+/-, “Let’s Build A Fire”
It was never an indie institution on the level of Merge or Dischord, but that doesn’t make the end of Absolutely Kosher Records any less bittersweet. The label, which yesterday announced that it would “cease to release records for the foreseeable future” after putting out a final album next month, released one of the last solo Mountain Goats albums (The Coroner’s Gambit), some Xiu Xiu discs, that live record by one-and-done wonders Life Without Buildings, and the most recent full-length from Kubrickian indie-rockers The Wrens. But over his label’s 13-year existence, AK founder Cory Brown has shared a decidedly individualistic idea of what “indie rock” could be; the aforementioned lineup of bands only scratches the surface of what his label had to offer. To honor that eclectic vision, here are five unsung Absolutely Kosher releases worth hunting down.
Franklin Bruno, A Cat May Look At A Queen
As both the frontman of rock outfit Nothing Painted Blue and on his own, Bruno made his name in certain circles by pairing up catchy songs with unparalleled verbosity. His Absolutely Kosher debut Kiss Without Makeup offered many worth examples of the particular brand of songcraft he honed throughout the ’90s. With Cat, however, the formula changed a bit. The lyrical erudition remained, but instead of the words coming in mile-a-minute torrents, they were chosen with more care this time around. The biggest shift, however, came musically, as Bruno’s career-long flirtations with various “uncool” genres—pre-Elvis pop, old-time country & western, show tunes—became a full-blown affair. Folks looking for Bruno to provide another batch of manic melodies festooned with left-field rhymes might have been disappointed by the twangy “Lies On Your Lips” or the stage-ready title track, but Cat showed that one of the indie world’s best songwriters could transcend genre.
Virginia Dare, Baby Got Away
If you listen to only one drum-free, auto-harp-driven, faux-country / faux-folk album this year, it might be this one, if only by default. The second release in Absolutely Kosher’s history and Virginia Dare’s only full-length, Baby Got Away features the aforementioned oddball instrumentation backing up the kind of whip-smart plainspoken songs that are as easy to love as they are difficult to write. It doesn’t hurt that Mary O’Neil’s able to bless her songs with an unglamorous yet inviting voice that’s clearly seen some things. While the lack of any backbeat is a little offputting at first, when one finally does show up—courtesy of a drum machine, of course—the presence of the percussion that becomes offputting, which is a testament to the way Virginia Dare makes their peculiar set-up work to their advantage.
Dead Science, Frost Giant
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart is one Dead Science’s biggest fans. Like Stewart, Dead Science singer Sam Mickens has a distinctive vocal style, though Mickens’ androgynous and caustic whispers are a far cry from the sort of maniacal hollering Stewart is known for. Dead Science’s music is slippery, muscular stuff, with instruments meeting at often caustic angles that provide Mickens with the perfect surfaces across which his fragmented stories can slither and seethe.
+/-, Let’s Build A Fire
Founder James Baluyut and guitarist Patrick Ramos were at one time members of ’90s indie bastion Versus, and the first two +/- records were released on Versus’ one-time home, Teenbeat Records. 2006’s Let’s Build a Fire took the first two albums’ tried and true guitar-pop formula and added a host of new variables that went beyond usual types of orchestration employed by bands when they “mature.” (That is, unless you know of many rock groups who can seamlessly integrate skipping-CD glitches into a summery little song like “Thrown Into The Fire.”) This kitchen-sink approach is evident on the title track, too, which pretends to be a static-laden ragtime tune at its outset, then gives way to state-of-the-art fidelity. The rest of the album sustains that song’s adventurous spirit.
The Places, The Autopilot Knows You Best
This is kind of an unfair pick, as the album in question is officially out of print. Not that lead singer / songwriter Amy Annelle has ever been one to put on a happy face. Autopilot is a deliciously cryptic affair, filled with music that is simultaneously rustic and otherworldly, with Annelle’s sweet but barely there voice offering one elusive image after another; imagine a sedate Kristin Hersh, or a less grounded Nina Nastasia, and you’re on your way to understanding Annelle’s ineffable appeal. (It’s available (as a CD-R), along with all of Annelle’s music, from her website.)