Words by Art Jipson
Every month Off Shelf contributor and Your Tuesday Afternoon Alternative host Art Jipson brings you the best singles of the month and puts together a playlist for your enjoyment. Below you’ll find nine highlighted songs that stood above the rest, which is followed by the entire playlist. Please follow our Spotify account so you don’t miss any future playlists!
This month’s column focuses on several indie acts that demonstrate the breadth and depth of terrific music that is being made throughout the musical spectrum from indie pop to alt-country to garage rock to 90s inspired alternative music.
Damon Gough exploded due to the About a Boy soundtrack in 2002. He has released several records connected to/inspired by films (notably ’The Fattest Man in Britain’ and ‘Being Flynn’). However, Gough who records under the moniker Badly Drawn Boy can will into existence infectious songs as well as soundtracks. This catchy-as-hell track from his latest record ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ demonstrates the pop sensibilities of Gough’s songwriting. After a decade between his last album and BSS, Gough wants to design melodic, funky and danceable pop music that is not reduced to the overly slick production that is far too common in contemporary pop music. There is a real hopefulness to this song – and I would argue the entire album. In ‘Is This a Dream’, Gough does not squander the hooks; he uses them in service of some hope and reflection:
“Welcome to the tragedy, It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, I know, And now I’m seeing things, Saw something moving under your skin, You can talk to animals, Doolittle or do nothing at all, I’m a melted snowman, Tried to crack the codes, they all came back wrong, It just took too long “… “And if god is real, we got to just stop blaming him when things go wrong, And show me some love.”
Lyrics like that do not seem hopeful but in the bass driven momentum of the song, they have a feeling of responsibility and release at the same time. Propelled by choppy syncopation and heavy production the song carries the listener through some challenges. Perhaps asking if this is a dream is more of a statement about what we make of a current situation rather than being buried by it. If you enjoy this song, also check ‘Fly on the Wall’ and the almost disco ‘Tony Wilson Said’.
Keeping the review of dreams going, Woods return with a collection of songs for their eleventh record: Strange to Explain. Moreover, isn’t that the challenge of all dreams? How do I explain this odd collection of images, sounds, sensations that arose from subconscious to dream? The album and especially the second track ‘Where Do You Go When You Dream’ led by a keyboard progression that is propelled by a drum cadence that makes the song inescapable. Something embedded in our subconscious – something that we might call an ‘ear worm’ or ‘ear candy.’ This album reflects the life experiences of the band (fatherhood, work in other projects, aging, maturation and more as glimpses of life in progress. For those expecting a more classic indie guitar driven record, ‘Strange to Explain stands as the most restrained, thoughtful, and varied record in the band’s output. This song demonstrates the thoughtful songwriting and varied music arrangement and unique selections that the band is famous for making in their music. The lyrics of the song feel like a description of clips and phrases from dreams “Where did you go last night, I see old friends will I sleep, Where do you go? Where do you go when you dream?” Also, recommend ‘Can’t Get Out’ and ‘Light of Day.’
Kidbug – Good Inside from Kidbug (Joyful Noise Recordings)
The music collective that is Kidbug channel the gravely nature of ‘90s grunge in a way that feels oddly respectful for a genre that was meant to challenge rock and roll convention and expectation. To add more dislocation to their sound, vocalist Maria Tadic does not wail or scream or shout, her vocals are soft almost laconic in their delivery. This juxtaposition between gentle(r) vocal and grunge rock soundscape around her voice make the song ‘Good Inside’ even more captivating. The band which features Bob Bruno of Best Coast and Adam Harding of Dumb Numbers and Thor Harris of Swans have clear bonefides in very different musical styles than Kidbug explores on their first record. ‘Good Inside’ holds a Breeders like play with pop convention alongside a creative reimagining of grunge/alternative – perhaps today we could just call it a more guitar heavy version of indie music. The song moves back and forth between sweetness and melody and guitar intensity, here’s to hoping that there are more records in Kidbug’s future.
Jet Stream Pony – I Close My Eyes from Jet Stream Pony (712550 Records DK)
Sounding like a dreamlike melodic version of The Spinanes crossed with R.E.M., the UK’s Jetstream Pony use elements of shoegaze, pop and indie to terrific effect on this record. The exceptional track, ‘I Close My Eyes’ state the quartet’s intention to create inescapable indie pop. Beth Arzy’s wispy delivery about the failure of a relationship – “You are going to miss me when I’m gone, I close my eyes.” The song has solid drumming, ringing guitar and lovely melodic and counter melody vocals. ‘I Close My Eyes’ is a stellar example of the strengths of this record at a svelte two and a half minutes. As The Ramones reminded the ponderous rock and roll of the 70s, coming right to the point – musically and lyrically – is a strength not a weakness. This song is a principal illustration of the band’s abilities that lunges right into layered guitar atmospheres as the lyrics confront the loss of connection, anxiety and difficulties of a relationship that is going nowhere fast. We recommend the entire record but especially ‘It’s Fine’, ‘Mitte,’ and ‘I Think I’m Ready to Let You Go.’
Imagine a weaving of a musical tapestry that goes beyond the usual rules and styles. Khruangbin thread Pakistani music alongside East Asian surf-rock, American and Persian funk, mingled with Jamaican and African rhythms and dub into traditional rock and roll, disco and indie music. The sound is familiar and adventurous at the same time. Sounding like part-Tom Tom Club (especially ‘The Man with The Four Way Hips’), Blondie and soul funk of the 1970s, Khruangbin move beyond their instrumental music of their past records. However, the addition of the vocals are not on top of the music rather they are unified into the syncopation, beat and flow of the arrangements. The gestalt – the whole – works as a musical exegesis on life, time and meaningful connection to another person that is more than sheer physical attraction. The philosophy of the music is now tied into a vocal line that expresses the idea behind the enthusiastic guitar line: “That’s life, If we had more time, We could live forever, just you and I, We could be together.” Also, recommend the funky and slinky ‘So, We Won’t Forget.’
This song from an album created by Danish Psychedelia workmen The Sonic Dawn. The song sounds like a jam session where the band members are all drawing energy and inspiration from one another. The song feels new and old at the same time. The Sonic Dawn specialize in transporting the listener back into the tie-dyed past of the 1960s not with some hipper-than-thou sentiment but an authentic connection to a style that has been mistakenly assumed to reflect a short period in the past. ‘Young Love, Old Hate’ draws on time and space where lo-fi did not mean boring or tiresome. The lyrics convey the transience of existence and the necessity of growth without sounding like a lecture in philosophy. A smoky transmission from another trans-dimensional mindwarp of past mixed with present where the exploration supplied an endless guitar elevation to the thirteenth floor via the generational respect for the music of a past that is revered.
Reflection, sadness, redemption, relocation are tools of the trade – but they can be over used to the point where they become cringe worthy excuses for poetry. Ask many a songwriter who has lost the ability to express loss as more than a sucker punch to the gut what they are missing. A powerful song needs to mean something to someone — that can be powerful fodder for musical exploration. Jason Isbell has long drawn on an ability to mirror emotion (especially the feeling of uselessness that so many of us spend long nights awake trying to avoid feeling) either with the music that he makes on his own or with The 400 Unit. Few writers are able to convey rejection to the sonic textures of a song without feeling trite or bullshit. Isbell’s songwriting is widely recognized as exceptional and the praise is well earned and accurate: “This used to be a ghost town, But even the ghosts got out, And the sound of the highway died, There’s ashes in the swimming pool.” Or as the narrator says with equal amounts of dread and expectation: “And I saw you in our daughters eyes last night, When she caught me in a lie, And I need you here to make both of us believe, But you’re overseas.” The fact that these lines work so well when parallel to the music only demonstrates the power of this song. Recommend the entire record if you want a master class on songwriting.
Six plus years ago, Kathleen Edwards left music. She opened a coffee shop in her home of Ottawa that she sarcastically named Quitters. Come on before you roll your eyes that is legitimately funny and honest. As her first new song in many years, she expresses that while she was tired and disgusted by the music industry in the smooth ‘Options Open.’ Who closes the door to past pursuits and never wonder about trying their hand at the task again? The upcoming album in August, ‘Total Control’ is as clear a statement of intent as we are going to find in popular music. The mid-tempo swing in the song reminds this reviewer of Blue Rodeo. The song both symbolizes and materializes desire and hesitance of decision-making in love:
“I love you so much, everything
You do, you say, you speak, you wear, it just works for me
But I blame it on the weekly flyer
That took me down to Crappy Tire
‘Cause you were smiling when I looked up
I guess we’ll always have a parking lot
For thirty-nine years I’ve been keeping my options open
I’ve been keeping my options open
Perhaps this captures the hopeless romantic optimism in all of us that we are more than the fumbling individual we fear that we may be. Honesty like that is persuasive. I hope that ‘Total Control’ will feature some equally exciting revelations. Welcome back Kathleen.
One that got away from us… yeah we know it was not released in May but this song has to be heard!
Yuppie – A Place to Call My Own from A Place to Call My Own (self-released)
On the band’s most recent record (their first since 2017), the Dayton, Ohio group led by Zack Sliver are a forceful band from a city of undeniable musical agents (Guided By Voices, The Breeders, Brainiac not to mention the funk bands of the city’s recent past such as The Ohio Players, Zapp, Slave, Dayton, Lakeside, Faze-O to name a few). There must be something in the water is an oft-heard refrain in Dayton. Continuing to build on that musical legacy is Yuppie. This band is an absorbing blast of bass, drums, guitar and passionate vocals. Sliver sings with such passion that you want to share the feeling. “People live their lives through cell phone screens, awkward folks live in television scenes, I wonder if my life will ever come, the older I get, the more I feel alone, trying to find a place to call my own.” The guitar that starts the song has an urgency that is matched by Sliver’s energetic vocal about trying to find a place where you fit, that you can call home where you friends accept you for who you are without question. The drum cadence at the break heightens the tension in the song. Who among us does not want to find a collective that accepts us for who we believe we are without feeling as if we are wearing an awkward disguise. This song draws attention to the search for community that lies at the heart of living. Recommend the entire EP.
If you have recommendations for future editions of this column, please contact Dr. J at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember the brief before you contact us, the music either needs to be released in the particular month or is a song that should be celebrated as a “missed” catch.