Even in an era when obscurity has become a badge of honor, New York band Shanghai Love Motel are almost apocryphal. They don’t play a lot of gigs, so when they do, it’s a pretty major event. They basically play two styles of music, both of them looking back to the dark guitar-fueled underside of the 80s: stomping, growling paisley underground psychedelic rock, as well as more artsy, low-key, sometimes jazz-tinged new wave guitar pop. What distinguishes them more than their catchy hooks and biting guitars is their savage, literate lyrics: bands who can be this loud seldom have words as good as the music. Their lone album so far, Thrum, is streaming online – and to further intrigue you, their lyrics are all up online as well. They’re playing a rare NYC date at the Parkside on July 10 at 10, where they’ll be rejoined by their longtime guitarist Adam Russell ; cover is $5.
The band’s two main songwriters, guitarist Bryan Brown and bassist Bill Millard, each have their signature styles. Brown goes more for the hypnotically growling, understatedly menacing post-Velvets/Neil Young sway that the Dream Syndicate immortalized. Millard’s songs tend to be somewhat more low-key but no less sinister. The album’s opening track, by Brown, is King of Memory, a dead ringer for an early Steve Wynn number, its narrator a metaphorical monarch who has “lost more than you have purported to know” circling the wagons over a classic early 80s groove. Millard’s Snapshots from the Sinister Cathedral blends elegant jazz-tinged phrasing from Brown and keyboardist David Smith:
Meet me at four in the morning
At the Cathedral of John the Mundane
Assuming old Johnny’s in shape to get out of the rain
We’d better bring plenty of coffee
And pictures of places we like
And jokes we can aim at whoever is hogging the mic
Brown’s Too Good Too Soon sets a surrealistically smart-ass kiss-off lyric to Stratocaster-stung Tex-Mex soul: it’s the kind of song that John Sharples would cover. Another Brown tune, Almost Gone stomps uneasily between major and minor keys, its angst-fueled theme bringing to mind Matt Keating in hard-rocking mode, lit up by a couple of jaggedly sunsplashed guitar solos. As period-perfect paisley underground rock goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Millard’s almost imperceptibly crescendoing I Was the Dog opens with a verse that Elvis Costello would be proud to call his own and just gets more savage from there:
With all due respect, I don’t believe respect is due
They know now what the world spins ’round.
Somebody figured out that it ain’t you
The only truth that you know is that you’ll never know the truth
Another stoner paradox for terminally gullible youth…
Millard and Brown co-wrote Burning Bush, an enigmatic, ominous glimpse of a metaphorically-charged postapocalyptic landscape spiced by spiky mandolin and watery chorus-box guitar: is this an obit for the evil of the Bush/Cheney years, maybe?
Drummer Mark Hennessy pushes Millard’s Flip in Style with a vintage 60s Stones gorove, toward Replacements territory. Brown’s Strong Silent Type is the most low-key, nocturnal track here. The album’s most searing, torrentially lyrical number is The Universal Skeptical Anthem, a tour de force rant by Millard:
Spare me the line about machines for going back in time
And all the crying over moral turpentine
I get a whiff about a couple of state lines away;
That’s enough for maybe 90 billion days
Spare me the flag-wagging huckleberry knuckleheads
That can’t tell who’s the monster and who’s Frankenstein…
After the unhinged octaves of a guitar solo, the band segues into Brown’s Ruined Man, a sardonically syncopated look at world where “They resell mystery in burial mounds, with lots marked Resigned or Content.” The album comes full circle with How’s Dr. Ving, by Millard, a mashup of Elvis Costello and the Dream Syndicate. If this is the only album the band ever does, they’ve got themselves a cult classic – but we can always hope for more. See what they have in store for the future at the Parkside.