photo via detroitperforms.org
By late November, members of the music press become less concerned with digesting new records than refreshing their memories of all the records they already heard, or meant to hear, during the calendar year. There’s essentially an industry-wide ban on releasing anything in December that’s not holiday music or a would-be gift set. So, what of worthy but not Best-of-2013-quality records that happen to get put out on the cusp of List-mas? Let’s take one last second to recognize before we summarize.
Public Service Broadcasting are a high-concept instrumental duo from London. On their first record, Inform-Educate-Entertain, they use cut-up vocal snippets from the propaganda films of bygone eras (taken from archival sources in the UK, France, and the US) to shade their instrumentals with hues of nostalgic intrigue. There's something reassuring, but also uncanny and increasingly weird, to those authoritative announcer-voices. In the age of commenter talk-back, Internet fact-checking and unending Twitter-based snark, it’s almost creepy to hear an unchallenged voice sound so goddamn sure about something.
The clips are collaged over pieces that mirror their tone. The ominous warnings and car-crash screeches of traffic school scare-films are matched to barreling alt-rock guitar on “Signal 30.” “Theme From PSB” is upbeat and frothy pop, full of retro-futurist optimism that’s infectiously cheerful. Most of the songs navigate between the sustained mood of early-00s post-rock and the peppy hedonism of mid-00s dance-pop with surprisingly nimble moves. PSB are versatile musicians, who probably do need some sort of gimmick to stand out; so, fair play. But they’re never as weird and transporting as a band like The Books, who used similar techniques in a less linear arrangement. Ultimately, it’s a little too cute, more of a neat idea than a sustainable band. But it’s not a record that you’ve heard before.
A very different, even better album is Surrender to the Fantasy, the latest from ever-underrated art-rockers Magik Markers. To the uninitiated, it might sound as loose as Inform-Educate-Entertain does calculated. Really, this is the most refined version of the Connecticut band you've yet heard, several zip codes away from the hours of experimental guitar noise they’ve put out over a decade of CD-Rs. Their last two proper records found moments of tight, boot-stomping focus amid sinister sprawls. Fantasy is less aggressive—unexpectedly dreamy, even. Elisa Ambrogio has long been one of the best snarlers in underground rock; here, she’s almost sweet. On the legitimately beautiful “Young,” she sounds wise and reassuring, like a Q&A for teen girls on Rookie. The music is rough, the vocals (partially recorded in J. Masics’s attic!) are distant, but it’s all really sincere and well-considered. The bursts of emphatic noise, like the shout-a-long punk single “Bonfire,” are the exception. One of the last bands you’d expect to grow old gracefully make it sound like a real cool move.