The Brooklyn What exploded out of the Freddy’s Bar scene at the tail end in the late zeros, right before the building that housed the first incarnation of that beloved Brooklyn venue was bulldozed in the wake of the illegal land grab that resulted in the construction of the notorious Barclays Center. So it’s no wonder that the band’s music has been so relevant, and so hard-hitting. Yours probably would be, too, if your home turf was seized in the name of eminent domain and then turned into a basketball stadium, to further enrich an already mega-wealthy out-of-state developer.
Since then, the band’s musicianship has grown exponentially, over the course of two full-length albums and a bunch of singles, without losing touch with their punk roots. Watching them develop has been akin to seeing how the Clash rose from their early three-chord stomps to the epic stylistic mashups of Sandinista. The Brooklyn What’s latest, characteristically intense ep, streaming at Bandcamp, is titled Minor Problem. Their next show, starting around 9 this coming January 17 at the Gutter in Williamsburg, is a Lou Reed/VU tribute and benefit for the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri with a whole slew of bands including Jeff Lewis, psychedelic folk legend Peter Stampfel, No One and the Somebodys, Ghospal, the Planes, Electric People, Old Table and possibly others.
The new record’s opening track, Sledgehammer Night, gives you a good idea of where the band is coming from these days: it’s amazing how much they can pack into a single song, even in just a couple of minutes. This one’s got an intro like an early Wire outtake and a catchy twin guitar hook from Evan O’Donnell and John-Severin Napolillo. It’s alternately skronky and propulsive – and kind of creepy in places. “I’m sick and tired of staring at screens,” frontman Jamie Frey intones, “I need a reaction, I need a release.” His voice has grown deeper, more world-weary since the early days, no surprise considering how much this city, and the world, has changed since then.
The intro to Blowin’ Up hints at the Dead Boys; the verse is hardcore, the missing link between Black Flag and Guided by Voices. Then the band swings the hell out of it, with a searing, unhinged guitar solo (guessing that’s O’Donnell putting blisters on his fingers). By contrast, Metropolitan Avenue is a four-on-the-floor backbeat anthem held together by bassist Matt Gevaza and drummer Jesse Katz as Frey makes his best pitch to a standoffish Bushwick girl while the guitarists trade jagged incisions and fullscale roar.
As good as those songs are, the masterpiece here is Too Much Worry, almost nine minutes of white-knuckle intensity, relentless angst and psychedelic guitar fury. Napolillo’s homage to early Joy Division extends to the rapidfire rhymes of No Love Lost (and echoes of Warsaw), and as the song careens forward, there’s an interlude where it evokes a tighter take on that band doing the Velvets’ Sister Ray, at least musically speaking. The guitars rise and fall and after a brief passage with Frey’s eerily distant piano rippling overhead, heat up with a volcanic duel worthy of the Dream Syndicate. That’s O’Donnell with the icepick attack in the left channel, Napolillo’s scorched-earth stampede on the right. As four-song ep’s go, there’s been nothing released in 2014 that comes close to this: watch for it on the best albums of the year page here in about a week.
Frey’s prowess as a prose writer matches his songwriting: his blog is LMFAO and just as insightful a look at what’s happening to this city.