Graded on a Curve: Independent Project Records, Source

Independent Project Records was started in 1980 by Bruce Licher of the bands Savage Republic and Scenic. The records of both figure prominently in the label’s discography, a body of work that’s additionally noted for attractive letterpress packaging designed in partnership with Independent Project Press. Having explored a distinctive post-punk niche from the ’80s into the early 2000s, IPR returned to activity last year. Source, a freshly available 79-minute compact disc, features various artists spanning the label’s past, present and future and rounds up rare and unreleased material in the bargain. Its contents are considered below.

I suppose I’m not alone in getting introduced to Independent Project Records through Camper Van Beethoven, as their debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory, came out on IPR in 1985, while three years later, Independent Project Press designed the cover of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the band’s fourth album, which was released by Virgin in 1988.

But if IPR can be said to have a particular sound, it’s surely in the vicinity of Savage Republic and Scenic, the two highest-profile bands of the label’s founder Bruce Licher, with Savage Republic extant, amid stops and starts, from 1982-’90 and producing four studio LPs through that period. As bands are known to do, Savage Republic reformed in the 2000s, adding three more albums to the oeuvre, although I don’t think Licher plays on them (he did design their cover art).

Scenic emerged in the mid-’90s, releasing three full-lengths that can be synopsized as instrumental-atmospheric expansions upon ideas Licher first articulated in Savage Republic and in numerous other outfits prior to that band, none included on Source. First there was Neef (releasing a cassette and a 7-inch in 1979, pre-IPR but reissued by the label in ’84). Next; Project 197 (recording a 7-inch, IPR’s first release, in 1980) and Bridge (also cutting a 45, IPR’s second release, the same year). Nearest to Savage Republic’s formation was Them Rhythm Ants (putting out one 7-inch EP, IPR’s third release, in 1981).

Savage Republic are represented on Source by “First Siege,” a demo from 1983 wielding rhythmic heft, urgency and vine-like tendrils of stinging guitar. It’s very post-punk. And as a short but solid taste of the California rock underground’s early 1980s transition, it pairs well with Bpeople’s “You At Eight,” a blend of dark, almost gothic punk-hefty new wave complete with synth and sax. It’s from that band’s 1981 7-inch for the Faulty Product label, but heard here in an alternate mix.

While Source integrates IPR’s early days into its scheme, it’s a non-chronological comp that resists presenting a linear narrative, beginning with Half String’s “The Apathy Parade,” taken from that Arizona band’s 1996 album A Fascination With Heights. Leaning toward the melodic (but heavy) side of shoegaze, Half String’s track connects quite favorably with the ’90s 4AD-ish atmospherics of Scenic’s “Above the Rim.” (Please note that Scenic’s 1995 debut Incident at Cima and Half String’s A Fascination With Heights are slated for expanded reissue by IPR on vinyl, CD, and digital September 17.)

In the late ’80s, Scenic’s James Brenner played bass in Shiva Burlesque, who are noted for including Grant Lee Phillips, later of Grant Lee Buffalo, in their lineup, and whose contribution to Source, a previously unreleased eight track demo “Chrome Halo,” is a brightly hued dose of early alt-rock. As it’s thick with guitar burn (nodding toward shoegaze), it goes down pretty okay, but I far prefer “Swan” by ex-Shiva Burlesque singer Jeffrey Clark and the River’s Edge Quintet, mainly because it radiates some vibes from the neighborhood of Howe Gelb.

However, the best Source cut with an association to Shiva Burlesque is the previously unreleased live on KDVS “Fountain of Blood” by the Torn Boys, a killer slice of loopy strummed-out drum-box psych motion that features Clark and Phillips from sometime in the mid-’80s. It’s but one of the comps numerous worthy unreleased selections, with the glistening post-punk thrust of “The Penninies” by For Against amongst the standouts.

On the subject of the no longer unissued, I’m also fond of the ragged strangeness of “Capitol” by San Fran psych-rock merchants The Ophelias, which serves as prelude to an upcoming record by the band on IPR. I’m hoping the same is true for “(She’s Got) Chinatown in the Rain in Her Eyes” by David J, he of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets fame, who dishes some fine new age drift here in a distinct mix by Tim Newman.

If that track reads like an outlier, understand that the sonic landscape of Source spans from the undisguisedly Terry Riley-esque “Raga Riley” by A Produce to the Anglo-tinged pop-rock of Jack Rabid’s Springhouse and from the psych-folk of “Engines of The World” by The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet (with apparent connections to Daevid Allen of Gong) to the aggressive but melodic post-punk of “The Soft Machine” by Red Temple Spirits.

There are a few obscurities, like “Goldmoon” by A.E. Downs, which brought John Frusciante’s first solo album to mind, and “The Flame” by Greenland and Craig, which toys with the grandeur I associate with Pink Floyd as they progressed through the 1970s. These cuts mingle productively with entries by more established acts, such as the vocal-less jangle pop of Lanterna’s “1995,” and the infusion of reggae-ish bounce, lithe guitar picking, jazzy horns and home recorded ambience that is cult Brit sibling duo Woo’s “Dobbin’s Lost His Coconuts” (it also lacks vocals).

A unifying aspect of Source’s offerings is an emphasis on instrumental textures and moods, with “The Penstemon Field” by Licher’s post-Scenic project Exploratorium exuding atmospherics that wrap back around quite nicely to Half String’s opener. The bottom line is that for folks who care much more about how music sounds than what its makers are trying to say should find this compilation and what the rekindled Independent Project Records has on deck for 2021 and beyond to be of interest.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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