BIG STIR RECORDS
Big Stir Records, based in Burbank, CA and run by Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome of The Armoires, began as a live event which then evolved into a record label. The label is a close-knit community releasing records by The Armoires and other like-minded outfits. The musical focus is broadly powerpop-based, the label's name being a play on that of the genre's pioneers, Big Star.
THE ARMOIRES' Side Three is a 7-track EP/mini-album which acts as a companion piece to their forthcoming album Zibaldone. The five tracks that make up the download version are exclusive to this release, while the CD version adds two bonus tracks - one a fragmentary taster of a song from the forthcoming album and the other being the B-side of a recent digital single. The Armoires' music stands at the nexus of indiepop, powerpop and psych-pop, incorporating viola, a rare instrument in this brand of pop, which gives a unique flavour to their sound. Anemone! is catchy, summery janglepop with equal appeal to fans of indiepop and the poppier end of psychedelia, featuring the interplay of viola and chiming 12-string Rickenbacker. The Laws Have Changed is a New Pornographers cover, punchy powerpop with sunny vocal harmonies. Responsible (Reuptake) is jangly powerpop with shades of early Bangles. The Armoires are the Pedal Steel Backward Masking Society is a brief snippet of airy psych-pop with ethereal use of pedal steel. Not a Good Man is country beefed up with powerpop oomph, incorporating a blistering guitar solo.
German musician KAI DANZBERG quickly follows his 2018 self-released album Pop-Up Radio with new album Not Only Sunshine on Big Stir. Kai plays most instruments here but is also joined by guests including some notable names from the world of powerpop. The album opens with the title track, a beautifully atmospheric harmony vocal piece drawing on baroque and medieval motifs, before launching into My Beautiful Day, sunny classic pop with soaring strings and vocal harmonies, featuring Dana Countryman on lead vocals. Nothing in My Head is catchy summer pop sung by Kai Danzberg and David Myhr, lushly arranged with brass section, retro organ and bells. Turn Away begins with a music box-like intro, giving way to smooth, soulful pop accompanied by piano, orchestra and a vintage soft rock guitar solo, sounding like a huge hit from the 1970s; this one features Jellyfish's Roger Joseph Manning Jr on vocals. Help contrasts lyrics of despair with warm sunny jangle and luxurious vocal harmonies. Reach You Somehow is an ambitious mix of pop, soul and rock with the feel of an early 80s mega-hit. Let Me Know is a punked-up powerpop duet between Lisa Mychols and Kai Danzberg, juxtaposing abrasive punk bite with sugary, ultra-catchy pop. Bye Bye My Friend is an inventive mixture of dramatic, cinematic orchestration, Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies, and vintage soul. The CD comes with a bonus track not on the download, Selfish Man, an intelligent and innovative piece that brings together such eclectic elements as hip-hop scratching, 70s disco strings and dreamlike summer harmonies into a cohesive whole. A well-crafted, vintage-informed album by a talented artist who would surely have been a huge megastar if he had been around in the 1970s or 80s.
Once & Always, the fourth album from San Francisco band TRIP WIRE is out now on Big Stir. Had Enough and Bottle Rocket are crunchy, chuggy songs that illustrate the fine line between powerpop and pop-punk, while Light of the Moon shows powerpop's affinities with country-rock, and Carolina places country at the fore, with lashings of pedal steel for that classic Hawaiian sound. Down combines shades of Teenage Fanclub with vintage rock grit, creating an exhilarating result. Golden Gloves blends introspective Americana with powerpop, the addition of string section and lush vocal harmonies giving extra sophistication to the piece. Act Fast is super-melodic pop with that jangly guitar sound I so love. Final track Falling Away brings together 1990s alt-pop, chiming janglepop, and theremin-driven retrofuturism. The album draws from a variety of genres but retains a Californian theme throughout with its sunny janglepop, pop-punk and country-rock influences.
Stourbridge band AMOEBA TEEN's latest album Medium Wave is out now on Big Stir. I'm not actually familiar with their earlier stuff, though their name suggests a band with roots in punk. There's evidence of this in Suit and Tie, where riotous punk meets bright pop melody alongside an instrumental section that nods towards vintage rock 'n' roll, but elsewhere on Medium Wave, the band reveal a much more mature sound than their punky name suggests, bringing together aspects of classy radio-friendly 60s/70s pop as well as American folk and folk-rock influences. Babycakes is sophisticated pop sounding like a cross between late 60s Beach Boys and late 60s Beatles. Wandering Bullets has shades of the 60s folky singer-songwriter sound, adding a string arrangement for an extra layer of sophistication. Ship to Shore is among my favourite tracks here, recalling the likes of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and also incorporating some nice use of flute giving a sunshine pop feel to parts of the piece. Hickory Hill is jangly alt-country for lazy summer days - lovely stuff. Save is alt-pop with spacey keyboards, kind of in the same vein as Grandaddy, plus they also bring in Beach Boys-style vocal harmonies and US folk hints - another great track.
Big Stir have released a CD version of Everest by Swedish band IN DEED, originally released in Sweden in 2018 as a vinyl LP on Open Mind Records. The CD has three extra tracks and is packaged in a smart 6-panel digipak with booklet. Five Times a Day combines sweet indiepop with sophisticated 60s vocal harmonies and powerpop bite. What Once Was has a 90s alt-pop feel, featuring a strong catchy melody with an angsty edge. Never Really Noticed is super-melodic noisepop with a 60s garage rock kick, taking in retro organ and a wild psychedelic guitar solo. According to You is an ultramelodic song with an amazingly jangly guitar sound, bringing together elements of pop and US-style folk-rock from the 60s and indiepop from the 90s. Flavour of the Month is a really great mix of strong tuneful pop, biting punky aspects and swirling psychedelic organ. A truly excellent album packed full of strong melodies and seamless combinations of indiepop and 1960s influences.
Big Stir Singles: The First Wave collects the A and B-sides of the first twelve singles released through the label's weekly Digital Singles Series. Label founders Christina and Rex had noticed that "too many excellent internet-only one-off releases seemed to come and go too quickly in the shuffle of social media", and decided to form their Digital Singles Series as a way to expose these otherwise ephemeral recordings to a wider audience. The singles are put together with as much care as actual physical singles, with full artwork that even includes pictures of replica 7" singles handcrafted by Christina and Rex from thrift store 7"s and spray paint to look like real Big Stir singles on coloured vinyl. These are pictured on the cover of Big Stir Singles: The First Wave, with the singles' 'sleeve' artwork printed inside the CD wallet. Artists featured include those from Big Stir's usual roster along with those associated with the label via its live concerts and/or magazine.
Karla Kane (also of The Corner Laughers) appears with a song written by Martin Newell, Goodguy Sun, a prime slice of sunny ultramelodic pop, and also Sisters of the Pollen, an equally top-notch cheery pop song with folk elements. The Ex-Teens provide a great cat-themed pop-rock song with psychedelic hints, plus a powerpop cover of The Byrds' I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better. Lannie Flowers makes catchy powerpop adorned with retro organ. Blake Jones and the Trike Shop contribute a Christmas psych-pop song where sleigh bells meet bouncy flute and jangly guitar; this was originally released as a double A-side backed with Kai Danzberg imagining what it would be like if Santa was a girl, set to a luxurious arrangement featuring brass, strings, bells and vocal harmonies. The Newds' Through the Dark Side is multifaceted, off-centre pop-rock, veering from the woozy to the biting, while their Drawing a Line is punky powerpop with forceful vocals and squalling guitar noise. Addison Love provides a hilarious ode to unsolicited phonecalls, within a vigorous powerpop setting. The album is a recommended introduction to Big Stir.
As briefly mentioned above, Big Stir also runs a paper magazine of the same name, with a full colour cover and an interior layout that combines the best bits of pro magazine and DIY fanzine style. It's a genuine celebration of the music the Big Stir team love, whilst also not taking itself too seriously and bringing a quirky sense of humour into many of their articles. The Big Stir collective are like an extended family, and like many such close-knit communities, have their own private reference points and in-jokes; 'Croz', 'creachies', 'PaNDa' and so on will be explained when reading the zine. Issue 1 includes the Big Stir manifesto, describing the longing - and succeeding - to create a musical community, and the bands' approach as "not retro acts ... The focus is on taking the sturdy frameworks and details of yesteryear and fashioning something new out of them". Indeed: the Big Stir bands are certainly vintage-informed, with a strong knowledge and love of music from the past, but they are not mere copyists. There are quirky interviews asking women in pop what they think of such things as reptiles, condiments, bumper stickers, crustaceans, or S&M (Ruth Rogers of Spygenius on the latter: "It's a great place to buy underpants but only if you wear them backwards" ... LOL!), along with cartoons, lists of fave bands, haggis, 'Shit Haikus', '25 Songs that Brought Shame to the 1970s' and more.
Issue 2 features comic strips, the philosophy of band naming, good vs bad disco, paisley, lone found gloves, vinyl hunting tips, Kool Kat Musik's Ray Gianchetti on 1980s guitar pop records that were released mainly on major labels but have since fallen into obscurity, the International Pop Overthrow festival, 'Dogs that Dig The Dream Syndicate', and an analysis of powerpop, the genre that "refuses to neuter itself [or] trade in its sense of presence and immediacy for either acclaim or snob appeal".
Issue 3 has a larger format, and introduces a recurring animal theme. As well as the 'Pets of Pop' column that pops up throughout this issue, it has a funny editorial attributed to 'Malcolm the Dog', who has something of a fixation with his own testicles. Karla Kane chats to Martin Newell about jackdaws, autumn and home recording, and also has a star-sign and Persian cat themed discussion with Robyn Hitchcock. Mark English of The Gold Needles contributes a surreal whodunnit called Mr Slater's Parrot. The Big Stir crowd report on their trip to the UK, including their introduction to such British food staples as fish and chips, mushy peas, and brown sauce. Steven Wilson (Plasticsoul)'s interview with Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher) touches on a number of relevant points. Pat detests the use of 'indie' as a genre term, stressing its original meaning as a way of doing business via independent labels, with Stock Aitken and Waterman being just as indie as the bands who are more commonly labelled this way. He quite rightly points out that there is no C86 sound ("Does it sound like Velocity Girl-era Primal Scream or does it sound like Bogshed?"). I've also wondered how it is that people came to conveniently forget that C86 was just as much about all the 'Captain Beefheart plays punk' bands as it was about jangly pop. As regards the 'twee' phenomenon, Pat admits he's never heard 90% of the so-called twee bands, and "nobody who ever played in any serious line-up of our band could possibly have been described as a 'twee' individual. More than one or two of them would probably have knocked you out for suggesting it". Pat also hates how punk became a musical straightjacket, having originated as a way to express yourself exactly as you want. Punk had a "raw, home-cooked approach and the complete absence of any 'star' behaviour among the people on stage", and The Jazz Butcher identified as punk rock not because they dressed or sounded like the punk stereotype but because they were motivated by the DIY, free expression inherent to the original spirit of punk.
Find out more about Big Stir Records and Big Stir Magazine at www.bigstirrecords.com
Since writing the above article, Big Stir Records have released a couple of new albums. THE ARMOIRES' Zibaldone, mentioned above as forthcoming, is out now on CD, LP or download. The Armoires are joined by eighteen guests, including members of The Soft Boys, The Corner Laughers, Spygenius, The Condors, The Bobbleheads, Plasticsoul, Sparkle*Jets UK, The Trike Shop, and Toxic Melons. All musicians who took part in the making of this album are shown in Champniss' impressive cartoon artwork on the cover. The album is bursting with pop zest, and fully reflects the fact that it was written as a "sonic love letter to music itself". The rollicking yet atmospheric Appalachukrainia opens the album with its autobiographical lyrics based on a trip to the UK which left a lasting impression on The Armoires. McCadden is bright, catchy pop featuring the interplay of chiming 12-string, soaring viola, and Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies - really great stuff. Suddenly Succulents is thoughtful and melancholic chamber pop tinged with bossa nova and Paris cafe music, incorporating strings, accordion and piano. (How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me? combines the stomping rhythm and vocal harmonies of Motown with the ultra-jangly guitars of The Byrds. Satellite Business is atmospheric country-pop with pedal steel and harmonica accompanying a strong catchy tune. Alesandra 619 features a chiming guitar swathed in soft reverb, sounding straight out of a late 80s indiepop classic, but also ventures into psychedelic territory with its use of heady effects. Just Like Carl Crew Said is an innovative mix of exuberant tuneful pop, klezmer violin and sci-fi theremin. A really fantastic album bursting with strong tunes, successfully pulling together influences from across the guitar-pop spectrum and beyond. Highly recommended.
Big Stir Singles: The Second Wave is out now, compiling the second series of weekly digital singles onto CD (download is also available). The collection includes bands from the US, UK and Sweden, and features cover art for all the singles, along with enthusiastic sleeve notes by John M. Borack, author of powerpop guide Shake Some Action 2.0 and journalist at Goldmine magazine. This is a great compilation that spans several genres but holds together as a complete album due to its emphasis on strong melody, jangly guitars and powerpop oomph. Many of the bands show different facets of their sound across the A and B sides. Spygenius present the ultramelodic, gutsy janglepop of If You Go A-Roving, as well as the funky, rocky Let Me In. In Deed contribute the cheery indiepop of Don't Need, Don't Care and the punked-up powerpop meets garage rock of Marry Myself. The Living Dolls' Everything That Happened is raucous and raunchy glam rock, while Happy Manors comes across like a mixture of The Kinks and The Beach Boys. Charms Against the Evil Eye's Where Are The Living? harks back to the early 1980s when post-punk was starting to give way to the poppier sounds that would later come to be labelled indiepop, while Oscar's origins seem to be in 1990s alt-rock and post-rock. Anton Barbeau appears with two of his side projects; the three-piece band Kenny, whose My Adelphi Twin combines psych-pop and synthpop with a generous helping of eccentricity, and Giacomo and Carolina, a duo with Julia VBH, who bring together synthpop, dub and jazz in Jah Rosie, the Dainty Beast. The Armoires' bassist Clifford Ulrich provides two great tracks of jangly 60s-ish US folk-rock, including a Byrds-ish rendition of the hymn Like a River Glorious. This singles series continues to be a recommended introduction to the world of Big Stir.
The fourth issue of Big Stir Magazine is out now, with a glossier, full-colour format that moves its appearance further into pro magazine territory than ever before. There's still a strong community spirit here, with many different authors contributing to the mag. Personal memories of powerpop in Los Angeles 1978-81 by Peter Marston of Shplang, Anton Barbeau and Karla Kane in conversation, Russ Tolman and Steve Wynn in conversation, Joseph Champniss' search for the Murrumbidgee Whalers, interviews with Kai Danzberg and Kimberley Rew and Lee Cave-Berry, janglepop and powerpop reviews, cartoons and stories are just a few of the contents on offer here.
Big Stir's digital singles compilation series also continues with the latest installment, Big Stir Singles: The Third Wave. The sleeve includes artwork from all the singles, plus sleeve notes from Don Valentine of I Don't Hear A Single blog, showing strong support for the label. A number of tracks here straddle the fine line between the more melodic end of powerpop and the gutsier end of janglepop. Paula Carino, The Brothers Steve, and Jim Basnight offer great songs from across the janglepop/powerpop spectrum, while In Deed approach this brand of pop from a perspective that will appeal just as much to indiepop fans. The very talented artist Kai Danzberg provides two slices of summery orchestrated harmony pop. Ray Carmen has been involved in DIY music since 1986; I first encountered him via the 1990s hometaper scene. He now leads Librarians with Hickeys, who appear here with Black Velvet Dress which combines atmospheric indiepop with powerpop oomph, and Alex, a very lovely dreamy jangly indiepop song. Definitely a band I'm keen to hear more from. Sundial Symphony's Merri Go Round beefs up whimsical baroque psych-pop with a powerpop chug, topped off with Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies, while Looking for Sunsets (In the Early Morning) is a prime slice of psych-pop with an authentic 60s feel. Steve Rosenbaum's songs here show very different facets of this artist's work; he combines heavy rock with mystical, Indian-influenced psychedelia in Am I Your Drug of Choice?, and opts for a sunny, ringing janglepop sound in Until it Happens to You. As with the first two volumes, this third volume of the Big Stir Singles series has much to recommend to fans of strong melodic guitar pop. Well worth checking out!
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