New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie rock

Exuberantly Eclectic, Danceable Lo-Fi Rock From Century Egg

Century Egg play disarmingly unpretentious, exuberantly catchy, scruffily amusing, occasionally garagey songs you can dance to. That’s what frontwoman Shane Song wants everybody to do with the first song on the band’s new album Little Piece of Hair, streaming at Bandcamp. That number has buzzy guitar from Robert Drisdelle, a steady bass pulse from Matty Grace and tumbling drums from Meg Yoshida: it all adds up to an eclectically good time.

The rest of the album is much the same: this is party music for smart people with a sense of humor. The second track, I Will Make Up a Method has a kind-of-Motown beat, funny lyrics and a guitar break where Drisdelle gets to cut loose.

Imagine Shonen Knife doing 60s Merseybeat and you get Ring a Bell. The band go for a buzzy late 80s indie sound in the album’s title track: goofy lyric, serious metaphor. Riddle to Place, a surprisingly moody change of pace, has echoes of 60s psychedelia and is over way too soon: the band really had a good thing going here! The final track is Cornered; upbeat early Joy Division with a woman out front singing an allusively grim escape narrative in Chinese.. Crank this when your next party reaches critical mass and everybody will be asking you who this is.

Heather Trost Goes into Lush Psychedelia With Her New Solo Album

Violinist Heather Trost may be best known as the ferocious lead instrumentalist in Balkan band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, but she’s also proficient on several other instruments. Her new solo album Petrichor – streaming at Bandcamp – is quite a change. It’s a playful psychedelic rock album in the same vein as another solo debut from a couple of years ago by a similarly talented instrumentalist, Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney.

Trost opens the record with Let It In, a pulsing, shoegazy psychedelic tableau, layers of keys wafting around over distantly flurrying drums. For someone whose instrumental chops are so fierce, her voice is surprisingly delicate and airy.

The second song, Love It Grows is part Mamas & the Papas at their most warily autumnal, part Alec K. Redfearn Balkan noir – with fractured French lyrics. Tracks to Nowhere grows ghostlier over steady, spare electric guitar arpeggios, then the bass and drums come in and it takes shape as a moody, soul-tinged ballad.

Trost keeps the stately 6/8 rhythm going through I’ll Think Of You, a lullaby of sorts buoyed by her soaring violin. Burbling high keys contrast with a Velvets drone in VK09, a dead ringer for the Black Angels. Trost brings the album full circle with the hypnotically echoey Sunrise. The only miss here is the album’s lone cover – 70s hippie pop, ugh.

A Creepy New Abnormal Single From Tessa Lena

For the past year, author and poet Tessa Lena has written some of the most lucid, insightful commentary on the lockdown and the sinister motivations of the oligarchs and tech Nazis behind it. As a first-generation American immigrant who spent her early childhood in the Soviet Union, she knows totalitarianism when she sees it and somehow manages to keep her withering sense of humor intact.

She also records as Tessa Makes Love. One of her particularly creepy, techy singles is I Want to Know You As a Computer. Rather than just scrolling to the bottom of the page where you can find the song, check out her latest critique of the New Abnormal on your way there.

Lo-Fi, Melancholy Jangle and Swirl From Clever Girls

Clever Girls are a throwback to the lo-fi jangle that was so popular in the UK in the late 80s and early 90s, and also occasionally the singalong catchiness of the 50s. The group frequently beef up their sound with lingering dreampop resonance. Frontwoman/guitarist Diane Jean sings her forlorn, angst-infused lyrics in an unadorned high soprano. Their new album Constellations os streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Come Clean is a distantly regretful, 50s-tinged waltz through a lo-fi 21st century prism, skeletal and then rising closer to ornate but not qutie. That sets the stage for a lot of what’s to follow: plenty of loud/soft contrasts and sudden, unexpected, explosive peaks.

Jangly, spare guitar shifts to dissociative ambience, then crunch and a big dreampop-infused coda in the second track, Lavender. Remember Pluto is a famous New Order tune as Comet Gain might have done it.

Bassist Tobias Sullivan introduces Womxn with a little ba-BUMP noir cabaret as guitarist Winfield Holt adds simmer and shards, drummer Rob Slater chilling in the distance through the reverb. Built around a catchy, rising three-note riff, Baby Blue is awash in even more of that reverb and distant dreampop sonics.

The group follow the album’s title track, a found-sound miniature, with Spark and its Oasis chorus. Stonewall is a surreal mashup of cloying pop and post-Velvets grit, while Saturn is unexpectedly upbeat, bouncing along with Sullivan’s bass, They close the album with Fried and its plainspoken, seething images of a relationship unraveling. 

Thoughtful, Tuneful Pastoral Sounds From Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten

Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten have an attractively melancholy, bucolic chamber pop album, No Branches Without Trees. streaming at Bandcamp. Fans of the quiet side of Elliott Smith, or the early BeeGees, should check this out.

They open with Calico Basin, a wistful pastoral theme for strings. piano and glockenspiel God Given Beauty wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Drake’s first album, although this has more somber orchestration that blends with Rowan’s stark reed organ. The album’s title track is a wistful waltz, strings wafting starkly over van Betten’s delicately fingerpicked guitar.

“Have no fear when they come for you,” is the refrain in the Radiohead-tinged Little Boy: words to aspire to in an era of trace-and-track.

A quaint, fleeting string theme introduces Mining Claim, a brooding waltz that strongly brings to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula score. The narrative for Herrman, set to plaintive strings and guitar, is hauntingly allusive: it appears this Dutch gradeschooler survived the Holocaust, but his siblings may be another story. The album winds up on a similar note with Last Walk Through the Desert: as the strings flutter and shiver, does this guy ever make it out?

Playful, Bouncy, Quirky 80s-Influenced Sounds From Pom Poko

Pom Poko like big, simple riffs, noisy guitar and keyboard accents, a steady, danceable beat and 80s sonics. Sometimes that means new wave, sometimes the bracing, in-your-face side of the Pixies. Frontwoman Ragnhild Fangel sings in a chirpy high soprano over a generally bouncy, often rather spare mix anchored by  Jonas Krøvel’s similarly terse bass and Ola Djupvik’s drums. Their new album Cheater is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with the title track, a skittish, minimalist, skronky strut fueled by Martin Miguel Tonne’s jagged Gang of Four guitars. The group switch on a dime between buzzy and spare in LIke a Lady, like Goldfrapp with guitars instead of synths, a contrast they revisit a little later with Look.

The third track, Andrew, has blippy new wave keyboard and guitar accents and some rhythmic trickiness. The band shift between lo-fi sparseness, My Sharona octaves and a lickety-split punk stomp in My Candidacy.

Sparse, watery guitars give Danger an icy dreampop edge, with echoes of Siouxsie but also calypso. Andy Go to School comes across as math-y late 70s XTC with a woman out front, at least until the straight-ahead punk chorus kicks in. Baroque Denial is much the same with fuzz bass taking the place of the guitar roar.

Curly Romance is the closest thing here to classic powerpop, and the album’s most unselfconsciously catchy number. They close with Body Level, built around a catchy, circling bass riff. It’s hard to tell what these songs are about, other than dancing and having fun, two things that we need to be doing a lot more these days.

An Epic Live Album by One of the Most Epic Bands of the Century

Let’s say your band has made a good living on the road for the last twenty years. All of a sudden, a bunch of oligarchs get together and create a phony health emergency in order to turn the world into an Orwellian nightmare where music doesn’t even exist. People aren’t even allowed to sing, let alone get together to see a band, since crowds of people who get together usually have fun. And in order to condition the population to a totalitarian slave state, all happiness has to be outlawed. That really happened throughout much of the world in 2020, and it isn’t over yet.

But it will be. The lockdown bears the seeds of its own destruction. In the meantime, out of the thousands of artists who’ve dumped hours upon hours of live recordings onto the web, only a handful can match the epic sweep of road warriors Okkervil River‘s latest release, A Dream in the Dark: Two Decades of Okkervil River Live, streaming at Spotify. On one hand, it’s sobering to realize that they’ve really been around that long. On the other, they are absolutely in their element, careening through the record’s two dozen tracks with their usual reckless abandon. This endless road trip begins in Northhampton, Massachusetts in 2006 and wind up in Cambridge in 2019, with almost a complete turnover in band members. By then, this endearingly shambling Americana quasi-jamband had tightened up their act a little without losing their spontaneity or irrepressible sense of humor.

The first song on this long, strange trip is the outlaw ballad Westfall, kicking off with a brief blast of feedback, steady strums from frontman Will Sheff’s acoustic guitar and a flurry of mandolin. The rest of the band don’t leap in until right before the fateful final verse. They fall apart in a spacerock outro.

The haphazard intro to the punkgrassy No Key, No Plan is priceless. Sheff gets a singalong going, mercilessly needles the crowd: the joke is too good to spoil. Then, as if this was an actual setlist, they follow with a superslow, lingering, steel guitar-infused take of the sad ballad Kansas City

The quiet, wintry, waltzing beginning of Listening to Otis Redding At Home During Christmas doesn’t offer the slightest hint of how orchestral the arrangement’s going to get: “Not even home will be with you forever,”Sheff intones.

This version of the subdued piano-and-strings ballad For Real winds up with a regal peak and a careening, screaming guitar solo. It Ends With a Fall come across as part Jayhawks, part late Beatles, part loping White Denim soul. Then the band pick things up with Sheff’s dramatic, signature off-key flair in a driving take of Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe, decaying to a free jazz freakout and then a typical noisy jam out.

The 90s Wilco influence comes in loud and clear in Unless It’s Kicks, the last song of a 2008 set in Germany. Goodnatured barrelhouse piano makes a surreal contrast with techy string synth in It Was My Season. Down Down the Deep River has post-Velvets clang, new wave swoosh and C&W chickenscratch guitar. By now, if this was an actual show, the band would really be on a roll, so in this case they keep the momentum going with Lost Coastlines and its faux-Motown groove.

A Stone – from a 2015 New York gig – is a momentary detour into wistful stoner country, with spot-on slip-key piano. Thirteen songs into the album, we’re finally rewarded with a minor-key anthem, Another Radio Song, from that same set – and as the band holler, “There’s no escaping it.”

The litany of dead performers in Okkervil River RIP is the most sobering moment here. The brisk, hypnotically pulsing, ten-minute stadium rock version of Judey on a Street is the album’s longest track among many: pretty much everything here is around the seven-minute mark or more.

The ridiculous mashup of blippy new wave and 90s alt-country in So Come Back, I Am Waiting is classic for these guys, in that they manage to make it work somehow. A Seattle crowd is stoked for a slowly crescendoing take of Okkervil River Song, probably the only Americana rock escape anthem that mentions skunk cabbage.

The Surgeon Above the Arbor is an inside joke, but a good one: a fan had requested a song by that title, but trouble was it didn’t exist. So Sheff wrote it: it turned out to be a slowly jangly, pensively vamping, distantly Neil Young-tinged ballad.

The album’s most muted, psychedelic number is Skiptracer. They pick up the pace with Black, a Velvets-meet-Wilco stomp and follow with the hip-hop/soul/Grateful Dead mashup Pink Slips.

Sheff brings out his dad Paul to play mandolin on the faux-western swing tune External Actor, just as he did on the album version.

Mary on a Wave, from a 2019 Washington, DC show, gets a long, lingering spacerock intro. They wind up the album on a similar note with Your Past Life As a Blast, more psychedelic than ever after all these years.

Surreal Eclecticism From Nicolas Jacquot

One of the most entertainingly strange albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is Nicolas Jacquot’s Ordered Ordinaries, streaming at Bandcamp. There’s ambient music, and spoken word, and a pervasive surrealism on a rare level, a step beyond anything seen here in ages. An ability to speak Hungarian and French is a big plus if you want to understand this – to the extent that it can be understood.

Introduced by keening, whistling violin harmonics, the first track is a synthesized woman’s voice reading an Aristotle-inspired excerpt from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell concerning a poet and an angel – in French, in the archaic passé simple tense. Beyond the flamboyant, mushroomy imagery, it’s a reminder how little we actually encounter in the original language. Seriously: did you read the Iliad in Greek, or The Trial in Czech?

The album’s second track, Pomp For the Devil has a catchy yet hypnotic dichotomy between growly shards of guitar and looming, orchestral electronics: imagine if Eno had produced the first Velvets album.

There’s a similar, loopy contrast in the brief voicescape Good Morning. The album’s best and most epic track is the skeletal, distantly disquieting Basil of Salern, Hervé Boghossian ‘s gritty guitar chordlets bristling with cheap amp distortion over a staggered percussion loop.

Track five, Viki is a brooding Hungarian spoken-word piece by poet Rita Görözdi. pondering a possible journey of no return over a dissociative synth pastiche. She reprises the story at the end of the album in a condensed version for French speakers

The album’s most epic piece is the almost eighteen-minute diptych Happy Christmas, opening with a Grey Angel’s Death Song guitar-and-loops instrumental and then morphing into a desolately drifting spacescape.

A Blast of Garage Punk Intensity From the Grasping Straws

All of a sudden, good things are starting to happen around the world: resistance movements are building toward critical mass, and more rock bands are starting to release new material. The Grasping Straws’ latest single Help – which just hit Bandcamp – sounds nothing like the fantastic, fantastical, all-acoustic Quarantine Halloween, which frontwoman Mallory Feuer released last month. This one’s a full-band song and sounds like a cross between Patti Smith and the early Damned. “Meet me in the darkest room…I’m falling, I don’t need help,” Feuer warns. Love that gritty, catchy bassline!

A Haunting, Hypnotic Elegy For People of Color Murdered by Police Since 2017

Cinematic postrock soul band Algiers originally released the anti-police violence broadside Cleveland on their 2017 album The Underside of Power. Frontman Franklin James Fisher’s impassioned vocals channeled determination to decimate what’s left of Jim Crow, whether the old or new kinds. In the wake of the protests of the past several months, they’ve released one of the most extended singles of all time, Cleveland 20/20 – streaming at Bandcamp – adding the names of 232 innocent people of color murdered by police since the song first came out. Fisher has also included the victims of the child murders that plagued Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. It is even more of a shock to discover that so many of these people were women.

This is sort of the Shoah single of 2020: haunting, hypnotic and relentless, over a swirling, gothic motorik background that decays to bleakly atmospheric free jazz. And at almost thirty-four minutes, it’s as grimly relevant as music gets in 2020.

There’s also a “vocal mix” that’s about half as long, with just the roll call of the murdered, gospel harmonies and handclaps.