Looking at the latest from Built to Spill, The Beths and Nikki Lane
The kind of folks who insist that there’s not much good music anymore aren’t paying attention, not that they get much help.
Given the combination of infinitely more ways to come across music with the constriction of other avenues (ever-tightening radio playlists, for one), it’s easier for it to get lost.
But it’s out there to be found, as September showed.
There’s Sudan Archives’ sprawlingly ambitious Natural Brown Prom Queen. There’s also the intriguing style shift (or will it be a detour?) of The Mars Volta’s self-titled, their first in 10 years. Rina Sawayama delivered the utterly personal, couched in big pop Hold the Girl.
But for September in Review, we’re looking at Built to Spill’s first indie album in over 25 years, the ebullient indie power pop of The Beths and the well-crafted rootsiness of Nikki Lane (with the help of collaborators you might not expect).
It seems surprising to say this, but Built to Spill is an indie band again.
It’s only surprising in the sense that the band has always felt like one. They did so lasting 22 years on Warner Brothers, well beyond the point a lot of acts gobbled up in the majors’ alternative signing frenzy in the ’90s.
But now, Doug Martsch is back with the first album of new material in seven years.
Artist: Built to Spill
Album: When The Wind Forgets Your Name
Label: Sub Pop Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
“New” is a relative term here. A good chunk of When the Wind Forgets Your Name dates back to the writing for 2015’s Untethered Moon, some even going back to 2009’s There Is No Enemy.
Waiting seven years wasn’t the plan. But there were touring commitments, followed by a point where Martsch had no backing band. Through serendipitous circumstances, he was joined by drummer Lê Almeida and bassist João Casaes of Brazilian band Oruã for some 2018 shows there.
The three hit if off well enough that they became the lineup for Martsch’s next album.
It took a while, for various reasons, for the album to be finished. And even though Almeida and Casaes are back concentrating on Oruã full-time, it was a beneficial team-up. When the Wind Forgets Your Name isn’t a radical departure from what anyone’s come to expect from Martsch. The big guitars haven’t gone away completely. They just benefit from the fresh ears of the Brazilian bandmates.
“Elements” is one example of the tweaks. The tale of finding optimism even when you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be optimistic about. It’s flavored with keyboards, then, at the moment it builds up to what you expect to be an emotional extended guitar solo, you get a stately organ solo (assembled note-by-note as Martsch is not a keyboard player by trade). And the whole thing ends with the sound of ocean waves crashing.
The optimism disappears on the dextrous “Comes a Day” where “You’ll never know cause you’ll never know what’s real/ We’re all paralyzed with life/And when you realize you can realize what’s real/Isn’t there something we can bide besides our time?” An extended outro follows, complete with squalls, phasing, sounds that muffle and unmuffle before distorted spoken dialogue, effects (forward and backward) bring the album to a close.
The guitars are the hook on opener “Gonna Lose”, a precise ripper that shows that there’s a reason no shortage of indie rock acts have a Built to Spill influence. It’s the kind of song that the influenced might stretch out for twice as long. Heck, Martsch might have done it on another album. But here, he’s content to pack it all into three-and-a-half minutes.
When the Wind Forgets Your Name is full of vulnerability and doubt, but keeps from straddling over into ennui. Martsch and his collaborators sound energized by each other. “Spiderweb” opens with distorted jangle with Martsch’s reverbed vocals sounding like he’s beaming in from somewhere else much farther away than Boise. Almeida and Casaes nimbly keep the song propulsive.
There’s a certain playing with expectations at play here. “Never Alright” is downbeat lyrically, but it rocks like a ’90s flashback that one could picture J. Mascis having fun with. But then his idea of fun might not include curveballs like the appearances of the space rock keyboards or a glockenspiel.
It’s followed immediately by the apparent lyrical rebuttal of “Alright”, which starts off slowed down, as if the band wants to do the song, but they don’t want to get too into it because a pizza delivery’s coming. That quickly changes. The song gradually picks up tempo. Various keyboards are among the details that flesh it out and even if it’s not fist-pumping, Martsch sings, “Life goes on and on year after year/Don’t recommend it, but I’m glad I’m still here/Let’s get up and get over this fear”.
Indeed, even in the existential “Understood”, the song is being played with such verve that one gets the feeling Martsch will be okay even if his questions go unanswered.
Occasionally, the sense of adventure almost leads Martsch astray. “Rocksteady” throws some hints of reggae in there, but it never quite takes off despite some nicely atmospheric touches towards the end. And nobody’s going to confuse Martsch for Sly and Robbie or even 1979-80 Sting.
Still, this is an inspired lineup choice that pays dividends more often than not. Martsch has talked about wanting Built to Spill to be back to his original idea, where the lineup around him didn’t need to be set — the idea being that fresh eyes, ears, hands and feet can keep breathing new life into the material.
We’ll see who the revolving door brings in to work with Martsch on the next Built to Spill album down the road, but this album is enough to have one optimistic to see who it is.
Consistency has been a hallmark for New Zealand’s The Beths, who already had two winning albums to their credit — 2018’s Future Me Hates Me and 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers.
Good timing? Perhaps not. Jump Rope Gazers was turned into the band’s label on March 6, 2020.
And thus, while the album was released that July to good reviews there was never a tour. Work began on their new release, Expert in a Dying Field.
Artist: The Beths
Album: Expert in a Dying Field
Label: Carpark Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Putting the album together wasn’t the smoothest, although that couldn’t all be put on the pandemic. Lead singer Liz Stokes was working with the band’s lead guitarist Jonathan Spencer, but the material wasn’t coming together as well as hoped. They sounded fine, but were fine in the way that a car with a lovely exterior but wonky engine is “fine.”
When another lockdown hit New Zealand, Stokes, who writes the songs, used the unplanned downtime to rework the material. It paid off.
The production schedule got squeezed a bit to meet the deadline, but the album arrived on time.
As for the final result? Fair warning — the listener is at risk of having more than one of these songs get stuck in their head.
Start with the whip smart metaphor of the opening title track, about how, at the end of a relationship, be it a romantic partner or a friend, you now have all this accumulated knowledge about this person who is,at best, not in your life in anything approaching the same way.
Stokes has no choice but to accept that expert status by the end of the song, with a lovely chorus helping that bitter medicine go down smoothly.
Marrying lyrics that aren’t always happy to music that paints the picture of a sunny, sugar rush is a classic trick, one that Stokes is quite adept at.
“Your Side” glides easily from its sing-song verses to a killer chorus, but it’s about wishing for a relationship that can’t be brought back.
The guitars and drums are punchier on “Head in the Clouds”, but the harmonies remain, this time masking the pain of being with someone who can’t make themselves available.
The vulnerability of “I Told You I Was Afraid” comes through, even with the song’s more frantic pace.
Stokes may be the writer, but the band has her back. Spencer’s guitar is memorable and his production ensures the hooks land. He, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck add those sticky harmonies.
That rhythm section propels “Knees Deep”, an honest expression of doubt, envy and imposter syndrome with a chorus that one’s head can’t help but bop along to.
Stokes is just as open elsewhere. The uptempo, precise “Silence is Golden” is the soundtrack to anxiety made worse by the invasive ambient sounds of life. She realizes how she needs to stop dwelling on “Best Left”, singing “Picking the scar/I know it’s the wrong call/It won’t bring the relief/I know that I long for/Some things are best left to rot.”
Stokes’ writing also excels in the quieter moments. “I Want to Listen” is an open-hearted love song that brings the British Invasion into 2022. Closer “2 AM”, the least uptempo song on the album, delivers a melancholy, disjointed mood that matches the title perfectly.
New Zealand has a long tradition of terrific indie pop with guitars going back for decades (and not just the bands involving Flying Nun Records and the Finn brothers). With Expert in a Dying Field being the Beths’ best album in an engaging discography, they can definitely stand proudly as one of the heirs to that tradition.
These days, you can’t see references to Nikki Lane without seeing the words “outlaw country”, as if those two words were part of her actual name.
But what exactly does that mean in 2022? And does it matter?
Lane’s definitely put out albums marking her as kindred in spirit to the old outlaws, the Waylons, Willies and Jerry Jeffs. Her newest Denim & Diamonds is as well, in spirit if not in sound.
Artist: Nikki Lane
Album: Denim & Diamonds
Label: New West Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Decades ago, it emerged out of the resistance some artists had to playing the country establishment game, which required a certain sound. And there were singers and writers who didn’t have the temperament, artistic or otherwise, to fit into those boxes.
And here we are, well after the original outlaws of the ’70s have mostly passed on, with notable exceptions. Willie Nelson keeps putting out good albums at a pace like he’s in his 30s and not about to turn 90. Hank Jr., when he’s not opining in a way that leads one to think he’s traded in his cowboy hat for tinfoil, can still make a good record. And Tanya Tucker came back with as good an album as she’s done with 2019’s While I’m Livin’.
Still, there isn’t new music to be had from most of them. But people in that spirit still exist. There’s still a resistance from the Nashville establishment. That establishment, combined with much more consolidated radio station ownership, has resulted in a different polish being a requirement to get airplay. And it’s definitely centered around white dudes, even with exceptions like Kane Brown, Miranda Lambert and Lainey Wilson.
This brings us to artists like Lane, who keep doing their thing, making quality album after quality album knowing that country radio isn’t going to touch them, just like others like Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price have.
Lane’s found respect in other quarters, opening for and performing with artists like Lana Del Rey and Spiritualized. And here on Denim & Diamonds, she’s produced by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and featuring backing from people with credits like QOTSA, Arctic Monkeys, Autolux and Jack White.
The players don’t subsume Lane, instead providing her the needed backing with wherever she wants to go.
And where she goes isn’t tethered to the strict definitions of country. Lane may have a growling twang that recalls Wanda Jackson at times, but she puts that voice to material that rocks as well as it swings. And if country radio spent a while giving over loads of airtime to bro country that sounded like warmed over Henley and Frey, Lane delivers country rock that does no disservice to either.
Lane’s looking inward more on Denim & Diamonds, but it’s not a quiet introspection.
“I grew up in an environment where there was some domestic abuse and some stuff that was really hard, so I created a tough girl who can handle it,” Lane told Spin this year. “I didn’t mean to, but I turned inward and started going ‘OK, what made Nikki Lane? How did I become this outlandish person who doesn’t let rules apply?’ So much of what I was experiencing before was just, ‘if you want to break up with me then, good, I will talk shit like Taylor Swift!’ But there has to be more going on. I had to slow down and think about me.”
That said, Lane might be dropping her guard, but her swagger remains.
Take “Born Tough” , a statement of attitude and purpose mixed with a bit of weariness. The femme fatale (or at least fatale if you cross her) of “Black Widow” struts through, taking a musical side trip to church in a break.
The title track marries Stones via Palm Desert nimbleness with surefooted country, all to a statement of independence, not just for Lane (“So, girls, if you’re feeling worn out, a little unsure, trying to make it all on your own/Well, just remember what Cher says, ‘Mom, I am a rich man'” ain’t scared to go it all alone”).
And Lane knows what she’s singing about — buying her own damn denim and accessories for her successful Nashville vintage clothing shop, High Class Hillbilly.
There’s more lurking underneath the swagger. Album opener “First High” is confident country rock with hints of new wave. Underneath,it’s about yearning for the joyful emotions and possibilities of youth, knowing that those things are impossible to access all these years later.
The country part of the equation hardly gets short shrift. “Faded” is a classic heartbreaker, with Lane’s reverbed voice putting across the pain of the gravitational pull of a destructive relationship.
“Try Harder” is a twangy earworm of inspiration without the toxic positivity.
For someone who takes her craft seriously, she makes it sound almost effortlessly natural.The backing she gets definitely helps. Retaining Matt Pynn to play pedal steel was a wise choice. Drummer Carla Azar from Autolux keeps things stomping, shuffling and swinging at the right time.
If Lane has been asking, well, how did she get here, by the good natured “Pass It Down” she’s more at ease with the answers.
Things get stripped down with the acoustic ranchera of “Chimayo” that closes the album. Lane’s voice takes center stage in a tale of regret.
Even with more rock flavoring than before, Denim & Diamonds is still recognizably Nikki Lane and unmistakably good. I was never deputized into the Outlaw Country membership committee. Still, it’s fair to say the album would be the latest to further cement her status as a well-respected member of the club.
And when an album’s as assured as Denim & Diamonds, that matters enough.