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Retro musical styles enhance swell, recent album releases

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
New albums from Hunter Complex, Weyes Blood and Brian Jonestown Massacre.
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RUSTY'S ALBUM REVIEWS: A few records that have come across the music desk here at Red Dirt Report in recent months have captured our ears and attention, particularly since the artists highlighted are mining the sounds of music from the 60's, 70's and 80's. It's not just retro, it's refreshing!

HUNTER COMPLEX: Under Sea (Death Waltz) 2019 (4/5 Rusties)

Growing up in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, it was difficult to escape the sounds of the ever-present synthesizer. Used to great effect on TV theme songs (Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice theme music comes to mind), movie soundtracks (Vangelis and “Chariots of Fire” anyone?) and endless recordings by singers and bands both known and now forgotten, all of whom appreciated electronic sounds recorded with analog synthesizers.

Me? I am a longtime fan of the New Age record label Windham Hill. I think I have everything that Vermont-based label, operated by William Ackerman, has ever released. And one of my favorite records was by Japanese synth duo Interior. Just listen to “Hot Beach” and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Or tune into an old broadcast of Hearts of Space, where ambient and electronic music were a major part of each show.

Enter Lars Meijer, the musician behind Hunter Complex, someone who clearly appreciates that particular time period, as these 10 tracks indicate.

Beginning with “Night City,” you can almost see – in your mind’s eye - Crockett and Tubbs cruising the late-night, rain-wet streets of Miami, amidst the neon lights and slightly swaying palm trees. It brings me back to Florida of 1985, when we would take trips to the beach and I would listen to the latest pop hits – many synth driven – on my newly-purchased Walkman. Hunter Complex evokes those kinds of memories, but in a manner that it not pushy or forced. You let the sounds sort of wash over you, as I did all those summers ago.

Did I already mention Greek electronic music composer Vangelis? Meijer seems to be channeling the 80’s music soundtrack master on “The Heart of High Places” a bit of audio-noir that is urgent and slightly foreboding in a Blade Runner sort of way.

"Chase Manhattan," followed by "We Fought for America" flow well into one another as Side 1 begins to come to a close, with the synth sounds and beats painting an overall mood, one of ... determination? The former having a more urbane feel, while the latter could be inspired by more bucolic locales - but in a rural environment where the Commies are trying to take over a small Colorado town, protected by democracy-loving high schoolers played by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen ...

That final track on side one, "Crows Zero," man, is soooo good. It's hard to believe Meijer and Hunter Complex did not travel to 2019 by time machine from 1984. Even the harbor sound effects - seagulls and the lapping of the waves - adds to the melancholy mood, you know, like the one in Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" music video, which I remember being connected with Ricky Schroder and an episode of Silver Spoons.

Flipping the LP over and the synth-tastic musical magic of Hunter Complex continues, unabated with those Roland synths and Casios and drum machines. "White Water" has an uptempo feel as Meijer finds a majestic groove. "A Float for a Marker" mixes Tangerine Dream and a Talk Talk instrumental bed to come up with something that is also quite contemporary and hip (look at the popularity of the Stranger Things intro as an example or the growing, retro synthwave movement right now). As with many of these compositions, there is that urgency underlying it all, it would seem. 

A real standout on this side is "Original Vision," a truly dreamy composition that is more in tune with the Windham Hill and Narada labels, as Meijer incorporates the acoustic guitar of Gabry de Waaij amidst his bittersweet synthscapes, also evidenced on the next track, "White Sunlight." 

Open Sea ebbs and flows and then comes to an end with "Account of the Moon." This one starts slowly and begins to build and build. Is it a full moon that makes me want to get on the dance floor with this one. I have to hand it to Meijer for ending the record on an upbeat note, one that puts a smile on my face and wants me to have a pool party - at night!

Oh, and if you pick up the vinyl copy of Open Sea, the vinyl itself is pretty groovy with the swirly black and blue wax spinning at 33 1/3rd.  Reminds me of a mystery; the one involving a NASA astronaut and his copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

WEYES BLOOD: Titanic Rising (Sub Pop) 2019 (5/5 Rusties)

Bringing to mind 70’s singer-songwriters like Carole King and Carly Simon, I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed with the latest (and fourth) album from Natalie Mering, who records under the name Weyes Blood (“Weyes” is pronounced “Wise”).

Beginning with the big-sounding “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” which features a Laurel Canyon/L.A. studio sound that is a weighty introduction (at least for me – this is my first visit to Mering’s world)

And it just seems to get better, track-by-track. On “Andromeda,” Mering offers up a deep yearning that is affected by three verses, three choruses and a solid bridge. All the while wondering if a certain guy can really capture her affections.

Mering’s vocal really soars on “Everyday,” as evident on the beautifully chaotic outro: “Lay down, my guy!” Sounds like things are actually getting better, right?

“Something To Believe” has a decidedly hopeful Mering sounding like Judy Collins backed up with John Denver’s studio musicians, transmitted to the future from 1973.  Quite possibly one of the best songs of 2019.

Side 1 concludes with the eerily nautical title track that has an undeniable dreamy quality with synth-like soundscapes that take the listener … elsewhere.

Side 2 begins with Vangelis-like synth sounds on “Movies,” a song where Mering compares a summer love to a “counterfeit” summer “big box office hit” in a world where “there’s no books anymore.” Nothing is quite real on this track, or is it?  Over orchestral strings and icy synths, Mering sings of starring in her own movie, which reminds me of when I was becoming an adolescent I had this fantasy that I was being filmed – in my own movie. I can relate to this one, even though I’m more of a bookworm than a moviegoer.

Mering demonstrates growth by the time we get to the second-to-last track, "Picture Me Better," with her admission that since her lover left she had grown a lot. If anything her wishes and desires are within reach.  

And while the vinyl is "black as midnight on a moonless night," to quote Twin Peaks' Agent Cooper, the album sleeve is dramatic and amazing. It's a photo of Mering in her bedroom - a typical teenage girl's bedroom from an indeterminate year (a Building The Perfect Beast-era Don Henley poster sets in the mid-80's - but who knows?) and we see a wide-eyed Mering underwater, amidst her bed, chest of drawers, flowing curtains, etc. It's a remarkable, photographic achievement as we see Mering looking at the camera in the cover shot and on the shot featured on the back cover, she has risen above the water in her room - a mighty oceanliner - rising! A perfect metaphor for an album chock full o' songs about facing up to the day-to-day drama - good and bad - and working hard at keeping your head above water. This is one of the best records of 2019, hands down!

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: The Brian Jonestown Massacre (A Recordings Ltd.) 2019

So, here we are. Fifty years after Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones – the band he founded – died under mysterious circumstances in his swimming pool at Cotchford Farm in Sussex, England – the same farm once owned by writer A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame.

And while the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood nearly burned down a few weeks ago and a Pooh voice actor faces abuse charges from his ex-wife, eyes return to the Rolling Stones – whose own Mick Jagger (who taunted Brian Jones for years before his death) – who are rescheduling what may be their final tour because of Jagger’s recent heart valve scare and subsequent operation. Yes, in 2019 we think back to 1969, which I’m sure Anton Newcombe, leader of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, has been doing for many years now.

And with the prolific Newcombe playing a variety of instruments, backed by bassist Heike Marie Radeker, drummer Sara Neidorf, and guitarist Hakon Adalsteinsson (all of whom are involved in other musical projects as well), we get nine new tracks that take us back to what I would consider a “classic” Brian Jonestown Massacre sound, with the strummy, buzzy melodies and some percussion that is mixed up front giving it a full, loud vibe.

Yes, we loved Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? in 2010, Aufheben in 2012 and Revelation in 2014, they all had their distinct sounds and approaches. But, if you were a fan of the band back in the 1990's and early 2000's - Take It From The Man! and Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request being highlights - rather than the more experimental and "European" direction Newcombe had been going in in the past decade, well, he's back to form, particularly in that BJM sounds like a band again.  

“Too Sad To Tell You” has a Sixties garage-rock groove, while “Tombes Oubliées” (which features Rike Bienert taking a lead vocal on a song that reminds me of swirling, shoegaze material on Slowdive’s ’91 epic Just For a Day as Newcombe and Adalsteinsson carry us down the psychedelic trail, a trail that takes a view at the scenic outlook that is “Cannot Be Saved,” where drummer Neidorf thunders along on those big-bam-boom drums of hers.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre may not quite be where they were years ago on songs like "All Around You" or "Ballad of Jim Jones," but he's getting there, and that's a wonderful thing.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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