Graded on a Curve:
New in stores from
Saint Marie Records

Extant since 2011, Fort Worth, TX’s Saint Marie Records specializes in shoegaze, dream-pop, electronica, indie pop, and a few other compatible genres; as the label nears 100 releases the total strikes a balance between diversity and focus. Recent catalog entries belong to deardarkhead, The High Violets, Bloody Knives, and The Blessed Isles, and May 6 brings Primitives and Smalls by For Against bassist Jeff Runnings; all five receive review consideration below.

Record labels have long served a necessary if occasionally nefarious function, and predictions of their eventual obsolescence to the contrary, they remain very important in getting music into earholes and physical product into covetous mitts, and more to the point the appropriate audience; one of the advantages of the smaller independent sector is the ability to craft an identity that consumers will potentially return to again and again.

That’s the case with Saint Marie. If the indie business is still healthy the margin for error has certainly decreased in the digital era; too many missteps and an enterprise will probably find itself kaput. One smart maneuver is to embrace the longevity of substance over the ephemerality of style; Saint Marie has done so by signing up deardarkhead, an Atlantic City NJ-based combo active since 1988.

For the majority of their existence they featured the bass and voice of Michael Amper. Upon his exit in 2009 guitarist Kevin Harrington and drummer Robert Weiss chose not to cease operations until a full-on replacement was found, instead grabbing bassist Kevin McCauley and recording Strange Weather as an instrumental while continuing to seek a suitable vocalist.

Those wishing to absorb how deardarkhead sounded early are advised to investigate Oceanside: 1991-1993 compilation issued in 2011. They shouldn’t do so at the expense of the group’s latest however, as Strange Weather’s six tracks, at 25 minutes hovering in that gray zone betwixt EP and LP, offer fully-formed songs that tease the ears for a lengthier listen.

Oceanside was the second installment in Captured Tracks’ Shoegaze Archives, and while elements of the form can surely be detected here, the set also explores deardarkhead’s cited tendency toward post-punk with emphasis on catchiness, tightness, and drive throughout. The songs play to their instrumental strengths as incompleteness is pleasantly absent; nothing connects as being conceived with a singer in mind.

Combining crisp guitar and a tough Joy Div/ Cure-descended rhythmic foundation, the set’s opener “Falling Upward” avoids the mopey and gradually elevates to an energetic conclusion. “Sunshine Through the Rain” follows with an excursion into dream-popish territory as “Juxta Mare” provides a lively tempo to showcase Harrington’s axe.

“March Hares” begins side two to deliver the record its rousing standout, “Ice Age” is a deft blend of atmospherics and momentum and “Thinking Back” spreads out with rolling bass notes, sharp guitar tones and drum kit gallop to bestow Strange Weather a sturdy finale. Harnessing a sustained, fertile environment, the album’s main sticking point is its relative shortness.

Like deardarkhead, The High Violets have been on the scene for a while, forming in 1998 in Portland, OR and after three prior full-lengths Heroes and Halos marks their LP debut for Saint Marie; it serves up femme-voiced dream pop laced with threads of shoegaze and snatches of Alt-era playing and production strategies. They do unabashedly lean to the pop side of their chosen genre’s spectrum, enough so that many of the songs can register as hypothetical selections in a Modern Rock radio playlist, though as they unwind The High Violets’ general veteran savvy helps them escape sounding like castoffs from the ’90s used-CD bargain bin.

Considering the vocal abilities of Kaitlyn ni Donovan the pop inclination is wholly understandable. She flanks lead guitarist Clint Sargent with a six-string of her own (and notably works outside The High Violets as a multi-instrumentalist and composer), the instrument fortifying even the group’s most accessible material.

“How I Love (Everything About You)” opens the LP with a gesture of stylistic breadth nodding in the direction of the dancefloor as “Dum Dum” ushers in guitar strumming and touches of the ethereal, Colin Sheridan’s bass and Luke Strahota’s drums adding raw weight to the equation and underscoring The High Violets as a fully functioning band (if one augmented by a handful of additional contributors including ni Donovan’s partner Jonathan Drews).

The pretty “Long Last Night” is a spotlight for the range and strength of ni Donovan’s pipes, a scenario deepened by the pop nugget “Break a Heart”; Saint Marie mentions a mix of Lush and Slowdive, but these lobes keep hearing a decidedly more pop-infused Cocteau Twins. At times the music can verge on the boilerplate, particularly during “Bells,” “Longitude,” and to a lesser extent the Sargent sung “Ease On,” but they soundly bounce back into the positive direction with the lush heft of the superb title track, the lengthier glide of “Comfort in Light” and the unexpectedly folky finish “Hearts in Our Throats.”

Hailing from the label’s neighboring music-hub of Austin, Bloody Knives should please My Bloody Valentine-loving sticklers persisting in the belief that proper shoegaze needs to be downright cozy with the realms of noise. Formerly the duo of Preston Maddox (bass, vocals, keys, samples, programming) and Jake McCown (Drums, noise, programming), they’ve since expanded to a five-piece utilizing guitarist Jack O’Hara Harris and synth players Richard Napierkowski and Martin McCreadie.

I Will Cut Your Heart Out for This spills eight tracks over two sides of vinyl lasting just a little over 32 minutes and is my pick for best of this batch. MBV is a tangible influence as a broad list of reference points appear in the promo text, namely Japanese noise behemoth Merzbow, early Los Angelino goth punks Christian Death, Aussie post-punk kingpins The Birthday Party, and their underrated UK counterparts The Sound.

Only some of the above is intermittently detectable, but that’s ultimately to their credit as it’s all theoretically possible, and while the album’s title might suggest otherwise Bloody Knives are far more about controlled, frequently abrasive textures and near industrial pound than reckless abandon. From the opening scorch of “Cystic” to mid-way highpoint “Black Hole” to the curdled darkwave of “Static” and “—-” to the breakneck closer “Buried Alive,” a sublime racket is achieved but its effectiveness is increased by the songs (if not melodies) at the core.

Brooklyn twosome The Blessed Isles are vocalist-guitarist Aaron Closson and multi-instrumentalist Nolan Thies, and they present a markedly different temperament on their full-length debut Straining Hard Against the Strength of Night. Opener “Caroline” gives guitar-friendly techno-pop a la New Order a transfusion of dream-pop plasma and follows it up with the new wavy briskness of “Like I am Dreaming,” though it gets an injection of shoegaze as well.

“Round and Round,” “Give,” and “Assumption” mine an electronic-pop sensibility that reliably sounds best to this writer while standing around a bonfire in mid-November after sucking down a dozen cheap canned beers, but the intersection of Sumner-ish guitar keeps things interesting for home consumption, even across the blatant techno-bup of “Confession.” Much of the latter portion (“Chase Away the Sun,” “Touch,” “Winter Moon”) solidifies into a union of synth-wave and dream-gaze aspects, and the succinct post-punk chilliness of “Proxy” concludes the things on a robust note.

Primitives and Smalls navigates similar terrain, but from a more mature angle and to substantially different effect. As a member of For Against, Jeff Runnings’ musical activity spans back to the mid-’80s, so regarding post-punk and synth-pop originators he’s much closer to peer status than any kind of greenhorn acolyte; the richness of his first solo release clearly stems from experience as its contents are a treat for discerning ears.

“Maze” commences the LP with a swirl of cascading synths, programmed rhythms and airy Neil Tennant-like singing, though Runnings’ objective is far more concerned with texture than pop mastery a la Pet Shop Boys. This shouldn’t imply the disc is lacking in worthy tunes; “F for Emphasis” is amongst the finest, though the layered chiming of the music, at times reminiscent of a room full of grandfather clocks, is the track’s strongest suit.

Mingling immersive slower modes with the speedier beat driven “Outside Oslo” and “Travelogue” (the briefly catchy instrumental of “Aperitif” and its attractive non-vocal foil “Miss Magic Marker” add a further wrinkle), Runnings’ hazy sonic method in “Dim Like Dusk” borders on the psychedelic, the approach infecting the pop-ready “Premium” as the number breaks the six-minute mark. “Trifecta” brings another solid piece of writing, and “My Cheerleader” culminates the affair in a suitably strung out place.

If I Will Cut Your Heart Out for This is the tops in this inspection, Primitives and Smalls only misses by a hair and the whole bunch reinforces Saint Marie’s stature as an important contemporary label. Please note these vinyl editions are all limited, so hesitation could lead to disappointment.

Strange Weather
B+

Heroes and Halos
B

I Will Cut Your Heart Out for This
A-

Straining Hard Against the Strength of Night
B

Primitives and Smalls
A-

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