Welcome to Essential Releases, our weekly roundup of the best music on Bandcamp. Each week, we’ll recommend crucial new albums that were released between last Friday and this Friday, plus pick an older LP from the stacks that you may have missed.
The music of the Oakland band Bam!Bam! is the best definition of the word “scrappy.” The band are avowed fans of K Records (and have even opened for K honcho Calvin Johnson), and all of that label’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants charm comes across loud and clear throughout Nails. (In both its title and shambling sound, “Airplanes For Fun” is the best Beat Happening song since the first Beat Happening record.) They bash through the album opening “Literary Hoax” with equal parts joy and raw nerve, Zoe’s stuttering guitar line sawing its way through Chloe’s tripping-up-the-stairs rhythm section. They sweeten the whole thing with taut vocal melodies that would fit right in on a Courtney Love (the band, not the Hole frontwoman) song. “Appetite For Never” goes from being a coiled snarl of a song into a gorgeous outro that recalls Built to Spill at their most triumphant. They’re just as effective when they turn down: “Long Slide Trombone” is loose and ambling, and the group (rounded out by bassist Shelley—no last names for Bam!Bam!) strings harmonized vocals over a clattering backbeat like tinsel across bare tree branches. Nails is DIY at its most winning.
Bam!Bam! will play Bandcamp’s Oakland record store and performance space on Friday, September 13.
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, Vinyl LP
B Boys records should come emblazoned with a smiley face because there’s always something inherently cheerful about their music, even when they’re parsing the mundanity of modern life via jerky post-punk as they have always done and continue to do on second full-length, Dudu. Though the band has opted for a crunchier sound than on their more reverbed-out former efforts, one thing remains true: this music wants to be liked, which can make all the difference when the band is shouting about being bored and stressed. Music as entertainment and catharsis? Sign me up.
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
For the last 17 years, Black Milk has been carving out one of the most reliably rewarding careers in hip-hop. His work has spanned countless sounds and subgenres: 2007’s Popular Demand was a tense, gritty serving of dusty boom-bap with dextrous rhymes somersaulting over cut-up soul breaks. The Rebellion Sessions, with his band Nat Turner, was a crackling foray into jazz. On recent albums, like 2014’s If There’s A Hell Below and last year’s Fever, he’s shifted more to the center, swapping out staunch traditionalism for production punctured by synth stabs or updates of rubbery electro-funk. What’s remained consistent through all of them is Black Milk’s canny writing and piercing wordplay into contemporary issues. His latest, DiVE, is billed as an EP, but it clocks in at a robust 35 minutes. And while it’s hardly a “Black Milk trap record,” it might be his most overtly commercial release to date. Bolstered by guest spots from BJ the Chicago Kid and MAHD, DiVE leans hard into lithe, synthetic productions that contain elements of Black Milk’s past—the traces of jazz in “If U Say” being the most obvious—but move him in altogether new directions. He sounds just as comfortable here as he has on any of his previous outings: The subdued “Relate” atomizes its loose soul-jazz structure until the production resembles something like vaporwave—distant voices and instrumentation streaking like watercolors over the back of the track. “Out Loud” is centered on a rigid, bluesy guitar figure, but every other element is aqueous and blurry, with droplets of synth liberally drizzled down the center of the song; “Black NASA” weaves an R&B hook through rat-a-tat drums. Black Milk’s voice sounds perfectly at home in all of these settings; DiVE is an opportunity to watch a master craftsman ply his trade in a different milieu.
Market saturation and major-label cash can mean that music recorded at the height of a trend by a lesser-known group is easily overlooked; thank goodness we’ve got crate-diggers. Recorded at Muscle Shoals by a group from North Wilkesboro, North Carolina formerly known as the Sounds of Soul, this 1977 funky soul gem failed to make an impact on the charts in its time, but DJs and collectors recognized its worth and power and gave it a second life. (The Brief Encounter have been featured on numerous rare soul compilations; the original pressing of Introducing, their debut LP, can go for well over $1500.) Jazzman Records gave it a limited-run LP reissue through its Holy Grail Series in 2010, and this new version from Athens of the North seeks to make Introducing widely available in the digital age.
Full of taut disco rhythms, vibrant horns, and smooth vocals, Introducing is immediately charming. The Brief Encounter can do a swooning, velvety ballad (“Visions,” “Loving and Caring”) as well as they can do a dancefloor heater (“Smile,” “Get a Good Feeling”); there is a limber effortlessness to the complex arrangements here, and a sense of genuine lightness, of joy. (There isn’t a single filler track here.) It would have been heartbreaking to have lost this one; one hopes that the group, who worked with Athens of the North to make this reissue possible, can finally see how much their work is valued.
2 x Vinyl LP
Blume is the debut full-length album from UK-based jazz collective NÉRIJA. The mostly woman-identified group previously released a self-titled in February. The seven group mates, merge afrobeat rhythms with improvisational and contemporary jazz to create a refreshing sound. The group describes Blume as “sprawling” and that is true of the album’s overall sound. Standouts include “Last Straw” which features magnificent, cascading horn playing. Opener “Nascence” sounds like a smooth, steady jam session and title track “Blume” features angelic vocals over shimmering strings. Closeout, “Blume II” like the earlier “Blume” features silvery vocals that gently fade away nearly as soon as they start.. NÉRIJA’s sound is fresh and breathing new life into contemporary jazz.
Slaughter Beach, Dog
Safe and Also No Fear
Most know Jake Ewald as the co-frontman of dearly departed emo revivalists Modern Baseball, who went on hiatus in 2017 — but his Slaughter Beach, Dog project is where it’s really at, braaah. What began as a modest holding zone for his errant solo material has quickly evolved into an introspective alternative-rock band (featuring members of Philly peers All Dogs and Superheaven, as well as MoBo bassist Ian Farmer), fronted by one of the most eloquent, surrealistic storytellers in contemporary indie. The second Slaughter Beach full-length, Safe and Also No Fear, is basically dad rock for sad boys — forlorn imagery, tightly-wound power chords thickly coated in reverb, crunchy acoustics slow crescendos, a bit of pedal steel now and again— which is a compliment, I swear. Whereas “One Down” and “Heart Attack” nod to Wilco with plaintive melodies and earnestly-sung folk hooks, cuts like “Dogs” and “Black Oak” galvanize a deep-seated reverence for Lou Reed into unsettling, deadpanned character sketches. Modern Baseball might be gone, but Ewald’s latest is another home run nonetheless.
Home Time barely qualifies as back catalogue as the record was released on July 12th of this year, but it would be a tragedy if Swim Team were drowned out in the sea of solid, super-jangly indie that’s been emanating from Australia for the last few years. When we last heard from the feisty Melbourne indiepop group in 2017, they were demanding to know, “Where is all the foreplay? Where is telling me off?” on the delightful Holiday EP. The band have softened their somewhat snotty approach to love and squalor for their full-length but they’ve sharpened up their songwriting and even at 12 songs, Home Time flies by in no time. Chastity Belt is probably the best modern comparison as both bands share a meandering approach to melody that can make it difficult to tell where one song starts and the next begins, and a darkly humorous perspective that often feels at odds with their bouncy tunes. However, the combination pays off on tracks such as the rickety “Forever And Ever,” which sounds like the melody was written before the band learned the chords. But the “incorrect” quality only adds to the charm (this is indiepop, after all,) and the raspy vocals are weighted with so much emotion, it would take a heart of stone not to be swept away.