I've been swimming in old LPs most of the summer, and haven't picked up much actual new music. A few things have filtered through here and there via various methods, though, and here's some that stuck out as notable.
Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout: Guru-Gaga
Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout are currently traveling the country with the inimitable Bob Log III, which is a recommendation in itself to many music fans. So when a copy of the group's LP wandered into the Isthmus office, I couldn't resist checking it out. Mr. Free and company is a group with a major reputation as a must-see live act; the Los Angeles Times likened the front man (a.k.a. Dmitri Bartlett) to a combination of Jim Morrison and G.G. Allin, which sounds equally intriguing and disturbing. Musically, Guru-Gaga certainly has the weirdness going on, as it sounds like a mad carnival barker backed by a '70s Krautrock band who decided to move to Iowa. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Tucson, Arizona, where this version of the band has been playing since 2006.
If their live show comes even close to matching the manic energy and dense, complex music of Guru-Gaga, their rep is well-deserved. Madison will find out on Thursday, September 29, when Bob Log III and Mr. Free play a show at the High Noon Saloon. By that time I might have been able to listen to this album enough times to really wrap my head around it. (Bloat Records, 2010)
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes' debut album, a perfect blend of acoustic textures, layers of harmonies and reverb, was probably my biggest surprise of 2008. one which came, unfortunately, a couple weeks after a performance at the Memorial Union Terrace. Part of why that album so captured my ear was the surprise factor itself; who expected a '60s folk-pop influenced disc in 2008, with Moody Blues references no less?
This year the band returned with Helplessness Blues, and without the initial shock factor it's taken this album a bit longer to grab hold of my attention. Fleet Foxes haven't changed their approach much, and the songs here are just as good, with arrangements allowed to stretch out a bit more. In some cases, arrangements go far out enough to include some free jazz skronk, as on "The Shrine/An Argument," the longest track on the album. The stretch also means the 12 songs are spread over four sides on LP, which does tend to disrupt the flow of the record a bit. That could be part of why Helplessness Blues still feels a bit disjointed to me. However, it's a grower, the sort of record that may take a while to "get" but could end up being a lifelong favorite. (Sub Pop Records, 2011; includes digital download)
Christmas Island: Blackout Summer
Coming from the opposite end of the potential "lifelong favorites" spectrum is Christmas Island, a guitar/drum duo banging out mopey, angular rock owing as much to late '70s Britpunk or No Wave as garage. The song titles pretty much tell the story: "Pre-Apocalyptic," "Black Cloud," "I Don't Care" -- and that's just the first three. However, it's all catchy as hell and it's hard to resist singing along with the cathartically doomy lyrics. This one came out a couple years back; thanks to John for the lend, and the reminder to just automatically check out whatever the hell I see emerge on In the Red. (In the Red, 2009)
The Fleshtones featuring Lenny Kaye: Brooklyn Sound Solution
The Fleshtones were retro-rockin' all the way back when they formed in the '70s, and they've never varied that sound too much out of commercial considerations. That's part of why they continue to rule all garage bands. The band's put out a string of strong LPs in the 2000s, with the last two being somewhat more conceptual than usual: 2008's Christmas LP, and this year's collaboration with original '60s garage rocker "Link Cromwell," better known as Nuggets mastermind/Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye. In '60s garage band style, there are lots of blues/soul covers here, some instrumental workouts (Beatles, Rondels and ... Mel Torme?), and a few new originals. Will it change your life? Not unless you don't know what rock 'n roll is. Is it a lot of fun? Most indubitably. Here's hoping the Fleshtones keep rockin' for another 35 years. (Yep Roc, 2011; includes digital download)
The Feelies: Here Before
After a nearly two decade break, New Jersey's beloved underground heroes have returned to record store shelves. Here Before features the same lineup as on their mid-'80s records, and picks right up where those albums left off on the group's sideways guitar pop trajectory. Fans of those records are likely to fall in love with the Feelies all over again. Side note: Bar/None also has reissued Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth on vinyl as well. (Bar/None Records, 2011; includes digital download).
Another winner in Fat Possum's somewhat surprising transition to an indie rock powerhouse, Yuck's debut album sounds like it could be an excavated unreleased album from, say, 1993. That's not the case, though, as this is a bunch of whippersnappers. How did I get old enough that the "college rock" I grew up with is now a retro sound? Anyway, this is straight up guitar-alt-rock alternating between big and buzzy or introspective and atmospheric, with guy-girl vocals, the occasional loudy-softy dynamics, and some really, really good songs. In an intriguing move, Yuck is also getting perhaps the earliest deluxe reissue ever: Fat Possum has announced a double-LP version for October. (Fat Possum, 2011; includes digital download)