LIGHTNING STRIKES – Quick but essential reviews for the discerning listener



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Finally volume two (which happens to contain an album called “Vol. 4”, confusingly enough) of SEM’s new column, a few ticks later than the two weeks promised in Lightning Strikes’ inaugural go, we’re nonetheless pleased to bring you four worthy candidates to help satisfy your new-release jones (though, again rather confusingly, one of these is from 2013, but new to us). So get reading, links for purchase are included should you be persuaded by our enthusiasms, and we’ll get busy planning volume three. And as a reminder, the ratings beneath each review are based on a 4-√ system.

[feature photo by Trish Tritz]

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BLINDNESS – “Wrapped in Plastic” (Saint Marie Records)

Riding a walled crest of feedback and a brash sonic arc that’s half in-your-face, half pop hook artful and that reasonably recalls band member Debbie Smith’s former employers Curve, British trio Blindness bring a mighty melody-saturated noise on their debut. Joined by Beth Rettig (vox, drum and synth programs, E-bow) and bassist Kendra Frost, Smith makes the most of her notable past experience – which also includes Echobelly and Snowpony – creating generous and not infrequently epic swaths of widescreen guitarscapes that allow the other two to nimbly, if with force, paint the spaces between. Laced with darkness and daring, the picks on a pick-heavy album are the throbbing, throwback churner “Last One Dies,” the single-ready “No One Counts,” heavy and sweet and whose terrific progression is filled with a distorted charm, and the paranoia-touched, bad-dream psych and thrum of “Humming Song,” an almost lullaby that bursts into full ominous breakdown, pulls back, bursts anew with even greater ferocity and ends up living inside your head like a haunted, oddly insistent and alluring memory you can’t -and don’t want to – shake. Released in July on Texas-based label Saint Marie, the same label responsible for the eye-opening Static Daydream debut (reviewed here), Wrapped in Plastic confirms the relatively young label as among our most essential. √√√ [available from Saint Marie here]

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BUNNYGRUNT – “Vol 4” (Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records)

Born in the tweedledum, B&S-addled mid-nineties (their 1995 Action Pants! debut is an aggro-primitivist lost classic of that most precious of canons), St Louis band Bunnygrunt has done what few bands have the guts, gumption, or reckless heart to do any more: they hit the neverending road and ground it out, criss-crossing the frayed ribbons of our once-mighty land like wayward indie pioneers in a combination Econoline van and Conestoga wagon, finding along the way a grueling redemption that has left them taut, lean, and beautifully jaded, experience etched into their collective psyche like an outlaw gang’s initials carved in a deathless oak. What’s resulted is a transformation, the band evolving via that truest and most mythical of American rock’n’roll litmus tests into a mini-rager of seasoned rock band, albeit one with that pulsing pureness of ramshackle spirit still under-girding the cumulative dimensions of noise built above it.

Though the CD and cassette versions sport eight additional tracks we think it best to treat it like the vinyl LP that Vol 4 was born to be. Within that framework you’ll find such gems and oddities as the Velvet Underground sounding like an apostate Monkees covering the Dwarves (marvelous closer “Still Chooglin’ [After…]”), Vaselines-like workouts (“Just Like Old Times,” “Gimme Five Bucks”) had those crafty Glaswegians somehow acquired a healthy layer of midwest American punk crust, a “Neat Neat Neat”-based rave-up studded with mega-nimble bass playing, a summer-driving guitar solo and abiding stoner modesty (“The Book That I Wrote”), plus a raucous live outing (“Frankie Is A Killer”) that morphs from a vague PiL bassline intro to Ramones-y new wave – while sounding exactly like neither – in the blink of a lager-lidded eye. Trophy, though, goes to the 7-minute opus of bolt-cutter pop “Chunt Bump,” titled like a Fall song but played like Rocket From The Crypt on continental holiday, an autobahn of sound repurposed for the Great Plains blue collar breadbasket.

Whereas “indie as fuck” can have multiple meanings these days and for good reason (gee, whatever happened to Animal Collective?), these guys earn that badge for all the right reasons. A resplendently American don’t-give-a-damn rock album that cuddles with its spikiness. √√√¼ [available from HHBTM here]

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WE FOUND A LOVEBIRD – “Let’s Start The War” (self-released/Bandcamp)

One doesn’t know what to expect. Message pops up on Facebook from a musician friend up north, ‘Care to check our new album?’ which, no surprise, doesn’t always turn out so well but courtesy (and a ceaseless curiosity) at least dictates one give it a quick spin and, lo and bloody behold, all of a sudden your ears find themselves on a splendid and well-deserved vacation through a very nicely manicured landscape, driving smooth roads through rocky outcroppings. Weak automotive metaphors aside, Let’s Start The War is a worthy little record from the vital if sometimes quiet corner that is Vancouver BC.

Playing a kind of pop-burnished americana that nails the midpoint between Wilco and late-era Kinks, We Found A Lovebird, in other words, traffic in tunes that carry in their DNA a living breathing nostalgic immediacy. Whether it’s the warm, hand-clappy reflective pop of opener “2 Hours to Kill,” how the delicate woo-woo‘s of “Biggest of Chunks” get expertly balanced by the many complexities in the mix (are those claves I hear early on?) and a relaxed romantic existentialism of lyric to become an early highlight and just an out-and-out gem, or the way “Shiver” has one of those melody-accompanying guitar lines that eventually breaks free and helps turn the track into a gentle shredder of heartfelt pop despair, this mini-LP (six tracks) not only cancels any worries about receiving an album under these digital circumstances, it demolishes them. Only once lapsing – and barely – into an over-reliance on the ‘rock song’ template (final track “Give Up the Ghost”), the rest, not least the moody, bass-swooning beauty “Northwest on Southwest Ave,” set the personal standard for the growing sub-category “albums sent via social media” and I hereby welcome all comers. Just know the bar’s been set fairly high. √√√ [available digitally here]

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SARAH McQUAID – “Walking Into White” (Waterbug Records)

A resilient album injecting tricky polyrhythmic indie impulses deep into an already deep folk consciousness (or is it the other way around?), nimbly adapting the allegories of classic children’s stories into full-on folk-pop narratives, and unshyly inviting a lively plethora of instrumental and percussive voices int the bountiful mix, Walking Into White crosses boundaries with a deft assurance of purpose. The result is an expansive and thoughtful turn that should bring a flock of fresh new listeners to a singer that those in the folk know have been clamoring about for some time now.

Sarah McQuaid’s fourth album finds the accomplished, diverse songstress traveling from Cornwall to Cornwall (UK to NY) to work with co-producers Jeremy Backofen and Adam Pierce (the singer’s cousin, as it happens) and one can hear brushstrokes scattered throughout of the former’s Frightened Rabbit/Felice Bros rustic rock background – “Where the Wind Decides to Blow”‘s jump into a down-home indie groove just past a minute in – and the sly adventurism of the latter’s Mice Parade/Múm instincts – the oddly-tempo’ed clap stomp treatment of “Jackdaws Rising,” complicated in its simplicity and hypnotic. Though decidedly a folk record and make no mistake, the influence of the non-folk production team makes for a record that has the spirit of a quiet brinkmanship blowing through it with a great finesse of heart.

“Low Winter Sun” bell-chimes with treated acoustic guitar (in McQuaid’s favored DADGAD tuning) and a breeze of vintage synth to enhance the rueful tone the piece rides on; the samba shuffle and crisp classical picking (Don Lippel) – not to mention the insect-wing snap of a cajón – lend the beautiful “Yellowstone” an easy intimate swing, an ideal bed in which to lay its lyrics’ efforts to allay her son’s world-ending worries while the singer’s own anxieties nag in parallel; follow-up (and single) “The Silver Lining” boasts a jerky-smooth upbeat tempo and some triumphant trumpet flourishes (Gareth Flowers) that sets its cautious optimism in a bright persistent light just beyond the clouds.

Hence the central joy of this record, as beneath the panoramic moods and the startling but unobtrusive studio wizardry – Walking Into White really is wonderfully produced – lies a fluid range of rich, poignantly drawn near-literary metaphors (a fair piece of the album’s themes were inspired by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series) that underscore the truth of McQuaid’s voice as being as much one of a living doubting loving human being as one of traditional folkist reportage. It’s the crux of the folk-pop idiom and here it could not have been more astutely conceived (check “The Tide”‘s thinly-veiled, stuck-in-the-shallows cautions for more proof). Offering naturalism with a sheen of calm brilliance, Walking Into White transcends its native roots even as it plants the genre’s tendrils all that further into the loam. √√√½ [album available here]