New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: new wave rock

First-Wave Punk Era Legends Wire Put Out Yet Another Timely Album

Imagine if the Clash were still going strong, still making smart, relevant records.

What if Ian Curtis had gone off his prescription for barbituates, quit drinking, got his epilepsy under control, and Joy Division were still together?

One of those two bands’ contemporaries, Wire, are still together, and even arguably better than when they were beginning to define what would come to be known as postpunk and new wave. By quirk of fate, they were also one of the last bands scheduled to play Brooklyn before the lockdown. Sadly, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll get amother American tour out of Wire this year, but they have a typically strong new album,10:20, a collection of first-class outtakes and new material  streaming at Spotify.

Their previous release, Mind Hive, was their most dystopic yet. This one is more allusive. As the album title implies, the lyrics are all about foreshadowing and the clock winding down, although the music is generally more upbeat. They open with the steady, hypnotic Boiling Boy, glistening with the group’s icy chorus-box guitars: “Lock up your house,” is the mantra as the chords change suddenly from major to minor. Bassist Graham Lewis’ subtly shifting lines pack a psychedelic wallop.

The big stadium guitar hooks that introduce the second cut, German Shepherds, seem to be a red herring (this band’s deadpan sense of humor is legendary). Likewise, the lyrics’ seemingly mundane imagery masks a grim scenario. The next track, He Knows has a slow dreampop sway and a very cool major-on-minor trick.

Underwater Experience has a lickety-split, practically hardcore punk drive: it could be an outtake from the Pink Flag sessions redone with digital production values. The Art of Persistence has eerie early 80s Cure jangle blended in with the album’s catchiest and yet most counterituitive changes – it involves a murder mystery and ends cold. Small Black Reptile also brings to mind the Cure, but in blithe mid-decade pop mode – which is almost certainly sarcastic.

Pulsing loops echo behind a seemingly easygoing post-Velvets sway in Wolf Collides. The album’s final cut is Over Their’s, marching toward the precipice and ending with a drone – or is that a flatline? Some hall-of-famers refuse to quit – and in Wire’s case, that’s a good thing.

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

Richly Jangly, Intricate, Smart Retro Rock Songcraft From Diane and the Gentle Men

What if the Dream Syndicate was fronted by a woman? That’s pretty damn high praise for singer Diane Gentile‘s new album White Sea, with her band the Gentle Men, streaming at Bandcamp – but a lot of the record sounds exactly like that. If imaginatively crafted, darkly bristling rock anthems with layers of guitars and keys and a distinctively downtown, oldschool New York ambience are your thing, this is your jam.

Drummer Colin Brooks opens the first track, Motorcycle, with a rolling surf riff. If the tight, dreampop-tinged downstroke pulse reminds you of recent Steve Wynn material, that makes sense since Wynn produced the song! All kinds of tasty touches here; a little creepy organ here, a surreal clang there from Wynn’s longtime Dream Syndicate sparring partner, Jason Victor, who plays lead guitar throughout the album

Track two, Perfect People is a new wave song as an older version of the DS – say, the Out of the Grey lineup – might have done it, Victor’s multitracks spiraling in both channels. It’s Gentile’s dis to shallow people in general. “Take off your makeup, wake up!” is the mantra.

The poignant, death-fixated Wicked Hours has a gorgeous web of acoustic guitars and keening, moody Victor slide work. The band rise from an elegant, spare waltz to a mighty sweep in the album’s similarly brooding title track.

Little Things could be an especially gritty early Blondie number. Gentile reaches for a towering angst in the backbear-driven, Orbisonian breakup anthem Just Pretend, then goes back to new wave with Boyfriend.

She mashes up catchy, vamping post-Velvets rock with a swirling, Lynchian anthemc sensibility in Joe: it’s a good guess that was the real name of the guy who didn’t work out. The album’s most chillingly relevant song is Memories, pushed along by bassist Matt Basile’s trebly growl with the rest of the band raging behind him. “And there’s not enough to pay the rent, the cost of living makes no sense, the dream I dream keeps me awake at night,” Gentile wails.

She closes the record counteirntuitively with a spare piano elegy, Second Hand Heart. On one hand, it’s always fun to discover music this smartly crafted. On the other, this kind of music is very imperiled at the moment. Gentile’s usual gig was booking one of the few remaining New York rock venues, Bowery Electric. Even with that kind of resume, survival is giong to be a struggle for everyone in the nightlife industry. A moratorium on evictions til just the middle of June isn’t realistic: we need rent amnesty in New York for the entirety of the coronavirus crisis.

Wickedly Catchy, Ferocious, Funny Powerpop From Wes Hollywood

Powerpop is one of the few niche genres left where if you make an album, you can sell a lot of vinyl without touring if word gets out that it’s good. That’s because the cult that lives and dies for Cheap Trick, the Go-Go’s and the Move never got rid of theirs. Wes Hollywood‘s 2019 album Dynamite – streaming at Bandcamp – deserves to be one of those. This band’s level of craft is astonishing, a real throwback without being a complete ripoff. If this was 1980, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment to the frontman/guitarist, lead player Pete Javier, bassist Spencer Matern and drummer Tom Shove

With a fond nod over the shoulder to a famous Buzzcocks hit, the opening track, Four Pound Twenty is a really funny story about a totally broke guy trying to hook up with a girl after missing his train home from a forgettable concert. Other than the reference to a lost phone, it could be a BBC hit from 1979.

When Sunday Rolls Around is a wryly simmering, blues-infused midtempo number, akin to LJ Murphy with beefier production. “You’ll never want to wind her up, she’ll never stop,” the bandleader sneers in Small Talk, a lickety-split pub rock tune. Nothing to See Here is a gorgeously jangly, cynically raging kiss-off anthem: there’s Orbison, and Ray Davies, and the Jigsaw Seen all wrapped up in overdriven guitar and soaring bass.

“You said some things that were not worth mentioniong/Just like the rings on the hand of a pensioner,’ Wes observes in Evelyn, a scampering, pummeling, tantalizingly brief burst of catchiness. The story seems to continue in the equally anthemic, riff-driven I’ll Take You Back: this broke ass dude just refuses to quit.

The blend of roaring, clanging, searing guitars over the breathless pulse of Get It Right is as tasty as the lyrics are sly. The calmly defiant, Kinks-inspired individualist’s anthem Fall Up a Ladder has a cynical vaudevillian strut. Kill Me With Your Smile is a mashup of riffy T-Rex and early Elvis Costello.

Dandelion is not a cover of the the Rolling Stones monstrosity but the closest thing to Cheap Trick here. The album closes with its finest, most slashingly majestic cut, No One Loves You, with echoes of both the Church and the Act. How rare that any group could evoke those two (semi) obscure, pantheonic bands in the span of about three minutes.

Going to the Well For an Overlooked Phantasmagorical Treat by Brodka

Polish singer Monika Brodka‘s album Clashes came out in 2016; if she ever played New York, that evidence never made it this far. Since then, the record’s been sitting on the hard drive here, but leaving it there was a mistake. If you like catchy, dark, carnivalesque sounds or 80s goth bands, you should hear it. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Creepily twinkling music-box electric piano underscores the airy violin and wounded vocals of the title track: imagine Lorde if/when she ever grows up. The band shift between a cantering syncopation to a straight-up gothic rock pulse in Horses. By now, it’s obvious they’ve got a great bass player; nice creepy, quiet outro too.

Santa Muerte is a surreal, galloping southwesern gothic bounce…with funeral organ. Can’t Wait For War is not a Trumpie march but a pulsing blend of Siouxsie and Romany-flavored sounds. With its blippy minor-key synth and processed vocals, Holy Holes has a moody 80s New York vibe.

A mbira (or a close digital approximation) pings through the steady, hypnotic Haiti: something in the song relates to “cherry flavor.” Funeral is a strange mashup of noir swing and macabre art-rock, afloat in menacingly waltzing keyboard textures. Up in the Hill is the weirdest track here: it’s a generic pop song with an unexpectedly serpentine guitar solo buried in the mix. Could it be that another band’s tune got sequenced into the files that were sent here?

The bass-heavy new wave track afterward is pretty forgettable as well. They bring back the macabre, funeral-organ ambience with the instrumental Kyrie and keep it going through Hamlet, an elegantly muted, disconsolate processional. The final cut is Dreamstreamextreme, an airy, slowly swaying tableau. Throughout the album, you can hear an artist who’s found an original sound and is still experimenting with other ideas: may that experimentation continue and find a wider audience.

Revisiting Exploded View’s Troubled, Coldly Loopy Postrock and No Wave

Exploded View play a troubled, loopy take on late 70s/early 80s postrock and no wave. Some of their songs bring to mind Can, other times the Ex, or even Joy Division at their most minimal. Frontwoman Anika doesn’t sing so much as she speaks, in icily accented English. Their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – came out in the summer of 2016, arrived on the hard drive here…and went straight down the rabbit hole. While the bass, drums, guitars and keys (uncredited at the Bandcamp page; the band no longer have a webpage of their own) all seem to be completely organic, they loop their simple, catchy, ominously reverb-drenched riffs into a tersely twisted kaleidoscope. There’s a bleak, overcast, grey-concrete European quality to this music.

The opening track, Lost Illusion, sets the tone, a quasar pulse of reverb guitar repeating over and over to a mechanically spiraling beat, like an amplified laundromat washer with a loose axle on spin cycle.

One Too Many has a simple, elegant interweave of chilly, minimal guitar and keyboard riffs around a circling, hypnotic lo-fi bass hook. “You were outside my door at five AM again, broken nose and bloodied up,” Anika intones soberly.

Orlando has absurdly catchy minor-key disco bass and drums beneath coldly oscillating dreampop guitar sheen. Call on the Gods is one of the album’s more broodingly psychedelic tracks, noisy guitar incisions and tumbling drums over a thumping loop. With shards of guitar over an overdriven bass lick, Disco Glove could be a demo for Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box album

Stand Your Ground is a bedroom-dub shot at a 70s soul groove. The band go back to a PiL-ish fodderstompf with No More Parties in the Attic, then build surrealistically ringing windchime ambience in Lark Descending, which seems to be a war parable.

Gimme Something grows into an acidic thicket of no wave dub reggae: “You tease with your fake democracy,” Anika accuses. The band close the album with Beige, a morose miniature, then the corrosively echoey Killjoy: once again, that loud, emphatic bass is a dead ringer for Jah Wobble in his early days with PiL.

New Wave-Era Legends Wire Play Their Most Intimate NYC Shows in Decades

On one hand, it’s a shock that new wave-era legends Wire are still together and making excellent albums. Considering how vast their influence has been, from the dreampop bands of the late 80s through indie rock, it’s also a shock to see that their next New York shows are at the smallest venue they’ve played here in decades. Their March 11-12, 8 PM two-night stand is not at, say, Bowery Ballroom, but the Music Hall of Williamsburg, for $30 general admission.

The biggest shock of all is that the shows aren’t sold out yet, although they probably will be soon. Since the club is no longer part of the Bowery Ballroom chain, you can try your luck with getting tickets at the box office, which is open on show nights. This being midweek, it’s also a good bet that the L train will still be running by the time the band are done; if not, the G at Lorimer isn’t so faraway. You could even walk down Bedford to the south side and catch the J or M at Marcy.

Wire have yet another album, Mind Hive – streaming at Spotify – to add to their immense back catalog. The production is on the big-room side, as it has been since the group reformed back in the mid-80s, guitars dense and icy with reverb as usual. It’s amazing how the band work their signature tropes – sometimes an insistent, downstroke guitar pulse, other times those deliciously creepy, Syd Barrett-ish minor-to-major changes – without repeating themselves. And for a band who made a name for themselves as Modernists, they’re pure Romantics at heart. They’re not the least bit optimistic about the future: this is their most dystopic album yet, often drifting into psychedelia.

The sarcastic opening track, Be Like Them blends that downstroke beat and those ominous changes, setting the tone for the rest of the record. Track two, Cactused is classic Wire: sardonically wide-eyed spoken-word lyrics on the perils of the datamining age, that steady pulse, a big crunchy chorus and spacious, reggae-tinged bass from Graham Lewis. Primed and Ready is only slightly less sardonic: it could be a three-quarterspeed, backbeat-driven version of a standout track from the band’s iconic 1977 debut, Pink Flag.

Off the Beach has a watery theme that looks back to the Cure’s first album, when those guys were a scruffy janglerock band. Unrepentant is an unexpectedly successful detour into trancey, Indian-tinged psychedelia, in a Black Angels vein. From there the band segue into Shadows, the album’s grimmest, most Orwellian scenario and best song,

Awash in creepy keyboards, the ominously galloping Oklahoma continues the macabre, futuristic narrative. The album’s big epic, Hung has a smoky, grey haze over a slow, pounding sway; “In a moment of doubt the damage was done” is the mantra. The group close the record with the elegaic, atmospheric Humming. Who would have thought that a band who debuted almost forty-five years ago would still be going so strong.

The Ocean Blue Prove That There’s Life After Goth

“Suddenly, I feel that the world could end in a flash,” frontman David Schelzel muses early on in the opening track on the Ocean Blue‘s latest album Kings and Queens, Knaves and Thieves, streaming at Bandcamp. It could be the Smiths without the camp – hard to imagine, but just try. The point of the song echoes an old Roger Waters theme, that if we blow up the world, everybody’s equal in the end. If anything, the new record is more eclectic, more energetic and possibly even better than these veterans’ more overtly gothic, vintage 4AD-style back catalog. The Ocean Blue had an avid cult fanbase back at their late 80s/90s peak, who will no doubt come out in full force for their show at the Bell House on Feb 28 at 8:30 PM; general admission is $20.

The album’s bouncy second track, It Takes So Long could be Happy Mondays without the ditziness – how’s that for being iconoclastic with your contemporaries’ signature sounds? Love Doesn’t Make It Easy on Us has the band’s usual, watery, Cure-style guitars and contrasting synth textures, and just as much of a bounce.

Icy synths and tinkly guitar sonics echo over a steady new wave beat in All the Way Blue. Bobby Mittan’s rubberband bassline anchors Paraguay My Love, a bizarre mashup of 80s British goth and American bluegrass. F Major 7 – hey, back when this band was big, you had to actually know how to play your instrument – is a nifty, characteristically vamping little acoustic/electric instrumental, followed by the pouncingly catchy kiss-off anthem The Limit, with Scott Stouffer’s coy ska drums.

The resolutely swaying midtempo ballad Therein Lies the Problem (with My Life) could be Morrissey…or American powerpop legends Skooshny in a low-key moment. The steady, brooding nocturnal tableau 9 PM Direction is the album’s most vivid and strongest track, bringing to mind an even more legendary band, the Room.

Step into the Night blends the catchiness of the Cure at their most new-wavey and the Smiths at their most optimistic. The album ends with Frozen, a throwback to the group’s 4AD heyday. Some people will hear this and say here we go again, the damn 80s, can’t we just say goodbye for good to that awful decade, its pervasive Reagan/Thatcher fascism, cliched subcultures, beyond-ridiculous haircuts and lame synthesizers? On the other hand, for the Ocean Blue, old goths don’t die: they just find something to live for.

Righteous Rage and Smoky Atmospherics with Algiers at Rough Trade

Algiers played a tantalizingly brief, barely half-hour set at Rough Trade on Wednesday night. This blog characterized their 2015 debut album as “revolutionary postrock soul.” These days, industrial gothic gospel is a better description. Their smoky, swirly yet rhythmically pummeling sound is more Sisters of Mercy, less Terminator soundtrack now.

Frontman/keyboardist Franklin James Fisher sings powerfully in the studio; he is amazing live, and even more dynamically diverse. On the band’s opening number, Void – the final cut on their just-released vinyl record, There Is No Year – he had a gleefully brittle Jello Biafra quaver in his voice. That song came across as a Dead Kennedys homage, right down to the ominous chromatics and drummer Matt Tong’s 2/4 hardcore thump. It seems to be the key to the record, with its relentless theme of escape.

Aside from a leaner sound, what was most obvious was how much of the music was in the mixer: guitar, bass, keys, backing vocals…other than Fisher’s electric piano, and his own mixer too, was anything actually being played live? Guitarist Lee Tesche put down his axe for a sax on the second number, but if that was miked at all, it got lost in the grim, grey-sky sonics. Although he did reach for his tremolo bar for Lynchian twang for the intro to a song a little later, and his icily minimalist, Robert Smith-style riffs afterward cut through the mix as well.

Fisher channeled angst-fueled Levi Stubbs passion throughout Unoccupied, a darkly techy update on classic, minor-key Motown: an allusive breakup narrative, it seemed to be the only number in the set that wasn’t political. “Run around, run away from you, America, while it burns in the streets,” Fisher belted as Dispossession, another new track, took shape over his own stark, insistent gospel piano chords. “Here they comes from the ashes of ashes, so immune to defeat,” he cautioned – but there was also defiance and hope in his imploring crescendos and flood metaphors. Which seems to be his ultimate message: with their bankster economy and surveillance, the enemy is always encroaching. But we’ve got the numbers.

Algiers will be back on April 9 at St. Vitus, a great spot for them.

Ashjesus Can’t Live in Bushwick But They’re Willing to Play There

“I can’t live in Bushwick, those people make me sick,” Ashjesus frontwoman Em Ashenden intones, before the screaming guitar and drums kick in on the first track of the 80s throwbacks’ so-called “demos” collection that’s up at Bandcamp as a free download. As the band churn up an acidic storm,like an early Bauhaus, she admits that she tried to get into Bed-Stuy…but insists she’s found nirvana in Ridgewood. Obvious, maybe, but this is one of those songs that needed to be written

It’s rare that you find a good band playing on a Saturday night in the ‘Shweck, but Ashjesus have a gig a the Broadway (the old Gateway space) on Jan 18 at around 11. Kaheim Rivera does his woozy, weedheaded raps beforehand at 10. Neither of the acts on the bill nor the venue have webpages of their own, so it’s anybody’s guess how much cover is, or if there is one – the Gateway was a pass-the-hat situation.

The rest of Ashjesus’ album keeps the early 80s noise-goth vibe going. Room – as in “I need a room” – has more of the loud, watery chorus-box guitar and bass that define this group’s retro sound. The implication is that a friend with a couch is a friend indeed: “Get one for yourself too,” Ashenden encourages.

Soda Bitters sounds like a lo-budget Joy Division. “I don’t need to take a cab, I can drive to rehab, how cool is that?” she wants to know. The poppiest song here, How Do You Feel Special says a lot in a few words, one of this band’s specialities – it’s a dis to a controlling boyfriend. With its quasi-reggae bassline and icy guitars, the last song, Tour, could be XTC or PiL, or the bastard child of the early Police and Bauhaus. Grab this haphazardly spot-on, period-perfect morsel while it lasts.