Welcome to our inaugural column of all things modern rock, alternative rock and today's hippest indie rock! Reviews of releases from up-and-coming acts and the foundational innovators who started it all are on tap. Take a look around. It’s like an open house, as we begin by digging into new records by Blitzen Trapper, Bully, liar, flower, Washed Out and Ryan and Pony. Just don’t touch anything.
Blitzen Trapper – Holy Smokes Future Jokes (Yep Roc Records)
A penny for your thoughts, Eric Earley? Adrift in the afterlife, seduced by the supernatural idea of the “bardo,” the leader and spirit guide for psychedelic folk-rock wanderers Blitzen Trapper is humbled by the mystery of existence on Holy Smokes Future Jokes. Lying somewhere between death and rebirth, the bardo is the transformative frontier of Tibetan lore, a surreal waiting room where strange occurrences bewilder inhabitants.
There, the youthful victims of a drunk-driving accident contemplate what might have been in the album’s dreamy opener “Baptismal,” and a famously troubled Michael Jackson character, having committed suicide, hangs out with Jim Morrison, Abraham Lincoln and The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones in the summery hammock of rich, finely spun acoustic gold “Dead Billie Jean.” Under the influence of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Earley deals in cinematic storytelling and evocative lyrics, as he explores the diseased mind of a mass shooter in the buoyant, disarmingly sunny “Hazy Morning.” Eschewing complex, epic music-making, Blitzen Trapper opts for lazier hooks, languid simplicity and light instrumentation, lounging in the easy strumming of “Requiem,” the breezy ‘60s pop rush of “Don’t Let Me Run” – complete with intoxicating horns – and the lovely finger-picking of gently rendered ballads “Sons and Unwed Mothers” and “Magical Thinking.” It’s a dead man’s party.
Liar, Flower – Geiger Counter (One Little Independent Records)
Considered one of the original “Riot Grrrls” by no less an authority than Courtney Love, the reclusive KatieJane Garside is again ready for her close-up. Once the shrieking, whispering doll in dirty, ripped dresses who angrily fronted noisy indie-rock terrorists Daisy Chainsaw in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Garside has been collaborating more recently with partner Chris Whittingham as Ruby Throat, releasing four albums and an EP under that name.
Now going by liar, flower, the duo unveil the brilliantly arty and delightfully confounding alternate reality of Geiger Counter, where the wintry folk of “Baby Teeth,” the ethereal and haunting “Blood Berries” and an eerily quiet “Hole in My Hand” consort with the carnivalesque romp “Little Brown Shoes” and the radioactive, glam-rock euphoria of “My Brain is Lit Light an Airport.” A dirty bomb going off in an electrical storm, the latter surges forward on the strength of a magnetic, repeating guitar riff, just as the trashy, distorted blues of a crackling “Mud Stars” is sucked into glittery sonic quicksand. Often coy and alluring, with outbursts of witchy, bloody screams and squeals, the sheer diversity of Garside’s uniquely textured vocal mania is dramatic and dizzying, just like the fairy tale poetry of Geiger Counter.
Ryan and Pony – Moshi, Moshi (Pravda Records)
When Soul Asylum needed a new lead guitarist in 2016, Ryan Smith answered the call, indefinitely delaying the Ryan and Pony show in the process. Freed to work on side projects, having fulfilled his duties with the mangy Twin Cities alternative-rock curs on their strong 2020 knockout Hurry Up and Wait, Smith hooked up again with Pony, aka Kathie Hixon-Smith, for the sleek, fast-paced indie rock of Moshi Moshi, their debut LP.
Stuffed with tight hooks and bristling with propulsive, cyber-punk energy, it’s still an emotionally resonant, human record that’s timely and insightful, as the dark pulse of “First Night” races, the thumping, squeaky clean “Start Making Sense” lives with modern tension and “Starry Eyes” glazes over in a rushing dream-pop reverie. Slick, infectious EDM moves “Cinematic” and “Fast As I Can” glide along and groove, as Ryan and Pony take Prince’s “I Would Die 4 You” on a guitar-oriented, rock ‘n roll joy ride. It’s even easier to fall for the sweet jangle-pop sparkler “Trouble in Mind” – song of the year candidate? – and the moonstruck, ’60s girl-group swoon of “Be Still My Baby.” Moshi Moshi doesn’t play hard to get.
Bully – SUGAREGG (Sub Pop Records)
It could be said that Bully’s Alicia Bognanno is finally coming out of her shell on the deliriously addictive, exuberantly hyperactive SUGAREGG. Or, maybe she’s now a fearless fighter entering the ring like a champ, pushing aside all self-doubt and paranoia on Bully’s chaotically anthemic third album. Just before Bully jumps headlong into the bittersweet ecstasy “Every Tradition,” Bognanno slyly asks, “Shall We?” That doesn’t sound like a woman who lacks confidence.
Managing her bipolar 2 condition more successfully these days, Bognanno boldly confronts patriarchal oppression and laughs easily at hapless relationship dysfunction in truthful lyrics full of heart and humor. That’s all fine and good, but it’s the ridiculously tight hooks, boundless energy and wild punk spirit of liberation bursting out of careening tracks like “Where to Start,” “You,” “Not Ashamed” and “Let You” that make the melodic and charming SUGAREGG such a breathtaking blowout of guitar-oriented, indie-rock crunch. Pell-mell opener “Add it On” explodes in a life-affirming riot of sugary noise that could have been started by Japandroids, while the fun, driving “Stuck in Your Head” is all bash and pop and a heavy rain of distortion slows the beautiful and moving introspection of “Prism” before it soars. Think Bettie Serveert on steroids, as every crestfallen, perfectly imperfect jagged little pill of a song on the frenzied SUGAREGG crashes through the speakers and keeps running.
Washed Out – Purple Noon (Sub Pop Records)
Washed Out’s air conditioning still works, if Purple Noon is any indication. Vaporous and immersive, the airy new album from songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Ernest Greene’s pet project is a cool, ultra-modern cave of powdery Chillwave luxury and leisure that harkens back to Washed Out’s debut EP, Life of Leisure. That record established the artistically restless Greene as one of the genre’s up-and-coming visionaries, before he started experimenting with stylish synth-pop, full-band psychedelia and hip-hop and samples, not to mention his creative adventures in audio/visual splendor and animation.
To see him assume the role of Bryan Ferry is an unexpected twist, as the young man’s fancy turns from escapism to widescreen romance on Purple Noon. “Too Late” is suave and seductive, with breathy vocals, gentle finger snaps and soft throbs setting the mood, as “Face Up” commits the sweetest taboo of slow dancing with Sade. Drinking in the breezy island grooves and languid beats of Ibiza, “Paralyzed” and “Time to Walk Away” lay around poolside, while the lush and dreamy “Hide” is pure ‘80s pop pleasure that tastes like New Order. Have a fruity cocktail. It’s Purple Noon somewhere.