John Grant – “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure” (2015)

John Grant’s recently released Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was one of those albums for me.  You know the ones.  The next new album put out by that artist you fell in love with after first hearing their previous record.  What will it sound like?  How will it affect me?  If it disappoints me, will that somehow make me like Pale Green Ghosts less?

These are, of course, ridiculous thoughts, but they are real if you’re a music obsessive like me.  But Grant provides a bit of applicable wisdom in the title track, “Grey Tickles, Black Pressure,” which is a laundry list of things you can feel bad, or more precisely sorry for yourself, about.  And, as always with Grant’s lyrics, he’s pretty damn blunt about it.

And there are children who have cancer,
So all bets are off,
‘Cause I can’t compete with that.

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It’s Grant’s use of language that defines his art to me.  It’s not just his personal delivery style, which is very conversational, but in the way the he obvious loves playing with words.  He has admitted in many an interview that he is very interested in language, and if I recall is fluent in German and Russian, plus has working knowledge of a handful of others (and is working on his Icelandic).  But it goes beyond that.  It’s the obvious joy he takes in using specific words, not because they make him sound smart, but just because of how they sound, how they roll off the tongue.  Decoupage… luxuriating… obsequious… ocelot… words that don’t need to appear in the songs (though an ocelot does have an important and recurring role in the TV show Archer…), but are just perfect in the way he delivers them.  He gives us a few words and phrases in languages other than English too, and name-drops all over the place, from the literary like Dostoevsky and Frances Bacon to actresses like Madeline Kahn and Angie Dickinson to the downright unusual like my personal favorite, self-destructive punk rock icon GG Allin.  It’s quite the list.  I feel like I need a Cliff’s Notes guide and a thesaurus just to follow along.  Stockholm is a place that I adore / But the syndrome by that name / Is one that I abhor.  Seriously, who else can write like this and put it into a song and make it work??  Grant is the only person I can think of who can pull off tricks like that.

I was curious about how Grey Tickles, Black Pressure would compare to Pale Green Ghosts musically when I leaned that Biggi Veira (of Gusgus fame) wasn’t involved in the new album.  Biggi’s sonic fingerprints are all over the earlier record, and I thought that perhaps his absence from the new one represented a shift in direction.  However, that’s not the case, at least not entirely.  There was an incredible richness to much of Pale Green Ghosts, perhaps nowhere more so than on the title track, and while there’s a level of musical density to Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, it feels a bit simpler, which puts more of the focus on the vocals.  The differences are subtle – the overall composition still has an electronic base to it, though with a wide range of instruments playing their roles.  This doesn’t feel as much like an “electronic” album.

Normally on Life in the Vinyl Lane I give my initial impressions of an album, often after just the first or second listen.  I know that’s not how a reviewer is supposed to do things, and that may no always be fair to the artists, but initial impressions are still important ones.  Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is an exception to my usual modus operandi – I probably listened to it all the way through around 10 times before I finally sat down to write about it.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure.  I know that upon my first listening it didn’t sound like a John Grant album to me, though that impression faded immediately the second time through.  Grant throws so much at you lyrically that it can be a bit overwhelming, and I think he simply overloaded my brain circuits during that first listen as I tried to make sense of what he just said while continuing to follow along with what he was now saying.

I enjoy Grey Tickles, Black Pressure quite a bit, and I find it growing on me with each listen.  I doubt it will ever eclipse Pale Green Ghosts for me, but that was part of the enormously powerful first impression I had of Grant after seeing him perform live at Iceland Airwaves in 2013, and it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of experience with an artist as you become more familiar with their work.  Grey Tickles, Black Pressure strikes me as more mature and less raw emotion than Grant’s prior record, which is neither a positive nor a negative but simply an observation about this development as an artist and a man.  I respect his lyrical honesty, even when it makes me cringe.

Dr. Gunni – “í sjoppu” (2015)

I love it when mail arrives from Iceland.  LOVE.  IT.  Because it invariably means I’m about to lay my hands on some cool-ass music.  So when I went out to get the mail today and found a package from one Gunnar Lárus Hjálmarsson, I knew I was in for a treat.  Because Gunnar Lárus Hjálmarsson was part of some of my favorite Icelandic bands, performing as Dr. Gunni, S.H. Draumur, and Bless.  You could say he wrote the book on Icelandic popular music.  Literally.  Because he did.  In Icelandic and English.  I even bought some cool records from his collection once, most notably a copy of HAM’s Hold EP.  He’s a cool dude, and a hell of a musician.

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So what does the Doctor of Icelandic Music do when he turns 50?  Well, he puts out a new album.  Duh!  And for Gunni that meant a lathe cut 10″, limited to 50 numbered copies, and launched with a live performance at arguably my favorite place in the world, Reykjavik’s Lucky Records.  Damn I wish I’d been there for that show.  But I’ll have to make due with seeing Gunni and Ingvar and Gestur and our other Icelandic friends in a few weeks when Iceland Airwaves ’15 kicks off in early November.

So what about í sjoppu?  Well, Gunni has always liked to keep it weird, and this is no exception.  The album opens with a nine second track of a New York street vendor hawking his wares on “1$” and carries it through with some different types of rock and psych across side A.  Side B opens with some ukulele on “Hester” before suddenly changing things up and blowing your doors off with the hardcore punk rocker “Rollur.”  Then we get a dose of musical guest Dj. Flugvél go geimskip with her amazingly captivating and bizarre electro-j-popish storytelling on “Gúmmíönd,” which is just plain awesome.  “Sjöundi október” is the most classically Gunni sounding track, reminding me a ton of the songs on S.H. Draumur’s Goð.

Yes, you’ll have a hard time tracking down a copy of í sjoppu.  But have no fear – you can stream the whole thing online HERE, and even buy a digital copy for a fiver.  So go check it out, and wish the good doctor a happy birthday while you’re at it.  See you soon, Gunni.

“Start Swimming” Compilation (1981)

Start Swimming is an interesting little live comp put out by Stiff America back in 1981.  It features five bands, mostly from the New York/New Jersey region, each contributing two tracks which were all apparently recorded live at The Rainbow in London early that same year.

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Stylistically these five bands seem to differ from one another, though arguably they were all part of the same overall “scene” – basically the early to middle new wave era, that period before the sound coalesced into what we now think of as classic new wave a la Flock of Seagulls, Soft Cell, Blondie, and the more poppy incarnations of The Go-Go’s.  The bands on Start Swimming seem to orbit around a basic central indie type sound.  Some, like The Bongos, are a bit closer to rock, though adding Genesis P-Orridge to the song “In the Congo” certainly gives them some additional cred.  Raybeats bring a surf guitar based rock, but with straight-up funk bass and some synths thrown in to move them away from sounding like a Frankie & Annette movie band and towards something more modern and urban.  The dB’s show a more raw style of pop music, sort of a blend the Talking Heads and Half Japanese, while the Fleshtones play an early style of rock ‘n’ roll bordering on rockabilly, with a healthy dose of saxophone for good measure.

The winners here for me, however, are Bush Tetras, with their style of post-post-punk.  The Tetras are edgy, funky, and a bit sloppy, making them the least musically consistent but also the most interesting band on Start Swimming.  I’d read tidbits about them before in various books about punk/post-punk/new wave, so it was cool to finally hear some of their music – they’re certainly a band I’d be interested in hearing more of.  Their initial incarnation didn’t leave a lot of music behind before disbanding in 1983, though they’ve reformed a few times over the years to release new material, most recently 2012s “Happy.”  I suspect their early stuff will be the most interesting, and I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it when I’m digging, including their cassette-only debut LP from 1983, Wild Things.

Start Swimming is a solid comp featuring some talented bands.  The live material is well recorded – you can tell it’s live, but it doesn’t have that hollow quality so often found on live recordings from the era, and it retains a sufficient amount of low end to keep it from getting tinny.  Definitely a thumbs up.

PLS PLS – “LP LP”

If I had to pick one American band that I feel most accurately captures the vibe of the Icelandic music scene with it’s sound, that would be Dan Dixon’s PLS PLS (pronounced Please Please).

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Following 2012s EP, named EP EP, Dixon released the first full-length PLS PLS album the following you, which he of course named LP LP.  Its 10 songs defy easy categorization – there are basic pop and rock elements, but also synths, some new wave, indie…. the sound is everywhere, and it’s hard to contain with a simple genre label.  PLS PLS is more or less a Dixon solo project, though he had help from other musicians on various parts of different songs (I believe drummer Derek Murphy is the only person besides Dixon to play on every song). So it’s kind of a solo project… but one that allows for some other contributors to influence the sound a bit.

The reasons I think LP LP sounds Icelandic are that it’s very musically rich, but it often goes off in some unexpected directions – you can sense the influences in it without them being overt (other than the intro to “Exes,” which sounds a ton like an Iggy Pop song that I can’t quite place… but that’s only for 15 seconds or so).  There’s a definitely an 80s vibe here, but a very updated one.  Maybe it’s prog wave.  I don’t know.

It’s kind of hard to play favorites, though I am partial to “WCA” (which stands for “Whiskey, Cocaine, Adderall”… which sounds like a bad idea) and “Circles.”  The B side opens with “Fast As Light,” which is a great heavy synth pop number  that reminds me a bit of the previously reviewed and awfully obscure Lou Champagne System.  I’ve been really enjoying a lot of the 80s synth stuff lately, so it makes sense that the more modern but still familiar sound of PLS PLS would appeal to me.  A very pleasant surprise, and one I definitely recommend.

Shellac – “Dude Incredible”

I’ve struggled with this post probably more than any other I’ve written over the last few years.  Why?  Because Dude Incredible is hard to get a read on.  I liked it from the first listen, but I have a hard time staying focused on it and it feels disjointed at times.  Normally I’ll listen to something two three times in quick succession before writing about it, but I’ve played Dude Incredible at least a dozen times over the last few weeks, looking for that thread or theme I could use to get me started.  And I keep coming up empty.  So screw it, I’m just going to play it again and write while I listen.

shellacdudeincredible2I have no prior experience with Shellac, though I do know Steve Albini a bit from his Big Black work, most specifically the brilliant Songs About Fucking, a grating industrial noise-fest of awesomeness.  I’d also seen a few posts on the Facebook group “Now Playing” by others who had picked up Dude Incredible, most of who raved about it, so when I saw it in the New Arrivals section at Silver Platters it was a no-brainer.  When I got it home I was pleasantly surprised to find it also included a CD copy of the album, which is nice – personally I like that even better than a card for a free download, since it gives me more options.

The album opens with the title trick and a basic, stripped down blues-rock intro that picks up steam (and drums, and bass) about 20 seconds in, which surprised me the first time I heard it given all I knew of Albini was from Big Black.  And that is definitely not Big Black-ish.  But the vocals… though sung in a more standard rock style, there’s some Steve Albini in there:

Oh my brothers,
And oh my other comrades,
Let’s leave this place directly
And go where the females congregate.
Perhaps they’ll let us fuck them,
And on the way we’ll have adventures.
— “Dude Incredible”

Well, OK then.

The song takes on a much more frenetic pace about half way through and starts to feel a bit more like what I was expecting, breaking loose of typical song structure into something with weird timing, and sounds and words put together in ways that almost makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, ending with a sort of martial drum beat.  Now we’re talking.

Albini actually broke the album down song by song on a podcast recently, and a summary can be found HERE.  The word and concept of “surveyor” is a common element, appearing in the titles of three of the album’s nine songs, one of which is an instrumental (so they could have pretty much called it anything they wanted…).  In the interview Albini indicated that surveyors and surveying were an ongoing topic of conversation among the band members, going all the way back to the Founding Fathers and the assertion made by Albini that “quite a few” of them were surveyors.  Certainly it’s a word with different, though somewhat related meanings, from the formal process of a surveyor establishing the boundaries to a piece of land, to doing a broad overview of some topic (i.e. surveying a course in college), to actually asking different people the same questions in order to find out the most frequent/popular responses.  I’d personally be hard pressed to shoehorn the framework of the album around those concepts, but hey, I’m not a musicologist.  I’m a dude with a turntable and a computer.  So cut me some slack.

One of the high points of the album for me are the very musically blunt, driving, grating poundingness of “Riding Bikes,” which is, not coincidentally, about kids riding bikes and getting into trouble, an experience many of us can relate to (especially if you include skateboards into the mix…).  The other is “All The Surveyors,” with it’s sort of bizarre acapella intro that gives way to a structured, punctuated musical framework for some odd vocals (including crow-like “caw caw!” screams).

If there is a common element to Dude Incredible, it’s the very structured musical format.  A lot of the playing is single notes that aren’t held at all, giving them a very punctuated quality, particularly on the bass and the sharp, slow drum beats.  It gives it a direct and aggressive sound without having to be fast or loud.  It just keeps coming at you.  And you can’t stop it.  Song after song.

Dude Incredible isn’t an “easy” album, but there’s plenty of easy music out there you can listen to when you just want something you can ignore.  So challenge yourself once in a while.  It’s good for you.