The Stepkids...out in the traffic lights
Best of September – Stepkids, Malkmus, WATERS
Published on October 3rd, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Here for your utmost delectation is part one of Rocksucker’s round-up of our favourite albums from September 2011…
…on which soul-infused psych-pop, equal parts sixties acid trip and seventies porn soundtrack, suddenly sounds like the natural next step in the evolution of popular music. And, for all their sophisticated retro influences, that’s just what The Stepkids are: a highly-evolved pop band.
The all-too-pervasive greyness of modern guitar music is blown away like so many Converse-clad cobwebs by this spectacular debut album, coloured as it is with autumnal reds and greens shot through with bolts of brightest yellow in the form of Tim Walsh, Jeff Gitelman and Dan Edinberg’s luscious harmonies.
Although it is somewhat misleading to think of The Stepkids as newcomers given each member’s distinguished musical careers leading up to it, but this album is so fully-formed, so brimming with sexy strangeness and so gosh darn unique that it remains a rapture-worthy achievement nonetheless.
From the grin-inducing crooning of the seventies cop show-sounding “Brain Ninja” through the swirling yet concise psychedelia of “Suburban Dream” and “Shadows On Behalf”, not to mention the stately, laid-back soul groove of “Legend In My Own Mind” (“He’s the Shakespeare of his age”, whoever our protagonist is), side one would be verging on showboating – as is the band’s remarkable live show – were it not dripping with a deep love of the game from every sonic pore.
“Santos And Ken” gets side two underway in style with a bleepy funk march worthy of any erstwhile great you’d care to mention, and its ingenious use of staccato string arrangements is even bested by the supremely dreamy, Love Kraft-era Super Furry Animals-recalling “La La”.
“Wonderfox” is a sly, nocturnal creeper at first but gradually builds into a sonic mini-odyssey to rival even The Flaming Lips, while “Cup Half Full” somehow manages to at once be one of the most traditional and one of the most peculiar songs on the album without missing a single melodic track.
These eight individual master classes in inventive pop songwriting are bookended by two brief instrumental pieces, making for an album that only just surpasses EP status in terms of length.
Whatever it is, it’s an astonishing opening mission statement from a band that in any sane universe would be receiving infinitesimally more attention than they are right now.
Rocksucker says: Downright essential.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
Following on from 2008’s underrated Real Emotional Trash, Malkmus makes the wise move of standing by his Jicks rather than reverting to the solo status that smudged some of the edges of 2005’s sporadically lovely Face the Truth. You’d be hard pressed to guess that Mirror Traffic was produced by Beck as it essentially sounds like a typical Malkmus and the Jicks outing, not that there is anything wrong with that whatsoever. If anything, the album provides a neat encapsulation of Malkmus’ post-Pavement output to date, insomuch as its primary ingredients are soul-nourishing sunshine grooves and brain-nourishing manipulation of time signatures and occasional dissonance. In short, it’s another highly accomplished and highly enjoyable album of math-pop.
“Tigers” and “Senator” each peak with choruses that draw strength from melodic conciseness – although the latter’s verse exhortation of “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blowjob” is somewhat off-putting – while “No-One Is (As I Are Be)” is perhaps as close as Malkmus has come to imitating third-album Velvet Underground.
Elsewhere on side one, “Brain Gallop” and “Asking Price” are as gorgeous and playful as much of Malkmus’ eponymous first solo album, with the lyrics to match (“Sometimes these words are such bitter friends/Come back to bite you in the rearest of ends” and “This is the story of a man gone mad/Trapped inside a Kaoss Pad/The distortion is way too clear” respectfully), while “Stick Figures In Love” showcases one of the most swoonsome of fuzzy and deceptively off-kilter riffs you’re likely to hear.
“Spazz” recalls one of Wowee Zowee‘s filler moments and, while those were part of what made that sprawling masterpiece so monumentally brilliant, it serves only to disrupt the laid-back flow in this instance. (Pavement nerd watch: the line “Someone’s giving French kiss lessons/How else will we learn to love?” recalls the “voice coach” lyric from Brighten the Corners‘ “Transport is Arranged”.)
“Long Hard Book” and “Forever 28″ are pleasantly wonky in a way few others are capable of, “All Over Gently” is a groovy swagger a la “Blue Hawaiian” and “Fall Away” is another elegant ballad to add to the others. Overall, though, side two boasts rather less memorable moments than side one, to the extent that you wonder if fifteen tracks really was a suitable choice of running order for an album that is in the main understated and cosy.
Rocksucker says: A good Malkmus record but not a great one. As the man himself once sang, “What did you expect?”
WATERS – Out In The Light
The new project of former Port O’Brien front man Van Pierszalowski , WATERS applies a layer of darkness to the light pop touch of his erstwhile band but still manages to emerge with a barrelful of singalongs-in-the-making. Opener “For The One” sounds, like some great opening tracks of yesteryear, as if it begins halfway through, with Pierszalowski’s distinct rasping of “Oh my gaaaad” sprawling dissonantly yet energisingly over the top of a big ol’ fuzzy pop blast, which alternates over the course of the album with more introspective acoustic balladry.
Not, however, before second track “O Holy Break Of Day” cements the album’s strong start with a gorgeous and disarmingly understated chorus, dropping in as it does in the wake of…well, another big ol’ fuzzy pop blast. Indeed, John Congleton’s production is utterly splendid, with massive, distorted drums underpinning the crunchy garage racket in a manner which still allows breathing space for each individual component.
Elsewhere, the title track is another arresting juxtaposition of light (which he is out in, after all) and shade, “Back To You” chugs along underneath a delightfully relentless onslaught of Pierszalowski’s Gaz Coombes-esque vocal delivery, “Abridge My Love” slams its foot down in a faintly glam-rock fashion before coming on all radio-friendly, “San Francisco” climbs melodically heavenwards and closer “Mickey Mantle” is a gorgeous lament in the shadow of a sporting legend.
If criticisms can be levelled, then there’s the only slightly bothersome insistence of pretty much every verse on simply repeating one motif four times over, although the strong choruses generally make up for this concession to formula.
Out In The Light could also be accused of being a somewhat top-heavy affair, batting straight off as it does with both singles and the title track, but overall it sounds great and hints at much more to come from an intriguing songwriting talent.
Rocksucker says: Much to like on this ‘un – and, hopefully, much more yet to come.