on the vinyl edition of Somewhere Between, but it’s paired with more uptempo rhythms and neon-tinged glossiness. There’s a sense of adventure and experimentation running through this material as well, as heard on Mkwaju Ensemble’s “Tira-Rin,” a Steve Reichian marimba-led track that starts to slowly glitch and devolve as it moves along, or the almost Throbbing Gristle-like “Weimar 22” from R.N.A.-Organism, a mysterious ensemble that released a single album in 1980. As Mark McNeill’s liner notes put it, this set is “a body of music bound more by energetic vibration than shared history, genre, or scene.” Appreciators and collectors of ‘80s music will surely find something in here to spark their pleasure center and hopefully some sounds that will push their listening habits in new directions.
The unstoppable Kid Congo Powers, former member of such iconic acts as The Cramps, the Bad Seeds and the Gun Club, is back once more with a lovely little slab ‘o wax that showcases the many different sides of his music personality. The a-side features some nasty garage rock and a little disco flair, but I keep returning again and again to the 14 minute track that takes up all of the flipside. It rolls with the Afrobeat meets Latin psych spirit of groups like Antibalas and The Budos Band but with the added emotional element of the Kid poetically recounting a dream he had concerning his long since passed Gun Club bandmate Jeffrey Lee Pierce. And it’s capped off by a Herbie Mann-like flute solo from Pink Monkey Bird member Mark Cisneros. A rare and perfect combination of groovy, funky and heartfelt.