Label Watch: Mexican Summer
Maybe we're just suckers for their coastal, sun-drenched appeal because we're stuck in the cold, grey, landlocked English North. Or maybe it's because their roster is deceptively deep and challenging. Either way, Mexican Summer are a label we love here at Norman Records in Leeds (average July temperature: 16°C / 61°F).
“Surf’s up, baby.” I put quotation marks around that because I’m sure someone at the Mexican Summer offices has said that at some point in their life. It’s a speculative attribution. Founded by New York rockers Kemado Records, Mexican Summer was too cool for school, too slick to be a subsidary. Initially conceived as a physical store (those things still exist?) in which to sell their records, owner Andrés Santo Domingo grew it into a label, a place where the breeziest songwriters and most inventive composers could come together under one banner.
Yes, this is the famous list in which we talk about Best Coast, and then Oneohtrix Point Never, in succession. The bigger nerds among you will likely have a thing or two to say about that, but we got up ahead of you. The truth is there are so many remarkable hidden gems among the Mexican Summer catalogue that it’s easy to get fooled; easy to think that the emanating chill of coastal sun-soakers Allah-Las and Connan Mockasin doesn’t have anything like the psychedelic frenzy of Dungen giving it a jolt. Since inception, Mexican Summer has been a quiet challenge on the indie overground, giving artists like Daniel Lopatin the chance to curate releases via their sub-label Software, or pushing forward the avant-garde songwriting of Marissa Nadler (for whom the label is named).
And so from a far rainier corner of existence we give you the Mexican Summer rundown, full of daring music and afterparty deckchairs.
Our weed-loving and cat-owning favie Best Coast breezed in one day and made our whole universe a deep-sink sofa. With little fuss and plenty chill, Bethany Cosentino’s project is based on a couple of self-evident truths: weed is good when you’re at home, and when you’re at home you’re all alone. I effectively just wrote you a Best Coast song, there; throw in some jangly guitars and a slacker rhythm section and you’re good to go.
Back in 2010, Best Coat’s first LP Crazy For You was an effective band-aid plastered over a world of unrelenting pitter patter. Shot through the California sunshine, Cosentino gave us some of the simplest, most digestible songs indie pop had going, rhyming ‘you’ with ‘you’ in a homage to both lo-fi garage rock and golden oldie radio hits. It was fantastic, a welcome home party for plainly stated pop hooks. The sound was clear but noxious, carried by reverb, and ticked over into The Only Place, her second record of all-embracing Cali-worship.
Post Mexican Summer, Best Coast has tried a couple new things out, offering us the reignited power pop of Fade Away and the psychedelic haze of California Nights. It’s those early records that feel like gems, though, sunglasses and shrugs at their best.
Here he is: Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, aka @0pn. Arguably one of the most influential forces in electronic music today, he’s responsible for the off-planet tech fantasies of R Plus Seven, the nu-nu-metal aggressions of Garden of Delete and the recent Vangelis-isms of Age Of. And that’s just recent output; we’ve not yet even begun to talk about a career of brilliant ambient compositions that span Instrumental Tourist (recorded with Tim Hecker), his open source vaporwave project Eccojams and his foray into film scores.
Oh, and let’s not forget the watermark: Replica. Released in 2011 as a joint venture between Mexican Summer and Software - a sub-label devised by Lopatin himself - it now sounds like a bridge between old works and new, a looping and sampling dronework characterised by the kind of spatial silences that have become Lopatin’s signature. Because they’re not just silences: they’re his silences, playing out the dramas he’s collaged. More than just an exercise in plunderphonics, Replica was a newly rendered environment, like a video game world with quiet stretches of land rolling into explorable events.
Through a myriad releases on a myriad labels, Lopatin has been assigned all the usual computer music cliches: retro and futurist, info-heavy and hyper-referential. They’re fair descriptions, in truth, but Replica is human, an emotional and cathartic approach to musical data-scraping. The sound he’s assimilated and re-composed has warmth and wonder, and makes Replica one of the most precious Mexican Summer releases ever.
It might be the musical approximation of summer shade and a cool breeze, but Natalie Mering’s Weyes Blood project is something of a u-turn. It stars the ex-guitarist of drone rock thrillseekers Jackie o Motherfucker and one-time Ariel Pink collaborator approaching music straightforwardly, seeing where the simple melodies and grainy aesthetics of the ‘60s will take her. Transporting her to the possibilities of pastoral folk song and subdued synth-pop, Weyes Blood is a quietly profound project, one in which Mering makes her mark patiently.
Mexican Summer got involved with The Innocents, her second LP proper, when Mering was still acclimatising to her new songwriting idioms. Strands of the old remained, with noise rock stirring in between the delicate guitars and old-school folk coo. The record’s transitional vibe was a blessing in disguise, offering up one of the most wayward attempts at traditional folk rock revisionism.
2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth was a more full-bodied realisation of the Weyes Blood sound, fronted with piano refrains, acoustic picks and brass fanfare. It found Mering sinking into the Weyes Blood identity, bridging the gap between old-school folk music and the iterations of it that feel fresh today. Ultimately, her sound is in the arrangements: she’s pushed away from the abrasions that righteously blemished her early work, into flourishes that decorate an effectively nostalgic sound.
Dungen’s hard-edged psychedelia feels, in a lot of ways, at odds with the bulk of Mexican Summer’s output. Skronky and stormy, their records are less digestible than the average shoegazer or indie popper dwelling on this list. What Dungen trade in are intoxicating jam sessions and progressive jazz anthems, staples of a psych rock revival they were integral in kickstarting. In collaboration with Swedish label Subliminal Sounds, Mexican Summer have overseen the development of this ridiculous - but ultimately affirming - sound.
In all honesty, j’accuse Mexican Summer of trying to chill Dungen out. A collaboration with Woods proved lovely and fruitful, suggesting they had something to learn from their softer psychedelic pals. You can’t say the rest of their discography matches up: on 2010’s Skit I Allt they homaged the murkiness of heavy rock and referenced their amorphous influences from jazz, gleefully suggesting they didn’t know quite which band they wanted to be. Compacting composed songs proper with improvised whirlwind jams, Dungen went on to make more music in this mould, simply trying to expedite the energy levels on 2015’s Allas Sak.
All this brainstorming and cosmic abandon has led us down the line to Häxan, the band’s most recent record. A sign of a band who feel fully in charge of their destiny, it was Dungen’s first entirely instrumental record, exploding their psych rock sound into a wordless tapestry. Made to accompany the 1926 animation The Adventures of Achmed, the record is a testament to the versatile sound Dungen can create - to the cinematic stakes they raise.
Mister lo-fi himself, Ariel Pink came up when blogs were the power. Releasing a slew of homespun dream records in the early 2000s, Pink’s singular style eventually caught the eye of Animal Collective, because of course it did. Compatriots of catastrophe, the band re-released his record The Doldrums in 2004, introducing the world to an artfully destructive pop songwriter who collaged melody and noise into a patchwork. Queue the R. Stevie Moore comparisons, alongside other artists coming up at the time, people started to refer to Pink’s music as ‘hypnagogic’ pop, defining it in terms of its ability to blur the lines between retro nostalgia and radical futurism.
In hindsight, his older records as Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti now feel like nuggets, botched cassettes boasting scrapings of genius, nineteen songs at a time. Records such as House Arrest and Lover Boy offered pop song vignettes, hyper aware of their tropes and bracingly experimental, with samples and rhythms gleefully colliding into one another. Joining Pink on his journey was the deconstruction-obsessed John Maus, another member of this somehow vital scene of keyboard plonk, Pink recruiting like-minded left-fielders into his pursuit of irresistible incoherence.
Production values have done something to this man. Now able to make a more archetypical record, Ariel Pink has deviated into the exact kind of unforgivably creative kookiness you’d expect. It was only subtle on Before Today, the outwardly pop record that spawned “Round and Round”, a loopy hook-athon that stands proud as his best ever number. The ad-jingle aesthetics of Pom Pom drove our office into a polarised frenzy of enjoyment and agony, while the remarkable psychedelic wooze and subdued funk of Dedicated to Bobby Jameson found us fully appreciating his never-bygone knack for invention. These days it’s less graffiti, more professional filter -- but Pink’s still Pink.
The sickly slacker funk of Connan Mockasin is… well, what? It sits ludicrously neat between the sleeping guitars of Mac DeMarco and the experimental pop of Ariel Pink, finding a beguiling middle-ground between chill as hell and psychedelically enraging. It’s the kind of songwriting you could call ‘ambient’, such is its ability to lounge about the house. It’s only fitting, then, that the Connan Mockasin experience is best realised sitting down, in a warm room, with Mexican Summer.
After the breakout sleaze pop of Forever Dolphin Love, Mockasin joined the New York label for his most acclaimed release yet, the eerily shiny-surfaced Caramel. The musical equivalent of a mansion made out of treacle, the record relied on Mockasin’s keen ability to transpose a melody into an unsettling rock band context, the guitars warped, the beats slathered and his vocals romantically reptilian.
His solo records continue to blur the line between rock ‘n’ roll and an afternoon nap, with Jassbusters nearly dozing off entirely as it lays out the sad-but-flirtatious missives of “Sexy Man” and the like. But with an excellent collaboration with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes suggesting the slightest of different paths for his music to go down, there’s a chance Connan Mockasin may go on to surprise us all. For now, we’ve got his skewed take on rock relaxation to wrap our heads around.
Goths, take a deep breath: you are safe in this list. We wanted to make sure your dark and tender hearts were accounted for, so we’re going to talk about how integral Marissa Nadler is to Mexican Summer; so integral, in fact, that they got their name from one of her songs, released in the early days of her twilight-summoning career. Nadler’s career has since blossomed, and she’s found a new home on the appropriately occult Sacred Bones, but some of her best work is her earliest, including the dreamy soundscapes of Little Hells and Ballads of Living and Dying.
Alongside Eclipse and their own sub-label Kemado, Mexican Summer helped re-up Ballads, Nadler’s 2004 debut. Influenced by neo-folk and hauntology, the record saw Nadler’s ominous songwriting at its strongest, echoing the dream pop of old to create an icy new netherworld. The spectral Western wastelands of Songs III: Bird on the Water bridged folk music and shoegaze in a move that would become Nadler’s signature, a hazy but earth-rooted sound accomplished by few other artists.
With Little Hells, Nadler dug her way out of the void and into the world. Her most expansive and generous record to that point, it proved how commanding she could be in her landscape, how fearlessly she could move through a slow-burning, gently-lapsing ballad, and how confidently she could control a mantra. We can see why she’s so firmly held in Mexican Summer’s heart.
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has been kicking about the underground ambient scene for years and years and years. Just try and comb through his discography; it’ll hurt your head. A founding member of the label and/or music blog Root Strata, who have released records by drone legends such as Grouper, Cantu-Ledesma has also released on Students of Decay and Temporary Residence, jumping around the place depending on his music’s mood and timbre.
Just bear that in mind, ‘cos we’re jumping right to the end of his career, here. Cantu-Ledesma started going really hard in the 2010s, releasing some of the noisiest, most over-driven drone music of his career, often converting it into a sort of scattershot dance music. Building on the blocks of the immense Love is a Stream, he created Songs of Forgiveness and Songs of Remembrance, two hopelessly romantic records that looped ricocheting textures around glitches and beats. It felt, in a lot of ways, like shoegaze homage, an ode to the bands who hid heartbreaking melodies behind a screen of distortion.
And in comes Mexican Summer: since realising this tantalising sound, Cantu-Ledesma has released two of his most high-profile albums, both coming out via the label. A Year With 13 Moons was the first, a record of massive textures and sprite-like melodies that hinted at the dream pop of Cocteau Twins circa Blue Bell Knoll. The second, On the Echoing Green, stands proud as Cantu-Ledesma’s pop moment -- noisy, abrasive, and devouring, it is ultimately jubilant, soaking in the sun as it explodes. We have Mexican Summer to thank for his new era of pure loud.
Starting this list with Best Coast and ending it with Allah-Las. Are you noticing a theme? Are the palm trees swaying, begging us to notice them and thank them for the shade? Yes, Allah-Las are yet another California band too toasted from the sun to muster up any actual convincing amount of energy. Instead, they play sleepy jangle pop, delivering summer to the less lucky among us in swathes of ‘60s pastiche.
Er, that’s it, really. Before they got a deal with Mexican Summer, they released two surfy delights for Innovative Leisure Records, including the brilliant and aptly titled Worship the Sun. The sunshine of the past shone kindly on them; their sound referenced fun-havers The Byrds as well as the legendary Zombies, utilising vocal relay races and folksy guitars. In a time when jangle pop was all the rage (read: about three years ago), Allah-Lahs seemed to be its best students, knowing just how to play.
You get double laid back points for appearing on Mexican Summer, so it’s no wonder that Calico Review was even chiller. The 2016 release steadied the Allah-Las ship with a smattering of twang and melodies that meditated. With a sound like this, they’re practically the label’s ambassadors.
Dreamers No Joy have been chancing magic for Mexican Summer since 2010, with an album that sounded twenty years older than it actually was. Ghost Blonde was the kind of record that wanted you to call it ethereal, heaven forbid, its guitars casting a gaseous ozone layer over melodies as communicative as labelmates Best Coast. With the kind of sweet, strawberry-laced feedback that marked the greatest of shoegaze oldies, No Joy were free to slack off underneath, providing a sound that was as thrilling as it was becalmed.
With some minor refining decisions, No Joy have continued to float through the ether, and with great success. Wait to Pleasure became the group’s watermark release, assimilating disparate narrow corners of rock music into their sound, including bluesy rhythms and heavy ‘60s pastiche. Enduring it all was the haze, the front they put up to keep listeners at a distance, which continued to their third LP More Faithful. Arguably their most subtle record, No Joy commenced meander mode, using softer strokes in production to create a record predicated on gorgeous vocal harmonies and twanging reverb. It was as if they’d gone way back to the glory days of their favourite distortion mumblers. It’s no surprise, of course, that they belong there.
Honestly, where the hell did chillwave go? It came to board with us all for a couple summer holidays and then seemed to disappear forever, leaving the faintest hint of Toro Y Moi behind. Utilising an alternative palette of r ‘n’ b and electro-funk, Washed Out created Life of Leisure, one of the genre’s proudest staples. Showing off his lo-fi filters and dinky synths, the record smacked of nostalgia while never really giving way to it. Life of Leisure sounded like a fusion of older pop aesthetics, but within a new, fresh context, one both derided and given a name by indie blogger Hipster Runoff. What a weird, weird time to be into music - but if you’re looking to lounge, this one stands the test of time.
With nostalgia-baiting folk music doing the rounds in recent years, it made sense to go back to the source. Linda Perhacs is responsible for laying down influence on the new crop of pastoral songwriters, her psychedelic folk opus Parallelograms dating all the way back to 1970. A cult classic to rival Just Another Diamond Day or Colour Green, the record was made humbly, by a dentist too discouraged to publicise it in is day. Using wayward guitar tunings and spectral chiming instrumentation, the re-release of Parallelograms marks it as some sort of sonic outlier, separated from its world and condemned to a ghost existence. It remains one of the best peculiarities of folk music, resulting in an exciting late-career revival from Perhacs in 2014.
Honouring the unofficial theme of Mexican Summer - that California is a good place to sign up musicians from - Date Palms are a sun-dappled drone excursion with plenty of palm tree evocation. Combining the ambient chops of Gregg Kowalksy with those of Marielle Jakobsons - whose Students of Decay LP Glass Canyon remains a sort of hybridising pop classic - Honey Devash swelters under the heat, its cosmic synths, twanging guitars and dustbowl bass conjuring up elliptical illusions at fifteen minutes a piece. It’s soundscape work worthy of its names, one of the most immersive pieces of music the duo have put their name to, a sonic noir thriller writhing under a hot sun.
For Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, Replica was a turning point, a chance to revamp artistic processes and come out with something entirely different. Gone were the synth-based productions of his past; in their place was a music of reference, built on samples of adverts collected from old video tape recordings. Call it ‘plunderphonics’, if you want, though Lopatin’s approach feels more meticulous, bringing together the adverts as if they were some kind of hyper-capitalist choir, singing in unison. With its stark, poetic silences and its attempt at rewiring the contexts of sound sources, Replica feels like the start of a new kind of Oneohtrix Point Never, one with pointed creative purpose.
The best record from No Joy is arguably also the weirdest, an experimental midway point between their two shoegaze-touting bookends. Moving the band into territory that used their grainy, overcast production and familiar vocal malaise as a surface on which to try anything, they implemented heavier ideas - along with electronic blips and trip hop that gave proof of a purpose beyond mere homage. The best thing about Wait To Pleasure is that it suggests shoegaze and dream pop can work as tools, not the end point in themselves; through that filter, No Joy became an entirely different band, song to song.
The first LP from enigmatic producer Huerco S. (real name? Delightfully, it’s Brian Leeds) was a misnomer, giving nothing away about the gaseous ambient territory he’d soon occupy with his second LP and Quiet Time label. Rising to the top of a pool of lo-fi house and techno records, Colonial Patterns was special, utilising its cassette hiss and bricker-bracker synth to create a distorted pulse. Embedded in the record were references to mythologies and lost histories, the first signs of the ambiguous, inexplicable raison d'être of Huerco S.
There used to be this sign on the door of my school’s P.E. gym that said ‘go hard or go home’. Guess who’s seen a similar sign in their life? Yep, it’s Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, the scuzz noise droner who tried to collapse earth on A Year With 13 Moons. The culmination of recording sessions that took place during his residency at the Headlands Centre, out in San Fran, the record also seems like the final word on his ambient work, a massive statement from an artist who’s worked intricately in the genre for years. The record ascends at exponential rates, washing viscerally over its listener in dreamy, overdriven textures. “The Last Time I Saw Your Face” and “Love After Love” makes for some of the most raw and emotionally driven compositions of Cantu-Ledesma’s career - music that moved out of him as a primal force.
And relax. According to Calico Review, nothing will ever be bad again, so you can afford to. On Allah-Las’ most accomplished record to date, the band went about making a drowsy albeit upbeat collection of jangle pop, the kind likely to flood joy into the hearts of Velvets fans everywhere. Long may they try, but few indie pop bands get quite as chill as the Allah-Las do here. With tenderly blunt vocals and good time chord progressions, Calico Review effectively out-summers Mexican Summer.
Front Row Seat to Earth is one of those rare records where refinement actually pays off. After making records more in league with the noise rock establishments she’d been playing in previously, Weyes Blood delivered this minor folk rock masterpiece, tributing the ‘60s and ‘70s with studious aplomb. Awarded with lite comparisons to great, torch-bearing songwriters like Karen Carpenter, Mering’s record struck as more in tune with its modern surroundings, simply borrowing the tropes and arrangements of an older time to talk to the generational trappings that divide and conquer. See: “Generation Why”.
Is there a single record in the universe with a more satisfying title to say out loud? “Biophonic Boombox” - god, does that feel good. For some inane reason that we’ll surely never understand, The Nightcrawlers were making kosmische ambient music across the continent from its point of origin, dwelling with their synthesizers in places like New Jersey and Philly. A little known gem way back in the ‘70s, when this stuff was only just getting its innovation, it found a new life on Anthology Records last year, released to a world now familiarised in the contexts of early-days electronics and new age. With its high-concept recording processes - The Nightcrawlers created a mythos around them by suggesting they only made music under cover of darkness - The Biophonic Boombox Recordings feels instructive of how to make music that is imaginative and atmospheric, these psychedelica ambiences rivalling the extra-terrestrial documents of Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream.
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Here's something a bit unusual for ya. A baker’s dozen of unreleased tracks on this compilation LP celebrating Mexican Summer's 10th Birthday. Includes cuts from Ariel Pink, Pill, Allah-Las and Drugdealer, and others. 200 were pressed, and we have the very last 15.
Various Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper
- Mexican Summer
- Available on: LP