Review: Seabat - "Scattered Disc"

Seabat - Scattered Disc
(2013 Goldtimers)
"Remarkable synth tone and narrative ability"

I have little interest in science fiction, but I do enjoy the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, not for its extraterrestrial setting but for its lulling sense of sleepiness. Camera angles dip and dive and perspectives often change, but there's a calmness that pervades the movie, a silence only broken by scattered dialogue and an unassuming score. The unobtrusive yet acute soundtrack most likely serves as a major influence on this similarly space-themed instrumental album. Seabat's Scattered Disc uses more modern, synthesised elements to re-create the somewhat unnervingly serene ambience that made 2001 so fascinating. The first track, "The Human Endeavor", is the most orchestral of the five cuts on the LP, as triumphant strings rise high into the sky, lifted by the the chanting of an artificial choir. As a helicopter-like whirring noise assumes a position in the mix, one can almost picture a space craft taking off in a cloud of red-tinged smoke.

Though, as far as I know, there isn't a film accompaniment to the album, it isn't hard to create a movie in your head while listening to Scattered Disc. The mood created by each track is lifelike and subtle. Foggy sound effects and ominous drones on "Cryogenic Awakening" create a sense of unease at first, but synthesizer sparkles convert the unease to wonder. The instrumentation on "Trans-Neptunian Space" illustrates its title well: minimalist, dark and lonely. Though there's plenty of "new new-age" music out there to listen to, Seabat's remarkable synth tone and narrative ability make it a standout experimental record. The LP version comes in a thick, high-quality sleeve and is packaged with a neat insert with background information on Voyager 1. Listen to the album below and buy the LP here.


Review: Eureka California/Good Grief - "Split"

Eureka California/Good Grief - Split 7"
(2013 Rok Lok)
"Percussive, buzzing chords hold the  pop-punk tunes together like corn syrup in a candy bar"
Though the Long Island-based label Rok Lok Records is known mostly for its tape releases, when they shell out the cash to press a record you can almost guarantee the bands that appear on it bring something extra to the table. Eureka California and Good Grief, the acts on either side of Rok Lok's most recent split single, both possess a timeless punk quality that's pleasing to the ear, though not so powerful that it distracts from the music itself. The quality they share is warm and slightly grainy, the lovably honest tone attributed to K Records post-punk and late 80's skate video soundtracks. 

Upon removing the record from its yellow paper sleeve, I first played Eureka California's side of the split. With its jangly guitars, warbly bass and almost forcefully jolly vocals, the band's first offering, "Turn On Autopilot" reminded me of a single by the McTells that I own. If the lovely cover art didn't tip you off, there is plenty of twee influence coursing through the grooves of this record. Injected with some garage-punk force, Eureka California's side is simple, but addictive.

Though the band's sound may not be as "full" as that of their split-mates, Good Grief's tracks are even more jaunty than Eureka California's. Percussive, buzzing chords hold the two pop-punk tunes together like corn syrup in a candy bar, leaving a sugary, tingling aftertaste. With sunshiny melodies that could easily be mistaken for Tiger Trap tunes, Good Grief completes a record to play in your rotation of sprightly twee gems.


Smiling Strange - "Orange Lazarus" Out Now

The likes of Thoreau and Emerson have called Concord, Massachussetts home and now so does Smiling Strange, the transcendental lo-fi acoustic project of Kyle Rosse. 30 minutes of cozy autumn guitar and haunting, whispery vocals. A magical experience. Buy now from Half-Gifts Records; stock is super limited! 


Live Review: Fielded/Idiot Glee/Dent May/Bleached @ Al's Bar

Fielded/Idiot Glee/Dent May/Bleached @ Al's Bar
(Saturday September 21, 2013)

Though not as established as South By Southwest or Coachella, Lexington, Kentucky's Boomslang Fest, put together by the University of Kentucky's radio station WRFLm is able to attract some of my favorite bands, but it's still small enough to provide intimate shows for an eclectic crowd of music fans. Yesterday I attended the free portion of the festival hosted by Al's Bar, excited to get the chance to see Los Angeles-based girl punk band Bleached as well as Dent May, a Beach Boys-influenced artist from Jackson, Mississippi. Though forecasts predicted rain, the weather on Saturday was the best I've seen in weeks, and all signs pointed to a fun afternoon of live music.

I arrived at Al's Bar during the tail end of a short outdoor set by Fielded, the electronic solo project of Brooklyn's Lindsay Powell. I only got to catch a couple of songs, but what I heard wasn't bad. Her sound was a bit of a cross between Grimes' hyperactive electronica and Beach House's hazy dream-pop vibe. Through the speakers, you could really get a feel for the many layers of each track, and Powell's vocals were no less powerful than they are on her new LP Ninety Thirty Thirty. The crowd moved indoors for the next show, featuring Idiot Glee.

Idiot Glee was the only local band in the lineup, but certainly had the chops to compete with the visiting acts. They delivered a very unique sound, putting a shoegazey spin on old school rock n' roll. Their merch table had the biggest spread, including two LPs and a smattering of Street Gnar tapes. Though the first half of the set was predominantly guitar-driven, frontman James Friley took to the keyboard halfway in, giving the band a looser, more spaced-out sound. The bass player broke a string during the closing track and powered through as if nothing had happened. Though I hadn't previously heard much from Idiot Glee, the Mac Demarco/Chris Cohen fan inside me couldn't resist their nostalgic, yet all-too-fresh songcraft. 

Next came my favorite show of the night, Dent May's outdoor set. Just a few weeks after the release of his Sophomore album, May and his backing trio seemed to have a lot of energy going into the set and it showed. His music live actually sounded more lush and complex than the baroque, Pet Sounds vibe of his album material, mainly due to swirling effects that saturate May's guitar chords. The funky bass guitar and retro keys seemed to be a hit among neighbors of Al's Bar, and a few unsuspecting locals who happened to be walking down the street at the time broke out into dance. May relieved himself of rhythm guitar duties on the closing track, wading into the small crowd to sing. He hopped up onto a fence, making for a prime photo opportunity and then climbed up on top of the amplifiers stacked on stage right. I got a chance to introduce myself to Dent and make small talk. Though always a little hesitant to approach bands after a show, I found him to be quite approachable and kind.


Bleached was the last band to perform and arguably the crowd favorite. Hailing all the way from LA, the Burger Records quartet adds elements of riot-grrrl to early 80s hardcore punk. Singer Jennifer Clavin, wearing a Germs t-shirt, had great vocals for garage-punk, sounding a bit similar to the Vivian Girls' Cassie Ramone. Much of the crowd jumped and thrashed about to the upbeat and bouncy set, which included a couple of Ramones covers. Bleached was a great choice to close out the lineup, leaving the festival attendees pleased, and with a boost of punk energy. 


Review: Second Hand Flower Shop - "The Incorporeal Boy"

Second Hand Flower Shop - The Incorporeal Boy
(2013 Self-Released)
"Its mainly acoustic sound is brittle, with a cozy and antiquated feel...rather cartoony but very powerful."
Were I to blindly listen to a few tracks on this album, I'd guess that I was listening to a recently unearthed Elephant 6 Collective demo. Second Hand Flower Shop shares many sonic similarities with staples of the Collective like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Music Tapes; its mainly acoustic sound is brittle, with a cozy and antiquated feel. Though the album's lo-fi quality owes itself to the nineties, much of the songcraft featured on The Incorporeal Boy is rooted in the now. Oscar Boyle's vocals pierce through the ramshackle instrumentation with a surprising strength, a more gentle take on Jeff Magnum's gravelly drawl.

The first track to really grab my attention on The Incorporeal Boy was "Ode to the Friends of Those Who are Dead". Carried by nothing but bouncily played chord organ, the tune's haunting but warm melody seemed to wrap a blanket around my insides. It's rather cartoony, but in a good way, I pictured the music playing as credits rolled in front of a watercolor Parisian cityscape. Though the song's lyrics carry a rather bitter connotation, there's this unshakably lovely vibe that the organ delivers. It's a genuinely powerful track, perhaps even made more powerful due to the conflicting emotions that flow through it. "In My Satin Lined Holiday Room" possesses a similarly cozy aura, adding gentle piano to its twangy pluckings. "Homesick" is another great tune, but it draws from a more intense well of energy, its Smashing Pumpkins-esque chords caked in reverb. Though I found it initially tough to make a emotional connection with The Incorporeal Boy, it has really grown on me over the past couple of days. A stellar effort by another young, up-and-coming musician. If you want a download or tape, email oscarboyle@aol.co.uk


Cassette Corner: Booksmart - "No Stars Tonight"

Booksmart - No Stars Tonight
(2013 Jane Tapes)
"Booksmart displays a heightened sense of musical maturity on No Stars Tonight"


Cassette Corner Timeline: Part 3

The final installment in a list of influential and interesting cassettes. 2003-2013

Hair Police - Obedience Cuts
(2004 Hanson Records)

Lexington, Kentucky harsh noise unit Hair Police have been destroying eardrums since 2001, and Obedience Cassettes is just one of many solid tapes put out by the band. It was their debut on the infamous Hanson Records label and also happens to be their most accessible effort to date. Underneath the layers of screeching noise and grimy tape manipulations, one can hear the faint echo of shouted vocals and meaty bass guitar on songs like "Bee Scrape" and "Let's See Who's Here and Who's Not". Only the truly brave will listen to this with the volume cranked up to the max.

Vehicle Blues - Pizza
(2008 Lillerne)

I think just about everybody reading this can agree that the inventions of both shoegaze and pizza are two of mandkind's greatest achievements, and here they are, housed in the same cassette. Pizza is the debut tape single of bedroom pop project Vehicle Blues, two tracks that combine the influences of My Bloody Valentine and krautrock, creating a stagnant pool of reverb-washed sludge that doesn't do much but stew in its own juices. That's totally ok though, as elements like the "Dancing In the Dark"-esque keyboards on "But What You Feel Is" make for a relaxing and unique listen. This tape is a brain massage, and if you ever get the chance to get your oven mitts on this personal Pizza, by all means do so.

Kevin Greenspon/Cloud Nothings - Split
(2010 Cass/Flick + Bridgetown)

Yeah, you read that right. You may not have known it, but Dylan Baldi's Cloud Nothings have a few tapes in their back catalog, which rank among the finest selections in his discography. This split with Bridgetown Records founder Kevin Greenspon offers two sides of deep-fried fuzz pop. Greenspon's tracks combine the sounds of the Go-Gos and early Dinosaur Jr, while Baldi's side takes on a more modernist garage rock approach, which should appeal to fans of the Orwells and Beach Fossils. "I Apologize" is a noise-laden gem, and is my current favorite Cloud Nothings song.

Yu(c)k - Weakend
(2010 Mirror Universe)

Here's another currently well-known artist who got their start releasing tapes. Yu(c)k was the short-lived side project of Yuck's former frontman Daniel Blumberg. More in tune with "Shook Down" than "Get Away", Weakend is a collection of four dreamy piano tracks recorded in Daniel's flat. Each of the cuts is haunting, from the shoegazey "Daughter" to the stark "Automatic". Perfect in nearly every way.

Abuela - Self Titled EP
(2012 Swan City Sounds)

Abuela's 2012 debut tape served as my introduction to the world of cassette culture, a humble cassingle I happened upon by chance on a Bandcamp binge over fall break last year. Though only eight minutes long, Abuela's tape is a powerful listen. It's extremely raw, with its simple acoustic finger picking, handclaps and stomps, yet it's not particularly noisy or "lo-fi". It relies on sparsity and emotion, not sound quality to capture the attention of the listener. Ramon Crespo's gravelly falsetto is heart piercing, and gives life to each of the three somber tunes on the EP. If this cassette doesn't strike a chord with you, then I don't know what will.

Julia Brown - To Be Close To You
(2013 Birdtapes)

If any current cassette culture band is going to make it big, it's Julia Brown. to be close to you is a lo-fi masterpiece, squeezing strings, watery keyboards, twangy guitars and super tight vocal harmonies all on to one little tape. There's no filler to be found on this album, as it's one of the best overall releases of the year. Read my review of it here: http://half-gifts.blogspot.com/2013/02/review-julia-brown-to-be-close-to-you.html


Cassette Corner Timeline: Part 2

Part two of my list of influential and interesting cassettes. This post chronicles tape releases from 1993-2002

Tattle Tale - Tell Yell
(1993 Kill Rock Stars)

While many riot grrrl bands of the early nineties attempted to imitate Beat Happening's feedback-laden take on punk, Tattle Tale assumed a uniquely placid tone for the scene, employing acoustic guitar and cello to create a sound that loosely resembled Cat Stevens' approach to folk. Compared to the rest of the duo's discography, their debut tape, Tell Yell, is an extremely raw effort perfectly suited to the tape format. "Numb Eye" and the wonderfully minimal "A Girl's Toolbox" are particularly beautiful tracks. Despite the lack of electric guitars on this cassette, it's one of the punk-est releases of the nineties. Listen to "Numb Eye" below.

Wallpaper - The Various Decorative Uses Of
(1993 Union Pole)

Delivering quirky and fuzzed out lo-fi pop, Wallpaper was one of the most addictive bands on Olympia-based tape label Union Pole. The Various Decorative Uses Of scatters catchy garage rock gems and earsplitting noise collages across two cassettes, making for an intimidating listen. If you're able to tough it out during the challenging portions and keep your finger off the fast-forward button, you'll be able to revel in more than a few short moments of punk rock bliss. This is definitely recommended for disciples of the Elephant 6 Collective. Stream it in full below.

Soul Junk - 1950 Free Shrimp
(1994 Shrimper)

There are many surprises that await the cassette culture historian, and Soul Junk is one of the biggest. It was a San Diego-based trio formed by Glen Galloway, cranking out your typical lo-fi rock sound with not-so-typical lyrics. Each twangy, percussive track on 1950 Free Shrimp includes overtly Christian lyrics, many of them lifted directly from the Bible. Whether you're down with the message or not, if you're into bands like Sebadoh and Refrigerator, I guarantee you'll be able to jam to this tape. Humorously titled free jazz experiments like "The Lord's Saxophone" give the album antiquated charm. You may have your doubts about Soul-Junk, but they'll win you over with their strangely alluring lead guitars and ultra-DIY ethic. Listen to "Jesus Light The Light" below.

French Paddleboat - Rome Loves Tan
(1997 Union Pole)

Yet another quality release on the Union Pole imprint, Rome Loves Tan is composed of two sides of jazz-infused Krautrock. Sampled percussion, warm keyboards and funky bass lines make up the entrancing groove on Side A, a repetitive gem that will send you floating in space for a good 15 minutes. Side B keeps things slightly grounded, keeping the focus on the off-kilter beat of the drum machines. It slowly morphs into a slow R&B jam that would make great elevator music. Rome Loves Tan is a beautiful, polished effort that just about anyone can enjoy.

Stars Are Insane - Anonymously Yours
(2000 Rok Lok)

This is the sort of lo-fi album I've always loved: shoegaze soundcapes made up of crunchy guitar noodlings and background pops and clicks. Most of the tape is instrumental, but you might occasionally hear Mike Andriani's vocals break through the dense cloud of noise-pop vibes. It's very similar to My Own Retard's recent cassette pressed by Swan City Sounds, and, according to my little brother, can resemble a tornado siren at times. Only 32 copies of this tape were made, giving it a mysterious aura.

Church of Gravitron - Female Advances In Aviation
(2002 Unread Tapes)

Ahead of its time in many respects, Church of Gravitron explores the more ambient side of noise in Female Advances In Aviation, a thirty-minute experimental epic built around simple, slowly evolving tape loops. Despite the album's minimal nature there's an orchestrally layered feel to the tape; it's rich and deep, each burst of static has a purpose. Unlike many harsh noise tapes of the era, there's more to Female Advances than its volume. For the casual listener, it serves up a relaxing wall of sound to drown in. For the noise die-hard, it provides enough subtleties to keep you drawn in for a full half hour. A simply beautiful tape. Fans of Aaron Dilloway will love it. Listen below.

Review: Soft Pastels - "Sand"

Soft Pastels - Sand
(Self-Released 2013)
"A monolithic ambience that fills up the whole of your conscience"


Cassette Corner Timeline: Pt. 1

Since today marks the first annual Cassette Store Day, I'll be celebrating my favorite musical format with a timeline of tape releases that I find inspirational. Starting at 1982 and ending today, this list only scratches the surface of cassette culture's rich history, but I hope to highlight the more important albums of the past thirty years and maybe even introduce you to a new band or two. Here's part one of the list, ranging from 1982 to 1992.

Solid Space - Space Museum
(1982 In Phaze)

With its muffled synthesizers and jangling lead guitars, album of 80's synth-pop has an unshakable sense of antiquated charm. It's a strange listen; the lyrics center around space travel as imagined by 50's science fiction flicks and there are a few disco-influenced moments scattered throughout the tape. Hiding behind the many quirks Space Museum offers are moments of sheer brilliance. "A Darkness In My Soul", recently covered by Led Er Est, is a particularly memorable cut, featuring vaguely proggy acoustic guitar in its intro. "Tenth Planet" is probably my favorite song off the album, a minimalist gem only enhanced by its humorously corny synth pulses. 

Full album stream

Amos and Crew - True Tears
(It's War Boys 1982)

Puzzling, fascinating, alienating, Amos and Crew's True Tears definitely isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it'll certainly capture the attention of whoever listens to it. The album, recorded in three days by avante-garde musician Jim Welton, is almost completely improvised, yet clings by a thread to loose pop constructions. A variety of instruments and sounds accompany Welton's squeaky, heavily filtered vocals: clunky drum-machines, sporadically played, tinny guitar notes and goofy keyboard grooves. True Tears, in a strange, twisted way, is pop music in its rawest form. Whether it's quality songcraft or utter crap is in the ear of the beholder, and in mine, it's lo-fi gold.

Armed Truth Foreigners

Beat Happening - Three Tea Breakfast
(K 1984)

No Half-Gifts "best of" list would be complete without mention of seminal lo-fi band Beat Happening. Released just after their self-titled debut EP, Three Tea Breakfast remains one of my favorite releases by the Olympia, Washington based trio. Everything about its sound quality is simply perfect. The guitars are fat and booming, the percussion sounds like kitchen utensils being clapped together, yet it's the vocals that make this EP. Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis split singing duties on this tape, sharing a similarly monotone, uninterested delivery. Three Tea Breakfast sounds like your little brother grabbing your guitar and mercilessly banging on the strings as he belts out poorly constructed, stream-of-conscious lyrics. I mean that in the best way possible.


Daniel Johnston - Continued Story
(Self-Released 1985)

Not much ink is spilled over this under-appreciated tape by outsider artist Daniel Johnston, but it's possibly my favorite selection from his prolific discography. I'll spare you Johnston's backstory as you've probably heard it hundreds of times by now, and I'll get straight into the review. Johnston flirts with intelligibility (maybe even professionalism) on Continued Story, prying himself away from the chord organ that dominated previous efforts. With help from punk act Texas Instruments, he benefits greatly from a full backing band, making for an interesting departure from his familiar solo material. "Ain't No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me" is the album's crowning achievement, a simple acoustic tune featuring an uncredited female vocalist. 

Ain't No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me

Sebadoh -Weed Forestin'
(1987 Self-Released)

The oft-overlooked Sebadoh debut, Weed Forestin' is home to some of Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow's finest solo songs. This tape is the precursor to his later, acoustic-only project Sentridoh, possessing many of the lo-fi recording techniques and lyrical tropes employed under the moniker. As usual, Barlow's songwriting is overwhelmingly melancholy on Weed Forestin', featuring an early demo version of my favorite Sebadoh track "Brand New Love". "Whitey Peach" is another prime cut, and is one of Barlow's best vocal performances. It may not be as important as 1994's Bakesale, but as far as Sebadoh releases go, Weed Forestin' is a close second best effort.

Brand New Love

Various Artists - Pawnshop Reverb
(1992 Shrimper)

Pawnshop Reverb is the best of a smattering of cassette compilations released in the early 90's by legendary DIY label Shrimper Records. The Mountain Goats and Sentridoh are the more well-known acts appearing on the tape, but tracks like Delirium Insomniacal by the more obscure psychedelic rock band Primordial Undermind will give listeners reason to stay. That being said, "Certain Dance-Circumstance" is one of my favorite Sentridoh tracks, and that cut alone is enough to put Pawnshop Reverb on this list. If you're into blown-out twangy guitars, you'll love this tape.

Certain Dance-Circumstance


Review: Reaching Moon - "Creature Songs"

Reaching Moon - Creature Songs
(2013 Jane Tapes)
"Twinkly guitar tones...upbeat enthusiasm."


Review: Soccer Mom - "You Are Not Going To Heaven"

Soccer Mom - You Are Not Going to Heaven
(Sweaters & Pearls/100mm Records 2011)
"Some of the most polished-sounding college rock this side of the 80's."