New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: psychedelic pop

Lush, Thoughtful, String-Driven, Vastly Eclectic Tunesmithing From Alice Zawadzki

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki writes distinctive, individualistic songs that blend jazz, chamber pop, western classical sounds and occasional Korean influences. Her songs are on the slow side and typically take awhile to unwind. She likes atmospherics, has a mystical side and writes pensive, generally optimistic lyrics. Her lush, dynamically shifting album Within You is a World of Spring hit the web about a year and a half ago and is streaming at Spotify.

It opens with the title track, a blustery Asian flourish from the string section – Simmy Singh snd Laura Senior on violins, Lucy Nolan on viola  and Peggy Nolan on cello – quickly giving way to Zawadzki’s terse, modally vamping piano. It’s the missing link betwen Ghost in the Machine-era Police and Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell. Rob Luft’s guitar adds enigmatic sear to the mix; bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Fred Thomas take over the dancing drive from there. In her leaping, energetic soprano, Zawadzki sings this soaring encouragement to leave the dark side behind.

She goes even further up the scale, spare piano over lingering atmospherics in the second track, Gods Children, finally picking up with a spacious guitar solo over a slow, anthemic drive.

“Superior Virtue was my protection, and I could gaze over the abyss all day without falling,” she intones over the drone of the strings and the occasional piano flourish in the third track, Nolan’s viola soaring plaintively over a twinkling, balletesque pulse as the song gathers steam.

Zawadzki sings the bouncy love song Es Verdad expressively in Spanish, Thomas on tenor banjo throughout a surreal mashup of bluegrass and 1970s nueva cancion. The otherworldly melismas of Hyelim Kim’s Korean taegum flute to introduce The Woods, a mystical nighttime spoken-word forest tableau that builds to a twinkling waltz.

Keeper is the most straight-up rock anthem here, with triumphant, gospel-infused harmonies, a resonant guitar solo, dancing bass where least expected over steady Pink Floydian piano chords. Witchy strings come together over a trip-hop beat after an introduction that’s painful at high volume in Twisty Moon, a surreal mashup of soukous and circus rock. Zawadzki closes this fascinating and stunningly original album with O Mi Amore, a balmy ballad infused with spiky banjo accents.

A Savagely Spot-On Album of Holiday Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

The Pocket Gods – British songwriter Mark Christopher Lee’s mind-bendingly prolific rock project – have a spot-on new album of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, out just in time for the last month of the year and streaming at Spotify. In the same vein as last year’s punk rock Xmas album, Lee has penned a collection of pro-freedom anthems that span a whole bunch of styles.

The best song on the album is the Beatlesque I Can’t Breathe, sending out a shout to the late George Floyd in a global context. “Like every battered wife strangled in lockdown…from oppressed singers to the homeless vying for patronage….it’s real for those with PTSD,” Lee reminds. Seriously: ask anyone who’s survived a building fire, a serious car accident, a near-drowning, or a violent assault that involved strangulation or asphyxiation. An awful lot of those people can’t be muzzled because muzzles are a PTSD trigger.

And what’s the most effective way to get a PTSD attack under control? Deep breathing. You do the math.

On the pissed-off, punk side, there’s the sarcastically galloping COVID Cavalry, part carnivalesque anthem, part phony Xmas carol, Lee speaking for a whole country full of people missing their significant others – or the kind of fun they used to have dancing in pubs, which they can’t have now, because it’s illegal.

“If you sing along to this catchy Christmas song in a pub you will be shot,” is basically all the lyrics to the sludgy, Jesus and Mary Chain-ish single COVID Christmas. I Saw Mommy Doing Track and Trace is a cynical, Ramonesy dis at Boris Johnson, “A big fat scrooge.”

The saddest song on the album is the title track, a gloomy psychedelic rock tune: “This used to be my town, now they’ve shut everything down,” Lee intones, speaking for urban dwellers around the world. Surplus Population is an ersatz funk number with a sample of Scrooge himself asserting that “If they would rather die they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

On the optimistic side, there’s Celebrate, a pretty, jangly lo-fi folk-rock number. There are also a couple of careening, noisy, metalish horror themes and a horror surf tune titled Shitter Was Full.

Good to see the tireless Lee joining Jello Biafra, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown on the front lines of the pro-freedom movement.

A Trippy, Labyrinthine New Album From Popular Psychedelic Rockers Theusaisamonster

Theusaisamonster are well established in the world of newschool psychedelic rock. Until we can manage to get our world back to normal and enjoy them live, we have their latest album Amikwag – streaming at Bandcamp – to trip out with.

Lyrics and vocals are not their thing, but their upbeat, crazyquilt songs and long trails of catchy melody over strange time signatures will keep you entranced. The labyrinthine opening track, Permaculture’s Promise has tricky tempos and more than a hint of bracing Middle Eastern chromatics over math-y tempos, like a mashup of Love Camp 7, peak-era 70s King Crimson and the Grateful Dead. Sounds incongruous, but it works.

With its skittishly syncopated changes and alternately burning and jangly layers of guitar, the second track, Rapido Amigo, is much the same minus the King Crimson and the chromatics. Loopy Terry Riley-ish organ swirls and leaps over weird, similarly leaping rhythms in 8 Years Old, a dead ringer for Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band keep that vibe going throughout Verbs, an encouragement to use an economy of words. There’s considerable irony voicing that opinion in a song more than eight minutes long, the group jamming it out with layers of keys, tumbling drums, fuzzy bass and a stomping guitar-fueled peak at the end.

The only slightly shorter Side of the Road begins noisily, then the band channel Genesis and the Dead with uneasy hints of King Gizzard. We Are Not Alone, a goofy conversation between aliens, has the closest thing to a straight-up guitar drive here.

The band wind up the album with its trippiest number, Nothing and Everything, a wryly suspenseful, distantly classically-tinged intro morphing into a hypnotic Obscured by Clouds-era Pink Floyd march, then more Genesis. These guys’ record collections must be amazing. And as much fun as these songs are, what would be even better would be to see the band kick them around onstage.

Imaginatively Arranged, Trippy, Artsy Retro Pop Sounds From James Righton

Klaxons keyboardist James Righton most likely has a huge record collection. His new album The Performer – streaming at Bandcamp – is informed by decades of soul and smartly orchestrated pop sounds. The production is elegant, frequently psychedelic and despite all the digitally precise layers, sounds pretty organic. The catchy tunes and artful arrangements are the focus here rather than lyrics or vocals.

The album opens with the title track, which sounds like Roxy Music playing an Oasis song, built around the former’s signature, biting, reverberating Arp electro piano sound but with more of Oasis’ loucheness. The band take it out with a perfect 1974 Country Life-style arrangement, layers of keys and sax hitting a peak.

The second song is titled Edie, but Righton uses her full name throughout this vampy mashup of vintage 70s soul and trippy 90s neosoul. With its strummy acoustic guitar, emphatic riffs from a string section and catchy bassline, See the Monster is the great lost disco track from ELO’s much-maligned but actually fairly respectable Discovery album from 1979.

Devil Is Loose has tasty layers of watery chorus-box guitars over a strutting bassline: the way the bass shifts to that same liquid, echoey tone is very clever. There are two versions of Lessons in Dreamland here. Part 1 is a starry miniature like the ones that Roxy Music would use to fill out an album side. Righton fleshes out the theme as a slow piano ballad with a staggered trip-hop beat to close the record.

Before that, there’s Start, a twinkling, swirly, anthemic art-pop original, not the big punk-funk hit by the Jam. Are You With Me has disorientingly tricky rhythms: at heart, it’s ELO doing a ba-bump Vegas noir pop song. And Heavy Heart is an imaginatively minimalist stab at shimmery Hollywood Hills boudoir soul.

Hauntingly Imagistic, Socially Aware Songs From Australia’s Emily Barker

Beyond the increasingly Orwellian nightmare of communist China, what the lockdowners have done to Australia is a crime unequaled in antipodean history. Infants torn from their mothers by police enforcing muzzle regulations, pregnant women arrested for pro-freedom Facebook posts, food production facilities shut down in order to starve citizens into submission: the list of atrocities is endless. Meanwhile, lockdowner collaborators in the Australian government have been busy recruiting diverse representatives of the country’s many ethnicities to star in reality tv-style pro-lockdown propaganda videos, for pay. All this is going to happen in America, and everywhere else, if we don’t end the lockdown. And then hold Nuremberg trials for those responsible.

One can only hope Australian songwriter Emily Barker has been spared from the bulk of the country’s assault on human rights. Under the regime, any ecologically aware, politically-inspired songwriter would seem to be imperiled. She paints haunting pictures with few words, is a strong folk-rock tunesmith and sings with an understated intensity. Her latest album A Dark Murmuration of Words is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Return Me has an easygoing, sparely loping groove but also a stark string arrangement and otherworldly, reverb-toned banjo. The second track, Geography is a wistful midtempo shuffle with the strings and also organ hovering in the distance, Barker contemplating how much the idea of home is an actual space, or a mindspace.

“From a prison cell, you dreamt of trees while the blood dries up upon your cheek,” Barker sings in The Woman Who Planted Trees, a brooding, minor-key fingerpicked tune. “You didn’t know, you never heard, around the world, people learned.” Barker takes her inspiration from the struggles of Nobel Prizewinning Kenyan ecological activist Wangari Maathai.

The album’s most unforgettable song is Where Have the Sparrows Gone. It’s an understatedly harrowing, baroque-tinged double narrative, an imagistic travelogue that’s both an eco-disaster parable and an elegy for an unnamed individual whose ashes are about to be scattered.

Over an elegantly picked web of acoustic and electric guitars, Barker paints an allusively detailed portrait of rural poverty and impending natural disaster in Strange Weather: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook.

“I made it harder the more your skin is dark,” Barker’s white supremacist prison-industrial complex oligarch narrator sings cynically in Machine, a surreal mashup of trip-hop and 19th century African-American gospel

Organ and banjo mingle in When Stars Cannot Be Found, a gently shuffling lullaby. The strings return with a moody bluster in Ordinary, a troubled return to allusive environmental disaster imagery.

With lingering baritone guitar and organ, Any More Goodbyes is the most American country-flavored and gorgeously bittersweet tune here. Barker closes the record with Sonogram, a piano-and-vocal number which could be about pregnancy, or something much less auspicious. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

A Gorgeous, Prophetic Protest Anthem From the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

After years of fronting the brilliantly lyrical, psychedelic Jigsaw Seen, Dennis Davison made waves with his similarly tuneful solo debut album earlier this year. As it turned out, he has a lot more material in the can than just the tunes on that album, including his visionary latest single, The Monuments, a name-your-price download at Bandcamp.

The cover alone will creep you out: a corpse-like statue in tribute to the “Confederate States of America 1861-1865.” But look closer: the statue has been splattered with paint. Over a lush, brooding web of twelve-string guitar and bass, Davison warns of a paradigm shift. The dictator at the center of the story won’t budge:

You live in peace
Upon the gift of my consent
I’ll set you free
The day that they topple the monuments

But Davison knows that they’re going to be “ground into powder, the graven marble recast.” Take off that muzzle, hug your friends, we’re free! Watch for this at the top of the best songs of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

Eliza and the Organix’s Psychedelic New Album Was Worth the Wait

“You can dance to them, but they also have flashes of psychedelia and a vintage punk fearlessness. They’re funky, but their sound is uncluttered and gritty,” this blog enthused in 2017 about Eliza and the Organix’s debut ep Present Future Dreams. It’s taken them three years, but they’ve come up with a conclusion to that playlist, Present Future Dreams II, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a lot more psychedelic, less dance-oriented and just as edgy. Frontwoman/guitarist Eliza Waldman’s instrumental chops and vast expanse of guitar textures are even more interesting this time out.

The first track is Road Home, an easygoing, cantering Afrobeat groove fueled by sax player Kristen Tivey and guest trumpeter Evan Lane that picks up with punk fury as the chorus kicks in. Waldman really cuts loose with her axe at the end, drummer John Gergely taking it out with a crash.

Jason Laney plays soulful organ in Sally Gave Me a Dollar, which shifts between loping psychedelia and straight-ahead backbeat rock, Waldman and bassist Will Carbery doubling each others’ riffs. They take a detour into a surreal early 80s-style mashup of reggae and no wave in The Perfect Fit: “I’ve been a wastrel on my knees,” seems to be the key line here.

There are two versions of Broken Sky here. The first clocks in at about seven minutes and is one of the best songs of 2020, a toweringly overcast, Pink Floyd-ish anthem, with Waldman’s most intense vocals, lyrics and a memorable duel between guitar and sax. The short version is a radio edit missing most of the fireworks.

The final number, Present makes a great segue, like the Doors with a woman out front and another tasty, trippy guitar/sax interlude. Good to see this band taking their individualistic sound to the next level.

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.