Shout Out Louds – Our Ill Wills

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The whole point of this (dumb, dumb, dumb) project is to examine exactly what it is that appeals to me about each album and band in my collection. But sometimes, the unexamined album is still worth listening to. Or something. I don’t really feel like thinking about Shout Out Louds and Our Ill Wills. Or more to the point, I am not sure there is much to be gained from thinking much about them. Focusing on the lyrics, for example, gets you nowhere, as they often do not make sense, though the line “you and I are rats at Cupid’s table” is one I’ll have to remember if I ever find that special someone. True, they are not singing in their native language but it’s fairly patronizing to suggest the band doesn’t know or can’t do better. I just think they like the way these words sound. And I have to agree. I like the way the words sound and if I read the lyrics, the effort only detracts from the experience. Similarly, I could mix and match with the Cure all day, but why? I want to take this album at face value and just enjoy it for what it is.

What I Think of This Album

Despite the explicit Smiths reference on “Meat Is Murder,” Shout Out Louds once again turn to the Cure for inspiration, as amply demonstrated by Adam Olenious’s puppy dog vocals and the unmistakable Head On the Door-era elements (particularly on opener “Tonight I Have to Leave It,” with its classically Boris Williams drum pattern). This is not a criticism – it works and I like it. In fact, this sophomore album only suffers in comparison to the debut because we know what’s coming this time.

That’s not entirely true, actually. This album deemphasizes the guitars and producer Björn Yttling (Peter, Bjorn and John) instead dresses things up with an abundance of strings and guest contributions from the likes of bandmate John Erickson and Lykke Li Zachrisson. And the tone is significantly gloomier this time. But the strings and the moroseness don’t make this a weaker album, just a darker one.

So this time we get the aural equivalent of sour patch worms:  colorful, bright, and addictive, but with loneliness and sadness at their core. This is best reflected in highlights like sophisticated “Impossible,” with its impressive percussion flourishes, bouncy keyboard line (more Cure) and harmony vocals, and the aforementioned “Tonight.” Similarly, “Normandie” sounds like “Close To Me” on vacation north of the Arctic Circle. And “Time Left for Love” tells a muddled story of catastrophic vehicular death that I think is supposed to be a reminder to love early and often, but whatever – it sounds cool, especially that piano part.

There are some nice surprises, too, such as Bebban Stenborg’s lead vocal turn on “Blue Headlights,” which she wrote (including the “rats at Cupid’s table” line) and which shuffles nicely and features a pristine piano part. Almost title track “Ill Wills” is a delicate, sweet Instrumental. And “Hard Rain” almost borders on lite psychedelia at times.

The Best Thing About This Album

Rhyming “serial killer” with “Caterpillar” (as in, the heavy machinery, not the arthropod).

Release Date

April, 2007 (Sweden); May 2007 (Europe); September, 2007 (U.S)

The Cover Art

Pretty good. The nautical flags (sorry, I mean the international maritime signal flags) spell out the band’s name and then the album title.

The Essex Green – The Long Goodbye

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

A little-known but wonderful trio, the Essex Green are humble practitioners of the pop arts. Originally from Vermont, where they played as Guppyboy, the threesome of Sasha Bell, Chris Ziter, and Jeff Baron decamped to Brooklyn and became the Essex Green in 1997. Invited to join the Elephant 6 collective, they issued their first album in 1999. The band also had cross-membership in the Ladybug Transistor and worked with Saturnine, a band that included Baron’s sister, Jennifer. As far as day jobs went, at least at some point Bell worked in documentary filmmaking, Baron did recording work, and Ziter was in web design.

What I Think of This Album

Yes, The Long Goodbye borrows heavily from the past, as the Essex Green updates classic ‘60s sounds – from folk-pop to chamber-pop to sunny California pop – but the band does more than just engage in retro exercises. The three have forged an identity on this album, and done so with sufficient self-possession to satisfy fans and sideline detractors. In fact, sometimes it seems like they are showing off and you know what, fucking good for them.

The band flexes its muscles early with the surprising “By the Sea,” which evokes gently rolling English hills with a bucolic flute part and angelic harmonies backing Sasha Bell’s distinctive and sweet lead vocal. Partway through, though, an unexpectedly aggressive lead guitar part appears and the flute part becomes more Summer of Love, leading to a veritable jam that would’ve rocked Golden Gate Park in 1969.

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is the standout out tune, with a Moe Tucker-influenced tom pattern (not a single cymbal is struck during this song, thank god) and a guitar riff that I would murder a close friend for. Bell once again does the honors on vocals, invoking the titular (though misspelled) constellation, New York magazine, and words of deeply romantic devotion. This wasn’t the song that made me fall in love with this band, but every time I hear it, I fall in love with them all over again.

Bell continues to dominate on “Our Lady In Havana,” which unfortunately is not a spy story (please return to this blog for more Graham Greene jokes), but very fortunately benefits from a spooky organ part and impressive supporting string work. Bell is again in the spotlight on the wonderful “Southern States,” offering perhaps her best vocal turn on the album.

The martial “Lazy May” employs an appealing rhyme scheme and heralds a return of the tougher guitar sound, at times evoking the Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” I think it’s Chris Ziter singing lead, with Bell taking care of harmonies. I can’t say I love “Julia,” also with Ziter (presumptively) on vocals, but it’s also not a bad song.

The trio evokes a trippy, quasi-ecclesiastical Byrds/Band hybrid on “Old Dominion,” with some gorgeous harmonies. “Sorry River” is a lovely tune carried more than capably by Bell, whose voice continues to be a revelation. “Chartiers” is another thoughtful and melancholy pop song, with Ziter offering a tale of love lost (and referencing Chicago).

The band cannot capitalize lyrically on the promising joke of “The Whetherman,” but that doesn’t detract at all from a truly beautiful song, enhanced by strings and steered by Bell’s excellent vocal.

The band carefully constructs “The Boo Hoo Boy,” a meticulously arranged song which Ziter does a nice job with, eventually trapping listeners in its insistent swirl. Closing things out is “Berlin,” a simple and straightforward love song with Bell and ZIter harmonizing perfectly.

Apparently there is a version of this album that contains a short, alleged reprise of “The Boo Hoo Boy,” which references yet another Graham Greene work (The Quiet American), but I don’t have that on my copy. Also, the music publishing is credited to Quiet American Songs. And, album title The Long Goodbye is a Raymond Chandler book (and related movie starring Elliot Gould), so someone in this band really likes the detective/mystery genre.

Gary Olson of the Ladybug Transistor was involved in the recording. Thanked in the liner notes are Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballard of Superchunk (but more relevantly, heads of the Merge label, home of the Essex Green).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is a joy.

Release Date

May, 2003

The Cover Art

Sasha Bell’s comically chaste outfit, complete with flute, and the stuffy, self-important demeanor of Jeff Baron and Chris Ziter propel the New England boarding school scene depicted here to unsurpassed heights. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a joke or not, but regardless, I really enjoy it. The use of red, black, and white is excellent; not sure about the bird image.

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

There is a video of two members of the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir (as well as cellist Jenny Choi) playing live on a Chicago rooftop (maybe Wicker Park or East Village) with Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes covering “Ask” by the Smiths. I love it. The collaboration works because they are both Chicago bands who wouldn’t exist without the Smiths, and also because the union brings together the sophistication of one band with the inimitable vocals from the other. It’s part of the defunct AV Club Undercover series. Search it out and watch it. And, notice the lyrical change from “Luxembourg” to Chicago suburb “Carpentersville.”

What I Think of This Album

While it is perhaps up for debate that this is the best Scotland Yard Gospel Choir album, there is no question that this is the quintessential SYGC album. In addition to containing some of their best songs, the normative aspects are reflected in the cover art, the lower case song titles, and the decision to make the album eponymous.

Now fully in command after the departure of fellow songwriter Matthew Kerstein, leader Elia Einhorn is finally able to offer a set of songs that hews to a consistent style. And that style involves some obvious debts to the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian, though with enough creativity in the marrying of chamber pop arrangements to clever, heartfelt, and insightful lyrics to establish an independent identity. 

Nowhere does SYGC shine more brightly than on the uplifting tale of “I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a Boy.” Against an absolutely gorgeous cello part and supported by Ellen O’Hayer’s heavenly harmonies, to say nothing of the delightful handclaps and the driving bass, Einhorn delivers a sweet song of sexual awakening and self-acceptance, culminating with the Smiths-y question of “now, is that so wrong?”

The band is deceptively dark on the playful and zippy “Aspidistra,” which chronicles Einhorn’s past drug use, and they delve further into the autobiographical with “Then and Not a Moment Before,” during which Einhorn bitterly lays into an absent father to a degree that seems unbearably intimate (indeed, the details are so precise that one naturally concludes it is based in fact), which makes the slippery lap steel and bright horns all the more welcome.   

“Pins and Needles” ruefully documents sudden onset maturity, and Einhorn delivers an almost comically anguished performance on “This World Has No Place for Me,” which sounds like Morrissey backed by the Left Banke. “Obsessions” may be the most insular Scottish indie-pop ripoff ever. The song starts like a Leonard Cohen pastiche – much like Camera Obscura’s “Your Picture” – before transforming into a more standard bit of Belle and Sebastian homage, complete with Murdochian lyrics like “I’ve been hiding out at home, white-ing out the Bible” (which is an activity that doesn’t even make sense, by the way).   

O’Hayer gets three showcases. One is the photo album review of “Broken Front Teeth” (a song she co-wrote) on which her vocals rest on arpeggiated acoustic guitar (and ultimately some accordion), somewhat reminiscent of “Back to the Old House.” She also takes charge on “In Hospital,” a piano ballad about grief that incorporates some ghostly harmonic drones (which brings to mind the Smiths’ “Asleep”). Finally, she receives more robust orchestral support on “Everything You Paid For,” which is a lovely and sympathetic message to a beleaguered friend (though it ends with some unusual tape manipulation that is jarringly out of place).

The liner notes are a god-awful mess, often blurring the line between pretentious and guileless as evidenced by explicit nods to novelist/memoirist Dave Eggers and outsider artist Harvey Pekar (“for what they do”), as well as David Sedaris, autotune, Lexapro, and vegetarians.

More relevantly, the musicians include the departed duo of Kerstein and Sam Koentopp, as well as Sally Timms (Mekons) and vocalists Nora O’Connor and Kelly Hogan (both Neko Case collaborators). Other indie luminaries mentioned (but not as contributors) are Ben Gibbard and John Roderick (the Long Winters).

The Best Thing About This Album

The melody, arrangement, and pure joy that comes through on “I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a Boy” is magical.

Release Date

October, 2007

The Cover Art

Solid-to-very-good. I would have preferred the shot without people in it, but I like the monochrome blue-grey scheme, and the almost see-thru font.

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – I Bet You Say That to All the Boys

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

A Chicago band from the 2000s that brought a welcome dose of melody, humor, and sophistication to the Midwest, the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir released three albums before being ended by a serious (but non-fatal) car accident in 2009. Elia Einhorn and Matthew Kerstein formed the band in 2001, gradually adding on members. Einhorn in particular was recovering from a history of serious substance abuse (referenced in several SYGC songs) and found purpose and reward in creating music. The SYGC quickly garnered a lot of critical and media attention, which I only wish had translated into greater success.

What I Think of This Album

So, somehow I jumped from the SA part of my collection straight to the SE part, completely skipping over the SCs and not noticing until I was done drafting the Sex Pistols review. I wish I could say I don’t know how that happened, but I know exactly how it happened, and while I will continue to insist that I do in fact have a strong familiarity with the alphabet, I can admit to an organizational hiccup and some lack of attention. Anyway, on to (finally) the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir.

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir is basically an earthier, American version of Belle and Sebastian. At least on this album, which is something of an outlier in their catalog, the SYGC celebrates the roughness around the edges, being much less concerned than their Scottish inspiration about creating a pristine (not to say precious) sound. And, putting lie to my description, the songwriting and singing contributions of soon-to-be-departed founding member Matthew Kerstein create some tension within the album, as he takes more of a troubadourian, Dylanesque approach whereas as Elia Einhorn is mostly in the indie/chamber pop camp. In other words, you can tell whose songs are whose on this album.

Kerstein supplies six of the fourteen tunes here, and in general he is the more earnest and serious of the two main songwriters. Even when Kerstein employs the more orchestral approach of his partner, such as on “Bet You Never Thought It Would Be Like This,” the overall mood and tone is downcast and somber. He is capable of bringing energy, as demonstrated by the surging, carnal “She Just Wants to Move,” but even then, there is little joy in his work. 

Two harmonica parts color the tale of questioning and lost bearings that is “Mother’s Son,” easily Kerstein’s best song here. There is a surprising bit of moralizing in “Along the Way,” when Kerstein sings “No one set out to be an unwed mother,” comparing it to being a drunk driver or an adulterous partner. This jarring lyric throws off an otherwise heartfelt and apologetic plea for understanding.

Einhorn on the other hand demonstrates a playfulness and sense of humor, though this leaves him open to the comparisons with Belle and Sebastian and the Smiths. That said, the melodies, lyrics, and arrangements are wonderful, and Einhorn infuses his songs with heart, making it all sound fresh. His greatest accomplishment is probably the frothy “Topsy Turvy,” with its colorful organ chords and an insouciant, tinny synthetic drum part. “Topsy Turvy” and a few other tracks (such as the zippy “Ellen’s Telling Me What I Want to Hear” – a song presumably about bandmate Ellen O’Hayer and the folky “I Say the Stupidest Things Sometimes”) manage to create their own identity, proving that Einhorn can create compelling songs using familiar ingredients. “Fan Club” is also a standout, with key additions from flugelhorn, Rhodes piano, and cello, and notable for, perhaps with a wink, explicitly namechecking Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian) and Tracyanne Campbell (Camera Obscura).

Less original are “Jennie That Cries,” which sounds like a hidden track on If You’re Feeling Sinister, and the similar pastiche of “I Know a Girl.” But even in these songs, you can tell that Einhorn is capable of more than mimicry. “Girl,” for example, employs some grounded, gospel-like background vocals (by the Gospellettes, of course) that add character.

The SYGC would repurpose “Tear Down the Opera House” later, but here it exists in rough, almost punkish form. It’s not a style that meshes well with the rest of the album but the lyrics are great (“So tear down the opera house / There’s nothing there for me, only beauty / And I don’t think that’s very appropriate here”) and it’s nice to hear the band get a little messy.

Special props to cellist/vocalist O’Hayer, who contributes the sweet “Would You Still Love Me If I Were In a Knife Fight?” (though it is spooky to hear the prescient verse “I would still love you / If you were in a car crash / Your glasses smashed / Your hair a mess with broken glass”). This is a lovely and delicate song that stands alone on the album, avoiding both the solemnity of Kerstein and the archness of Einhorn.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Topsy Turvy” is both fun and good, though a close second is all the explicit Chicago references in the lyrics throughout the album: the Brown Line, the Art Institute, Symphony Center.

Release Date

October, 2003

The Cover Art

I’m a big fan of the monochrome, saturated cover photo on principle (which the Smiths did well and Belle and Sebastian not so much), but this one goes wide of the mark. It’s lacking in sharpness and definition and seems more like an accidental photo (not even a candid), giving it all a haphazard quality.

Saturday Looks Good To Me – Sound On Sound

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

I can’t think of a band that needed a mop up collection like this more than Saturday Looks Good to Me. As acknowledged on the back cover, Sound On Sound gathers “limited and unavailable” tracks previously shared with the world only via CD-R and vinyl releases with very limited runs (like, 100 copies) from 2000-2005.

What I Think of This Album

This is a deceptively delightful collection of lost tracks from Fred Thomas’s Michigan-based indie-pop project. Perhaps due to its size or to the lack of a unifying style, the album as whole comes across as disposable, but on a song-by-song basis, it’s really fun and consistently high quality. A true fan-oriented release, part of the appeal is in hearing how different some of these songs are from what normally ends up on SLGTM’s full-length albums.

Highlights include the winsome “Can’t Ever Sleep” and the charming “Your Small Heart.” It is too easy to fall in love with Godzuki singer Erika Hoffman’s vocals on “Summer Doesn’t Count (Unless You’re Here With Me),” and the surprisingly barbed guitar part is a welcome twist on the band’s style. “Diary” would probably fail in anyone else’s hands, but this sincere romanticism is precisely what Thomas excels at and may be the best song on the album. 

The brief and reverb-cloaked (reverb-burdened?) “Liquor Store” is a gleeful experiment in lo-fi damage. “Labcoat” manages to be both mumbly and delicate. “Pet Store” is an instrumental that Spector would’ve lost his (deranged) mind over. And, the garagey version of “The Girl’s Distracted,” with the dirtiest guitar tone I’ve ever heard from this band, is a nice surprise.

“Light Bulb Heart” (what a great concept – illuminating, warm, fragile) is way out of left field, with a hard soul rhythm, tough girl sing-speak vocals, and *another* nasty guitar solo. In fact, soul informs several songs on this comp, as evidenced by the harmonica and handclaps on “When You Go Out Tonight” and the uncharacteristic energy (including a gritty sax part) of “Girl of Mine,” which honestly could’ve been a Wilson Pickett number. “Hiding” is pure Marvelletes, and “Parking Lot Blues” sounds like a Jackson 5 hit that never was. And once you get past the annoying intro, “I Don’t Want to Go” is another girl-group/soul type number.

I appreciate how the programmed beats of “Nervous” perfectly evoke the title. This is not the only track here that, by virtue of the synthesized drums and the naked sentimentality (to say nothing of the songwriter’s preference to have others sing lead), provokes comparisons to the Magnetic Fields. See also “It Sounds Like They’re In Love With You.” 

The Ramones cover (“Listen to My Heart”) doesn’t work – surprising, as both bands share roots in girl-group sonics and songwriting. There are two more covers. One is “Blue Christmas” (popularized by Elvis and also recorded by the Beach Boys). This is outshone by competing holiday song “Christmas Blues,” with a gospel organ and the umpeeth guitar solo that raises my eyebrows on this disc. There is actually a third holiday tune here:  the instrumental part of the chorus of “This Time Every Year” is to die for (which disputes Thomas’s lyric that “nobody wants to die that way”), and the buried guitar solo is awesome. The other cover is “Learn to Live With Your Heartbreak,” the only prior version of which I have been able to identify is from a 1967 Patty Duke album comprised mostly of songs from Valley of the Dolls. Presumably, the cover came from the Patty Duke Fanzine #5 release from 2003, of which 500 copies were pressed.

The distorted guitar of “Disaster” – which is actually dominated by the ominous Zombies-like organ – still manages to surprise even with the song slotted in at track 27. The clarinet and horn parts remind me of Morton Stevens’s “Hawaii 5-0 Theme.” Almost lost among the other songs is the moving “Last Year,” with a critical harmonica (or it might be an organ) part. Sleepy final track “Own” paraphrases liberally from the Smiths’ “I Don’t Owe You Anything.” 

As usual, the guest list is long and includes vocalists Kelly Jean Caldwell, Erika Hoffman(-Dilloway) (as she is billed here, which I have never seen before), Ko Melina (the opposite of Hoffman(-Dilloway) insofar as she is credited only as Ko, which I have also never seen before), Betty Marie Barnes, and the mysterious Dara. Plus instrumentalists Aidan Dysart, Elliot Bergman of Wild Belle, Zach Wallace (His Name Is Alive), Ida Pearle (a name I can only assume was stolen from a silent film star), and others, but this time, surprisingly, not Warn Defever.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar tone – I understand why Thomas doesn’t employ it for regular releases, but it really adds a new dimension on these tracks.

Release Date

February, 2006

The Cover Art

The artwork is terrible. The image actually seems appropriate to Fred Thomas’s ethos; I just don’t like how the idea was executed.

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Look, the title is taken from an iconic Smiths song, and the album cover mimics the art of my favorite Smiths release, Hatful of Hollow. There is no way I wasn’t going to buy this MOJO magazine compilation. Of course, there is no real connection to the Smiths on the album – the liner notes shamelessly claim this to be “a snapshot of the scene they dominated for five years” and acknowledges that the album collects songs from the Smiths’ “contemporaries.” Which is fine, because this is a pretty good comp, and I have almost all the Smiths I need, anyway.

What I Think of This Album

I know for sure that I own four of these fifteen tracks already, and it’s possible I own a couple more on my indie-pop box sets. And in fact, I’ve already covered the Billy Bragg, Close Lobsters, and Weather Prophets songs found on this collection, and I will eventually get to the Go-Betweens (in a year, maybe?). So I’m going to skip over them, except I will point out that all of those songs are excellent.

The remainder of the album is just as strong. Highlights include Hurrah!’s “Sweet Sanity,” driven by emotional lead vocals. Hurrah! opened for U2 and Bowie and released two studio albums, with a “lost” third album being issued in 2010. I am sure I have a Woodentops song on more than one comp, possibly even the claustrophobic, paranoid “Well Well Well,” which sounds like a band caving in on itself (with a strong debt to Suicide; parts of Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” also remind me of this song). The bassist for the Woodentops was Frank deFreitas, who was the brother of Echo and the Bunnymen drummer Pete deFreitas; guitarist Rolo McGinty was in the Wild Swans and the Jazz Butcher; and, just to close the loop, Pete deFreitas played on the debut Wild Swans single (though I don’t know if McGinty was in the band at that time).

The Nightingales’s “Crafty Fag” is even more unhinged than the Woodentops song, replete with sharp corners, disorienting drums, and frenetic vocals. Perhaps the most fun song here is the Flatmates’ “I Could Be In Heaven,” which is a sugar rush of jangly guitars, rapid fire drums, cooing backing vocals, and a beach party/girl-group vibe; they never released a studio album. The awkwardly monikered Martin Stephenson and the Daintees offer the blandly enjoyable “Crocodile Cryer,” though I could do without the keyboard solo.

Interest returns in the form of the sardonic, bleakly humorous “How I Learned to Love the . . . Bomb,” by the Television Personalities. I never got into the La’s –  I never liked Lee Mavers’s voice – but “Open Your Heart” isn’t terrible. I also did not care for the Blue Aeroplanes and “Action Painting” doesn’t convince me that I was wrong.

I’ve already written about the Dentists, but not about song “Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (and It’s Wintertime),” which is from their earlier, more psychedelic days. Finally, the Chesterfields’ anxious and jittery “Completely and Utterly” is a nice, jangly tune with a great vocal at the end. The only song I need to skip here is the one by Felt.

The Best Thing About This Album

Oh, “I Could Be In Heaven,” for sure.

Release Date

October, 2012

The Cover Art

Like I said, it’s based on the Smiths’ compilation Hatful of Hollow, and it’s a decent homage but nothing more.

Tender Trap – Dansette Dansette

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Talulah Gosh transformed into Heavenly upon the disintegration of that band. The core members – Amelia Fletcher, drummer Matthew Fletcher, guitarist Peter Momtchiloff, and original bassist Rob Pursey – regrouped for several excellent albums, and when Matthew Fletcher took his own life, Heavenly was no more. With Heavenly vocalist/keyboardist Cathy Rogers, the group then became Marine Research, now with drummer DJ Downfall. After one album, both Momtchiloff and Rogers left. Amelia Fletcher led the remaining members into another change – this time, Tender Trap (which eventually added drummer/vocalist Katrina Dixon (Downfall having moved to bass, with Pursey now on guitar), and vocalist/guitarist Elizabeth Morris (of Allo Darlin’), and then Emily Bennet (Betty and the Werewolves) replacing Morris. I own a comprehensive Talulah Gosh comp (they only released singles); all four Heavenly albums; and the lone Marine Research offering, but only one of the four Tender Trap albums. I at one point owned debut Film Molecules, but I did not care for the programmed beats. Dansette Dansette is much more organic, and as for the other two discs – I think they’re just okay. Fletcher, Pursey, and Hue Williams of the Pooh Sticks (who Amelia sang with) now make up the core of the band Swansea Sound.

What I Think of This Album

As much as I love Amelia Fletcher’s genius, including her voice, the fact is her songs sound best when she has another female vocalist to harmonize with. Drummer Katrina Dixon and guitarist Elizabeth Morris not only fill out the instrumental arrangements (thank god for live drums), they also do wonders for the vocals (any fan of Morris’s band Allo Darlin’ can attest to her wonderful voice).

The title (Dansette was the leading British brand of portable turntables in the ‘60s) is a good indication of what you’re going to get:  ‘60s inspired pop, with plenty of girl group harmonies. Shit, the lead song and title track references Sandie Shaw (who recorded with the Smiths in an unexpected career resurgence twenty years after her heyday) and Lesley Gore. Too, the dangerous and cheeky “Girls With Guns” relies on spy movie guitar.

As in Talulah Gosh and Heavenly, there is a good deal of humor baked into these songs, making them even more joyous. Notable is the complex “Do You Want a Boyfriend?” which veers from forlorn to hopeful to assertive, as Fletcher in frank fashion advises young women about what to look for in a partner while harmonies cascade around her:  “Does he have to please you psychologically? / Does he have to tease you gynecologically?”  and – finally getting to the heart of the matter – “Does he have to like the Jesus and Mary Chain? / Yes, that would be heaven.”

“Girls With Guns” is a stunning message of menace, warning men about the retribution they will face for mistreatment of women. There is a muscularity to the music on “Fireworks,” which still makes room for the delicate harmonies and sweet melody. A pleasant crunch on the delightful “Suddenly” is worth noting, and “Danger Overboard” builds nicely from a subdued opening.

The band chugs along with brio on “2 to the N,” the lushness of “Capital L” (the other capitals sung about are, of course, O-V-E) only deepens is melancholy, and there is a great deal of sophistication behind the cinematic sweep of “Grand National.” There is not a bad song on this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

The three part harmonies are wonderful.

Release Date

June, 2010

The Cover Art

I very much approve of the art style, and the sticker-like element with the band name and album title (love the quotes) is perfect. This is one of British artist Chris Summerlin’s pieces.

The Dentists – Behind the Door I Keep the Universe

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I live for albums like this. Albums that no one really knows about by bands that no one has ever heard of, and which just happen to be full of great songs. For unknown reasons, this is not available on Spotify (yet) but there are several copies available on Discogs.

What I Think of This Album

The Dentists albums are difficult to find. There were only four studio albums, and I think just the last two were released in the U.S. The final album is shockingly bad, sounding nothing like the Dentists at all. I’ve heard compilations which assemble the songs that were on the first two albums, and at the time at least, I thought those songs were just okay. But I’ve never tracked down the proper studio debut and sophomore release. So when I say this is the best Dentists studio album, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Regardless, this is a highly melodic, guitar-pop album with fantastic vocals.

“Space Man” is a killer tune with an impressive arrangement and nice stop-start break; the harmonies, the guitar, and the joyous delivery are all wonderful. The band can do ballads, too, as “Sorry Is Not Enough” proves, with a sympathetic vocal from Mick Murphy and another well-thought out construction. “In Orbit” marries together a hypnotic bass line, chiming guitars, a niggling lead line, some sweet “ba ba”s, and Murphy’s sharp voice.

There are a few meatier tracks with a slightly heavier sound, but it’s not like this is Motorhead or anything; it’s just that the excellent shape-shifting “Faces On Stone” and slashing “This Is Not My Flag” rock a little harder than their neighbors. There is a slight Smiths feel in the quiet rhythm guitar on “A Smile Like Oil On Water,” and “Gas” sneaks up on you after an unassuming start.

“Brittle Sin and Flowers” approaches anthemic status, with a very pretty melody and fine vocal. Murphy’s voice is pushed to the front of the spindly but energetic “Apple Beast,” with a breakbeat drum pattern in the verses. The drum style is recycled on “Water for a Man On Fire,” which is in any event a good song. The closing ballad “The Waiter” is lovely, with a phenomenal guitar solo.

The Best Thing About This Album

Probably “Space Man,” but there are several other contenders.

Release Date

January, 1994

The Cover Art

I believe drummer Rob Grigg is the cover model, upon whose pate various trinkets have been affixed. Silly, but not awful.

Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I don’t recall exactly when I first learned about Harvey Darger, but I found his story very disturbing and sad. Relatedly, I once spent a few hours at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which specializes in outsider art. It was a moving but overwhelming experience. So many of these artists had crippling mental health issues and often no true therapeutic treatment (if they received any “treatment,” it was usually barbaric). I viewed their work not as some necessary byproduct of their mental state – the idea that mental illness produces art is a dangerous one – but as an embodiment of their drive to create or to express themselves, even in the most difficult of circumstances, and certainly without any kind of moral, financial, or other support. There was work from a woman who had been institutionalized (I believe in Louisiana, and I think in the 1920s or 30s (can you imagine?)) and she drew on paper plates and napkins and food wrappers – any scrap she could find to draw on. It undid me, standing there looking at this rescued art made by lost people. Vivian Girls share little with Darger’s Vivian Girls, though the band were outsiders themselves, and if or when their 2000s Brooklyn indie rock popularity made that characterization invalid is not terribly interesting to me. The original trio was made up of Cassie Ramone, “Kickball” Katy Goodman (both from New Jersey), and drummer Frankie Rose. Rose went on to play with Crystal Stilts and Dum Dum Girls before going solo. Ramone and Goodman soldiered on for two more albums; they reunited for a fourth album in 2019. Goodman recorded and released under the name La Sera, which we will hear more about when I get to the L section.

What I Think of This Album

I’m not really sure what the big deal was about this album. I like it – almost every track is excellent – but it’s also nothing very original. Which is fine with me; that’s really not something I am ever going to complain about. I am just at a loss as to why a band that was obviously and heavily indebted to Black Tambourine (if not Dolly Mixture, or at least Talulah Gosh) and was not necessarily any more appealing than any number of similar-sounding British indie-pop bands of the late ‘80s became such a sensation. None of that actually matters, of course. What matters is the ten noisy, reverb-cushioned, crunchy songs powered by the undeniable passion of these three women, who often joined in harmony on the vocals.

There is no more pure distillation possible of the indie/punk worldview than a track like “No,” which offers that single word endlessly repeated as the entire lyric (the final “no” is delivered with a palpable, beautiful sense of despair). The rest of the songs are a bit more revealing, but no less enjoyable. “All the Time” is all rumble-in-Brooklyn drums and descending harmonies. “Such a Joke” has a propulsive, post-punk bass line and a weighted blanket of reverb. “Wild Eyes” is a bit more sweet-sounding, and features a nice needling guitar solo. The band plays to all their strengths on “Going Insane,” which would have been a standout on any C86-88 compilation. The trio get primitive (or is it primal?) on “Tell The World,” which sounds a bit like Tiger Trap covering Beat Happening. They spread their wings on the very effective ballad-like (there are still pounding drums here) “Where Do You Run To,” which strips some of the noise away from their melodic talents. “Damaged” brings to mind a harder sounding (and far less British) Talulah Gosh, featuring another enjoyable guitar solo. “Never See Me Again” could be a Smiths song if Johnny Marr played with only one hand and Morrissey was actually the feminist he always pretended to be. A nice companion piece to the undeniable “No,” is the thick and dark “I Believe In Nothing.” Look, if you had the choice on how to spend just over 20 minutes (yep), you could throw this on and have a great time, or you could spend your third of an hour doing many far less enjoyable things. By the way, Wussy has a song titled “Vivian Girls,” which is about Harvey Darger’s art.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Going Insane,” though the absurdist “No” is highly entertaining, too, and “Never See Me Again” is a fuzzy gem.

Release Date

October, 2008 (reissue – the original issue was in May on vinyl and limited to 500 copies. So. Very. 2000s. Brooklyn. Indie.)

The Cover Art

This is fairly ugly. The colors, the lines, the font. It’s all bad. I guess Darger’s estate doesn’t license his stuff?

Vampire Weekend – Contra

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Honestly, thinking and writing about Vampire Weekend is tedious and exhausting, and I resent that they make me do so much work just to figure out how I feel about their music. I guess it’s one thing to play rock from a place of affluence and opportunity – Galaxie 500 went to private school in Manhattan and then reconvened at Harvard; Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics; and Joe Strummer was in fact a “Diplomat’s Son” – but it’s another to celebrate it AND then take offense at the backlash, as if there is some unfair prejudice against rich, white people. Throw in that Vampire Weekend co-opts the music of the oppressed – from mostly brown and black sources – with nary a peep of acknowledgment or even recognition beyond the infuriating winks in the lyrics that only reinforce the shamelessness of the appropriation, and I find myself in the unenviable position of liking the music and hating the band.

What I Think of This Album

If Contra is supposed to represent the idea of opposition and conflict, then Vampire Weekend took it a step too far in creating an album where the first half is not good but the second part is very impressive. The band largely swaps out the orchestration of the first album for electronic beats and processed sounds, perhaps the influence of Rostam Batmanglij’s intervening time in side project Discovery.

Songs like “Horchata” – which includes rhymes like “balaclava” and “Masada,” but not, surprisingly, “empanada” – and the electro-ska of “Holiday” are fine but nothing more. The production is fussier this time around, and the innocence and fun of the debut are lacking; the results leave me cold. Things start to turn around with “Cousins,” which trips over its 10,000 sounds but in an exciting, thrilling way. “Giving Up the Gun” boasts the best melody of the platter, with dance beats and a xylophone-like part, as well as surprising bits of sonic touches sprinkled throughout. The bright and deep pleasures of “”Giving Up the Gun” notwithstanding, the best track is the relatively epic “Diplomat’s Son,” which hearkens back to the sounds of Vampire Weekend and even has a Smiths-ish melody at one point (“To offer it to you would be cruel / When all I want to do is use, use you”).

Beyond that, though, the accomplishment here is Batmanglij manages to arrange a variety of sounds and give them all ample space; unlike on the early songs, “Diplomat’s Son” has room to breathe and come to life, making the background sample of M.I.A. sound like an organic part of the piece. Admittedly, the Coleco Vision version of Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” seems randomly inserted, but I can forgive that. Final song “I Think Ur a Contra” slows things down and at least hints at, if not fully embraces, sincerity and warmth.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Diplomat’s Son” is quite the achievement.

Release Date

January, 2010

The Cover Art

This is exactly the cover I would expect from Vampire Weekend, and I can’t help but think that they choose it as some petulant reaction to criticism about their origins (perceived or real) of privilege and wealth. The font is perfect, though.

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