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


In a fairly short space of time, Burbank, CA's Big Stir Records has become one of the most important and prolific sources of guitar-based pop of various kinds. I have four more of their albums, starting with There is no Light Without the Dark by THE STAN LAURELS. The band name suggests a full band and the music sounds like a full band, but this is actually the solo project of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Lathrop, who cites a diverse array of influences from The Beatles to Yes, They Might Be Giants to Debussy. Tomorrow is airy pop with a tinge of melancholy, the light jangle and ethereal keyboards giving way to an atmospheric fuzz guitar sound in the chorus. The song also takes in an instrumental section that offsets heavy chuggy guitar with retrofuturistic analogue synth. Of Love, Wine and Song is really lovely pop with profound, spiritual lyrics and a melancholic melody that's truly moving. The song recalls the classic 80s/early 90s indiepop sound much of the time, though the expansive instrumental section owes perhaps more to prog rock, highlighting John's love of bands like Yes. On Paper is a brand of pop that manages to sound soft and airy yet carrying a powerpop punch all at once, and is effectively bookended by a psychedelic intro and outro laden with sweeping backwards guitar. Emotions I and II are floaty, dreamlike instrumentals, basically modern classical pieces played on electronic/electric instruments. The main melody is provided by Mellotron, while ringing, reverbed guitar is introduced as accompaniment on the second piece. It's easy to see where the Debussy influence comes in, though John is doing something very different with it, taking the soft, relaxing classical sounds outside of a strictly classical setting. An intelligent, well crafted pop album that's well worth checking out.

DOLPH CHANEY's This is Dolph Chaney is ironically packaged to look like one of those budget-priced best-of albums by middle of the road celebrity crooners from bygone decades, but dismissing the album based on a literal reading of the artwork would be a big mistake. I'm unfamiliar with Dolph's earlier work, but understand he has a history of lo-fi bedroom recording stretching back to the 1980s. This new album sees Dolph working with producer Nick Bertling (Bertling Noise Laboratories, Gretchen's Wheel, etc), to revisit a handful of songs from Dolph's extensive catalogue of material. Songs that were originally recorded between 1991 and 2008 in a DIY manner have been transformed by Nick, leaving the lo-fi approach well and truly in the past. Status Unknown crams a lot into 4 minutes, opening with an atmospheric swirl of keyboards and strummy acoustic guitar, which continues as the song's backbone after it gains a fuller band sound. The piece develops into a strong pop song punctuated by intricate rock aspects and ending with a mindbending tangle of psychedelic backwards guitars. Pleasant Under Glass shows a darkly humorous way with words, the music a chirpy brand of 60s-influenced pop with a Merseybeat twang and luxurious backing vocals courtesy of The Vapour Trails' Kevin and Scott Robertson. Sideless World is beautifully laid-back acoustic pop overlaid with ethereal keyboards and dreamlike electric guitar ambience. There are some brilliant powerpop tracks dotted across the album, such as Now I Am A Man, with its wry lyrics about ageing, Worship Song, featuring a quirky conversation with Jesus set to an addictively catchy tune, and My Good Twin which recalls Canadian powerpop greats The Pursuit of Happiness. Occasionally things get a bit too smooth for me, such as Under the Overpass, the arrangement of which recalls 1980s soul and synthpop, peppered with soft rock guitar solos from the same era, though the washes of atmospheric sound are an effective addition that sets the song apart from standard examples of the mainstream genres it draws from. The punchier songs, as well as those with an ethereal or psychedelic tinge, are much more in keeping with my own tastes, and I would recommend the album for those tracks for sure.

CHRIS CHURCH is another multi-instrumentalist songwriter who is new to me but has a 30 year musical history including involvement with powerpop and metal bands as well as solo pop-rock albums and experimental performance art composition. His latest album, Game Dirt, is his first for Big Stir. There's the rollicking 70s-style rock 'n' roll of Learn, which sounds like a genuine lost classic from that era. Lost is laid-back country-rock with an enjoyably raw edge. Hang is riff-driven vintage rock punctuated by an intense, blistering guitar solo. In Know, a charming, folky mandolin intro gives way to an anthemic number that comes across as equal parts REM and Rolling Stones. Praise combines spiky powerpop with darkly emotional 90s alt-rock, inventively segueing into a beautifully meditative, somewhat experimental, neo-psychedelic instrumental section interspersed with birdsong and other found sounds. Final track Sunrise is a Byrds meets Big Star jangler peppered with touches of alt-country, with a strong chorus that stays in the head. A very eclectic set of songs, though it holds together as a complete album, with the high quality songwriting and musicianship expected from Big Stir releases.

Between Halloween 2020 and April Fool's Day 2021, eight digital singles appeared, purportedly by new unknown bands. In fact it was THE ARMOIRES playing a cheeky prank on the music-listening public. Disguising themselves as these fictional bands gave them the opportunity to experiment with genres outside of their usual style as well as pay homage to musical heroes like XTC and John Cale with a series of covers. All these tracks have now been compiled into a full album, Incognito, credited to the band's real identity, The Armoires (although the fake band names appear in the credits for the individual tracks). The CD is cleverly packaged with a slipcase that shows the band members (who include amongst them Big Stir co-founders Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome, as well as new drummer John Borack who has worked with various powerpop bands and is also known for his music journalism) in Halloween masks, which when removed reveals their real faces on the digipak cover underneath. A poster-style insert is also included, featuring song credits and artwork for all the singles.

OCTOBER SURPRISE do a really uplifting cover of John Cale's Paris 1919, arty powerpop adorned with strings, futuristic synths, ultra-jangly 12-string guitar, and harmony vocals courtesy of The Corner Laughers' Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh. THE CHESSIE SYSTEM's Bagfoot Run is a kind of hillbilly barn dance thing, but you know this is no straightforward country outfit when you hear the lyrics about smoking dope, sniffing glue and listening to Hendrix. THE YES IT IS! are a cartoon band whose members include a googly-eyed maraca-shaking dog, a lab-coated doctor and a David Crosby lookalike; the playful cartoon art on their single cover puts me in mind of The Pooh Sticks' Great White Wonder. First they cover 20/20's The Night I Heard a Scream, amazing harmony-drenched, jangle-laden powerpop given an extra dimension from the use of cello. Then the core members from The Armoires are joined by a bunch of guests - Karen Basset (Pandoras), Peter Watts (Spygenius), Julian Moss (Charms Against the Evil Eye), Dolph Chaney, and Blake Jones - to cover XTC's Senses Working Overtime, a song that takes me right back to my childhood. Their version retains the quirky lopsided pop style of the original, while putting their own spin on it with the use of cinematic strings.

TINA & THE TINY POTATOES are billed in the press release as 'C86 tweeness', but to these ears, their version of Andy Gibb's Words and Music sounds much more mature and sophisticated than that description would suggest. I'm hearing smooth vintage pop, something like Abba meets The Free Design. ZED CATS' Jackrabbit Protector is darkly countrified alt-rock, with a punk spirit that bursts forth in the chorus, while their Walking Distance is a more psychedelic number with lashings of retro organ and intense psych-rock guitar. The album ends with some bonus tracks which show The Armoires at their most experimental. The Armoires are the Amine Beta Ring Sunshine Harmony Consortium features woozy backwards vocals over an electronic pulse sounding like a sci-fi movie sound effect, all too brief at just a few seconds long. Ghost of Fall Singer in Depopulated Griefscape combines unashamedly Mark E Smith-influenced vocals with an effective mashup of ultramelodic powerpop, raw dirty rock 'n' roll, and eerie experimental dronescaping. The album sounds like it was a lot of fun to make, and is just as much fun to listen to.

Find out more at www.bigstirrecords.com


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