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The Enigma Variations of Guilty Ghosts

In his original email to The Decibel Tolls, Brooklyn’s Guilty Ghosts (a.k.a. Tristan O’Donnell) described his music as a “cross between Mogwai and Three Six Mafia,” a combination that seems absurd at first, but actually makes sense once you realize the similarities between the two groups. Both make music that’s equal parts eerie, melodramatic, and melancholy (yes, I just called Three Six Mafia melancholy; listen to the beat to “Bin Laden Weed” and then talk to me). Admittedly, O’Donnell’s sound is far closer to Mogwai’s, but once you hear his record I think you’ll understand his Three Six namedrop.

Guilty Ghosts’ self titled debut is stunning from beginning to end. Opener “Dakota Forever” sounds blown out and dissonant, but pure chords peak out like a streetlight seen through a snowstorm. “Everyone Around Me” has a backdrop of static that’s foregrounded with a twisting, Ouroboros-like guitar line and distorted drums. “Grand Illusions” has a churning, fuzzy Fennesz-esque sound that snarls and squeals above a quietly insistent drum beat. “Neverending Well” is spare and menacing, powered by little more than heavy echo and one or two repeating tones. “This Is How We Collapse On The Moon (Arthur Russell tribute)” wonderfully captures the bubbling, free-flowing spirit of Russell’s music, tapping into the mix of wonder and sadness found in a song like “The Platform On the Ocean.” “Please Pray” actually could be a Three Six Mafia beat if the drums knocked a little more; it’s guitar line is gorgeous but tense, like the kind Edgar Froese used to play on later Tangerine Dream records. “Bergen Street” (which we’re offering for your consideration) features yet another great guitar line (shades of hypnagogic guitar god Mark McGuire) backed by a distorted skeleton of a drum machine beat.

As someone who gets sent six or seven instrumental albums every week, I’m a sucker for ones that try to wring emotion out of every note, every drone, and every ghostly sample. I’m not against subtle instrumental music, but there’s something you hear in certain songs (think Mogwai’s “Mogwai Fears Satan” or Boards of Canada’s “roygbiv”) that takes your breath away and reminds you all over again how powerful music can be without a word being sung. Listening to his album, I have a feeling Guilty Ghosts understands this feeling, and he’s on his way to making one of those songs that leave even those who claim to be bored with instrumental music breathless.

Guilty Ghosts’ self-titled debut (along with a new album Enigma Variations) can be heard over at his Bandcamp site.

For fans of:  Mogwai, Fennesz, Emeralds

MP3 :::
Guilty Ghosts – Bergen Street

Woods – At Echo Lake

The new Woods album, At Echo Lake, is an easy contender for best album of 2010. Tuneful, shaggy, and a little pysch-damaged, it’s exactly the album fans of last year’s Songs of Shame hoped for. Buoyed by the overwhelmingly positive reception of their last album, the band sounds comfortable and confident, polishing their homey, lo-fi sound just enough to make it sound like the most vital thing you’ll hear this year.

The most anthemic tracks on At Echo Lake (“Blood Dries Darker,” “Suffering Season,” and “Get Back”) are so instantly catchy and charming that it’s kind of unreal. While Songs of Shame had quite a few effortlessly great songs (“Rain On” especially), it also had “September with Pete,” an almost ten minute guitar freakout that reminded everyone of the band’s connection to the scene revolving around the late The Tower Recordings (MV and EE, Magik Markers, Wooden Wand), a scene that’s basically rooted in older rock and folk forms but full of experimentation and completely at home with dissonance and clatter. With the exception of the fiery Can-like jam “From the Horn,” At Echo Lake is a pretty straightforward record.

Production wise, the album sticks mostly to the slightly muffled sound of Songs of Shame, with only “Blood Dries Darker,” “Suffering Season,” and “Time Fading Lines” sounding like they’ve been truly produced. Weird sounds, like a fuzzed out oscillator on “Pick Up,” bird song on “Death Rattles,” and a muffled drone on “Deep,” are so subtle that you don’t notice them until the fourth or fifth listen. At Echo Lake is one of those rare records that you just want to hear over and over. To call it a classic would be premature, but it’s further proof that Woods are becoming one of America’s best indie rock bands.

At Echo Lake drops May 11 courtesy of the mighty Woodsist.

MP3 :::
File removed per request

Blank Dogs – Phrases

On his new 4-song EP Phrases, Blank Dogs (AKA Mike Sniper) has cleaned up his sound. His vocals are no longer buried under layers of distortion and his guitars and synths sound crisper and clearer. Previously, Blank Dogs songs lived and died based on their hooks; this wasn’t a huge problem because Sniper has an easy way with both dour, deceptively melodic Joy Division-sounding hooks and bouncy, B-52s sounding melodies, but it often felt like he was hiding some of his personality behind a cheap microphone, content to write lo-fi post punk songs powered by catchy three chord choruses and his baritone, Ian Curtis-in-a-Brooklyn-basement voice.

Expanding on the roughed-up synth pop sound of Under and Under‘s “Setting Fire To Your House” and “The New Things,” Phrases‘ “Heat and Depression” and “End of Summer” are sequencer driven anthems about the kind of summer where extreme heat exacerbates an emotional breakdown. “Blurred Tonight,” with its circular guitar lines and sparkling synth wash, is maybe one of the catchiest songs Blank Dogs have ever written. “Racing Backwards” is the only song on the EP that feels like a throwback to an older sound and, while it’s by no means bad, it suffers from comparison to the other three.

With this EP and ownership of a buzz label, there’s no reason Blank Dogs shouldn’t be able to ascend to the same heights of popularity as the Dum Dum Girls or Woods. While Under and Under showed a tremendous amount of potential (and a depressive and paranoid streak that’s sorely missing from most indie rock these days), Phrases is the first sign that Blank Dogs is as good, if not better, than his more popular peers and labelmates.

Phrases is available from Captured Tracks.

MP3 :::
Blank Dogs – Blurred Tonight

A Pop Ambient Safari

Listening to Chicago’s Wild Safari has reminded me why I got into weirdo psych drone music in the first place. Similar to the classic Emeralds/Sunburned Hand of Man split What if God Was on the Subway?/Smoke This Now, their new tape Cave Sequins sounds like a meditation tape for the post-apocalypse. Equal parts grimy and luminous, it bubbles with bursts of atonal guitar, cricket-chatter electronics, and gorgeous drones that peak out through the clatter like a shaft of sunlight.

Some of the best songs on Cave Sequins, like “Ghost Pitcher” and “Champagne Bubble Bath,” sound like roughed up versions of the “pop ambient” of Superpitcher or The Orb, utilizing techno tools like phasers and flangers to make chill out music for unemployed burnouts instead of cosmopolitan clubgoers. As befits a group with a name like Wild Safari, a lot of the music is imbued with a “tropical” flavor, a sensibility that seems most influenced by the sound of flea-market world music tapes.

When ten or twenty drone tapes are released each week, it’s nearly impossible to figure out which ones are the good ones, especially when the language used to describe the music often reads like bad science fiction. So let me help: Wild Safari’s Cave Sequins is one of the good ones.

Cave Sequins is available from Night People.

MP3 :::
Wild Safari – Champagne Bubble Bath

Worn Records and White Fences

White Fence, the one man project of Tim Presley (of Darker My Love fame), plays trebly psychedelic pop that sounds just as influenced by 60s bubblegum one-offs (I’m looking at you Lemon Pipers and your “Green Tambourine”) as by “serious” artists like Love and the Byrds. On his debut album for Woodsist, White Fence, Presley sounds more like a wide-eyed teenager thinking of endless metaphors for his crush’s eyes than a horny garage rocker (with a few exceptions, like “Baxter Corner” and its paranoid chorus of “Lose your number, lose your name!” and the swaggering “Destroy Everything”). Songs like “I’ll Follow You,” “Sara Snow,” and “The Gallery” (which is provided below for your consideration) sound like they’ve just been unearthed from the dusty archives of some Sunset Strip studio, remnants of a period when every band, even the “square” ones with matching suits, had to have a least one vaguely psychedelic song.

White Fence loses a little steam in its second half, but the eleven track stretch from “Mr. Adams” to “Ring Around the Square” is so effortlessly charming and inviting that it should supply you with enough goodwill to make it through the sorta half-baked experimental stuff to get the totally sweet Lennon-esque closer “Be Right Too.” Listening to White Fence, you can almost fool yourself until thinking you’re really listening to some long lost 60s band; whether that seems cool or just another example of how lame indie rock has become in 2010 is up to you, but the fact remains that White Fence is full of some pretty amazing psych pop jams.

White Fence is available on vinyl here and will be available on CD from Woodsist April 17.

For fans of:  Syd Barrett, Love, Ariel Pink

MP3 :::
White Fence – The Gallery