The Fellowship Playlist #2: Up the Down Escalator

Caleb scours Spotify to bring you ten songs you should listen to like right now. In the queue this week: old Walkmen, new shoegaze, and some Icelandic soul.    

A quick note: playlists are provided via Spotify, which likely has the most exhaustive streaming library available. Free Spotify users are still able to listen to playlists, albeit only in shuffle mode. If you’re a premium user, this list will sound better in sequence. I realize that sounds pompous, but just take my word for it.

1. “Song of the Paper Dolls,” by The Recoys

When The Walkmen split last year, they left behind a well developed musical legacy, combining the sounds of The Troggs, Dylan, Sinatra, Nilsson, and others into a surprisingly cohesive blast of kinetic indie energy. There’s probably no greater picture of the passage of time than hearing the band that made “The Rat” highlighting their last album together with a charming ode to fatherhood (“Song for Leigh”). The band’s evolution has continued in its way with some fantastic solo projects, but fans looking for that old chaotic spark would do well to give The Recoys album a spin. Tracks like “Song of the Paper Dolls,” which sets a Troggs stomp over some nice, fuzzed-out tremolo, provide a nice glimpse into what would later become a legendary indie band. Recoys members Hamilton Leithauser and Peter Matthew Bauer would go on to form The Walkmen with former members of Jonathan Fire Eater.

2. “Danger in the Club,” by Palma Violets

Nobody would accuse Palma Violets of deep originality, but that doesn’t really seem to be their goal anyway. Sure, they borrow heavily (and occasionally steal) from bands like The Clash and The Jam, but they’re trusting that if their hooks are strong enough, you’ll be willing to look past all this and just dance. The plan isn’t executed as solidly on their second album, this year’s Danger in the Club, but the title track is solid, a boozy anthem to… something, I guess. It’s fun, regardless, and the little coda at the end recalls a wobbly walk to the cab after a long night.

3. “Up the Down Escalator,” by The Chameleons

Perhaps this is only my experience, but I rarely hear The Chameleons mentioned among the celebrated post-punk bands of yore. Their albums were admittedly uneven. (And the cover art for all of them was at best a hilarious misstep and at worst an affront to the senses.) But they had some amazing songs. “Up the Down Escalator,” from their debut album Script of the Bridge, has all the hallmarks of the period – steady, tight percussion; heavy delay; occasionally indecipherable yelling. It sounds as fresh today as it did when it hit 32 (!) years ago.

4. “Stranger Still,” by Vetiver

Andy Cabic’s Vetiver has had an interesting evolution, moving from the brooding, somewhat depressing folk of 2004’s Vetiver to the sparkly, SoCo pop associated with its current output. This year’s Complete Strangers, the band’s sixth album, find the group mid-groove, each song fading in and out on the kind of bouncing rhythms that demand lowered windows and let-down hair. The album’s opener, “Stranger Still,” is a great introduction, a light bounce that keeps adding bits of complexity with each drive around the cul-de-sac.

5. “Money Rain Down,” by Big Black Delta

Jonathan Bates’ Mellowdrone was a surprisingly resilient alternative band that survived all of the 2000s by mixing some steady overdrive with a bit of Radiohead gloom and some Trent Reznor edge. Those may not be particularly inspired musical references, but Bates’ band – really a one-man effort – occasionally approached greatness. (“Fashionably Uninvited” and “Button” remain fantastic, each managing to avoid sounding too dated.) Eventually, Bates decided Mellowdrone was done, and he reemerged last year with Big Black Delta, embracing his dancier proclivities and incorporating just about every instrument he could find. The band’s eponymous debut – which just *barely* missed my Top Ten last year – references Bates’ Mellowdrone aesthetic, but it’s filtered through enough VHS hiss and Depeche synth to recall the vibe of breezy 80s movie montages. The standout, by a mile, is “Money Rain Down,” which will have you doing your best Navin Johnson by the first chorus.

6. “Color Decay,” by Júníus Meyvant

I might have to make an exception for this year’s Top Ten albums list, because Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson’s debut EP as Júníus Meyvant is easily one of the best things I’ve heard all year. Meyvant’s sound has been described as “Icelandic soul,” an appropriate description for the four pristine folk-pop songs that appear here, each giving the familiar bombast of bands like Of Monsters and Men some subtle Motown grooves. Descriptions of this combination sound preposterous, like something from a Portlandia sketch, but these songs are so confidently executed and sincerely performed that the joke is lost before the setup is completed. This is just beautiful music, and it’s difficult not be caught up as Meyvant’s gravely vocals float over the bouncing brass. “Color Decay” is probably not the best song on the EP, but it’s Meyvant’s first single and a great introduction to his sound.

7. “Happy & Free,” by Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham’s voice is difficult to describe. On first listen, his delivery might imply a lazy nonchalance, but the more you let his quiet croon into your head, the happier he sounds. He’s not bored, really. He just seems resigned to fate, whispering to you from a sort of blissful acceptance. Wareham’s history with seminal bands Galaxie 500 and Luna tells you a lot about where his solo material is headed, and there is a lot of shoegazing to be found in his Emancipated Hearts EP and his eponymous solo debut. But the production from Jim James on his album and Papercuts’ Jason Quever on his EP makes this an even quieter affair than expected. Wareham’s delivery has been compared to Lou Reed, and there’s certainly some creedence to that. But on his solo work, his breathy vocals more strongly recall Slowdive’s Neal Halstead, especially on slow-builders like “Happy & Free.”

8. “Into the Waves,” by Alcest

Alcest’s Shelter, the band’s fourth full-length, was my first taste of the French shoegazers’ music, so it came as quite a shock to discover that the band started out as a black metal side project. There’s very little on Shelter to suggest the band’s heavy past. The opening angelic chorus of “Wings” quickly gives way to “Opale,” a song that sounds so much like Ride that I had to check the liner notes to see if it was a cover. This isn’t to say that the album feels like mere impersonation. If you had any question about the band’s bona fides, Neil Halstead’s vocals on the beautiful “Away” should answer them. But the best song here is, frustratingly, the bonus track. “Into the Waves” is a blast of chaos, as the rolling toms of its opening coda quickly give way to ceaseless cymbals and haunting vocals. The movement matches the song’s title perfectly, particularly in the last few minutes, where the music slows considerably, suggesting the ocean’s quiet devouring of another victim. On second thought, maybe there is a bit of black metal still here.

9. “Heavy Day,” by Black Submarine

Of all the band’s to hold the reigns of 90s Britpop – a long list, I assure you – The Verve makes me the saddest. Oasis and Blur are, of course, the first band you think of when you hear “Britpop,” but The Verve just had so much potential, even after releasing 1997s Urban Hymns, easily one of the genre’s best albums. Years of battling egos and the ramifications of losing a copyright battle took their toll, and the band called it quits. Ten years later, they reunited to give it another go with the surprising Forth, but the spotlight brought out the same old tensions. They broke up again. Singer Richard Ashcroft returned to his solo career, and the band’s other key members, guitarist Nick McCabe and bassist Simon Jones, created something new in Black Submarine. The new band’s debut, last year’s *New Shores*, recalls early Verve, particularly A New Decade, with McCabe’s droning guitar wizardry and haunting orchestral arrangements. It feels a bit like a flashback, but there’s enough here – Davide Rossi’s strings; Amelia Tucker’s subtle, often elegiac vocals – to stand on its own.

10. “Porpoise Song,” by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

One of the best things about Spotify is how it recreates the experience of digging through forums for music suggestions in the early Napster days. I can vividly remember grabbing suggestions from strangers for deep cuts, live bootlegs, and rarities, occasionally stumbling onto something special. Spotify’s selection isn’t as exhaustive as I’d like – some bonus tracks, for example, have proven difficult to find – but a song search can sometimes yield some interesting results. I was fully prepared to end this playlist with Django Django’s cover of The Monkees’ fantastic psychedelic tangent, for example, but in searching for it, I found this cover from …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead that gives the original some manic energy and a dark edge. It isn’t the same kind of high Gerry Goffin and Carole King were chasing when they wrote the song, but it’s definitely a trip.

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