Written by: Dave Cantrell
Gary Olson “Gary Olson” on Tapete Records (released May 29, 2020)
In the indie/rock/pop context, nothing brings the poignant, the yearning, the late night reflective (and somehow implicitly wise) like the well-placed presence of a single parping trumpet. It’s as if it’s the voice of a steady-on poet/philosopher speaking in brass. Naturally, to be most effective, it’s best when it finds itself embedded in an already ace piece of songwriting and, well, when it comes to Gary Olson, he of Ladybug Transistor fame, we’d reckon that you’d reckon that those bases are ably covered and on this self-titled ‘solo’ outing you would, of course, be correct.
That word ‘solo’ earns its enclosed single quotes due the fact that, while it’s Olson’s name on the tin, the album would not have happened were it not for the entreaties and subsequent efforts of the Oslo-based brothers Ole and Jorn Åleskjaer. Both are members of the band Loch Ness Mouse that kept bumping into Ladybug when both were on tour back in the early twenty-teens. At some point Ole mooted the idea of an Åleskjaer-Olson collab and neither party could think of a good reason not to and thus, some eight-plus years later, this subtly addictive collection of songs.
Dually created at Ole’s Tune-J studio outside Oslo and Olson’s Flatbush-located Marlborough Farm, the tracks fleshed out by an ensemble that came to include two musicians from Norwegian band Sarena-Maneesh, Joe McGinty handling keys and dishing out some damn lush string arrangements and the Pale Lights’s Suzanne Nienaber adding backing vox, the album is a sweetly eclectic master class in relaxed but broadly assured songwriting and just straight-up production chops. Traces of here-or-there, this era or that, dot the countryside here like so many fleeting signposts passing by in enough of a casual blur to give some suggestion rather than exact placement. While mostly, as would be expected, drawing from a palette of unalloyed, primarily acoustic-based indie (and never straying too perilously far from the LT plot), a generous – if judicious – flow of tones and flavors is allowed to seep on to the canvas.
“Navy Boats,” for instance, launching the album, has, in its sense of sea-salt mellow and sunshine, a passing air of Brazilian pop, the pleading “Giovanni Please,” especially in the string flourish it opens with, suggests a slice of orchestral soul, “Afternoon Into Evening” wouldn’t have felt out of place in the early years of the Creation roster, “Tourists Taking Photographs” has a twinge of that sharp Go-Betweens wistfulness to it while, speaking of which, closer “The Old Twin,” with its jangle and tunefulness so full of longing and wonder it might well trigger a quick trip back through the Wild Swans catalog.
As (admittedly subjective) markers go a prestigious bunch, to be sure, but not one Mr Olson would seem to have the least difficulty rubbing shoulders with, but in any case, to you legions of Ladybug Transistor fans out there, rejoice. The guy’s touch with a pop song is as genuine and magical as ever. [Gary Olson available in all formats here]
the black watch “Brilliant Failures” on A Turntable Friend Records (released March 27, 2020)
Yes, yes, we can hear you saying it. ‘This band again?’ Oh, no, wait, that’s us saying that, not you. See, we’re in a bit of a bind when in comes to the black watch, the incomparable LA-based 4-piece at the head of which pop provocateur John Andrew Fredrick. On the one hand, as implied by our impish opening just now, it seems at most the day before yesterday we were covering, in two-fer fashion, both the previous studio effort Magic Johnson and the rakishly-titled tbw career overview 31 Years of Obscurity, both of which were released last summer and that I finally got to in the fall or whenever it was. Once those had been safely dashed off we thought we’d be black watch-free for a fair little bit but then no, arriving about the same time as the pandemic – pure coincidence, we assure you – Brilliant Failures in all of its puckish (and, it seemed, too soon) glory. Yet, on the other hand, who are we to disparage the prolific, the ever-unvanquishable artist, especially when the fruits of that hyper-productive labor are of such consistently – damnably, even – high quality? Thus, here we are.
That said, there is here in Brill Fail something notably different, a catch, you might say. Up to now, throughout his lengthy stint as the black watch – spunky pop debut St. Valentine arrived in 1988 – Fredrick has exerted fairly tight control of the process, bringing in whatever clutch of songs to whatever iteration of the band more or less fully formed. Never imperious nor iron-handed, that long-held process amounted to control no less. This time ’round, however, the thought occurred to take the bare bones of his latest baker’s dozen and toss them into the collective lap of his current bandmates. And why not? No only have Scott Campbell, Rob Campanella, and Andy Creighton been by his musical side for enough of a while now, thus making the trust issue no issue at all, they’re also quite arguably the crackest tbw ensemble ev-uh, with a nimble array of impressive producer/session credits in their joint rèsumé. This bit of stratgegic sub-contracting, as per the results, was a plum idea, gifting us as dazzling a collection of brilliant unfailures as we’ve had from the band through its entire 3+ decade existence.
Exhibiting as always Fredrick’s undying penchant for the slice-of-literary-wry lyric and a possible unrivaled feel for melodic pop/rock history that stretches – at the very least – from the Bee Gees in their pre-disco heyday through the Beatles and the Byrds clear through to Beachwood Sparks, Brilliant Failures is a gamut of hooks exhilaratingly run. “Crying All the Time” is the Replacements plated in rough chrome, the title track imagines the classic black watch track – swooning and maudlin, epic but subtle – set down on a New Order bassline, the sumptuous romp of “Red Dwarf Star” conjures the Inspirals or their ilk given a Spectoresque boost, while the popsike in excelsis that is “One Hundred Million Times Around the Sun” belies its relatively brief length by putting us in a druggy trance (thanks primarily to the sinuous snakecharmer chime of Creighton’s guitar work). Great as all those – and more! – are, though, the track that will have you weeping with joy (or laughing with pathos, you choose) as you clutch in one hand a bottle of 80 proof whatever and in the other your just rediscovered journal from your early twenties, the dark night of the soul looming like a purring panther, is “The Personal Statement.” Elegiac (of course), the chime melancholic – think a Californian Verlaines – it’s one of those songs destined for a million forlorned mixtapes if only such things were made anymore and if only enough people heard it.
And ah yes, there it is, isn’t it, the proverbial and in fact inevitable rub. Every writer that’s ever crossed paths with this lot has been saying some version of everything you’ve just read since the first Bush administration: the work JAF does as the black watch is seldom if ever less than peak performance stuff. If you haven’t been hipped to it yet, get yourself some Brilliant Failures. If you have, we don’t know why you’ve read this far but anyway you’ll wanna be adding this new one, now. And – it goes without saying – the next one that’ll probably be out in a couple weeks*. [don’t hesitate, get it here!] * – oops, it might be too late already! Discogs lists a new title called Fromthing Somethat that’s either already out or will be soon on ATOM Records. Watch this space
liar, flower “Geiger Counter” on One Little Indian Records (released April 20th, 2020)
Surprises forever abound. For those of us with living memories long enough to recall the emergence, smack within the outburst of the cathartically-unhinged that was grunge, of a London four-piece with the provocatively manic/bucolic name Daisy Chainsaw – and for those of you for whom that name just jarred loose some image and audio, one wouldn’t need be psychic to guess said flashback consisted of the waifish, stick-figure-thin singer Katie Jane Garside presiding over a cresting noise with a Riot Grrrl roar like some orphan escapee from a post-apocalyptic Carnaby Street – it may come as something of a shock that “I Am Sundress (She of Infinite Flowers),” the opening track on Geiger Counter, the debut album from Garside’s latest project (with partner Chris Whittingham) liar, flower, could, with its reverbed quietude of a vocal set against wistfully distant strums of an autoharp, pass as a lost track from Let’s Eat Grandma’s debut I, Gemini a few years back.
For some of you, however, whatever level of surprise that comparison may have evoked was mitigated by the recollection that, post-Chainsaw (and post-QueenAdreena), Garside helmed the innovative trip hop-indebted band Ruby Throat, her first collaboration with the American-born Whittingham and from which liar, flower is considered a continuation. From that vantage, then, the contours and hazy outlines of this current project begin to come into focus and, once annotated further by the fact that the pair have been raising their daughter on a modest little sailboat the past several plus years, spending significant periods of time out at sea, the elements of Geiger Counter crystallize with an holistic, if still at times spiky, sense. Be warned, however, there’s still plenty here to make your head snap with the sudden unexpected.
Just past that idyllic introduction, for instance, comes a somewhat jarring triptych of noise and bash and experimentation, the most powerful of which, “My Brain is Lit Like an Airport,” with its lo-fi distortion and crumbled wall-of-sound production, speaks with not a little precision and honesty to not only the manic chemistry exemplified in its title but as well the devotional and spirited avant-chaos that a fair amount of this record embraces. To be clear, though, it should be said that those tracks that fall on the gentler side of the approximately 50/50 soothing/abrasive divide – the “Sundress”-redux of “Broken Light,” the gauzy eventide feel of “Hole in My Hand,” the title track’s yearning keen that seems to echo the vastness of the ocean at night – still have no want of challenge to them, be it the dystopian atmosphere here or nightmare keyboard flourishes there, as if the two of them are intent on seeking out unease in even the quietest corners.
It’s a duality that would seem to reflect back, however obliquely, to the subtly implicit tension in the name they’ve chosen for themselves. That it all mirrors itself in such a jagged, broken funhouse mirror kind-of-way is the tidy conundrum at the heart of Geiger Counter that ties up the untidy but precisely-curated schizoid nature of the album as a whole. Like their travels, Garside and Whittingham seem simultaneously adrift and exactly on course here, a neat, complicated trick few could pull off. [get your Geiger Counter here]