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


Being snowed under with review backlog, I sadly had to put a pause on accepting promos from Big Stir (and everyone else!) until things got a bit more manageable. You will therefore notice a number of missing releases between the last Big Stir piece I wrote and this one, which covers the latest six albums released by the label.

First of all, there's Power Pop!!! by the prolific purveyor of eclectic, eccentric pop, ANTON BARBEAU. That's Power Pop!!! with three sarcastic exclamation marks. Just as his earlier album Kenny vs Thrust featured a send-up of twee pop in the song Jingle Jangle, Anton now directs his ire towards power pop, a genre he skewers on the sleeve with this satirical dictionary definition: "a guitar-based form of self-limiting pop music created primarily by/for unrequited men who wish the Beatles had never invited Dylan up to their hotel room"! It's a brave move for Big Stir to release such an album, considering this is a label that loves power pop just as much as various other guitar pop subgenres, and is highly regarded among power pop fans.

You've probably already guessed that the song also called Power Pop isn't power pop. It's a multifaceted track that sticks two fingers up at genre purism, both musically and lyrically. "Put down your guns you culture cops / There ain't no crime like power pop" sings Anton, seemingly in reference to all the arguing over whether stuff is or isn't power pop that goes on within the scene, while "out with the old, in with the old again" clearly relates to the habit of many power pop bands to stick to a standard formula. The music travels across various styles with ease, with jangly and buzzy guitars, psychedelic moments reminiscent of The Bevis Frond, dancey electronics, and a touch of prog. American Road begins with a harpsichord-laden intro, segueing into effervescent 1980s electropop, then taking a brief psychedelic detour. Hillbilly Village is punked-up hillbilly music with a sense of humour. In The Sound, Anton takes a potshot at reviewers who he sees as taking a superficial view of his music: "List the songs one by one then make the safe comparison / The Byrds, The Beatles, XTC, the song itself is lost on thee". He urges people to look deeper into his music, with psychedelic turns of phrase like "with eyes of God you'll see the sound", accompanied by music that's equally psychedelic, a woozy, surreal swirl of a song, taking in some seriously intense guitar and sax work.

Running in the Edge of the Night combines shades of 80s stadium rock of the Europe/Foreigner/Boston persuasion with dancey electropop, before flying off at a bizarre tangent of electronic country with comedy lyrics about rolling in pig shit. The album is peppered with interludes such as Entrez-Vous Dans les Maisons, a cinematic piano instrumental punctuated by the cosmic whooshes and whirrs of an analogue synth, and Slash Zed Zip, a peppy, quirky, retrofuturistic piece that sounds something like vintage video game music with a guest appearance from the keyboardist from Huey Lewis and the News. Also included is the Teen Suite, a set of three early songs written well before Anton had developed the off-kilter, genre-hopping songwriting approach. These songs fit squarely into the pop category, perhaps the strongest being Rain, Rain, which sounds like a huge synthpop hit from the early 80s. Genre purists won't like this album; indeed, the more sarcastic tracks may even leave them feeling personally insulted. But if you have an open mind and a sense of humour, there is lots to like here.

Stourbridge's AMOEBA TEEN follow up their 2019 album Medium Wave with their fourth album, simply entitled Amoeba Teen. The album opens with Mainstream, an ambitious, multifaceted piece with numerous twists and turns. Mellow retro pop with shades of late-era Beatles segues into a mixture of power pop and an enjoyably quirky brand of rock 'n' roll peppered with joyously parping brass. New Material World takes the classic power pop sound and melds it together with an emotional, atmospheric 90s indie rock interlude. January blends country rock with an upbeat pop sensibility, taking in sighing pedal steel and glorious vocal harmonies. Barlight Crawl is a glam rock stomper bursting with gritty guitars and vocals, offset by jangly guitar and soulful harmony vocals. King of the Cut combines the heavier side of Neil Young with detours into Teenage Fanclub-ish power pop and Beach Boys vocal arrangements. A number of the songs have a medley-like effect, with multiple genres and moods brought together completely naturally within the same song, an inventive, eclectic approach that really works.

Next up is If Only by THE WALKER BRIGADE, a band often tagged as post-punk but who actually cover a pretty broad ground, from 90s-style alternative rock to punkified blues and country. There's the Breeders-like Disease; there's Tower in which power pop is subverted by an angular dissonance while retaining a tune so catchy it's been stuck in my head for days; and there's Shake Shimmy which sounds like a lost classic from the grunge era. VD Doll is a wild blues track juxtaposing punk attitude and a dramatic, cinematic use of strings, while Choker is a combination of alt-rock and country, having room for both banjo and squalling, chugging noise guitars. They also give the punk treatment to I'm Tired from Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles soundtrack. Some of their stuff takes me right back to the 90s, having shades of the underground sounds coming out of the K label, as well as the grunge and alt-rock outfits who broke through to the mainstream, though The Walker Brigade put their own spin on all this with their playful and slightly quirky sense of fun.

One of my favourite bands on Big Stir, SPYGENIUS, return with latest album Jobbernowl, packed to bursting point with impressive psych-tinged pop with an intelligent sense of humour. The punnily titled I Dig Your New Robes, Pierre is as perfect a pop song as they come. Uplifting and ultramelodic, the piece takes in vocal harmonies, retro organ, a vigorous guitar solo, and a slowed-down interlude, to maximum effect. 2020 Revision is all about the changes wrought by Covid, the band rendering this bleak subject matter into a thing of pure beauty, with a medievalesque intro giving way to psychedelic janglepop with a melancholic edge. Son of the Morning, Go Man Go! combines soft, dreamlike sophistication with a rough-edged, rattly indiepop guitar sound, the fast spinning, ultra-catchy, psych-tinged chorus featuring the sort of wordplay that songwriter Peter Watts excels at, with "go go while you still can can" being a favourite line.

The Marvellous, Mendacious Time Machine sounds on the surface like a lost classic from the original 1960s pop-psych scene, with whimsical lyrics such as "where the lemonade springs from the cigarette trees" set to pealing guitar jangle and swirling organ, but all is not what it seems. The lyrics seem like quaint, quirky playfulness on the surface but are actually a sarcastic attack on right wingers who want to turn the clock back to the days of empire and sweep away any "inconvenient realities". Mandy Rice-Davies Applies is bouncy, sunny pop with shades of The Kinks, The Beach Boys, and an occasional smidgen of 1980s indiepop. There's more of that witty, sarcastic wordplay that characterises this band's lyrics; I actually laughed out loud at "more strings attached than Andy Pandy".

Final track Foucault Swings Like a Pendulum Do is musically atypical for this album but still bursting with wit and irony. It's a music hall-esque number with a theatrical dual vocal performance with faux posh accents with rolled Rs, a deep voice paired with an exaggerated falsetto. Oompah brass and tinkling piano add to the music hall atmosphere, while previous comparisons to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band are not unjustified. Although humour is a big part of Spygenius' approach, they can hardly be dismissed as a 'joke band'. This is a top quality album from one of the best psych-pop bands around at the moment.

Out in just a couple of days on Big Stir is Someone's Got to Listen by MAPLE MARS, their first album since 2010. Useless Information is a strong power pop track with topical lyrics dealing with how social media bombards us with an overload of information, much of it pointless, some of it outright false. Goodbye California is made up of hazy, sunny, psychedelic aspects, occasional nods towards West Coast folk-rock, prog touches, and a beautiful string arrangement, all this concealing a darker undercurrrent, with apocalyptic lyrics depicting San Francisco falling into the sea. Anchors Away combines the noisy chug of pop-punk with stadium rock and prog elements. Sleepwalking is pop-rock with bite, segueing into a mellow, atmospheric prog section and back again. Silver Craft is a multifaceted prog/power pop concoction taking in both noisy and laid-back moments, along with an ethereal sci-fi filmic intro that's really rather lovely. An effective mix of pop-rock and prog rock that's grown on me with each listen.

Out on the 19th August is Aerodrome Motel, the tenth album by NICK FRATER. The Pleasure is Mine is sophisticated retro pop incorporating piano and luxurious vocal harmonies, coming across like a collaboration between Elton John and Brian Wilson, while also finding room for a vibraphone-led jazz/lounge interlude. Stuck in my Ways illustrates the fine line between power pop and rock 'n' roll, its beefy rhythmic chug offset by joyous harmony vocals courtesy of The Vapour Trails' Kevin and Scott Robertson. Rough and Tumble takes its lyrical cues from saucy graffiti on a toilet door, while the music it's set to is an impressive, ambitious mix of glam rock guitars, bubbling synth, and huge dramatic brass parts straight out of a 1970s action movie. Dancing with a Gertrude explores with an intelligent wit the topic of names falling out of fashion. "Do you love a girl called Ethel? Have you kissed a boy named Clive? Or gone dancing with a Gertrude?" asks Nick, against a backdrop of classy orchestrated harmony pop. Final track White Courtesy Telephone is heartbroken country-pop, hazy and languid, and overlaid with weeping pedal steel. A well-crafted album bringing the sounds of the 70s (and at times, the late 60s) into the 21st century.

All these and more available at www.bigstirrecords.com


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