By Peter Lindblad
Reuniting with The The feels so good. Pedro the Lion pulled off a January surprise with the stunning Havasu. The sound of Night Crickets casts a spell, without resorting to the goth and weird, alternative Americana of its most famous members. Spacehog’s Royston Langdon sheds his glam-rock fashion to go dark, and The Hushdrops turn grief into great power-pop.
Pedro the Lion
(Polyvinyl Record Co.)
Lake Havasu has been on David Bazan’s mind lately. Against his will, Bazan’s family relocated to the Arizona city when he was in the seventh grade, immediately casting Pedro the Lion’s sad ringmaster as a painfully shy new kid in town. The year he spent there was an eventful one.
On the autobiographical Havasu, one of the most affecting coming-of-age records in recent memory, he revisits that awkward transitional period in a string of beautifully written, emotionally resonant vignettes, singing amid drizzly acid rains and rippling pools of bittersweet, expansive slow-core that spill across Idaho’s widescreen ‘90s indie-rock wonder. The eddying blackness of “Stranger” and the yearning “Good Feeling” gradually spin in hypnotic, kaleidoscopic time warps, as memories of fumbling romantic innocence drip from “Teenage Sequencer” – its heart beating loudly and insistently – and gently sway with a wistful “Own Valentine.” Bazan is letting the past catch up to him, as he envisions a series of five records exploring places that he’s called home, accompanied by the recently revived Pedro the Lion vehicle. Havasu is second in line after 2019’s lovely Phoenix.
Taking great pains to handle his 12-year-old self with care and tenderness, Bazan would give him a hug and shower him with reassurance if he could. The open-hearted, empathetic “Old Wisdom” is lushly rendered, revealing what it’s like growing up in a religiously conservative household, and it exhales with relief in telling its truth. Feelings of adolescent dread and anxiety are palpable in the heartfelt swells and metallic, slashing electric guitar flurries that raise “Don’t Wanna Move” to the rafters. It’s a drive through the desert with all the Bazan family belongings in tow. Bazan silently begs to go back.
Throughout Havasu, a young Bazan navigates pre-teen dramas and new surroundings, encountering unfamiliar faces and experiencing unexpected joy, as he does in the ecstatic, buoyant “First Drumset.” He’s a flesh-and-blood character on Havasu, not fragile but wary, trying to find his place in a strange world. What happens next may wound him more deeply.
A Free Society
Trust the science when studying Night Crickets and the hypnotic pull of A Free Society. An experiment combining the talents of Violent Femmes’ Victor DeLorenzo and David J, from Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, with multi-instrumentalist fan Darwin Meiners, their new project is an adventure in time travel, even as it lives in pandemic darkness and uncertainty.
Clinging to mesmerizing bass lines, clearly under the influence of languid psychedelia, Night Crickets’ low-key A Free Society is a casual drifter, wading into the watery “Sloe Song,” whispering in the ear of a narcotic, menacing “Sacred Monster,” and acoustically strumming in surreal reverie like Robyn Hitchcock in “Return to the Garden of Allah.” It visits the past with the dreamy nostalgia and twilight sparkle of “Candlestick Park” and imagines a utopian future in the funky, noisy title track, with the distorted, spoken-word delivery of “The Unreliable Narrator” assuming an ominous, unsettling presence in our age of misinformation.
Drifting dynamics shift ever so slightly on A Free Society, before waking up briefly to the tight, infectious shuffle “Little Did I” and closing by crumbling into ruins with the jazzy meltdown “I Want My Night Crickets!” Somebody, please be sure to call David Lynch. He needs to hear this.
The Comeback Special
London’s Royal Albert Hall is as good a place as any for a religious experience. On June 5, 2018, the reawakening of Matt Johnson’s shadowy, thought-provoking art-pop aggregation The The – after a 16-year absence from the stage – as an absolutely riveting live entity reached a glorious crescendo at the famed venue before God and man.
The Comeback Special is definitive proof of life, full of dark sermons, sneering subversiveness and cynicism, unexpected playfulness and probing, ecstatic existential bemusement. Cobbled together in multiple audio and video formats, the most lavish packaging bolstered by a beautifully arranged, 136-page art book, a powerful concert film directed by Tim Pope and six CDs stuffed with exclusive content, it documents with velvety, sonic richness and pristine clarity one special night in a captivating revival that was worth the wait. Johnson’s gratitude is evident.
Aboard the good ship The The for this voyage were past members, like bassist James Eller, keyboardist DC Collard and drummer Earl Harvin, as well as newcomer Barrie Cadogan on guitar. While giving a dark, soulful reading of “Helpline Operator” and adding a more seductive, sinister edge to “Global Eyes,” they swagger and honk madly through “Dogs of Lust.” Smirking at theological dogma in a jumping, up-tempo “Armageddon Days” that erupts into a wild, feverish dance into the apocalypse, they also dress the suave, jazzy melodicism of “Uncertain Smile” to the nines, ripping off its tuxedo in a frenzied crescendo of lush piano flourishes.
The tension of “Infected” is ratcheted, as is that of the bounding “I’ve Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All My Life).” Slowly turning its knife, as comforting bongos roll on, “The Beat(en) Generation” guts the faithful with pointed, incisive socio-political commentary, with the smooth, stylish contours of a halting “Heartland” anesthetizing American exceptionalism into oblivion. Hope resides in a moving and powerful version of “Love is Stronger Than Death,” whereas the hooky jangle and sweet harmonica of “Slow Emotion Replay” move at a quickening pace, as The The deftly balances human vulnerability and bombastic builds with flowing R&B, modernized blues, moody post-punk provocation, and folk beauty. Welcome back, The The.
The flight manifest for Spacehog’s soaring, starry-eyed 1996 hit “In the Meantime” lists lead singer, Royston Langdon, among the crew. Unlikely to ever be grounded, the life-affirming manifesto morphs into a blinding quasar of euphoric, glam-rock guitars and swooning vocals, with its skyscraping chorus a futuristic flood of liquid silver and cosmic yearning.
Langdon’s second solo outing Chains – a less dramatic, more intimate affair – is a six-song EP that prefers to sit in the back of a smoky French cabaret, cloaked in darkness and mystery. Waltzing across the room, the undulating title track is alluring, its crawling, nocturnal melody and psychedelic organ oozing out from under a swaying curtain of backing vocals. “Creepy” is similarly cast as a sensual, slow-burning torch song, the air disturbed by the clipped sound of light finger snaps, while Langdon’s cold, haunting reading of Iggy Pop’s “Nazi Girlfriend” captivates, as his acoustically strummed cover of David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” floats on.
Originally released last fall digitally and in CD form, a vinyl edition of Chains is supposed to come out early in 2022. It testifies to Langdon’s multi-instrumental prowess, as he plays everything on Chains, except for some of the drumming. Longtime pal Bryce Goggin and Adam Sachs produced and engineered, helping to form a lovely fantasy of the hopeful, slowly rendered piano ballad “Love is a Gift.” Shaking excitedly, “Halfway Home” is an anomaly, with its infectious, shambolic stomping and clapping, but the rest of Chains is languorous and immersive. Maybe Langdon is the man who fell to earth.
This could be it for The Hushdrops. It’s hard to imagine the Chicago power-pop supergroup carrying on after being blindsided by the death of drummer Joe Camarillo, who once laid down beats for NRBQ and the Waco Brothers. The Static was left unfinished at his passing.
Essentially willed to remaining members John San Juan and Jim Shapiro, formerly of Material Issue and Veruca Salt, respectively, work on The Static was eventually completed. It’s been move-in ready for months, fully furnished with elegant, classic pop sighs and swoons, like “Elevator,” “The Sweetest Plum,” a somewhat psychedelic “One of the Guys” and a string-laden “The Moment” – all colored with melancholy, all seemingly obsessed with Burt Bacharach.
Snarled guitars come out swinging in opener “Monday” and its swaggering, slower successor “Psychic Space,” with the raucous instrumental “The Lummox” roughly throwing giant hooks and riffs against garage-rock walls of sound, and they stick. Even heavier, “The Moment” is a mix of stylistic dynamics, as squalls of full-on rock quiet down for mellow, late-night cocktails of vibes. There’s a live, spontaneous feel to The Static that creates bristly, coarse textures that provide a welcome contrast to the sophistication of its songwriting and arrangements. The Static is a gift.