Personal Best – Arnos Vale – 2015

personalbest

Personal Best are a trio from Bristol UK that I was fortunately wise to because their singer sang a lot on Bedford Falls’ last album. I enjoyed their first EP quite a bit. It hinted at a Superchunk-y, ecstatically astute power-pop, but I remained at a distance for some reason. This album, though, has smitten me stupid.

Lauren Denitzio, from The Measure [SA] and Worriers, did the album art, and Personal Best seems to have channeled some of Denitzio’s ferocious melodicism into their already poppy songs. The ten songs bluster by in 24 minutes, but each one is memorable, beautiful. The relative ballad is “This Is What We Look Like,” which only sticks around for 3:44 and features some of the best dynamics on the album, lugging distorted guitars, dropping them for a jangly refrain. Almost any song could be a single, even the 38-second intro statement, “The Mission,” which prays that “All of my shame / has gotta be worth something to you.” It ends with a song called “Beauty is Terror” and it made me ask myself whether that’s what I’ve been terrified of this whole time. I don’t think it is, but it was worth asking.

Personal Best can sell the romance of “This is What We Look Like” (“I wanna kiss you in the street / where everyone can see”) and the honesty of “Beauty is Terror” in the same “pleasant,” love-centric pop. Pleasant in a non-derogatory sense–(what’s wrong with being pleased by music?)–pleasant in the way of Superchunk or newer bands like Chumped, whose joy is unrestrained on record, who summon love by making meaning out of guitars and choruses. I love this album. It gives me the same satisfaction as The Rebels Not In by The Halo Benders, A Nod is as Good as a Wink by Faces–albums so impressively solid that they come unstuck from time and just are great.

If You Meet Someone in Love (Wish them Well)

This is What We Look Like

This Time Next Year

Join me in unstuckness by downloading the album from the band or getting the vinyl from UK’s Specialist Subject.

MAZES—WOODEN AQUARIUM

mazeswoodenaquarium

I went to the Wikipedia page for Mazes, because I’m a superhero researcher, and found the only related categories listed at the bottom are the underwhelming “English indie rock groups” and “Musical groups established in 2009.” Not that I expect bands to cultivate incendiary related categories like “Bands who’ve summoned satan on stage” or “Musical groups that pre-date dinosaurs,” but those Mazes tags reminds me how little I know about them and how uninterested they seem to fill in those gaps. They have a basic presence: they’re an indie rock band, they’re forwarding the GBV DNA sequence, their music embodies a lot of cross-Atlantic reciprocal musical evolution.

I listened to last year’s Ores & Minerals on the recommendation of Tom from Bedford Falls, who knows the best bands, but this year’s Wooden Aquarium is the Mazes album I will keep spinning. It’s got the flow and clarity the earlier albums only suggested. Pavement-y on the “Range Life”/”Shady Lane” end of the spectrum, the record just breathes fresh air. It’s got the crunch and and twang of the great Byrds originals and 90s niche bands like Eugenius. The guitar hooks are great, if a little hard to distinguish from each other over the course of thirty-three minutes. But that just makes it a more cohesive set. If you like one of the songs below, you’ll love the whole album. It doesn’t stretch all that much, which is what I’m saying is best about this album–it hooked on the groove and it’s ingrained. When Mazes got spacier on Ores & Minerals, you could find yourself in weird jam you never asked for and who knew when you’d get back to the “hard, nut-like word” of the song. Wooden Aquarium is all nuts. They’re awesome in their “basicness”–which just means all I need to know about them is that they make awesome albums.

Pair with the last Water Liars album for a pretty radass day.

Astigmatism

Letters Between U&V

Universal Me

Buy Wooden Aquarium on LP, CD, & MP3 from Fatcat Records in the USA and the UK.

FAILURES' UNION – TETHERING

f-u-tethering

Failures’ Union is one of my favorite bands. They’re folks from Buffalo with good band-name punctuation and great songs that seamlessly blend classic power-pop and 90s rock. If you’ve been into the Bedford Falls, Cheap Girls, or Tin Armor albums we’ve reviewed here–you’ll be into Failures’ Union, too. Their new album Tethering is that perfect, self-contained orb of gem-colored sad guitar tones and bittersweet vocals and pursuant drums that keeps all those great pop albums suspended in time.

But you’re keenly aware of time when F/U songwriter Tony Flaminio sings about landlines going down in a blackout, or using credit cards to shop from catalogues. It’s a rare thing for a semi-active band with a 90s aesthetic to take an approach to any kind of present tense. It wasn’t a even a gimme for the 90s bands in the 90s–for every piercing lyric of David Berman’s, there’s some awesome blurred lightness from Malkmus. But currently, there’s a lot of bands making music with “nostalgic” aesthetics, there’s a lot of vacuousness to sift through to get to songs as engaging and engulfing as Failures’ Union’s. The personal and domestic streaks that run through their lyrics are specific enough to establish place and time but they’re not so aggressive as to shoot that King Kong Guitar Rock off your head where it rightly belongs for 3 minutes, roaring and making fists around nothing.

In real time, though, this album has been about five years coming and it’s so great to be able to hear it at all. The proper response isn’t analysis, but gratitude. I asked a few peers of Failures’ Union to blurb about the long-awaited new addition, and I thank them kindly for responding:

Ben from Cheap Girls:

This CD is in my player as we speak. It’s awesome.

Tom from Bedford Falls:

I can tell you that Failures’ Union are my favourite band on the planet both musically and as people and that some of the best times I have ever had have been spent in their company and watching them play. Tethering is damn near perfect. I think it’s their strongest batch of songs yet and the addition of Blake’s powerhouse drumming and Eric’s driving, yet tasteful, lead guitar to Tony’s plaintive song writing and gorgeous vocals and Jay’s muscular but musical bass playing makes an already incredible band almost unbeatable. It’s a classic. I hope it doesn’t become a lost one.

The danger of Tethering becoming a lost classic has to do with label troubles that impeded the album’s release in the back half of 2013. The band pressed the album themselves on CD and cassette to take on a fall tour, but left the digital and vinyl release to Paper + Plastick, who had released their last full-length, In What Way, in 2009 (on beautiful gate-fold packaging, btw. It’s such a great album.). When it became clear that P+P couldn’t give this album its due, the band got it in the hands of the folks at Dead Broke Rekerds, who got the digital version of the album up this month. Vinyl will follow in a couple months.

Now that it’s finally widely available, I got in touch with the band and asked them a few questions about how the album came together and what it means that it’s out–again, I thank them kindly for their responses.

9B: What surprised you most during the making of this album?

Jason Draper (bass): How long it took. Some of the songs were written as far back as ’08, but we really started putting together the record in early 2010. We did the first recording session in September of that year. We knew it would take longer than normal because Eric [Elmman, guitar]  moved to Rhode Island for two years and we recorded songs in batches, but it ended up taking us about three years to get a final version that we were happy with.

9B: There’s been a couple projects between In What Way and Tethering–what was the feeling of recording with each other while that other stuff was going on, was it harder to get organized? Am I wrong or is there also a new member who hasn’t been on a record before Tethering?

JD: We didn’t really take an extended break from recording with each other. As I said we started recording in 2010 and did batches every six months or so. Even during the hiatus from shows we were still practicing on a semi-regular basis. It is a fairly painless experience to record with each other though. We’ve been playing/recording together for so long, that we know exactly what the others are going to do, and that makes laying down the tracks run smoothly.

We all did work on other projects during that time. I did a one off called Young Skin with some friends in New Jersey (Night Birds, The Ergs, Black Wine). I also started a dark post-punk band called Orations. Tony started Returners, joined Mallwalkers, and played and sang on Lemuria’s The Distance is So Big. Eric started a band in Rhode Island called Red Delicious that he then continued in Buffalo when he moved back. He also drums in a hardcore band called Human Touch.

For the new record (actually before the Bedford Falls split) Eric moved to guitar and his brother Blake took over on drums. He also plays in a “deep cuts” cover band called the Stamplickers. Since the completion of Tethering, Blake has left the band for family and work. Our friend Josh Gruder drums for us now.

9B: Who plays sax on “Vs. The Tide”?

JD: That’s Tony. He used to play in highschool and he actually played Kenny G’s “Songbird” at his sister’s wedding. There’s apparently a tape of it somewhere that the rest of us have been trying to get our hands on.

Tony Flaminio (vocals, guitar): I started playing alto sax again after twelve years to be in my second favorite Buffalo band, Mallwalkers. I got a little excited and wanted to play it everywhere. That wedding recording was destroyed years ago, but they keep scouring thrift stores for unmarked VHS tapes.

9B: Have you noticed a change in Buffalo’s scene/attitude since the Mohawk closed? Or has it been consistent/resilient? How has that loss been felt?

JD: Buffalo has been a bit of a mess for the past year. Not only did Mohawk Place close, but so did Sugar City, The Funeral Home, and The Vault, which were all DIY spaces. There is nowhere in Buffalo that feels like home anymore. Sure there are a couple of bars that do shows, but they tend to be fairly uncomfortable to play. There are also a handful of house venues and a couple record stores, Spiral Scratch and Black Dots, but they don’t have shows on the regular. It doesn’t feel like a tight knit community anymore. It could also be that I’m getting older and very little feels new and exciting to me anymore. Hopefully somewhere new will open up soon. There are a couple things in the works, or so we hear.

9B: I’m interested in how artists spend their time–how people balance routine stuff and their creative stuff, in what ways it’s useful to merge those worlds and in what ways they can overpower each other.

JD: I know for the others it’s harder as they get older and start worrying about other things in life besides just playing music. We used to all be in situations where we were willing to quit our jobs if we couldn’t get the time off, but as you get older you get better paying jobs and you end up working with your employers to get the time off instead of just leaving at the drop of a hat.

9B: If you don’t mind me asking, what are your day jobs?

JD: I own/operate my own screen printing shop. Eric actually works at another shop in town. It’s a great job for people like us, because it’s easy to get time off and we can have fun printing our own stuff. Tony is a stationary engineer at three office buildings downtown. Josh works in collections.

9B: How do you guys position the band (and other bands you play in) in relation to the other parts of your lives? Is there even a delineation there?

JD: I don’t want to answer for the other guys, but I would still drop nearly everything in my life to tour and make music.

9B: Would you guys describe your band as either full-time or part-time? Do you find it useful to think of your own band in that way?

JD: We’re definitely a part time band. For a band at our level it’s become too expensive to tour all the time and still live comfortably at home. We’re all lived in “punk” houses with a bunch of roommates in order to keep all of our bills down so we could afford to tour all the time, but you get to a point where you’re in your mid-30’s and you say to yourself, “Why am I living with all of these people when I could be living alone with my girlfriend and our cats.” In the end you move out, and have a more comfortable life, but you have higher bills and you need to make sure you have the money to pay them. There are so many bands on the road now. More bands means more shows, which leads to lower attendance. It’s actually out of the ordinary to play a show out of town that doesn’t have another touring band on it. It all ends in bands not getting paid as much from the door, and not making as much on a tour. I know things are different for bigger/more popular bands, but that’s how it’s been for us, especially with the touring hiatus we took.

9B: Tony, you write and record under a few names (your own name, San Anton, F/U)–how does material flow from those solo projects to FU or vice-versa? What is the impulse behind keeping those monikers separate, to the extent they even are separate?

TF: I wouldn’t consider them separate. I have one tape under my own name, called Grim Repair, and a bunch of those songs ended up on the Failures’ Union album Sinker and another F/U 7″. There hasn’t been an official San Antōn release yet (just a few songs on Soundcloud) but I’ve been writing material for a while. I hope to finish it and play some solo shows at some point. I usually play all of this stuff for the rest of the band first and they decide if it would make a good F/U song. A lot of times it won’t. I also have no issue with there being several different versions of the same song available across a bands’ discography…I just remember as a kid being excited to see “alternate/acoustic/demo version” on a single or in a collection.

9B: It’s now been about 10 years since the first F/U releases–how has the band changed in those years? If you were to look back at your songwriting and guitar playing back then, where would you say the growth has been?

TF: I would say that for me personally it’s the songwriting that’s improved…or the lyrics or my voice in general. I’ve never been a good guitar player. If anything I think I’ve somehow gotten worse at guitar over the past ten years. Luckily I surround myself with professionals. As a band, since he switched to guitar, Eric has been writing more and more of the music for F/U (starting back with “The Fall Man”) and I think it really is seamless. Tethering is the first time Eric and I collaborated on lyrics and I think it helped tie things up nicely in a lot of ways.

Landlines
The Arrow
Hard To Sea

Tethering would make it near the top on my favorite albums of either 2013 and 2014.

Stream and buy Tethering digitally from Dead Broke Rekerds. Buy the CD or cassette from the band’s store. Find their previous LPs and some great split EPs with Bedford Falls and Cheap Girls over at their bandcamp. Follow Failures’ Union on Facebook to keep abreast of tour dates, music videos, and the vinyl release.

OSTROV'S BEST OF 2012

There were so many good albums this year that I couldn’t make the decision to rank them, and I know that’s not the most important decision anyway, so this year’s best-of list is in groups with no internal order. This is the art I spent my cherished/wasted time consuming this year. Hope everybody’s upcoming year is full of growth.

Albums, Best of the Best:

Albums, Rest of the Best:

EPs, 7″s, Demos:

Reissues, Lost Albums

  • Tony FlaminioThe Grim Repair – from the head of the Failures’ Union, reissue of 2003 cd-R
  • Karen Dalton – 1966 – haunting voice and banjo recorded over porches and kitchen tables at her cabin in Boulder CO
  • Michael Hurley – Back Home with Drifting Woods – unreleased 1964 sessions from the freak folker and gorgeous yodeler
  • Jawbreaker – Bivouac – the glory
Books

  • Padgett Powell – You & Me – nothing has to be as shitty as everything is; read this for energy
Reasons to Stay Alive Next Year
  • Drag the River, Lenny Lashley, Billy Bragg, Sebadoh,Tin Armor, and Failures’ Union full-lengths. Freakwater playing shows again.
Stay free,
Mike