Image via Douglas Martin
I tried to leave the game alone. I tried to settle into my little northwestern corner of the country and make a comfortable living in one of America’s most expensive cities as a regional music columnist and podcaster/”media personality.” But the game needs me. A lot of what passes for “indie rock” these days is MOR, easy listening, soft rock made for aging millennial consultants. A lot of “garage rock” is just bland pop rock with a cooler name to get onto Spotify playlists and through the morass of promotional emails quicker.
The weirdos got pushed aside in favor of PR-core. The freaks weren’t polite enough to the machine. There aren’t enough people willing to just come out and say that the section of underground music conceivably existing as counterculture gets smaller and smaller by the day. There is big business to be had. And now more than ever, the independent rock scene simply serves as a development league for the mainstream.
And now, out of duty, out of dedication, out of my undying affection for loud guitar music, odd guitar music, dumb guitar music made by very intelligent people, Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes is back as a monthly column for the entirety of the foreseeable future. Can’t let MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and Post-Trash have all the fun.
As for the Year of Our Lord 2023, it was one of the best years for underground music in recent memory for me. Maybe I wasn’t digging deep enough previously; perhaps sifting through the 30-75 promo emails I receive every business day depleted me of the energy to seek out the stuff I’d actually like. Regardless, there were at least two dozen albums in the reliable sub-genre of Douglas Martin Music (IYKYK) that could have feasibly made this top ten list. Without further preamble, here is—in my often-not-so-humble opinion—the best of a quietly thriving underground rock scene as of this year. If you live in an apartment, warn your neighbors.
And just in case I haven’t made it clear enough: If you’re looking for yet another 250 words about the supposed greatness of Wednesday, you’ve come to the wrong place. – Douglas Martin
For the past several years, Ohio has served as a fertile ground for weirdo rock music in a bid to reclaim the Land which spawned Devo, Pere Ubu, Cheater Slicks, and Dead Boys. As Dylan McCartney’s fluid project started with a personnel of one and has since exponentially expanded, the depth of its grimy production has deepened. Creepy dub plates are erected (“Eyes Only for Space”), motorik is scrubbed with dirty Brillo pads (“Stonewallin,’” outstanding closer “Mozart on the Wing”), and “Venom” serves as one of the great rippers of 2023, led by a corroded bassline and nasty, Midwest-futurist synths.
An old keyboard is the central melodic instrument of Debt Rag, which Max Nordile (who also contributes vocals and additionally shronks and sputters a mean trumpet) manages to render every bit as punk rock as any busted guitar ever used. Resurrected from the ashes of Oakland barnburners Wet Drag, Nordile is joined again by Marissa Magic (Girlsperm) and Lillian Maring (Ruby Pins, Grass Widow)—all of whom have relocated (in the latter two cases, returned) to Olympia, Washington, fertile land of oddball artists—on this beguilingly eccentric set of songs about Survivor hosts in dystopia and the existential drain of shitty day jobs. Brevity is not only the soul of wit but also the firmament of punk music, which serves this 10-track, 19-minute collection enormously.
There are provinces far better suited for patient hands than the realm of rock music, but Mystic 100s do an exquisite job of taking the long way around their songs. In a fairly recent past life, they were the critically favored Olympia band Milk Music, careening through Northwest backroads with an indie-meets-classic-rock sound thoroughly indebted to the Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr. And just as I’m certain the honorable Sir Mascis would still never turn down a good jam, Mystic 100s ain’t fixing what ain’t broke; they’ve only drawn out their already incredibly spacious music (hopefully in an attempt to test the endurance of the same bandwagon jumping music journalists they took shots at on the lauded Cruise Your Illusion) exponentially. Not counting the minute-long reprise of its outstanding title track, the shortest song over the course of On a Micro Diet—by a fair margin—runs just shy of five minutes. Its longest is also arguably its best; the nineteen-minute “Have You Ever Chased a Lightbeam?” is one of the year’s most stirring compositions.
On their absolutely delectable fourth album, Lewsberg takes what they’re best at—erudite indie-pop sprung from the tree of Sterling Morrison-era Velvet Underground—and strips it down to only its most functional parts. The Dutch band is also equipped with a penchant to get the most out of life’s small moments, armed with a wry, typically European sense of humor. Arie van Vliet’s violin on “Canines” is about as poetic as Shalita Dietrich’s lyrics. “A Different View” almost takes back the adjective “shimmering” from the list of music critic clichés … almost. And Out and About’s shining moment, “An Ear to the Chest,” is a perfectly constructed vignette of mild health panic augmented by a Television-esque high fret lead. (You can say it’s reminiscent of the Strokes if you’re less informed and it makes you feel better.)
A slightly accurate but oversimplified description of Famous Mammals is “the American Swell Maps,” because in all actuality, they’re practically a supergroup in the contemporary Bay Area punk/DIY scene, featuring members of a cornucopia of groups (including the great Non Plus Temps). Post-punk as a term is played out because it doesn’t really mean anything, but the homespun version of the nebulously defined style on Instant Pop Expressionism Now! supersedes easy genre placement by advertising the name of their game in the title of their indelible proper debut LP (the follow-up to their cult classic 2021 cassette).
And what exactly is that game? DIY jams equally rooted in dissonance and tuneful melody; compact, bite-sized song structures extended to a sprawling 18 tracks; guitars replete with off-center jangle; a pitch-perfect approximation of early-’80s UK punk, right down to the (faux) British accent. For all you anglophiles out there, consider this a suitable counterpoint to the royal hagiography of The Crown’s final season, as interpreted by Americans.
As modest as my personal style may be these days, I consider myself a man of fashion. One of the pieces of clothing I’ve gotten the most compliments on (all-time) is my dirty Tyvek tee, underarms dark brown from pit stains. To wit, the Detroit punk band has proven to be a veritable cottage industry, with live cassettes and odds-and-sods tapes selling out in mere hours. Overground, their hotly anticipated 2023 “studio” album, finds Kevin Boyer and his often-rotating cast of merry troublemakers (including Detroit punk musician/low-key MVP of NTS DJ Shelley Salant and, more recently, her XV bandmate Emily Roll on saxophone).
Roll’s occasional sax blasts take Tyvek toward a new, thrilling direction. Same with the album’s title track and closer, a meandering stunner guided by the spoken word poetry of the lyrics, delivered by Boyer with all the cool of John Cale on “The Gift” (even if this song doesn’t end with a ghastly, bloody surprise). But as many artistic flourishes and detours there are, they are counterbalanced by the sloppy fun of classic Tyvek, as exemplified on the somewhat cheekily titled opening track “Return to Format.”
In Dirty Shoes-adjacent circles, there’s a bit of debate about whether the songs of self-described “free-punk” band XV are entirely or merely partly improvised. More importantly than any such arguments is the fact that the songs—especially on their great third LP—sound improvised. The slightly dissonant “Funkyconomy” offsets the absentminded, rambling beauty of opener “Still Interested,” but both are still complementary to the whole, shifting on a dime between loosey-goosey punk, pop tunes about household objects, spaghetti western showdown soundtracks, and hypnotizing closing track “I Won’t Tell” (where the bass line is literally the only instrument that holds a steady rhythm). The underinformed might mistake XV’s whole style for amateurish and “outsider” (the latter usually a more diplomatic term for the former), but the fact that the title of their ebullient latest album reads like Walt Whitman verse proves this trio knows exactly what the f*ck they’re doing.
Younger readers of my work occasionally teach me the wildest things, and I’m still not entirely certain I know what “egg-punk” is, but if Tee Vee Repairmann is any clear indication of this sub-genre, then I’m with it! The songs on What’s on TV? pack a mighty one-two combo of caked-on dirt and irresistible melody—in fact, the Sydney band brandishes a melodic sensibility that rivals bands that are ten times as popular and half as fun. It’s all downright Reatardian, only without the threat of getting a mic stand swung in your face. Trade in Jay Lindsey’s fatalist screeds and songs about stalking his ex for punchy tunes about supermarket crushes and waiting around in all sorts of places (like the bus stop) for the person you have your heart’s clock set to, and you’ve got the inexhaustible appeal of Tee Vee Repairmann’s excellent full-length debut down pat.
Arguably the finest of the short-lived group of pandemic lockdown breakout bands, Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug—longtime musical partners over a variety of projects and locales—struck creative gold on 2020’s great Hunger for a Way Out, a delicious slab of compulsively danceable art-punk. Who could have possibly known their follow-up would be even better in every conceivable category? Mondal is an impressive singer; armed with range and feeling and the ability to go from an operatic vamp to a literal growl with no warning—made all the more impressive by her skills on bass, which provides melodic counterpoint rather than mimicking what Schnug’s spiky, spare, often virtuosic guitar lines do. The tunes on Good Living are anthems for a generation of art kids beleaguered by the crunch of capitalism and a little too smart to fall for its tricks (wish I could say the same for other members of their generation).
In an indie rock landscape where capitalist, neoliberal, young professional normie-ism is at an all-time high, it’s reaffirming that one of the year’s best indie rock records bristles at, skewers, and occasionally satirizes the characteristics which have flattened what was once a weird, subversive art form. One that relied upon an underground network and not how many mainstream media journalists your PR agent knows. Let’s hope Good Living is Coming for You is not the ecstatic dying gasp of popular counterculture in independent music. But if it is, it had a good run, and Mondal and Schnug have sent it off beautifully.
Rock ‘n roll as it was originally intended was basically just party music, and Tha Retail Simps’ debut album, Reverberant Scratch: 9 Shots in the Dark was one of the best pure-f*cking-boogie rock ‘n roll records of the 2020s so far. So what does the band do for their follow-up (aside from an ever-so-slight change in the name)? They scale up the ambition without sacrificing the band’s immediacy, scuffed up splendor, and Joe Chamandi hollering from the pit of his stomach into a cheap mic. They dive into rock ‘n roll at near breakneck speed (“Wrong Direction”) into pretty-if-still-a-little-cracked guitar pop (“Weapon of the Mystic”) and around a thrilling boat ride (“The River”) with little strain; it takes an athlete’s sense of effort to make these twists and turns feel natural. And they hit sleazy bar-band rock (“Keeper of the Fire”), bratty rave-ups (“Save Your Opinion,” “Easy Street”), and VU-esque epics (“Beat of the Rain”) just as easily.
Live on Cool Street is the rare rock ‘n roll odyssey that doesn’t reek of pretentiousness. It’s all truly masterful stuff, and a big domestic-beer-and-saliva spray to the face of anybody who says rock ‘n roll, still one of the most vital art forms on earth, is a dead horse.