In celebration of Halloween, here’s an album about a deal with the devil. Like most deals with the devil, some of it is great fun, some less so. Haley Bowery’s debut album Born Strange is a trip through one particular vomit-saturated part of hell: Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Much of what’s left of the LES is so NOT New York: at best, it’s Bloomington, or Chapel Hill, or Northhampton. At worst, it’s Rodeo Drive gone to the Jersey Shore.
Backed by her band the Manimals’ tunefully impretentious, fist-pumping four-on-the-floor glam-flavored rock, Haley presents the point of view of somebody who’s uncomfortable with buying into this scene, taking a leap of faith with the noose of conformity around her neck. Some people will hear these songs and say that the narratives are just a pretext for singalong choruses whose message is invariably something along the lines of “let’s get fuuuuuucked up!” But there’s more to them than that. Haley’s protagonistas want the whole city to be smart and weird like they are. Her characters make their way cynically, sometimes savagely through a wasteland of tourist traps and dashed dreams, fueling themselves with near-lethal amounts of booze. Alcohol figures into these songs as much as heroin in Elliott Smith’s music, or pot in Bob Marley’s – it’s everywhere. People drink to escape from drinking. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled Halloween, builds from a screaming postpunk verse to a big singalong chorus, crystallizing the theme here: “Fuck the rest of them, let’s party!”
The title of the big kiss-off song here is Blitzed. Likewise, the revenge anthem Undertow, which takes a pensive, uncertain folk-pop tune and turns it into a defiant glamrock singalong, an order to “drink your whiskey up for all the people who never thought you’d be more than a zero.” From the screaming intro to the backbeat chorus of Jukebox Dive, its semi-hopeful protagonist thinks back on listening to her dad’s Jesus & Mary Chain records as she insists to the guy she’s just met that she’ll drink with him til the sun comes up. And right before the luscious layers of guitar kick in on the chorus of Lobotomy, Haley reminds that “I know how a bone can break, I know what a liver can take.” In case you’re wondering, she’s been known to spray crowds at her shows with a giant squirt gun filled with whiskey.
All this reaches a peak on Dream of the Chelsea Hotel, a catchy, Patti Smith-inspired number whose main character ponders whether or not to “drink til we’re dead like Dylan Thomas did.” When these people aren’t sauced, they’re not having an easy time. 29, a wistful power ballad, looks at the angst of staring down the big three-zero and still having to hide stuff from the ‘rents. All Lies ponders whether or not there’s any hope for happiness at all, drunk or sober, in the face of competition from younger, prettier women who’ve “got command of the room.” And on the album’s Blondie-esque title track, Haley admits feeling “like an alien assembled in this skin.”
And that’s the rub – some might ask why would anyone want to live like this. Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper, never mind less stressful, to stay out of the tourist traps, away from the conformists and the self-centered rocker boys whose main occupation, at least as they’re portrayed here, is to break womens’ hearts? Hearing these songs, you want to reach into them and shake these girls, and ask them, is all this drama worth it? Maybe Haley Bowery can tackle that question on her next album. She and the Manimals – Attis Jerrell Clopton on drums, Patrick Deeney on guitar and Joseph Wallace on bass – play the National Underground on Nov 8 at 9 PM.