Dance the Mutation is a monthly column from Ears to Feed contributor Jesse Locke, highlighting the most exciting new music releases and archival reissues that come across his radar. Dance the Mutation was a radio show on KPISS FM, and before that it was a song by Simply Saucer, the band that Jesse wrote an entire book about.
Marker Starling – “Diamond Violence” (Tin Angel / 7e.p.)
This month’s column begins with Marker Starling’s “Diamond Violence,” the first single from his forthcoming album of the same name. The avant soft-rock crooner is in his element with a band that includes dreamy vocals from Dorothea Paas and grooving trombone from legendary Arthur Russell collaborator Peter Zummo. The extended narrative of the video by director duo Goldwing is a cautionary tale about buying items from infomercials outside of your means, with a cast of oddball characters like I Think You Should Leave colliding with the universe of Punch Drunk Love.
Charles Stepney – Step On Step (International Anthem)
I’ve always been fascinated by demos – the unpolished, often home-recorded sketches that become a blueprint for completed songs. Chicago soul producer Charles Stepney is known for the lush orchestral arrangements of his classic recordings with Rotary Connection, Muddy Waters, and Earth, Wind & Fire, so it’s a revelation to hear the early, one-man basement versions collected on this compilation. Drum machines, piano, and thick synth squelch provide the roadmap for songs that would become future classics like “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.” Weaving throughout Step On Step’s 23 songs and interludes, the voices of Stepney’s daughters Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté share stories about their dad’s love of Star Trek and how he mastered a first generation “Mini Mugg.” Listening feels as intimate as sitting down on the couch and flipping through photo books with anecdotes you could only hear in the Stepney family home.
Tegan and Sara – “Tegan Didn’t Go To School Today” (YouTube)
Speaking of demos, after devouring Tegan and Sara’s memoir, High School, I headed to YouTube to see if I could find any of the early recordings mentioned in the book. Not only is their infamous Yellow Tape from 1998 there (it’s not lost on me that they named their latest single “Yellow” 24 years later), but even earlier bedroom recordings like “Tegan Didn’t Go To School Today,” with music ripped straight from the audiobook. Listening to their raw voices and weirdly personal kid-brain lyrics, I’m struck by how much they remind me of late ’60s sibling folk duo Wendy & Bonnie, or CHANDRA, or Julie Doiron’s earliest recordings with Eric’s Trip. Of course, Sara and Tegan had their own angsty influences at the time, but there’s something strikingly sui generis about the music they made as teenagers. Since we went to the same high school in Calgary, I could keep going about how much I see myself reflected in the pages of their memoir, but for now I’ll leave you with this haunting song.
Built To Spill – When The Wind Forgets Your Name (Sub Pop)
There are a few quotes in Steven Hyden’s recent Doug Martsch interview that stuck with me. According to the band’s sole continuous member since 1992, “Nothing sounds like classic Built to Spill… To me, every song’s an anomaly.” Martsch’s high, quivering voice and scorched guitar solos have been the constants among his many collaborators that now include Brazilian musicians Le Almeida and João Casaes on the band’s ninth album, but he challenges even that assumption: “The fact that I became considered a great guitar player is totally weird to me. It’s just melodies and a little bit of imagination, I guess.” Listening with the framework that each song exists within its own universe, you can hear how far they travel from the mournful organ solos of “Elements” to the burbling groove of “Rocksteady” to the warped psychedelia of closer “Comes a Day.” The singles “Gonna Lose” and “Fool’s Gold” deliver different sides of the “classic” Built To Spill sound, both accompanied by incredible videos by Jordan “Dr. Cool” Minkoff. Every song might be an anomaly, but they’re anomalies you can rely on.
JPW – Something Happening / Always Happening (Fort Lowell)
As the host of Aquarium Drunkard’s Transmissions podcast, I’ve become so accustomed to hearing Jason Woodbury’s high, tender voice in my ears that his singing sounds instantly familiar. Something Happening / Always Happening ventures into the heart of cosmic Americana with a sound as serene as the Arizona deserts that Woodbury calls home. The sputters of the Rhythm Ace drum machine are a key element, adding a timeless quality to the band’s shimmering, mirage-like arrangements. “Always Happening” closes the album with a vast 10-minute sprawl, becoming more vaporous as its ambient synths radiate a feeling of awestruck reverence – the same quality Woodbury brings to his interviews.
Kolb – Tyrannical Vibes (Ramp Local)
Michael Kolb first made his bones as a touring member of Water From Your Eyes, releasing a string of solo EPs and cassettes in the lead up to his debut album. Tyrannical Vibes is a bedroom pop record par excellence, jam packed with sticky hooks, stuttering beats, and mellow sax skronk. Moods shift from song to song, but Kolb’s operatically trained falsetto with honey-sweet vocals from Ani Ivry-Block (Palberta) and Carolyn Hietter (Sweet Baby Jesus) are the through-line. “Ectoplasm” has a shouty, dance-punk vibe in the tradition of Ninja High School, while “I Guess I’m Lucky” is pure pleasure, with a jaunty sound reminiscent of Fievel Is Glaque.
Carl Stone – Gall Tones (Unseen Worlds)
Carl Stone’s latest EP was recorded while he was confined to a hospital bed in Japan due to complications from gallstones. You don’t need that context to enjoy this playful barrage of beats and choppy samples, but it helps to know they were recorded on headphones, which he also recommends for listening. At age 69, the computer music pioneer continues to create some of the most wig flipping electronic sounds I’ve ever heard, like the spiritual forefather of Eric Copeland.
Marmalade Duplex – SNOT BATH! (Corduroy Palace)
Much like his intricately absurdist comics, Marc Bell’s band Marmalade Duplex construct complex worlds with deeply silly concepts, committing to the bit with the masks of straight faces while relishing every second of malarkey. Joined by Guelph-based musicians Tyson Brinacombe and Brad De Roo, the trio sound like Mark E. Smith ranting in deadpan over cheapo B-52s organ stabs and DNA guitar clang. There’s a whiff of Chrome’s biker bar scuzz, yet Marmalade Duplex’s music has enough of a goof factor that their damaged grooves never feel dangerous. From what I can grok after listening and leafing through the elaborate liner notes, the band’s 2020 debut PLAY THE TUNA OLIVE VILLAGE is a concept album about jellied salads that dissolves into fake dub, krautrock, and gargling. The packaging for 2022’s SNOT BATH! is spartan by comparison, but the music is anything besides. Highlights include ominous opener “Canadian Work Permit,” the sideways funk of “Tut Tut,” and the 16-minute prog epic “Nose Weather” that sprawls across side two. If you need a dose of nonsense to break up the depravity of reality, Marmalade Duplex is the ticket.