New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie pop

Deep Space Glimmer From Alicia Enstrom

Art-rock violinist Alicia Enstrom has a background in circus music. But on her most recent album Monsters (an anagram of her last name), she tackles immersive spacerock and chamber pop. Her lates single is Bardo Tide, a swirly, deep-space instrumental, which could be a backing track to a Julee Cruise hit from a David Lynch soundtrack. Kill the lights and enjoy.

Office Culture’s Cynical Frontman Gets Slightly More Organic

Winston Cook-Wilson a.k.a. Winston C.W. is the deadpan lounge lizard frontman and keyboardist of hilariously slick 80s pop parody band Office Culture – whose debut record you’ll see on the best albums of the year page here at the end of this month. He has a new album, Good Guess, out under his own name, streaming at Bandcamp. The music is a lot more stripped-down and less cynically plasticky than his main project, and maybe a little less insincere. Ward White at his most sardonic is a good point of comparison.

The album’s first track is Cakewalk, a slow, swaying, chiming, Debussy-esque piano pop ballad – with a characteristically cruel punchline. Guitarist Ryan Beckley does a good job emulating a horn with his volume knob as bassist Carmen Rothwell keeps a steady pulse.

Business is much the same, a stroll “past the trappings of defeat.”  As you might guess, the third track, Safety, is not about being safe at all, with its allusions to betrayal. The joke in Broken Drum is more musical rather than lyrical, the band gettting murky and rubato with some familiar “classic rock” riffs. “Maybe I look like someone who thrives for a minute in this brutal season, someone who forgets what it’s like to be that other guy,” Cook-Wilson muses innocently.

The sarcastically titled instrumental Swing Time is a slightly Lynchian stab at free jazz. The narrator of the increasingly creepy kiss-off ballad No Regrets is no less blithely callous than the characters in Cook-Wilson’s main band’s songs.

The album’s best story is Birds, an allusively grim narrative set to a cliched, saccharine 80s easy-listening pop backdrop. The abrasively trippy title track brings the record full circle, “a joyous day for a sad affair,” as Cook-Wilson puts it. For anyone who’s ever suffered through a retail dayjob where Lite FM plays on loop, this is sweet redemption.

Imaginatively Arranged, Trippy, Artsy Retro Pop Sounds From James Righton

Klaxons keyboardist James Righton most likely has a huge record collection. His new album The Performer – streaming at Bandcamp – is informed by decades of soul and smartly orchestrated pop sounds. The production is elegant, frequently psychedelic and despite all the digitally precise layers, sounds pretty organic. The catchy tunes and artful arrangements are the focus here rather than lyrics or vocals.

The album opens with the title track, which sounds like Roxy Music playing an Oasis song, built around the former’s signature, biting, reverberating Arp electro piano sound but with more of Oasis’ loucheness. The band take it out with a perfect 1974 Country Life-style arrangement, layers of keys and sax hitting a peak.

The second song is titled Edie, but Righton uses her full name throughout this vampy mashup of vintage 70s soul and trippy 90s neosoul. With its strummy acoustic guitar, emphatic riffs from a string section and catchy bassline, See the Monster is the great lost disco track from ELO’s much-maligned but actually fairly respectable Discovery album from 1979.

Devil Is Loose has tasty layers of watery chorus-box guitars over a strutting bassline: the way the bass shifts to that same liquid, echoey tone is very clever. There are two versions of Lessons in Dreamland here. Part 1 is a starry miniature like the ones that Roxy Music would use to fill out an album side. Righton fleshes out the theme as a slow piano ballad with a staggered trip-hop beat to close the record.

Before that, there’s Start, a twinkling, swirly, anthemic art-pop original, not the big punk-funk hit by the Jam. Are You With Me has disorientingly tricky rhythms: at heart, it’s ELO doing a ba-bump Vegas noir pop song. And Heavy Heart is an imaginatively minimalist stab at shimmery Hollywood Hills boudoir soul.

Lush, Impeccably Arranged, Artsy Purist Tunesmithing From Mimi Oz

Right up until the lockdown, songwriter Mimi Oz was a ubiquitous presence on the New York live music scene. She always seemed to have a gig at the Rockwood, or Pete’s, and would occasionally put in an appearance at one of the Bushwick indie clique spots. While she doesn’t have any publicly announced gigs on the calendar, she has a lavishly and tastefully produced new album, Growing Pains, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe this dovetails with the zeitgeist, but on this one there isn’t as much of the quirky sense of humor that’s often infused Oz’s work up to this point: this album is dead serious and better off for it.

Anchor, a soaring gospel-soul number, is told from the point of view of somebody who isn’t exactly a saint. Lots of people play on this record: throughout the album, Richard Weisdorf and Dan Ricker share piano duties, Oz joined on guitar by David Celia, Mike Milazzo and William Pearson. Jason Smith and Jarrod Ross share the bass chair; drums and percussion are handled by Ryo Tanaka, Miles Gibbons and CJ Young. There’s orchestration, too – Lenna Pierce on viola and Kensuke Shoji on violin, with Leigh Macdonald on trumpet and Josh Aguilar on sax.

Caroline could be a Blondie hit from the early 80s with more than a hint of Tex-Mex and Motown, plus a rousing choir of backing vocals. The album’s title track is a real showstopper, a towering art-rock anthem that clocks in at about seven minutes. With its gorgeously bittersweet layers of guitar and Oz’s angst-fueled vocals, it’s the best thing she’s ever done – and one of the best songs of 2020.

Hate is a slow, simmering electric rock anthem for outsiders in an era of top-down divide and conquer. The slow gospel ambience returns in RFYL, awash in organ and Rhodes piano.

Oz stays in pensive mode for the stark solo acoustic ballad Star, contrasting with the joyous, coyly bouncy Time Will Tell.

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

Rare Live Elliott Smith Available For the First Time on Record

The big deal about the new, remastered 25th anniversary edition of Elliott Smith’s solo debut – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it comes with a bonus live album, something that the iconic 90s songwriter never released during his lifetime. It took a conversation with one of his best friends from college to get the inside dope. “Oh, from when he was doing all those drugs,” she said with a dismissive wave of the hand: she wasn’t inclined to hear it.

For whatever reason, Smith doesn’t sound particularly opiated. His voice is ragged in places, and he doesn’t interact much with an impressively large crowd who’d come out for his solo acoustic set at Umbra Penumbra in Portland, Oregon on September 17, 1994. But his guitar work is solid, and vigorous, and everybody who was listening to Smith before he was murdered will want to hear it.

Knowing how he ended up, it’s sobering to hear the endless druggie references: the desperate narrative over those Wilco-ish chords in his first number; the references to scoring on the Lower East Side in Alphabet Town; and the appearance of Constantina, a recurrent, pseudonymous character who would outlive him.

Plenty of early versions of as-yet unreleased material in the setlist. No Name #4, an allusively grim narrative over briskly picked folk chords; the even more grisly detailed Condor Ave.; the wistfully waltzing No Name #1; and the broodingly Britfolk-tinged No Confidence Man, among others. Smith’s old Heatmiser bud Neil Gust joins him for a stark two-guitar version of Half Right.

On the reissue record, the bass response seems substantially boosted: does that explain why the downstrokes and atonal open-string harmonies of Needle in the Hay, for example, sound so much like Nirvana? Or is that just a function of listening on headphones instead of getting to know this otherwise rather delicate, mostly acoustic cd by cranking it up on a big oldschool stereo in a Gramercy Park apartment?

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to hear the otherwise opaque Christian Brothers as a prototype for the gorgeously anthemic sensibility of Figure 8. Or how tantalizingly the briskly strummed layers of Southern Belle foreshadow that era as well. Or, listening to the full-band studio version of Coming Up Roses here, how much he already had that in his fingers to an extent that nobody realized at the time.

An Album of Songs For Our Time by Nicole Zuraitis

“All the screens block something inside, those afraid of their beginnings, unfulfilling,” singer Nicole Zuraitis wails over an anthemic 6/i8 groove, deep into her new album All Wandering Hearts, streaming at Bandcamp. “Eyes find comfort in darkness, eyes find comfort in escaping deep in a slumber to block out the overdrive mind.” Behind her, the band oscillates into a desperate vortex.

Of all the singers to have come out of New York in the last ten years or so, Zuraitis is one of the most individualistic. Gifted with scary range and gale-force power, she’s always embraced a lot of styles, from the big band jazz she belts over her husband Dan Pugach’s nonet, to thorny art-rock, lilting Americana and impassioned oldschool soul. Zuraitis has an intense, big-picture presence: her mind always seems to be racing, and she’s always looking for a respite, a reprieve. And she can be a hell of a lyricist.

And in the years since she was raising the roof at places like Caffe Vivaldi and 55 Bar, that fearsome voice has grown: there’s new grit in the lows, new power in the highs, new subtlety everywhere, In the liner notes, she sardonically calls this a “jazz adjacent album.”

The first song is Make It Flood, somber vocals in a guarded triumph: it’s Rockwood Music Hall pop in in heavy disguise. The Way Home rises, subtly, to a funky sway and then the lushness takes over again:

Trying to abandon my post
Before i lose this war…
Minus one’s a new concept
The slope of loss is steep
i know that there’s a void for us to fill
But there’s an answer if there is a will

Zuraitis’ circling, incisive piano provides a haunting backdrop for Gold, a prophetic, lithe clave anthem for a post-lockdown era where compassion trumps greed, Carmen Staaf enhancing that with a cheery, bubbly Rhodes solo.

The sinister Monk tonalties of the witheringly sarcatic Sugar Spun Girl set up the narrative in Rock Bottom, the most hilarious but also saddest song ever written about being on the road as a singer-songwriter. There’s no small irony in how singer-songwriters have earned a massive resurgence in the months since the lockdown, playing clandestine house concerts and parties, spreading the news and offering good cheer in the spirit of their medieval troubadour ancestors.

Zuraitis dedicates an elegant solo piano-and-vocal lullaby to her daugther, reinvents Prince’s I Would Die 4 U as swirling art-rock, and goes deep into What a Wonderful World for tenderness and rapture, in the context of a sobering dialectic. Deep music from a deep soul. A thoughtful and purposeful performance from a band that also includes Pugach on drums, Alex Busby Smith on bass, Elise Testone on backing vocals and Chase Potter on strings.

Thoughtful, Attractively Enveloping Nocturnes From Swimming Bell

Swimming Bell play slow, pensively lingering, atmospheric songs that draw equally on Americana and ambient music. Their new album Wild Sight – streaming at Bandcamp – brings to mind Neko Case or Tift Merritt as produced by Brian Eno, maybe. Washes of pedal steel and vocal harmonies figure prominently in frontwoman Katie Schottland’s songs. Her narratives are subtle, full of small, allusively telling details: they invite you in for repeated listening.

Good Time, Man begins as a hazy, atmospheric, wistful summertime tableau awash in Oli Deacon’s pedal steel. By the time Schottland’s intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar kicks in, it’s clear that this is a breakup scenario.

Deliciously icy tremolo guitars clang and ring out over a slow, swaying 6/8 groove in 1988, unraveling into a starry dreampop mist at the end: it seems to be a sad childhood reminiscence.  The pedal steel returns along with tasty, looming bass clarinet in For Brinsley, a Brinsley Schwarz homage: “Don’t lose your grip on love,” is the mantra.

“She’d lost the medal but she’d won the fight,” Schottland recalls in We’d Find, the enveloping sonics coalescing into an indian summer haze. Cold Clear Moon, a Tomo Nakayama cover, is catchy, steady and spare, the acoustic and electric guitar textures, glockenspiel and contrapuntal vocals building a hypnotic interweave.

The band follow Wolf, an echoey, circling vignette, with Got Things, a glistening anthem and the album’s catchiest, most straight-up rock number: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rose Thomas Bannister catalog.

Left Hand Path is a front-porch folk tune with delicate electronics and steel twinkling in the distance. Schottland launches into Love Liked You slowly over National steel guitar, the band methodically rising into a slow, crescendoing, Hem-like sway: the swirly atmospherics are the icing on the cake. The album ends with Quietly Calling, a lush, crepuscular waltz that could be the Grateful Dead in a sharply focused moment: “You were listening to prove that you could while I was trying to be good,” Schottland intones. What a refreshing and individualistic sound: let’s hope Swimming Bell figure out how to make another album like this, clandestinely or otherwise.

Sharp and Hilarious New Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

Nobody writes funnier, more acerbic protest songs these days than pianist and singer Dawn Oberg. The San Francisco songwriter’s previous political piano pop album Nothing Rhymes with Orange made the best albums of the year list in 2017. Lockdown or no lockdown, she was determined to get a new short album of relevantly entertaining songs out this year too. Her excoriating, irresistibly sardonic latest release, 2020 Revision is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, the band behind her – Kelyn Crapp and Roger Rocha on guitars, Shawn Miller on bass and Andrew Laubacher on drums – are tight and inspired behind the velvet vocals.

Oberg loves puns and multiple entendres (in her world, doubles are for lightweights), and uses a lot of gospel voicings at the piano. “Those who hunger for justice are now starving at the station door,” she intones on the album’s first song, It’s 12:01, a fiery, insistent call for justice for the chilling list of innocent people murdered by the SFPD. The album includes a second, “clean” radio edit of the song so the censors don’t get their underwear all up in a knot over the word “motherfuckers.”

In the more woundedly subdued, gospel-tinged second track, Care, Oberg ponders what kind of “psychic surgeon practicing somewhere” could possibly give Donald Trump a conscience. In a year where the lockdowners are building concentration camps on American soil, this song has special resonance.

With Erik Ian Walker on the organ, the funniest, bounciest number here is Mitch McConnell. “I wouldn’t cross the street to pee on him if he were onfire,” Oberg insists. She takes issue with people who compare the Republican paleofascist to turtles, since that would be an insult to any reptile. We’ve never needed artists like Dawn Oberg more than we do now – which is why the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to keep audiences away from any kind of music. That’s an issue which Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini and the Taliban all agreed on.

A Gorgeously Jangly New Album by the Corner Laughers

The Corner Laughers play a sharply lyrical, catchy blend of jangly psychedelia, to richly arranged folk-rock and Americana and several other styles from th enew wave era. Their latest album Temescal Telegraph – streaming at Bandcamp – has some of the most gorgeous guitar work of any rock record released in recent months: clanging twelve-string lines, burning distortion, jaunty 80s British riffage, purist Americana, you name it, this band can play it.

The first track is Calculating Boy, an emphatic new wave number with jangly twelve-string guitar – that’s KC Bowman and Khoi Huynh switching off on guitar, bass and piano behind frontwoman/ukulele player Karla Kane’s cool, inscrutable vocals. This could be an older Pulp song with a woman out front, with a pair of doomed narratives about what sometimes happens to nonconformists: “Ever since she was a child she often smiled, mind over matter,” Kane intones.

Changeling, a backbeat soul tune with gospel organ, could be a well-produced Grateful Dead studio track. In The Accepted Time, Kane traces an impending breakup, from hope against hope, to a graveyard gate, over a lush bed of jangling, clanging guitar multitracks,

The Lilac Line is a blithe janglepop song, 90s Hoboken transplanted to the Bay Area. Loma Alta, a slow, summery 6/8 tableau, has piano chiming through the mix: the Jayhawks at their late 90s/early zeros peak come to mind. Then the band pick up the pace over a soul-clap beat with the new wave-tinged Sirens of the Pollen.

Wren in the Rain has hints of a Kinks classic amid the distantly uneasy, lusciously jangly, watery guitar textures. The lone cover here is a cheery, Beatlesque take of Martin Newell’s Goodguy Sun, swaying along amiably over drummer Charlie Crabtree’s coy flurries.

Skylarks of Britain is a lavishly arranged take on 60s British psych-folk – Sandy Denny-era Strawbs on steroids, maybe – with a trippy lyric that could be an inside joke. The band stay in Britfolk-rock mode to close the album with Lord Richard.