It wouldn’t be overhype to characterize the Bright Smoke as a female-fronted Joy Division. Harrowing intensity? Check. Minor keys? Doublecheck. Tight, minimalist tunes over analog drum samples, uneasy atmospherics wafting in the background? Check, check, check. Like Ian Curtis, singer/guitarist Mia Wilson is one of the most riveting performers in any style of music – and she has been, since the beginning of the decade when she was primarily a keyboardist, leading the brilliant/obscure French Exit. The Bright Smoke’s latest album Gross National Happiness – streamng at Bandcamp – could be her darkest and most shattering release so far, and it’s much more explicitly political than Joy Division ever were. The Bright Smoke have a couple of gigs coming up; on July 13 at 8 PM they’re at the small room at the Rockwood. Then on July 27 at 9:30 PM they’re playing the album release show at Littlefield; cover is $10.
On the new album, Wilson asserts herself more than ever on lead guitar, with potent results. With his guitars, bass and electronics, her longtime collaborator Quincy Ledbetter adds tersely orchestrated variations on the band’s usual black-and-grey sonic palette. They open the album with the brief Broken Party, its noisy ambience bringing to mind the politically-fueled dystopic soul of Algiers, the ache in Wilson’s voice reaching new heights
“I fear this more,” Wilson intones in American Proletariat. More than “The employ of and the company of torturers and slumlords…”? Yes. She gets out her bullhorn:
I will get to my desk on time
And I will stay til five
And I will aid
I will participate
In the united front and
I will lead your manhunt
Has Big Brother completely broken Wilson’s spirit? Hardly. The sarcasm is withering. Likewise, in Model Citizen – which shifts from unsettled indie chords to a stark minor-key interlude: “I can help you lose everything you won…you model citizens are out for blood.”
An ominously looping guitar figure gives way to an acidic swirl as Orbit moves along: “It’s not testament to your excellence that I’m bored with your war,” she warns. After that, the band motor through the wickedly catchy The Lion And, a defiant Patti Smith-esque anthem.
One Hundred Years looks back to the gritty gutter blues the band were exploring earlier in the decade:
It’s been a banner year
It’s open season on the weak
And every hundred years
We get dressed to the nines
They’re not coming this time
Again Again has a spare, stripped-down minor-key blues phrase over a tightly swinging groove, biting guitar acccents slowly entering over an acidically misty backdrop. Wilson half-speaks, half-sings the verse: “Old friend I need your forgiveness again/Can I hold onto you as the walls close in.”
Ledbetter’s oscillating bassline propels Mauretania, a desperate tableau where everyone expects a “top down trickle down, but it never came.” The album’s guardedly optimistic final cut, Lower 48, again brings to mind Patti Smith, Wilson’s stark, insistent, minimalist guitar over a wafting nocturnal haze. It’s an apt soundtrack for the deadly, flailing final months (we desperately hope) of the Trump administration. You’ll see this high on the list of best albums of 2019 at the end of the year.