New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: punk rock

An Enticing Brooklyn Gig by the Irrepressibly Amusing Sterling Strings

One of the most auspiciously entertaining shows of the summer so far happens this July 20 at noon at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where the Sterling Strings are playing their tongue-in-cheek string quartet arrangements of rap and pop hits. It would be a mistake to hear them tackling a Kanye West tune and dismiss them as a comedy band. On one hand, their shtick can be ridiculously funny. On the other, they’re serious musicians with formidable chops. Beyond that, their instrumental versions often elevate some awfully cheesy material to unexpected places, when the group aren’t punking out Broadway themes or suddenly getting serious with an unexpectedly plaintive, low-key version of an Astor Piazzolla tango.

They don’t have an album out, but they’re all over the web and their videos page reveals an immense amount of method behind the madness. They turn DH Khaled’s Wild Thoughts into a vampy, kind of creepy tune. Cellist Eric Cooper bows his bassline, cello-metal style, instead of plucking it out, and the rest of the group – violinists Frederique Gnaman and Edward W. Hardy, and violist Patrick Page – choose their spots to sliiiiiiiiide around.

They sneak a couple of devious classical quotes into Despacito; their murky version of Eleanor Rigby is pure chamber metal, raising the song’s menace by a factor of ten. Work, the Rihanna hit, is a lot more spare and stark than you would expect – maybe even poignant. Who would have thought.

Same with the Cristina Perri weeper A Thousand Years, which the group reinvent as a faux-baroque canon. Speaking of canons, they also turn in a very expressive take of the famous Pachelbel tune, underscoring the group’s classical cred. If you’re in the area on lunch break or otherwise, this show could be an awful lot of fun. Take the F to Jay St., exit at the front of the Manhattan-bound side.

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.

A Couple of Crazed Vinyl Curios From the 80s

One of the 80s bands whose concerts were most widely chronicled by field recordings was the Gun Club. Which makes sense: when they were at the top of their game, they were one of the era’s most unpredictably explosive live acts. Frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce went to the great whiskey bar in the sky in 1996, but the group remain a foundational influence on the scores of gutter blues bands who’ve followed in their wake.

What’s new is that there’s a Gun Club reissue, two choice tracks just out as a 45 RPM vinyl single ,from the band’s 1984 album Miami. With its with its layers of trebly Telecaster, the stomping Fire of Love – a Jody Reynolds cover – still sizzles. The flip side, Bad Indian is even treblier and closer to straight-up garage rock.

For Gun Club diehards, there’s also a new vinyl album, Soulsuckers on Parade which hasn’t hit the web yet. In this off-the-cuff, live-in-the-studio 1984 session, Pierce is backed by most of the Blasters – guitarist Dave Alvin, pianist Gene Taylor and drummer Bill Bateman, plus Green on Red bassist Jack Waterson. This stuff has been circulating in the cassette underground and then on the web for close to forty years.

Side A is the haphazard seventeen-minute jam Walking Down the Street Doing My Thing, which comes across as a Stooges ripoff, right down to Pierce’s X-rated trash-talking, the “take it down you-all” and the tinkling piano. It’s impossible to think that Pierce hadn’t heard the Metallic KO album and thought to himself, “I can do this too.” The Violent Femmes’ first album and the Doors are also obvious reference points.

The B-side has two blues tunes, the second being two takes of Willie Nelson’s Not Supposed to Be That Way. For someone who was as sloshed as Alvin has admitted to being here, he fires off some memorably unhinged Chicago blues riffage in each of them. It’s a tantalizing hint of the talent that could have made him one of the greatest lead guitarists of his era if he’d stuck with it instead of going the singer-songwriter route. Pierce, who sounds wall-hugging drunk, has the nerve to harsh on his bandmates for emulating a Detroit sound. There are also a couple of throwaway rock covers here as well.

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

Another Bleakly Amusing Album of Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

“I did more business in July than I did in all of 2019,” a Brooklyn liquor store owner confided to a friend of this blog last summer. In a locked-down city where domestic violence is up 50%, suicide among young people is up 60%, with the murder rate soaring, that’s no wonder. It’s been even worse in the UK. The Pocket Gods offer a cynical, distinctly British and very catchy take on lockdown hell in Alcoholics Enormous, one of the funniest songs on their characteristically eclectic new album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall, streaming at Spotify.

Speaking of overdoing it, the pun in that song title is just as endangered. Alcoholics Anonymous became just plain Alcoholics when the lockdowners shut down all the churches and community centers where the meetings were held, and everything went online.

Pocket Gods mastermind Mark Christopher Lee has put out a staggering amount of music over the past decade. The band’s equally desperate, bleakly funny previous record of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, made the ten best albums of 2020 list here, and the gallows humor of this one is just as spot-on.

Lee assesses the lockdowners’ crazymaking over a disquieting, hypnotic pulse in Conspiracy Collagen: what can you believe when the fake news media gets more and more outlandish every day? He takes that same disbelief to a sarcastic sendup of celebrity obsession in JS X RQ. My Next High is just as angst-fueled, and sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain doing a decent job covering the Byrds.

Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday, a horror movie theme for the past year’s insanity, is the best song on the album (the Wenzels chain is sort of a British cross between Au Bon Pain and 7-11). Narcissistic Jogger has a similarly macabre pulse: all the same, you can’t help but laugh at these double-muzzled sheep gasping for air. And the catchy powerpop nugget Pound Shop Junkie speaks truth to the cognitive dissonance of desperate consumers lined up around the block for formula retail. Today the dollar store, tomorrow the breadline, after the lockdowners bulldoze all the independent farms because a couple of workers were caught within six feet of each other.

For the record, this blog doesn’t really believe that any of those apocalyptic New Abnormal horror scenarios will ever be more than a pipe dream for a handful of oligarchs and their propaganda squads. More than 30% of the US has been liberated and is back to normal as of today. Then again, weren’t we lucky to be sitting here in our (quasi) safe American homes, able to lustily sing, “Don’t wanna go back there again.”

A Sizzling Live Album From New England Rock Legends the Reducers

The Reducers were the American counterpart to the Jam – except that they lasted six times as long. And while the British punk band drew on the Who and 60s mod music, New London, Connecticut’s greatest musical export took inspiration from 70s pub rock acts like Ducks Deluxe and janglerockers the Flamin’ Groovies as well as the harder, faster sounds of the era. The quartet finally hung it up in 2012 after the tragic loss of their brilliant bassist, Steve Kaika. But there’s a lot of live Reducers kicking around, including a ferocious set, Live: New York City 2005, which is just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

Playing at a typical breakneck pace, the group blast through sixteen songs in forty-seven minutes, a mix of concert favorites, a couple of new tunes and a few covers. The sound quality, from Arlene’s on June 4 of that year, is shockingly good (founding member/guitarist Hugh Birdsall has gone on record as calling this arguably the best live recording of the band that’s widely available). They open with a cover, something they rarely did: in this case, it’s a straight-up punk take of the Boys’ Turning Grey, which is less about getting old than watching everyone around you get old inside.

“I hear that black and blue is the color scheme in town,” guitarist Peter Detmold sneers in one of the band’s catchiest songs, Nothing Cool About That, a spot-on evocation of dead-end life in New England rust belt decay.

Fistfight at the Beach, arguably the band’s best song, takes that anomie to the next level, from Birdsall and Detmold’s simmering twin-guitar intro, Kaika soaring skyward until drummer Tom Trombley kicks in hard. The riffs get more bludgeoning and Birdsall takes a tantalizingly brief, stinging solo in the similarly cynical workingman’s anthem Jackpot Fever.

The band slow down just a little for the more powerpop-oriented Meltdown – with a sweet pickslide at the end – and then their band-on-the-road saga San Antone (which they actually played in San Antonio). They follow that with an especially snarling take of the alienation anthem Out of Step, arguably the band’s biggest hit – and a chance for Kaika, who gave this band the luxury of a third lead player, a chance to slink his way up the fretboard.

The first of the new numbers is Tokyo Bay, referencing the band’s well-received tour of Japan a few months earlier. The band swing hard through I Call That Living, the closest thing to boogie rock they ever did, capped off by a slashing Birdsall solo. On the Road Again is not the Wilie Nelson hit but a punchy, relatively new original.

Let’s Go, another big live hit and the title track to the band’s second album, seems almost restrained, Kaika shadowing Birdsall’s best solo of the night all the way through. The Violent Femmes-ish bassline in Avoidance Factor will make you smile – although who came up with that first? And Bums I Used to Know is the high-octane rockabilly shuffle the Stray Cats only dreamed of pulling off.

The rest of the night’s covers are a mixed bag. Teengenerate’s I Don’t Mind is a pub rock New York Dolls knockoff, although the bit of a guitar duel is tasty. The Stones’ Get Off My Cloud…really? And the lone encore, Chris Spedding’s Hurt by Love isn’t much more than a vehicle for Kaika’s spring-loaded riffage. Still, who knew that in 2021, a soundboard recording by a Connecticut band who’ve been defunct for almost a decade would turn out to be one of the best albums of the year.

R.I.P. Deliver a Scorching Mashup of Punk Rock, Surf and Thrash Metal

R.I.P. call themselves a “street doom” band. In the crowdedly monstrous world of heavy rock, they’re unique: thrashy, macabre and as influenced by punk and surf rock as Black Sabbath. They keep their songs short, they like minor keys and have an unusually nimble rhythm section for such a heavy band. Their latest album Dead End is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with the synthy horror-film instrumental Streets of Death and then launch into Judgment Night, a headbanging mashup of horror surf, hardcore punk and an action movie theme. John Mullett’s  slurry bass kicks off the album’s title cut, guitarist Angel Martinez supplying a muted fuzztone attack over drummer Willie D’s lithely sinewy groove: it’s the missing link between the UK Subs and Sabbath.

Nightmare has a heavy biker rock assault much like the band’s Riding Easy labelmates the Death Wheelers. Ominous doom metal chromatics take a backseat to a relentless series of punk rock chords as One Foot in the Grave stomps along, up to a tantalizingly venomous tremolo-picked solo.

Death Is Coming – the featured track on Riding Easy Records’ free Xmas playlist – looks back to Bon Scott-era AC/DC and Judas Priest.

The band move from a catchy cinematic riff to a haphazard, menacing gallop in Moment of Silence. They follow the ominously Doorsy instrumental Buried Alive with the hard-swinging, 70s-flavored riff-rock tune Out of Time. They slow down hard to close with Dead of the Night, the most doom metal-flavored track here, with a vampirish vocal cameo. Not a single weak track on this album.

A Blast of Garage Punk Intensity From the Grasping Straws

All of a sudden, good things are starting to happen around the world: resistance movements are building toward critical mass, and more rock bands are starting to release new material. The Grasping Straws’ latest single Help – which just hit Bandcamp – sounds nothing like the fantastic, fantastical, all-acoustic Quarantine Halloween, which frontwoman Mallory Feuer released last month. This one’s a full-band song and sounds like a cross between Patti Smith and the early Damned. “Meet me in the darkest room…I’m falling, I don’t need help,” Feuer warns. Love that gritty, catchy bassline!

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.

Revisiting a Catchy, Fearless, Kick-Ass Rock Record by the Cleveland Steamers

The Cleveland Steamers’ Best Record Ever – streaming at Spotify– came out a couple of years ago. On one hand, it’s purist, catchy, dynamically shifting guitar rock with metal, garage and psychedelic influences. On the other, it’s incredibly original: nobody blends those styles like this crew. Some of these songs sound straight of 1980-  no doubt since many of the group were around back then – but the band really slay with the unexpected mashups.

The album’s darkest and most adventurous cut, Dream of Me is basically a slow, 6/8 doom metal theme infused with Cullen O’Connor’s creepy tremolo organ and an achingly melismatic Marianne Friend sax break. “Soon to share the cosmos with you,” frontwoman Meredith Rutledge-Borger soberly intones; then she makes a candy bar joke. Monsanto is much the same, from its menacing, flamencoish Nick Summa guitar intro, to drummer Emmett O’Connor’s stalking pulse afterward

Hung Up On You has a swaying garage rock beat and some slinky guitar work behind that keening, swirly organ, while Maple Leaf Girl is more of a straight-up, garagey powerpop number. The long trumpet intro to the vampy Last Love nicks a famous classical theme: “I found love is a good place to hide,” bassist/singer Cheese Borger confides.

The album’s funniest song is My Asshole Cousin, a punk tune: it’s a capsule history of Republican bigotry over the past hundred years. Never Saw You Again has a steady backbeat and a lingering guitar burn, a bitter reminiscence about a really bad choice.

There’s also the punchy powerpop tune, See You Tonight; Shut Up, a screaming, amusing punk song; and Something Bad, which sounds like Blue Oyster Cult taking a very successful stab at new wave.