Alternative and Indie

Primus “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” (Interscope, 1991)

Primus’s albums have always had the feel of an adolescent’s guilty pleasure in a way. Sure you can take it seriously – the musicianship is outstanding and their melodies masterfully twist among pop, funk and grunge. But that’s only part of their style; there’s a silly side that’s part musical humor, part Saturday morning cartoon, and a sense that there could be more quirks around any corner. I imagine that if Phish had a heavy King Crimson influence they’d sound a little like this. There’s incredible bass work, subtle nuances in the guitar playing that you don’t notice right away, and lyrics that suggest a strange mix of Roger Waters and Frank Zappa.

If the title and cover of this album alone don’t seem cartoonish enough, take a listen to the lumbering bassoon introducing the first track. Les Claypool talks and screams through “Is It Luck?” like a hopped-up WB cartoon. “Tommy the Cat” is crazy funk with Tom Waits, of all people, lending a distorted voice to the narrative. As with any Primus album there are times when they go a little too far off the edge (“Granddad’s Little Ditty” comes to mind), although I probably shouldn’t complain when it’s compared to such later offerings as “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.” Regardless: for most Primus fans this album still stands as their strongest. For those merely curious it’s the ideal one to start with. If you don’t like Seas of Cheese, chances are you won’t like the others. —Spiral Mind

Stereolab “Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements” (Elektra, 1993)

From the Day-Glo blaze of those churning guitars and organ that open the album, Transient Random-Noise Bursts radiates energy and sunshine, expanding the Krautrock-meets-ye-ye sound Stereolab had established on their first two albums and early singles. The whole of the album isn’t as sensual as those opening chords of “Tone Burst;” in fact, that opening track turns downright noisy in its latter half, guitarist Tim Gane stretching his instrument to its absolute limits. No, what is so striking about this album is how visceral the whole experience is – Stereolab has amplified every aspect of their music and blast it right in your face at every turn, creating an experience that’s more emotive and affecting than any art rock has the right to be.

A big reason for all of this is the bigger budget, of course – now signed to Elektra, the band no longer has to rely solely on feedback and distortion to create memorable soundscapes. There’s nothing in their early work that even attempts to be as dreamy as “Pack Yr Romantic Mind,” a very French, swinging pop number struggling to hold back the epic shoegaze boiling beneath its surface. There’s hints of lingering primitivism to be found – such as the Raymond Scott/Perrey-Kingsley-referencing outro of “I’m Going Out of My Way,” or the primal, Velvet Underground-esque intro to the gloriously plodding “Golden Ball” – but mostly this album is about creating a work that positively shimmers with ecstatic brilliance, a band using every single tool at their disposal to explore heretofore unheard sonic territory.

Of course, it’s impossible to properly review this album and not mention “Jenny Ondioline,” the 18-minute magnum opus that became the defining track of Stereolab’s existence, for better or worse. While it sometimes receives the same criticisms that plague other drone pieces – that is, it’s “too monotonous” or “too repetitive” – I’d say that anyone making those specific arguments is basically admitting to not listening to the song very closely. What’s especially confounding about this with regards to “Jenny Ondioline,” however, is that you don’t have to listen to it very closely to catch that there are at least four very different, very distinct movements to the piece. While they’re all built around simple but insistent rhythm guitar and motorik-influenced basslines and drumbeats, each works in separate ways: the first is something of a pop song, finding beauty in chaos; the second movement is the most repetitive but functions as a mantra, building meaning by continually repeating; the third is a momentary descent back into chaos, organs and electronics wailing away over a noisy, foreboding tempest caused by the rest of the band; and the final movement is the calm, or aftermath – the main theme returning in a gentler state. It’s a glorious, heady piece for anyone with the patience to get through it, a full-on sonic assault that never lets up for 18 solid minutes. They may have made more fully realized epics after it, but none that captured the scope of the group’s sound so completely – and hey, that’s a nice summary of the album as a whole, too. —Andrew

The Jesus and Mary Chain “Psychocandy” (1985)

In many ways, Psychocandy is the purest example of noise-pop that exists. Noise-pop, that wonderful concept of combining sweet melody and bitter sound to produce the aural equivalent of either very aggressive sex or being beaten up in slow motion, depending on the band. The Jesus And Mary Chain are definitely of the former school.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the effortless, effortless cool that this band exudes. What is remarkable is that their whole Lou Reed-sunglasses-leather-Jack Daniels image is so contrived, and yet you can’t imagine that the Reid brothers could ever sing anything else when they drawl “I get ahead on my motorbike, I feel so quick in my leather boots.”

_Psychocandy_ isn’t heavy – the opposite in fact, in terms of sound. The noise, though cavernous thanks to recorded-in-a-cave levels of reverb, is trebly and harsh, putting off many of the Nirvana fans who come across the album – there’s no precedent here apart from among the avant-garde. The noise here has little to do with punk; the album sparks with energy, but it isn’t jump-up-and-down energy, it’s simply a deep, forboding sense of joy/hatred (and isn’t the confusion between joy and hatred the central tenet of all good music? Yes.) To cap it all off, Gillespie’s style on the kit here has accurately been described as “hit the drums then hit them again”, retard-caveman beats that go perfectly with the Velvet Underground/Beach Boys tunes.

Barbed wire kisses indeed. —Ignorantium

Flying Saucer Attack “Chorus” (1996)

A singles collection, issued in 1996 compiling many of this British bands tough to find 45’s.
Founded in ’92, this band took “shoegaze” and bought it to such an extreme that you were no longer looking at your shoes in bliss, you were staring clean through your shoes, through the floor, through warm soil, into the molten/frozen core of the Earth. Sheet after sheet after sheet after blanket after pillow of feedback, with the most beautiful, elegantly sung/whispered vocals I have ever heard in my life. Every track swells, crests and recedes in a seemingly endless haze of soft white glows. When I was first exposed to this band in high school, the extremity of the basement production quality, coupled with my ear searching for debris to hang onto as the onslaught of noise cascaded out was comparable to the first times I heard Napalm Death’s “Scum” or the brutal intensity of Siege. The power of these recordings is unparalleled. I have owned this record for over 10 years, and with each listen, I detect a swirling, massive beehive texture, stinging and surging that I missed last time around. And the time before. Since those high school days, I have heard this band under the influence of more drugs than I care to mention in a work related review, but I will say this: They re-create the feeling of tripping more than ANY group from the 60’s I am aware of. Now will someone sell me a copy of their s/t LP sometimes called ‘Rural Psychedelia’ that I still cannot track down a copy of? –Richard

Saint Etienne “Foxbase Alpha” (1991)

Saint Etienne’s first album, Foxbase Alpha, rightfully set the standard for pop music. In a world where “pop music” is seen as somehow substandard, Saint Etienne proves to the critics that pop can both be catchy and musically worthwhile. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” a Neil Young cover, is an obvious hit, but less likely tracks also sparkle: “Girl VII,” “Spring” and “Carnt Sleep” run the gamut from uptempo fun to downtempo lullaby. And, as if to prove their range, “Stoned to Say the Least” is a instrumental house track, while “Like the Swallow” starts off ambient, then verges into melancholy. There are a few missteps, like the overused sample on “She’s the One” or the slightly watery “London Belongs to Me,” but the summery warmth of “People Get Real” and “Nothing Can Stop Us” amply make up any shortcomings. —Scoundrel

Ride “Nowhere” (1990)

At first listen, this album seemed simply good to average in my mind. Then, I found myself listening to this disc unfailingly for three straight days as the rush of spacey guitars and foggy vocals slowly burned their way into my psyche. While the album begins with the fairly straight-ahead “Seagull,” the rest of the tunes shimmy into a cascade of entrancing sound that completely (if not subliminally) sneak into the listener’s consciousness.

The dream-like elements are all in place: dense, rapturous, guitars, strategically placed and often delicate drums, tight rhythmic pulses, and distant, angelic vocals. Hypnotic in every sense, tracks such as “In a Different Place,” and “Vapour Trail” wash over you like a cool blue wave. Do yourself a favor and take this ride. —Erik

Stone Roses “Stone Roses” (1989)

It still amazes me to this day how four young lads from Manchester somehow managed to come together and make such a bold statement of an album, and bring a new movement kicking and screaming into the public consciousness. Enter The Stone Roses with their self-titled debut. It starts with some random industrial noises before suddenly, Mani comes in with a heavy, prolific baseline, John Squire provides an jangly intricate passage himself, as they build up to something monumental. Then suddenly those two drum beats from Reni hit. And that riff starts. You know you’re in for a ride from the beginning. “I Wanna Be Adored” is one hell of an opener to this statement.

One misgiving that many have with this band is the the gruff, out of tune voice of Ian Brown. Brown’s voice, while not technically perfect, embodies a cocky, swaggering personality and adds it over the album, which consists of 11 excellent jangly pop songs with influences from the 60’s. There are so many wonderful moments, the bassline of “She Bangs The Drums”, the jangly guitar line of “Waterfall” and the uplifting choruses of “(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister”, the intro to “Made Of Stone”, and the tempo change in “This Is The One”.

But the band save the best till last with the epic closer “I Am The Resurrection”, the song is effectively a two parter, the first part yet another excellent jangly pop song like the rest of the album, but just as the song is about to finish, Mani’s bass becomes just that little funkier, and suddenly a five minute dance jam proceeds between the three instrument playing members, which effectively signals the breakthrough of Madchester into the public consciousness and re-emergence of Manchester on the musical map after the breakup of The Smiths. It is the moment that cements this as one of the essential albums of the late 1980s. —Mouzone

Prefab Sprout “Two Wheels Good” (1985)

Some records just need a proper context. Older (and clearly wiser) friends tried to sell me on Prefab for years, but I would need to process The Style Council, ’80’s Roxy Music, and the Pet Shop Boys before being in a place where I could appreciate the genius of Two Wheels Good. It’s not that the music here specifically recalls any of the aforementioned groups so much as it gives a context for understanding certain production choices of the era, and the overall less modest aesthetic and ambition emblematic of the mid-’80’s. High-gloss or not, the best Prefab stuff stands-up to any of the premier UK indie acts of the day. Opening track “Faron Young” sounds like a snappier version of something the early Smiths would have attempted, and lead singer/mastermind Paddy McALoon’s lyrics have a self-absorbed sting and way with wordplay that outwit Morrissey. Although this record did contain the minor hit “When Love Breaks Down,” it may have been this same intelligence that ultimately thwarted their wider success. For a pop album, most of the songs are ambitiously complex in their construction, with eccentric arrangements and forward-thinking production flourishes (courtesy of Thomas Dolby) that consistently decline to make the safe choice. Of course, these touches are what make the album a classic, unique in it’s era, and any other. —Jonathan Treneff

The Sea and Cake (1994)

A somehow overlooked album from the Thrill Jockey label/scene in Chicago, The Sea And Cake’s debut is the most organic and straight-forward of their albums. That’s not to say it isn’t unique–on the contrary, it is a light, upbeat mixture of indie rock, jazz, funk, and post-punk (via Talk Talk, Tortoise, Slint, etc). Each of the bands releases found them breaking new ground, and this one is no exception. Sam Prekop’s semi-falsetto vocals were a far stretch from the dull and monotonous grunge and post-grunge scenes that were dominating the airwaves in 1994. It’s really a shame that this talented band has never got their due. —Phil

Glass Palaces:
Navigating the Paisley Underground

Even by the fleeting standards of today’s internet-fueled micro-movements and trends, the Paisley Underground was a particularly short-lived musical moment. Springing forth from the Southern California suburbs in the early-’80’s, the movement eventually coalesced around Los Angeles. While most of the bands quickly splintered, or lost their spark under the influence of commercial pressure, their influence can be felt more acutely three decades down the line, coming home to roost in the contemporary indie underground’s renewed infatuation with all things psychedelic and of the ’80’s. While “psychedelic” bands with a Velvet Underground fetish or a Byrds fixation are as commonplace as yoga mats and kombucha in a Whole Foods re-usable tote today, they stuck out like a sore thumb in the new-world synth and drum machine landscape of the early ’80’s, when the initial stirrings of the bands that would come to be synonymous with the sound began. The following are some of the standout efforts from a scene that disappeared almost as quickly as it arose.

The Dream Syndicate The Days of Wine and Roses (1982). Without a doubt the most commercially viable of the Paisley Underground fleet, the Dream Syndicate were the Trojan horse that snuck everyone else into the party. Not that most of their brethren would have anything approaching mainstream success, but many would land major label contracts and a degree of recognition, at least for a time. The Days of Wine and Roses has endured for good reason – it was, pound for pound, one of the more bulletproof releases from the Paisley scene, or any of the era in general. Of course it helped that they were doing something pretty far out-of-line with the times – reviving primitive guitar meltdowns and folk melodies in the age of New Romanticism and Eye Of The Tiger.

Rain Parade Emergency Third Rail Power Trip/Explosions In The Glass Palace (1983/1984). Although many of the Paisley Underground’s main players would manage to sustain careers in some form or other, The Rain Parade’s Steven Roback was perhaps the only figure who would go on to eclipse the success and popularity of his PU-era acts. Growing up in the age of Mazzy Star, it would be years before I realized Roback had been quietly refining his hazy whisper-core for a decade before the commercial breakthrough of “Fade Into You.” Hope Sandoval would first appear in later incarnations of Opal, but it was with Rain Parade that Roback began crafting his strain of hushed psychedelic pop that would become so influential years down the line. It’s no secret that a lot of pop music from this era did not age well, but Rain Parade’s modern take on the dark side of psychedelia manages to hold up well, even among their Paisley peers.

True West Drifters (1984). One of the more overlooked bands in the PU orbit, True West approximated what The Church might have sounded like with a touch of the great plains (via the Central Valley) stirred in to taste. Though the early lineup (featuring songwriter Russ Tolman) didn’t last long, they would manage to squeeze out a couple of great EPs and this superlative full-length debut. While Tolman and many of his peers from the Paisley scene would go further down the wagon trail of Americana and Alt-Country/No-Depression, Drifters remains the perfect balance of crisp, sparkling songwriting, with a kiss of twang felt in the flourishes of the occasional plangent guitar lead and brooding lyricism. Fans of early Robyn Hitchcock or The Go-Betweens darker material should investigate post-haste.

Game Theory Real Nighttime (1985). Scott Miller’s Game Theory were outliers in a scene already on the fringes. They came up in the same circuit, and shared bills and basic aesthetic choices with many of the Paisley school, but were closer to a traditional power pop band in execution. I know – the words “power pop” are a kiss of death for some of you out there, but don’t let that scare you off. Miller and his rotating cast of players churned out some of the most infectious albums of the era – songs stacked with hooks, each catchier than the one that preceded it. No one talks about it, but there’s no way Real Nighttime and The Big Shot Chronicles were not formative influences on The New Pornographers and their ilk.

Opal Early Recordings (1989). Although some of it came out under the Clay Allison moniker, most of this material didn’t see wide release until well after the departure of Kendra Smith, who, starting with The Dream Syndicate, appeared to be making a tradition out of quitting bands just when they were peaking. Though a lot of people swear by Happy Nightmare Baby (recorded later with Hope Sandoval), this material is perhaps the perfect literal embodiment of the enigmatic darkness that a term like “Paisley Underground” implies. The template for Mazzy Star is even more in evidence here, with Roback and Smith’s dark torch songs stretching out into extended, loose-limbed psych/folk jams without warning. If The Days Of Wine And Roses was a modern interpretation of White Light/White Heat’s pathos, Opal’s early movements were the equivalent of the third VU album – candlelit meditations of uninhibited beauty and longing.

Further listening: Hex was a collaborative project featuring Donette Thayer (ex-Game Theory) and Steve Kilbey of The Church. Their self-titled effort from 1989 is one of the more unique and beguiling albums of the era, taking the swirling psychedelics of the Paisley bands, slowing it down, and applying an ashen layer of goth to the mix. The heavier 4AD vibe makes it predictive of both the early-’90’s Trip Hop trend, and today’s indie underground new-goth-wave/industrial revival. Like many of their compatriots, Green On Red came out of the gate steaming with a couple of formative EPs, then quickly retreated into the safe harbor of alt-country. Nevertheless, a significant band for their magnetic force in pulling the early scene together into something resembling a movement. The Three O’Clock also deserve a mention here, being responsible for the coining of the term “Paisley Underground.” They too would lose the plot fairly quickly but their Baroque Hoedown EP is worth seeking out for it’s jangly, Buzzcocks-ian immediacy. Happy hunting! — Jonathan Treneff

Electronic “Electronic” (1991)

Formed as a one-off project, Electronic has since become more of an occasional sideline for both Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. Bought on the strength of the single “Get The Message” – one of the more potent tracks – this debut had a profound effect upon the future musical direction of my whole collection. Whilst not completely convinced by its value, I was enticed into dipping my toes in the music of both New Order and The Smiths – a dip that quickly became a soaking!

Proving that oil and water do mix, Electronic bring together the seemingly diverse genres of electronic dance music and indie guitar pop and concoct a highly original fusion. It may come across as dance music for the coffee table set – completely sanitized and respectable – but there’s something here that is irresistible. Sumner and Marr produce a sound so deceptively simple you wonder why everyone’s not out there doing it. —Ian

The Blue Orchids “The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain)” (1982)

One of the more baffling oversights in the mad rampage to re-examine every last corridor of post-punk continues to be The Blue Orchids. Martin Bramah and Una Baines were founding members of The Fall, and early casualties of Mark E. Smith’s revolving-door policy. Upon their unceremonious sacking, they wasted no time putting together a new group and signing a deal with Rough Trade. There are undeniable echoes of their former band here – Una brings her trademark single-note, chinsy-keyboard melodies to the table, and Bramah has a dry, sung-spoken vocal delivery not entirely unlike that of M.E.S. From here, the Orchids struck out on their own, crafting a sound that retained some of the nervous energy and bite of The Fall while being an altogether more melodically evolved and cerebral affair.

Like The Clean and their New Zealand counterparts of the day, the Orchids were attempting to re-animate the corpse of psychedelia with a punk sensibility. While the notion seems almost quaint today, it was a fairly audacious move in the “death to hippies” climate of U.K punk. To wit, Bramah’s wry, deadpan vocals and chiming guitar lines manage to pick up on the post-Velvets art-school damage that Television and their more adventurous NYC contemporaries were forwarding. The Orchids were among the first of their scene to make a clear break with the tunnel-vision strictures of punk, with thinly-veiled drug references and honest-to-goodness “hooks”. While fellow travelers like The Soft Boys, Felt, and Josef K have all gradually re-entered the musical discussion, The Blue Orchids remain something of an “off-shoot band” footnote. All of “Money Mountain,” their debut full-length, is gripping and inventive, but one listen to “A Bad Education” should be enough to convince anyone that the Orchids were a unique entity unto themselves, and forerunners of an eccentric strain of slacker-jangle that persists in indie music to this day. —Jon Treneff