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!
After several decades – almost three – The Psychedelic Furs return with a new record that is not a nostalgia-filled ride rather the record is hard hitting and dynamic. Now, 29 years after the group’s last album, the Psychedelic Furs are back with an album that sounds fresh and of the moment. ‘Made of Rain’ is not the ‘Furs of their classic album ‘Mirror Moves’. The confidence and embrace of this record feels passionate in a way that earlier records did not possess. Singer Richard Butler has stated in several interviews that this time, the band “made the record on its own terms” rather than trying to sound a particular way. The album is confident, timely and possess a driving urgency that is exciting to old and new fans alike. The world weary ability to boast a sarcastic laugh without feeling condescending, the song ‘For No One’ does not sound like a Psychedelic Furs song apart from Richard Butler’s distinctive voice and delivery and that is a gift. If you are expecting a melancholic retracing of the band’s merging of guitar and synth pop, then this is a welcome departure. While keeping the band’s characteristic unflinching view of the dark, this album and the song ‘For No One’ does not disappoint. The return of this band is not some 80s halcyon, it is a fine statement on its own. It is not a “come back” of any kind, it is a dynamic statement of intent. Also highly recommend the excellent ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ and ‘The Boy that Invented Rock and Roll’.
I have to share something that is a bit controversial: I was never a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan. While the band’s arrangements were interesting, I never fully appreciated the vocals. They always sounded too shrill. Too awkward for this reviewer’s ear. That is, with the notable exception of songs like ‘Disarm,’ ‘Today’ and ‘1979’. Something about those songs always hit a nerve. Was it the melancholy in those songs? Was it nostalgia or hopefulness? Was it vulnerability? Regardless, those songs always resonated. The Fruit Bats have taken some of those sentiments and created a lovely version of the song ‘Today.’ Perhaps you do not know The Fruit Bats. Formed in Chicago in the late 90s, they have a skill for a form of folk-indie rock that does not trade on the past. Although the band has had many personnel changes, singer/songwriter Eric Johnson continues to explore a creative merging of folk, indie, rock and related genres. The Fruit Bats channel an earnestness and authenticity that serve them well when covering The Smashing Pumpkins and where a listener expects revved up emotion, The Fruit Bats excel at using the quiet, the patient as a way to convey that impact. The approach reinvents a song like ‘Today’ and makes it even more compelling.
A song about yearning, building self-identity while it is obvious that you do not fit into the mold. This compelling indie yarn is a Ramonesian short and sweet tune that clocks in at a little more than a minute and a half. The emotion, the passion and the vibrancy that goes into the music on ‘South Somewhere Else’ charts its course using fetching indie melodies, while horns add to the impact and draw the listener into the conversation about identity. This merger of classic indie rock meets introspection with horns to compliment the guitar line to capture the marginalization we all experience in our hometowns, the places that we are from whether we wish to embrace that past or instead wish to imagine a ‘Future Version’ of ourselves that is finally at ease in our own skin. Theo Hilton grew up in Athens, Georgia known for the support of the quirky and artistic in music, visual arts and more. However, what if that is the home that you seek to escape because you never felt part of it? ‘South Somewhere Else’ captures the contradictions between the New South and the Old South. Also, recommend ‘Jungle Manifesto,’ ‘Plantation Country’ and the catchy ‘Brilliant Blue’.
Alt-country rockers, the Gary Louris led Jayhawks are keeping an intense period of productivity. Since 2015 the band has released a live record (‘Live at the Belly Up’), ‘Paging Mr. Proust’ (2016), ‘Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (2018), and now ‘Xoxo’. But something is different with Xoxo as compared to the Jayhawks past records. While Louris has often shared the space with other members of the band, notably Mark Olson in the early days of the band. ‘Xoxo’ demonstrates a growing democracy in the band. Drummer Tim O’Reagan supplies the vocal to the spunky ‘Dogtown Days.’ The Jayhawks are known for a particular kind of sound that the band is clearly trying to move away from on the album and especially a song like ‘Dogtown Days.’ This lively and brave move may cause some longtime fans to wonder what happened to the band of ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass’ and ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ but that would be a terrible oversight. This song clearly illustrates that The Jayhawks have far more depth than a simple label on their style would suggest. Also, recommend the achingly poignant ‘Ruby’, the harmony laden ‘This Forgotten Town’ and the jangling punky ‘Society Pages’ (another O’Reagan contribution).
On the three song EP, ‘Dead Billie Jean,’ the Portland-based Blitzen Trapper have constructed some incredibly catchy songs like the title track and the almost funky ‘Masonic Temple Microdose #1.’ None for dense textures and complexities that at times can almost become meandering experiments and asides. Here Blitzen Trapper have made some music that is more direct. That is not to say that there are not layers to peel and reflect on for long time fans. However, a fun energy underlies the series tone to the lyrics and themes in this EP and especially ‘Masonic Temple Microdose #1.’ Imagine wanting to dance to a chorus that states, “Let’s do the world a favor and all go instinct.” After a chuckle, you realize that you are moving to the lively arrangement about instinction. Being told something serious within a musical understanding that pulls you into the experience is a rare gift in music. Also, recommend the title track.
‘Pharaoh’s Island’ arrives courtesy of Tel Aviv musician and film composer Zoe Polanski. She deftly combines percussion, ambient, dream pop, shoegaze and post-rock elements together to deal the listener a composition that is as welcome as it is unexpected. Her training as a guitar player allow her to experiment with the expected chord arrangements and structure that listeners expect which Polansky takes in different directions. Her skill in film composition is evident as she uses sonic textures to create dramatic tension and release. This creates a feeling of being swept into something larger. Polanski’s music moves in unexpected and familiar paths often at the same time. The ethereal nature of ‘Pharaoh’s Island’ and the other songs that make up ‘Violent Flowers’ shine with a vulnerability without pose or pretense. Perhaps the essential element to this song is the dualistic nature of it. It is not simply one easily defined thing, which is a testament to Polanski’s sonic approach. Also, recommend the title track ‘Violent Flowers’ and the slow build of ‘Forest Between Worlds’.
Lydia Loveless – ‘Love is Not Enough’ (Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late)
Lydia Loveless returns with her first new music since 2017. The excellent version of ‘Sorry’ from that year is must listening. On ‘Love is Not Enough’ which sounds like a Honky Tonk R.E.M. song that Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe should have made as they combined elements of rock and roll and country. The arrangement is part country, part rock and roll with sly wink at indie. Loveless’ vocals are expressive and have the unique ability to convey heartbreak, passion and giving up all at the same time. Add to that a dimension of being both passionate and laconic in the moment of delivery; you feel a quiet desperation of yearning and loss. The song feels timely as well as a deep revelation of a bargain made that in retrospect no longer seems worth the sacrifice. And the chorus hits with powerful impact “so sick and tired of living in a rut, love is not enough, I wonder if it ever was, I should not have to bleed you dry to fill me up.” Is love real? Does it matter? Do we lose ourselves – our independence, uniqueness, personal identity when we connect with someone else? As she sings love, peace, kindness seem like they do not mean what they should mean – one has to reflect back on Billy Bragg’s sarcastic line “The revolution is just a t-shirt away” from his excellent ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.’ Loveless’ interpretation is just as significant about human connection – “These days it seems, no one even cares if you get hurt, being kind is just a phrase that you wear on a t-shirt.” This song feels heavy with the questions that we all ask ourselves in a difficult – or perhaps any – relationship.
Throwing around lines about albums being a master class in songwriting happen far too easily. Reviewers are trying – awkwardly – to say something important: this is a well-made album (or song). Well, ‘Pastime’ by Samantha Crain is a well-made song. After her 2017 record ‘You Had Me At Goodbye’, Crain had to deal with the physical consequences from car accidents that left her unable to make music and bedridden. As she recovered and learned from the pain, the experience and struggles of that process formed the well from which she drew inspiration for ‘A Small Death.’ The excellent ‘Pastime’ is one of the stellar tracks from that record. The song has an almost out of body sensation to it. The percussive drive is combined with ethereal keyboards that layer and sway around the vocals and guitars. The vocals build as the song progress. The layering of more and more vocals captures an array of emotion that not only satisfies, it elevates. As Crain sings the repeated line – “And it feels like, and it feels like, and it feels like you were always there” – the listeners are left to draw their own conclusion. Also, recommend ‘Holding on to the Edge of Night,’ ‘Reunion’ and ‘Constructive Eviction.’
One that got away from us…
Amsterdam-based Pip Blom carry an indie rock torch like few others. What started as a distinctive melodic lo-fi solo project by Pip Blom developed over time into a full band effort. After a record in 2017 and a tour with The Breeders, Pip Blom blossomed into a complete band who released their first full album ‘Boat’ in May of 2019. On ‘Daddy Issues’ we find an enchanting song that drives the lanes between indie rock and jangle pop. The drums propel the song into an infectious mix of guitar, bass and drums that feature a damn catchy chorus that weaves male and female voices perfectly. Imagine the back and forth of a Velocity Girl or GIVERS set to a beat that occupies your space. This one leads to toe tapping, head bobbling and horrors – the shoulder move or dreaded seat dancing. Also, recommend ‘Don’t Make it Difficult’, ‘Freckles’ (from the 2020 reissue) and ‘Ruby’.
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.