Welcome to Bliss/Aquamarine - alternative, underground and indie music.


Burbank, CA's Big Stir Records is one of the most important current sources of guitar pop, in particular from the overlapping categories of powerpop, jangle pop, and pop-rock. Their prolific output continues, with several more releases since I last wrote about the label earlier this issue.

First up is a new edition of #1 by THE BROTHERS STEVE, who include three former members of Tsar. There's Angeline, a great mix of catchy pop melody and rock bite, the exhilarating powerpop rush of We Got the Hits, with its joyous vocal harmonies and the effective addition of whooshing spacey synths, and the pealing jangle and carefree la-la-las of Carry Me ... these are just a few of the fantastic songs on offer here. The noisier songs are exciting and powerful, and the jangly songs take me back to the days when I first got my life changed by jangle pop and remind me exactly why this genre means so much to me. A fantastic album from start to finish.

Long Overdue is the punnily titled debut album from Akron, Ohio's LIBRARIANS WITH HICKEYS, led by Ray Carmen whose music I first came across during my time in the 1990s DIY tapes and zines scene. The music here spans various forms of guitar pop, with an emphasis on jangly and powerpop styles, packaged within playful retro kitsch artwork. Until There Was You is Teenage Fanclub-esque powerpop taking in an orchestral keyboard interlude. That Time is Now, which features Lisa Mychols on backing vocals, is classic pop that filters the sounds of the 60s through an 80s indie pop lens, pairing thoughtful lyrics with a bright jangly guitar sound. Be My Plus One is perky jangle pop that would have sounded right at home on a label like Bring On Bull, Sunday, or Vinyl Japan back in the early 90s. Leave Me Alone is a spiky garage number bursting with punky noise and lashings of retro organ, its title chanted in a Ramones 'Hey ho let's go' style. Alex, perhaps my favourite track on the album, features a 70s-ish chorus somewhat like The Knack, but situated within a dreamlike jangly indie pop setting with subtle shades of psychedelia, fading out with lavish synth orchestration. Next Time takes something of a detour, landing slap bang in the middle of the 1980s mainstream, with its smooth flowing sax and the sort of booming drums and handclap percussion that were all over the 80s charts. An album that may be 'long overdue' but well worth the wait!

NICK FRATER's fifth album Fast & Loose is out now on Big Stir, an effective pairing of luxurious late 60s pop with a 70s powerpop kick. Luna is strong catchy pop, bringing together whirling organ, stomping drums, vocal harmonies, and even a nod towards Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. That Ship Has Sailed is soulful pop with dreamlike vocal harmonies, having clear similarities to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, or a more recent comparison, Peter Lacey. Cocaine Gurls, which features Spygenius' Peter Watts on backing vocals, features an ultra-catchy tune with effective use of key changes, a juddering rhythm and a blisteringly intense guitar solo adding considerable powerpop oomph. So Now We're Here is strongly 60s-ish psych-tinged pop with swirling garagey organ, twangy guitar and luxurious vocal harmonies, the overall feel of the piece putting me in mind of The Zombies. Would You Like To Go? could easily be a lost Beach Boys classic, having all the hallmarks of that band. Endless Summertime Blues closes the album, ornamenting laid-back pop balladry with soft piano and plaintive French horn. The album is a must for Beach Boys fans and powerpop fans alike.

BLAKE JONES of The Trike Shop has released a solo CD, The Homebound Tapes. This is a 6-track EP of home recorded songs inspired by, and recorded during, the Covid-19 lockdown. The Last Song of Summer is stripped-down psych-folk with a melancholic beauty. Do the Lockdown Bossa Nova gives the titular genre a big dose of quirkiness via the eerie sci-fi theremin. Three Jerks in a Jeep sets social commentary with a wry sense of humour to a musical backdrop of Rolling Stones-esque rock 'n' roll. Homebound, co-written with Big Stir Records and The Armoires co-founder Rex Broome, draws strongly on the American folk tradition for inspiration, incorporating some effective use of mandolin. The First Song of Summer is sunny pop with shades of The Beach Boys, closing with a luxurious vocal harmony section. Whilst each track is based around a different style of music, the songs hold together as a complete collection.

Cumbria's mylittlebrother are often classed as an indie pop band, and indeed they are, but they are also so much more. Their second album Howl takes the style into new territories with its expansive musical approach that shows a healthy disregard for genre barriers. Play Hard is gutsy indie pop with impassioned vocal harmonies, delicate electric piano and rockish guitar parts providing a big, epic sound. Goldmine is an effective amalgam of indie pop, 60s West Coast rock and hints of funk. Responsibility is classic pop with an earworm of a chorus, its cheery tune and bouncy rhythm masking cutting lyrics providing a stern warning to someone to sort their life out; the musical backdrop incorporating the interplay of guitar and piano alongside sweeping vocal harmonies and a rolling organ solo. Chicago opens with a keyboard intro somewhat reminiscent of Grandaddy (incidentally I notice the cover photography is provided by one Jason Lytle, a name fans of that band will recognise), leading into an innovative multi-part piece that has room for both soft piano balladry and punky powerpop with shouty vocals and squalling guitar noise. The album closes with the brief snippet of airy backwards psychedelia that is Fallen. A top quality guitar pop album that's well worth checking out.

The Big Stir Singles series, which compiles the label's weekly online singles onto CD, has a special seasonal installment out now. Entitled The Yuletide Wave, it collects holiday-themed singles from 2018 and 2019 alongside a selection of brand new, previously unreleased tracks, a whopping 22 songs in total. Christmas songs, secular winter songs, and a Chanukah song all come wrapped up in a swirling paisley tree, with label founders Rex Broome and Christina Bulbenko's sleeve notes giving us the story behind the album. Nick Frater's Wash Your Hands of Christmas takes a wry look at how Covid-19 will be making sure no-one has any semblance of a normal Christmas this year, with a strong pop tune festooned with a combination of sax and bells recalling Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, along with a bombastic, almost prog guitar solo. The Brothers Steve's I Love the Christmastime is super-melodic uplifting pop, highly recommended. Librarians with Hickeys do a great version of Martin Newell/The Cleaners from Venus' Christmas in Suburbia, replete with pealing bells and luxurious vocal harmonies.

Spygenius present the amusingly titled Revels without a Claus, a quirky music hall-inspired number that pokes fun at big business' tiresome habit of selling Christmas paraphernalia as early as summer. Irene Peña's Will You Turn Up (For Christmas) is strongly tuneful powerpop with a surfy twang, the chorus a massive earworm that's well and truly stuck in my brain. Alison Faith Levy, with Karla Kane of The Corner Laughers, provide the sole Chanukah song here, All I Want for Chanukah is a Ukulele, perky uke-led pop with beautiful vocal harmonies. Anton Barbeau appears with a superb slice of psych-pop bursting with jangly guitar and sitar. The Decibels reinvent the Christmas hymn Angels We Have Heard On High as a wild, impassioned garage rock number - really great stuff!

Big Stir have also released two more Waves of their singles series, plus LESLIE PEREIRA & THE LAZY HEROES' Good Karma, and a reissue of ALLYSON SECONDS' Bag of Kittens. Reviews of these to follow in my next Big Stir feature. For more info visit www.bigstirrecords.com


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Text © Kim Harten, 2020.