New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: powerpop

Nina Diaz Brings Her Relentless Angst and Catchy 80s-Influenced Tunesmithing to Wlliamsburg

Nina Diaz is best known as the frontwoman and guitarist of Girl in a Coma. Without knowing her background, you might swear that many of the songs on  her debut solo album The Beat Is Dead – streaming at Spotify – were relics from the 80s. Synthesizers pulse and swirl; the guitars and basslines are as dry as they are precise and catchy. Otherwise, the record sounds like a sleeker take on her main band, a series of angry anthems that would make a great soundtrack for a sequel to or remake of Fatal Attraction. You know – rain-slick streets, Soho lofts that you take the freight elevator up to since the real estate bubble hasn’t started to blow yet, and everybody’s wearing black eyeliner. 

Some of the songs here also recall Nicole Atkins, right down to the the brooding minor keys, slightly throaty vocals and noir tinges. Diaz’s next New York gig is at Rough Trade on August 17 at 9 for ten bucks in advance.

The album opens with Trick Candle, propelled by a dancing octave bass riff and spiraling synth, like Missing Persons without the metal buffoonery. With its darkly irresistible chorus, the album’s title track, more or less, is Queen Beats King.”All he seems to care about is fame… in the silence you create your own violence to turn and kill,” Diaz accuses.

Rebirth begins as syncopated cabaret-punk and then follows a trip-hop slink that eventually straightens out: “I will not love you until you are my enemy,” Diaz says perversely. With its doomed, angst-fueled major/minor changes, January 9th is a dead ringer for Atkins: “I don’t wanna be the bad one, I don;t wanna be the sad one that you find,” Diaz insists, althogh her voice can’t disguise that she knows what’s coming.

Fall in Love keeps that same wounded atmosphere going, awash in starry omnichord synth over a trip-hop groove: “Sometimes I speak too quickly, end up inside another shell…how would you know yourself, if you were never to fall in love…”

With Young Man, Diaz goes back to icy, stainless-countertopped new wave that explodes into Billy Idol bombast. She opens It with a tricky intro that artfully morphs into strutting, defiant ba-BUMP new wave noir cabaret. Then she hits a vengeful, sequencer-fueled motorik punk drive with Screaming Without a Sound. 

Its wryly blippy synth contrasting with big stadium rock guitars, Down continues the 80s vibe, this time going up into the attic for a Siouxsie-esque menace:: “I know all your secrets, I will push you to the ground, and you say, oh, why’d you kick me while I’m down?”, Diaz recounts.

She hits a creepy peak with Dig, its guitar chromatics fueling a lurid tale of abandonment and lust, and follows that with Star, a titanic, blue-flame 6/8 anthem, a counterpart to Atkins’ signature song The Tower.

Stark, starlit guitar builds a moody noir ranchera backdrop behind Diaz’s melancholy vocals in For You, a sad waltz. The album winds up with Mortician Musician, a bitter soul anthem recast as Orbison noir: “I’m not a fool for writing melodies, I’m just a fool for trying to make you see what I see,, ask me what kind of coffin I’d like, it’s the one you picked out for me,” Diaz rails..Dudes, get your skinny tie on; girls, feather your hair and take the subway to Bedford Avenue on the 17th because there was no Uber back when it sounds like this unselfconsciously brilliant album was made.

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The Auspicious Future and Gloriously Melancholy Past of Americana Rock at Lincoln Center

For the last several years, the Americana Music Association has partnered to book the closing night of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Yesterday’s festivities began with multi-instrumentalist Amanda Shires and her similarly brilliant band and closed soaringly and bittersweetly with the unselfconsciously gorgeous harmonies of the Jayhawks. There were other acts scheduled throughout the day, some of them rambunctious, one of them absolutely putrid, but if these two are the foundation and future of Americana, New York’s default listening music is in good hands.

Shires doesn’t exactly play violin like your typical Americana fiddler. From song to song, she’d fire off savage Romany chromatics, venomous tarantella riffs and stark blues along with plenty of extended technique, from muted pizzicato harmonics to slow, eerily surfacing glissandos. She’s also a hell of a storyteller, chooses her words and sings every song differently, in character. A brittle ingenue, wounded valkyrie and wistful red-dirt Texas songbird were just three of them.

She has a hell of a band. Her lead guitarist wove his way from biting minor-key blues, through menacingly Lynchian twang, often sparring with the bandleader. The bassist played what would have been new wave if the drummer hadn’t swung the music so hard: all those steady eighth notes and the occasional emphatic chord on the low end gave the music extra majesty.

They opened with My Love (The Storm), more or less a remake of Wayfaring Stranger, and brought the show full circle at the end, taking out Look Like a Bird with the day’s most searing guitar/violin duel. After a noir bolero and an amped-up romp through the sharp, bitter The Way It Dimmed, Shires told a funny story about an encounter with a Florida fan aromatic with “an herb that is legal in Colorado and other kind states.” He gave her a bag that turned out not to be filled with the obvious but with bits and pieces of a dead Siberian tiger – or so he said. “It’ll make you bulletproof!” he explained.

With that, Shires lit into  the song he inspired, which was funny for an instant but got dark quickly, a catalog of what might be worth protecting from gunfire, personal to political. A spare, lingering take of  Harmless, a cheating song that underscored dashed hopes rather than the potential fallout, contrasted with a loud, enigmatic rocker that brought to mind the Throwing Muses, then a loping, simmering Tex-Mex ballad that slowly crescendoed into growling psychedelia.

The Jayhawks have held up stunningly well since their glory days in the late 90s and early zeros. Frontman Gary Louris, pianist/organist Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan still blend voices for the most glistening harmonies this side of the Balkans, and bassist Marc Perlman still makes his slinky, seamlessly melodic lines look effortless. Meanwhile, the band’s newsboy-capped latest addition filled out the sound, switching between mandolin, airy violin lines, acoustic guitar and Telecaster.

In the years since the band’s legendary turn-of-the-century triptych of albums – 1997’s Sound of Lies, 2000’s Smile and 2003’s Rainy Day Music – Louris has grown into the lead guitar god he was struggling to be then. He’s switched out most of the screeching, Stoogoid dry-ice attack for a precise, meticulously dynamic, texturally rich volleys that varied from Mick Ronson heavy blues, to many subtle shades of clang and twang, enabled by fast footwork on a pedalboard. His signature sound – a little Beatles, a little Bowie and a whole lot of Big Star – has held up as well as the band.

They opened with the mighty, indomitable powerpop anthem I’m Gonna Make You Love Me and followed with an appropriately towering version of the evening’s best song, the angst-fueled individualist anthem The Man Who Loved Life and its bitter on-the-road narrative.

Trouble, the centerpiece of Sound of Lies’ thread of rejection and alienation, was as shattering as the album version, Louris hitting his flange for extra surrealism to raise the effect of being “Hung out to dry, backs against the wall, stoned out of our minds.”

The rest of the show followed a dynamic arc up to a big crescendo with Tailspin, its gloomy perspective muted within the framework of a mighty singalong anthem. O’Reagan took over lead vocals on the moody, C&W-fueled ballad Tampa to Tulsa. The material from the band’s latest album Paging Mr. Proust was surprisingly strong, including a vampy, vintage soul-inspired number that could have been the Zombies. Even the slighter, poppier material – like Angelyne and Save It For a Rainy Day – was fresh and forceful. How many other bands who’ve been around since the 80s still channel this much passion and intensity?

Lincoln Center Out of Doors wraps up tonight, August 13 at 6 PM out back in Damrosch Park with oldschool 70s soul man Don Bryant and then veteran blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt, And the atrium space just north of 62nd Street continues to program some of the most exhilaratingly diverse acts from around the globe. Next up there: a rare twinbill of hypnotic, otherworldly, intense Colombian bullerengue with singer and tambolero Emilsen Pacheco Blanco along with singer Carolina Oliveros’ mighty 13-piece vocal/percussion choir Bulla en el Barrio on August 24 at 7:30 PM. The show is free; the earlier you get there, the better.

Purist Retro Rock Fun with Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

One of the differences between Lincoln Center Out of Doors and many of the other free summer concert series around town is that it caters to communities rather than demographics. Perhaps more importantly, Lincoln Center isn’t turning a genuinely free public event into a partially-free one by reserving the seats for paying customers.

Thursday night out back in Damrosch Park was Bollywood night, and the diversity of the crowd went far beyond a well-represented Indian contingent. Friday was hip-hop nerd night. Last night was for the old beerbellied guys in baseball hats.

Surveying the audience, the question was how many of the gang who hung out at the old Lakeside Lounge a decade ago – or two decades ago – would be here. New York powerpop cult heroes Matt Keating and Pete Galub – neither of whom is particularly old, beerbellied or known for wearing hats – were in the house, along with a smattering of more mainstream but less talented names that would resonate with the retirees who still listen to radio stations like WFMU on the drive back to Jersey.

Three years ago, Nick Lowe played here, solo on acoustic guitar, and ended up mopping the floor with opening act Jason Isbell. Lowe is a band guy and has been for a long time, so what was most impressive about that show was his expansive, eclectically tasteful rhythm guitar chops. This time out he had the world’s best backing band, Los Straitjackets.

Obviously, Los Straitjackets aren’t usually a backing band. They’re the world’s third-greatest surf rock group, which might sound like a dis until you consider that the only acts in front of them are hall of famers Dick Dale and the Ventures, who invented the style. The last time Los Straitjackets played Lincoln Center, they had to follow slinky Niger duskcore favorites Etran Finatawa, but that didn’t phase them. This time their tantalizingly short mini-set midway through turned out to be the highlight of the night, in fact the highlight of this year’s festival so far.

It’s amazing that a band who’ve been around for more than twenty years sound every bit as fresh as they were when they started…and their chops are even better now. Few bands, let alone veteran acts like this, have more fun onstage. Guitarists Eddie Angel and Danny Amis finished each others’ phrases without missing a beat, traded snazzy riffs and lead lines over the swinging 2/4 pulse of bassist Pete Curry and drummer Chris Sprague. The former brings a surprising subtlety and touch to the music,  fingerpicking instead of playing with a pick. Sprague took centerstage in a vaudevillian get-the-mosquito bit that had the audience howling.

But Angel is more of a cutup than anyone else in the band: his litany of quotes, from Brian Jones to Chuck Berry, drew plenty of laughs as well. Meanwhile, Amis fired off splashes of elegant jazz chords and some tremolo-picking that was so seamless that for a second it seemed like there was an organ in the mix somewhere. Lines formed in the lanes between the sets, everybody capturing the moment on video as the band shifted through darkly Spanish-flavored mock-Ninja Turtles strut, lots of bittersweet twang and finally a droll mashup of the Batman theme and Wipeout as their encore.

With these guys behind him, Lowe didn’t have to work too hard guitarwise. In strong voice and good spirits, he led them through what he accurately termed a “Perky, family-friendly” set of hits and deeper album cuts, from wry pub-rockers like Heart of the City and Half a Boy and Half a Man, to the cynical Everybody Changes and Sensitive Man, to the expansive, soul-infused ballads You Inspire Me and Til the Real Thing Comes Along.

The most resonant number of the night turned out to be I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock n Roll). In a city under siege by young wannabe Trumps from out of state whose disinterest in the arts and slavish obedience to social media makes their stodgy parents seem absolutely radical by comparison, that slight, vaudevillian pop tune found new meaning. We all knew the bride – for about ten seconds, before she became a Park Slope monster stroller mom.

Finally, Angel, who’d been keeping  his jangly leads and fills on a short leash, couldn’t resist a little tongue-in-cheek sparkle, and Sprague was on top of it in a second with a droll, rumbling turnaround. This is a good match: catchy retro pop tunesmith and a band who can take those tunes to places most bands would never dream of, or dare to.

Opening act the Cut Worms were about as original as a Chinatown Rolex, but delivered a pleasantly low-key, extremely Everly Brothers-influenced set, like a less Lynchian version of another Lincoln Center favorite, the Cactus Blossoms. Festival impresario Jill Sternheimer obviously has a thing for melancholy retro Americana; she could do a lot worse. The Brooklyn quartet’s best songs were a surprisingly shambling, brooding ballad delivered solo acoustic by frontman/guitarist Max Clarke, and a honkytonk-flavored number about printing photos in a darkroom. That might have been the night’s most retro moment of all.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues today, and this afternoon’s show is a doozy: the lush, hauntingly plaintive bounce of the Cheres Ukrainian Folk Ensemble along with Albanian superstar vocal/accordion duo Merita Halili & Raif Hyseni and their orchestra on the plaza starting at 1 PM. See you under the trees!

Funny, Socially Aware, Singalong Tunesmithing from North of the Border at the Mercury Tonight

Toronto band the Fast Romantics’ latest album American Love – streaming at Bandcamp – was conceived in the shock and horror after the 2016 Presidential Election. It’s a considerably generous gesture from the powerpopsters’ frontman Matthew Angus, a salute to all good things American rather than the cheap shot he could have taken so easily. The model for the songs is Born to Run-era Springsteen (with plenty of Cheap Trick and ELO thrown in), yet not in a cheesy, imitative way. There’s hope and urgency and a lot of humor, some of it allusive and some of it a lot more obvious, in its vast sonics, pounding beats and mighty choruses. It wouldn’t be hype to call it one of the funniest albums of the year. The band are playing the Mercury tonight, June 21 at 8; cover is $15.

The album opens with Everybody’s Trying to Steal Your Heart, a big stomping vintage Springsteenian anthem with stadium-sized singalong oh-ohs. For all the big-studio bluster, it’s an unexpectedly subtle look at a dilemma that everybody with an attractive mate has to deal with at some point.

“Although I couldn’t afford it, I bought a beat-up guitar, I worked til four in the morning in a broken-down bar,” Angus croons as Why We Fight, a tribute to the good things currently under siege from the Trumpites, gets underway. While there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm in American Love and keyboardist Lisa Lorenz’s epic synthesized string charts, it’s probably the only song ever written by a Canadian to reference the constitution of the United States – in a favorable way.

“I’ve smoked all kinds of flowers, now I’ve got superpowers,” Angus announces in Get Loved, a hilariously sideways look at a dude whose chemical overindulgences have had a similar impact on his libido. Ready for the Night is even funnier, a meta look at the process of songwriting, set to a mix of uneasy Orbison noir pop and bouncy new wave.

Radio Waves opens with a joke that’s too good to give away and stays just as amusing, an artsy late 70s ELO powerpop tale told from the point of view of a radio wave who “can feel you from a million miles away.” Julia spins a famous 60s riff through a fuzz guitar pedal, then the band stays in that decade, more or less throughout Alberta, a sardonically cheery, swaying lost-love tale with a surprise ending.

Kids Without a Country is an anthem for a new generation of Americans:

You were a refugee
I was a soldier’s son
But we couldn’t sleep together
So on the night of the storm we cut and run
Was just you and me and the weather

Runaway Girl is a harder-rocking, more enveloping take on the same idea, but with more oblique political subtext. Guitarist/keyboardist Kirty’s oxycontin vocals hover behind a wall of guitars and woozy synth in How Long Is This Gonna Last, which might or might not be about the election. The album closes with Heaven’s All Right and its Lynchian tremolo guitars. C’mon, Janey, wrap yourself round these blue velvet rims and strap your hands ‘cross my engines.

The Shelters Steal the Show in Williamsburg

Just when the Shelters really started to get cooking, they had to leave the stage. That’s the trouble with opening acts all too often. The Cali psychedelic pop band had just scampered through their one genuine cover of the night, a high-voltage version of the Yardbirds’ Lost Woman, bassist Jacob Pillot playing that big, rapidfire hook with a pick (rather than fingerpicking like Paul Samwell-Smith did on the original) and not missing a beat. They wound up their tantalizingly brief, stormy jam out with a wry Link Wray quote. And then they were gone. They deserved to headline their twinbill last night at Warsaw with Royal Blood, who were essentially doing karaoke, at least half of what they were “playing” stashed away in the mixing desk or on a laptop or wherever they hide pre-recorded tracks these days.

The Shelters are strong musicians and know their roots. Beatles? Check. Oasis? Doublecheck and triplecheck. Velvets? Sure. Post-Velvets? You bet. “Pretty good cover band,” one cynic in the crowd deadpanned. Frontman Chase Simpson alternated between a Les Paul and a Rickenbacker, proving as adept at Nashville gothic and garage-psych as he is with channeling George Harrison. Josh Jove pushed the tunes along with fiery rhythm guitar, playing a second Rick on a couple of the night’s jangliest numbers in tandem with Pillot and drummer Sebastian Harris. They got the Oasis/Blues Magoos mashups out of the way early, charmed the crowd with a clanging anthem that nicked the changes from Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot and then got a little retro Shakin’ All Over action going.

Interestingly, their best song was a hypnotically vamping, spacerock-infused midtempo number that sounded like vintage 90s Brian Jonestown Massacre. Then it was Yardbirds, over and out. Which was too bad. Realistically, there are easily a hundred bands in New York who might not be quite as tight but are infinitely edgier than the Shelters – lyrics are not their thing. On the other hand, it was impossible not to find it heartwarming to see so many kids (this was an all-ages show) among the very diverse, unpretentious crowd who’d come out for a midnight concert billed as an afterparty for a ridiculously overpriced, daylong corporate music festival staged on an island in the Hudson.

The official story is that Tom Petty saw the Shelters in some random bar and liked them so much that he ended up producing their debut album. On the other hand, it’s hardly unreasonable to believe that the record label simply rounded up four goodlooking guys who could really play, could write fluently in the styles of a whole bunch of popular bands from years gone by, and got Petty, a guy who truly appreciates this stuff, to helm the project. Whatever the case, it’s refreshing to see somebody putting some money behind a group with genuine talent and tunesmithing ability. The Shelters’/Royal Blood tour continues; the next stop with affordable tickets which isn’t sold out is on June 10 at 7 PM at Newport Music Hall, 1722 N High St in Columbus, Ohio. Then they’re at Bonnaroo the following day. 

NO ICE Represent the Real Brooklyn at Bowery Electric

NO ICE might be the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the last few years. They spun off of punkish populists the Brooklyn What when one of that band’s original three brilliant lead guitarists, Evan O’Donnell, absconded to Indonesia to work on a gamelan metal project (he’s been a member of New York’s Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Dharma Swara) and then most recently put out a ferociously good, dark art-rock album.

So frontman/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Frey decided to finally play all those instruments he’d been hiding down in the basement and keep the band going with a slightly different lineup and a different name. No ice – say it fast, ok? Or, you know the deal: if you’re ordering a fountain soda to go with your fast food, you get twice as much if you tell the girl at the register, “No ice!” Hardly rocket science – and it’s not known if that scam is the band’s M.O. beyond the noisy pun of a bandname.

Frey is one of New York’s most erudite musical talents. His songs draw on sixty years or more of music history: he’s as adept at doo-wop as he is at noiserock, fuzzily catchy Guided by Voices powerpop, unhinged punk rock and probably stuff we haven’t heard yet. It wouldn’t be out of the question to think that he had a couple of Duke Ellington big band numbers in him. He and the band are back from a marathon US tour and have an enticing show coming up on June 3 at Bowery Electric at 10, where they’re on an amazing all-New York triplebill, with power trio Castle Black – who veer between acidic Bush Tetras postpunk, stoner metal and more straight-up, sardonic punk – opening the night at 9. Television lead guitar legend Richard Lloyd headlines at 11; cover is an absurdly good $10. They’ll also be playing the annual Northside Festival on June 9 at 9 PM at Main Drag Music and on the 10th at the Gutter at 11.

NO ICE’s album is Come On Feel the NO ICE, streaming at Bandcamp. It opens with The Cemetery,  a fast electric remake of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Deep One Perfect Morning. The themes are similar, the musicianship better since they have Jesse Katz’s live drums backing John-Severin Napolillo’s guitar, Frey’s piano and Sean Spada’s organ. It makes a good diptych with with Summer Bummer, a hazier but equally brooding J&MC-style post-Velvets tune. “She’ll never love you again,” intones singer Oliver Ignatius.

Darlin’ will have you reaching for your phone – damn, what song from Daydream Nation does this take to the next level? Answer: it’s Hey Joni, complete with awesomely unhinged noise guitar jam. Then Frey goes deep into the soul-rock he loves so much with Leave Her Alone, a battle of superego vs. id. Superego wins, walking off with less than a home run.

I Want You goes back toward J&MC territory with some tastier, more dynamic guitar multitracks than that band ever laid down. We Get High Together is just plain sweet: if you have a stoner girlfriend, if you had a stoner girlfriend – or if you are a stoner girlfriend – you’ll get it. By contrast, Change Your Mind comes across as a haphazard mashup of the Lemonheads and Bay City Rollers (ok, nobody in the band except for Jamie probably ever heard of the Bay City Rollers, but that’s what it sounds like).

Out With the Brats is a powerpop gem: “Out on a weekday, feeling so weak and greY.” The trick ending is primo. The next track, simply titled Guitar, is an acidically simmering, twistedly psychedelic tableau with a sideways shout-out to Queen. Then the band returns to super-catchy mode with TBD and its blend of Britfolk and vintage powerpop. It’s here where it hits you, if you’ve read the song credits, how Frey has internalized the style of every other writer in this band to the point where he can sound like them just as easily as he can slip into Robert Pollard, or Thurston Moore, or (who was the songwriter in the Ink Spots?).

The swaying, jazzy miniature Eat This Heart is a co-write with Saskia Kahn. The band aptly turns the album’s lone cover, Leonard Cohen’s Memories, into leering vintage Springsteen. They wind up the album with Five Beers, a slow, contentedly slit-eyed nocturne: Frey really nails the starry distance that a few bowls and a few beers put between you and the sick Trumpy reality that awaits you when you wake up  hungover and hashed over, Napolillo turning in a tantalizingly fleeting slide guitar solo.  Somewhere Lou Reed is listening to this and smiling and saying, uh huh.

The Sadies Bring Their Most Psychedelic Sounds Yet to the East Village

Americana fans need no introduction to Canadian quartet the Sadies, one of the world’s alltime great jangle bands. They’ve been around for about twenty years and they make fantastic albums. Their work with Neko Case is legendary. Their 2014 collaboration with Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, a grim detour into southwestern gothic, was every bit as good. Interestingly, their latest album, Northern Passages – streaming at Bandcamp – is their hardest-rocking and most psychedelic release. Which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who’s seen the band lately: they blasted through a cover of Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog at a recent Bowery Ballroom gig. They’re playing Webster Hall on May 11 at 8 PM; tix are $25. On one hand, there are additional acts on the bill, opening and closing the night. But, hey, these guys are great live, whatever the circumstances.

With organ swirling calmly over drummer Mike Belitsky’s subtle rimshot pulse, the album’s opening track, Riverview Fog, has a laid-back Blonde on Blonde feel that mutes the song’s brooding lyrics. Brothers Dallas and Travis Good match guitar fury on Another Season Again’s careening post-Velvets drive: if the Brian Jonestown Massacre had been more focused, they would have sounded something like this.

The group ramps up the energy even higher with There Are No Words, a blast of waltzing fuzztone psychedelia spiced with icepick twelve-string guitar. Kurt Vile laconically tackles the torrential, aphoristic lyrics of It’s Easy (Like Walking), part Neil Young stoner folk, part classic, uneasy, minor-key Sadies jangle and clang. The band puts a twin-guitar snarl and then tack a noisy, unhinged outro onto late 60s Carnaby Street Britpop in The Elements Song: “We carry on, carry on, we pretend that nothing’s wrong,” the brothers harmonize.

Through Strange Eyes scampers along in the same newschool psychedelic jangle vein as the Allah-Las, but with an electric bluegrass edge. Honkytonk guitars and fiddle imbue God Bless the Infidels with a Sweetheart of the Rodeo proto-outlaw country vibe. Then the band washes the bitterly elegaic folk-rock of The Good Years in icy reverb guitar. “She knew these things would come in threes, maybe in fours…he haunted her before he was dead,” the Goods intone. It’s the album’s darkest and best song.

As Above, So Below is part stoic Beatles, part soaring, twelve string-fueled Byrds, a rich web of intertwining leads. Questions I Never Asked is the band at their most bittersweetly jangly and gorgeous, building out of glistening clang and twang to a roaring coda. That the album’s concluding instrumental, The Noise Museum, would be just as strong as the other tracks speaks to how memorably uneasy these songs are. Has there been an album this tuneful and guitarishly rich released in the last six months? Probably not.

The New Pornographers Go New Wave at Terminal 5 on the 26th

How many of you went to see the New Pornographers at Prospect Park in the summer of 2015? It was what you would expect: a lot of fun. They played the hits, keys swooshed and guitars crunched and clanged….and there was plenty of room to roam around. Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to get in to see them unless you were willing to wait in an impossibly long line at the gates.

That’s not to imply that this century’s premier powerpop supergroup are any less popular now than they ever were, considering that Terminal 5, where they’re playing this April 26 at 9 PM, is the largest Manhattan venue they’ve ever been booked into. It’s likely that a lot of the people who’ve been priced out of Brooklyn and who would have packed that show in the park may come out for this one, for the borderline-obscene advance ticket price of $38. Factored into that, no doubt, is the fact that this is an all-ages show where legal adults will be subsidizing their (officially at least) nondrinking concertmates. Imagine shaggy, tattooed dad and son in matching Beavis and Butthead (or Bevis Frond) shirts.

The group’s new album, Whiteout Conditions is streaming at Spotify. It’s a new wave record, and it’s a good one. There’s a suspiciously satirical edge to the swooshy synths, and crisply danceable beats, and the unease cached rather haphazardly in the lyrics. These songs are amazingly catchy: hooks fly fast and furious, and you can sing along to pretty much everything. What Squeeze was thirty years ago, the New Pornographers are to now. Real estate bubble-era malaise has never been so much fun.

Kathryn Calder sings the careful cadences of the vampy, Head on the Door-era Cure style opening track, Play Money, over a brisk backbeat. There’s a vocoder and pulsing layers of synths:

Just when I’d thought we’d beat the system
That we were gentlemen of leisure
He left to talk about his treasure
And how he’d gotten it for a song…

Carl Newman moves to the mic for the title cut, awash in echoing sequencer beats. It sounds like Big Country without the bombast – ok, that’s a stretch, but just imagine. Mid-80s Wire is also a reference point. It’s an escape anthem, more relevant than ever since January 20.

High Ticket Attraction – how about that title for irony, huh? – looks back to the early 80s, when Bowie glam from ten years earlier was such a big influence. Yuppie entitlement and conspicuous consumption factor into Newman’s torrents of lyrics – the Jigsaw Seen come to mind.

Calder’s sober enunciation in This Is the World of the Theatre, one of the poppiest tracks here, perfectly captures the self-referential preciousness of a generation of gentrifier fauxhemians. The glossy, vamping Darling Shade has a more opaque 80s glossiness: it’s about what happens “When you add your voice to bad choices…when you break through, it’s nothing.”

Second Sleep wafts in with a late-Beatles psychedelic intro, and then the new wave beat kicks in: “This time of the morning you’d swear it was night,” Newman, Calder and Neko Case insist in between short rhyming couplets. “Be awake for awhile” becomes “Been awake for awhile,” after awhile.

Fuzz bass underpins droll, synthesized phony windchimes in Colosseums: “A scalper’s price built into the designs…say it like a soothsayer, it’ll keep for days.” The most overlty political track is the atmospherically swooshy We’ve Been Here Before: “We couldn’t find a way out when were here the first time,” Newman admits. “Might as well leave him behind, might as well leave him behind.”

Juke has a slinky Bollywood psychedelic groove, spun through the eye of a Beatles needle. Case takes over lead vocals on Clock Wise, which maintains the psychedelic ambience. The final cut is the allusively apocalyptic Avalanche Alley, blippy electronic organ flitting through a haze of guitars over a tight 2/4 beat: “News from the last world, news from the future…we could use a ride,” the singers harmonize. As with everything this band has ever done, this album doesn’t just invite repeated listens: it demands them. How rewarding it is to see one of the last successful holdovers from the college-radio-and-cds era still going strong.

An Unpredictably Fun Album Release Show by Changing Modes

It’s hard to imagine a New York band that has as much fun onstage as Changing Modes. Or a band anywhere who can negotiate the endlessly tricky metrics and serpentine twists and turns of their artsy, often new wave-tinged songs as tightly as they do. At their album release show for their new one, Goodbye Theodora at Webster Hall this past weekend, everybody in the band except for drummer Timur Yusef switched instruments.

Singer Wendy Griffiths is the best keyboardist in the band, but she played the better part of the set on bass – as it turns out, she’s also their most nimble bass player. Co-frontwoman Grace Pulliam is a guitarist, but she played keys and bass synth. Guitarist Yuzuru Sadashige took over bass duties early on and ended the show on keys. As usual, Griffiths and Pulliam took turns on lead vocals, often in the same song, Pulliam’s soul-infused lower register blending with Griffiths’ crisp, crystalline soprano for some unselfconsciously spine-tingling moments and some that were a lot more devious. Griffiths worked the mystery angle; everybody else in the band was pretty much grinning from ear to ear for the duration of the show. They’re bringing their multi-instrumental prowess, good cheer and darkly lyrical songs to the one-year anniversary celebration at the Muse Brooklyn at 350 Moffatt St. in Bushwick tonight, April 2 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15; take the L to Wilson Ave.

It takes nerve to open with an instrumental, but that’s what Changing Modes did, tackling the creepy, futuristic tumbles and swells of 2-1/2 Minutes to Midnight without breaking a sweat. They kept the enigmatic, surreal atmosphere going with a swaying take of Mind Palace, the first of the tracks from the new album and followed with the sly noir swing romp Amanda’s House, which sounds suspiciously like a song somebody with that name might write.

Sadashige fired off some evil noiserock in between Pulliam and Griffiths’ vocal handoffs in Red, followed by the macabre, lingering anthem Arizona, the night’s best song. Fueled by Sadashige’s searing solo, they growled through the postapocalyptic allusions of Door, then had fun with Sharkbird, the night’s monster surf-tinged second instrumental.

After the uneasy dynamic shifts of Firestorm, they lightened the mood with Pulliam singing an Amy Winehouse-esque cover of Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s, and later elevated Radiohead’s Karma Police toward late Beatles grandeur. Too Far Gone – a co-write with their indie classical composer pal Denise Mei Yan Hofmann – made a detour back to grimly anthemic territory. They wound up the set with the poppy, bouncy Vital Signs and the woozy, fuzzy, older new wave song Pretty Vacant, which is nothing like the Sex Pistols. Changing Modes have a deep back catalog, seven albums worth of songs just as eclectic and unpredictably fun as these.

A Killer Triplebill Foreshadows a Great Psychedelic Show on the LES

This Thursday, March 30 at 8 PM there’s a rare, intimate performance by second-wave Los Angeles psychedelic legends the Jigsaw Seen at Bowery Electric. They’re followed by the much louder New York Junk, whose retro sound moves forward in time another ten years to the Max’s Kansas City early punk rock scene. Cover is a ridiculously cheap, CBGB-era $8.

The Jigsaw Seen’s latest album, streaming at Spotify, is aptly titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a collection of B-sides and rarities. There’s an album of new material in the works, and frontman Dennis Davison has also recently immersed himself in a brand-new dark acoustic project, Witchfinder Witch, a duo with New York folk noir icon Lorraine Leckie. Speaking of which, she has an incendiary new protest single, America Weeping, just out and available as a free download at Bandcamp

The two made their debut at Pete’s Candy Store on a Saturday night in January, Davison on acoustic guitar and Leckie on piano. The highlight of that gig was Cave Canem, a witheringly lyrical anthem that casts the history of dogs – and centuries of canine abuse – as a metaphor for humans’ crimes against their own species.

A few days later at Maxwell’s, the duo were the centerpiece of what’s arguably been the best triplebill of the year. Debby Schwartz opened the show, jangling adn clanging through a series of arcane British folk turnings on her hollowbody Gretsch, bolstered by Bob Bannister’s nuanced, artfully jeweled, Richard Thompson-esque Strat work, Rose Thomas Bannister supplying lush harmonies and percussion. Through neo-Britfolk and more dreampop-oriented material, Schwartz sang with her her soaring, diamond-cutter delivery, dreaming New York City in the middle of LA and finally closing with a stunning take of the psych-folk anthem Hills of Violent Green.

By now, Witchfinder Witch had shaken off whatever early jitters they might have had: they’d come to conquer. Davison spun bittersweet, pun-infused psych pop gems weighing the pros and cons of clinical depression (do it right and you get tons of songs out of it) and a couple of darkly allusive, mystically-tinged co-writes with Leckie. She charmed and seduced the crowd with blue-flame red-light cabaret tune or two, a jaunty S&M piano number that was so deadpan that it was creepily plausible, and a mysterious, hypnotic folk noir tableau that could have been about heroin, or simply death itself. The crowd was rapt.

The Pretty Babies headlined, putting a deliriously fun coda on what had been a low-key, entrancing evening up to then. Professional subversive and rockstar impersonator Tammy Faye Starlite – who’s channeling Nico on Thursdays in April at 7:30 PM at Pangea – led the world’s funniest Blondie cover band through a stampeding take of Dreaming as well as a surprising number of deeper cuts from the band’s early days when they rocked harder. If memory serves right, Tammy took a hilariously politically-fueled detour that eventually drove Call Me off the rails. Everybody in the band has a funny, punny Blondie name. Was bassist Monica Falcone – who absolutely nailed the wry disco lines in Heart of Glass – newly christened as Chrissie Stein? It’s hard to remember who else everybody else was: Heidi Lieb and Keith Hartel as Frank Infantes separated at birth, and expert standins for Jimmy Destri on keys and Clem Burke on drums. Hearing the Pretty Things and watching the crowd on their feet and bopping along was a jab in the ribs that said, hey, the original outfit was pretty good too.