Changing Modes aren’t just one of the most instantly recognizable rock bands in the world: they’re also one of the best. Over the past ten years or so, they’ve put out an increasingly brilliant succession of sharply lyrical, mind-warpingly eclectic albums that span from quirky new wave to majestic art-rock to ferocious punk. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call them the American Pulp – or to call Pulp the British Changing Modes. The big news about the group’s latest album, What September Brings – streaming at Spotify – is that keyboardists and co-frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, guitarist/bassist Yuzuru Sadashige and drummer Timur Yusef have been bolstered by the addition of baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane. The new release is also arguably the band’s angriest and most political record yet (think about that title for a second). Griffiths has a short fuse when it comes to narcissists, and she torches several here. Changing Modes are playing the album release show on Sept 20 at 8 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10. It’s impossible to think of a more entertaining, consistently surprising Friday night rock act anywhere in New York right now.
The album’s opening track, Days, could be described as noir new wave Motown circus rock, but that’s only scratching the surface of how artfully the band blend those styles. The two women’s voices harmonize eerily over an uneasy, altered waltz, the sax adding a deliciously smoky undercurrent:
These are the days I never spent with you
Black eyes and broken wings
White lies don’t give away
Black eyes and broken wings
Butterflies don’t miss a day
Pretty Poisonous has gritty guitar majesty balancing those carnivalesque keys, an allusively snide slap upside the head of real estate bubble-era yuppies. With blippy Wurlitzer, fuzz bass and sarcastic ba-ba harmonies, Tightrope is a delicious dis aimed at a phone-fixated drama queen: It also might be the funniest song Griffiths has ever written.
Corey Booker Blues is not about the mayor and erstwhile candidate: it’s a slinky instrumental, sort of a mashup of Henry Mancini and mid-70s King Crimson, dedicated to Griffiths’ cat – that was his name when she got him from the shelter. Next, the band keep the shapeshifting menace going with another instrumental, 2 1/2 Minutes to Midnight, with some tremolo-picked savagery and more than a hint of heavy metal growl from Sadashige
The band romp lickety-split through 250 Smiles, a sardonic sendup of a catty girl whose “tiny lies accessorize.” Then Pulliam flips the script with January, a pensive tale of abandonment set to an insistent, ornate solo piano backdrop.
Rocket, a sinister surveillance state parable, brings to mind X at their most rockabillyish: “Tell me why the failsafe signal failed/Tell me why the driver never broke a sweat,” Griffiths wants to know. Fueled by Amy Boyd’s shivery violin, Alexander Springs is a more psychedelic take on classic, lush mid-70s ELO, laced with brooding Aimee Mann cynicism:
Wasted summer days on village greens
You wait to see what September brings ‘cause
You’ve been down that lonely road before
Fire has backbeat stomp from Yusef, wary chromatics from Tamezane and Griffiths’ most savagely dystopic lyrics here:
In the line of fire
There’s no reality
As they watch you on their flat screens
A blip is all they see
Caught by friendly fire
As drones divide the sky
You’ll just give in if you never ask why
The cynicism reaches redline in Glide, a sardonically twinkly boudoir soul-tinged nocturne, Griffiths fixing her crosshairs on slacker apathy. The band reach back toward circus rock, with a little Beatles, in Potassium and Riboflavin, a strutting kiss-off number. They close the record with Night Loop, recalling Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver score as much as Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch theme music. It’s going to be awfully hard to choose any album other than this as the best of 2019 at this point.