Bandcamp Navigator is a column dedicated to a fan favorite Bandcamp practice: tag-hopping.
What is and is not “country” music is really difficult to describe. What one fan thinks is loyal to the spirit of the genre might be too modern or poppy or some other vague descriptor to another. But we all know what we’re looking for, even if we find it by accident. A friend shared a video from this first album with me, and before the first chorus kicked in, I had already bought the physical release. This doesn’t always happen (regardless of genre) but it’s an excellent feeling when it does.
Croy and the Boys
Of Course They Do
The history of country music is filled with examples of different artists performing the same song with sometimes wildly differing results. A good song lends itself to this sort of reinterpretation. It’s in this tradition that Austin’s Croy and the Boys present most (but not all) of the songs on Of Course They Do. They lead off with a norteño-influenced version of Negative Approach’s “Ready to Fight,” a stark contextual shift that maintains the song’s anger and defiance. That’s the theme here. Croy and the Boys’ discography is stacked with outspoken political work, and their choice of material to cover on this EP continues that theme. The reason this all works so well is that there’s not a single nudge or wink to be found here. These reinterpretations aren’t anything like ukulele-and-glockenspiel gangsta rap covers that try to squeeze a chuckle out of a contrast in style. There are earnest and reverent versions of songs performed by an artist with a clear connection to a respect for the source material. Once you realize how well Crass’ “Do They Owe Us A Living?” works as a country song, you might not be able to get it out of your head.
There’s no shortage of discussion online regarding the origins of the term #honky-tonk, but when you see it, you know what you’re in for. No longer strictly relegated to its archaic usage, referring to ragtime music performed on inexpensive and ill-tuned instruments, it now also refers to a particular kind of country music, exemplified by the next artist on our journey.
Dan Whitaker & The Shinebenders
Far, Far Away
The latest from Chicago singer-songwriter Dan Whitaker starts off with a trucking song. That’s always a good sign. Country music and the trucking industry have been intertwined since, well, probably a few days after the first long-haul trucker steered a rig onto the highway. It’s a great way to kick off a record filled with familiar country sounds presented in a fresh way. There’s a few bouncy instrumental numbers, the hard-drinking heartbreak of “The Bottle Knew Me,” and the title track’s Western-influenced tale of a wandering nomad. Whitaker’s vocals are perfectly suited to this music; he has a smooth world-wise voice that settles in somewhere between Waylon Jennings and Don Wilson. Special attention should be paid here to the brilliant pedal steel playing of Brian Wilkie. It’s not present on every song, but when it shows up, it really shines.
We’ve talked about the #swing tag before, in reference to Western Swing, which is essentially Big Band music with a steel guitar and a country flavor, but you already know that there are multiple genres that could easily fall under this tag, from the aforementioned Western kind, to a live performance by jazz legends.
Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach
Live in Toronto
I need to be honest with you from the start; if you’re looking for a critical examination of this work and/or its place in the history of jazz music, you won’t find it here. I know embarrassingly little about jazz music, but I know when I hear something I like, and I like this. Even if you, like me, aren’t well-versed in jazz, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard the names of the musicians on this release. This live set from 1953 captures an incredible energy—the sound of five legendary musicians playing at the peak of their ability for a fiercely appreciative crowd. Solos fade in and out of the collaborative performance, bubbling up seemingly from nowhere and then fading seamlessly back into the ensemble. It’s riveting, infectious listening, keeping one constantly on the edge of one’s seat. It’s constantly surprising and rewarding.
This recording of American musicians performing in Canada was released by a label based in #Germany, which is how we make our way across an entire ocean for our next stop, a newly released album of recordings from the 1990s.
Laura Goes Blue
Lost Fabric Sessions
These tracks, recorded in the late ‘90s, present an odd combination of styles. Swirling together the swagger of guitar-driven classic rock like Creedence Clearwater Revival with the experimentation and playfulness of artists like Bastro and just a touch of ‘80s power pop, Laura Goes Blue have a sound that’s unique without being jarring. These tracks are mostly built on repeated phrases—mostly musical, sometimes lyrical, occasionally both—on top of which sparse ornamentation is carefully placed. The instrumental “Hans Erich Apostel” is a perfect example. A stomping, mid-paced riff repeats, providing a framework for an off-kilter guitar solo that one could easily picture a late ‘90s zine describing as “angular.” The fluttering “My Mind’s My Dream” uses a lazy, jangling guitar line to the same effect, this time providing a skeleton for repeated vocal phrases. As a whole, these songs are hypnotic—ever overstaying their welcome, but entrancing just long enough to allow one to snap out of it in time for another great song.
We’re staying in Germany for our next release, and getting a little more specific, moving from the nation-encompassing “Germany” tag to the city-specific #Mannheim tag.
There are some truly warped punk sounds on this 4-track EP, and that’s not a reference to aesthetics or lyrical content. It’s like someone mixed the best songs of Nervosas and Boris the Sprinkler with one of those “20 Best” compilation CDs of 1960s bubblegum pop, dubbed it to a microcassette, and left that out in the summer sun for a few hours. These songs are filled with tape hiss and warble, a delivery mechanism for tightly wound energy. High-pitched, herky-herky guitars ring out over a rumbling, distant bass while echoing distorted vocals scream across the top of everything, hovering right at the edge of intelligibility. This one comes on fast and is gone before you can fully take it all in. Might as well listen to it again, and then two or three more times just to be sure.
There’s probably no better descriptive tag for what we just heard than #weird punk, so it’s nice of Prison Affair to have included it, allowing us to find out next release, a French band upholding the spirit of the riot grrrl movement.
These explosive, bursts of mid-tempo punk fury are deeply rooted in the ‘90s riot grrrl sound (the tag’s even down there at the bottom of the page, if there was any doubt). There’s the expected Bikini Kill/Bratmobile influence, but Catisfaction also draw influence from Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. The tracks “F.U.” and “En Enfer” both exhibit a sound that is strongly reminiscent of that late ‘80s Gordon/Moore style. Buzzing guitars and a solid low end support multiple vocal lines (one of which sounds very similar to The B-52s’ Kate Pierson at times) that weave into and out of each other, sometimes shouting and singing in unison and at other times playing off of each other, creating intricate vocal layers that build and resolve tension over the abrasive accompaniment.
There’s definitely a #spooky aura surrounding the Catisfaction release, and it’s a tag with, as you might imagine, a lot going on. We’re sidestepping the obvious (lots of goth, darkwave, and deathrock artists in there, well worth a side-trip on your own if that’s the sort of thing you’re into) and focusing on a British rapper/spoken word performer.
Up All Night Reading Poetry
On the track “(l)on(e)ly room,” Birmingham (UK, not Alabama) poet and spoken word artist Samiir Saunders says they’re “worried ‘bout us all going out again.” Intentional or not, this one statement, coupled with its nervous, slightly hesitant delivery over a sparse snare-and-hi-hat beat, completely encapsulates the late pandemic uncertainty about once again moving in public spaces. It’s possible Saunders didn’t even have this idea in mind when these words were written, but the ability of these words to wrap themselves around multiple ideas and situations is a trademark of this album as a whole. Each piece is built from a few prompts (which are included in the lyrics on the album’s page), and the tracks Saunders creates are dense without being overwhelming, providing what the album’s description accurately calls “spooky vibes” and “sleep deprivation-induced spoken word ramblings” while offering enough open space for the listener to fill in with their own interpretations.
Samiir Saunders draws us back into the #experimental tag, which is somewhat familiar territory that always has something new and exciting going on. It also allows us to jump geographically from Birmingham, UK to Moscow, Russia.
Московская Шумовая Мануфактура
Московская Шумовая Мануфактура
I stayed in a hotel once that shared an underground parking garage with a neighboring building that was under construction. I was completely transfixed by the way that parking garage sounded. The whispers and drones of the buildings’ ventilation system combined with the sound of car exhaust and squeaking tires to create a slightly ominous and oddly peaceful soundscape occasionally punctuated by thudding, grinding, and clattering construction sounds. I remember wishing at the time that I could have a recording of it all. Now, I don’t need to. Moscow’s Московская Шумовая Мануфактура have created a work that manages to capture a startlingly close facsimile of this immersive sound. It’s a huge echoing piece with elements that cut through the booming drone and then fade away—occasionally a high-pitched industrial whine, sometimes a lonely saxophone. This is an album to get lost in, a liminal space to wander through and lose track of time.
The #dark ambient tag is useful because if you listen to a lot of ambient music, it’s helpful to have it explicitly sorted into “mood.” You don’t want to be relaxing with a book or listening to headphones on a summer afternoon walk and unexpectedly find yourself getting spooked. Much (but not all) of this tag is populated by artists who also fit into the “dungeon synth” category, and it’s one of those artists that’s the focus of our next stop.
Lullabies of the Spanish Revolution
Dungeon synth, as a genre, has a strong historical focus. Whether that history is real or imagined, the aesthetic touchstones of the genre are rooted in antiquity. Without even trying, I can think of at least five prominent artists in the genre with the word “old” in their name. This collection from Spain’s Dungeon Hymns deals with more recent history, reworking leftist anthems popular during the Spanish Civil War of the mid-to-late 1930s. The rousing anarchist anthem “A Las Barricadas” starts softly, with twinkling high-pitched notes sounding out the melody before the drums and organ voices come in, bringing bombast and might. Dungeon Hymns’ take on Socialist mainstay “La Internacional” is somber and majestic, two qualities highly prized in dungeon synth, a clear example of why these songs are a perfect match for the genre.
Dungeon Hymns, as well as the historical subject of the previous release, are from #Spain, so that’s where we’ll stay for our final stop this time around, with a sunny, playful pop album.
Todo es Para Ti
Barcelona’s Guay! exist in the center of a Venn diagram where the outer circles represent Devo, They Might Be Giants, and Helen Love. Which is to say that what you’ve got here is pop music, but not plain and simple. On its face, it’s just guitar, bass, and a synth/drum machine, but there’s intent behind this poppiness that pushes it beyond mere radio-friendly bubblegum (and, to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with radio-friendly bubblegum). What’s on offer on Todo es Para Ti is pop music that’s just weirdly clever enough to really draw one in. Guay! play with tropes from throughout pop’s history (check out the Del Shannon homage on “Gracias a Larry” or the surf-rock harmonies on “Único en el mundo”) and create a sound that’s sunny, danceable, and exciting.
We’ve reached the end of the line for this installment, and I feel like I always wrap things up by suggesting you go and do some more exploring on your own. It seems trite and overused as a send-off, but it really is the best advice I can give. I’ve found so many bands and records I truly love just by poking around this way, and I sincerely hope you have been or will be able to do the same. Thanks for taking this trip with me.