Sunday 22 September 2013

Dream Boys

They start with the note-perfect 60s pop of Sometimes, glorious like The La’s There She Goes, and strike a rich seam of melodic gold that refuses to let up, like Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

Listen to Born Yesterday and ask yourself if they’re trying to be Jim Beattie in Primal Scream or Peter Buck on Reckoning or Roger McGuinn on Younger Than Yesterday. The answer is they’ve absorbed all that and more – I’m certain they’ve got a copy of The Crystal Set’s magisterial A Drop In The Ocean and have more than a few Bats albums – and come up with something as fresh as new paint.

Sure, there’s nothing essentially new about Dream Boys’ Rickenbacker and close harmonies - the blueprint was set out by The Beatles; just 2 years ago The Twerps’ debut and Real Estate’s Days albums were reaching for similar highs – but this eponymous album is no revivalism: they reach higher and grab more stars than anyone else.

They’re from Los Angeles, but they could be from Glasgow. Or Dunedin. Or 1967. Or 1986. They’re from 2013 and sound like both the future and the past. Their album’s out now on Art Fag.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Suki Ewers

Each year there are bands in Mazzy Star's psychedelic slipstream - in 2013, cherish Georgiana Starlington and Web Of Sunsets - whose gently spun melodies and funereal undertones suggest a similar obsession with life in the shadows.

In the 17 years since Mazzy Star's last album, there's been none closer than Suki Ewers. Obviously, perhaps, as Suki is Mazzy Star's keyboardist and before then was in Opal. In fact, the elegiac One More Time and the quietly dramatic What Can You See sound like they could be lost Opal recordings.

But Kind Of Hazy (it does what it says on the tin), Suki's 2008 album, works on its own terms. It finds richness in its suspended animation, sharing an aesthetic with Galaxie 500's On Fire - whose producer, Kramer, also mastered Kind Of Hazy.

I expect like me, you'll be buying Mazzy Star's Seasons Of Your Day on Monday. Some point after that, in the cold years waiting for its follow-up, make sure to buy Kind Of Hazy. It's a masterclass in elegiac pop.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Shintaro Sakamoto: Don't Know What's Normal

This meeting point of tropicalia, afro-funk and soft pop comes to you from Japan. After last year's ace How To Live With A Phantom album, the easy lounge groove of the Don't Know What's Normal 7" is more than a match for any of the album's highs.

Don't Know What's Normal manages, like the slacker hip hop of Beck's Where It's At and the Super Furry Animals' seamless genre-bending, to make a really tight piece of music sound effortless.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Heathers: Teenage Clothes

Imagine if Joy Division’s Transmission was hijacked from its gloom, pimped with a rough, jangling riff that knew The Byrds inside out and was driven by a teenage beat that crashed the cymbals into the sound booth.

That’s the slapdash pop-art pop of Teenage Clothes: punk’s energy meeting the broken-hearted crusade of 60s pop. It’s loud and it’s bright and it’s irresistible.

Heathers are probably named after the film, but their skittishness and zest reminds me a little of early Orange Juice (The Heather's On Fire). Even though they’re 3 blokes from LA, I want them – kinda like da Brudders Ramone – to all be called Heather. Anyhow, the b-side I Don’t Wanna Be Adored – more The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog than The Stone Roses – shows they’ve got a sense of humour.

Saturday 7 September 2013

On tape: The Telescopes 'Hang' demo

What did you do in the great cassette store day war, daddy? I digitised Hang, a demo recorded by The Telescopes in December 1987.

Let's not be too silly about this cassette store day (the only cassette shop I've ever been to was in Baghdad in the 1980s, where you chose from a massive Argos-sized brochure what tape you'd like copied) as tape shops don't exist.

Tapes are enjoying a bit of a revival in the indie scene as they're the cheapest physical format to produce and distribute. Add disaffection with free MP3s, horrifying postage costs for vinyl and a bit of nostalgia for the early DIY ethic, and you've got a thriving underground scene.

What you haven't got is something that can be co-opted by shops and bigger labels to generate excitement and cash windfalls with limited editions. Even so, I hope that some of the bands and tape labels find new fans and get money to make their next tapes. Or even a 7" single.

That Telescopes demo? One of the band members sent me a collection of their demos and some live tracks in April 1988. More time has elapsed between now and then as has between then and the release of the first Beatles LP.

We're not going back to demo tapes, but as long as the most exciting bands get their new music out on tape (last year, for example, there was Joanna Gruesome, The Spook School and Playlounge, all of whom have since had records out) then the scene thrives.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Little Big League: These Are Good People

This collection combines post-punk’s brittle immediacy with The Sundays’ romantic gloom. Maybe if The Sundays’ Blind had bothered with, you know, a few tunes and, say, Built To Spill had got even more dischord going on, then with that combination you’d have These Are Good People.

Singer Michelle Zauner has similar vocal gymnastics to Inna Mkrtycheva of the (too short-lived) Sweet Bulbs, a band with whom Little Big League share an enthralling sonic intemperance.

Like Fear Of Men, their closest contemporaries, they have a folkloric fascination and mystery, and a smart way of containing howling sexual anguish in the restraints of instantly accessible pop songs. Check Summer Wounds, for instance:

For the love of God, someone get this girl to shut up
Or else I’m leaving, I swear I’m leaving
Oh don’t you want me to stay
Like a summer dress on a wire hanger

I can not get off when you're always trying to talk
I lose the feeling, I'm lost

Or Sportswriting, which opens with "Tell me do you like to give or receive/Or do you like it better on hands and knees". Just listen to the tension building and its release in 6 glorious minutes:

Fuck it, play the whole album and then buy it.

Monday 2 September 2013

Record Store Day and Independent Label Market: competing economies

Record Store Day (RSD) exists to sustain independent record shops; Independent Label Market (ILM) exists to help indie labels claw back some money lost by selling records to shops through distributors.

The 2 parties making money throughout the year are major labels and distributors. RSD is becoming more popular each year principally because of major labels’ involvement. In 2013 the RSD hype in the mainstream media wasn’t because of the Cannibal Corpse picture disc but because David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush and Pink Floyd, among other established major label perennials, had limited releases.

This one day of feverish excitement about overpriced records - inflated by labels and shops - helps many record shops balance their books for the rest of the year. The bigger labels do pretty well out of it, too. For the smaller labels, though, the ones shut out from the RSD whirligig, it’s just another bad day at the office.

Independent Label Market
Every big city should have one of these. I’ve enjoyed the days at London’s Spitalfields Market, getting good deals on new records and back catalogue. For some of the smaller labels involved, it’s a financial lifeline as they can sell records at a small profit, which pays for the loss they incur when they sell through a distributor.

The unrealistic deals given to many small labels in the UK means that they lose money on every record they sell through a distributor. Self-distribution is rarely worth it for small labels thanks to the sheer time involved in successfully invoicing shops. Want to know about a label that’s never been paid for its records by the shop that’s sold them? Speak to a small label. Most of them have some horror stories.

Mail order
Declining sales have put record shops in reduced circumstances. Small labels have almost always lost money or broken even. Most of the records I’ve bought in the past 25+ years from these cottage (or bedroom in a cottage) industries have been by mail order, either direct from the label or from an underground mail order distributor.

I’ve spoken to bands on such labels and they’ve always been delighted when they see their records in shops. But the likelihood of seeing them in shops is dwindling. The small labels will survive selling their records at gigs and online. Many of them are now using singles clubs, which bypass record shops completely.

Some of these labels - OddBox, for example, whose are pressing 100 copies of each single - rarely get their records in shops as it is. For my money, their Tyrannosaurus Dead 12” ep is one of 2013’s most exciting debuts. You won’t find it in record shops, though.

It wouldn’t take a daring buyer to stock this ep - the frenzied fuzz puts it next to contemporaries Spook School or Joanna Gruesome, its heritage would see it happily next to Dinosaur Jr in the racks - but if independent shops decide they don’t need these sorts of records, then many labels are drawing the conclusion that they don’t need the shops.

Tyrannosaurus Dead’s second release was a 7” lathe cut. Just 50 copies. All money to the label and band. Makes economic sense.

This DIY ethic chimes with what Damon Krukowski said last month:
Musicians don’t need to reach everyone; we just need to reach our audience. And we don’t need to make everyone pay a little, but we do need those for whom our work means something significant to pay enough to enable us to provide it. I believe that relationship is relatively undisturbed by the Internet — that’s why limited editions, from lavish box sets to underground cassettes, seem to be humming along fine right now. Those are products made for a specific audience, which appreciates their agreed-upon value.

All of Britain's independent label shops that I've visited do great work under a lot of financial pressure. But some of them could work more closely with independent labels to ensure their survival and the indie scene's health rather than relying on the major-label blitz of RSD to balance their books.

I'd welcome suggestions from indie labels on what they could do to sell more records through shops. I bet they'll have some great ideas.

Rough Trade East
My local record shop is Rough Trade East (RTE) - I live about a mile away. Some of you might think I’m lucky. In a way, I am. However, I seldom buy anything there because they’re so expensive - 7”s are at least £1 more than other shops; albums are between £2 and £5 higher. So if I want more than one new record from a shop - and most weeks, I do - then it’s cheaper to buy mail order from another record shop.

But I’m glad it’s there. I was in RTE on Saturday and there were records I didn’t know about and, in one case, thought had sold out of its crazily small run. That’s the joy of record shopping. If I’d had a few more quid, I’d have bought a reissued album, too. Yes, all the ones I want are available cheaper mail order from another shop (even factoring in the postage cost) but I could’ve bought them at any point in the past 5 years. Picking up a record is always more enticing than looking at a thumbnail.

Most of the punters were tourists, many young enough to be with their parents. Yes, both generations could be buying records, but on that day I saw only the kids with record bags.

RTE is a destination venue for visitors, some of whom no doubt buy something just because they’re there. Perhaps they wouldn’t if they lived locally; however, the number of indie record shops in London is so low that there isn’t much choice and they'll eventually find themselves in RTE.

I wonder if it’s this small success or the idea of empire building that’s leading to Rough Trade to open a branch in New York. I wish them well. But I warn them: there’s room in central London for another decently sized independent record shop. And if, say, New York’s Other Music decide to open a branch on Rough Trade’s Shoreditch turf, and their prices don’t have Rough Trade’s silly mark-up, then RTE might find itself struggling to survive on its own patch.