Shortly into Primitive Smalls opening salvo, “Maze” Jeff Runnings‘ intones “If all you want is a joyride, by all means you can tag along.” Nonetheless you’ll probably be met with the rather immediate impression that this is no breezy top-down ride jaunt into the sunset. This is after all the work of the man who brought us eight albums via a sporadic but long-running meal ticket, For Against over the course of the three preceding decades. FA’s reputation was often overwhelmingly downcast, but judged purely from a sonic standpoint thoroughly engaging, bearing a cutting, post-punk angle entailing washes of chiming guitars, poignant melody, and telltale undercurrents of goth and dream-pop that kept critics and fans agog in spite of some notably lengthy layovers between records. Even with Running’s founding compatriot Harry Dingman III absent in the ’90s incarnation of For Against, the band stayed on point, never wandering far from the compelling and evocative alchemy evidenced on early milestones like Echelons and December.
Primitive Smalls, Runnings premiere solo effort, occupies an “echelon” of it’s own, with the comparative nuances to For Against arise in form, not so much function. Guitars are often preempted by keyboards here, but on a less tangible level the motifs will ring plenty familiar to FA connoisseurs. Runnings is equal parts cynicism and empathy, operating characteristically wry in both arenas. Melancholia and contemplation are watchwords on Primitives which isn’t saying much given the track record of the man in question, but there’s something more at play here. The aforementioned “Maze” is particularly revealing in it’s adoption of synths – and a chilling schmear of them at that. “Premium” and “Outside Oslo” mine a similar tangent albeit a tad more subdued, and for what it’s worth are what latter era New Order might have conjured had they not lost what was so great about them in the early ’80s. There are more pearls to be plundered on Primitives, however as the album creeps to a close Runnings’ lyrical muse does tend to dissipate. In the net-net of things, Primitive Smalls isn’t a quantum leap from what he’s attempted in the past, nor is it merely a lateral move. Despite his inherent pessimism, Jeff is a realist at heart, and on that note I like to think he’s achieved a happy medium here.
I don’t often listen to instrumental rock, but when I do. I listen to Deardarkhead. Unlike most contingents in the Saint Marie stable, this trio isn’t exactly oven fresh, as its first iteration had their antecedents back to the Bush-era (and I’m not referring to “W”). Minted in Atlantic City in 1988 Deaddarkhead originally had a microphone fiend in their lineup, one Michael Amper, who commandeered the band through a series of demos and short-form releases before taking a break in the mid ’90s, and resurfacing with their first full length in 1998. Another hiatus ensued, but when DDH resumed in 2009, Amper opted to excuse himself. In a nutshell, they carried on sans vocalist and emerged with a new EP this year, Strange Weather. Guitar slinger Kevin Harrington sounds like he’s lived in the distortion pedals of Marty Wilson Piper, Billy Duffy (The Cult) and John Ashton (Psych Furs) as he doles out spindles of echoing lines that arpeggio and recoil into heady, robust swirls that always manage to make a smooth descent back to Earth. “Juxta Mare” works the most magic for me, and though I’d be open for more variety on a DDH follow-up, Strange Weather’s allure is downright invigorating.
For all my praise and hype about the virtues of rough-hewn and noise addled indie-rawk, occasionally it’s nice to partake in something that sounds, shall I say, carefully considered and measured. Portlandia’s High Violets fit that profile, and though they’ve been relegated to dream-pop/gazer enclave almost back to their late ’90s inception, I have they’re not going to be conveniently typecast any more. Within the throes of Heroes and Haloes ten gracefully gliding pieces Kaitlyn ni Donovon exudes shades of Harriet Wheeler, Kate Bush and Ritzy Brian (Joy Formidable) sounding every bit the front-woman as the elite company I just rattled off. Perhaps, the hazy title track and “Comfort in Light” do concede to shoegaze-y atmospherics, but more often than not Heroes tacks towards lucid, chanteuse-enabled pop structures, agilely exemplified on “How I Love (Everything About You)” and “Long Last Night.” No complaints here.
All three of these albums are available NOW direct from Saint Marie in gorgeous shades of splattered vinyl, CD and digital, and if you’d like to get an earful before you buy, head over to Bandcamp for a nibble.