The month in Bandcamp: Grief-stricken dream-pop, essential vaporwave and Pablo reimagined

Every month, Miles Bowe rounds up the best of Bandcamp, unearthing the finest, freshest and weirdest releases the burgeoning DIY platform has to offer.

This month, Animal Collective fans finally had their dreams come true when Deakin delivered his solo album Sleep Cycle to Bandcamp. Regardless of your feelings about the band, it was a cool moment for Bandcamp. When Deakin’s album was announced in 2010, Bandcamp was just barely on fans’ radars – six years later the guitarist for one of the biggest indie bands in the world chooses the site for his long-awaited debut. A day later, the company revealed it had earned $150 million for its artists over the last eight years. The timing’s a coincidence, but in some small way they feel connected, and representative of the service’s continuing quality.

Deakin’s album is not in the this column, by the way. It’s good, but I’m not about to let some rock star edge out one of these hidden gems – and, oh boy, was this an unbelievably good month. Excellent showings from rock bands and electronic producers, a long-awaited reissue of one of the vaporwave classics (yes, we have those) all wedged between one of the all-time weirdest releases to end up in this column and one of the best. Let’s start with the best.


Bandcamp Release Of The Month:
Japanese Breakfast
Psychopomp

I’ve lost several friends now, here in eternally warm Los Angeles, to dead parents. One friend moved here in a fit of grief before eventually returning home better off; another lost his father suddenly and left just weeks later without speaking about it once. A recent drunken night was spent toasting my friend’s step-dad and the year he has left before the cancer takes him. It’s a club I desperately do not want to join, but will, and someday I may even have kids of my own to curse with the same induction.

Michelle Zauner’s Japanese Breakfast project was inspired by her mother’s sickness and death from cancer. The experience has culminated in Psychopomp, a grief-stricken pop album that sets like the sun, slowly cooling down with each song like the dying days of summer. “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / She’s sniffing at your empty room,” Zauner sings in the opening ‘Heaven’. It’s a devastating image in a song occupied by cleaned-out drawers and the debris of memories (and echoed in the album’s cover, an old photograph of Zauner’s mother at an age similar to her own). She understands better than the dog, but that doesn’t make for any less confusion: “I’m trying to believe / When I sleep it’s really you / Visiting my dreams / Like they say that angels do”.

And yet, ’Heaven’ bursts with sparkling melodies and swooning strings that electrify the record through the confusion. The heartbreak and rejection of ‘The Woman That Loves You’ is wrapped in a Cocteau Twins churn that later informs the romantic fantasies of ‘Everybody Wants To Love You’. They’re some of the best dream pop songs of the year, but it’s when Psychopomp wakes up that it becomes so much more than that.

Bridged by the brief title track, where the only lyrics are a recording, possibly of Zauner’s mother, asking her not to cry, Psychopomp begins its slow burn to a smoldering finish. ‘Jane Cum’ marries Zauner’s most abstract poetry to her most cathartic vocal delivery. It all ends in embers, with the intimate guitar swirls of ‘Triple 7’, where the subjects of Zauner’s loss, romantic and familial, blur and fade into self-reflection: “How I cling to your sleeves / Till they’re like lacerated sails / But in the night I am someone else.”

It’s that journey which makes this 26-minute pop album such a powerful study of grief. Trying to control something you can’t is a losing battle — humans and cancer alike. Relationships, from flings to true love, end one way or another as surely as summer turns to fall, as surely as your parents will die and you and your kids and theirs will follow. What we can control is how we respond to change. And Michelle Zauner’s responded by making one of the best records of the year.


Sam Weston
Shiraz Voyager

Sydney producer Sam Weston packs his stripped-down songs with smart decisions. His thoughtful club constructions manage to hide small surprises without ever breaking their hypnotic pull, and it’s that knack for curious mixtures that he consistently stirs up. ‘One Million’ swirls in scrambled jazz and breathy sighs, but sneaks in a distorted synth that’s as endearing and unexpected as one of DJ Koze’s warty melodies. The best here is opener ‘Fabergé Egg Shaker’, where a silk-smooth production becomes a playground for a children’s choir. The swirling voices — singing, chattering and playing — forming a uniquely comforting psychedelia and a sonic world I hope Weston invites us back to soon.


Soft Fangs
The Light

After John Lutkevich’s band broke up in Los Angeles, he drove back to his small hometown near Boston to record his contemplative debut EP as Soft Fangs. Lutkevich may have recorded the songs in Massachusetts, but the reflective intimacy of his work felt born of those long stretches of road, driving and thinking about a whole lot and nothing at all. Soft Fangs’ debut album, The Light, delivers a subtle expansion to the color-washed tenderness introduced to us by those early songs. Right from the opening ‘Dragon Soap’, a song full of brief touches – soft electronic blips before the first vocal, a whining organ, the cymbal rush in the final moments — it’s clear that this is an album where the fleeting moments are as important as any big climax.

‘Golden’ starts so hushed that the scrape of fingers against guitar strings becomes an instrument of its own, making its surging finish all the more powerful. ‘Birthday’ sparkles with the same somnambulant vulnerability of Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound demos. Like the EP’s crushing closer ‘Dead Friends’, The Light ends on its best note. Following the delicate music box-accompanied ‘Too Many Stars’, the title track unfolds in one grand final sweep. “I know you’re running scared / But when the light comes, turn around and stare,” Lutkevich sings in the final moments. You get the impression that’s just what he’s done after the long road to this album – I’m looking forward to hearing what he sees.


Body-San
Shining The Money Ball

At this point, you’re as likely to see 1080p in this column as you are to see Norm on the corner stool in Cheers. The web label’s prolific output results in at least one gem a month with the aquatic delights of Body-San being the most recent. Over 10 tracks, Shining The Money Ball smears bleary synths and garbled vocal cut-ups into an intoxicating blend equal parts house and hypnogogia. Tracks like ‘Mama Celeste Side Up’ and ‘Wet Bar’, with their breezy melodies and hypnotic murmurs, continue what’s been an excellent streak from one of the internet’s most charming labels.


Ghost Orchard
Bliss

There are moments during Ghost Orchard’s Bliss that make you double check the tabs on your browser for stray sounds. Songwriter Sam Hall writes warm folk songs with a generous glop of keyboards that may or may not fit in with everything else going on, but work anyway. ‘Enough’ nails the vibe where squiggling synths run free over the fuzzy performance, like a lo-fi bedroom recording where the video game-playing roommate wasn’t asked to leave or even hit pause.

Only ‘October 13’ sucks away the hiss, giving the record a surprisingly clear, twinkling centerpiece, like waking up in the middle of the night for a moment of lucidity. If you need another opinion, Bliss has also received a cassette release from Orchid Tapes. If that name sounds familiar, they’re the same label that championed Katie Dey’s near-perfect asdfasdf last year.


Luxury Elite/SAINT PEPSI
Late Night Delight

Originally released in 2013, Late Night Delight is one of the defining vaporwave releases. It’s now received a much-needed cassette reissue, a serious plus for anyone forced to pay shitloads of money for it on Discogs. The 2-for-1 tape brings together best-ever sets from Luxury Elite (who topped this column earlier this year with Noir, one of our favorites of the year) and SAINT PEPSI, the endlessly endearing early project of Ryan DeRobertis, the community’s crossover star, and bonus tracks.

These days DeRobertis is a genuine pop artist as Skylar Spence and doing official remixes for Carly Rae Jepsen, and this endlessly charming set reminds you how he got there. Vaporwave won a whole lot of new fans over the years because of producers like this and there’s not a better time for newcomers to rediscover this classic.


TOYOMU
Imagining “The Life of Pablo”

Baffling, bizarre, unlistenable, hilarious, and brilliant. This alternative take on Kanye West’s latest album, which TOYOMU made without ever listening to the original, circles around from genius to stupid like a perpetual motion machine. It’s one of the strangest records I’ve heard since porn star Farrah Abraham’s taste-obliterating, outsider art landmark My Teenage Dream Ended, and likely to earn a similar spot in bizarro internet Valhalla.