New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: pop music

Revisiting the Dark Side of the 80s with Liela Moss

Liela Moss loves the 80s. Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie, a blue Boss chorus pedal, layers and layers of chilly synths and short, concise, anthemic songs. Her album Who the Power is streaming at Bandcamp and will resonate with anyone else with a thing for the decade that brought us the goth subculture, the compact disc, wine coolers…and the ugly Reaganite and Thatcherite roots of the lockdown.

Brassy, echoey vintage synths, loud drums and a brisk 2/4 new wave beat propel the album’s opening track, Turn Your Back Around. It’s a cautionary tale: “Here begins an endless fall from rule,” Moss intones, “Everything we saw will go unknown.”

There’s more than a little stern, angst-fueled Marianne Faithfull in Moss’ voice in Watching the Wolf, a cynical, pissed-off, goth-tinged synth anthem. With its icily pulsing chorus-box bass and chorus nicked straight from Prince, Atoms At Me keeps the vengeful vibe going.

“Now I feel unstoppable as the sun drums down on my door,” Moss belts in Always Sliding, soaring triumphantly over echoey synth layers. Hypnotically stormy synths and Siouxsie-esque vocal harmonies pervade The Individual, while White Feather wouldn’t be out of place on one Siouxsie’s innumerable mid-80s ep’s.

Twinkle and fuzz from the keyboards contrast in Battlefield, the album’s most sophisticated, Siouxsie-esque track. “If the wind blows, do you spin like a leaf and lie to make the rules?” Moss demands in Nummah, the most kinetically pulsing, poppiest tune here.

Suako is a mashup of PiL’s attempts at funk and Sisters of Mercy, maybe. Moss closes the album with Stolen Careful, a wistful ballad awash in echo and loops. Uncap that black eyeliner and take a sip of Michelob – do they still make that stuff?

Theme From a Twisted Summer Place

Irene Pena‘s new single The Summer Place – streaming at Big Stir Records – is a venomously hilarious powerpop gem, the missing link between LJ Murphy’s Pretty For the Parlor and that famous Squeeze song. Behind the chalet, this holiday is never complete with some sick drama.. If JD Salinger had been a janglerock guy, he would have written this. “Injuries fade but the memories last a lifetime.”

More Dark Retro Soul From Nick Waterhouse

Nick Waterhouse has been one of the prime movers in the retro soul movement for over a decade. His latest album Promenade Blue – streaming at Bandcamp – is a welcome addition to that consistently strong, purist body of work, focusing more on the noir side of that sound than usual here. You know the drill: reverb on everything, harmony singers who punch in on the chorus, trebly guitars and melodic bass playing through vintage amps, and nonstop catchy hooks.

With the opening track, Place Names, Waterhouse reinvents pre-Motown soul with stark strings in lieu of the kind of wafting orchestral sonics that Phil Spector would have used. And Waterhouse is more of a crooner than most artists from that era. At about four minutes, the song gives him a chance to chill and reflect on better times…as those of us who remember the glory days before March 16, 2020 have probably been doing in the time since.

The Spanish Look doesn’t have anything remotely Spanish about it, although it does have a lot of fevered Elvis in it, hey heh, mmm hmmm. Waterhouse goes back to a roughhewn, vampy early 60s milieu with Vincentine, complete with tantalizingly brief, blazing Chicago blues guitar breaks.

He paints a doomed, down-and-out Tom Waits tableau in the next track, Medicine, over a Lynchian guitar twang. Very Blue is the album’s best song, a gorgeous early 60s Orbison noir song complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes….and flurrying early ELO strings. “I remember trying hard just to wake you up,” Waterhouse intones – and the rest is history.

Elvis goes to see the gypsy in Silver Bracelet, set to a tinkly Vegas noir backdrop. Promene Bleu, a quasi title track, makes for a tasty instrumental mashup of Django Reinhardt and oldschool soul with a smoky tenor sax break. The noir tropes reach parody pitch in Fugitive Lover – gruff baritone sax, fire-and-brimstone gospel imagery repurposed as crime jazz, hook-and-ladder guitar riffage, the works.

Waterhouse goes back to primitive mode for Minor Time – as in “was your major, but you made the change” – and then picks up the pace with the quasi-surf Santa Ana 1986. Turns out Waterhouse is a California Man, just like Roy Wood. The album’s final cut is To Tell, the great missing b-side to ELO’s Showdown. If you like the standard noir tropes, if you miss Twin Peaks, this is your jam. Less devoted fans may find this on the monochromatic side. But maybe that’s the way Waterhouse wants it – and if so, that’s cool.

Wildly Popular New York Cult Artist Releases a Dark New Single

Singer/personality Anna Copa Cabanna had a big hit with a monthly punk cabaret residency at Joe’s Pub that lasted for years. She was a familiar presence at the legendary first incarnation of Freddy’s Bar before it was razed illegally to built that hideous, already-rusting Brooklyn arena. Most recently, she’s become the frontwoman of Big Balls, the hilarious AC/DC cover band.

Her new single is We Don’t Sleep, an expansive departure into lingering noir pop.

Unmasking One of the Most Deviously Brilliant Rock Hoaxes Ever

Working over the web last year, the Armoires decided to release a whole slew of singles under a bunch of assumed names (you bastards, you snagged October Surprise, the best bandname ever!). Despite widespread interest online and on radio, nobody ever got wise to the fact that it was really them. Finally, the muzzle is off, and this alternately hilarious and poignant, erudite mix of originals and covers – inspired by the Dukes of Stratosphear‘s immortal parodies of 60s psychedelic rock excess – has been released as an official Armoires record, Incognito, streaming at Bandcamp.

Based in California, the harmony-rock band found themselves stymied in attempts to pull the whole group together under dictator Gavin Nuisance’s fascist lockdowner restrictions. Fortuitously, the core of the band, keyboardist Christina Bulbenko and multi-instrumentalist Rex Broome, also run a very popular specialty label, Big Stir Records, so they have access to a global talent base. Drawing on a rotating cast of guitarists and drummers, the result is the most eclectically delicious album of the year so far.

The Armoires are more likely to slyly quote from late 70s powerpop than 60s psychedelia, although pretty much every rock style since then is fair game for their sometimes loving, sometimes witheringly cynical satire. What differentiates this album from the Dukes of Stratosphear’s (a.k.a. XTC’s) mashups is the cleverness of the lyrics.

Say what you want that “October Surprise” turn John Cale’s iconic proto-goth Paris 1919 into bouncy Penny Lane Beatles: that’s the spirit of punk, right? The B-side, Just Can’t See the Attraction, is an acidic original immersed in schadenfreude and driven by Larysa Bulbenko’s violin. “She was maybe too much, too demanding/She was surely too much in demand,” and the haters abound.

As D.F.E., the band give themselves several fictitious shout-outs in their A-side, I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit, a seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media. The quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. But the B-side is sobering, a lively, deadpan cover of Zager and Evans Hall of Famers Christie’s 1970 pentatonic folk-rock hit Yellow River, a post-Vietnam War anthem told from the winning side of that pyrrhic victory.

Bagfoot Run, the A-side of the single by “The Chessie System” is an irresistibly funny bluegrass escape anthem. You’d think that somebody would have figured out the joke from the subtly venomous anti-lockdown flip side, Homebound, a Louvin Brothers sendup, but nobody did.

As The Yes It Is, their jangly, anthemic cover of new wave band 20/20’s The Night I Heard a Scream, a portrait of an unsolved hit-and-run is infinitely more chilling. The cover of XTC’s Senses Working Overtime blows away the original, raising the Orwellian ambience several notches with piano and violin. Likewise, the line about “we’ll give it pause to breathe the air” in the triumphantly jangly, unlikely cover of the Andy Gibb rarity Words and Music.

Jackrabbit Protector, released under the name Zed Cats, is part Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir parody, part metaphorically-loaded populist throwdown. “I can count my friends on the palm of my hand,” Broome laments in the Beatlesque Walking Distance, awash in searing guitar multitracks. The lyrically torrential Sergeant Pepper-esque stroll, Ohma, Bring Your Light Into This Place, by the “Ceramic Age,” follows in the same vein: it could be a parable. Their B-side is Magenta Moon, a gorgeous, lushly swaying kiss-off anthem and cautionary tale (and maybe a Nick Drake shout-out). This eerie orb is “My one and true companion in the way you never were,” as Bulbenko relates in her simmering, mentholated mezzo-soprano.

Great Distances, by “Gospel Swamps” will rip your face off: over a tense twelve-string janglerock pulse, the band salute a time, and a person, lost to transcontinental barriers. It’s the great lost track from the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies record. The concluding cut, Awkward City Limits makes an apt segue, an irresistible, metaphorically-loaded road narrative set to simmering backbeat roadhouse rock, the New Pornographers mashed up with early ELO.

But wait! There’s more! There are bonus tracks including a hilarious Lou Reed reference; Nashville gothic gloom transposed to early Trump-era lockdown; and Babyshambles retro garage rock recast as Burroughs cut-and-paste novelette in New Abnormal hell. Was it worth risking being unmasked as pretenders throughout these wild adventures into the furthest reaches of the band’s creativity? “We’ve always believed that art without risk isn’t worth doing,” is their response in the liner notes.

Catchy Retro 90s Americana from Kelly McFarling

“Am I the last of my kind…standing on the edge of past my prime?” songwriter Kelly McFarling asks in the fifth track of her new album Deep the Habit, streaming at Bandcamp. These confidently arranged Americana rock songs, orchestrated in crystalline digital chill, big-room studio style, look straight back to the 90s. Back then people listened to radio to discover this kind of stuff…and flocked to roadhouses to see it live. In 2021, are there enough places to play, and enough of a potential fan base, to sustain a career built around the Florida, Texas, and northern plains circuits? When are the voices of sanity going to reach critical mass so we can get the rest of the country back to normal?

The album’s first track is Delicate, a brisk, robust four-chord anthem straight out of the BoDeans playbook. Tim Marcus’ pedal steel seeps through the highs over Oscar Westesson’s catchy, loopy bassline and Nick Cobbett’s propulsive drums. The point of the song is that words have resonance: “Be careful what you say, they’re gonna follow us around,” McFarling cautions. There may be subtext here.

Follow Me Down has a more muted backbeat: Fleetwood Mac with a pedal steel. The band stick with that style again in Birds as they pick up the pace, guitarist Andrew Brennan slowly building the sound up from starkness.

North Decatur turns out to be an airy vehicle for Brennan’s feathery mandolin playing. Flangey guitar mingles with the steel behind McFarling’s airy, uncluttered voice in the next track, Century, an allusive workingperson’s Dead anthem. In a year where fear programming has atomized such a disturbing percentage of the population, that resolute, insistent, chorus about going outside has taken on unexpected poignancy. If you want to remember what normalcy really is, this it it.

Brennan sticks with his Jerry Garcia envelope-pedal pulse in the bluesy Now We Know. Just How Small is the album’s catchiest number, looking back to late 60s countrypolitan through every delicious texture, from watery analog chorus to flange, in Brennan’s pedalboard.

McFarling follows with Relevant, a slow, pensive, lingering number and closes the record with Easy As I, as in “I want to let things go as easy as I pick them up;” it’s the key to the album.

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.

Darkly Diverse, Atmospherically Trippy Sounds From Georgian Singer Nainnoh

Singer Nainnoh hails from the nation of Georgia, which has one of the world’s greatest and most distinctive choral music traditions. Georgian music is often described as otherworldly: its stark modes aren’t quite western, yet they don’t sound Middle Eastern or Asian, either. Much of Nainnoh’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – comes across as the missing link between Enya and Nico. English is not her strong suit – song titles are a giveaway – but to her credit she really enunciates. Behind her, spare acoustic guitars and layers of keyboards build an atmosphere that’s sometimes gothic, sometimes psychedelic.

She likes long songs: some of these tracks go on for five or six minutes apiece. Skip the opening ballad, which is pretty generic. The second track, Colors, is trippy trip-hop with brooding minor-key changes and tremoloing layers of keys. Sample lyric: “I am pixels.”

Nainnoh has fun with her pitch pedal in Water, building warpy ambience over spare, reverbtoned acoustic guitar. She follows Run, a starkly marching goth ballad with Threads, which sounds like Goldfrapp underwater.

Seasons could be late 90s Missy Elliott taking a stab at tropicalia. Nainnoh goes back toward gothic ambience in Reasons, pushing the bottom of her low register with mixed results. Angst rises in Break Apart, its loopy metal guitar shred half-buried in the mix: “Confrontation is a work of art,” Nainnoh muses.

The wafty keys, drum machine and ka-chunk sway return in Vital Illusions. Words is not a BeeGees cover but a catchy, surreal Gipsy Kings-style faux-flamenco tune. The airily gothic closing cut, Velvet Mode makes a good segue.

Playful, Gently Trippy Dance Tunes and Neosoul From Kalbells

Kalbells play psychedelic funk and neosoul. They’re a road-warrior supergroup: Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver fronts the band with her cheery, chipper vocals, alongside Okkervil River keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti, Angelica Bess of Body Language and drummer Zoë Brecher of Hushpuppy. Their new album Max Heart is streaming at Bandcamp. This stuff is all about trippy textures and messing with your head: airy highs, reverb and uncluttered dance beats all figure into their web of sound. This is a good party record but it works just as well as chillout music.

Lush string synth joins the twinkly electric piano, Bernie Worrell-esque keyb flourishes, and fluttering flute in the opening track, Red Marker, Traver’s bandmates’ harmonies wafting behind her vocals. The song seems to be about picking up the pieces and moving on.

Traver testifies gently to the therapeutic effects of blowing some notes out into the street in Flute Windows Open In the Rain, exchanging phrases with thoughtful sax over an altered oldschool disco groove. Purplepink has a muted but resolutely funky strut and a slit-eyed, sunbaked guitar solo.

Twinkling keys return over a spare, steady beat and increasingly lush keys in Poppy Tree. Dancing along over some catchy bass octaves, Hump the Beach is just as hypnotic as it is catchy.

Pickles is the album’s funniest track: without giving anything away, it’s metaphorical and features a cameo by hip-hop artist Miss Eaves.

Brecher supplies an elegantly rattling Afrobeat rhythm to anchor the blippy, playful textures of Bubbles. Big Lake is closer to four-on-the-floor, with a catchy, leaping bassline and enveloping harmonies.

Diagram of Me Sleeping is a slow jam that gets funnier the more closely you listen to the lyrics – although that whistling is annoying. The band wind up the album with the defiantly anthemic, whimsically ornamented title track.

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.