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


Since my earlier piece on Sugarbush Records this issue, the label has released four new albums, starting with the vinyl version of NICK PIUNTI's Beyond the Static, pressed on pale turquoise vinyl to match its sleeve. This has all the hallmarks of the best kind of powerpop: there's ultra-melodic tunes beefed up with a punky chug and accompanied by harmony vocals and handclaps. The music has shades of all the iconic powerpop bands from the 70s to the 90s, whilst having the talent and creativity to avoid sounding derivative, and that all too common 'powerpop by numbers' approach is completely absent here thanks to Nick Piunti's willingness to introduce elements of other genres, such as how Time Machine has an anthemic rock feel whilst retaining a pop sensibility, and Six Bands brings in elements of janglepop and country rock. A superb album that's an absolute must for fans of powerpop and janglepop.

Next up is Homespun Blues and Greens by DOM MARIANI, who is joined here by a 14-piece backing band, from which the most familiar name to me is Mitch Easter, who also mixed the album. Again there is a nice attention to detail, with vinyl in a beautiful shade of blue to match the artwork, which has a retro design looking like something from a vintage Blue Note record sleeve (but don't let the artwork fool you - jazz isn't an obvious influence on the music itself). Homespun Blues brings powerpop together with vintage rock, whilst adding Motown-esque bursts of brass. Out of Reach is mellow pop-rock with country tinges. At Full Speed is laid-back songwriting with synthesised strings adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. Make the Leap is folk-tinged janglepop in a similar vein to The Byrds. Prove is smooth and stylish retro harmony-pop, reminiscent in places of late 1960s Beach Boys, combined with intense and intricate guitar soloing. When It Ends is melancholic balladry with some nice use of 1950s-ish vibrato guitar. The album takes inspiration from decades of iconic US artists to create a style that is sophisticated and quintessentially American.

PUGWASH are back on Sugarbush with a vinyl version of their second album Almanac, originally released in 2002. The LP is pressed on white or orange vinyl and packaged in Victorian-themed artwork with engravings of a 19th century astronomer and a Heath Robinson-esque pedal-powered contraption. These images hint at the nostalgic yet innovative, and at times slightly quirky, approach that is also found within the music. Everything We Need comes across like a mix of ELO and The Beatles, with additional country rock stylings. Apples is jangly psych-pop with just the right balance of eccentricity and sophistication, featuring a jaunty bassline that puts me in mind of underrated 1990s powerpoppers The Sordid Details. The Season of Flowers and Leaves is dreamlike psych-pop with lashings of Mellotron. Monorail is quirky, bouncy, catchy pop, taking in an inventive mix of 60s psych, late 80s electronic dance music, and a smattering of trad jazz. Omega Man is laid-back pop with nice use of atmospheric vintage electronics. Weaker Man has shades of psychedelic-era Beatles alongside harder-edged psych-rock aspects. Whilst Almanac is in many ways a very retro album, with easily identifiable influences such as The Beatles and ELO, Pugwash put their own creative spin on these sounds from the past and are unafraid to gain inspiration from additional genres not usually delved into by bands inspired by the 1960s and 70s. They seem to have a similar mix of influences as Delta on their Slippin' Out and Hardlight albums; fans of that band really ought to check out Pugwash.

GATHERED LEAVES is a compilation album featuring 10 tracks originally included on CDs that came with Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine between 1998 and 2004. It's good to see underground music from this era being championed, as all too often I've come across a mindset that lauds music from the 1980s and beforehand for its retro cool factor but dismisses anything from the 90s or early 2000s as naff without even knowing anything about it. Whilst I would generally agree that there wasn't much of interest going on in the mainstream music world in the 90s and beyond (I think there were only ever about 4 major label signed bands I actually liked during this era, and most if not all of these were dropped by the majors and ended up back on independent labels, showing that their music was never really all that mainstream in the first place), the underground continued to be populated by talented bands and artists making exciting and innovative music, as is always the case no matter what the decade. Ptolemaic Terrascope is largely regarded as a psychedelic publication, but it also gave coverage to bands who made more of a name for themselves in the indie scene, whilst eschewing a more typically 'indie' sound (Hood, ex-Galaxie 500 duo Damon and Naomi, and Broken Dog are included here for example). It was also among the first publications to cover those underground folk revivalists who got into that music way before everyone else caught on; this genre is represented here with an early offering from Sharron Kraus.

Dipsomaniacs appear here with a nice mix of 60s pop, folk, and psych. I'm most familiar with Hood's early output, but their track here is a far cry from the fractured lo-fi noisepop that generally represented this band's DIY compilation tape appearances and early singles. Instead, their piece For a Moment, Lost is a kind of cinematic, experimental, neoclassical music. The Green Pajamas contribute a fine slice of psych-pop that fans of this band cannot ignore. Six Organs of Admittance appear with a meandering, Middle Eastern inspired psych-folk instrumental. Broken Dog make a sort of music that could just as much be classified as indie-psych or folky dreampop. Sharron Kraus appears with a beautifully dark blend of Appalachian and English folk. Damon and Naomi are joined by Michio Kurihara from Ghost for an atmospheric psych-folk track which is very lovely. The Bevis Frond contribute an intense mix of fuzz-laden powerpop and psych-folk-rock; brilliant stuff. Saint Joan was the band of Ellen Mary McGee from before she went solo; their track here brings together dark-edged post-rock, atmospheric flute, recited lyrics, chilling drones and noise, and very unusually for this type of music, a chorus melody that sounds inspired by contemporary soul. There's an inventive mix of styles going on in this piece; whilst the chorus would sound at home in a song by any number of top-selling chart acts, it is subverted by a distinctly experimental underground spirit. Pat Orchard appears with an intricate and beautiful acoustic guitar instrumental ornamented by ethereal synth. The LP is pressed on leaf green translucent vinyl, and comes with impressive psychedelic cover art by Dale Simpson and liner notes by Ptolemaic Terrascope's editor Phil McMullen.

All albums are available at www.sugarbushrecords.com


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Text Kim Harten, 2016.