Jangle Pop: The Feelies, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Real Estate, The Bats, The Black Watch

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Jangle pop was one of my favorite sub-genres of guitar music even before I knew it was called that. As a kid I spent evenings surfing the radio waves on my shitty AM/FM bedside clock radio. I found one station that offered all kinds of weird stuff on 90.9 on the dial. It was KUNI, an NPR outlet based at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, that also had a transmitter in my hometown. By 1982/83, I started to become familiar with some of the bands amidst the alien sounds, including R.E.M. and The Smiths. Both bands would have a pretty colossal presence that decade for me, my friends and many other in my generation. Others would remain relatively lesser known cult artists, such as Felt, The Monochrome Set, Orange Juice, The Jazz Butcher, The Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera, The Church and Lloyd Cole & the Commotions. At some point in the 80s they became associated with “jangle pop,” which references the chiming sound of the Rickenbacker twelve-string first popularized by The Beatles on “What You’re Doing,” “Words Of Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket To Ride.” The Byrds, The Hollies, Simon & Garfunkle and many others picked up on that trebly, arpeggiated picking style and ran with it.

Along with the folky 60s sounds, the jangle pop I like was equally informed by The Velvet Underground (“What Goes On,” “I Can’t Stand It”), the Modern Lovers, Big Star and other power pop, Television (“See No Evil”), early Wire (“Fragile,” “Mannequin”) and The Cure (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”). Post-punk bands The Feelies and Pylon added a brittle, jittery electric energy influence.

My first year of college I bonded with another guy on my dorm floor in mourning the break-up of The Smiths. While I mostly had random songs taped from the radio, he had full records of Felt, Aztec Camera, The Go-Betweens, Lloyd Cole and others, not to mention a nice component stereo. He liked nice things in general, having chucked out the standard dorm furniture and replaced with some Swedish furniture and even a cappuccino maker. He could afford to live off campus but everyone’s required to stay in a dorm the first semester, so he made the best of it, and shared his plush, luxurious listening room with me on study breaks with a cappuccino and some witty, literate jangle pop.  No matter what paths of extreme metal and overdriven post-punk awashed in feedback I explored, I always had time for jangle pop.

It’s no surprise that, while never a big moneymaker, the style has never really faded away over time. Last year in particular seemed to be a bit of a jangle rennaissance, topped by young Australian bands Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Chook Race. Among the 30 albums last year that had elements of jangle pop were veterans Teenage Fanclub and Pete Astor (The Weather Prophets), and Day Wave, Sea Pinks, Crescendo, Beef Jerk, Dear Tracks, Swedish Polarbears, Beverly, Bentcousin, Sunflower Bean, The Goon Sax, Rebel Kind, Ultimate Painting, The Prophet Hens and EZTV. This year sees some major new releases from The Feelies, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Real Estate, The Bats, The Molochs, The Proper Ornaments, Patio Solar and The Blue Aeroplanes.

The Feelies – In Between (Bar/None)

The Feelies - In Between (Bar/None, 2017)After the post-punk perfection of Crazy Rhythms (1980), and some side-projects with The Trypes and Yung Wu, The Feelies collaborated with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on the more pastoral, folky yet still at times urgent The Good Earth (1986). After a twenty-year hiatus, the excitement over their fifth album Here Before (2011) faded for me fairly quickly. It was perfectly pleasant, but not at the same level as their previous work. That’s not the case with their sixth, In Between, which I’ve been listening to non-stop for over a month. Returning to the pastoral past of The Good Earth, it’s their best effort since that album, also with key similarities in the color palettes and photos of the album art. It starts very low key with the sound of a crackling campfire in the dead of night, probably in Glenn Mercer’s back yard, where they recorded at his home studio, and a strummed acoustic. “Turn Back Time” and “Stay The Course” continue the mellow, subtle vibe, though with some gorgeous chords and changes that have gotten under my skin. Then at the halfway point through the latter track, they pay homage to the greatest moment from The Good Earth, referencing the snaking melody of “Slipping (Into Something),” along with a touch of Television homage. They wisely eschew reprising the manic crescendo of that song, as it is over 30 years later. But the dreamy, magical vibe that was arguably missing on albums three through five is back. The energy does noticeably escalate through “Flag Days,” but generally the music is more ethereal than the band had ever attempted before. “Gone, Gone, Gone” is an exception in that it taps more into the tempos and dry, buzzing tones from the first album. All the song titles seem to ruefully ruminate on getting older and less essential — “Pass The Time,” “When To Go,” “Been Replaced.” Or has one of the songwriters been cuckolded in their marriage? Just to remind that they do still have teeth, the album ends with “In Between (Reprise),” a sprawling nine plus minute jam featuring squalling feedback. Perhaps the band don’t feel very relevant in popular culture these days, lost in between the cracks of better known older bands and exciting younger artists. In the process they’ve created some sparkling, beautiful music that outshines nearly everything so far this year. | Buy

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – The French Press EP (Sub Pop, Mar 10)

This is the band that sparked my latest jangle pop kick, with last year’s stunning Talk Tight EP. The five tracks left me craving more and I fed the fix by adding the “Write Back/Career” single, and four free 2013 tracks from their Bandcamp page for a very satisfying 42 plus minutes of literate Go-Betweens style wit, the occasional delicacy of Felt, the manic energy of Orange Juice and the driving post-punk of Radio Birdman and early Feelies. And now they tease us with another maddeningly brief EP, the title track is propulsive, moody perfection. The weighty melodicism of the bassline and stark, weedy guitar tone seems to pay tribute to New Order circa 1982. “Julie’s Place,” which has been available to stream since last year, packs less emotional whallop, but makes up for it with a supremely catchy hook. I actually am still unable to hear the remaining four songs, because despite a half dozen efforts to get a promo over two months, I’ve been dissed and dismissed. I’m used to it. Whatever, I’ll just keep listening to “The French Press” as I have been all of 2017 so far. It’ll hold me over until a full-length hopefully comes out later in the year.

Real Estate – In Mind (Domino, Mar 17)

Real Estate - In Mind (Domino, 2017)Real Estate has been a key keeper of the jangle pop flame since 2008. Less garagey and immediate than Rolling Blackouts, their polished pop crosses into shimmering dream pop territory. Their fourth album (fifth if you count Martin Courtney’s 2015 solo album, Many Moons, which sounds pretty much like Real Estate to me) incorporates some synths, but isn’t really a departure. It just may be the bands most engaging group of songs, however, with lead single “Darling” kicking off the album with a hazy sense of nostalgia for nearly forgotten fading light of a summer day. “Serve The Song” and “Stained Glass” are just as melodic and memorable. “Two Arrows” takes a more relaxed pace with the harmonies bringing to mind Teenage Fanclub. However, the last third of the album introduces a circular distorted guitar riff, abruptly ending like The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The rest of the album is just as consistent, holding up well next to venerable legends The Feelies and young Aussie standouts Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. | Pre-Order

The Bats – The Deep Set (Flying Nun)

The Bats were key architects of New Zealand label Flying Nun’s association with jangle pop since Robert Scott left The Clean and released the first Bats EP in 1984. The band’s ninth full-length The Deep Set is another strong outing. I can’t say it’s necessarily a comeback, as the band has remained quite consistent. Nothing is precisely mind-blowing, but it stands up nicely under repeated listens (I’ve probably gone through it over a dozen times). “Rock And Pillars” has a lovely folky vibe that recalls Feelies side project Yung Wu. “Walking Man” features a great guitar hook that might make a more mainstream band a lot of money. Why aren’t these bands more popular? I guess because they’re relatively bookish and subdued, the wallflowers at the party. They won’t be doing shots and swinging their dicks, but can dazzle the right people in intimate conversations.

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The Molochs – America’s Velvet Glory (Innovative Leisure) | Bandcamp
The Proper Ornaments – Foxhole (Slumberland) | Bandcamp
Patio Solar – Migración (Patio Solar) | Bandcamp
The Blue Aeroplanes – Welcome, Stranger! (Art Star) | Buy

The jangle revolution continues! Well, four more good albums at least. That’s really pretty remarkable for just the first two months of the year. The Molochs’ second album features a bit of tribute to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers along with their jangly garage pop. The Proper Ornaments features James Hoare from Ultimate Painting and Veronica Falls. Foxhole is their third album since 2013. Patio Solar are a Chilean band on their second album. The Blue Aeroplanes have been around even longer than The Bats, releasing their first album in 1984. Gerard Langley’s talk-singing and occasionally lacerating lyrics makes him sort of the Mark E. Smith of jangle pop. I participated in the Pledge Music campaign for their thirteenth album.

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John Andrew Fredrick – The King of Good Intentions (1999/2013)
John Andrew Fredrick – The King of Good Intentions II: The Continuing and Really Rather Quite Hilarious Misadventures of an Indie Rock Band Called The Weird Sisters (2015)
Roger Shepherd – In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records (2016)
Simon Goddard – Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records (2014)

I always take a break after the exhausting year-end activities. It lasted a bit longer this year because I was diving deep into the Flying Nun and Postcard catalogs, reading books on both those labels, discovering the entire catalog (14 albums and 5 EPs) of undervalued L.A. dream/jangle pop/psych band The Black Watch, and reading leader singer John Andrew Fredrick’s first two installments in his trilogy The King Of Good Intentions. They are 696 pages of a fictionalized account of Fredrick’s experiences with his band, here called The Weird Sisters and shifted to a somewhat later timeline of the mid-90s (The Black Watch released their first album in 1988). While Fredrick has a Ph.D. in literature and admires Proust, Henry James and little else, the books are not overtly literary. They’re more like a seething mass of post-teen misanthropy directed in equal parts to the indie music industry, L.A. bands, Galaxie 500/Luna, and every girl Fredrick had ever dated (with the exception of his bandmate, who he seemed to be genuinely fond of, or at least a little afraid of), in a way that’s distinctly familiar to anyone who had been involved in the indie music scene in the 90s. Many of the targets are deserving, but it can get exhausting. The second book in particular could have stood some editing, but I admit I’m hooked. I’ll read the third installment whenever it comes out. And possibly his upcoming books Your Caius Aquilla, a comic epistolary novel set in ancient Rome, and Fucking Innocent, on Wes Anderson’s early films.

black-watch-gospelFredrick had always intended to be a novelist, starting his first 500-page novel The Knucklehead Chronicles (belatedly published in 2008) as a teenager. While he was clearly a more accomplished songwriter early on, it seems his writing muse is gathering steam, to the point where Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy (2014) was meant to be his band’s swan song. However The Black Watch were better than ever, with recent albums Led Zeppelin Five (2011), The End Of When (2013) and Highs And Lows (2015) containing some of their best work. Hopefully he will continue to do both. The End Of When (CD is a good introduction because it includes an extra best of disc, which is also available on Bandcamp. The most recent albums are available via Pop Culture Press (FB), and a new one, The Gospel According To John, will be out April 21. Less jangle pop and more noise and dream pop along the lines of the noisier work of Yo La Tengo, the high quality of beautiful guitar noise and clever, literate lyrics is as consistent as ever.

flying-nun-logoFounder of Flying Nun records Roger Shepherd wrote a no-nonsense account of growing up in New Zealand, giving a pretty vivid description of how grim and depressing many of the small towns were throughout the 70s. His ray of sunshine was working at a local record store and catching some of the local bands live, inspiring him to start the label. Through a combination of decent taste, timing and luck, nearly every band on the label were good to great in various ways, covering a variety of post-punk, avant noise and jangle pop styles, starting with The Pin Group, The Clean, The Gordons and The Chills. The Dunedin Double EP in 1982 really helped things take off, featuring The Chills, The Stones, The Verlaines, and Sneaky Feelings. The latter are two of three underrated jangle pop bands with several great albums between them along with Able Tasmans.

postcard-recordsA much more whimsical, and perhaps too tongue-in-cheek for its own good at times is Simon Goddard’s account of Postcard records, that reads simultaneously as fairytale and satire. Lasting less than two years, the label’s output was succinctly collected on the compilation Postcard: The Sound of Young Scotland, featuring all the singles by Orange Juice, Josef K, The Go-Betweens and Aztec Camera. Fire Engines, Altered Images and The Bluebells were near miss signings that could have potentially fleshed out the label’s roster and extended it’s life. The label was also a big influence on Irish pop punkers The Undertones on their third album, Positive Touch. The label’s influence would expand in subsequent years, thanks partly to their jangle imprinted on the DNA of The Smiths.

  1. Orange Juice – You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever (Polydor, 1982)
  2. R.E.M. – Murmur (IRS, 1983)
  3. The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (Sire , 1987)
  4. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (Sire, 1986)
  5. Orange Juice – Rip It Up (Polydor, 1982)
  6. The Smiths – Meat Is Murder (Sire, 1985)
  7. The Feelies – The Good Earth (Coyote, 1986)
  8. R.E.M. – Reckoning (IRS, 1984)
  9. The Woodentops – Giant (Rough Trade/Columbia, 1986)
  10. The Smiths – Hatful Of Hollow (Rough Trade/Sire, 1984)
  11. R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction (IRS, 1985)
  12. Game Theory – Lolita Nation (Enigma, 1987)
  13. The Monochrome Set – Love Zombies (Virgin, 1980)
  14. R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS, 1986)
  15. The Clean – Compilation (Flying Nun/Homestead , 1982)
  16. The Dentists – Some People Are on the Pitch (They Think It’s All Over It Is Now) (Spruck/Trouble In Mind, 1985)
  17. The Feelies – Only Life (A&M , 1988)
  18. The Church – Heyday (Arista, 1986)
  19. The dB’s – Stands for deciBels (EMI , 1981)
  20. The Wedding Present – Tommy (Reception, 1987)
  21. Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain (Sire, 1983)
  22. The Go-Betweens – Before Hollywood (Beggars Banquet, 1983)
  23. The Church – The Blurred Crusade (Arista , 1982)
  24. The Blue Orchids – The Greatest Hit (Rough Trade, 1981)
  25. Sunnyboys – Sunnyboys (Mushroom/Festival, 1981)
  26. The Monochrome Set – Eligible Bachelors (Virgin/Cherry Red, 1982)
  27. The Jazz Butcher – Sex And Travel (Glass, 1985)
  28. Game Theory – Big Shot Chronicles (Enigma, 1986)
  29. The Feelies – Time For A Witness (A&M, 1991)
  30. The Woodentops – Well Well Well: The Unabridged Singles Collection (Upside, 1985)
  31. The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come (Sire, 1987)
  32. R.E.M. – Chronic Town EP (IRS , 1982)
  33. The Black Watch – The End Of When (Pop Culture Press, 2013)
  34. The Bats – Daddy’s Highway (Flying Nun, 1987)
  35. Verlaines – Juvenilia (Flying Nun/Homestead , 1987)
  36. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Talk Tight (Ivy League, 2016) | Bandcamp
  37. Felt – Forever Breathes The Lonely Word (Creation, 1986)
  38. Dumptruck – Positively Dumptruck (Big Time/Ryko, 1986)
  39. Doc Corbin Dart – Patricia (Alternative Tentacles, 1990)
  40. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque (Geffen, 1991)
  41. Zebra Hunt – City Sighs (Tenorio Cotobade, 2015) | Bandcamp
  42. Bird Nest Roys – Bird Nest Roys (Flying Nun, 1987)
  43. Felt – Ignite The Seven Cannons (Cherry Red, 1985)
  44. The Smiths – The Smiths (Sire , 1984)
  45. The Brilliant Corners – Somebody Up There Likes Me (McQueen, 1988)
  46. The Jazz Butcher – A Scandal In Bohemia (Glass, 1984)
  47. The Church – Of Skins And Hearts (Arista , 1981)
  48. Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – Rattlesnakes (Sire, 1984)
  49. Chook Race – Around The House (Trouble In Mind, 2016) | Bandcamp
  50. Green – Green (Megadisc/Lion, 1986)
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