Hidden Gems – HEATMISER – Mic City Sons

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I have to start this post by saying I’m a big fan of Elliott Smith, but what I’m about to say will probably be seen as sacrilege by other fans of his music. I own most of his records, and I listen to them a lot. They’re great, but they are undoubtedly hard work. They’re so lo-fi and introspective that by the end of them I have to go and stick my head in a bowl of cold water to re-energise.

What I like about Heatmiser, the band he was in prior to (and, in part, during) his solo career is the balance the rest of the musicians bring to his bleak world view. The songs written by his bandmate Neil Gust are sometimes as good as his contributions, sometimes not as good. But even when they provide a bit of a dip in quality, they still serve to break things up a bit, they give a little bit of respite. Smith’s own compositions seem more rounded to my ear by the band around him, they have a bit more depth, more energy. It’s fairly well documented that he ended up disliking the material of Heatmiser, saying it didn’t really sound like him on those records. Well, ok, he’s of course entitled to his opinion, but to me it’s a bit like Raymond Carver complaining that his editor changed his initial submissions and not being happy with the outstanding result that came out of chopping out up to half the word count.

 

 

‘Get Lucky’ is the opener on Mic City Sons and reminds me of ‘Radio Song’ from R.E.M.’s Out of Time. It’s an Elliott Smith song, but not like anything he ever did afterwards. There is no KRS One rapping on it, but there is a spoken word type accompaniment to the main melody which brings the R.E.M. track to mind. And it’s upbeat, it’s lively. Ok, everything’s relative. It’s upbeat and lively for Elliott Smith…

 

 

‘You’ve Gotta Move’ is undeniably an Elliott Smith song. It wouldn’t sound out of place on any of his solo records. But again, listening to the band arrangement makes me wonder what some of his other solo material would sound like if played by the same people as this stuff is.

And then there’s ‘Pop in G’ which I always assumed was also written by Smith. It wasn’t. It was written by Gust. Which is interesting when you read (as I have, elsewhere) that the two songwriting styles clashed and made the band uneven sounding. I’m going to have to disagree on that one then.

 

 

Probably my favourite track on the whole record is right at the end. Well, second to last song. ‘See You Later’ – another Smith song, and one reminiscent of quite a few songs on his album Either/Or. I’m not even going to argue about whether a solo version or band version would be better on this one. It’s just too good. He could have recorded it on a wax cylinder in a phone booth and I wouldn’t care.

 

 

You’ll probably notice all the videos I shared are really just audio uploads onto YouTube with the album cover as a static background. I’m genuinely not sure if there were any actual videos released at the time. Despite this, though, this record came out in 1996. The videos have been up on YouTube for ages. They average a few thousand views each. A FEW THOUSAND. That’s criminal when you consider how many ‘Gangnam Style’ got. And considering how revered Smith was, and still is, in some circles, the relative obscurity of his band is truly surprising. Sure, they split up when Mic City Sons came out; they split up right on the peak of the best work they’d done. But still, this deserves to be considered an outright classic. And it pains me that it isn’t.

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Hidden Gems – BLEACHED – Welcome the Worms

Bleached

 

I haven’t written one of these posts for a while. Well, I did say it was an occasional series. But, you know, it’s the Christmas holiday and I’m off work and I’m kind of at a loose end…

Anyway, Bleached. ‘Welcome the Worms’ is a great record. It came out in 2016. I already had their first album which I thought was decent, it had some good songs on it. It was a little rough in places, but I had a feeling they were going to be one to watch. And I wasn’t wrong because this next release was an absolute belter. Absolutely my favourite record of the year. I reviewed it on Amazon which you can probably go and look at on the product page if you were even remotely interested in doing so.

So first, before I even talk about the music, I wanted to share the cover art which is think is brilliantly understated and retro: the font, the faded colour, the washed out band photo. Why aren’t all album covers like this? Even new it looks like it’s dusty and has been sat on the shelves of a second hand record store since 1976.

Bleached 1

I also wanted to gloat slightly about the limited edition vinyl version I found of this in my local record store. Two tone, black and white vinyl, with a nice bleed of the colours which makes it look like it was homemade. I dunno why, I just really like that.

Bleached 2

Anyway, enough of the aesthetics. You want to know if it sounds good. And believe me, it does, really really good. The opening track has a brilliant ’80’s underground sound to it, reminds me of indie radio back in the day. There’s a repetitive guitar riff in it which works – it could get irritating in the wrong hands, but here it just drives the track on and on relentlessly. It’s no great surprise the band thought running, just running, constantly running, would be a good visual accompaniment for the video. Well, that, and inexplicably sorting out their laundry. So here’s that:

Then there’s ‘Sleepwalking’ which has probably the best bassline I’ve heard in over twenty years. Seriously. It’s incredible. Don’t believe me? Oh ye of little faith. It reminds me of early metal, very very early Iron Maiden or Deep Purple. Not the overall track, just the production on the bassline.

There are, in fact, a lot of influences at play on this record. The little sticky label on my vinyl copy, hand written by the record store owner, mentioned the Go-Gos and Joan Jett amongst others. And it is absolutely possible to hear echoes of these throughout. Along with the aforementioned early Metal influences, and punk, obviously punk. The whole thing is dressed up in an energetic, sunny west-coast garage punk style. Very loud, rough around the edges, melodic, doesn’t give a shit. It wears its irreverence on its sleeve. Should we incorporate a little bit of the Ramones? Why the hell not? Bung it in there, let’s have some fun goddamnit.

And if you think that isn’t enough, then how about a homage to early SubPop? How about a track that sounds a bit like Hole with elements of Nirvana and Mudhoney?

You need to own this record, I promise you. I know it’s a bit late for Christmas, but you know, you might still have some music vouchers or something. Or if, like me, it’s your Birthday at the beginning of January you might still have a chance to drop some hints to your loved ones. Failing that, just go out and buy it yourself. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to prepackaged fun.

Hidden Gems – JOHN FRUSCIANTE – Combined 2004 Output

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2004 was a great year for music, primary because of John Frusciante who released a grand total of seven albums and one EP in that year. I was primarily going to write about the first of these, Shadows Collide With People, but then I started thinking about the others and found I was struggling to separate them in terms of how much I like them. So I’m going to combine them all into one mega-album.

So let’s get one thing out of the way first: I think Frusciante is not only the greatest living guitarist, I also believe he is somewhat of a musical genius. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers are, in my opinion, just not worth listening to when he’s not in them – it’s Frusciante who elevates them from a passing curiosity into a genuinely interesting band. And his solo work is miles ahead of even their best record (By the Way in case you were wondering). Even though he has recently started making avant-garde electro music which I struggle to listen to, I suspect the fault here is mine and not his. I have the niggling thought that he’s just too far ahead right now of what I’m capable of properly appreciating and that at some point in the future it will just dawn on me.

Anyway, back to these albums. We are ostensibly talking here about the following (not strictly in order as I can’t quite remember the release sequence):

  • Shadows Collide With People
  • The Will to Death
  • Inside of Emptiness
  • The DC (EP)
  • Curtains
  • A Sphere in the Heart of Silence
  • Ataxia
  • The Brown Bunny (Soundtrack)

Shadows Collide… was recorded around the same time as By the Way so perhaps unsurprisingly isn’t a million miles away from that record stylistically. It’s more experimental though, with sections of white noise and some very strange instrumentation here and there. It’s an incredible album though, there is not a bad song on it. And it’s the first time Frusciante’s voice hits its stride – on previous recordings he slips in and out of tune frequently, here it’s strong and on point throughout.

 

 

The Will to Death was the next record out, and it’s much rawer than Shadow’s Collide…, it’s louder too. He goes back to his electric guitar much more frequently on this one. I remember reading an interview with him at the time where he said he spent so long in the studio on the first of these records, trying to make it sound perfect, that he just gave up and whacked out the rest, warts and all. Not that there are many warts, it all sounds just fine to me. I’ve included the track ‘Unchanging’ below as it has a nice rhythm to it and the guitar solo at the end reminds me of his finest hours on tracks like ‘I Could Have Lied’ and ‘Scar Tissue’.

 

 

I could include several tracks here from each album (with maybe the exception of Ataxia which I think is probably the weakest of the lot, though interesting in its own way) but I would be here all day if I did that. So let’s jump forward to A Sphere in the Heart of Silence. I remember this was a contentious one at the time. Because it’s more electronic than any of the others, he uses samples and loops, synthesizers. In retrospect, it was a foretaste of what was to come from Frusciante, but I really liked it from the off. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but then each of these records was subtly different from the last, this was just a different kind of different.

 

 

Perhaps the best way to talk about this incredible body of work is via the last record I listed, The Brown Bunny soundtrack he contributed to for his friend Vincent Gallo. That seems a perfect collaboration to me because that’s what Frusciante’s music is like – the equivalent of a low budget, highly stylised American indie film. It eschews slick production values for the opportunity to look at the world in an entirely new way. Inventive, quirky, occasionally difficult, but always earnest and revelatory. I spent most of 2004 immersed in this alternate universe of his, and make no mistake that’s precisely what it is. I hardly listened to anything else other than these records, to the point that it became a little claustrophobic in there. I go back to them now sparingly, not because their allure has dimmed, it hasn’t, at all. But because I can so easily get lost in there. So how’s that for a strange recommendation: check these out, but be careful, they’re almost too good.

 

Hidden Gems – THE BABIES – Our House on the Hill

 

TheBabies

 

Big big claim for this one: Our House on the Hill is one of my favourite albums ever. Like, EVER. Ostensibly a side project for Kevin Morby of the band Woods, and Cassie Ramone from the Vivian Girls, they released two albums of which this is the second. Morby has since gone on to have a solo career in which he seems to be following a very serious, timeless-sounding songwriting strategy, in the vein of Lou Reed and Patti Smith. And I like it. But here, back in 2012, was a moment in time where it sounds like he was having a little bit more fun. You cannot underestimate the input of Ramone either, because the tracks she sings on are fantastic. And when they sing together it reminds me of It’s a Shame About Ray era Lemonheads with Evan Dando and Julianna Hatfield sharing vocal duties.

 

 

I thought I’d share a live version of ‘Slow Walkin’, mainly so you can see the band and because it was recorded for KEXP – if you’ve never listened to KEXP then you need to. It’s the reason internet radio was invented. It’s a bit punky this one, a touch of The Undertones to it, some brilliantly deadpan vocals which hover just on the border of being in and out of tune, but with some nice surf guitar which roots it very firmly in the American indie songbook.

And then there’s ‘Mess Me Around’, which has a proper video and everything. No idea what that video has to do with the track, but let’s not get lost in details. I love this song, and not just because of the driving rhythm and great guitar part, I also like the descent into profanity and rant about idiots in the lyrics. It’s a good sing-a-long bit, a nice bit of stress relief, similar to that bit in Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name Of’…

 

 

‘Moonlight Mile’ is probably the best track on the album. Being my favourite song on my favourite record puts it right up there in my top ten, maybe top five songs of all time. When I said Morby was now going for timeless-sounding songwriting, I think this was probably the first time he achieved it. You could make a case for it reminding you of pretty much anything ever recorded by a US indie or alternative artist since the ’60’s. When I listen to it I think of the aforementioned Lou Reed and Patti Smith, R.E.M., The Shins, Pavement, Love, Iggy Pop etc. etc. It just seems to me to distill the whole spirit and style of fifty year’s worth of outsider rock music into one song. That’s some feat.

 

 

I could talk about every song on this record at great length because there isn’t a bad one on it. But I won’t. What you really need to do is go and listen to it because it’ll speak for itself. I picked ‘Moonlight Mile’ as my track of the day on the Rock and Roll blog a few weeks back – you can see that here – and on that post I talked about the album being the aural equivalent of reading a Denis Johnson book or watching a Jim Jarmusch film. Or Kevin Smith. Or anything really that delves into the ordinary lives and offbeat reality of the US that exists under the glossy Hollywood face it presents to the world. It has that very essence of Americana stamped right into its DNA, the one you find in Raymond Carver stories. Oh sod it, I’ll share one more song below and then I’m done.

 

 

Hidden Gems – DAN AUERBACH – Keep it Hid

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Second up in my irregular ‘Hidden Gems’ thing is Dan Auerbach’s Keep it Hid. You’ve heard of Auerbach right? Lead singer of The Black Keys who have done loads of stuff that might not have made it to the top of the charts but has made them a pretty successful alternative band. He made this solo record in 2009 which seems to be a bit more obscure. But in true musical ferret style, I found it, I played it, I loved it.

 

 

The record has the same bluesy foundation as The Black Keys, but if anything is a bit more experimental. Usually that term means “some electronica, a bit of rapping, maybe the odd donk on it”, but in this case I don’t mean that all. I mean, he’s gone back and mined a whole rich vein of musical history to bring in vintage soul production techniques and rhythm and blues song structures. ‘Heartbroken, in Disrepair’ has an almost circular, centrifugal guitar riff that’s unlike anything I’ve heard before. It goes round and round indefinitely, and yet is in no way repetitive. How did he manage that? It almost sounds like Joshua Tree era U2, albeit much more authentic and rooted than that band ever were.

Or take ‘Real Desire’, which is probably my favourite track of all. There is a rawness to the recording that puts the listener right there in the room with them. The drummer even seems to stumble over the beat at one point, which may annoy those who like their production to be ever so slick. Personally, I think it’s great. There is a real vintage sound to this one, it reminds me of early Motown and Stax recordings. You can imagine it dropping onto the jukebox at 3am in a diner out in the middle of nowhere.

 

 

The same goes for ‘Whispered Words’. It wouldn’t be out of place if it fell through a wormhole and landed on the desk of a DJ in America in the late ’50’s or early ’60’s. Don’t get me wrong, it would be an oddity back then because structurally it’s a millennial song, it bears all the marks of being post-punk and post-grunge and self-consciously retro. But in terms of how the instruments sound, how the production is put together, it would slot right in there with the early rock and roll records that were still sitting firmly in the shadow of electric blues.

 

 

If I’m being honest, I found Auerbach’s second solo record, released this year, to be a little disappointing. Not that it’s a bad record, but it’s much more countrified than this is, a love letter to Nashville (apparently). And I thought he was onto something so profound here that he should have followed the same path and seen where it could possibly take him. Well, it isn’t up to me to tell musicians what they should be doing, they have to follow their own inspirations I guess. But this album is so good, so incredibly good, that it hardly matters. It stands on its own as a work of near genius. It’s another one I listen to mostly at night, mostly in bed, sometimes falling asleep before it ends. I also have it on vinyl though, so play it a lot while I’m writing too.

Brothers is a great Black Keys album. El Camino too. This knocks both of them into a cocked hat in my opinion. One of the best and most timeless records you’ll ever hear.

Hidden Gems – SPAIN – The Morning Becomes Eclectic Session

I’m starting a new (ir)regular thing on the blog here to talk about records I absolutely love that nobody else in the world ever seems to have heard of. Well, obviously someone else has, but nobody I know. I’m doing this as an overspill to the stuff I’m lucky enough to do on the Rock & Roll blog about new music, just because there’s so much stuff I want to write about.

Incidentally, all my stuff on the music blog, run by the wonderful two Marias, can be found here:

https://realrockandroll.wordpress.com/author/neilschiller/

Anyway, first up is Spain’s The Morning Becomes Eclectic Session which was a live recording they did for KCRW which was so good, so incredibly good, that they ended up releasing it as an album. You can see pretty much the whole thing here:

 

 

There’s so much to talk about with this record, that I’m going to start with the highlights in bullet form:

  • Track one (‘Nobody has to Know’) has an absolute virtuoso piano performance on it
  • Track two (‘Untitled #1’) has an absolute virtuoso guitar performance on it
  • Track five (‘Walked on the Water’) has the best cello instrumentation I’ve heard since Nirvana Unplugged, it’s gorgeous
  • Track six (‘Only One’) has some of the most beautiful backing vocal harmonies I’ve ever heard (they’re provided by the lead singer’s triplet sisters apparently)
  • The rhythm guitarist is an absolute machine throughout the whole thing, he never misses a beat
  • The lead singer Josh Haden looks like a bloke called Geoff from Accounts, but has the voice of an earthbound and slightly world weary angel. Archangel Geoff, patron saint of Purchase Ledger

I don’t mean that last point in an insulting way, I think it’s awesome. I don’t buy into rock stars all having to look a certain way. I like things to be different, to be unique, to just be what they are. And then the quality of what’s being done lives and dies on its own merits. Haden actually reminds me of Lou Reed – someone else that really didn’t look like your archetypal prancing frontman. Just someone who has a massive amount of talent and his own brand of cool going on.

There are only seven tracks on the album, so it’s a short one, but I’ve already told you how great four of them are. Add to that ‘She Haunts my Dreams’ which is also pretty awesome and you’re almost all the way there.

The other two tracks are worth talking about too, perhaps mainly because I’m not quite as enamored of them. ‘I’m Still Free’ is great musically, it just doesn’t sit that comfortably with me personally on a lyrical level. Essentially, I think the track is about being depressed when a relationship breaks down but getting through it because at least you still live in a free country, so all is not that bad. And I’m not arguing with that sentiment necessarily. But at this specific point in time (let’s call it the age of Trump) singing about the stars and stripes just irks me a little bit. To be fair, this song was written years ago, so I’m aware it’s my problem not that of the band. So maybe it’s just unfortunate. In a few years’ time I’ll probably have no issue with it whatsoever again.

The final track is called ‘Spiritual’ and again is great musically. Lyrically it references Jesus Christ a lot, and I can’t tell whether it’s a genuine Christian song or just a stylistic kind of statement, given the title. Anyway, not being a particularly religious person it jars ever so slightly for me. Again, probably just my issue, but this record is so good I feel it deserves my honesty.

Overall though, this is an incredible recording that I’ve never heard any other person ever mention or recommend. I found it by accident and it’s been my album of choice to listen to in bed while I fall asleep for some time. It’s absolutely beautifully arranged and executed. If you get a chance, give it a go. Let yourself fall asleep to it. I promise you’ll be impressed.

From ‘How Soon is Now?’

Sabotage by the Beastie Boys: there’s a carpark, an empty carpark, and the slanting sun of a late Tuesday afternoon in September. We were supposed to be in college but we’d all cleared out after lunch and bought a six pack of the cheapest, nastiest lager the corner shop had. James had a tape deck, tinny and distorted as all hell, and we sat on the concrete steps behind the trade doors of a bookies and pretended we were skater types.”