New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: pop music

A Gleefully Twisted Theatrical Update on a Classic Black Comedy

For those who missed it the first time around, the 1988 black comedy Heathers remains one of the alltime great midnight movies. It stars Winona Ryder, Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk as a trio of sadistic, popular high school girls, all named Heather, whose mission is to make life miserable for everyone below then on the status ladder. As a satire of high school conformity and cliquishness, it’s as bleakly funny today as it was then.

It also became a popular musical. The original West End cast recording, released last year, is streaming at Spotify. What’s almost shocking is that the creators, writer Kevin Murphy and composer Laurence O’Keefe, kept the narrative in its original late 80s milieu. Back then, the internet was just a dial-up connection for diehard computer nerds, only spies and hedge fund moguls had mobile phones, and the plague of social media was yet to come. So just as in the movie, all the hazing and hostility here happens in reality rather than its virtual counterpart.

The cast are perfectly adequate singers, but the songwriting is the musical’s strongest point. Obviously, none of the original three Heathers would have been listening to anything edgier than Mariah Carey. Interestingly, Murphy and O’Keefe bring the music further into the future. This is a pop musical: while most of the music has 80s production values, with real guitars, synthesizers, bass and drums and even occasional orchestration, there are interludes that either draw on or make fun of singsongey, post-emo corporate radio fodder. Hip-hop influences also pop up in places.

The dialogue is relentlessly sharp and a lot dirtier here, compared to the movie. There’s a big “holy shit” chorus early on that’s irresistibly funny. And the characters, especially the villians, have been updated except for the social media obsessions. Sex, booze and drugs are as ubiquitous here as they are among real-life seventeen-year-olds.

“This ain’t high school, this is the Thunderdome,” embattled protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Carrie Hope Fletcher) complains as the blustery opening anthem introduces a procession of bully and victim stereotypes. The quasi-relationship between Veronica and the outsider Christian Slater character (Jamie Muscato) makes its entry earlier than in the movie: this guy also turns out to be considerably kinder and gentler. The plot twist where a couple of the jock characters are outed as gay (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie) reflects a 21st century conscience. Veronica also gets caught up in a genuinely chilling metoo moment.

Suicide is also an even bigger theme in this version. As the parade of power ballads, ersatz funk and frenetic dance numbers rise to an explosive peak, the musical proves to be every bit as dark as the film.

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Fierce, Fearless Americana to the Next Level

Kelley Swindall is a badass outlaw country songwriter with a 21st century edge. She learned how to work a crowd singing over drunks at one of New York’s most notorious dive bars, the late, lamented Holiday Lounge and then up and down the Americana highway, from New York to New Orleans and pretty much all points in between. She’s got a new album, You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want, streaming at Soundcloud.

Pretty much every song on the record has been thoroughly road-tested, and a lot of them are a lot different than you may have heard her play onstage. For example, the opening number, I Ain’t For You You Ain’t For Me, used to be more of a hick-hop number. Here, it’s an unrepentant cheater’s anthem. The girl in this song strayed because she was trapped by a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive POS, and she finally got wise. Swindall sings it with more than a little snarl over a searing minor-key drive spiced with Michael Hesslein’s piano and a tantalizingly evil Teddy Kumpel guitar solo midway through.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal ’cause I’ll jump off it,” she warns in the album’s track, a swaying, vintage 70s-style country-soul ballad with swirly organ. “I just smiled, and said, ‘That’s what drugs will do,’” Swindall tells the guy who wants to hang out, “talking shattered hopes and trashcan dreams, and all the lies in between” in Dear Savannah, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder look at a whirlwind romance.

California is a big crowd-pleaser, a wryly choogling talking blues about a transcontinental weed deal with a surprise ending. Meet Me Halfway is sort of a mashup of lazy Lowell George C&W and hick-hop: if anybody still thinks long-distance relationships have a prayer, Swindall will shatter that illusion.

Swindall follows the careening blues Come On Back My Way with the starry early 60s Nashville nocturne Refuse to Be Blue. My Minglewood Blues picks up where the iconic folk song left off: where the Grateful Dead took it into psychedelia, Swindall finds a lickety-split, feminist party anthem.

She lets her guard down in You Never Really Loved Me Anyway – but the punchline packs a wallop, over a Dylanesque Blood on the Tracks backdrop. She takes a welcome detour toward folk noir in Heartsick, then shifts toward classic honkytonk with He Ain’t You over Hesslein’s ragtimey piano and Don Dilego’s soaring, sinuous bassline.

She closes the record with Spring Street Dive: “You know sometimes the fear of being tied down sometimes holds you back from taking flight, it’s true!” she announces. The vinyl version also has a secret bonus cover track. Dilego’s production also deserves a shout: this has the feel of a big-room analog record, not the kind of sterile digital ambience that plagues so many rock and Americana records these days.

Intriguingly Original Chinese and American Jazz and Funk Grooves From Song Dynasty

One of the most individualistic albums to come over the transom here in recent months is Song Dynasty’s debut album Searching, streaming at Spotify. The Dallas band (not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese group) play jazz and jazz-adjacent sounds with Chinese lyrics, both covers and originals. The bandname is a pun: the Song Dynasty in China lasted from approximately 960 to 1279 AD. During this period, China was one of the world’s great powers, a leader in scientific innovation. Thanks to invention of gunpowder, the Chinese navy ruled the waves off the coast of Asia for centuries. 

You might not expect such a searing guitar solo as Ben Holt plays in the band’s otherwise understatedly slinky lounge-funk cover of the Chinese pop hit, Fa Su Ha (Under the Blossom Tree), but that’s the band’s strong suit. Their music is very unpredictable. Frontwoman Li Liu sings expressively, airy and misty at the same time in this case. She has a very expressive and dynamic delivery that transcends the limitations of language: you don’t have to speak Chinese to get a good sense of what she’s putting across.

The first Liu original here, Tango Cha has more of a bite, both vocally and musically, Dan Porter’s glittering piano edging toward latin noir over the low-key pulse of bassist Corentin le Hir and drummer Hiroki Kitazawa; Holt and saxophonist Jeff Chang add chill solos.

Liu sings the album’s disquietingly modal title ballad in both English and Chinese; Porter’s spare chords and precise ripples enhance the theme of struggling to find inner calm. Liu adds original lyrics to a bustling samba reinvention of Herlin Riley’s Shake Off the Dust, then remakes the standard I Remember You as a cool, briskly tiptoeing swing tune with her own lyrics as well.

Liu and Holt revert to low-key, twinkling Hollywood Hills funk in Flying, with Porter on Rhodes, trumpeter Kevin Swaim and trombonist Kenny Davis adding bright harmonies. The group open Heart in Sorrow, a setting of a text by Chinese poet Li Qing Zhao, as wide-angle chords by Holt and Porter gently edge into a moody jazz waltz.

Liu brings both her sultriest and most insistent vocals to Ai Ta (Love Him) as the band return to slinky funk, with a sly dubwise bass solo by guest Mike Luzecky and some welcome grit from  Holt. They close with the album’s most trad and chipper tune, Summer Ride, nicking the chords from Charlie Parker’s Confirmation. This is a vocalist and backing band – there’s not a lot of interplay here. But the ideas and the creativity make you want to hear more.

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.

Purist, Catchy Powerpop From Librarians With Hickeys

Akron, Ohio band Librarians with Hickeys play expertly crafted, catchy, 1979-style powerpop. They jangle and clang, they like layers of guitars, cool keyboard accents and vocal harmonies. And they would have been huge if they’d been around back four decades ago (that’s a compliment). Their debut album Long Overdue is streaming at Bandcamp,

On one hand, this is the kind of album that’s a dead giveaway for what’s in the band’s collective record collection. On the other, the four-piece group – guitarists Ray Carmen and Mike Crooker, bassist Andrew Wilco and drummer Rob Crossley – have good taste. The opening track, Until There Was You is sort of Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know About Us with twin-guitar grit and more of a four-on-the-floor drive. That Time Is Now follows a familiar rock progression (the best a band’s been able to do with it is the Church’s Bel Air) with dreamy harmony vocals by Lisa Mychols of the Seven And Six. And Then She’s Gone recounts the final scene in the film Ghost World where Enid, the Thora Burch character, gets on that magic bus at the end: the tune is a silkier take on Guided by Voices.

Be My Plus One is a sunshine pop number: Mrs. Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter, I’d like to ask her out. Next Time is pure 80s, complete with watery chorus-box guitars, Crossley getting the clap-clap going with his syndrums. Likewise, the trebly, jangly, vamping Obsession could be the Church in a particularly poppy moment circa the Seance album.

The band mash up organ-livened Lyres garage rock with a little spacy new wave in Leave Me Alone and follow that with Poor Reception, another Church-like janglerocker that also recalls legendary/obscure 80s Long Island space-pop band the Hatracks. Wilco goes way up on his G string for the boomy chorus hook in Silent Stars, the album’s most hypnotically psychedelic track.

Carmen breaks out his Rickenbacker for extra clang in Alex, a gentle backbeat folk-rock number. The Church – that damn Oz band again! – come most strongly to mind in Looking For Home, but in the vein of a big rocker from, say, the Gold Afternoon Fix album. The band close the record with Black Velvet Dress, Crossley’s piano rippling above the guitar flare in this empathetic tale of a girl throwing a party for herself. Singalong hooks, expert craftsmanship, no wasted notes: what more could you want from guitars, bass and drums?

Trippy, Free Neosoul on the Northern Plains Next Weekend

There’s another intriguing free outdoor concert next weekend at 4 PM on Sept 20 at Terrace Park, 1100 W 4th St in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where neosoul singer and hip-hop artist Arlinda Peacock plays a duo set with keyboardist Gus Martins. Her most recent album is the Peacock Cassette, which came out in 2016 and is still available at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. It’s sort of Janelle Monae before Janelle Monae got really popular, with simple, swoopy layers of keys and a beatbox. Peacock has an expressive voice and doesn’t waste notes: you won’t hear any over-the-top American Idol bullshit in her songs.

Peacock opens the record (or the cassette, if you want to to call it that) with a loopy, twinkly, mostly instrumental trip-hop intro. The first song is Eff Annie, a Little Orphan Annie parable. Rapper Bob Rawss takes the bridge, with insights into how people who haven’t had positive influences growing up figure out how to make sense of the world.

”There was once a beginning, that we all decided to destroy,” Peacock announces as  Chosen Unchosen gets underway  It’s a simple, telling commentary on equality and how to create it. “We call them people these days,” she explains dryly.

Pony Boi is a trippy, spare number with a catchy piano hook and jazzy synthesized brass. “Don’t ever let me catch you looking down again,” Peacock sings in Bravery, a chiming, upbeat trip-hop anthem.

The album’s swooshiest and most psychedelic track is Attitude Rewind: it could be a Missy Elliiott tune from the late 90s. Peacock keeps the surreal, cinematic ambience going with the most ominous cut here, Justice.

Konstantly is even scarier, when you consider that Peacock’s character is talking to her dead mom. The last of the songs is the epically mysterious Timmy on the Run, set to a dark, classically-influenced, vintage RZA suspense/action film style backdrop. Peacock brings the album full circle at the end.

If you’re wondering why a New York music blog would be paying this much attention to such a faraway state as South Dakota, be aware that it’s one of the few places in the nation where it’s still legal for crowds to gather to see live music. Here in New York, the State Liquor Authority recently ordered restaurants and bars not to charge a cover or sell tickets to performances, and to keep musicians twelve feet or more from the customers. Presumably this bureaucratic overrreach extends to places that do not serve alcohol as well. Whoever thought we’d live to see the day when South Dakota would be kicking New York’s ass 24/7 as far as support for the arts is concerned.

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.

Smartly Woven Southern Gothic Tunesmithing From Abigail Dowd

Rural life isn’t easy, as folk music from around the world will never let you forget. Abigail Dowd draws on that tradition, with imagistic tales which reflect how much things have changed – and also how little. She’s got a big, bluesy voice, like Lucinda Williams before the booze caught up with her, as well as way with a sharp turn of phrase and a solid supporting cast of players behind her. Travelers and outsiders figure heavily in her songs. Her new album Not What I Seem is streaming at Bandcamp.

The stripped-down arrangement in the biting, minorr-key, bluesy Wiregrasser – just acoustic rhythm guitar, lead slide guitar and steady bass – underscores Dowd’s hardscrabble tableau, where people extract everything from the surrounding woods until there’s nothing left but creosote.

“I mostly look out for myself,” Dowd’s cynical narrator relates in The Other Side over a catchy, Dylanesque sus4 riff – but she also asserts that “When you get to heaven, there’ll be many a party, but there won’t be nobody there that you know.”

Over a spiky web of fingerpicked guitars, Dowd chronicles a harrowing southern legacy in Old White House. Dowd’s fingerpicking grows more spare and enigmatic in the album’s title track, a defiant, solo acoustic individualist’s anthem.

“I remember looking for a smile, and meeting cold steel eyes,” Dows recounts as Chosin, a searing memoir of how war trauma crosses generations, rises from a hazy intro to a briskly ringing, open-tuned melody. “Stand and fight, you fool, ‘cause no one’s gonna out alive/Watch out, how many of these wounds are mine?”

Dowd looks back on an uneasy transition from southern comfort to New England chill in Goodbye Hometown. She takes that story further into a troubled future in Oh 95, a vivid traveler’s tale: “When you’re all alone you speak the truth,” she reflects.

Dowd and the band pick up the pace with Desire, a shuffling minor-key tale set in coalmining country. Alienation is a persistent theme in these songs, and the stark To Have a Friend is the most forlorn of all of them.

Drag Me Down is an unexpected turn toward acoustic White Album-era Beatles. She keeps the low-key, fingerpicked ambience going with Daredevil: “Let me be the devil on your shoulder, I’m daring you to live,” Dowd cajoles.

She takes a turn into Lou Reed territory in Sweet Love and then returns to Americana, singing a-cappela in the album’s closing cut, Silent Pines, a gospel-flavored revolutionary anthem. If best-of-2020 lists still exist when this hellacious year is over, you’re going to see this album on a lot of them.

Revisiting One of the Zeros’ Defining Bedroom Albums

Today is all about zeros nostalgia. Since nostalgia is the enemy of history, let’s put this in historical context. Goldfrapp’s third album Supernature came out in 2005. There wasn’t much to celebrate that year, globally speaking. The Bush regime was dropping thousands of tons of depleted uranium on Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and dooming generations to a plague of birth defects. Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg was scheming up ways to turn his campus photoblogging service into the world’s most dangerous surveillance system. But at least Napster was still going strong, opening up a world of music that millions around the world never would have discovered otherwise.

To commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the album’s initial release, it’s been remastered and reissued on green gatefold vinyl, and you can hear it at Spotify. Throughout the record, singer Alison Goldfrapp’s breathy vocals have been left as sultry as they were on the original release, although Will Gregory’s many layers of simple, catchy, playfully psychedelic keys seem more balanced, less dancefloor-oriented than on the cd.

Revisiting the album, the influence of early 80s new wave acts like Missing Persons, Yaz and early Madonna is more vivid than ever. And the songs are a trip, from Ride a White Horse, the duo’s thinly veiled ecstasy anthem, to Number 1, the motorik New Order ripoff that closes the record. In between, the duo’s frontwoman shows off her upper registers in You Never Know (a song that would be autotuned if it was released by a corporate label in 2020), descends to a seductive whisper in the loopy Let It Take You and purrs over the catchy synth bass in Fly Me Away.

Who can forget the cheery, completely deadpan Slide In? If you were around back then, maybe you slid in or smoked up to the woozy, P-Funkesque textures of Coco, the pogo-sticking Satin Chic or the drifty, oscillating Time Out From the World. In the time since, the two have stayed together – and why wouldn’t they? Their New York shows over the past several years have gotten more and more stratospherically expensive.

The album gets extra points for its effectiveness as a weapon to get noisy neighbors to shut up. Played on a sufficiently powerful system, those icy, bassy electronic beats really cut through the the walls and ceiling.

Gorgeously Arranged, Lavish Soul Sounds From Ren Harvieu

If a ton of money didn’t go into the production of chanteuse Ren Harvieu‘s new album Revel in the Drama – streaming at Bandcamp – producer and Magic Numbers frontman Romeo Stodart deserves some kind of award. The arrangements are lavish but organic, with layers of keys, guitar, strings, backing vocals and Harvieu’s uncluttered, sometimes ripely sensual vocals. The music draws on decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s.

The opening track, Strange Thing is a lushy produced, harder-rocking take on jazzy early 70s Stylistics soul. Teenage Mascara is a weird, trippy mashup of Lynchian pop and soul from a decade before, with hints of hip-hop and Hawaiian music, backing choir and theremin! Then Harvieu shoots for early 90s Sade ambience, but with more organic production and dub tinges, in This Is How You Make Me Feel.

She goes back to early 70s ambience for the slow boudoir soul ballad Curves Swerves: again, the piano and guitar are more prominent than the orchestration and backing vocals. Smoky organ and pounding drums propel the towering Vegas noir ballad Cruel Disguise, the album’s most arresting track. After that, Harvieu brings it down with Yes Please, a mashup of 90s trip-hop and starry psychedelic soul.

Spirit Me Away is an unexpected detour into gothic rock, complete with neoromantic piano, cello and a bell tolling in the distance. Both Harvieu and the band shift between fullscale art-rock angst and lustrous, nocturnal soul in This Is Our Love. The country-tinged You Don’t Know Me gets a deliciously shivery string intro and Harvieu’s biggest vocal crescendo here.

“As soon as I stop making bad decisions, oh world, watch out!” Harvieu announces in the catchy Tomorrow’s Girl Today, awash in contrasts between celestial keys, quietly glimmering guitar and piano. Harvieu winds up the album with its most distinctly nocturnal numbers, the spare Little Raven and the unabashedly Romantic, crescendoing My Body She Is Alive: “Here is your life” is Harvieu’s closing, angst-ridden mantra. It’s a clinic in tasteful, imaginative orchestration and catchy tunesmithing.