31 Aug 2015

Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab "Coconut Summer Drop-In 432"

Reviewed by Todd Leiter-Weintraub (Hop On Pop)

Coconut Summer Drop-In 432 is Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab’s second album of 2015 (and third in less than a year), and I swear to god, this band just keeps getting better and better.

On their new plate, the spaceheads are at the beach, using the sound of the Beach Boys, circa "SMiLE", as a launching pad to explore yet another corner of the psychedelic pop spectrum.

It all begins with a rousing cheer—“Ready! Steady! Ready, steady, BEACH!!!”—that quickly morphs into an honest-to-goodness song, with the perfect melodies that we’ve come to expect from this band. A whimsical arrangement has ukeleles occupying the same space as theremins.

“Too Hot To Sleep” comes next. It’s a bouncy pop tune sung partially in Spanish, although it never really recollects anything remotely “World Music.” At the end of the song, the arrangement briefly devolves into a drum machine-propelled interlude that sounds like a lost piece of “Revolution #9.” “Everybody’s talking about biscuits,” they chant.

A segue into the pure cheese pop of “She’s Crazy” keeps the beach ball rolling with lots of space echo and toy xylophones propelling the album along until the ukuleles come back, joined by steel guitar and synthesized ocean sounds for the mostly instrumental “Sailcoats Paradise”.

“Andiamo” brings us back to something closer to a pure psychedelic indie pop sound. And, in typical Tape Lab fashion, it’s perfect.

But the Beach Boys-isms keep coming back: “High Inside (The Lost Frontier)” shamelessly rips off the sound of (and bits of melody from) “Surf’s Up.” While “Get There While You’re Going” opens with a guitar lick reminiscent of “Help Me Rhonda”, but the lyric about travelling by train and “seeing the nation’s towns pass by before our eyes” smacks of the Americana themes that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks obsessed over once the cars and surfing themes were left behind.

If the album weren’t so damn good, one could write it off as a mere exercise—an experiment in imitation. However, like XTC’s The Dukes of Stratosphear project, the songs are good enough to rise above any such concerns. It’s another winner from these extraordinary Glasgowians, who are quickly proving themselves one of the best bands working today.

CD and digital available here:

30 Aug 2015

The Active Listener Sampler 35

A little later than usual, but here's this month's sampler, which I think is a particularly strong one, although it may feature a few names that those who haven't been keeping up to date with our reviews may not know. Some future giants of the genre here I'm sure.

Thanks to Bob Tibbitts for the sleeve art, it's great to have Bob back!

Without further ado, here's what we've got for you on this month's sampler, followed by the streaming / download link. ANY donations are very gratefully accepted towards the costs of running this website and the samplers.

1. Wilding - Here We Are 01:52 2. Ozarks - One Thing 03:34 3. Triptides - Dark Side 03:26 4. ZX+ - The Desert 02:08 5. Children - Salamander 03:54 6. Dog Age - Phone Poles 04:19 7. Kingdom of the Holy Sun - 01 Set the Controls for the Center of your Mind 02:29 8. Rainsmoke - Mean Meanwhile (Remix) 03:51 9. Helicon - In A Sad Red Dusk 05:34 10. The Seventh Ring of Saturn - Burning a Hole 04:30 11. Pridjevi - Svijet na dlanu 02:50 12. Sospetto - Essouflement 03:05 13. Machine est mon Couer - Trainwreck 04:24 14. Matchess - Mortification of the Flesh 03:31 15. Katje Janisch - Cordelia's Lament 04:21

Nuggets II Revisited Track Premiere

Nuggets II Revisited cover art by Alan Davidson of the Kitchen Cynics

I've been mostly keeping quiet about the upcoming Nuggets II tribute album, but it's getting close to completion now, and will be out by the end of next month.

I've always loved the second Nuggets box set - the UK and the Commonwealth one - so set out to put together a set of quality coversof material from this box, by contemporary psychedelic artists. There's been a great response and we've go some really great versions to share, from established Active Listener favourites like the Kitchen Cyncics and the Beginners Mynd and names that you won't know but will be hearing lots more from in the future.

And it'll be a free / name your price download from Bandcamp - like the Active Listener Samplers.

To get you all in the mood, here's a premiere of one of the tracks recorded especially for us by the Beginners Mynd who absolutely nail "I Wish I Was Five".

29 Aug 2015

Éloïse Decazes and Delphine Dora "Folk Songs Cycle" / Ed Sanders "Yiddish Speaking Socialists Of The Lower East Side"

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Two curious and highly creative recordings that come beautifully packaged as 10” vinyl releases from the Brussels based label Okraina Records, both 'Folk Songs Cycle' and 'Yiddish Speaking Socialists…' are hidden treasures that intrigue and delight in equal measure. 'Folk Songs Cycle' is an interpretive re-recording of the Italian composer Luciano Berio's 1964 album 'Folk Songs', written for his wife, the American singer Cathy Berberian. 'Yiddish Speaking Socialists...' meanwhile is an intense performance poem set to music by Fug's founder Ed Sanders that was originally released on cassette in 1991 and has been in unfair obscurity ever since. Both are fascinating documents and truly evocative pieces of work brought into the world by a very special and dedicated record label.

With 'Folk Songs Cycle', both Decazes and Dora have clearly taken these simple but emotive songs to their hearts and the glacial beauty of their interpretations recalls both the relatively unadorned folk vocal groups (such as The Young Tradition) and the more complex, avant garde leanings of European modern classical music. 'Black is The Colour (Of My True Love's Hair)' is performed with simple piano accompaniment, the duo's harmonised vocals haunting and crystal clear allowing the words of this traditional ballad to speak for themselves. Likewise 'I Wonder As I Wander' (another American traditional) is a heartbreaking hymnal, the vocals both intense and emotive in their purity. Lovers of The Watersons and traditional folk will adore this as will aficionados of Americana as performed by the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy, Faun Fables and Josephine Foster. Those of a more experimental bent will also note moments of Nico styled grace, such as the Armenian ballad 'Lossin Yelav' which, framed by harmonium drones, is a mournful and sorrowful symphony of interweaving vocal harmonies. 'Rossignolet Du Bois' is a French folk song of no small beauty and power, sprinkles of shimmering piano accentuating the sense of timelessness and tradition whilst 'A La Femminisca' takes a Sicilian waltz and creates a quiet, psychedelic wonder. 'Ballo' is a strident piano lament with backwards tapes and layers of choral style vocals, quite unlike anything else you might hear and yet, as with many folk songs, both eerily familiar and strangely comforting. Both vocalists excel here and 'Folk Song Cycles' is very much an album of their voices, the accompanying instrumentation is subtle and serves to frame their words and inflections. 'Motettu De Tristura' introduces field recordings and birdsong to the spectral loveliness whilst 'Azerbaijan Love Song' is a complex and gently thrilling ending to this exceptional and unique album. Highly recommended.

'Yiddish Speaking Socialists Of The Lower East Side' is comprised of two set pieces, with Sanders sing-speaking and describing the tradition of New York militant Jewish poetry via 'an epic piece of almost 18 minutes’ length - a vocal setting of a dense and reasoned text that runs to eight typed pages, 1400 words and 8500 characters.' This is a recording of subtle power and grace, its performance poetry ably backed by the drone and melody of Sander's specially made pulse lyre, a keyboard type instrument intended to be used in the bardic tradition of accompanying tales with the sound of the stringed lyre. Like an intense, serious minded and political Ivor Cutler, Sanders carefully layers and arranges his vocals, singing and intoning in a genuinely epic performance. Whilst some might term this 'outsider art' I prefer to see this in the vein of the beat poets and of an experimental musical path that takes in the likes of Robert Wyatt and the afore mentioned Cutler. However this recording undoubtedly pursues its own distinctly focused, artistic and inventive path and should not be missed. Take a chance on this valuable release; in the age of mass produced, middle of the road and mundane music to find an album of such individual and inspired vision is extremely satisfying.

Both releases come with gorgeous sleeve art by Gwénola Carrère on vinyl with an accompanying download. Available through the streaming links here:

28 Aug 2015

Dog Age "Swanlake Gate"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

It's been 26 years since Oslo's Dog Age released their first LP, an album I love so much that I sorted out a digital reissue through the Active Listener imprint, in the hope that it would reach a new, appreciative audience. Without being directed by commercial concerns or a desire for mainstream acceptance, Dog Age have had the luxury of doing things their way, at their own pace.

Which brings us to their brand new album, "Swanlake Gate". After the grandiose, progressive flourishes of their previous effort (the impressive "On the Garish Isles"), "Swanlake Gate" is a return to more poppy territory - perhaps more so than anything they've recorded since "Reefy Seadragon" was released on Rainbow Quartz. Of course because you're reading this on the Active Listener, I'll assume that you realise pop in this context means Beatles and Beach Boys rather than say, Britney and Beyoncé. And while they're big, ambitious influences to be courting, "Swanlake Gate" sounds like a natural extension of those influences, performed by a band who love the music of this era, who just can't help it coming out this way, rather than a band that methodically attempts to replicate it.

Dukes of Stratosphear / XTC fans will spin out when they hear the chirpy psych-pop of "Opening Up The Park" and "Scathing" - you'd be hard pressed to find better Partridge / Moulding soundalikes, while the instantly appealling "Happy Fowl Stomp" is the best type of nonsense, a sort of Zappa visits Canterbury hybrid by way of the Bonzos.

"Phone Poles" shows a little more depth, utilising some of the biggest hooks here, with Beatlesque harmony vocals, and a Revolveresque arrangement propelled by a busy Macca bassline. And that "Everyone knows where they are...." outro is pure distilled Lennon.

It's not all bright and bubbly either. "Sonatine" is a much more subtle, minor key piece. Equally effective, it casts an eerie shadow aided by swells of backwards guitars, droning Indian instrumentation and an effective mellotron hook. These less insistent tracks with appear reluctant to give up their secrets right away, perfectly balancng out the immediately familar, upbeat moments, and drawing the listener into an addictive state that makes repeat plays an almost involuntary certainty.

"Swanlake Gate" is available on CD by messaging the band directly via their Facebook page.

27 Aug 2015

Evening Fires "Where I’ve Been is Places and What I’ve Seen is Things" & "Incredible Adventures"

Reviewed by Joseph Murphy

Over the last few years, Pennsylvania’s Evening Fires has been quietly releasing albums at a steady pace. This past summer, we saw a simultaneous release: their latest LP “Where I’ve Been is Places and What I’ve Seen is Things” through Sunrise Ocean Bender and the companion CD – which is strong enough to stand alone – “Incredible Adventures” by way of Deep Water Acres. I had ordered the LP a while before its release and well before the opportunity to review it came my way, partly out of some pride as a Pennsylvanian and partly because of SOB’s description, which markets Evening Fires as a collective of like-minded musicians, tuning into something both very cosmic and very rural, as “purveyors of Appalachian space rock.” Besides, considering Sunrise Ocean Bender’s track record (see Chef Menteur, E GONE, or Dead Sea Apes for more proof), the purchase was made in full confidence.

"We Cast Our Lots with the Waves" drifts through a simple melody, voiced by an accordion, while various electronic pulses and chimes find their footing. The effect is staggering, as two instrumentations, often at odds, complement each other so well. With Evening Fires, that's going to happen throughout their work, as they meld the rustic ambience with far reaching and eclectic outlooks. If you need more proof of this, see "Space Mountain," which stirs from a great depth, brimming with acid rock drop ins and wobbling electronics alongside a lush backdrop of open ambience.

“Staring Down the Gullet of the Great Beyond,” a three part excursion into improvised and swirling space rock that spans both the LP and CD, is the touchstone for newcomers to Evening Fires. Varying in length, from about 5 minutes to 11, each track documents what sounds like a moment or mood during rehearsal. The musicians simultaneously move separately and work incredibly in sync as well. Unlike many of their peers, the post-rock melded psychedelia the band caters is rarely tinged by dark ambience, even at its most exploratory; rather, Evening Fires cooks up a uniquely positive and upbeat brand of instrumentalism that celebrates their group, their "collective of musical shape-shifters, [...] tribe of mountain dwelling barn alchemists." In the end, the album's general feel is one of mutual appreciation and camaraderie through the highly kosmische musicianship; it sounds fun to play.

"Incredible Adventures" is much more than a companion disc; with four tracks that clock in at 38 minutes, you more or less understand the implicit agreement. These are extended takes, varying from electronic collage - see "Inaussprechlichen Kulten" for example - and ambient jazz to guitar heavy depth diving.

Both available through the bandcamp links below in a variety of formats.

26 Aug 2015

Rainsmoke "Mean Meanwhile"

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

Here is something equal parts curious, unusual and spellbinding. 'Mean Meanwhile', a new single from a similarly new project featuring Chris Wade (Dodson And Fogg), Roger Planer and Nigel Planer (an instantly recognisable and much loved British actor whose biography as an actor includes The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents, Dennis Potter's Blackeyes and This Is Jinsey). Featuring two mixes of the song that offer a different mood and spin on the material, this is a quiet, late summer psych gem.

With evocative lyrics written by Nigel Planer (who featured on two hilarious and surreal spoken word tracks on Dodson And Fogg's recent 'In A Strange Slumber' opus) and music by brother Roger Planer and Dodson main man Chris Wade, 'Mean Meanwhile' is a hazy, harmonised slice of acid folk tinged melancholy loveliness that recalls Ray Davies, the acoustic moments of 'Selling England By The Pound' and underrated folksters Candidate. The guitars twist and turn in gentle, fluid motion under Planer's expressive vocals, the song recognisably having a Dodson And Fogg involvement in its easy way with a truly memorable melody. The 'A side' mix is a simpler, more acoustic take whilst the 'B side' contains a fuller mix with drums, subtle backwards psych guitar and organ lending a more tripped out and 60's feel to proceedings. Both versions offer a different mood and air, the first being a more straight forward slice of classic, psychedelic folk whilst the second offers a rich, immersive, more prog fuelled Moody Blues take on the song. Each are indispensable and enjoyable in their own right and promise great things from Rainsmoke in their future musical wanderings.

A perfect soundtrack as the summer afternoons grow shorter with its wistful melancholy and gentle haze, 'Mean Meanwhile' is now available on Chris Wade's Wisdom Twins Bandcamp page for a paltry one pound. You know what to do.

24 Aug 2015

Download Pepperisms Vol. Three Custom Mix

Back in 2011, I put together "Pepperisms Vol. Two", an unofficial followup to a now-hard-to-find compilation of Beatlesque tunes from the sixties and seventies.

I've been meaning to do another one for years, and finally got around to looking into it a month or so ago. I didn't do it alone this time though. I enlisted the help of the Junipers' Peter Gough (who has his own excellent music blog here). Peter's encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm were invaluable, and he suggested and provided around half of the tracks featured here - thanks Peter!

As with the previous volume, it's sequenced to reflect a chronological journey through the eras of the Beatles music that each song is inspired by. Many of the tracks come from lossy sources due to their rarity, so don't expect everything to be crystal clear.

Are you ready for 23 of the most Beatlesque tracks from the sixties and seventies?

Download here. 

For those who still like little shiny discs, this should fit comfortably on a 74 min CD-R.

Put Your Mind at Ease - Every Mother's Son
Three Arms To Hold You - Apostrophe
Secondary Man - Rogues
Hell Will Take Care Of Her - Brass Buttons
The Sailing Ship - The Cryan Shames
What Do You Do - The Bonzo Dog Band
Whisper Who Dares - John Winfields
Just Because I've Fallen Down - The Buckinghams
To The Woods - The Barron Knights
Strawberry Jam Man - Jamme
Master Will - Velvet Glove
Yes It Is - Rockin' Horse
Rocking Circus - Space AKA The Tremeloes
If You Really Need Me - The Hudson Brothers
A Fool - Godiego
Bluebird Is Dead - Electric Light Orchestra
Save A Red Face - Stackridge
Lonely Norman - Jimmy Campbell
I Surrender - Sleepy Hollow
Paul McCartney - Tony Hazzard
Nice and Easy - Tranquility
See The Light - The Flame
Sub-Rosa Subway - Klaatu

Disclaimer - If you like what you hear, please buy the artist's work. The tracks featured here are intended to introduce the artists to a new paying audience. If you are the copyright holder for anything featured here and object to its inclusion, please get in touch and it will be removed immediately.

ZX+ "Don't Drink The Water"

Reviewed by Nathan Ford

Now this was a very pleasant surprise. Arriving in the post unsolicited, this CD found its way into my CD player with me knowing exactly nothing about it or the artist involved, apart from a vague remembrance of there being some sort of a Fruits de Mer Records connection.

"Don't Drink the Water" as it turns out, might well be one of the best albums that I've heard this year. ZX+ is the one man band project of Stephen Evans, and on the evidence of this he's something of a British equivalent to Ty Segall, only with a much wider frame of influential reference. Short and to the point, Evans' songs are inventive and immaculately arranged without sacrificing his spirit of spontaneity. And the hooks are numerous, huge, and inescapible.

Opener "The Crazies" is a glammy powerpop juggernaut with a killer chorus - equal parts Ty Segall and Big Star. It's a winnning formula, and one that a hugely enjoyable album could be built upon, but Evans has a lot more going on in his head, and the rest of "Don't Drink the Water" traverses an admirable range of terrains, which mark this as the product of a hyperactive, creative mind that doesn't want to be chained down, but knows how to put it's own distinctive stamp on its creations.

There's not a weak track among its 13, but one of the highlights will give you an idea of what you're letting yourself in for, and demonstrate Evans' versatility; "The Desert" is an absolute scorcher, and sounds like a track that an alternate universe's Supergrass have unwisely left off "In It For The Money", only this Supergrass are also lovers of quirky spaghetti westerns and shoegaze. That's a lot of impressions to be left with from a song that's only a little over two minutes long, but that's what this album is going to do to you. And you'll find yourself humming its choruses for weeks afterwards. You've been warned.

This is one hugely talented songwriter.

CD, download and full stream here:

Matchess "Somnaphoria"

Reviewed by Joseph Murphy

If you've never heard of Matchess, here's a bit of an introduction. Matchess is the solo project of Chicago musician Whitney Johnson, whom you may know from Verma or E+. If you've not heard of either, they're worth the excursion. From an outsider’s perspective, Chicago’s music scene seems to be one of the most active in America – and if not “active” then cultivated, pure, and vibrant. I can only imagine the quality bands that have not made it out of the area yet. Verma’s “Sunrunner” is still a favorite of this reviewer, so it wasn’t long before I discovered Johnson’s first release, 2013’s “Seraphastra.” Like "Seraphastra," "Somnaphoria" - released by Trouble in Mind Records earlier this summer - blends elements of classical viola arrangement, drone, and primitive electronica into a mesmerizing cocktail of strangely beautiful and otherworldly records. "Somnaphoria" is the next installation in Johnson's proposed trilogy, so, presumably, we'll get more subtle exploration and experimentation that wrangles the physicality of a bowed viola with the constant whir of an organ.

This time around, Johnson cites symbolist poetry as her influence, name checking Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, whose imagery and invention must prove difficult – for most musicians – to translate sonically, but Johnson’s instruments, tones, and aesthetics of choice have a way of alluding to the same balance those poets achieved, namely melding the harsh, cold voices of mechanical oscillations and whirs with the very human, emotive viola. Mysteriously, Johnson’s voice – arguably the most organic of her line up – hovers somewhere in between, deeply altered by any number of pedals and processors but still remaining unique and feeling. The effect is powerful. As opening track, "So Many Fetters," begins with a cascade of chimes, so we, as listeners, are ushered into a sort of dreamland.

Layered, complex drones intermingle over pulses and tones. However, with tracks like "Sinister Prophecies of Coming Catastrophes" to provide somber and moving interludes, the otherwise continual drones remain hypnotic.

“Somnaphoria” is available here (US), and here (UK/EU).