I came cross Little Fevers, a quartet from Minneapolis, randomly on Reddit a few years ago and was instantly hooked by their song Apple Tree. I don’t know whether they’ve released anything recently, but they are still out there performing and going strong and as far as I’m concerned the stuff they put out already is memorable enough to cement them with a fine indie legacy. Their music finds that sweet spot in indie pop that balances between retro and contemporary aesthetics. One of their songs, Beaches(from the release, Singles) offers a great example of this. It has a slightly folk quality but with a touch of innocence and cuteness, pushing it closely toward the category of Twee Pop. Singer Lucy Michelle has a voice that seems tailor made for this genre. You simply could not ask for vocals more pleasant to listen to than these. Had Beaches or Apple Tree or any of their other jams been released in the early to mid 2000s, everyone I know would have been listening to them (or at least heard of the group.) Nowadays, the scene for this style of music is not as large, but that doesn’t mean this band doesn’t deserve to stand out just the same.
As someone who strives to live in as much of a bubble as humanly possible within the modern world (and without adopting the Ted Kaczynski or Amish lifestyle,) I struggle to block out most contemporary pop music in the moments where I find myself in environments where avoiding it is inescapable (such as the fitting rooms at department stores.) It was some such moment in some such place a year or two ago that I first heard Echosmith’s Cool Kids. I was instantly mesmerized by the synths, which had an unusually authentic 80′s sound at a time when such homage is paid typically in lip-service-surface-level, superficial ways (in pop music anyway, with indie subcultural genres like vaporwave it’s another story.) The synths in Cool Kids though are not even so much retro, but retro-futurist, living up to the dreamlike visions of what futuristic pop music would be like. If this sanguine inter dimensional ambient journey to sanctuary is disrupted by anything, it’s the lyrics, which are a little too cliche’ to be deserving of an otherwise cerebral song like this. I mean do we really need these tired bromides like “I wish that I could be like the cool kids cause all the cool kids they seem to fit in”? They seem like the lyrics that would play during the contrived emotional scenes on one of those lame, self-important, virtue signaling teen shows like 13 Reasons Why. This is not really a knock on the band’s singer, Sydney Sierota, who’s probably the best thing to happen to pop music since even before Taylor Swift. Sydney’s pretty and unassumingly charismatic without coming off like a tryhard or giving off a lot of phony attitude, and her charming, hypnotic vocals elevate the overall atmosphere of the song in a way that seems irreplaceable. I can’t really tell if she’s a bonafide avant garde “hipster” or one of those basic girls that just looks the part of an American Apparel employee (circa mid-2000s,) but I’m leaning toward the former. As one gets older, it become more difficult to differentiate between teenage social groups, as the previous referential signals become obsolete, and one is no longer privy to the new tells.
Anyway, whenever I was in this particular department store, I would look forward to this jam coming on, and I still do. As I’m perusing the sale racks looking to score some Tommy Hilfiger V-neck sweaters to be worn semi-ironically, the addition of this song provides the missing piece of the puzzle in completion of the ultimate mall ambient experience. Cool Kidsis one of the best pop songs in recent memory, which I realize may not seem like a very high bar to meet, so let me just emphasize that I think it’s really something else.
I first met Abe from Treasure Mammal around 2002-2003 and briefly lived with him at a house known for late night pool parties in Tempe, Arizona. Before he had started Treasure Mammal, he had been in a number of more conventional and “serious” indie rock bands. Despite being a multi-talented and gifted musician, he probably found standard indie rock fare to be a rather stifling and boring endeavor. He was always the life of the party and someone with Four-Loko tier levels of energy, and so Treasure Mammal turned out to be the perfect creative outlet for him. Anyway, I didn’t intend for this to sound like an obituary and am happy to observe that 15 years later, Treasure Mammal is still around, even as a zillion other Phoenix bands have come and gone.
Treasure Mammal has always differed from other indie “fun” or “humor” bands in that usually these types of groups use theatrics, costumes and funny gimmicks as a substitute for musical ability. In Treasure Mammal’s case though, Abe is actually a very skilled and accomplished musician, who just so happens to prefer to let loose and engage in this kind of wild chicanery. Another thing which distinguishes Treasure Mammal from similar bands was the use of top quality recording and production. While most people would have been content to throw some crap together and record it on 4 track, Treasure Mammal worked on their releases with some of the top recording engineers in the valley (Mike Hissong, Ryan Breen, etc.) Nowadays, almost anyone can make a near radio quality recording (production-wise anyway) with the software available, but Treasure Mammal was insisting on the very best studio production even 15 years ago.
Over the years, Treasure Mammal has had a knack for capitalizing on faddish catch phrases as they become part of the popular lexicon, quickly turning them into songs while their usage is still fairly prominent among the public. Examples of this are Best Friends Forever,Spring Break, and Real Talk. The most recent example of this is the jam, Missed Connections, (from the 2015 album I will Cut You With My EBT Card) which appears to be a musical satirization of the kinds of bizarre messages one might frequently see in the Missed Connections section of Craigslist…and it’s epic.
Seriously, this track is awesome. It combines subtle, ironic humor with an excellent and catchy pop song. The chorus, where the female vocals kick in (featuring singer Lonna Kelley,) channels its inner Olivia Newton John in the sense that it is simply magical. The style of the song blends 80s synthpop with avant garde spoken word. Though it isn’t meant to be taken seriously, Missed Connections could be interpreted as a social commentary on the empty desperation that animates these kinds of classified ads. I assume most people read these ads for amusement, but what about the ones that write them… and do so earnestly, without even a hint of trolling or irony? Who are they? What do they look like? What kind of low point are they at in their lives? There’s something deeper about contemporary society and atomization in this super fun time tune, whether anyone cares or not.
Like many of Treasure Mammal’s previous songs, one would easily envision this becoming a viral, chart topping hit. It’s one of those songs where you tragically muse to yourself, “I can’t believe that dumbass Travie McCoy ‘I wanna be a Billionaire’ song managed to become popular, and yet this crown jewel of a jam isn’t.”
Phteven Universe is new self-titled cassette release which is also available in digital format. From the delightfully snazzy cover, you might think this is just a simple vaporwave album, but it is actually a little more avant garde and experimental, even tad dark. The vocals unexpectedly utilize an effect that makes them sound literally demonic, in that late 80s, early 90s horror movie kind of way. The song titles are rather unconventional. Some of them are roman numerals (with a few missing in sequence.) There’s a nonexistent 8th track that’s just titled ??? The final track is curiously titled Fuck Off Melissa. There must be a story behind that somewhere, and I’d like to hear it.
The album opens with some wildlife bird chirping sounds, not unlike what you’d hear in the nature area outside The Flamingo casino is Las Vegas. It soon transitions into more standard vaporwave fare, with some 80s piano pop instrumental driving the mix. S u n d a y is an example of a song that you think is going to be straightforward synthwave, until the demonic dream sequence vocals make an appearance and you realize you’re dealing with something slightly darker and more abstract. The abrupt alternation between cute, cheerful and dark and depressing is a recurring theme in the album. Perhaps it’s a subconscious illustration of the dual lives people lead as animephiliacs, which attract people drawn to a kind of cutesy childlike innocence they wish to recover, while also harboring dark thoughts, which lurk below but are ever prone to resurface. The last song, Fuck Off Melissa almost even sounds like industrial music, reminiscent of stuff like Nine Inch Nails. My favorite song on the album is X (yeah that’s right, Roman numeral 10.) It’s just smooth and ambient, with just the right pacing throughout.
Anyway, this is an interesting cassette release to say the least, and one which provides more than enough content and aesthetic to be worth purchasing at the measly $3 price tag.
One largely forgotten entertainment relic of the 80′s (that I was huge fan of) is the show Braingames, on HBO. It was an educational, animated program which featured puzzles and encylopedic trivia, presented in a uniquely creative manner. I don’t remember anything particularly offensive, but the show often used mildly caustic and cheesy humor of the sort you would not really see in more sanitized and watered-down “kids” programs of today’s atmosphere. That’s a subject for another day though.
One of the episodes had a brief vignette called “Memory Rock,” where they show clips of a band performing, and you had to remember things about the group, such as what they were wearing, how many members etc. For this segment they actually used a real band, The Cucumbers, and their college radio hit song, My Boyfriend. This song is archetypically 80s awesome and soooo catchy, I have to wonder how many additional fans they got even from this obscure Braingames placement. It’s catchy enough that I frequently find myself jokingly singing this song to my girlfriend (which annoys her,) even though it’s titled My Boyfriend and features a female lead vocalist. They redid the song a few years later for an album, adding some synth and changing the section where the guy sings solo to one where the female vocals are out front. However, I think the original version (the one heard in Braingames,) which appeared on an EP released on Fake Doom Records in 1983, is superior. It’s an abstract postulation, and I can’t really pinpoint the reason why, but the sound just has so much more vitality. My Boyfriend is one of the best relatively-obscure-yet-memorable jams of the 1980′s, and The Cucumbers are actually still around! Check them out.
This review’s a tad overdue, given that Magic Wands’ album Jupiter was released back in 2016, but we’re operating on another timeline here I guess. I’ve previously written about this band a couple times, most recently here. I wrote:
I first discovered Magic Wands at SXSW in 2010 when they played at The Ghost Room (at least that’s where the old schedule says they played, I can’t remember to be honest.) I never forgot the band though. When I got home I looked them up on Myspace when that was still kind of a thing at least for music.
When I was younger, it was always my dream to be in a two person “boy/girl” band. I was never able to find the right girl to partner up with though. The ones who seemed like good prospects (Dawn Aquarius, etc) all either lived too far, and/or were already partnered up. The long distance dream became real for Magic Wands though. They represent everything about why I loved these types of groups, right down to the name. “Magic Wands,” indeed.
Well, I loved their track, Black Magic. It is always stuck in my head, and I think it’s one of the best songs of the last ten years. So that left Jupiter with a high standard to live up to. So often with indie bands, the new material just doesn’t quite manage to conjure up the same level of magic as the earlier releases (a good example would be The White Stripes.) I’m happy to say though, that in the case of Magic Wands, Jupiter is awesome and doesn’t feel like a sell out or departure from their earlier sound. It is every bit as good, and clocking in at over 50 minutes…is nothing short of an epic masterpiece.
Like other contemporary indie bands, Magic Wands tends to blend different styles, an almost inevitable consequence of growing up at a time where one is exposed to so many conscious and subconscious musical influences. Their sound could be described as an alchemic combination of late 60′s psychedelia and avant garde 80′s synthpop. The reverb drenched title track, Jupiter, really does echo all the through to the underground oceans of icy Europa. It serves as a nice, spacey, cryonic intro for the next track Love Soldier, which absolutely rocks. Yes, the Roman Gods would be pleased with this peppy paced, heroic jam. It’s extremely danceable and could make it on the club circuit, even though the kind of people that typically go to clubs probably don’t deserve something this authentic. I can say this because for decades I was one of them. The amusingly titled “Lazerbitch” sounds like something straight out of The Legend of Billie Jean. I can almost picture Helen Slater mouthing the chorus, “I’m a Lazerbitch.” I should mention also that these are not particularly short songs. Several of them run 5 minutes plus, keeping true to the genre.
Just when you think they’ve probably led with their best foot forward (most bands are told to put their best songs first to hook in the listener,) used up their pixie dust and shot their wad, you soon find that the songs just keep getting better. Chariot is another fast paced song, which retains its dreamy ambiance while taking you on a wild, far out ride, like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur if his chariot had been retrofitted for space travel.
My favorite track on the album is Dream Street. It’s just so much more dynamic than the other songs and really allows Dexy Valentine to showcase the impressive range of her vocal capabilities. She reminds me of a hipster sorceress version of Blondie. It’s as if Blondie took one of Alice’s pills in Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, but instead of growing larger or smaller, she just sang about weirder, more imaginative stuff….which is interesting considering one of Blondie’s greatest hits was literally titled, Dreaming. Magic Wands actually transports you to a dreamlike state, rather than merely touting the act of dreaming.
Blue Wall is one of the more mellow songs on the album. It’s relatively slow paced and gives you a chance to chill after an action packed half hour. It’s followed by another lively track, I’ll Never Go There Again, which I don’t have much to say about, as much of what I mentioned earlier regarding Love Soldier would also be applicable here.
The album closes with an ambient, instrumental outro, Jupiter II. It’s beautiful. You feel like you’re right out there in Jupiter’s orbit. You’ve opened the pod bay door, deactivated HAL 9000, the whole shebang… and you’re quietly staring into the monolith. What do you see? It’s full of stars? Your future self on your deathbed? Or do you observe the image of the God of Jupiter himself, hurling a mini thunderbolt toward you with an intent not to kill or punish, but to electrify and spark your imagination and creativity ever further, as a token of reward for making it to this level.
A Cave in the Inside is the latest album from Present Paradox, an artist located in Dortmund, Germany. This music could best be described as avant garde pop or maybe ambient pop. The songs have a warm analog quality to them, featuring some subtle noise and hiss that enhance the recording and contribute to the overall ambiance. I could tell right away with the psychedelic intro to the first track, Nightwalk, that this album was going to be right up my alley, and the rest of the song did not disappoint. In fact, the song builds into something even better as it goes on, adding drums and vocals into to the mix. Lots of times this kind of music can be ruined by out of place or obnoxious vocals, but in this case the vocals had just the right tone and effects. The singer has the right voice, without any annoying quirks or attitude. The artist took the song exactly where I expected (and wanted it to go,) right smack dab into a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic dreamland.
The album has a very 60′s feel to it, with theatrically titled songs like Magical Twist and Masquerade, which musically could be compared to bands like The Pretty Things. I suppose younger people might relate it to a more contemporary sound like early Radiohead or even Muse, but I’m not a huge fan of those bands, and in my opinion these songs are better and have a more authentic artistic feel. The title track, A Cave In the Inside definitely gives off a contemporary, European flavored indie pop vibe. I very much enjoyed this album, and I highly recommend it.
Skeletons is a new single from Ezla, (an artist originally from Texas but now based in Nashville.) Ezla describes her music as “hypnotic pop,” and Skeletons absolutely lives up to this characterization. I would add that the both the song and video have a certain lounge music quality. In fact, Ezla’s style comes across as that of a 21st century, indie lounge singer. Her music is assertive and delivered with the sass of a strong female personality, yet always with a smile. The atmosphere is dark and brooding, like an out of the way night club you visit when you’re up to no good. Her voice is naturally sensual, and easy on the ears. It would in fact be very easy to be hypnotized by this music.
At first glance, you might think contemporary singer/songwriter Ashley J is just another pretty pop music performer, but she actually earned a BA degree in Business Law. She really can sing, too. Her latest single, “Satisfied” is a kind of elegant pop song, featuring a light and cerebral backing track. It has an avant garde quality, aided by her celestial voice and Aphrodite-like command of the heavens. This song has more in common with Björk than with Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears, and that is a good thing. Ashley J exhibits some real potential here.
Jarel Portman’s new track, Runaway Blues (from the album, Supersonic) is an awesome rock/blues song which has a psychedelic quality to it, particularly the backing instrumentals. The guitars have a late 60s-early 70s kind of tone, reminiscent of bands like The Pretty Things. Seriously, the vibrato on this jam is killer. The song features some solid vocals also, especially considering this kind of music is difficult to sing well. Performed with passion and impeccable timing, Runaway Blues comes off like the work of veteran musical pros. Expect to hear more stuff from this guy.