New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie rock

A Chilling Lockdown Halloween Song From the Grasping Straws

In an elegant, poetic minute and thirty-nine seconds, Mallory Feuer captures the surreal horror and cognitive dissonance of this year’s lockdown hell in her new single Quarantine Halloween. It’s totally acoustic, released under the name of her power trio the Grasping Straws and streaming at Bandcamp.

For Halloween, democracy is dressed up like money
Who’s a sheep? We’re all dressed as sheep
Consuming news like candy

Right up until the lockdown, Feuer maintained a busy schedule playing all over New York, whether as the Grasping Straws’ frontwoman and guitarist, or as the drummer in the darkly psychedelic Mischief Night with guitarist Marcus Kitchen.

Feuer suggests trying to find a movie scarier than this reality. Watch for this one on the best songs of 2020 page at the end of next month

Eliza and the Organix’s Psychedelic New Album Was Worth the Wait

“You can dance to them, but they also have flashes of psychedelia and a vintage punk fearlessness. They’re funky, but their sound is uncluttered and gritty,” this blog enthused in 2017 about Eliza and the Organix’s debut ep Present Future Dreams. It’s taken them three years, but they’ve come up with a conclusion to that playlist, Present Future Dreams II, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a lot more psychedelic, less dance-oriented and just as edgy. Frontwoman/guitarist Eliza Waldman’s instrumental chops and vast expanse of guitar textures are even more interesting this time out.

The first track is Road Home, an easygoing, cantering Afrobeat groove fueled by sax player Kristen Tivey and guest trumpeter Evan Lane that picks up with punk fury as the chorus kicks in. Waldman really cuts loose with her axe at the end, drummer John Gergely taking it out with a crash.

Jason Laney plays soulful organ in Sally Gave Me a Dollar, which shifts between loping psychedelia and straight-ahead backbeat rock, Waldman and bassist Will Carbery doubling each others’ riffs. They take a detour into a surreal early 80s-style mashup of reggae and no wave in The Perfect Fit: “I’ve been a wastrel on my knees,” seems to be the key line here.

There are two versions of Broken Sky here. The first clocks in at about seven minutes and is one of the best songs of 2020, a toweringly overcast, Pink Floyd-ish anthem, with Waldman’s most intense vocals, lyrics and a memorable duel between guitar and sax. The short version is a radio edit missing most of the fireworks.

The final number, Present makes a great segue, like the Doors with a woman out front and another tasty, trippy guitar/sax interlude. Good to see this band taking their individualistic sound to the next level.

A Twisted, Phantasmagorical Memento From Knife Throwers Assistance

Today’s album is the one and only release by sprawling circus rock collective Knife Throwers Assistance. Not much remains of them on the web, other than a Bandcamp page where you can still get a free download of the live recording the haphazardly orchestrated, mostly-female band made at their final show. They liked lurid harmonies, contrapuntal vocals and unorthodox instrumentation – and their songs were pretty relentlessly creepy.

As that final gig began, the band took the stage to a weird sample collage: it’s almost nine minutes of random noise, mic checking and guitar tuning. You can start your playlist with Mr. Detective, a long, ominously vamping murder ballad. This time out the group included the founding duo of guitarist Eve Blackwater and pianist Heidi Harris; singers Bridget Rooney, Deb Zep (who also plays bass clarinet) and Tea Leigh; banjo players Christen Napier and Annie Levey; cellist Elizabeth Glushko; singing saw player Cara White; bassist Kevin Anderson and drummer Matthew Vander Ende.

The forlorn piano ballad Crow Cry sounds like Carol Lipnik trying her hand at trip-hop, with a really cool, ominously circling vocal arrangement. They follow with the ba-bump stripper theme That Cat, then Voodoo, a folk noir tune with ridiculous faux-southern vocals.

Somebody plays eerie, chromatic melodica behind the steady guitar and aching vocals (guessing that’s Deb Zep) in Freedom, a gospel-tinged tableau. “Meet me by the railroad, that’s where we mortgaged off our souls,” Blackwater musees in Second Repeater, a surreal roadtrip tale.

Hildegard You Have My Heart has all kinds of neat touches: flamenco-ish interludes, snarling cello glissandos and glockenspiel tinkling evilly as the song rises and falls. The singing saw and Levey’s flute flutter uneasily behind the insistant vocals of Unfair, then the band wind up the show, and their career, with Scarlet the Fire-Eater, a plaintive, Appalachian-tinged ballad.

The album also comes with lo-fi concert videos of Crow Cry and Mr. Detective from the band’s early days, the latter with a long, haphazard glockenspiel solo, singing saw and bass clarinet among the many other instruments gathered onstage.

Since the band’s demise, Blackwater continues as a solo artist and member of the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange, who for the better part of a year put on similarly sprawling monthly shows at Pete’s Candy Store until the lockdown drove live music in New York underground.

Best Short Album of 2020: Karla Rose’s Mysterious New EP The Living End

Karla Rose is best known among her musical colleagues in New York as a formidable and incredibly mutable singer. She can channel any emotion a person could possibly feel, from the subtlest to the most desperate. Just listen to her negotiate the tricky phrasing of My Hero – Sean Lennon’s doo-wop noir theme from the film Alter Egos – with a little cadenza at the end that will give you goosebumps.

But Rose is just as formidable a tunesmith and lyricist, with a distinctly sinister side. She is not one of the would-be femmes fatales who sprung up in the wake of Lana Del Rey – she is the real deal. Her latest release, the three-song ep The Living End is streaming at Spotify.

The title alone speaks to Rose’s fondness for wordplay and multiple levels of meaning: it wouldn’t be hubris to compare her to Elvis Costello, Ward White or Hannah Fairchild.  The first song on the record is Battery Park. Partly inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, it’s a haunting, bolero-tinged anthem that subtly speaks truth to the grisly power of Wall Street entitlement. Over the terse pulse of drummer Kevin Garcia and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen, Rose’s Telecaster jangles and clangs with the reverb full on, lead player Dylan Charles building to chainsaw volleys of tremolo-picking at the end. This version is a lot quieter than the absolutely feral attack she and the band gave the song at places like the Mercury Lounge around the time she wrote it. It’s a frontrunner for the best song of the year.

The two other songs are even more enigmatic. Moon and I is part classic 70s soul and part dreampop, Rose’s guitar building starrier, more atmospheric textures as Scott Hollingsworth’s organ hangs in the background over the low-key groove of Lorenzo Wolff’s bass and Andrew Zehnal’s drums.

The title track is a dead ringer for Lou Reed, but Rose plays the verse in a devious 12/8 rhythm to shake things up. Her message is hopeful: stay on plan and we’ll get through this. In the year of the lockdown and the muzzle, that inspiration couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

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.

Catching Up With Elisa Flynn’s Latest Edgy, Angry Art-Rock Release

How the hell did this blog blink on Elisa Flynn’s most recent, characteristically slashing ep, Maelstrom, which hit Bandcamp almost a year ago? To paraphrase Edgar Allan Poe (or Radio Birdman), it definitely descended into one. No time like the present to give props to one of the most intensely original singers and rock songwriters to emerge in New York since the zeros

Flynn has never sung better than she does here – she really locks in with that ripe vibrato. Shifting between thorny but catchy Radiohead-ish art-rock, folk noir and scruffy indie sounds (she was a founding member of Bunny Brains), her songs tend to be on the pensive side. This time around, they’re angrier than ever.

The first one is the title track, a techy, loopy tableau with gritty guitars, Radiohead with less ice. “When I reach up and get nothing from this inverted world, my hand goes right through the light, right through your heart,” she confides.

The second track, Animal is a catchy, chiming pop anthem with hints of soukous. Is it about missing someone – or trying to recapture a fearless, feral inner self? Flynn winds up this biting triptych with the defiant White Dress, which is slow, spare and hypnotically brooding, with the ep’s most intensely nuanced vocals. Another triumph from a familiar presence on the annual best songs and best albums of the year lists here.

An Incendiary, Politically Fearless Lockdown-Era Album by One of This Century’s Funniest, Most Quotable, Pissed-Off Songwriters

Matthew Grimm‘s song West Allis topped the Best Songs of the Year list here in 2013. On the surface, it’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental account of a Wisconsin man, David Carter, whose dead body went undiscovered for four years after he’d shot himself in his own home. But as is usually the case with Grimm, there are many other levels at work here, one of them debunking the myth of how close-knit Midwestern communities actually are.

Before Grimm went solo, he fronted a raucously twangy, ferociously populist New York Americana-punk-janglerock band, the Hangdogs. That band’s 2002 release Wallace ’48 was rated best album of the year by this blog’s e-zine predecessor. Grimm’s new album Dumpster-Fire Days – streaming at Spotify – is his hardest-rocking and arguably most witheringly lyrical album in a long and incendiary career.

He opens with Salt of the Earth, which could be Steve Earle fronting Social Distortion. It’s Grimm’s What’s the Matter with Kansas:

We’re the peasants who cheered as heretics burned,
Put synagogues to the torch
Lined up to die for rich men’s right to own people,
Enforced apartheid a hundred years more
We gathered in the square to watch Black men hang
Like a Friday night football game
We’ll greenlight genocide long as some charlatan
Tells us it’s in Jesus’ name

Not quite everything here is quite as, well, grim. Tommy Keene Is Playing Kiki’s House, the album’s title track more or less, is a bittersweet look back at college life during the Reagan era. Much as it seems Grimm could already see the fascism that was coming down the pike, there’s an indominable joie de vivre here too. Compare your freshman reading and playlist to this one:

1986, Songs From the Film, JP finds it in the cut-out bin
We spin it again and again like it turned some secret key in ou restless brains
Niebuhr, Gramsci, Scruffy the Cat, Hobsbawm, Wiesel, the Mats
Social D, Marcuse, Del Fuegos, Dewey, threads that wove what we became

Aspire is more acoustic, with one of those Texas shuffle grooves the Hangdogs loved so much. It’s Grimm at his most cynically amusing: “Venture unto roads less traveled, unless you’re in the South.” Likewise, Reply Guy (The Dick Next Door) could be the Hangdogs in one of their janglier moments, a ruthlessly detailed portrait of a rightwing nut with an especially twisted secret – which turns out to be less than a secret after all.

In Be Saffiyah Khan, Grimm sends a shout-out to the woman who stared down a crowd of anti-Muslim bigots – and won. He reminds that a Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi in Nazis Agree With You, a perennially relevant broadside which also contains the album’s best musical joke.

Monument, a slow, seething number with organ behind the guitars, doesn’t namecheck Trump, but it doesn’t have to:

He vows to build a wall and paint the country red
He rips children from their mothers while they’re sleepin in their beds
There’s malice in his heart and there’s blood on his hands
We don’t need a monument to that kind of man

Grimm picks up the pace with a rare love song, Friney’s Song, and follows that with the simmering, Celtic-tinged anthem So Long, Good Luck and Fuck You:

I might not make it out alive so it’s down to you rise up
And smash the garbage system that led millions to their graves
Tell the toffs who wrecked the earth to recognize your actual worth
And shut this fucker down until they do

Stephanie King supplies harmony vocals in March, a gospel-inspired, Woody Guthrie-esque singalong for anyone who wants “to make a world of no masters and no lords.” Grimm closes the album with The Whirlwind, as prophetically vindictive a song as he’s ever written:

Did you think we’d take your hand and just go gently into a new dark age
That we’d turn our backs obeisant while you dragged our neighbors away,
That all your Russians and your fascist cult can save you from your sins
Well, count your days, open wide, and prepare to reap the whirlwind

And while we’re at it, let’s resolve that after this whirlwind is over, the world we inherit afterward – and we will – is one where guys like Grimm can play songs like this on a real stage in front of real people.

Grim Early 80s-Style Guitar Rock From Linnea Olsson’s Maggot Heart

The last time anybody from this blog was in the house at a Linnea Olsson show, it was on a frigid February evening in 2014 at the now long-gone Highline Ballroom. Out in front of a big crowd that night, she played solo cello and sang a very brief, barely half-hour set of moody, skeletal chamber pop songs.

Olsson’s latest project is 180 degrees from that, a dark early 80s-influenced power trio, Maggot Heart. She leads the group and plays guitar, joined by bassist Olivia Airey and drummer Uno Bruniusso. Their latest album Mercy Machine is streaming at Bandcamp.

With its densely layered, ringing intro and contrastingly skronky loopiness, the opening track, Second Chance could be a more minimalist Bauhaus. For a song titled Sex Breath, the album’s punkish second cut is unexpectedly menacing, with a juicy, evilly watery guitar solo: Olsson has really taken her chops to the next level. This is a killer guitar record.

Driven by Airey’s gritty, chugging bassline, Justine wouldn’t be out of place on Siouxsie’s Juju album. The distortion on the bass gets even fuzzier for Roses, which comes across as syncopated Patti Smith with gothic chromatics and vocals spun tightly through a trebly flange effect.

Gutter Feeling has a ba-bump noir cabaret groove and some of the album’s most ghoulish lyrics: Olsson takes it galloping, doublespeed more or less, over a long bridge. The album’s death-obsessed title track is its most pummelingly punk-influenced moment: here as elsewhere, Olsson’s shrieking wide-angle chords bring to mind the late, great Siouxsie guitarist John McGeoch.

“All this talk about nothing gives us something to do,” Olsson intones cynically in High Rise, a mashup of Siouxsie and the Stooges. With its dissociative riffs popping up throughout the sonic picture, Lost Boys could be a straightforward, upbeat Live Skull number from the mid-80s.

Senseless has more of a slow, hypnotic early 80s growl and an ending where all hell breaks loose. The trio wind up this relentlessly interesting, disarmingly catchy album with Modern Cruelty and its contrastingly roaring and icy guitar multitracks, Olsson again threatening to go off the rails at any instant. Not a single substandard song on this album: there’s no telling what’s going to happen between now and the end of the year, but let’s hope there’s still a reason and an audience for a best albums of 2020 rundown when we get to December, Somebody has to keep music alive when the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to destroy it.

A Promising Debut Release From the Catchy Forever Honey

Forever Honey play a watery, kinetic blend of 80s dreampop and digital-clean 21st century small-venue rock, with more catchy bounce than most bands in either of those two styles. Their debut ep Pre-Mortem High is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track, Christian sets the stage: Aida Mekonnen’s icy chorus-box downstroke guitar, airy vocals from frontwoman Liv Price and bassist Jack McLoughlin’s dancing lines punching in as the verses peak out. Go For a Smoke is part Penny Lane Beatles and part drifting, echoing teens janglerock, Price reaching for a more sultry delivery.

The third cut, Twenty-Five has more of a produced, poppy feel: five years from the dreaded three-0, and Price is already feeling old. Impressively, the band could have gone in a generic corporate urban pop direction with the closing cut, Where We Are Sometimes, but opt instead for distantly Lynchian clanging/wafting contrast. “Careful what you wish for” is the mantra. It’s reason to hope for more from this group one of these days.

A Dark, Noisy, Psychedelic Swedish Blend of 90s Indie Rock, Dreampop and No Wave

Kall are another one of those bands who sound like no other group on the planet. Their attack is part unhinged 90s indie rock, part no wave, with a little dreampop and a rhythm section that’s heavier but also busier than you typically find in any of those styles. Add lead vocalist Kim’s guttural black metal rasp and you have one of the most distinctively psychedelic acts around. They have a thing for loops and really like long songs. Their latest limited edition vinyl album Brand is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with Rise, beginning with a sun-seared, disjointedly lingering solo guitar intro, building to an even more scorching, reverb-infused, careening minor-key drive. The band’s two guitarists, H. and Fix, team up for a roar that strongly brings to mind Thalia Zedek’s legendary 90s band, Come.

Fervour has contrasting, loopy, lingering rainy-day guitars over bassist Phil A. Cirone’s lithe, trebly lines until the distortion kicks in. Sax player Sofia blows noisy sheets of sound as the volcanic layers grow thicker.

Eld sounds like Yo La Tengo playing an early Wilco song, drummer Peter guiding its increasingly complex, Sonic Youth-tinged trajectory before everybody drifts away for a summery sax break.

The seventeen-minute epic Fukta din Aska has a hammering, hypnotic Astronomy Domine feel that rises and falls between noisy SY interludes and sparse, spacious sketches. When the sax wafts in, it’s very evocative of Brooklyn band Parlor Walls‘ early work,

Hide Below could be enveloping early zeros favorites Serena Maneesh, rising in thirteen minutes from drizzly and atmospheric to more gusty terrain as the bass bubbles and the drums pummel. The band wind up the album with Fall, shifting from a funereal bass pulse to elegantly brooding guitar variations, a long scream and a drift through hints of doom metal to a slowly swaying, psychedelic peak.

By the way, the lp cover illustration is also excellent: a real metaphor for this point in global history. The Swedes, who DIDN’T lock down, know this better than pretty much everyone else.