Analog Adventures: Riffing on a Theme

I get a lot of random records, tapes, and books in the mail, because publicists forget that outlets for which I used to work aren’t around anymore, or someone finds the address hidden on my website, or… whatever. This is a way to keep them from piling up uselessly in the corner of the office.

J. Graves

In a postcard included with Marathon, the debut album from her band, J. Graves, singer and guitarist Jessa Graves writes that, “As shown on the cover, this record is my heart and everything inside me. Thank you for listening – I’m just getting started.” If this is just getting started, I can’t wait to hear what comes next. The band’s sound is blues-influenced, but stripped down and accentuated with this crazily bouncy rhythm, courtesy of Graves’ choppy guitar licks laid on top of an irrepressible groove from bassist Barret Stolte and drummer Dave Yeager.

The songs are lyrically dense — no verse chorus verse material here — and dig into this heartbreaking sense of longing that should be instantly familar to anyone who’s ever been in like or in love or had their heart broken or broken someone else’s heart. Opening track, “New Favorite,” is all about that point where you realize you’ve told someone how awesome they are, but haven’t been told the same, yourself, and you need to “keep your heart low,” which is just an achingly painful and true lyric.

I listen to this show on Saturday mornings on the Current, a radio station out of the Twin Cities. It’s called Teenage Kicks, and the tagline is that the show plays “alternative before it wasn’t,” and that’s exactly the sort of music J. Graves does. The guitar work is sparse, but effective, using those aforementioned choppy strokes, but there’s more than just this Gun Club-style punk blues thing. A couple of songs, most notably “Used To,” have that instantly recognizable ‘90s sound used on something like Belly’s “Feed the Tree,” and it’s a nice change-up when the band goes jangly for a minute.

The cover art has a chest x-ray of Jessa from a visit in 2017, and while it might make the album look a little bit like a goth record (okay, a lot a bit), it’s pretty indicative of the pure and heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll on this record. The font is a little stark, and the lyric sheet is almost too packed with words to be artistic, but it’s effective and not nearly as tiny a typeface as I’ve seen in some records. There’s also a really great full band photo on the back of the lyric sheet that I hope the band uses as a poster, because it is fantastic.

The LP came on this weird mixed-color vinyl that I’ll call orange swirl, and it sounds really amazing. It’s a little muddy, but that may be more stylistic than anything else. Graves’ vocals are crisp and clear, even if the instrumentation sounds a little washed-out in terms of clarity. It’s strong, in terms of volume, but the bass and drums muddle together. That said, there’s a download code inside the sleeve, and I’m trying to find a place to slap that sticker that came with the LP, as well.

You can snag Marathon from Bandcamp.

Aaron Semer

I had to listen to Aaron Semer’s Cape Disappointment on headphones to really get it. This is not a stereo record, kids. Trust me on this. My first listen through was on the big speakers in my office, and while I was pleased with the big, kind of psychedelic folk on display, I really didn’t see the appeal.

Then I gave it a second listen with headphones as I was trying to not disturb the cats and wife sleeping across the hall. I figured I’d see if there was anything I missed on the first listen. The answer was a lot, evidently. There’s so much subtle background work on Cape Disappointment that it just disappears when blared out into a room. The songs feature these filigrees and quiet detail that add a deeper layering to the album, and raise it above just another folk record. The droning notes on opener “A God That’s All Ours,” the piano on “Settle In,” or the pedal steel sounding guitars on “Rinsingsun, OH,” all elevate these cuts.

That said, the second side of Cape Disappointment didn’t really grab me as much as the first. Even the rollicking “I Hope My Johnny Comes Rolling Home,” with its excellent guitar solos, doesn’t really grab me. There’s something about the way it was put together that just comes across as flat and unexciting, while also seeing the vocals way too high in the mix.

The packaging is pretty superb, though: the jacket has a faux-distressed look, making the record appear as if you’re pulling something old and undiscovered off the shelf. The LP is in one of those anti-static sleeves, and the pressing’s solid, even if the music on the flip sounds underwhelming. There’s a download code and a lyrics sheet, as well, with a picture of Semer sitting in a lawn chair with a dog.

You can snag Cape Disappointment from Semer’s webstore.

Orqid

Speaking of vocals too high in the mix, Orqid’s Tenderness suffers the same fate on its first couple tracks. Out now from Disco Couture, the LP starts with this amazing late-’80s/early-’90s dance jam which would be an absolute banger if Tom Butcher’s vocals weren’t so goddamned front-and-center. There’s nothing wrong with Butcher’s delivery — he has the soulful delivery down pat, with just a hint of raps at the edges to keep things interesting — but his vocals just overwhelm the grooves. Like, goddamn, dude, I wanna get down, but maybe quiet yourself a little?

It works out a little better on the ‘70s soundtrack funk of “Our Love,” and the remaining four tracks are all instrumentals. They’re the best of the bunch, really, with “Ritual” and “Analytica” full-on Hearts of Space dreamy synth work, and “Civilizations” taking what those two tracks do and going straight into outer space. “Melting Heart” might be favorite of the bunch, working in some Vangelis territory and providing the sole instrumental workout with a sense of rhythm. It’s an intergalactic “Autobahn,” and I want to loop it for the next week.

The sleeve is fucking gorgeous, and the vinyl manages to top it. That’s no mean feat for an LP jacket which has these glorious orchid-colored pastels, all pink and purple, with the logo in silver foil on the cover, but the wax itself looks like all those same colors were melted and swirled together under the influence of some really top-notch drugs. The LP itself is just so beautiful, it almost seems to glow, even in the dim light of my office lamp as I type this. There’s silver ink on the center labels, too, tying this whole thing together perfectly. It’s a work of fucking art, and there’s even a download code. Nice work. The two Orqid stickers — one of which reproduces the cover art, right down to the silver stamping — and a Disco Couture sticker just sweeten the deal.

You can snag Tenderness on Bandcamp.

Coven

Maybe I was in the wrong mood the first time I listened to Coven’s Blood on the Snow, which recently saw its first-ever vinyl reissue, courtesy of Real Gone Music. This was the third album on Buddah Records from the cult band, whose first record — 1969’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls — featured a full-on black mass at its final track. This 1974 album, which was the band’s last release for 40 years, might not be nearly as blackest ever black as that true kvlt shit was, but it’s actually pretty solid. For whatever reason, though, when I first dropped it on the turntable, I couldn’t stand the thing and really wanted nothing to do with it.

I think I was turned off by the fact that the opening cut, “Don’t Call Me,” is a fully-formed proto-punk stomper, and it’s followed up by “This Song’s for All You Children,” which is in a style I’d like to call “hard (yacht) rock.” The sound here is Fleetwood Mac, but if they’d kept a lot more of the early Peter Green sound, rather than opting for songs about cocaine and fucking each other.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Rumors is fucking great, so I just needed to get over the fact that I was expecting another “Black Sabbath” and got something more akin to Coven’s biggest hit, a version of “One Tin Soldier” recorded for the movie, Billy Jack. Even though “I Need A Hundred Of You” might as well have been performed by Paper Lace and “Hide Your Daughters” is puerile garbage even AC/DC wouldn’t have touched, “Blue, Blue Ships,” “Easy Evil,” and the title track go a long way toward filling the need for stellar hard-edged blues rock.

The LP comes on white and red ‘Blood on the Snow’ vinyl in a limited edition of 1200 copies, housed inside a gatefold jacket with an inner sleeve featuring lyrics. It looks great — no terrible reproduction cover art with fuzzy edges here — and sounds excellent. Lead singer Jinx Dawson’s vocals come through bright and clear, and there’s just enough grit in the mix to make those Christopher Neilsen riffs sound really evil when they want to.

You can snag Blood on the Snow from Real Gone Music.

Sneeze

Speaking of riffs, Sneeze’s third LP, fin., is absolutely loaded with them. On this split release from Tor Johnson Records and Midnight Werewolf Records, the Boston three-piece works out some really rocking tunes, but they’re not beholden to one specific sound. The first track, “Grey Neon,” is a total Nirvana workout, loaded with snotty delivery and noise-punk instrumentation. It’s followed immediately by “Not In Service,” which sounds like Something to Write Home About-era Get Up Kids.

Another bit of punk noise comes at the start of side B. The appropriately-titled “Bastard” is very Jesus Lizard, and goddamn, it grinds. Lightning-quick tonal switches make it one of fin.’s highlights, and drumming on this track is just monster. Though fin. nods back to the heyday of bands like Unsane, Helmet, and the like, Sneeze is obviously genre-blending in a way which marks them as of the current crop of bands — to say nothing of the solid production work, which keeps things from turning into a muddy mess a la many of those early-’90s AmRep recordings.

The release comes in a standard Tor Johnson jacket. The artwork’s really dark, and the font work on the back cover looks like it could easily be a Sacred Bones release — an aesthetic I can fully get behind. There’s a lyric sheet and download code, as well. Standard black vinyl, but there’s a limited clear edition, if you’re so inclined. It sounds really full and robust, so you can crank this fucker as loud as you want, too.

You can snag fin. on Bandcamp.

Nick Spacek
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