New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: pop music

Os Mutantes: Sly Tropical Psychedelic Rock Legends Still Going Strong

Os Mutantes are best-known for jumpstarting the Brazilian psychedelic movement of the 60s. They sang in Portuguese and fractured English, putting a distinctively tropical, wryly humorous spin on the trippiest pop music of the era, a shtick that has become more lovingly satirical over the years. They enjoyed a resurgence back in the 90s and since then have never looked back…other than with their consistently skewed, gimlet-eyed take on classic American and British psychedelia from fifty years ago. Their latest album ZZYZX is streaming at Spotify.

They open the record with Beyond, a jangly, sparkling, Byrdsy twelve-string guitar psych-folk tune that could be legendary Dutch satirists Gruppo Sportivo. “Guilt and medication, you know, is the Catholic way of life,” frontman Sergio Dias sings, earnestly brooding: “To the end I dream by myself.” The music is spot-on Laurel Canyon, 1967: the lyrics, a facsimile that’s so close it’s actually quite laudable.

“How do you think you are all still alive, it is because I am there always by your side,” Dias insists in Mutant’s Lonely Night, a grimly crescendoing anthem, Henrique Peters;  river of organ behind the acoustic guitars, up to a bluesy solo from the bandleader. The Last Silver Bird starts out with jazzy chords and syncopation in the same vein as the Free Design, then the band very subtly shift it into gospel-inspired terrain.

The women in the band sing lead in Candy, a warped take on retro American soul – or just a ripoff of the Move doing the same thing, circa 1965. Gay Matters is a ridiculously unswinging faux-jazz spoof of this era’s confusion over gender roles– maybe that’s part of the joke. The band do the same with early 70s psychedelic funk in We Love You, right down to the warpy, flangey electric piano.

Window Matters is a spot-on early 70s John Lennon spoof and – maybe – a cautionary tale about society growing more and more atomized. “When you’re happy living in the box, closing doors, windows down, no one sees inside,” Dias warns. Por Que Nao is a bossa with woozy synth bass in place of the real thing, while the soul tune Tempo E Espacio is more authentically New Orleans than most American bands could approximate.

The album’s title track is its most ridiculously over-the-top song, a blues about aliens at Area 51. Is the closing number, Void, just a silly sendup of the meme of Indian takadimi counting language, or a genuinely apocalyptic shot across the bow? Dial up the record and decide for yourself.

Twin Peaks Pop and a Bushwick Gig From Nicole Mercedes

Riding home from Barbes the other night, there was a girl on the train who’d gone to extremes to tell the world that she was the saddest person alive. She was about fifteen: ragged blonde bangs, raccoon eyeliner carefully streaked down her cheeks. Her glassy eyes drifted in and out of focus: she was definitely on something, probably Oxycontin. She wore badly distressed turquoise jeans over matching polkadot tights, plus an altered turquoise sweatshirt embroidered with the words “Boys don’t cry.” To which she or her seamstress had stiched in the word “BROKEN,” running vertically down from the letter “B.”

She was with a thin-faced boy sporting a sloppy, day-glo yellow hair dyejob. He was on coke, couldn’t stop wiping his nose or running his mouth. Hell-bent on trying to get her to change her gloomy ways, he pitched group therapy, he pitched drugs. She tried pushing him away – as vigorously as a petite woman who’s zonked on Oxy can push away an obsessive cokehead, at least. It was hard to resist the temptation to go across the aisle, give her a pat on the arm and encourage her to go home and listen to Joy Division. That would have made her feel better.

In reality, she probably didn’t have Joy Division on her headset at that moment: Nicole Mercedes might have been a better guess. The former Debbie Downer frontwoman sings Twin Peaks pop: disembodied, distantly melancholy vocals over a coldly twinkling, techy, atmospheric backdrop where the guitars tend to blend into the keys. She’s a lot more energetic than Julee Cruise, infinitely more interesting than Lana Del Rey. She’s got a new solo album, Look Out Where You’re Going, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She had a gig on March 19 at 8 PM at the Sultan Room; which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

The opening track, At Ease, sets the stage: catchy four-chord changes, distinct guitars and then a starry synth riff at the end. The song title seems to be sarcastic to the extreme. The second cut, Filters comes across as a mashup of Casket Girls, Michael Gordon and late-period ELO, an unexpectedly tasty blend.

Just when Last Hike seems to be a wistful vacation reminiscence, there’s a grim plot twist: no spoilers! Nicole Mercedes is a dead ringer for early Linda Draper in Mediterranean, the next track, right down to the watery acoustic guitar. Motel has a slowly waltzing resignation that shifts in a more anthemic direction.

Haphazardly minimal, echoey guitar rings through the string synth ambience of Stoop. Thumbalina is album’s most icily orchestral, anthemic number. The closing cut, Watering is a steady, drifting spacerock gem. Beyond a general sadness and sense of abandonment, it’s never clear what Nicole Mercedes is singing about. But this is all about ambience, and she really nails it.

Charming, Deceptively Sophisticated New York Songs From Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna

To what degree does being born and raised in a metropolis empower the ability to demystify it? Are native New Yorkers better able to cut through centuries of myth and romance to see the grit and blood underneath? Or does an immigrant, whether from outside the country or simply another state, have a broader perspective? Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna assess those questions, and much more, on their debut collaboration, An Evening in New York, streaming at Spotify.

Both artists were born and raised here. Each songwriter’s own catalog has a rich historical sensibility: Della Penna with Americana-tinged superduo Kill Henry Sugar, Garniez mostly as a solo artist but occasionally with bands ranging from alt-country pioneers Mumbo Gumbo to ecstatic delta blues/New Orleans jamband Hazmat Modine. Each artist tends to favor subtlety and detail over fullscale drama: they make a good team. The two don’t have any shows together coming up.  Garniez was scheduled play the release show for her first all-covers album, a salute to recently deceased artists including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and others, on March 15 at 7 PM at Dixon Place, but the show was cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

On the duo record, Della Penna plays the stringed instruments and Garniez handles the keyboards. There’s a retro charm but also devilish levels of detail in the songs, a mix of mostly oldtimey-flavored originals and a handful of well-known New York-themed numbers from across the decades. On the surface, the title track is a charmingly waltzing turn-of-the-20th-century guitar-and-accordion duet, but there’s a wistful subtext.

Della Penna switches to banjo for his cynically empathetic lounge-lizard ballad, Neighbors, Manhattan Island, a Garniez concert favorite, languidly reflects on how cheaply the land that would become the “Empire City” was purchased from its original inhabitants (who didn’t understand they’d have to leave). Then the two pick up the pace with Talking Picture, wryly prefiguring the kind of tender reassurance an Instagram video can offer.

They follow a brisk instrumental version of the old 19th century vaudeville hit 42nd Street with a starkly resonant, anciently bluesy cover of Hazmat Modine’s surreal Viking Burial. Garniez’s Black Irish Boy is a pretty hilarious recollection of a childhood crush, as well as its aftermath. Then Della Penna takes over the mic for the Appalachian-tinged Zeppelin Song, singing from the point of view of a WWI German soldier hoping to escape the perils of combat by catching a ride on the rich baron’s contraption.

Garniez moves to the piano for a glistening ragtime-infused take of Am I Blue. Della Penna offers a fond Coney Island reminiscence with Wonder Wheel, followed by the slyly cajun-tinged High Rise. The duo put a kazoo in Coffee – as in “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” They wind up the album with their funniest song, We’ll Take Manhattan: you kind of have to live here to get the jokes, but they’re pretty priceless.

The album also includes an elegant take of Bye Bye Blackbird; a coyly spare Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen with a tastily bristling Della Penna guitar solo; and an irresistibly funny version of Irving Berlin’s hokum blues Walking Stick.

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.

A Diverse New Album and a Couple of Hometown Gigs by All-Female Supertrio Puss N Boots

Americana soul supertrio Puss N Boots have a new album, Sister, streaming at Spotify and a couple of New York dates coming up. They make a good case for going out tomorrow, Valentine’s Day, with an 8 PM gig at Rough Trade which will probably sell out; general admission is $25. Then the next night, Feb 15 they’re at Bowery Ballroom, same time, same price.

This blog called their debut release No Fools, No Fun “a younger, more irreverent counterpart to the Dolly Parton/Loretta Lynn/Linda Ronstadt albums.” The new record is both more eclectic and more serious, individual lead vocals often taking the place of harmonies. The band are also covering other peoples’ songs for the first time. It takes nerve to open with an instrumental, but that’s exactly what singer Norah Jones, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Sasha Dobson and bassist Catherine Popper do: the sardonically titled Jamola is a good-naturedly swaying slow-midtempo surf theme, their Summer Place.

That slow-burning tremolo guitar filters through the second track, It’s Not Easy, a backbeat country ballad, Jones’ voice rich with gravitas: she’s really grown into the talent she hinted she’d become during her poppier early days. She turns up the reverb on her amp all the way in the swaying Nothing You Can Do, which is sort of the bastard child of Dusty Springfield and Syd Barrett.

They follow that with Lucky, an electric newgrass tune, and then You and Me, a bouncy, soul-tinged number by Popper with some tasty vintage tube amp sonics and incisive hollowbody bass. Their take ot the Replacements’ It’s a Wonderful Lie (GREAT title, huh?) could be late 90s Wilco with a woman out front, while You Don’t Know is a successful Jones detour into Tex-Mex flavored C&W.

“All I want for Christmas is an answer,” Dobson muses broodingly in The Great Romancer, over more of that deliciously spare, lingering reverb guitar. The band work an early 60s Orbison vibe with the album’s title track. Then they return to a bluegrass-tinged vibe in The Razor Song, a kiss-off anthem by Popper and stick with it throughout Tom Petty’s Angel Dream, a more optimistic shuffle with some neat, offbeat cymbal work from Dobson.

The trio really air out their voices with the harmonies of Same Old Bullshit, a smoldering, guitar-fueled vintage soul song. Concrete Blonde’s Joey is the most 50s-pop tune on the record; they wind it up with The Grass Is Blue, a sad Dollly Parton waltz a launching pad for Jones’ most shivery, haunting vocals. “There’s snow in the tropics, there’s ice in the sun, it’s hot in the Arctic and crying is fun,” she explains – trouble is, these days, all that’s less paradoxical than it was back when people listened to music like this on the radio.

Catchy Space-Pop From Violinist Alicia Enstrom

The instrumentals on violinist Alicia Enstrom’s lushly atmospheric new loopmusic album Monsters – streaming at youtube – are also part of a larger concerto. There are vocal numbers on the record as well: it’s just Enstrom (whose name is an anagram of “monster”), her voice, fiddle and loop pedal.

She opens the record with the slowly swaying title track, a catchy, vampy trip-hop tune with coy cartoon-monster flourishes. Half Moon starts out with spiky, echoey pizzicato, balanced by sweeping ambience: it could be Bjork at her most symphonic. Goodnight Nebraska – a shout-out to Enstrom’s home state – is the album’s most Lynchian track, a flamenco-tinged melody awash in reverb and slowly shifting tectonics.

The terse, Bach-like arpeggios in Big Idea make it the album’s most classically-influenced moment. Enstrom winds it up with Lies, a trip-hop song with more than a hint of circus rock, which comes as no surprise since Enstrom’s big gig so far has been with a famous acrobatic troupe. Fans of dark catchy pop with orchestral flourishes – think Amanda Palmer – ought to check her out.

High Romantic Bombast and Catchy, Turbocharged Pop Tunes from the Dark Element

Former Nightwish frontwoman Anette Olzon and guitarist Jani Liimatainen’s new album The Dark Element – streaming at Spotify – is a clinic in tuneful bombast. This heartbroken, vengeful song cycle sounds like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, if the ultimate bombastic symphonic band had existed back in the 80s. The minor keys and short, sharp riffs draw a straight line back to Tschaikovsky. Olzon’s English is excellent, and Liimatainen’s epic orchestration is unexpectedly taseteful in what’s usually a completely over-the-top style.

With its blustery, synthesized arrangement, blend of guitar crunch and whistle and a neoromantic piano break, Not Your Monster sets the stage. For all the underlying Pat Benatar, it also has punk rock bite. The album’s title track has a bit of a lush, symphonic introduction before the big backbeat stomp kicks in. Without the grand guignol, the nifty bit of a bass solo and the divebomb guitar, this is Blondie in a minor key.

“Unwanted guest inside your chest will claim you, and then it’s time to rest,” Olzon warns amid the bluster of When It All Comes Down. Silence Between the Words comes across as a pop-metal paraphrase of Prince’s When Doves Cry. In a similar vein, Pills on My Pillow is a powerpop tune beefed up with punchy string synth and crunchy guitars. Olzon’s narrator anxiously weighs whether or not to do the Big Job on herself – why not do those pills while you’re awake, homegirl, so you can enjoy them?

Olzon channels elegant resignation over stately piano and strings before the guitars kick in on To Whatever End. The Pallbearer Walks Alone – a cautionary tale which could be Kim Wilde with a Nordic metal band behind her – is one of those songs that screams out for a subtitle. How about “Dude, Help Me Out With This Damn Coffin!”

Olzon finally gives the evil narcissist the boot in Get Out of My Head, an even more surreal blend of enveloping metal and synthy new wave pop – and disco too! Numbness and regret permeate the somewhat more subdued If I Had a Heart.

There’s more wounded intensity in You Will Learn, built around a stark Finnish folk theme. The album ends counterintuitively with the sad waltz I Have to Go. Some people will hear this and say, oy, Celine Dion with loud guitars, but there’s no denying this will wake you up in a hurry.

One complaint: Olzon is a perfectly competent singer. Thankfully, her vocals aren’t autotuned, but there are places where you can tell they’ve been pitch-corrected, an unwanted and cheesy touch. Was time so tight in the studio that she couldn’t have simply punched in and fixed what was necessary?

Seething Satire and Corrosively Lyrical Narratives From Office Culture

Office Culture play a suspiciously deadpan, sharply satirical take on lyrically-driven 70s and 80s top 40 pop. The kind of people who use the word “adult” as a verb would no doubt call the group’s shtick ironic. The band’s debut album A Life of Crime – streaming at Bandcamp – actually doesn’t have much real irony, although there’s no shortage of sarcasm, starting with frontman Winston Cook-Wilson’s tirelessly pitchy attempts to play lounge lizard. This band sound like they’d be a lot of fun live: give them a Saturday night at the Rockwood and see if anybody in the house actually gets the joke. They’re playing the Sultan Room on Jan 22 at 9 PM; cover is $10. Assuming they hit the stage on time, you can still get home afterward before the nightly L-pocalypse starts.

The album begins with A Sign, its enveloping sonics and warmly vamping, Grateful Deadly chord changes masking a ruthlessly cynical barroom pickup scene. Hard Times in the City, a glossy early 80s-style faux-funk number, skewers Wall Street yuppie money obsessions with a similarly jaundiced eye.

With its cheesily twinkling electric piano and ersatz jazz flourishes, Diamonds languidly chronicles a guy who’s “been pogo sticking around the Valley for half my life.” It’s Ward White lite. I Move in Shadows, a phony soul song, is so over-the-top awful that the satire gets lost. Likewise, Home on High is an exercise in scraping the bottom of the synthesizer patch barrel, “trying to use some new shtick on these hucksters,” an allusively grim narrative sinking amid blithely plasticky sonics.

If Lee Feldman had been writing songs back in the 80s, he could have tossed off Too Many and its chronicle of slowly losing it. The cynicism hits redline with Parade, its Trumpie protagonist making fun of a protestor. The final cut is Monkey Bone, which works on many levels: as apocalyptic parable, love ballad parody and swipe at young Republican entitlement. The world needs more bands as venomously amusing as Office Culture.

Spot-On, Frequently Hilarious Lyrical Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Gig From Whisperado

Catchy, purist New York powerpop band Whisperado make irresistibly satirical videos. Check out Popstar Girl: she’s a meme, she’s a toy, she’s a tv show…and she might actually be human. Whisperado have a wildly lyrical new album, Out the Door, streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on Jan 20 at 9 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10.

The first track is Vinegar Hill, an escape anthem tightly pulsing over the rhythm section of frontman/bassist Jon Sobel and drummer David Mills. The tradeoff between Sobel’s solo and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s guitar is so subtle it’s almost imperceptible, a rare and unexpected detail. And Sobel’s never sung with such unleashed intensity as he does here.

The album’s second song, Precisely is a droll, picturesque, jangly Rickenbacker guitar-fueled examination of the vagaries of memory, and all that might imply. Signal to Noise is not the Peter Gabriel classic but an Emma Bull cover done as steadily swaying 70s British pub rock, Elisa Peimer’s organ swooshing as the band gather steam. She switches to bouncy piano for Nina (rhymes with “concertina”).

The album’s pouncing, blues-tinged title track could be about the apocalypse, or suicide…or both. Round the Bend is a towering, Celtic-tinged ballad with soaring vocal harmonies and honkytonk piano from Peimer. Mass Extinction No. 6 has hints of funk and a Dylanesque, spot-on, New York-centric catalog of dire images, reprised in an alternate acoustic take at the end of the record.

I Don’t Want to Do It Anymore is a coldly aphoristic look back at a pre-NAFTA America seemingly gone forever:

Factory, come back to me
I like those old machines
Pushcart tricks and Velcro strips
And all those ways and means
Folk songs on the radio
Sung out by human beings…

The Diddleybeat-driven Pretty Please is more optimistic but just as circumspect: it could be an upbeat Matt Keating tune. The album’s most surreallistically grim number is Stone Deaf, a mashup of the Kinks and Willie Nile, its narrator insisting that he “never left the grassy knoll.” The best serious song here is the towering 6/8 anthem Ghost of the Girl, with its icy Rickenbacker clang and Sobel’s loaded imagery: “The witches were legion, they blotted the moon while Satan was splitting the atom.”

With Hayden’s twangy riffage and Sobel’s growly bass solo, Winter Blues isn’t a blues in the strict sense of the word. Forbidden is beyond hilarious, a true insider look at how musicians take the easy way out: the jokes are way too good to give away. Best song of 2020 so far! The album’s only miss is that Little Feat ditty that everyone who’s ever played Rockwood Music Hall has covered at some point – and which, like Hallelujah and Hotel California, needs to be permanently retired.

Purist Retro Country Sounds and a Lower East Side Gig by Virginia Singer Dori Freeman

Dori Freeman is one of the more prolific songwriters in Americana. She’s put out three albums in the past four years, which is a lot these days. Hailing from the heart of bluegrass country – Galax, Virginia – she’s a throwback, with an understated, warmly nuanced twang to her voice, a way with an unexpectedly slashing turn of phrase and a knack for catchy, often soul-influenced classic 60s C&W songcraft. Her latest album Every Single Star is streaming at youtube; she’s playing the basement room at the Rockwood this Jan 11 at 7 PM for $12 at the door.

The first track on the album is That’s How I Feel, a catchy, upbeat, vintage 60s soul-tinged bounce. Freeman’s narrator has found a dude she really likes, finding herself lost like “One can in the back of the fridge, one doe sitting high on the ridge, one man with his foot off the bridge…”

All I Ever Wanted, an Orbison-inspired abandonment tale, pictures a girl out with her friends drowning her sorrows in “margaritas deep enough to fill a sink.” Teddy Thompson’s production is smart and spare but lingering: those simple purist country guitar riffs really ring out, and the acoustic bass and drums punch through.

Freeman picks up the pace with the joyously bouncy Like I Do, like Dusty Springfield having fun with a Bo Diddley beat. She follows the spare solo acoustic lament You Lie There with the brisk, bittersweet countrypolitan shuffle Another Time. With its stabbing piano, Go On is an understatedly venomous kiss-off anthem.

Darlin’ Boy, with its elegant blend of acoustic guitars and honkytonk piano, is a wise dismissal aimed at a real ladykiller: it could have been a hit for an early 50s Nashville group like the Davis Sisters. Walls of Me and You is a even more vindictively vivid, a  walk-away anthem and the key to the album

Freeman contrasts that with the laid-back 2 Step, a duet with Thompaon and winds up the record with the solo acoustic ballad I’ll Be Coming Home.