Singapore Sling – “Killer Classics” (2019)

There’s a certain nihilism to Singapore Sling.  It’s not the nihilism that burns hot and causes one to lash out at the world, but more one of resignation, the sense of a unceasing buzz in your mind that you can’t shake, a slow death by a thousand cuts, the adding of the tiniest weights onto your chest done so slowly that you can’t even sense the change but that over time makes it harder and harder to breathe.  Hell, it’s right there in the song titles.  Killer Classics gives us “Nothing Matters But Rock ‘N’ Roll”.  Prior to that we got “Nothing’s Theme” and “Nothing And Nowhere” on an album called Kill Kill Kill (Songs About Nothing), and “Nuthin’s Real” on The Tower of Fornicity.  And the list goes on.  “The Nothing Inside”; “Nothin’ Ain’t Bad”; and a possible candidate simply called “Noth”.  That’s a whole lot of nothing.  If there are three overarching themes to Singapore Sling’s music they are:

  • Nothing
  • Death (including killing and various forms of destruction)
  • Rock ‘N’ Roll

My perception is that in this trinity Nothing and Death are the elements out there in the world, the weights being put on top of you, the inevitable outcome to life.  Rock ‘N’ Roll, however, is the salvation.  It’s the one thing that cracks the wall of nihilism, the one thing that makes life worth living.  I’m probably extrapolating a bit on the Rock ‘N’ Roll part, but bear with me.  “Nothing Matters But Rock ‘N’ Roll”, we’re told on the latest album, which is a step in the right direction from when the Slingers opined back in 2004 that Life Is Killing My Rock ‘N’ Roll (which included a song of the same name).  The feeling I get when I listen to Singapore Sling is that of driving at night, the windows rolled down and the air coming up from the road still radiating heat from the day’s scorching sun, racing to escape that constant buzz of Nothing and Death chasing you in the rear view mirror, trying to outrace fate.  And, of course, blasting Singapore Sling’s psych soundtrack to it all on the car stereo.

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Right from the opening riff of “Suicide Twist” (Death again!) it was clear what Singapore Sling has in store for us on Killer Classics (more Death).  They’ve honed their brand of shoegazey-psych to a sharp edge and they use it with the precision of surgeons, cutting away the pretense and bloat of what rock has become and skinning it down to its most basic and rawest elements.  The drum beats are the relentless pressure of life, the fuzz of the guitars the unceasing pressure trying to overwhelm you, the bass following your heartbeat as it rises and falls as you struggle to maintain your sanity, and the vocals are the voice inside your head, the one that sometimes tells you that you can do it, but at other times calls for the sweet release of death.

Pink Floyd – “Meddle” (1971)

Based on what you hear on classic rock radio, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pink Floyd only released two albums, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.  OK, maybe sometimes you’ll also get a song from Wish Your Were Here, specifically one of the songs not called “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.  There were a few great songs on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, though I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I heard either one of them.  Meanwhile I can’t seem to go more than an hour without the radio giving me “Comfortably Numb”, “Another Brick In the Wall (Part II)”, or “Time”.  All of which are great songs.  Tremendous songs, quite frankly.  But what about poor Animals?  It’s like that album never even existed.  Where’s the love for “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”?  As for anything recorded prior to A Dark Side of the Moon, it may as well have been recorded by a completely different band named Pink Floyd given how widely it’s ignored. (♠)

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Which brings me to Meddle.  I’m spinning this for the first time in, I don’t know, probably 30+ years.  And frankly I’d forgotten how excellent it is.  “One of These Days” is truly one of Pink Floyd’s best songs, and if “Fearless” had been on Led Zeppelin IV, which came out the same year as Meddle, it would be played on classic rock radio daily (though I’m not sure Zep could have pulled off the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sample at the end).

Not sure why Meddle is so overlooked.  Sure, “Seaums” is weird, and the entire B side is given over to a single 23+ minute track.  But there are still some truly great songs here.

(♠)  Floyd fans, I’m not dismissing these works.  On the contrary.  I’m just pointing out that they basically don’t exist as far as most people are concerned, but that in fact they’re worthy of being played just as much as their more popular brethren.  So please, no hate mail.

Wolfgang – “Eliminate Hate” (1970 / 2017)

wolfgangeliminatehateCBS’ Nashville office was looking for rockers to sign, and producer C.L. Milburn intended on getting a piece of that action.  He found a local hard rock outfit with an impressive steel guitar player named Danny Williamson, wrote a bunch of songs for them, and brought them into the studio in 1970.  The result was an initial two-track eight song recording, something that could serve as the base for a proper session.  But… the deal fell through, and the tapes ended up on the shelf at Milburn’s Sea Ell Records for almost half a century.  A lifetime, really.

Fortunately for us this intriguing little rocker got dusted off and released last year.  There’s a rawness in Wolfgang’s blend of garage rock and psych, and just as advertised, that steel guitar is something to behold on tracks like “Black Bottom Soul”.  The recording quality is a bit inconsistent, at times even within songs, but what do you expect from something cut on a budget and left to ferment for 47 years?  If anything, it gives Eliminate Hate an even looser sound.

The album includes some impressive liner notes that tell the story of Wolfgang, though by all appearances the performers themselves scattered to the four winds and attempts to locate them proved fruitless.  I feel like there’s an interesting documentary hidden in this story somewhere…

Dirty Sidewalks – “Bring Down The House Lights” (2018)

In the interest of full disclosure I feel like I should tell you from the outset that I know Dirty Sidewalks guitarist Evan Foster.  I don’t even remotely consider myself to be a journalist or anything, but I do try to have a certain amount of integrity in my blogging (♠) so let’s just get this out there.  Evan and I went to high school together and got along well enough, though I don’t ever remember us hanging out outside of school and I’m guessing that we saw each other no more than two times during the two-plus decades between graduating and last November (♣).  We re-connected via Facebook and eventually in person at Airwaves when Evan was in Reykjavik performing with The Sonics, where we shared (and spilled) beers and generally had a good time catching up.  So there you have it.

ANYWAY… prior to his recent work with The Sonics, Evan spent over a decade recording with the surf/garage outfit Boss Martians and now he’s paired up with brother Erik and bassist Evan O’Neil to put out a full-length under the name Dirty Sidewalks.  Bring Down The House Lights dropped last month and it’s been on near constant rotation on my iPod and turntable, because, well, it’s the most exciting new release of 2018 so far bar none.  Sure, we’re only a month-and-a-half into the year.  I get it.  And I’m sure I’ll drop more hyperbole on you over the next few months.  But I can promise you this puppy will be getting consideration for my year-end lists in December.  It’s that good.

I caught up with Erik a few weeks ago and got the chance to ask him a few questions about the new record.

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Dirty Sidewalks isn’t exactly a new project – you put out a few singles under that name over the last few years.  Why was now the right time to go into the studio for a full-length album?

ERIK FOSTER:  Technically, we started Dirty Sidewalks in 2010. Being that we were recording Bring Down the House Lights on our own time, in our own home studio, we wanted to make sure we weren’t rushing to get the album done for the sake of getting it done. We tried to really spend time arranging the songs, dialing tones and developing the overall production. The album had gone through a couple different revisions and a few rounds of mixes, but it was the kind of situation where we knew that we would know when it was done. Once we knew it was done, we knew it was the right time to release it.

One of the surprising things about Dirty Sidewalks is that, based on the credits, all the “drumming” is programmed.  But what’s even more intriguing to me is the role that bassist Evan O’Neil plays in the band.  Not only is he a “rhythm section” without a human partner, but to my ears his bass is given a lot of room to contribute on Bring Down The House Lights.  It feels like the bass is given a prominent, expressive role in the Dirty Sidewalks.  Is there a band philosophy as to how you want the bass to contribute to the overall sound?

ERIK:  As far as the “drumming” on the album, it’s kind of a “sum of all the parts” scenario. Yes, a lot of the drums are sequenced, however, there are a lot of live drums and percussion happening as well. Then amidst all of that, there are also loops and samples happening too. It’s definitely a pastiche. The bass is definitely a key part of what we do. Originally, O’Neil and I started the band as a duo (us + drum machine). Bass is always important, but I feel like when you’re in a 2-piece situation it’s extra important, so we were always striving to make sure the bass was booming, yet chugged like a ghost train, and had really had it’s own voice. Once my brother officially started playing with us it gave us a unique opportunity to take what we’d developed and open it up, making room for O’Neil to get a little more wild with his bass parts.

This album opens crazy strong with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, which is unquestionably one of its best jams.  This might be an odd question… but what is it that makes rock ’n’ roll so self-reverential?  There are so many great rock songs about rock and rocking… what is it about rock music that drives you as musicians to celebrate it?  It’s not something we hear in other genres.

ERIK:  True. I’ve never heard anyone talk about “jazzing” or how hard they “Jazz”. For me, rock music, in it’s various forms, has always made sense to me. It’s always been there for me, and I’ve generally found it to be relatable. That said, I definitely feel like the act of rocking should be celebrated. It’s my way of giving back to a genre that given me so much.

Lyrically “Bring Down The House Lights” has a bit of an outsider feel, sort of James Dean-ish… the cool guy with his hands in his pockets and sort of hunched up shoulders who knows he doesn’t quite fit into what everyone else seems to be about.  It’s a feeling best expressed in what might be my favorite song on the album, “Heard You Want To Kill Me” with it’s “I heard / you wanna kill me / that’s OK / I don’t blame you / I heard / You wanna call me / I don’t care / If you do.  Is that part of the perspective of the album, or just maybe something I’m internalizing from it (which is not to even remotely imply that I’m “cool”!)?

ERIK:  The album definitely has an outsider perspective at times, with vague optimism sprinkled in for good measure. I’ve heard other people say this before, but its totally true (for me at least) – sometimes the lyrics will come straight from the subconscious mind, and you wont realize what they mean or it’s about until later. It’s a trip. That said, I’m a big fan of lyrics meaning different things to different people.

Things take a bit of a darker turn in the middle of the album with “Euphoria” and “Black Holes”.  The latter in particular is a bit experimental… I think all the lyrics are samples from Stephen Hawking?  

 ERIK:  Yes, the vocals in that are an excerpt from a Stephen Hawking piece. Legend.

What are you guys listening to and into right now?  Any new bands we should be checking out?

ERIK:  I’ve been listening to the new Jupe Jupe album Lonely Creatures, Joe Waine’s most recent album Pantomime, lots of Glen Campbell, Bo Diddley, and Jim Sullivan’s album that Light in the Attic re-issued.

 

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If Bring Down The House Lights has one defining characteristic, it’s sonic density.  The Dirty Sidewalks Bandcamp page categorizes them as garage rock and shoegaze, and there are certainly elements of both in their music.  But there’s also a heavy dose of modern psych, especially in the way they use the space provided by those four or so minutes each song lasts.  One of my personal criticisms of psych is that after a half dozen or so songs my ears simply get tired and I need a break from it, but Dirty Sidewalks avoid that trap; instead they combine the best facets of psych and shoegaze without getting caught up in the pretentious excesses that those genres have a tendency to devolve into.  The instrumentation is rich and full while maintaining subtleness and the vocals are self-depricating without becoming morose.

I like a rock album that opens strong with a catchy rocker.  Sure, there are exceptions (♥), but I want to kick things off right and get into the mood to sneer and drink beer and rail against The Man.  So fortunately for me Bring Down The House Lights opens with a power-jam, and one that even specifically emphasizes the power of rock, “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”.  Rockers love to make songs about rocking (♦) and this is no exception, setting the table and letting us know that this record is going to rock our faces off.  Erik’s vocal delivery is all smooth cool ambivalence, the quintessential white-t-shirt-and-black-leather-jacket brand of rock that has pissed off the jocks and made the girls swoon for decades.  From there “Never Wanted to be Loved” takes in a more indie rock direction, maintaining that overall attitude of lyrical indifference with a dose of punk rock sneering.  By the time we get to “Always” Holly looked up from her phone to declare, “damn this is a good album”.  I know, right?  The guitar work is taking on a bit of an 80s feel but the vocals have a bit of that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club vibe.  And the tambourine… the goddamn tambourine!  It shouldn’t work.  Intellectually I want to hate it.  But I don’t.  I love it in spite of myself.

During my initial listens I was primarily smitten with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, but as I spent more time with Bring Down The House Lights during my dark and often rainy hour-long commute I found myself falling in love with “the other woman”, specifically with “Heard You Wanna Kill Me” – I used to hate you back / Now you hang around.  There’s a whiskey-soaked lethargy to the guitar that fits the vocals perfectly, before ending with the slightest guitar flourish, a hit of hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it will work out.  That’s followed by the ironically gloomy “Euphoria” and then the aforementioned Stephen-Hawking-inspired “Black Holes”, a trio of tunes that take the whole album to a more melancholy and introspective place, my favorite part of the record.

The second half of the album is more vocal expansive, both at its core and with the harmonies, particularly on “Where’s the Love” and “Never Be Alone”.  “Either Way” is the perfect little alt-indie number, a jangly 90s-style ditty that would have easily climbed into the College Radio Top 10 back when I was in college.

While the above may make you wonder if this is in fact three distinct mini-albums, in fact Dirty Sidewalks never stray too far from their core sound, so even when there’s a bit of a stylistic shift things there’s still an overall coherence to their core sound.  And that’s the beauty of Bring Down The House Lights – it’s an album in the truest sense of the word, the true sum of its parts.  It knows exactly what it wants to be and it executes on that plan perfectly.

Even after all this you may be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, sure Jeff, you’re just saying all this because you know Evan”.  And I get that you might be skeptical.  But don’t take my two-thousand-plus words for it, go listen for yourself HERE.  And if you like it as much as I know you will, pick yourself up a copy on the format of your choice.

(♠)  No, seriously.

(♣)  Those would potentially be our 10- and 20-year high school reunions, and then only maybe.

(♥)  Including two of my Desert-Island-Top-5 records, Arabian Horse and Paul’s Boutique.  So maybe I really don’t like this but just think I do.

(♦)  AC/DC seemingly made an entire career out of this with songs like “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘N’ Roll)”, “Rocker”, “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin'”, “Let There Be Rock”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation”, “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, “Rock Your Heart Out”, and lyrics like “I’m gonna rock all over you”, which I think might be some kind of sexual innuendo, though it’s hard to tell be cause it almost seems like AC/DC’s entire career was based on the idea of substituting “rock” for any verb in the English language.

Skelkur í Bringu – “Þrífðu Þetta Hland” Cassette (2017)

I’m completely and totally intrigued by Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir, aka dj. flugvél go geimskip (translation – DJ Airplane and Spaceship).  Her quirky live performances include lots of lights, lengthy stories about cats in outer space, and a set-closing audience participation segment in which we’re all told we have to do karate chops in order to get back to planet earth (♠).  However, her music definitely isn’t for everyone and I’m pretty sure that I was the only one in our Airwaves crew last year that was way into her stuff.

Steinunn collaborates with a number of other artists, perhaps most notably the one-and-only Dr. Gunni.  She also plays bass and sings in a psych rock band called Skelkur í Bringu who we saw on opening night of Airwaves at, of all places, the Hard Rock Cafe in Reykjavik (♣), and I was spellbound both by the music and the visual performance.  At the end of the show she had cassette copies of the band’s new live album Þrífðu Þetta Hland for sale, each in an individually crafted and decorated case (yes, that’s zebra pattern fabric on mine…), so I of course plunked down my kronur for a copy.

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Þrífðu Þetta Hland is a full-on psych trip, weirdly reminiscent of a slightly more structured version of Les Rallizes Dénudés.  Steinunn’s vocals retain the high-pitched, spacey quality she uses to such great effect in her solo work, not so much floating on top of the music but instead piercing it like stainless steel spikes.  Sometimes the band wanders about in a trippy soundscape, but at others they break free into weirder territory.  “Símanúmerið Hans Sigga” is pure punk rock at its core, while “Say No to Science” starts like a deranged surf tune before devolving into sludge metal.  You never know what you’re going to get from one song to the next with Skelkur í Bringu.  If you’re only going to listen to one song, though, make it “Dýragarður”, which is the best synthesis of all the band’s sonic elements wrapped up into one near-perfect tune.

While the video below wasn’t shot at the performance we attended, it was done just a few days prior by our friends over at KEXP and is pretty damn cool, plus it’ll give you a sense of their live vibe.  You can also listen to the album itself HERE, as well as buy the digital download for any amount you want to give the band – you can literally get it for a buck if you want, so help support indie music!

(♠)  Asking people to do karate chops in a packed club should be a recipe for disaster.  And in anywhere other than Iceland it probably would be.  But somehow it happens and no fights break out.

(♣)  That a city with as strong a small-club music scene as Reykjavik now has a Hard Rock Cafe (again… the first iteration of the HRC there went out of business around 2005) is unsettling and may be an indication that Reykjavik has jumped the shark.  That being said, the basement is a pretty cool little venue.