Saturday, October 30, 2021

Reviews you can use: Swell Maps, Tommy Womack, The Brothers Steve, and The Armoires

Even in their earliest iteration as a band, for the Swell Maps, pressing "record" on a 4-track recorder (or perhaps even more primitive appaaratus) was about as natural as plugging their instruments into amplifiers.  I know of no other artist (save for perhaps Marc Bolan) who left so much excess material on the cutting room floor.  By my count this is the fifth full length collection of outtakes and demos from a band who only gave the world a quartet of singles and two proper full lengths: 1979's A Trip to Marineville, and Jane From Occupied Europe one year later.  The newly released double LP, Mayday Signals, which from what I can surmise consists entirely of unheard music - 36 songs (or fragments thereof) that at the very least is era-specific. 2006' Wastrels and Whippernasppers scraped the bottom most reaches of the Maps well of discarded recordings, excavating a bevy of dreck and dross that upon closer inspection was almost self-explanatory as to why it's contents was shielded from wider release to begin with.  Mayday's focus however is almost exclusively on the band's earliest demo recordings, a good chunk of which were home recorded. Interestingly the Maps lineup hadn't quite congealed in the years 1976-78, which is when most of this music is derived from. The song (things) here were not merely the product of what would become the group's primary lineup - brothers Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden (who passed in 1997 and 2006 respectively) and Jowe Head, but three unheralded participants: David "Phones" Barrington, John Cockrill and Richard Scaldwell.

As Jowe Head explains in Mayday's sleeve notes the band in their earliest incarnation were finding themselves - and their instruments quite literally.  Coming from humble means, the band gradually cobbled together something resembling a drum kit, and were no strangers to secondhand guitars and other used accoutrements. Sonically, the Swell Map's aesthetic ran somewhat parallel to upstart and oblique post-punk contemporaries the Fall.  From day one their penchant was shambolic and abrasive, with the occasional "sweet" chord or manicured shred of instrumentation occasionally penetrating the din.  Splashes of found-sounds and even glints of Krautrock were tucked in, subtly or otherwise, but in the grand scheme of things the eventual trio pared down to Soundtracks/Sudden/Head yielded a sound uniquely their own.  Amidst Mayday's hefty track listing are revealing early takes of some of the Maps' signature pieces - "Vertical Slum," "Read About Seymour," City Boy's (Dresden Style) and "International Rescue."  There are a couple of thoroughly unique things here that really deserved some proper fleshing out once they got signed to Rough Trade- "Off the Beach," Deliferous Mistail," but the majority of this collection consists of prototypes of slightly lesser known songs in the Map's oeuvre - that and scads of  lo-fi noodling and noisenik experimentation.  Perhaps not the most ideal indoctrination for the unacquainted (or squeamish), Mayday Signals is a welcome dispatch to the Maps' most adorning adherents. It's available right now from Easy Action Records and Amazon on your choice of wax or CD. 

The phrase "cult following" seems to adhere to Tommy Womack like white on proverbial rice. I suppose it's a reasonable assessment since he's not the stuff of household name status, despite his rep as frontman for Nashville local yokels Government Cheese in the '80s, and a little further in with the Bis-Quits. By the late '90s he spun off as a solo artist, and has gone strong ever since (not counting a serious and temporarily debilitating car wreck, and a stint in rehab).  Tommy is a troubadour that's nearly seen and done it all, and he gives it right back to his audiences and fans via a telltale, sung/spoke delivery system that's nakedly frank, plaintive, and amusing. A worshiper of the Heartbreakers and vintage New York punk, his spin on things (at least for his latest, I Thought I Was Fine) is a tad less raucous, veering more in the vicinity of Cracker and occasionally Paul Westerberg, albeit twangier.  Whether he's extolling on the autobiographical in "I Thought I Was Fine" or "Job Hunting While Depressed," or spinning unlikely anecdotes about Elvis, Tommy is if anything refreshingly earnest. If you crave songwriting with a linear, but utterly human tact this guy just might occupy the top slot on your wish list.  I Thought I Was Fine is available straight from the folks who brought it two market a couple weeks ago, Schoolkids Records.  You'd also be wise to peruse a recent article on him here.  

Though the lineage behind The Brothers Steve (BTW, no one in the band is a "Steve") might be insignificant to some, it's an outright selling point for me.  This quintet contain no less than three alum, from one of my favorite bands of the early aughts, and that would be an L.A. contingency monikered Tsar, whose self titled debut circa 2000 made me and a few thousand of my like-minded musical cohorts instantaneous fans.  POWER pop baby, of the most dazzling and engrossing variety.  The Brothers Steve, now up to their second LP, Dose indeed exude vestiges of their aforementioned predecessors, but what they have in their own right is thankfully pretty substantive, not to mention less grandiose.  The group's modus opernadi is power pop of a less engulfing sort, generally in the same ballpark circa Redd Kross' Phaseshifter.  The first half of Dose treads a bit uneven, with the oomph factor (or deficiency thereof) being a detriment, save for the T-Rex inclined "Wizard of Love."  The latter portion of the album fares better bearing gratifying, melodious bashers like "Electro Love" and "Griffith Observatory." Another glammy stomper, "Better Get Ready to Go," is a more than satisfactory note to end the proceedings on. Fill your prescription for Dose over yonder at Big Stir Records or Amazon.

And speaking of Big Stir Records, the label succeeded in pulling off a clever and prolonged "prank" between this year and last, releasing a steady stream of digital singles from an array of new and emerging artists with names like October Surprise and The Ceramic Age. In actuality these up and coming hopefuls were none other than the label's house band The Armoires featuring the proprietors of Big Stir Records themselves, Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko. Yes, they even had me fooled! Each of the half dozen (or so) singles in this series encompassed slightly different musical pastiches, touching on jangle, power pop and even country, occasionally incorporating abundant harmonies and occasional orchestral flourishes.  The overall effect resides somewhere between Pugwash and The Rooks (remember them)?  Among well above-average originals "(Just Can't See) The Attraction" and "Ohma, Bring Your Light Into This Place," are a flock of interesting covers by the likes of XTC, John Cale, 20/20 and Andy Gibb. This myriad of mysterious singles have been gathered and housed on the Armoires aptly titled Incognito, available now directly from Big Stir and Bandcamp.

No comments: