Best of 2013 Review - Part 3: Garage Pop/Prog Pop/Funk

Part 3 in this 4-part series of reminisciences on the year gone by. I'm pairing Garage Pop with Prog Pop in this post (and why not, they could possibly do with being paired together more often, even within the same song perhaps), as well as some funk cuts on the side. Again, there's plenty of Irish content in here too in what was another notable year for Irish releases - of all kinds.

A reminder that you can find Parts 1 & 2 under December 2013 in the Posts menu on the right of the page. And Part 4 is on the way later in the week.

The Grays – Very best years
To start, the first of several entries in these lists not from the last year at all, just discovered by me for the first time in 2013. This peach came on my radar courtesy of a Facebook post by Eric Matthews (ex-Cardinal), the kind of happening that tends to represent a tiny chink of light in the mostly dark nether world of social media. The Grays were a supergroup, a bunch of friends between projects put together by Jason Falkner post-Jellyfish and prior to his own superlative solo output (Jon Brion was one, now a noted producer and soundtrack composer). This was their only album sadly (Ro Sham Bo), a progressive pop foray released while grunge was still in its pomp. It was ahead of its time then but this song especially still sounds great now – all major sevenths, swirling guitar licks and key shifts - the perfect entrée to Falkner’s knock-out one-two of Author Unknown and Can you still feel? in the years following.

Connan Mockasin - Caramel
If the out there New Zealander’s second album is a trip to the outer galaxies of Deep Funk, the title track is its luscious, succinct theme tune. Glassy guitars, a sensual vocal of Prince proportions and an insidious tune make this essential romantic music.

Honourable mention as well to the album’s lead single ‘I’m the man, that will find you’ which is strange and wonderful in equal measure. Its combination of falsetto with on-helium singing makes the title refrain seem like the kind of creepy come-on you might feel compelled to (however ill-advisedly) encourage.

Bill Callahan - Spring
A stirring ensemble of flute, bongos and authentic blues guitar, which culminates in the fervent line – “all I want to do is make love to you, in the fertile dirt with a careless mind.” You are there with Bill as the guitar riffs burn, shakers adding to the restless passion. From his 5th album under his given name, Dream river, which brought the funk gloriously to bear, producing another classic in the Callahan canon.

September Girls – Heartbeats
A brilliantly dense and murky tune, the first single from the Girls’ imminent debut album Cursing the sea on Fortuna Pop. Garage pop, yes absolutely – pounding backbeats and a great three-chord chorus switch - but also sweet and smart and straight to the point –

I’m not your girlfriend
Don’t call me babe

Dott – TEFL
Another of my enduring obsessions of the year, this song. In my review of Dott’s Cork gig in November for WeAreNoise I said this about ‘TEFL’ –

I was soon doing some swooning of my own as one of the star vocal turns from the album, ‘TEFL’, was rolled out early complete with a capella opening and handclaps. The chorus takes something from The Ronettes’ best with its inspired backing vocal brought to the foreground, while the lead vocal swoops around without a care in the world – or to be more accurate, with every care in the world as the protagonist’s ex has taken off with the titular TEFL cert in back pocket. All this against a backdrop of crunching guitars and pounding drums, making for effortless, rollercoaster pop music. There was even a “doo-wop” in there for approaching-perfection status.

Pop perfection is right.

Deerhunter – Back to the middle
Another example of a band I love releasing an album last year that I didn’t like a lot. I like fuzz and distortion as much as the next man but most of Monomania seemed to be wrapped in a cotton wool ball of it.

Single 'Back to the middle' though had the zing to plough through the production, thanks to the genuine tenderness of Brandon Cox’s vocal, a lovely sliding guitar pattern, an inspired middle eight filled with bleepy keys and a thoroughly simple and brilliant guitar solo.

A tune that remembered the pop in garage pop, essentially.

TEEN – Better
Another one from 2012 that fell by the wayside until the year after. A storming Velvets-style piano motif laid over gurgling bass synths and tribal drums that just keeps on going. It really is the shit.

I’ll do it better, I’ll do it better, I’ll do it better than anybody else, ha

You will believe them. There are also handclaps on the offbeat and the band contains three sisters, including Teeny Lieberson (ex Here We Go Magic) who gives the band its name. What more do you want?

Georges Vert – Pegasus Dub
A tremendous slice of kraut disco, with a lovely space dub undertone from the Normandy native whose head is filled with Raymond Scott and Giorgio Moroder.

And what inspiring persons to be filling your head those are.

Grave Lanterns – Creepin up on you
An authentic garage pop Halloween single from the Cork supergroup of sorts. Containing such lovely titbits as surf guitar, a stalking bassline, a falsetto backing vocal and a vindictive organ part. There is also some disenchanted shouting which is of course essential too. Not to mention the unhinged closing wig-out.

Jeffrey Lewis & The Rain – WWPRD (What would Pussy Riot do?)
More punk than garage pop but an essential choice, both for its agit comic book brilliance but also for its documenting of one of THE musical/political happenings of the year. Not only that, Lewis also managed to broaden the story in refreshing fashion - there’s something of the spirit of Ginsberg and Cooper Clarke in these inspired lines.

When I see Beck sell cars
And Best Coast selling booze
All this so-called counter culture
Gives us no better world for us to choose

There’s a wonderful and suitably ramshackle quality to this live film aswell.

My Pilot – Descendants
Dublin band who take a genuine shot at progressive pop with a garage rock underbelly. Funnily enough, there’s a disconcerting hint of Razorlight about the beginning of this tune but that’s quickly dispelled by dreamy layers of twining guitars and some beautiful psych shards. I also love the way the chorus vocal is almost whispered. Surprising the listener, that’s a good thing.

*From their debut album For winter you also need to hear the perfectly gorgeous ‘The last big party’ – swaying, heartfelt and brilliantly arranged.

Halves feat. Gemma Hayes – Tanager Peak
A great swooning melody and heart-grabbing arrangement from the outstanding second studio album from this Dublin band, Boa howl. If there are strings and “aw” backing vocals, I’m usually there.

As an indication of where Halves were coming from with Boa Howl, this excerpt from the interview I did with Brian Cash from the band during the summer for the show gives a good flavour. You get the feeling of a genuine sense of adventure at work.

Something else on the press release that caught my eye was this quote – “Musically, the album was inspired by a wide range of influences – from The Flamingos and Joe Meek, to Clouddead, to traditional Malian music and the 1950s orchestral arrangements of Gordon Jenkins.” Can you talk me through those in a bit more detail? What is it about those styles that attracted you?

That list in particular is a combination of the three of us because the band is essentially three songwriters and three producers. That’s what Halves is, it’s just what happens when we get in a room. My ideas would be very different to what Elis brings and to what Tim would bring. As far as those influences, Gordon Jenkins and Joe Meek would be Elis. Elis would be the one who writes the string and brass parts for the most part and does all of our orchestral arrangements. He was very much influenced by trying to capture those old sounds.

The Flamingos and Clouddead were me. As I was writing the album I was going through a big Clouddead phase. I love their lo-fi sound and how you can hear a lot of their stuff is done on cassette tapedecks. Sounds are put together that don’t have any relevance so that inspired me to write my songs for the album. Production style moreso – obviously I didn’t write weird underground hip-hop. It was that weird tapedeck sound that I was after.

And traditional Malian music, where was that coming from? People might remember Damon Albarn did this Mali music record about 10 years ago. I bought it and never listened to it! It was only about a year ago that I actually put it on and absolutely fell in love with it. From there I started to research other local acts. A lot of that is recorded on the streets in those villages on ethnic stringed instruments. And on the album we used, albeit samples, instruments from further afield.

I think the thing we hate the most is anything that sounds meticulous and polished. We like things being rough around the edges. We get excited by records where you can hear things that are slightly out of tune or slowed down. That Mali music record has a ton of that, it’s kinda like an audio documentary through songwriting.

And I’m no expert on Malian music but from what I have heard – in common with a lot of other African music I suppose – there’s usually a heavy core of percussion involved which definitely seems to come through on your album.

Well one thing we consciously made an effort to do on this album was to have things that were more upbeat, the higher end on the bpm, because on the first album there were quite a lot of slow ones. The few times we did sit in a room together and play music, we set up two drumkits, myself and Elis sat down behind the drums and Tim played whatever the idea was and sang it. We really got into the idea of intertwining electronics we’ve used since we started but trying to write proper drum lines to go with what was coming out of the laptop. It was like trying to find the natural meeting point between Ableton and a drummer. We were trying to make things a bit more fluid.

Circus Devils – All the good ones are gone
Circus Devils are Todd Tobias, his brother Tim and longtime collaborator Robert Pollard, of Guided By Voices. Pollard is a legend of course and his unmistakeable, timeworn vocals would sound intriguing reading the phonebook. Here a haunting, repeating piano pattern and some synth atmospherics are the only backdrop to a typically surreal tale, making for a memorable psych pop diversion.

crossing no examination still
better down no lecture on the will
in victory they lunch
not a bad one in the bunch

The Unusual History of Ether – Just dust
TUHOE’s debut album, A distant age, was another I played extensively from on the show during the year. It has something of the jazz rock stylings of a band like Sea & Cake but Rebecca Collins’ vocal adds great warmth and sensuality to the material. This track is my favourite, it’s got a real transportative quality to it. From my review of the album on WeAreNoise a few months back.

‘Just dust’ is a good example (of the combination of a strong pop sensibility with the spacious jazz arrangements) – the beautiful, falling chorus melody is a classic pop hook but it gives way later to something like a cosmic improv section, full of shimmering organ trails, cymbal washes and bass crunches.

Tin Charm – Live your days in dreams
My favourite song from this Dublin band’s debut album, The engine is bleeding, which manages to combine the alt rock abrasiveness of Dinosaur Jr with the great hushed vocal quality of Sam Prekop. Beguiling.

The #1’s – Sharon shouldn’t
Another storming Irish release from the autumn of 2013. From WeAreNoise at the end of September -

‘Sharon Shouldn’t’ is an absolute belter, part Undertones, part Weezer, all pop, thrashed out at 100 miles an hour. Watching the video is also likely to improve your day. We note admiringly the following:

-it was shot in a corner shop, among the Dairy Milks and Taytos, probably costing about a tenner (less can be more).
-the dress sense of the four winsome lads is refreshingly unself-conscious; we surmise that they have not forked out for a stylist (yet anyway).
-all four in the band sing, always a good thing.
-“Lisa says she can’t but Sharon shouldn’t” is a line you should encourage everyone you meet today to sing, with gusto.
-the second guitarist has a very neat gum-chewing style, which is harder than it sounds to achieve.

We also learn from Harmless Noise that the bass player is none other than guitar supremo Cian Nugent (knew he was familiar).

Nothing else to add – just top class work all round. Go out and buy it for your mother.

Satelliti – Esprit de corps
An Italian duo on the Leaf label whose debut album Transister brought together elements of jazz improv with math rock. This simmering work-out is an intriguing contradiction of late night chill-out undertones and busy daytime melodies in the foreground.

Ann Scott – Joy
Attractive, slow burning tune from Scott’s 4th album Venus to the sky, another fine Irish release in the last year. Shades of Cat Power and Beth Orton but ultimately completely its own thing. Featuring wonderfully sensitive production values, by Scott herself and Karl Odlum.

V.O. – When you see red
If I was backed into a corner and forced to pick only one tune from the past year, it would probably be this absolute masterpiece. It haunted (in a good way) my waking hours in 2013 more than any other piece of music. A few words from last May.

V.O. are a well-established six-piece from Brussels (although new to me), centred around the elegantly moustached Boris Gronemberger. On their third album they've hooked up with John McEntire of Tortoise on production and the results are stunning.

More on the album anon, but for now sample this intoxicating first single. It might make you think of Stereolab a little in the vintage synth lines, maybe Tortoise in some cultured jazz inflections.

The glorious male-female harmonies (the latter by Aurelie Muller, ex Soy Un Caballo) around simple keyboard repetitions might even make you think of a folkier Beach Boys, but there's something brilliantly progressive in the restless, shifting bass melody and massively uplifting in those serene brass swells that makes this sound all their own.

It also seems to be a protest song, a call to arms, which of course is stirring enough in itself. Apart from that, it's irresistible and bar-raising pop music.

Elastic Sleep – You only live twice
To finish, a new Cork band bringing a thrilling shoegaze sensibility to bear on the old Nancy Sinatra Bond classic. Apart from the radical approach to this cover version, what’s just as impressive is that it was all self-recorded by the band themselves. These lines from a Q&A I did with the band’s lead guitarist (and engineer/producer) Chris Somers are an interesting insight into their working methods, aswell as showing what’s possible for any new or young band with enough talent and drive.

Did you record it yourselves (at your own OneChanceOut studio)?
We did. We had just finished the rhythm section tracking for the EP and decided to give it a go at the end of the day. It’s very liberating as everyone gets very involved with their own sound in a way that isn’t always feasible in a commercial studio recording environment.

When it comes to recording, do you have a preference for live or overdubbed?
We did YOLT in the living room, totally live minus the vocals, an acoustic and a dub of a spring reverb tank being slapped. It was very focused and difficult to breathe for 3 minutes 47 second bursts. Having recorded in and with so many different bands (each of us that is) I think we were all a bit allergic to what is sadly perceived as the ‘norm’ of recording something, tearing it to shreds and putting it back together like a crap jigsaw. With the EP the songs were fully formed so we dubbed the guitars and vocals afterwards so we could play at levels that would make your ears bleed and experiment with some really cool stereo setups with tape delays.


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