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LEST WE FORGET Vol. 1 – Neutrals “Kebab Disco” / David Heatley “Life Our Own Way” / Charming Disaster “Our Lady of Radium”

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“Not another column, Stereo Embers!” Yes, we can hear you and we empathize but here’s the deal: far far too many deserving albums fall into the critical slipstream that deserved a better fate, and while it’s true that no matter what we do, how vigilant we are and how much sleep we choose not to get, the above lament is still going to be the case, with new feature Lest We Forget we can at least throw a lifeline, however modest, to a handful of efforts we feel deserve a quick look-in before we all go surging forward to our next obsession. There’s so much coming at us everyday – hell, every hour – that it’s no wonder that much deserving of our attention flies past us as we’re looking the other way. Consider this our small (no doubt quixotic) attempt to compensate for that most inevitable of modern conditions. With any luck you like what you read, what you hear, but whatever the case, please continue to support the artists whenever and however possible. That, above all, is our most important mission here at SEM.

NEUTRALS “Kebab Disco” [Emotional Response]

Some albums, and the bands or artists that make them, can be very persistent. They’ll keep coming at you until you get it, ‘it’ being the album the band the sound the whatever-it-is they’re wanting you to get and yes sometimes, we guess, that can be annoying but more often than not it turns out they had a point and we end up grateful, happy to have a crucial omission righted before it’s too late, aghast as we are at the prospect of not having heard ‘it’ before. This is why ‘reissue’ is high up there in our ‘essential words’ vocabulary and why we should all be relieved that Emotional Rescue decided to repress and re-release the not-to-be-missed, 2019-released debut LP Kebab Disco from snappish Oakland outfit Neutrals. Sprightly, slightly manic but highly adept at the craftier side of poppy post-punk mining, there’s a real deal feel to them that our head and head alike allege we ignore at our own peril. And, as usual, said heart and said head are correct.

Having drawn favorable – and not entirely inaccurate – comparisons to your Monochrome Sets and TVPs and Shop Assistants, one would be wise, we think, to add to that the buzzsaw genius of, yes, early Buzzcocks but also, cutting more directly to the heart of the stylistic matter, that whole jarring, wonderfully bracing and eternally buoyant DIY movement of the late 70s that would later result in those essential Messthetics compilations on the Hyped To Death label. So, okay, duly noted, let’s now speak to the obvious differences. One, quite naturally, is the quality and consistency of the sound quality – duh – but more than that there’s a tight to Neutrals’ brand of shambolic that brings a listenability that easily supersedes the at times spotty amateurism that could plague those brave Home Counties efforts of yore (as charming as they were, as legendary as they are). It’s a best-of-both-worlds arrangement – one not hurt by singer-guitarist Allan McNaughton having been born a Glaswegian – that makes Kebab Disco an utter delight.

From opener “I Can Do That”‘s working class poseur cheek (“it’s all been done before and I could do that“) through the lurching sharp Gang of Four-isms that underlie “Technical College” that’s perhaps track #4 for a reason (?), the quick – like most songs here – “Angst Reflex” that champs with the eager energy of the Undertones still woodshedding in a Derry garage, the polemical snark of “I Hate the Summer of Love,” to the damn near opus-like, four-and-a-half minute “Swiss” that also traces something of a Leeds-based template as it essays false ideation with a certain clinically clean national reputation while unavoidably taking an oblique swipe at their own band’s name, Kebab Disco, throughout, is that rare record that’s very smart but never too much for its own good. Intelligence in our realm is best digested with a rhythmic structural nous that depends not a jot on the lyrical content yet simultaneously supports it with an agility both nimble and steel-like, a task taken care of on the quick here by the two Philips, bassist Benson and drummer Lantz. We should all feel lucky that Neutrals and their label have given us a second chance – I sure as fuck do – and our genuine advice to you, brilliant reader, is to not blow it like we almost did. [second chances fulfilled here]

DAVID HEATLEY “Life Our Own Way” [Dream Puppy Records]

To realize its potential, to not stagnate, the music world depends on eccentrics with their decidedly eclectic ways. While always to some degree involving the synthesis of what’s come before, how that drive manifests – whether displaying the more hermetic, often genius impetus of the loner or a talent for coalescing disparate elements into a brilliant whole (or more frequently, of course, a combination thereof) – is, in the end, damn near immaterial as the details of the resulting creation fall deaf in the face of the thing itself. Such is the case when it comes to Life Our Own Way, the debut solo outing from David Heatley, released February 11th on Dream Puppy Records.

That phrase, ‘debut solo outing,’ naturally implies a past involving a band or multiple bands and while that’s not untrue in this case – Heatley’s precocious teenage band Velvet Cactus Society released two Kramer-recorded fulls for Shimmy Disc in the mid-90s and he worked with the Bischoffs in the mid-2000 teens – as a ‘creative’ he enjoys a widely known profile as a cartoonist and illustrator whose work you may have come across in such modest publications as the New York Times, the New Yorker (covers included), McSweeney’s and many others or via his books My Brain is Hanging Upside Down or AMY. When encountering such a dual virtuosity as those accomplishments, um, illustrate, it can seem, in a way, unfair, like who’s this guy think he is hogging so much aesthetic territory but to that we must employ that most useful universal rejoinder ‘Whatever.’ For results as delightful as those offered on LOOW the proper response, surely, is to cast all resentment aside and enjoy. And anyway, it’s likely he simply can’t help it since it would appear, based on the evidence here, that even in strictly musical terms Heatley qualifies as what might be termed (if we may) a mish-mash aficionado.

Recorded down Louisiana way with a host of N’Awlins luminaries including Lilli Lewis, The Lost Bayou Ramblers and Michael Serveris and produced by Mark Bingham, Life Our Own Way presents as a schematic of referential tropes recast through a singular vision – there’s little wonder the young Heatley attracted Kramer’s attention – with the result being a work that skews toward a deftly composed mosaic, one both vigorous in its own right while being respectful to the various tesserae involved.

Somewhat sprawling at fifteen tracks, we off the following, something of an editorial taster to whet your appetite. Half 1/2 Japanese half Alex Chilton and fully literate, “Blowing Off the World” opens the gate with a kind of relaxed grungey sway, “Quarantine Blues” suitably echoes the same ‘last ones alive’ life we’ve all lived through these past couple years, timeless and teemless inside the surreal absurdity of a once-bustling metropolis, the title track is a chunky but flowing, lively meditation on a more unprescribed existence (as per its title) that reminds of  The Numbers Band though your results may vary while in “If We Became Lovers” we find an easy-going matured pop gem with enough gravitas to it to have me reaching for my Cloak Ox album which amounts to high praise indeed. Then there’s the wistful buoyancy that suffuses “My Head Was in the Clouds” that, even in its non-romantic sense, damn near equals a certain Ada Wilson classic, “You Make Me Work”‘s ‘welcome to 1973′ groove reflecting that era’s boisterous studio crew vibe with an effortless élan, “I Love You (Duh)” with its – believe it! – contemporary R&B suss and the maybe inevitable, semi-sardonic, VU-indebted (if irreverently so) “Pissin’ White Light” that’s a playful Heironymous Bosch painting popped into a simmering rock and son and is as lovable and smart as that sounds and really, if all that don’t sell you, then you’re just not in the buying mood, which is a conclusion that leads to another.

I’ve been writing for Stereo Embers for over eleven years now and have never been paid a material dime yet have been remunerated beyond measure all that time in a different coin from a – wildly diverse – different realm. The volume and variety of artists and albums I’d not have been exposed to otherwise, that have dazzled and delighted and to which I now add Life Our Own Way, is more than ample recompense. It is its own own fabulous wealth, in fact, one that brings a level of generous satisfaction to the soul that money could never match. However hoary that cliché, however trite, I couldn’t give a. Why should I, I’m rich. [Life Our Own Way available in digital form here]

CHARMING DISASTER “Our Lady of Radium” [self-released]

As if to further substantiate the testimony of the previous review’s final paragraph we come, whatever level of double entendre intended or implied, to Charming Disaster. Hovering, as it turns out, in that vale of the margins where all the strangely compelling, near magical shit happens, the duo – Ellia Bisker and Jeff Morris – have been conjuring their idiosyncratic spells since the mid-2010s and yet here I am, not generally one to shy away from those shadowy spaces, only just now finding out about them. While this naturally betokens a touch of regret, and may be the same for you, let’s not get stuck there. One, there’s that trusty old heirloom of a nostrum ‘better late than never,’ two there’s Bandcamp for the retro-curious, and three, saving the best for last, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that this is the most opportune moment for their discovery. Why? We’re glad you asked.

Though the duo’s discography touts a level of output that points to a none-more-fevered work ethic – Our Lady of Radium is their fourth full-length since 2013 to which one must append a dozen-strong brood of singles and EPs (including I Am a Librarian, a track born at the dawn of the pandemic that has this writer ready for the fainting couch) – which we fervently advise you seek out at your next available lazy Sunday afternoon, it’s the circumstances attending their latest long-player that makes Our Lady a most appropriate, perhaps even tailor-made introduction to the Charming Disaster oeuvre. Why? We’re glad you asked.

As per the one-sheet that arrived with this peculiar gem, where paragraph four begins: “In early 2020, Charming Disaster were preparing to record their next studio album when…,” we hereby aver that never has there been a sentence ending that more reflexively wrote itself. The ‘band and a studio’ recipe they’d used to concoct their previous three records lying in shreds, the ever-industrious Ellia and Jeff instantly carved out a new path, settling into the former’s parents’ house that, as providence would have it, was sitting empty just outside New York City, and playing/recording every instrument, sound effect, and contributing bit of architectural ambience themselves, in the process producing a distillate that could hardly be more representative of the pair’s sense and sensibility, leaning as it already did toward the quasi-Victorian though curiously modern bespoke. That their chosen topic was the life, the accomplishments and, shall we say, outwardly radiating fall-out of Madame Marie Curie pretty much defines the concept of an artistic fait accompli. 

As stories go Ms Curie’s is among the most fascinating and inspiring in humankind’s history both within and beyond her beyond-formidable achievements in science. It’s also one that’s been well-documented, to say the least, but Our Lady of Radium, it must be said, does a remarkably deft job of condensing and contextualizing the whole of it into an oddly warm, compelling, and endearingly twisted goth folk song cycle.

From the ghostly sway and vaporous lurch of “Bad Luck Hard Rock,” the quaint percussive reverb of which underscores the band’s aforementioned ‘studio’ confines, through “Elemental,” bathed in a ukulele-anchored diaristic dream state, appropriate for a song wherein Curie, the woman the scientist the human being hopes to evaporate into her own spiritual solution (Marie and her hub Pierre, you see, were prone to seances), “Radium Girls,” sparkling and a little ominous-sounding, also apropos since, in the main, we’re talking young ladies sitting in a row, unprotected yet happy for this well-paying job, hand-painting watch faces with due care as they dipped their brushes into liquid radioactivity, through to the title track on which we exit, elegiac and gently unsparing with lyrics (excellent throughout) that somehow manage to marry the respectful with the eviscerating (“did you have an itch, did you make a wish, did you lift up the lid?/were you curious, are you just like us, did you know what you did?“), Our Lady of Radium is a devilishly crafty work.

And more than that.

By approaching the Curie legacy in a multivalent way, holding in the one hand a studied remove, in the other a lived-in immediacy, the artists do what artists do and pour the two test-tubes into a single flask. Musically, due their circumstance, the effect is that of a stranded rural traveling medicine show composing songs to the dancing of their own fireplace-cast shadows, the result a small trove of song treasures all run through with a shared current of intimacy – the pair at the mic unable to not reflect the pair of whom they sing – that in the end, one imagines, staves off the madness of isolation, converting in the process their weird wired energy into a parable of perseverance and humanity. [get your radium here]