A Very Slumberland Records Top Ten

June 5, 2013

In the past few weeks I’ve written about both Rocketship and Henry’s Dress, so I think it’s only fitting if I go ahead and share a list of what I believe to be the ten best releases on the Slumberland label. At first I thought about just using full-length albums, but then I realized that one of my favorite Slumberland records is the Swirlies 7″ that came out in 1992, and I really wanted that to be on the list because it’s one of the only 7″ records in my paltry little 45 collection. Then I realized that if I ranked my ACTUAL favorite records from the label the entire list would be Henry’s Dress, Rocketship, Lilys and Stereolab releases. That wouldn’t be fun for anyone! So basically this list is the ten best by ten unique artists. I’m in a bit of a rush today so I’ll just use the descriptions from the label’s website instead of penning my own mini-reviews for each one. Unless there’s no label description, in which case I guess I’ll have to write something myself:

10. The Ropers – All The Time – “After releasing 3 supremely classic 7” singles, 1995 saw The Ropers finally break out with their amazing, accomplished debut full length, All The Time. The first step in making sure that this record would be an event was signing on Crash/ Ultra Vivid Scene genius Kurt Ralske to do the engineering in his Zabriskie Point studio. Kurt’s unparalleled recording talents gave The Ropers a sense of depth and polish that had previously eluded them, and his attention to detail ensured that every moment of this album would be perfect. All of this wouldn’t have made a difference if the band had not also written their best batch of songs, and they rose to the challenge with this excellent set. The opener “Revolver” is still one of our favorite Slumberland moments, a swelling pop tune that for some reason reminds us of New Order covering Love, or something like that. Sublime. “You Have A Light” is another high point, charging ahead on it’s Ride-like guitars into it’s fantastic chorus. All The Time also exhibits a more sombre side of The Ropers, with mournful ballads like “Spider Web” and “Mystery Girl” slowing down the pace. And then there’s “Drive” – a chunk of pure Spiritualized pleasure. A timeless album, full of timeless songs.”

09. The Aislers Set – The Last Match – “More ambitious in conception [than 1998’s Terrible Things Happen], The Last Match expands the blueprint into more orchestral areas. While the songs are still driving and catchy as a fish hook, the arrangements are far more sophisticated. The instrumentation has been augmented by a full-time organ player and various horns, giving the tunes the timeless feel of classic groups like the early Bee Gees, the Zombies and The Millennium. It’s a brilliant exercise in pop science that easily skirts the retro copyism of many 60s disciples through the sheer power of the song-writing and the originality of the ideas. Tracks like “The Last Match” and “Bang Bang Bang” are bold new benchmarks, their influences being completely subsumed into Amy’s distinctive vision. The band’s other songwriter, Wyatt, also does himself proud with his contributions, especially the plaintive “Lonely Side of Town.” Still preferring to record in the garage where they are allowed unlimited time for experimentation, the band has had no problem crafting an amazing sounding album that could have sprung fully-formed from the hallowed studios of Gold Star. This is no murky lo-fi production, but a fully-rounded and rich-sounding recording with a warm, analog sound. Between the peerless songs, the clever arranging and the ingenius production, The Last Match is a golden moment for fans of pop of all flavors that cements the band’s reputation as one of the key pop bands out there.”

08. Hood – Silent ’88 – “Their debut album Cabled Linear Traction is one of our favorite Slumberland albums, having been originally issued in a tiny edition of 200 by Fluff and re-issued by us in 1995 on vinyl and 1999 on compact disc. At first grouped-in with the innovative crew of UK post-rockers such as Third Eye Foundation, AMP and Flying Saucer Attack, they’ve outlasted that whole scene and “space-rock” in general and moved on to far more original areas. Hood’s mastery of unsettling ambience and subbed-out soundscapes places them up there with Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis, and they combine this sound with skewed song-writing in the Xpressway/ Siltbreeze tradition and the sparse electronics of labels like Warp and City Centre Offices. Silent ’88 was the second Hood album, released in 1996 to widespread acclaim. From the twisted rock of “Hood Northern” and “Smash Your Head On The Cubist Jazz” to the hushed folk of “I Hate You Now” to the numerous ambient interludes to the junglist abstraction of “Resonant 1942″, Silent ’88 pushed hard at the boundaries of experimental rock while still being firmly within the rock framework. Wildly varying and endlessly challenging, this is the sound of band searching for (and finding) their own voice. The Hood vision is so personal and so unique that sonic comparisons have become increasingly useless, and Silent ’88 stands as one of the key steps in their development.”

07. Black Tambourine – Complete Recordings – “Black Tambourine were one of the earliest Slumberland groups, consisting of members of Whorl and Velocity Girl, plus their pal Pam Berry on vocals. Conceived as an explicitly pop band at a time when pop bands were pretty rare in America, Black Tambourine wore their influences on their sleeves: The Jesus & Mary Chain, of course, but also folks like Phil Spector, Smokey Robinson, Love, The Ramones, Shop Assistants, The Pastels, 14 Iced Bears, Orange Juice and the list goes on…Though they only played a handful of gigs in their brief career, their two singles on Slumberland and Audrey’s Diary wielded a large influence, and were key artifacts in the birth of US indie pop. This compilation includes all the songs from both of those singles, plus two cuts from compilations and a previously unheard demo song. Liner notes from Jennifer Silver of Swingset Records round-out this important record.”

06. Nord Express – Central – “With their full album, released in May 1997, Nord Express handily delivered on the promise of their fabulous first EP, managing to stretch their songs out in all directions. An experimental edge crept into their music, showing a keen interest in dub-like dynamics and mixing that provides a fascinating counterpoint to the melancholy folk songs. It’s a fascinating brand of pop, a singular vision relatively untouched by the standard indie pantheon of influences. Mixing straight-forward folk-rock like “Dizzy” with the fuzzed-out sounds of “Clocky” and the strings/piano version of “Walk” makes for a heady brew that places as much emphasis on space and hush as strum and croon. Deep taste indeed. Central sounds just as fresh today as on the day of release, and we strongly encourage you to check out this great, unheralded band.”

05. The Softies – The Softies 10″ – “After wrapping-up the seminal punk-pop group Tiger Trap, Rose Melberg formed a new group with her pal Jen Sbragia. Playing as duo, The Softies took a very different course from Tiger Trap, wrapping twin guitar strums around their plaintive harmonies and sad songs. Playing quietly and putting the focus back on the songs themselves was the goal, and this debut ep shows that they achieved this goal admirably. It would be almost impossible to listen to these lovely songs and not be effected. The stripped-down nature of the recordings (no bass, no drums) lay it bare for you – the emotions are simply on display, allowing a glimpse into Rose and Jen’s hearts in the finest folk tradition. Points of comparison might be The Marine Girls or The Carousel, but these dark little gems have a weight and flavor all their own. Perfect pop for a lonely, rainy day.”

04. Henry’s Dress – Henry’s Dress 10″ – “Henry’s Dress were that rare band for us – a group that we discovered through a demo tape, and then only through the heroic perseverance of Amy. Boy, are we glad we finally listened! This ep documents the middle period of Henry’s Dress, branching out from their initial interests in Loop-meets-MBV soundscaping psychedelic pop into the more mod/punk sounds that would fuel their later efforts. It’s a superb, varied record well worthy of your further investigation. Anyway you slice it, this record is a smash. Hard-hitting tracks like “Radio One” and “Feathers” are possibly their most overtly punk tracks, giving the Kill Rock Stars bands a lesson in catchy 1978 style antics. Amy’s “A Is For Cribbage” is the Dress at their most mod, coming on like an early Who on a handful of Black Beauties – it’s possibly our favorite Dress tune! And then of course there’s “Sally Wants” and “Three” – a couple of blissed-out fuzzed-out downtempo tracks that beat the space-rockers to the punch by a few solid years.”

03. Swirlies – Didn’t Understand 7″ – “Sarah Sitting,” “Didn’t Understand” and “Chris R.” all appear on the band’s 1992 compilation What To Do About Them (Taang! Records). For my money, Swirlies never got better than “Two Girls Kissing” (off the They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days… album) or the Brokedick Car EP, but this early material recorded for Slumberland is amazing. It’s like listening to Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine but maybe even a bit harder edged. So good. Mine’s the first pressing (black vinyl with reddish-purple on red sleeve) and it’s got the two-sided insert. I’ve played the hell out of it through the years.

02. Rocketship – A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness – “Rocketship are one those rare groups who don’t release a lot of records, but boy do they count when they do! Back when we released this album in January 1996, it had a huge impact on the international indie-pop scene. Their Hey, Hey Girl single on Bus Stop was a complete killer, and everybody was dying to see what would come next. Their two tracks on our Why Popstars Can’t Dance compilation further upped the stakes – could their album possibly be as good as we would hope? The answer was an emphatic “YES!” Dustin, Heidi, Verna and Jim outdid themselves on this gorgeous record, blending their patented swoony pop confections with spacey interludes and a judicious use of repetition. Every track is perfect little gem, sparkling in it’s completeness. From the breathless rush of “I Love You Like The Way I Used To Do” to the sublime “Kisses Are Always Promises” to the ineffably sad “Friendships and Love,” this amazing record continues to astonish with it’s melodic invention, it’s effortless mastery of the pop idiom. No pop fan should miss this one, and no collection is complete without it.” [Listen to “Carrie Cooksey” [MP3]]

01. Lilys – In The Presence Of Nothing – “Phase one of the Lilys’ odyssey plunges Kurt Heasley and friends — among them members of Velocity Girl, the Ropers and Suddenly Tammy! — into the heart of the shoegazing phenomenon; In the Presence of Nothing is the quick follow-up to Loveless that My Bloody Valentine never made, with tracks like “There’s No Such Thing as Black Orchids” and “The Way Snowflakes Fall” capturing the moment in vividly dreamy and atmospheric detail. A relic of its time, to be sure, but also a wonderful testament to shoegazing’s brief but seminal moment in the sun.” – Jason Ankeny, AllMusicGuide

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