Bern & the Brights: Better Than Ever
The Rosie the Riveter style portrait on Hoboken, New Jersey band Bern & the Brights’ new album Work echoes their 2010 debut, Swing Shift Maisies – these women (and guys) have really been busting lately. Their second album signals a major shift in the band’s sound: with the departure of violinist Nicole Scorsone, they’ve tightened their songwriting, with greater focus and emphasis on hooks instead of psychedelic vamps and chamber-rock interludes. Frontwoman/lead guitarist Bernadette Malavarca’s vocals are more casual, more diverse and a lot more subtle: she’s getting twice the impact out of half the effort, often with a coy chirp similar to guitarist/singer Catherine McGowan’s own style. Bassist Sean Fafara serves as a second lead guitarist with his edgy, melodic runs when he’s not holding steady and terse alongside drummer Jose Ulloa Rea. As much as the band has gone for a more cohesive style, their songwriting is still impressively diverse and unpredictable.
The opening track, Slave Driver, is a reggae song with some deviously LOL dub tinges – and then suddenly it picks up to a warmly swaying, backbeat chorus. Malavarca adds an ominously spaghetti western-flavored guitar solo when least expected…and then the band takes it down to dub, and then back up again. The second track, War & Games nicks that cloying riff by the Cure that doesn’t seem like it’ll ever disappear and builds to brightly clanging 80s British guitar-pop, something akin to a female-fronted version of the Mighty Lemon Drops or the Railway Children. I See Red is not a Split Enz cover but an original, once again juxtaposing a biting reggae pulse against another one of those irresistibly catchy, bouncy choruses. They follow that with Sick of Seeing You – as in “sick of seeing you in my dreams, get out!” – it’s part Celtic-tinged stadium rock, part reggae, with luscious layers of viciously tremolo-picked guitar.
Irish Boys harks back to the band’s earlier sound, veering between minor-key soul and indie atonality until yet another catchy chorus kicks in. The band follows that with As Long As I’m Alive, a neat and guitarishly delicious mix of loping electric bluegrass and highway rock. The final cut, Thieves Creeps & Automatons looks at the kind of people who “throw their weight around and watch you drown,” who are gonna find you, the two women sing with a casual menace on the chorus. Malavarca’s jaunty, nimble bit of an electrified Irish reel afterward is one of the album’s high points. Another winner from a band that just gets better and better. They’re at Zirzamin on Oct 16 at a little aftter 8.