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


Now for the second installment of this issue's Jigsaw Records feature. WATOO WATOO have had a long history in the indiepop scene; I remember them from indiepop compilation tapes back in the 90s, but hadn't kept up to date with their more recent goings-on. Turns out they've had four albums out since their early days in the tapes milieu, the latest being Une Si Longue Attente, out now on Jigsaw. Starting from a basis in sweet, pretty indiepop songs, Watoo Watoo expand their sound into a classy, sophisticated retro pop style with elements of 60s sunshine pop, jazz, and retro-futurism. The title track is a sunny and dreamlike pop song with tinges of bossa nova and spacey vintage synth. Ce Vide incorporates jazzy trumpet and electric piano solos. Searching for Mr Right is a Young Marble Giants cover, performed in a light pop/smooth jazz style. Minnax is mostly instrumental, aside from wordless ba-da-ba vocals, and features an ambitious orchestrated arrangement that sounds like something from a vintage movie soundtrack. Tes Histoires Invisibles is sweet pop combined with a driving powerpop-ish rhythm and retro-futuristic synth arrangement. Watoo Watoo have the knack of being able to draw from genres that would, in their original forms, sound far too smooth and 'easy listening' for my taste, and transform these sounds into an end result that is an enjoyable listen.

VEHICLE FLIPS were a 1990s band that included Frank Boscoe, also of Gazetteers and Wimp Factor 14, as well as Tim Parker and a revolving cast of additional musicians. Their Friends Like Nations album on Jigsaw collects all their singles and compilation tracks plus a number of previously unreleased songs. The music of Vehicle Flips essentially encompasses noisepop, lo-fi indiepop and indie rock, yet with a decidedly off-centre twist. They take familiar ingredients from existing genres and somehow subvert them. Vinaigrette sounds like late 60s rock combined with a Latin American influence. Dodge Veg-o-Matic is a Jonathan Richman cover, noisy, distorted and lo-fi garage rock. In the Offing sets quirky, witty lyrics to slightly off-centre indiepop. Citronella is an instrumental combining surf and flamenco motifs. Comet Song, whilst having a fairly straightforward indiepop arrangement, takes on an offbeat feel from its quirky lyrics about the solar system. Adios, Rancheros! is Vehicle Flips' homage to Wild West movie soundtrack music. Ompompanoosuc is melodic harmony-pop that puts me in mind a lot of The Petals' Seed Separator; the tune is virtually identical in places. Erin Go Bragh was originally by Eggs, a band that shared Vehicle Flips' offbeat pop songwriting style. There's a diverse set of musical influences on show here but the songs are held together by a common off-kilter thread.

NAR were a 90s punk-pop band based around the songwriting of Scott Miller (Bright Ideas, English Singles, The Bananas). Jigsaw have reissued their retrospective compilation album History, compiling their entire output - a whopping 43 tracks! Punk-pop is one of those genres where you know in advance pretty much what you're gonna get, and Nar don't, in the most part, aim to rewrite the rules of this style. Although they have a very familiar sound, I enjoyed their album a whole lot more than I thought I would, whether due to the strong tunes of songs like Holiday Routine, Bad Thoughts, What I Saw and Crystal Days, or the raw energy of shoutier tracks such as Bullshit Central or Red Ronigun. There are a few occasions in which Nar's approach diverges sharply from standard punk-pop territory, whether stylistically (Popcorn Festival is a chirpy melodic instrumental, and On My Pillow and Boring Facts are indiepop), or their choice of cover versions (they reinvent Felt's Christopher Street as punk, which actually works, and do a great powerpop version of Aztec Camera's Birth of the True). It's a fun, energetic album, guaranteed to banish misery. Whilst it's mainly one for fans of punk-pop or even actual punk, there's also a few songs here that are sure to appeal to the indiepop crowd.

CARAMEL SNOW, the solo project of Michael Farley, has a 5 track EP out on Jigsaw entitled You Walk on Air. Come Back to Vegas is synth and guitar based indiepop with woozy, psychedelic effects. Aniline is cheery retro pop with witty and poetic observational lyrics and eccentric musical touches; puts me in mind of Martin Newell and also Peter Lacey. Orange Crush is super-melodic janglepop, really uplifting, I love this song! Jacquie Star is a creative brand of pop that combines off-centre moments with a dreamlike, floaty atmosphere and touches of vintage soul, again treading similar musical ground to Peter Lacey. Limited Edition is synthpop with shades of funk and disco, but despite similarities with mainstream genres, it has a slightly off-kilter underground approach and features drawn-out vocals that add a hazy, dreamlike feel to the song. This is an inventive, tuneful and positive EP; I would definitely like to hear more from Caramel Snow.

ARTGRUPPE is the latest project of Roy Thirlwall, also of The Windmills and Melodie Group. Roy is joined on the Objets d'Artgruppe EP by Michelle Bappoo on vocals and guitar, and assorted guest musicians. Artgruppe's music tends towards the bittersweet and the outright melancholic. The six tracks here combine the classic jangly indiepop sound with influences from US folk-rock and alt-country. They also add occasional shoegazerish atmospheric effects, and Mystery Song features flute. These diverse elements come together naturally and seamlessly, and the songs are well crafted with strong tunes. A top quality release from another band I'm keen to hear more from.

THEE AHS follow two self-released albums and a 7" on Spanish label 7iete Pulgadas with their latest album Corey's Coathangers, out on Jigsaw. Thee Ahs have a distinctive approach to noisepop. Chugging, punky and angular instrumentation is combined with strong melodies that often resemble theatrical, classical or religious music more than anything that normally appears in indiepop. They also cover lyrical subject matter that is outside the norm and offers much food for thought. The title track is angular punky pop with synths; there's a big, dramatic (yet paradoxically sweet) tune and vocal harmonies, the sweetness concealing biting satirical lyrics about the modelling industry: "She makes money, so much money/But she's only a mannequin". The notion of celebrities attracting hordes of false friends who are attracted to the person for what they are, not who they are also comes under scrutiny. Nothing in the Dark focuses on a child who is afraid of monsters in the dark; there are strong lead vocals and effective backing vocals with the atmosphere of an angelic choir.

Does it Still Count is a disturbing song that appears to be about rape. An appropriately jarring melody and accompaniment sit uncomfortably alongside soaring "ooh ooh ooh" vocals straight out of a 60s light pop song. I'm Not Angry Anymore is an outpouring of bitterness and hatred, in which the lyrics "You make me sick, I wish we'd never met" are sung in an incongruously pretty, lullaby-esque style. Sad Sam is another disturbing and thought provoking track that touches on such harrowing topics as parental abuse and mental illness. Simultaneously sweet, disturbing and dramatic, Corey's Coathangers is an album that is uplifting on the surface, but paying closer attention to the lyrics creates a discomfiting mood indeed. Some may find Thee Ahs' juxtaposition of bleak topics with pretty tunes inappropriate or even in poor taste, though I feel they have perhaps made this choice in order to make their lyrical message more memorable by jolting the listener out of a false sense of security. Their covering of serious and unpleasant social issues from a specifically female perspective, along with their angry punk-tinged musical approach, suggests they are following in the footsteps of the Riot Grrrl movement, although the theatre-music twist the music has is pretty much unique.

JAMES AND THE EXPRESS is the work of solo artist James Mackison (with drummer Jack). Jigsaw has released the second album from this project, Your Friend, JATE, following the debut on Series Two. The songs are bittersweet, mixing sentiments of unrequited love with happy go lucky tunes. It's an old-school bedroom pop sound, sometimes ramshackle and sometimes jangly. When You Don't Love Me Back is a cheery, catchy janglepop song with a nod towards the 60s, whilst One Lie at a Time is pure 80s indiepop. It has a strong tune that stays in the head, though it would be inappropriate to call it 'catchy' as it doesn't have the brightness that word connotes; there's quite a dark edge to this song, and a meatier guitar sound than that heard elsewhere on the album. Tell Your Friends combines bossa nova, janglepop and 60s-ish "ba-ba-ba" harmony vocals. Bikes in Amsterdam is sunny and twee DIY pop. James borrows part of the tune to Herman's Hermits' I'm Into Something Good for the rattly and ramshackle retro indiepop song My Friend Jim. New Luck adds tinkly glockenspiel for added twee factor, contrasting with the slightly distorted vocal effects. Aside from a few exceptions, the music and general atmosphere tends towards the summery, light, twee end of indiepop, though the bright mood is offset by the often melancholic and even resentful lyrics.

I was keen to hear more from Lisle Mitnik's solo project FIREFLIES after recently hearing his tracks on the Jigsaw compilation Puzzle Pieces and the Dufflecoat/Jigsaw single club, which were among my favourite tracks on both of those. Now I have Fireflies' third album In Dreams, which is packaged within beautiful and striking full colour artwork by Nicola Colton, and features additional vocals by Edine Kwok. The music here is superb, exceptional quality jangly indiepop that is easily in the same league as any of the highly regarded indiepop bands from the 80s and early 90s. Jigsaw compare Fireflies to The Field Mice, Brighter, and Razorcuts; yep, I can hear echoes of them too, especially the latter two, in that the jangly guitar/atmospheric synth combination is very Brighteresque and some of the melodies have shades of the Razorcuts. I would add The Sweetest Ache to that list as well, and I'm also occasionally reminded of 60s bands such as Crosby Stills and Nash and The Byrds. Despite making comparisons to other bands, I must stress that Fireflies is no ripoff by any means. Lisle Mitnik is a talented artist in his own right, and adds much of his own creativity to the music.

Fourth of July is a touching love song, sung as a duet between Lisle and Edine, whose delicate, somewhat childlike voice adds an extra sweetness to the music. The song is nicely arranged with jangly guitar, soaring orchestral-style synth, glockenspiel and woodwind. Staring at the Starlight is a beautiful song with atmospheric vocals and a guitar sound I can only describe as 'shimmering'. If I Tell You is a heartwarming 60s-tinged indiepop song with nice use of harpsichord and woodwind. September is a superb jangly song that sounds kind of like a cross between The Byrds and Brighter, if you can imagine that. Seventy-Seven is like an indiepop version of The Moody Blues, what with that organ sound and all. The album is an absolute joy to listen to; I actually felt disappointed when it ended. It's in the top class of indiepop for sure, and I can see it being hailed as a classic of the genre a few years down the line. The 60s elements in the music also mean the album has the potential to appeal to a far wider audience than just indiepop fans. Very, very highly recommended.

Begin Again is the debut solo album from MARK DZULA, previously known for his work with The Ladybug Transistor, The Magic Caravan, and Jukebox Radio. There's a general emphasis on light and airy indiepop here, although Mark Dzula is unafraid to experiment with other genres. You and I nods towards jazz and torch song; The Rebel is like a calypso song, combined with film soundtrack-esque use of strings; Happiness sounds straight out of a musical; and Automaton combines indiepop, theatre and film music with dark poetic lyrics. Notable tracks from the more strictly indiepop side of Mark Dzula's sound include Falling Snow, which puts me in mind of Blueboy's Air France, combined with nice use of electric piano and orchestral synth; Camera Lucida, a fine slice of janglepop which pairs the bleak lyric "All my friends are dead" with jubilant "ooh-ooh-ooh"s; and Home, a sophisticated take on indiepop adding a distinctive clicking style of percussion to a combination of beautiful, melancholic melody and poetic lyrics. A well crafted album from this creative artist.

Still more to follow - stay tuned for the third part of this feature coming soon. Jigsaw's releases can be ordered from their website www.jigsaw-records.com


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Text Kim Harten, 2014.