San Francisco has been a haven for weirdos since pretty much forever, and local label Death Records is hellbent on continuing that legacy. Founded in 2014 by Colin Arlen and Emotional frontman Brian Wakefield, the label has devoted the last three years to growing its roster with artists from the Bay and, in some cases, well beyond.
Deathstock, their annual three-day festival which is now in its third year, acts as a yearly showcase and — should you bring an inner tube — float party for the label’s distinctly DIY ethos and sound. Each year, the label brings a lineup stacked with the best of the underground to the shores of Russian River in Guerneville.
Best of all, it’s one of the few remaining California festivals left that hasn’t been devoured by pretension, VIP packages, corporate branding, techies (looking at you, Burning Man), or booths filled with overeager volunteers telling you to use a specific hashtag when you post the cheap swag they gave you to Instagram.
To celebrate the gloriously weird weekend’s annual return, we’re premiering the label’s pre-festival mixtape (filled with brand new tunes from featured artists) and making a few recommendations. Long live Death Records indeed.
Deathstock returns Friday, July 7 to Sunday, July 9, at 16101 Neeley Road in Guerneville.
Earth Girl Helen Brown
Helen Brown takes her status as an earthling very seriously, in that she sings about parlaying with Martians, getting in laser fights, and “Kenneth,” the particular martian who knocked her up with a bunch of little half-aliens. But her kitschy and bizarre lo-fi guitar pop is only half of the story: Brown was raised in a religious cult in Athens, Georgia, dropped out of Evergreen State College, and traveled the country as a troubadour before settling on the side of a mountain in southern Alaska. With a backstory as bonkers as that, it only makes sense that her pop lives on the fringes of its genre, although it’s not without its charm, ’60s girl group influences, or heartfelt sincerity – even when she’s talking about doing the nasty with extra-terrestrials.
Sarah Bethe Nelson
Her name might sound like something you’d find on a bourgie East Coast prep school’s attendance sheet, but Sarah Bethe Nelson is anything but prissy. Last year, the San Francisco-based indie rocker released an album good enough to make Consequence of Sound declare the Bay Area music scene alive again and earn a 7.4 from Pitchfork. It’s no surprise, really, given how her records are stuffed with ’90s slowcore vibes and sound like Cherry Glazerr if Clementine Creevy was a decade or two older. Of all the artists on Burger Records’ ever-expanding roster, she’s among its most rock-solid songwriters, capable of capturing every last drop of emotion without losing her composure or getting full-on campy. Which is, to put it mildly, rare.
According to Feels’ website, the band plays “psych-punk grunge future rock + roll post whatever,” but we’ll stick with “post-punk” for brevity’s sake. Said post-punk is wild and angular, crammed with guttural basslines and clanging guitars dripping with reverb. Listening to the outfit’s 2016 self-titled debut is the best kind of assault on your ears: a full-throttle wall of sound that rages like a trapped animal without sacrificing its more melodic and classic SoCal punk moments. (Ty Segall produced the record and left his fingerprints all over it – a top-tier garage rock cosign if ever there was one.) It was enough to send Castle Face knocking, most likely because the band feels like the next logical step following Thee Oh Sees. We’re expecting one hell of a mosh pit.
Perhaps the only person cool enough to wear sunglasses inside since, I don’t know, Clint Eastwood or something, Colleen Green is Los Angeles’ reigning queen of underground slacker pop. In addition to making zines and weed jokes on the regular (look up her Twitter handle or listen to “Green One” off her 2010 EP of the same name), Green writes simple and instantly familiar lo-fi rock melodies. But it’s not all fun and games and rolling another blunt, as Green’s songs crackle with an underlying sense of insecurity and introspection. Which is another way of saying that just because it’s stoner pop doesn’t mean it’s not smart.
It takes a lot to stand out in a city already drowning in dream pop and shoegaze bands – like, we get it, Slowdive changed your life and the main goal is to have your music described as “shimmering” or some shit – but Cruel Summer don’t sound like every other dream pop band in San Francisco. This is mainly because the fourpiece is unreasonably talented, and because their ’90s-inspired shoegaze isn’t afraid to show its teeth at any given moment. It’s almost like they heard Unknown Pleasures at just the right time, and its taut energy seeped into the band’s songwriting in all the right places. The result is fresh and fanged – both fantastic qualities to have while working in an often toothless genre.
Part Time just wants a simple, beautiful romance. They want to take night drives, hence the song “Night Drive.” They want to take you out, hence the song “I Want To Take You Out.” You get it. But that’s sort of the point: Part Time embraces camp and has no issue with being perceived as cheesy, stuffing love song after love song with schmaltzy New Wave synthesizers and sweet-as-pie guitar lines. Remember “Heartbeat City” by The Cars? It’s like that. And it’s simply irresistible.
Among other things, Sea Blite is just so damn likeable. The San Francisco fourpiece plays melodic and straightforward surf-rock with power-pop flair – sonically, it’s very ’90s. If you were bumping The Softies, Rocketship, or All Girl Summer Fun Band in decades past, you’ll connect to every short and sweet song on their self-titled EP released last month. While “twee” has become something of a dirty word in the post-2008 music world, Sea Blite aren’t without their effortlessly charming pop moments, the ba-ba-bas on “wolly sweater” being the most obvious example. It’s simple, short, cute, and enough to make you want to keep said EP on heavy rotation all summer long.
There is a heartbreakingly low quality video on YouTube of Friendless Summer playing a cover of New Radicals “You Get What You Give” – a classic from an era when it was still acceptable to un-ironically wear bucket hats and film music videos in shopping malls – and, basically, it’s the best cover ever done of that song. As for the band’s own music, frontman Jack Brown splices his own insecurities and bad luck and turns them into affable bedroom-pop gold. “Life,” the B-side to a single released earlier this year, is pure power-pop ecstasy, its danceable riff spit-shined to catchy perfection. Someone call Spotify because it deserves to be a shoo-in for every feel-good playlist on the planet.
Burner Herzog has exactly one song on Bandcamp titled “Darker Places” and it is absolutely bonkers. As in, it’s driven by a bouncy harpsichord, a feisty guitar riff, and frontman Jasper Patrick Leach’s oddball and hyper-creative lyrics about a good girlfriend gone bad. It’s experimental pop at its best, which is exactly what any project with a name riffing off legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog should be. It’s a delightful two minutes and 45 seconds, but we need more. And soon.