New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: psychedelic pop

Best Short Album of 2020: Karla Rose’s Mysterious New EP The Living End

Karla Rose is best known among her musical colleagues in New York as a formidable and incredibly mutable singer. She can channel any emotion a person could possibly feel, from the subtlest to the most desperate. Just listen to her negotiate the tricky phrasing of My Hero – Sean Lennon’s doo-wop noir theme from the film Alter Egos – with a little cadenza at the end that will give you goosebumps.

But Rose is just as formidable a tunesmith and lyricist, with a distinctly sinister side. She is not one of the would-be femmes fatales who sprung up in the wake of Lana Del Rey – she is the real deal. Her latest release, the three-song ep The Living End is streaming at Spotify.

The title alone speaks to Rose’s fondness for wordplay and multiple levels of meaning: it wouldn’t be hubris to compare her to Elvis Costello, Ward White or Hannah Fairchild.  The first song on the record is Battery Park. Partly inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, it’s a haunting, bolero-tinged anthem that subtly speaks truth to the grisly power of Wall Street entitlement. Over the terse pulse of drummer Kevin Garcia and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen, Rose’s Telecaster jangles and clangs with the reverb full on, lead player Dylan Charles building to chainsaw volleys of tremolo-picking at the end. This version is a lot quieter than the absolutely feral attack she and the band gave the song at places like the Mercury Lounge around the time she wrote it. It’s a frontrunner for the best song of the year.

The two other songs are even more enigmatic. Moon and I is part classic 70s soul and part dreampop, Rose’s guitar building starrier, more atmospheric textures as Scott Hollingsworth’s organ hangs in the background over the low-key groove of Lorenzo Wolff’s bass and Andrew Zehnal’s drums.

The title track is a dead ringer for Lou Reed, but Rose plays the verse in a devious 12/8 rhythm to shake things up. Her message is hopeful: stay on plan and we’ll get through this. In the year of the lockdown and the muzzle, that inspiration couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

A Richly Detailed, Psychedelic Layer Cake From Polish Rockers the White Kites

The White Kites‘ previous album Missing was a mix of spot-on 60s and 70s art-rock and psychedelia. Their latest release, Devillusion – streaming at Bandcamp – has more of a 70s vibe. David Bowie is the obvious reference point, with echoes of the Beatles, ELO and even Jethro Tull as well as artsy 90s bands like Pulp. The group’s playful sense of humor often masks a dark undercurrent. This is a long record, fourteen tracks of catchy, purist tunesmithing, outside-the-box sonics and strange interludes, best appreciated as a cohesive whole.

They open the album with Spinning Lizzie, a Bowie-esque take on funk, the guitars of Przemek Piłaciński and Bartek Woźniak flaring over the squiggles of Jakub Lenarczyk’s keys and bassist Marysia Białota’s overdubbed combo organ. Frontman Sean Palmer delivers a deadpan account of an increasingly thorny acid trip in the second track, Rather Odd over Lenarczyk’s stately piano and organ swirls

With its ba-bump noir cabaret phantasmagoria, Not a Brownie is just as surreal, especially with the spacy breakdown in the middle. Paweł Betley’s flute flits over drummer Jakub Tolak’s steady Penny Lane beat throughout the cheery Warsaw Summer. Frozen Heartland could be ELO in a particularly lush, wistful moment, circa 1977: “Come back!” is the mantra.

Rising from a blippy bounce to far more serious, Dragon is a knowing parable about the kind of big, unexpected payoff that you might encounter if you keep your mind open. The band go back to a carnivalesque pulse for the album’s fleeting title track, then blend pouncing Bowie rock with crazed atmospherics in Viral Spiral.

Białota’s Rhodes mingles uneasily with the simmering guitars in Blurred, a portrait of a superman which may have sarcastic political subtext. Ola Bilińska sings the miniature Mysteries in the Sky over a twinkling backdrop of electric piano and lush acoustic guitars. Then the band pick up the pace with QRMA, shifting between watery chorus-box-driven late Beatles and skittish glamrock.

Palmer intones an eco-disaster warning over a deep-space soundscape in Goodbye Gaia. Mother Mars is a logical segue, a broodingly waltzing art-rock anthem: if the White Kites got it right, we’re looking at Life on Mars, or bust. They wind up the album with the slow, immersive, guardedly hopeful ballad Fallen Star. The level of craft and subtle detail on this album is even more amazing considering how rock albums are made these days – and how few of them have been released this year.

A Psychedelic New Korean Rock Record From the Colorful, Eclectic Coreyah

Coreyah doesn’t mean “Korea” in Korean. It translates as either “inheritance” or “whale.”  The shapeshifting Korean psychedelic art-folk band consider that mammal their spirit animal. Their 2016 North American debut performance earned a rave review here; their long-awaited new album, Clap and Applause is streaming at youtube.

The band have had some turnover in the time since that rapturous New York show, but they haven’t lost their surreal sense of humor. They open with Baksurori, a mutedly pulsing, shamanic folk melody anchored by guitarist Ko Jaehyeo’s reverb-drenched staccato in tandem with the pulse of percussionist Kim Chorong and drummer Kyungyi. Frontwoman Ham Boyoung sings in her native tongue, warmly and calmly. Na Sunjin plays spare, warpy tones on her geomungo bass lute, Kim Dongkun’s wood flute finally wafting into the mix. They slowly pick up the pace in the long jam afterward, but only hints at the crazy mix of sounds they’ll play later on. The narrative concerns an escape from the political turmoil on the streets outside for the comfort of a big party

For the sake of consistency, the song titles here are English translations, as are the quotes from song lyrics. The second track, How Far You’ve Come is a mashup of chicken-scratch funk and what sounds like Colombian parranda music, with slyly amusing solos from geomungo and flute, and coy vocal exchanges between the women and the guys in the band. It’s a traveler’s tale: “How far have you come?” is the recurrent question.

Dawn is a trippy, slashing rock tune set to a staggered 5/4 beat, a snakecharmer flute solo at the center. When the Sun Rises turns on a dime between Pink Floyd guitar roar, delicately swooping geomungo and fluttering flute. It’s a daily grind scenario:

I’m just minding
Yesterday’s business today
Today’s business tomorrow
And on and on until it’s time
To take a little rest

It seems that pretty much everybody in the band takes a turn on lead vocals in the jauntily strutting Big Things, which has has a suspiciously satirical cheeriness. Competition can be a bitch, whether it’s personal or business! 

The group mash up slinky wah guitar psychedelia, ancient Korean folk themes and a relentless dancefloor thud in Escape. It’s the key to the album: “If I ever come back, cheer for me please, just one more time,” Boyoung insists over a tempestuous hwimori beat.

Tongue-in-cheek chirps from the flute contrast with the muted backdrop of Yellow Flower, a mostly-acoustic spacerock duet, Boyoung determined to revisit a fleeting moment of rapt beauty. It’s the band’s Can’t Get It Out of My Head.

Bygone Days is a wistful vintage Memphis soul-tinged ballad, with delicate accents from geomungo and flute. The album’s final and most epic cut is Good Dreams, an enveloping lullaby spiced with spare geomungo riffage, rising to a big,  Gilmouresque guitar solo. The world needs more bands who are this much fun and willing to take chances.

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

A Powerful, Lyrical Solo Debut by the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

Dennis Davison built a formidable back catalog as the leader of the Jigsaw Seen, one of the best and most lyrical psychedelic rock bands of the 90s and zeros. They played their final New York gig in late March of 2017 at Bowery Electric, an inspired set which proved that even at the end, they hadn’t lost their edge. In the time since then, Davison has hardly been idle, and has a characteristically brilliant new solo album, The Book of Strongman streaming at Bandcamp.

Here, Davison plays all the instruments. he’s always been a solid guitarist and distinctively articulate singer, but it turns out he’s competent on bass, drums and keys as well. As usual, his historically-informed, metaphorically bristling narratives scream out for the repeat button. The album’s opening number, Strongman and Sonny James, a big, stomping, angst-fueled anthem, follows a grim escape scenario:

Yellow bellies left for dead
Everyone was seeing red
Sanity was hanging by a thread
Juvenile soldier, flee!
Run like hell and return home safely to me

The ending comes as a surprise and makes perfect sense considering the current state of the world.

Shadow on a Tall Tree has a 60s Kinks/Merseybeat pulse rising to a lush ELO-ish chorus, awash in tremolo guitar and what could be a Stylophone keyboard. In the Folly of Youth begins as a wistful accordion-fueled folk-rock tune and hits a swaying Bowie-esque gravitas:

When the living is free there’s no misery
So it is and it was throughout history

Museum Piece is a sweeping, dreamy, subtly slashing, distantly Beatlesque portrait of a drama queen who’s seen better days. Bitternesss and disillusion reach fever pitch in the otherwise lushly anthemic Can You Imagine, which could be an early 80s number by the Church. Heaven Bound has a susupiciously blithe, strutting new wave bassline and layers of chilly guitars and keys: “You set your sights on the sky, that doesn’t mean you can fly,” Davison advises.

Organ and layers of keys swirl over stately strummed guitars in The Spoken Word, a meticulously detailed, cynical social media era parable. With bubbly bass paired against fuzzy guitar layers, Auras is the closest thing here to Davison’s old band.

Awash in vintage analog chorus-box sonics, the toweringly bittersweet Aberdeen Vista is arguably the album’s high point:

Clipper ships have sailed
Politicians jailed
Birthday cards were mailed
Locust on a string
Orange and black birds sing
Now we live as kings
In Aberdeen Vista

Davison winds up the album with What the Hell Is That Noise, an uneasily tongue-in-cheek, Love Camp 7-ish reminiscence of teenage experiments in avant garde soundscaping, complete with samples from his 80s basement duo project Bizarre Trolls with Kevin Mackenzie. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of December, assuming there is a December this year.

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.

Catching Up With Elisa Flynn’s Latest Edgy, Angry Art-Rock Release

How the hell did this blog blink on Elisa Flynn’s most recent, characteristically slashing ep, Maelstrom, which hit Bandcamp almost a year ago? To paraphrase Edgar Allan Poe (or Radio Birdman), it definitely descended into one. No time like the present to give props to one of the most intensely original singers and rock songwriters to emerge in New York since the zeros

Flynn has never sung better than she does here – she really locks in with that ripe vibrato. Shifting between thorny but catchy Radiohead-ish art-rock, folk noir and scruffy indie sounds (she was a founding member of Bunny Brains), her songs tend to be on the pensive side. This time around, they’re angrier than ever.

The first one is the title track, a techy, loopy tableau with gritty guitars, Radiohead with less ice. “When I reach up and get nothing from this inverted world, my hand goes right through the light, right through your heart,” she confides.

The second track, Animal is a catchy, chiming pop anthem with hints of soukous. Is it about missing someone – or trying to recapture a fearless, feral inner self? Flynn winds up this biting triptych with the defiant White Dress, which is slow, spare and hypnotically brooding, with the ep’s most intensely nuanced vocals. Another triumph from a familiar presence on the annual best songs and best albums of the year lists here.

Thoughtful, Attractively Enveloping Nocturnes From Swimming Bell

Swimming Bell play slow, pensively lingering, atmospheric songs that draw equally on Americana and ambient music. Their new album Wild Sight – streaming at Bandcamp – brings to mind Neko Case or Tift Merritt as produced by Brian Eno, maybe. Washes of pedal steel and vocal harmonies figure prominently in frontwoman Katie Schottland’s songs. Her narratives are subtle, full of small, allusively telling details: they invite you in for repeated listening.

Good Time, Man begins as a hazy, atmospheric, wistful summertime tableau awash in Oli Deacon’s pedal steel. By the time Schottland’s intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar kicks in, it’s clear that this is a breakup scenario.

Deliciously icy tremolo guitars clang and ring out over a slow, swaying 6/8 groove in 1988, unraveling into a starry dreampop mist at the end: it seems to be a sad childhood reminiscence.  The pedal steel returns along with tasty, looming bass clarinet in For Brinsley, a Brinsley Schwarz homage: “Don’t lose your grip on love,” is the mantra.

“She’d lost the medal but she’d won the fight,” Schottland recalls in We’d Find, the enveloping sonics coalescing into an indian summer haze. Cold Clear Moon, a Tomo Nakayama cover, is catchy, steady and spare, the acoustic and electric guitar textures, glockenspiel and contrapuntal vocals building a hypnotic interweave.

The band follow Wolf, an echoey, circling vignette, with Got Things, a glistening anthem and the album’s catchiest, most straight-up rock number: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rose Thomas Bannister catalog.

Left Hand Path is a front-porch folk tune with delicate electronics and steel twinkling in the distance. Schottland launches into Love Liked You slowly over National steel guitar, the band methodically rising into a slow, crescendoing, Hem-like sway: the swirly atmospherics are the icing on the cake. The album ends with Quietly Calling, a lush, crepuscular waltz that could be the Grateful Dead in a sharply focused moment: “You were listening to prove that you could while I was trying to be good,” Schottland intones. What a refreshing and individualistic sound: let’s hope Swimming Bell figure out how to make another album like this, clandestinely or otherwise.

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.