Label Watch: Sub Pop
Shout out Sub Pop. They don’t need it, but shout out Sub Pop nonetheless.
It’s kind of mad that a label who spent the late ‘80s delivering us Seattle grunge now release anything from the avant-rap of Shabazz Palaces to Flight of the Conchords. It’s obscene that they’ve given us this many good bands. And, like Norman, they’ve sometimes been right dickheads whilst doing so: just spy this letter they used to send eager musicians trying to pitch demos.
Bruce Pavitt may not have had lofty expectations when he started Sub Pop back in ‘86, but he got there anyway. After a series of obscure numbered cassettes, the label’s first ever LP deigned to grace the nether-regions of 1986, setting the bar very high indeed. Sub Pop 100 stands out as a who’s-who of old school punks, industrial heads and avant-nerds, counting amongst its ranks Shonen Knife, Wipers, Sonic Youth and that man who now produces albums while playing Scrabble on his phone, also known as Steve Albini. A release of similar might, Sub Pop 200 continued to feature label legends such as, inevitably, Nirvana.
Sub Pop is still active as hell today; it kind of feels like it eats up every corner of music, and at this point, you’ll probably find just as much that you want to fight them over in their catalogue. We’ll try and forgive them for Father John Misty.
After disbanding free jazz hip-hop forebears Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler continued his excursion into the hidden corners of avant-garde with Shabazz Palaces. Alongside percussionist Tendai Maraire, he’s built up a staggering collection of work that dunks on pretty much every preconceived notion conjured up in rap music. The murky, rhythm-writhing Black Up is the kind of debut that beckons you in only to alienate you; listening to it in 2011, it felt like a unique moment, like dusting off a tome and trying to learn its secrets.
It is to the good that it’s the only Shabazz Palaces record that sounds like that. Over four releases for Sub Pop (two of them twins, released in the same year), Butler has sounded drastically imaginative, constantly toying with traditional form and structural integrity. The duo’s second LP, Lese Majesty, was effectively one long song, a forty-five minute sprawl through psychedelic depths. In 2017, they were incapable of keeping it all on one record, releasing two albums around Quazarz -- not directly related, but within the same universe, they spoke to how deep Butler will go in on the narrative and philosophies behind his music. It is a music formed on unlike: unlike other music, but also unlike itself, constantly mutating into the new.
Pioneers of the New Boring, this duo have spent the last decade making some of the most beautifully tedious music ever. For the most part, Beach House have done it with little more than a beaming organ keyboard, some sparkly guitar lines and a pithy drum machine. The approach has been economical, the results glorious: we’ve been gifted early opuses such as Teen Dream and gone on to witness the widescreen pop of Bloom, plus the dream pop gauze of Depression Cherry. The melodies have slightly modulated and the dynamics have gotten a tiny bit less dulcet, but they’ve never really changed: just stayed the same, with mind-blowing results.
In a climate of unrelenting production rates and a race to the finish of sound as we know it, Beach House’s slow and steady refinement feels commendable. On 2018’s 7, they subtly experimented with the parameters of their sound and came out with one of their best records, going dense on the textural side of things while keeping their irresistible tunefulness at the centre of it all. Few dream pop bands have achieved the same ratio of triumph as Beach House; few others can boast a sound so blissful that it’s been sampled by The Weeknd. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally leave the world to its stress -- they’ll just keep turning.
How’d they come this far? A project that stemmed from the college bedroom, clipping. have since become world-beaters, their progressive sonic missives sounding unlike anything else in the current rap landscape. The fact that principal MC Daveed Diggs had a spot in broadway smash Hamilton is a misnomer: their sound is noisy and abrasive, utilising the hallmarks of genres like shoegaze and industrial to be, well, confusing, positioning a cataclysm between their poetics and their listeners.
Their first record, the all-caps onslaught CLPPNG, was brutally enforced, a dense and overbearing listen that recalled the unapologetic throttle of Death Grips. Since then, their production has found a semblance of shape; like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway but for rap music in space, Splendor & Misery implements science-fiction mythos and convoluted narrative. It is in this overbearing, overthinking approach that clipping. become vital; their music doesn’t sound like busy nonsense, but instead a sprawl of compelling ideas just waiting to be deciphered. Somehow.
Sleater-Kinney were a shreddin’ punk band long before Sub Pop came knocking. They’d released some of the most raucous records to grace the ‘90s, including Call the Doctor and the famously Kinks-plagiarizing Dig Me Out -- which, despite its artwork, had nothing to do with the British Invasion. Their records were fast and bracing, but also kind of impossible to replicate; few bands they could call their contemporaries were working with guitar lines as intricate, or song structures as maddening. In this area, they competed with ‘experimental’ punk bands like Fugazi, giving us innovative punk u-turns in One Beat, as well as 2005’s The Woods -- their first record for Sub Pop, and the beginning of a nine year hiatus.
The Woods seemed like the beginning of the end for the legendary songwriting trio of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, but it was actually just a prolonged cliffhanger. In 2015, they released No Cities To Love, arguably their best record yet, somehow as fresh and frenzied as any of the music they’d left behind. It was as callous and abrasive as it was euphoric and freewheeling, suggesting the Sleater-Kinney cogs had never stopped turning.
And it seems it might be the start of a brave new era. Rather than give us No Cities to Love as a brazen victory lap, it seems another record is on the horizon, the band signalling that production work will be undertaken by St. Vincent -- an artist whose music may not have reached us were it not for the influence of Sleater-Kinney. It’s been nearly twenty-five years, but they’re still bouncing -- and still as vital as ever.
Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys have a lot to be dealing with. The music world has decided to believe in them and have them shoulder the importance and legacy of punk rock. They can probably handle it; they’re extremely good. Formed by Joey La Neve DeFrancesco in 2011, a strong musical partnership with bandmate Victoria Ruiz became one of the most exciting things happening in punk music, a coalition of politics and party, of enfranchised protest songs and jamming saxophone solos. Their debut LP proper was the brilliantly titled Full Communism, and as it spat out the vices and prejudices of our own cultural scenes, it became one of its genres most striking releases.
Moving onto Sub Pop did little to diminish their spirit: in 2017, they delivered Cost of Living as if it were just the next thing they had to say. It started with a boisterous, horn-backed tune about social equality, and beyond that, it gave us the kind of burning political commentary we’d come to expect from them. A tune about Trump, simply titled “A Wall”, would’ve been far more simplistic in the hands of other punk bands; in theirs, they unfolded a whole lot more treating issues not as if they were nascent, but tied up in the history of political oppression. Just as they said on Full Communism, they’re “coming in on a wave -- a wave of history”. Pretty much anyone can enjoy the energy and hooks Downtown Boys bring to the table -- but what’s precious about them is what they have to say.
One of Sub Pop’s Seattle diamonds, Mudhoney were responsible for getting everyone in the mood for a decade of grunge music. They formed in the late ‘80s and spent the advent of the ‘90s making heavy records that revered what had come before them in rock music -- while taking it up a few levels. If you didn’t like grunge you were stuck: Mudhoney’s gnarly shtick, and the early Sub Pop records that introduced it to the world, were the reason bands sounded the way they did for a very long time.
It’s the early stuff that does it. Superfuzz Bigmuff is a ludicrously named release, I’ll grant you that, but it took on a legendary status, containing all of the sinister smarm that its genre became synonymous with. Angry and abrasive, its brilliance was never quite replicated, though future releases with Sub Pop continued to cement a legendary status for Mudhoney. Their self-titled debut was an unrelenting churn of frenzied garage rock, while Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge feels like an early signal of the inane humour that noise rock would pick up on years later.
By the time Mudhoney had moved away from Sub Pop and started releasing music with Reprise, it was well and truly the ‘90s. Credited as at least being co-founders of grunge, they should be thanked for making everyone obsessives, for giving people something to do for a good ten years.
You’re asking me to talk to you about Nirvana. You idiots. You bloody idiots. The Wikipedia page for Nirvana is basically its own novel; you may as well get googling it. Well anyway: literally nothing is left to be said about Kurt Cobain’s grunge band that hasn’t already been poured over and converted into cultural artifact. They’re a band synonymous with ‘90s alternative music, an object for the advent of MTV and the reason so many people who were teens when I was a baby were sad. And yes: they were a Sub Pop band. More on that later.
Ok, more on that now: it’s for better and for worse that Nirvana were synonymous with Sub Pop. Nirvana’s debut record, Bleach, is heavy with this subtext. Cobain felt pressured to release something in line with the grunge sound Sub Pop had already identified for themselves, repressing certain artistic ideas in favour of a sound that was doing the label its business. It became, in some ways, a hidden blessing, blowing Nirvana up while identifying them as one of the heaviest bands of their ilk.
Sub Pop was married to Seattle’s grunge scene, but Nirvana didn’t want to be just another band. These artistic frictions grew into Nevermind, the band’s first record with Foo Fighter and coffee liker Dave Grohl. Released on DGC as a result of Sub Pop’s financial turmoil, the record felt free of limitation. Instead of taking on the heavy rawk image of traditional grunge music, Cobain toyed with the alternative music he’d been playing to himself, offering the world one of those all-important ‘mature’ records a band this big ends up making.
There’s more history to be had, of course, but Nirvana’s spell with Sub Pop was over. We got Incesticide in 1992, which collected some old Nirvana trinkets which were decaying in the Sub Pop vault -- by then, though, Nirvana had become a different kind of band entirely.
Starting to feel like deja vu, huh? We’ve written about the disquieting efforts of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk several thousand times, and in several different genre guides -- their name keeps cropping up, a cornerstone of so many different labels, and in so many different scenes. In their later years, Low have found a home on Sub Pop, making the switch from Kranky to dispatch another decade consistently excellent music.
The cold, disassociated slowcore of their early days is history: nowadays, Low make whatever the hell they want. When they debuted on Sub Pop, it was with The Great Destroyer, at times their heaviest record, and at others their most whimsical. With follow-up Drums & Guns, they made most polarising work of their career, a harshly mixed record with spartan electronic arrangements. It presented a new template for their gorgeous, withered vocal harmonies, suggesting we weren’t done getting used to Low yet.
It was ultimately one of a kind -- how could it not be -- as the band moved into an area of domestic serenity. C’mon matched dream pop aesthetics with folksy instrumentation, while follow-up The Invisible Way saw producer Jeff Tweedy ham on the dad rock. As if agitated by how easy it had all become, the two records after it were dark and distraught: Ones and Sixes regaled us with the morose guitar tone of old Low, while Double Negative completely obliterated their sound in a mesh of dissonant noise and ambient loops.
There’s your Low on Sub Pop info dump: it’s full of narrative twists and turns, and stands as proof that even bands like Low get sick of staying the same.
Please tell me why we have to be as excited as we are about a band with a name as stupid as Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever? Often shortened to Rolling Blackouts C. F. in an attempt to stop us from losing our minds, this New Zealand band are trying to make it as hard as possible for us to champion them. But -- and if for no other reason than to wring some kind of positive flourish out of it -- let’s talk about how appropriate that name is. It’s both messy and melodic, as much of a burdensome tongue-twister as it is something you can roll of the tongue. Much like their tangle of guitars and their beguiling melodic twists, it is a sign of a band who never take the easy route -- but know the hard one like the back of their hand.
In just two EPs and one LP these guys -- at least three thirds of them vocalists dealing delightful New Zealand twang -- have proved themselves worthy of their country’s twee pop lineage, echoing the frenetic energy of The Go Betweens while bringing us some of the most exciting, hyper-charged guitar music we’ve heard in recent years. Released via Sup Pop, The French Press was a wonderful collection of caffeinated jangle pop, promising a band who refused to be anything but excited.
Later, they delivered Hope Downs, which is arguably a classic awaiting appraisal. At first, we liked it plenty, but now we think the world of it, obsessing over its joyous guitar lines and innate sense of harmony. You’d be a fool if you didn’t think “Talking Straight” was the best song of 2018, and while the rest of the record is subtler than its de facto lead single, it remains brilliant, trading energy and slackerisms in and out like the very best of indie rock records. In short: name sucks, band rules.
For many, Ohio’s great American rock band are also the ultimate Sub Pop darlings. Their impact is that cultish kind: people who get behind their opuses, including Gentlemen and Black Love, attach hard, probably knowing way more about their favourite band than you do yours. Which is weird, because the Afghan Whigs also fared very well on a major label: between their work on Sub Pop and bigger name Elektra, they’ve managed to keep us listening, maintaining the swagger of their rock classicism alongside bluntly earnest lyrics.
Gentlemen is of course the big one, a pitch-perfect assimilation of their moving bits and pieces -- of the weightier, more fighting alt rock instrumentation and the softer self-reflection. Writing for the Village Voice, Robert Christgau described its sound quite perfectly: “No Butch Vig or Steve Albini tidying or toughening up this sucker”, he wrote, speaking to the strained conflicts that make the album so enticingly human. Of course, Gentlemen and its partner in masterpiece Black Love are only a latter day story; Sub Pop fostered the Afghan Whigs’ evolution through their early days, attaching themselves to sophomore release Up In It, a harsher, more transgressive collection of songs.
Before they shared the Afghan Whigs’ output with Elektra, there was little refinement in them, Records like Congregation leaned in on the more the bellicose grunge that frontman Greg Dulli had found influence in. There’s something fascinating about watching them grow through the lens of Sub Pop, finally reaching the height of their artistic powers in 1993, the peak of indie’s exchange rate.
It’s their only album but it’s a big’un. Between crafting words and music for appraised indie rock romantics Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard found time to try his hand at a kind of synth-pop that would become blueprint for artists to come. Established electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello brought the template for what The Postal Service would sound like, and Gibbard’s songwriting -- not dissimilar to what he’d made with Death Cab -- did the rest, cementing the existence of a kind of dance music that could exist in teen TV dramas like the O.C. or Veronica Mars. Of all the genre tags to exist, ‘indietronica’ sure does sum up Give Up. By the way, it gave us “Such Great Heights”, so how dare we call it a Death Cab side-project?
The forefathers of sadcore all but stopped time on Frigid Stars, their debut LP. On the advent of the ‘90s, Codeine became one in a long, languishing season of bands like Low and Red House Painters -- groups who were stringent and careful about the manner in which they expressed themselves, contra to the emo bloodletting of future generations. You could argue Codeine proved themselves the most extreme example: their slowcore was ultra minimalist and all the more intense for it, bringing a post-punk desolation to the guitars and a lyricism that had the nihilism of grunge and the romanticism of old indie rock.
You can’t say it for many Sub Pop releases, but Earth 2 slays. At a lean seventy three minutes, Earth’s first full-length proper became a landmark in the history of drone metal, pioneering a version of the genre that was all things abstraction. Look at the sleeve, which features images of the band in goofy metal shirts with mugs of tea and/or coffee, and you’ll realise that Dylan Carlson, Dave Harwell and Joe Burns were messing around, just having fun shredding in ultra slow motion. And yet they stumbled in on a landmark album, accidentally making one of minimalist music’s most important records. They took some ideas from old noise bands like Skullflower and instructed new ones like Sunn O))) on how to make heavy music without ever really moving. Earth 2 is metal evaporated -- it shreds without shredding.
Ah, good times. Times before Robin Pecknold went back to school; times before Josh Tillman was an obnoxiously useless Father John Misty. Much like its deceptively busy artwork, there was so much going on with the first Fleet Foxes LP you didn’t register with your ears. Gorgeous little arrangements and hidden pastoral doings helped decorate a record that was, when you heard it, simply lovely. Dappled with baroque pop aesthetics and Beach Boys holidaying, Fleet Foxes never quite hit on this version of themselves again. They continued to make folk music, but we’re only now realising how unique their self-titled debut was: it exists in its own little world, a winter sun beaming down on a band who just loved to sing harmonies with each other.
Maybe it’s hashtag too soon, but Hope Downs is already a Sub Pop classic -- at least in our scoundrel hearts. It starts like this: you go around telling everyone you know that “Talking Straight” is the best song ever written, a shoe-in for best song of the millenium (not long to go now), before writing off the rest of the record as serviceable jangle-pop jitter. Then it all starts hitting: every clumsy 3-guitar part, every snarky melody, every single singular Kiwi-ism. I keep trying to tell people that this is the record The Go Betweens would make if they were Ought for a day. Or vice versa. It is energy done boundless, and we love it.
By the time Drums and Guns came around, the dulcet harmonies and gorgeous guitar melodies of Low had become commonplace, committed to the indie pop canon over and over to infinity. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk decided the only reasonable thing to do would be implode the home comforts, left-turning off a cliff with a record of skittering drum machines, spartan arrangements and harsh production pans. It’s claustrophobic and disassociated, but Drums and Guns kind of proves that Low can be Low however they want -- still intimate, even with this barren, war-torn backdrop. With the noisy, misanthropic opus Double Negative released in 2018, it’s important to note the roots of Low’s avant-rock inclinations.
“Clear some space out, so we can space out”. For a record so dense and intertextual, the avant-rap opus Black Up has about a thousand quotable lines, each seeming just a moment away from either total collapse or eurekaing clarity. The noise-drenched productions of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire made us sit up and listen to Shabazz Palaces, who sounded like nothing else in either rap or experimental music. They traded in misdirection: just as the album was becoming incomprehensibly murky they’d fire out a hook as solid and euphoric as the one that sparkles through “Recollections of the Wraith”. Part of Black Up’s appeal is the glowing vocals of R&B outfit THEESatisfaction, who deserve just as much credit on a list of Sub Pop greats.
Wherein Sleater-Kinney go experimental… while also producing some of the biggest smashes of their career. I mean really, for a band that spent most of their career playing music like they were tying and untying knots in some grand escapologist ploy, The Woods feels like a pointed u-turn. It’s angularity is my favourite thing about it: rather than take the purely jangling and angular route of old, it sounds like the band going full-on Fugazi, hardened around the corners while retaining the same savvy and smartness of old. Between Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, we got some of punk rock’s most recognisable tunes: the sardonic, eerily upbeat “Modern Girl” is one of them, and it sits slap bang in the middle of their most intriguing record.
Mudhoney named this one after their guitar pedals because they wanted you to know they were serious about this whole grunge thing. It’s hard to believe anything like this was getting made back in ‘88, but it was; this garage rock schematic had grit beyond its years. Superfuzz Bigmuff is as hardened a debut LP as you’re gonna hear, combining each member of Mudhoney’s own personal sense of despair in a dense thicket of sound -- low, gravelly bass, pissy vox and drums as turgid as they are momentous make up the songs on this record, which can be described as little other than ‘solid’. Releasing Superfuzz Bigmuff is one of Sub Pop’s many contributions to the Seattle sound.
I imagine we’ll be getting an abundance of stick for picking this one over Black Love. The competition for Afghan Whigs pole position is immense, but Gentlemen gets the nod from us. Released so many damn years ago that it’s upsetting to think about, Gentlemen actually feels even older than its age, reinterpreting soul, funk and barroom rock drawl into a musing on the rubble of a broken relationship. On Gentlemen, frontman Greg Dulli tumbles around in his own mind, swaggering between unhinged renegade and lonesome crooner. Centering Gentlemen’s brilliance was the starkness of its lyrics, which went deeper into the masculine psyche than your average ‘90s alt rock outing.