New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: powerpop

High Romantic Drama and Heavy Metal Crush From Reasons Behind

A brief lullaby on a music box opens The Alpha Memory, the 2016 album by melodic metal band Reasons Behind streaming at Bandcamp. That bit of a tune hardly hints at the ornate crush that will begin seconds later. The group are more classically-influenced and keyboard-oriented than most, and Elisa, their frontwoman, has a disarmingly warm, intimate delivery: she’s not just out for banshee vengeance.

“There’s something growing inside of me, traveling on a one-way track,” Elisa sings with understated drama in the album’s first big anthem, Under the Surface; then the machinegunning doublebass drums and guitar roar kick in.

Guitarist Gabriel and drummer Riccardo (no last names here) go lickety-split in a tricky beat behind Elisa’s resonant vocals and Dige’s elegant keys in The Chemical Theater. With Your Light is a turbocharged pop anthem assembled around a swaying, atmospheric interlude and a momentary, spiraling synth solo. The moody piano solo at the end segues into Starlight in the Shades, Elisa rising to an operatic intensity over a surprisingly enigmatic, rising and falling backdrop.

The simple piano theme On Butterfly Wings is a showcase for the unselfconscious poignancy in her vocals. With its twin guitar/keyboard solo along with Enrico Goya’s Steve Harris-ish bassline, the album’s heaviest song is The Ghost Under My Skin

The break for string synth and bass in the similarly pummeling 1000 Fading Lives is over too soon. Elisa’s operatic chops glisten over spare, pensive piano and string synth as the title track gathers force. The album ends up coming full circle.

There’s an element who are going to hear this and say, jeez, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Cartoon gramd guignol. Grow up, New York Music Daily! That’s ok. Sometimes it’s fun to feel like a kid again, lying on the floor with headphones blasting something like this, playing air drums, and looking forward to being able to drink in a bar instead of hiding out at home

Revisiting a Lush, Lynchian Treat by the Lovely Intangibles

The Lovely Intangibles are a spinoff of Lynchian cinematic band the Lost Patrol, one of the most consistently disquieting New York groups of the past twenty years or so. This project features the core of the band, lead guitarist/keyboardist Stephen Masucci and twelve-string player Michael Williams, plus singer Mary Ognibene and drummer Tony Mann. Their 2015 debut album Tomorrow Is Never is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, No Amends, has everything that made the Lost Patrol so menacingly memorable. That lingering reverb guitar, those icy washes of string synth and deep-sky production, and Ognibene’s breathy, woundeed vocal harmonies are a good fit.

The Dust Settles Down is basically a catchy 80s new wave ballad lowlit by ominous spaghetti western guitar: imagine Julee Cruise if she could belt. Opening with dusky guitar jangle, Tell Me When takes on a gusty, string synth-driven ba-BUMP noir cabaret tinge.

Beatlesque riffage punches in and out of the sweep and swoosh of Do As You Please. The album’s title track ripples and glistens, Ognibene’s voice channeling a cool but angst-fueled intensity: the kettledrums and snappy bass are an aptly Orbisonian touch.

Masucci’s icepick reverb guitar and looming bass propel the anthemically waltzing It’s Just Like You. Then the band sway through the gorgeously bittersweet early 60s-influenced Will You Surrender: you could call it Theme From a Winter Place.

The most straight up new wave number here is Divine. They close the album with Relapse, a broodingly twinkling tableau. Play this with the lights out – if you can handle it,after all we’ve been through over the past year and a half.

Another Allusively Menacing, Lyrical Masterpiece From Ward White

Ward White is the Elvis Costello of the 21st century. Nobody does deviously whirlwind literary wordplay and catchy tunesmithing better. Like Costello, White is prolific – thirteen albums, including his latest, The Tender Age, streaming at Bandcamp. His influences are vast, he thinks outside the box, but he’s had the good sense to resist getting in over his head (Elvis C turned out to be great at string quartets but was, um, less successful with opera buffo and hip-hop). And White is arguably even darker than the past century’s greatest songwriter.

And he’s a hell of a lead guitarist, and a damn good bass player too. The new album features his longtime collaborators Tyler Chester on keys and the Wallflowers’ Mark Stepro on drums. This is their best album together: they’ve become White’s Attractions. Tenacious D bassist John Spiker engineered with his usual retro purism and flair.

Allusive violence and an ever-present menace have come to permeate most of White’s most recent material. The first track, Dirty Clouds, is a slow, funk-tinged number, Chester’s echoey Wurlitzer percolating beneath White’s dissociatively grim imagery. Check out the hilarious video – is this a metaphor for media terrormongering? Maybe a little bit. There are innumerable levels of meaning in White’s songs: they don’t just stand up to repeated listening, they require it. Catchy as his catalog is, it’s not for people with short attention spans or the faint of heart.

Track two, Easy Meat is one of White’s more sinisterly evocative narratives, vintage 80s powerpop pulsing along on a tense new wave beat, with a spacerock guitar solo at the center. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.

Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in the Bowie-tinged Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight – like the gunfire White once found himself caught in while waiting at an intersection:

It’s not what he expects
But how he expects it
So quick to arrive
So grisly an exit
The eye takes an eye
And the windshield reflects it
You can put it into gear again….

White imagines Chet Baker in the afterlife, trying to pull himself together in Dentures, a mashup of piano-fueled Bowie balladry and Richard Thompson ghoulishness:

You’re either making art or getting paid
And the angel licked his nails and thought,
“All the really good ones die afraid.”
Put down your horn, you won’t need it
The day you’re born, you’re defeated…

Chester’s enigmatic organ solo is spot-on beyond belief.

On Foot, a brisk new wave/powerpop burner, is a murder ballad: the cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. The most Bowie-inspired song here is the album’s bittersweetly catchy title track, White channeling Mick Ronson with his solo in a surreal tale of a LA cop casually making a shocking existential choice.

One of White’s recurrent themes is the question of where everyday mishegas crosses the line, whether that might endanger merely the crazy person or everyone around them. Gail, Where’s Your Shoes is a prime example, complete with tantalizingly woozy guitar solo. Is this a thinly veiled portrait of a woman pouring herself out of a cab on a Williamsburg avenue in the fall of 2006? Hmm…..

White builds a more overtly cynical, vengeful narrative over Stonesy sarcasm in Wasn’t It Here: as he does throughout the album, Stepro’s casual flurries drive the murderous point home. White hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s gloss in Heavy Lifting, the album’s funniest number.

“Suicide rates are an urban myth if you look into it,” White’s titular Karate Dentist relates over a backdrop that could be Steely Dan at their most rocking, White closes the album with Monrovia, a distantly Turkish (or Smiths) tinged kiss-off anthem, and the only place where he stops trying to conceal the snarl beneath the surface. He’s no stranger to best-albums-of-the-year list here: his 2013 album Bob and his 2020 release Leonard at the Audit both topped the full-length charts here, and this may end up at the top of the crop of 2021 as well.

Patti Smith Plays Prophetic Powerpop in Central Park

Have you seen the anti-discrimination signs? They’re popping up in the windows of small businesses all over town. Even on the conformist-AF Upper West Side.

“We shall live again,” Patti Smith intoned to start her Central Park show last night. And encored with People Have the Power. There’s a sea change going on.

Smith’s show had been moved abruptly from the expansive Rumsey Playfield lawn to the much smaller Summerstage arena space. Set time had also been changed: she hit the stage sometime after 8. Likewise, if Antibalas played the park on Saturday, the time and venue had been changed as well. Apologies to readers of the live music calendar here who might have been led astray – some of those listings date back to when those shows were first announced.

Constantly flipping the script is a hallmark of abusive relationships, whether between a couple, parents and children, or on a societal scale. You do the math.

There was another odd kind of arithmetic at play here. Before the lockdown, Smith would routinely sell out a weeklong year-end stand at Bowery Ballroom, at outrageous prices. This show was free. Yet the arena never reached capacity. What’s more, a steady trickle of concertgoers slowly – s l o w l y – being let in by security was matched by twice as many people traipsing out, beginning at the start of the show. And although the party on the slope out behind the space was much more lively, much of Smith’s diehard fanbase had clearly stayed away.

That’s because proof of being part of a lethal injection campaign, which completely stalled out several weeks ago, was required for entry. Europeans come out in the millions to protest fascist takeovers. Australians bust through police barricades. Americans just stand firm and wait it out.

Smith’s set went on for short of an hour. Opening with Ghost Dance was characteristic of this ageless sage, who shows no sign of slowing down. This was the powerpop set: rather than pouncing on the syncopation on the chorus of Pissing in a River, she and the band motored through the changes with a lingering burn.

Although there were quiet moments – it was impossible to hear any of Smith’s poetry, or her remarks to the crowd from outside the space – most of the material was backbeat rock hits, starting with Dancing Barefoot and continuing with Because the Night. Lenny Kaye limited his lead guitar pyrotechnics to a couple of blue-flame solos, moving around edgily against a resonating string, raga style. Speaking of ragas, the night’s longest interlude was a mostly acoustic, Indian-flavored jam which ended with Smith roaring that “The future is NOW!”

Bassist Tony Shanahan’s soaring, melodic lines were serendipitously high in the mix, most enjoyably in his reggae leads in Ain’t It Strange. From there on, it was all rock, beginning with a stripped-down cover of the Stones’ I’m Free wrapped around a verse of Take a Walk on the Wild Side – subtext, anyone? An assertive bit of Horses set up a steady, resolute G-l-o-r-i-a. And soon afterward, it was over. “Patti Smith! A full moon!” a pretty blonde woman enthused to a bearded man on the hill behind the space. “She picked the right night!” he grinned back. Both were off by a day – the full moon is tonight.

A Searingly Catchy, Relevant New Album From Powerpop Icon Willie Nile

Willie Nile needs no introduction to fans of catchy powerpop anthems: he’s been one of the great practitioners of the art since the late 70s. He’s always had a populist streak, but his new album The Day the Earth Stood Still – streaming at Bandcamp – is his most fearlessly political album ever. It’s also one of his three or four best, right up there with Beautiful Wreck of the World and the sizzling Live at Mercury Lounge. Not bad for a guy who could have hung it up years ago and still would have been a first-ballot hall of famer.

Is this a lockdown parable? It could be – or maybe it’s simply a narrative of greed, deceit and ultimately, karmic payback. He doesn’t waste any time launching into the title track. By ten seconds in, all the nuts and bolts in Nile’s toolkit are in place: a solid four-on-the-floor beat, layers of guitar jangle and clang and roar, steady bass and torrential organ. The production is luscious, and Nile’s signature blend of lyrical surrealism and slash is as potent as ever, in this momentary, apocalyptic cautionary tale:

When the ABC’s of logic
Meet the CEO’s of greed
And the SRO’s of loneliness
Cry out and start to bleed
There comes a time for judgment
A time to pay the bill
And that is just the way it was
The day the earth stood still….
I saw grown men crying, making out their will
The day the earth stood still…

Nile channels a new wave stadium-rock catchiness in Sanctuary, which doesn’t have any political content. Where There’s a Willie There’s a Way is a song that needed to be written – and it’s good this guy wrote it, a defiant, punchy update on Buddy Holly.

Steve Earle guests on the stomping, venomous Blood on Your Hands, a shot across the bow at oligarchs everywhere:

Well you can dance with the devil
And you can run with the lord
And you can buy all the glory
That your conscience can afford
But there will come a day
When the pony gets played
When the goose gets cooked
When the piper gets paid
Blood on your hands, blood on your hands
There’s cracks in the walls of your best-laid plans
Blood on your hands, blood on your feet
There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street

Nile moves to piano for The Justice Bell, a slow but resolute number dedicated to Civil Rights crusader and congressman John Lewis.

Fueled by a slinky, loopy minor-key bass, Expect Change is a creepy, unsettled psychedelic disco song and possibly the key to the album:

Hear the call
Hear the drumming
Say a mantra, say a prayer
Idols falling everywhere
Difference melting in the snow
Can you feel the wild wind blow

I Don’t Remember You begins as the most rustic, folky song Nile’s ever recorded: there’s wry sarcasm in that title. If you think that Off My Medication is just another bizarrely funny, free-associative, garage-rocking Nile narrative, wait til you get to the second verse. Then he slows down for I Will Stand, a gentle, richly textured, crescendoing ballad.

There’s more psychedelic disco-funk with Time to Be Great, an optimistic strut with one of the album’s best guitar solos. Nile winds up the album with Way of the Heart, which sounds a lot like the Jayhawks’ recent material and also has some sizzling guitar breaks. It may be one of the slowest years on record for rock albums, but this one’s on the shortlist for best of 2021.

A Long-Awaited, Anthemic, Intriguingly Textured New Album From the Joy Formidable

The Joy Formidable burst onto the European festival scene in the early zeros as a sort of dreampop version of the Pretenders. Blending a dense swirl into their simple, emphatic anthems, the Welsh power trio have never wavered from a formula that works. Their new album Into the Blue is streaming at Spotify. It’s as solid a soundtrack for a brisk drive, or a trip to the gym (assuming you live in a part of the world where gyms are accessible without restrictions) as you could possibly want.

The album’s title track is built around frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s staggered, nebulously suspenseful 6/8 guitar riff, which explodes in layers of distortion on the chorus: it’s an optimistic, catchy opener. She picks up the energy with her swipes up and down the fretboard over the punchy drive of bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matthew James Thomas on the second cut, Cherries, down to a momentary piano break.

With the repeaterbox fluttering in the background and Bryan’s anxious, breathy vocals, track three, Sevier has an distant U2 feel. Watery chorus-box textures mingle with whiplash distortion over tricky syncopation in Interval, which at five and a half minutes is a whole lot more than that.

The band build Farrago around a simple descending riff, adding layes of noise and punches from the guitar that look back to the sledgehammer minimalism of Clinic. Bryan whispers the lyrics as Gotta Feed My Dog rises from new wave-flavored suspense, to a foggy insistence, and eventually a more fluid, psychedelic atmosphere.

Dafydd takes over the mic over Bryan’s fingerpicked, flamenco-flavored flourishes as Somewhere New gathers steam; it seems to be a childhood reminiscence. The playfully blippy, punchy 80s textures that kick off Bring It to the Front are a red herring: it’s the darkest and most memorable track here. Likewise, the defiance in Bryan’s voice in Back to Nothing, which could be the Cure through a very thick glass, brightly.

Thomas’ leadfoot 2/4 stomp propels Only Once, which also echoes the Cure but less opaquely: “Never coming home, never coming back” is the mantra. The album’s final cut is Left Too Soon, rising from a hypnotic, rainy-day acoustic waltz to a roaring, elegaic, increasingly elegaic blaze. This might be the band’s best album to date, not bad for an act who’ve been at it for practically two decades.

Revisiting an Unhinged Live Album by the Reducers

The best live bands always generate lots of field recordings. Some of those eventually turn into official albums: probably the most famous one is Black Sabbath’s Live at Last album. Another excellent field recording which finally made it to the web officially a couple of years ago is the Reducers‘ Live in Montville album. streaming at Bandcamp. While their Live: New York City 2005 album, recorded at Arlene’s, is probably the closest thing to a definitive concert recording of the band, this one is from a much earlier era and reveals what a great live act they’d already become, before they’d even made an album. The sound quality is shockingly good considering that it was recorded on a boombox. And there’s a ton of previously unreleased material.

The Reducers were to the US what the Jam were to the UK: ferociously catchy, tuneful, populist to the core and influenced by punk but not constrained by it. They had a long run, finally calling it quits in 2012 after the tragic, early death of their excellent bassist Steve Kaika. This album – recorded outdoors at a kegger in Montville, Connecticut in 1980 – validates the argument that the Reducers were already a first-class band before they were out of school. It’s amazing how tight, and how smartly constructed their songs are throughout this mix of originals and covers…even after several beer breaks..

They open with the choogling, rapidfire, Stonesy Little Punky Hood and follow with what was then an obscure Clash cut, Capitol Radio One: it’s cool to be able to hear all the lyrics for once, thanks to guitarist Hugh Birdsall.

As expected, the strongest material here is the originals. There’s Rocks, a dare to a generation of New London, Connecticut’s little punky hoods to shake up their local scene. New England rust belt decay and anomie pervades these songs: the savage Small Talk From a Big Mouth, echoed later in Big Time in a Small Town; the sarcastic No Ambition; and guitarist Peter Detmold’s blazing, minor-key Scared of Cops, a reminder of how kids of all colors had to watch their backs in those days.

The earliest-ever version of the searing, cynical Life in the Neighborhood resonates even more in an era where citizens are being encouraged to call the snitch patrol if somebody walks into a bar without a muzzle on. There are also a handful of choice rarities: BMW, which reminds that status-grubbing goes back a long way before Instagram; the Flamin’ Groovies-flavored Invisible Rain; and Chip on Your Shoulder, a defiant, tantalizingly short anthem. And Oh No It’s My First Time is as funny as you would expect.

The covers….um, the Reducers weren’t known for playing covers and are probably doing a slate of them here because they didn’t have enough original material to keep the drunks dancing for a whole afternoon. Their punked-out take of Secret Agent Man kicks ass, thanks to Kaika’s scrambling bassline and a searing Birdsall solo. Dr. Feelgood’s She’s a Windup has as much snarl as you could want.

I Think We’re Alone Now is an improvement on the original, right down to Tom Trombley’s momentary drum break. Janie Jones and Remote Control also rival the Clash’s originals for restless rage. The Groovies’ Shake Some Action, one of the few covers that the band frequently played, holds up well. Ditto Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight, predating the innumerable oil-punk versions of the early 80s.

The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner? The Buzzcocks’ What Do I Get? The Undertones’ Girls Don’t Like It, itself a Buzzcocks ripoff? You had to be there. There’s more of this kind of stuff as the afternoon wears on, the crowd gets drunker and the band gets looser.

For one reason or another, the between-song audience chitchat wasn’t edited out. There’s a guy in the crowd with a Rhode Island accent who will. Just. Not. Shut. Up. Happily, you can’t hear him over the music.

Purist, Sharply Crafted Twin-Guitar Rock From Ratstar

The cover image of powerpop band Ratstar’s short album In the Kitchen – streaming at Bandcamp – displays an industrial-sized countertop that’s got to be twenty feet long. Next to the sink, there’s a blender overflowing with a suspicious grey substance that’s been blasted all over the floor. That’s truth in advertising. If searing layers of guitars and smart retro tunesmithing that brings to mind bands as diverse as the Stones, Squeeze, Cheap Trick and the British pub rock groups of the 70s are your thing, you should check them out.

The first track, Love You Again sets the stage for the rest of the record: Dave Hudson and Marty Collins’ tightly roaring guitars over a punchy, swaying beat that finally shifts toward reggae underneath a jagged solo. The bass uncurls to a slinky peak in the highest registers; these guys can really play.

The second cut, Stay a While starts out as a chugging, Stonesy tune, hits an unexpectedly lithe, funky groove from bassist Matt Collins and drummer Dean Mozian, then the band go back to It’s Only Rock n Roll territory. The band stay there for Unheavenly Dog, which is a little slower and brings to mind one of the great New York bands of the early zeros, the Sloe Guns.

The icing on the cake here, and the album’s punkest song, is No Encounter. Clustering drum breaks and high-tension lead lines rise to a spectacular exchange of solos between the guitars at the end, one of the best rock outros of the decade.

A Brilliant, Subtly Satirical New Video From Kira Metcalf

Watch very closely in the first few seconds of Kira Metcalf‘s video for her new single Hoax for a visual clue that packs a knockout punch.

This is how dissidents in the old Soviet Union had to protest. Looks like we’ve come to that here in the US.

Metcalf actually wrote the cleverly lyrical kiss-off anthem eight years ago, but it’s taken on new resonance since the lockdown began. Videowise, the esthetic is pure early 90s Garbage, as Shirley Manson would have mugged for the camera. Musically, the song is closer to early PJ Harvey with even more of a vengeful wail

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.”