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Tag: Bright Smoke review

A Seething, Politically-Fueled Dark Rock Masterpiece From the Bright Smoke

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
The barbarians?
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.

The Bright Smoke Bring Their Darkly Fiery, Intense Art-Rock to Park Slope

Earlier this year, the Bright Smoke released one of the year’s most haunting and brilliantly lyrical albums, their full-length debut Terrible Towns. The album release show at the Mercury this past spring mirrored the swirly, ominously swaying ambience of the band’s studio work. But their most recent Mercury show was a ferocious, fiery, occasionally explosive breakthrough: all of a suddden, this band has become one of New York’s most exciting live acts. Their next show is at Union Hall in Park Slope on October 3 at 9 PM; cover is $10. Synthy 80s goth/darkwave act Elle Le Fantôme opens the night at 8; popular, intense, dramatic female-fronted powerpop band the Shondes make a good segue afterward at around 10.

Last time out, guitarist/frontwoman Mia Wilson didn’t waste any time establishing a wounded, enigmatic atmosphere right off the bat with one of the new album’s tracks, Hard Pander, tricky polyrhythms shifting between Karl Thomas’ drums and Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter’s laptop. The band raised the menace factor immediately with a corrosively crescendoing take of City on an Island, a sardonically vivid look at the diminishing returns an artist faces in New York in 2015, lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter rising from watery mid-80s Cure jangle to a napalm mist of distortion. He did the same thing in On 10, almost imperceptibly, as Wilson’s defiant alto rose to a dismissive wrath:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

They opened the next number with a brisk postpunk stroll, but by the time they hit the chorus Thomas was scraping the guardrails with his cymbals and tumbling snare riffs, and Ledbetter was going deep into the blues with a similarly unhinged attack that went spiraling out in a blast of reverb-drenched noise. They went back to suspenseful for a catchy, moody backbeat-driven new song, part Joy Division’s The Eternal, part brooding soul ballad, lowlit by Ledbetter’s mournful belltone lines. Then on the next number Ledbetter shifted between fuzztone grit and off-the-rails Chicago blues.

The song after that had Wilson’s steady, ominously looping fingerpicked riffs building tension against Ledbetter’s echoey cumulo-nimbus resonance, rising to fullscale horror as his attack grew more insistent, throwing off some invisible demon. Likewise, on Exit Door, the band left the spare, shuffling gloom of the album version for a raw, screaming guitar drive, Wilson again holding it to the rails with her elegant fingerwork. The end of the show was intense to the extreme. Wilson explained that a friend had convinced her to revisit some older material from her days leading a similarly dark, intense band, the French Exit, so she played one of their best songs, a towering, anguished 6/8 anthem about “totally losing it,” she said. As the song escalated toward sheer terror in a cauldron of reverb and overtones, Wilson fell to her knees, rocked back and forth, wailed without a mic and ended up with blood-streaked strings after she’d slashed at them.  Calmly, she assured the crowd afterward that she was ok. There hasn’t been such an intense moment onstage anyhere else in New York since then. Hopefully there won’t be any blood or bruises at Union Hall, but the energy is going to be through the roof regardless.

The Bright Smoke Earn Comparisons to Joy Division

Lots of groups draw comparisons to Joy Division. Inevitably, all of them fall short. None of them can match that iconic band’s shatttering gothic art-rock grandeur…and nobody goes as far into the abyss as Ian Curtis. The Bright Smoke are a rare exception to that rule. In a way, their new album, Terrible Towns – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great lost Joy Division album between Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Except that frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson doesn’t sound anything like Ian Curtis. However, she does have a powerful, angst-fueled low register, something akin to Cat Power without the affectations (ok, hard to imagine, but just try). She’s as strong a tunesmith and lyricist as she is a singer, and an inventive guitarist. Her songwriting is equally informed by oldtime acoustic blues and dark rock: other than the guys from Manchester, the new album occasionally brings to mind the live Portishead album. The Bright Smoke are playing the Cameo Gallery on May 19 at 9 PM; cover is $8.

As you would expect from such a relentlesly dark outfit, their songs are on the slow side, and usually in ninor keys. Beyond having a woman out front, the Bright Smoke distinguish themselves from Joy Division in that they’re considerably more swirly and psychedelic. Live, drummer Karl Thomas colors the songs with a terse, almost minimalist precision and the occasional jazzy flourish. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter is a monster player, a master of texture and timbre, who although he has blazing speed doesn’t waste notes: if Bernard Sumner had started playing earlier than he did, he might have ended up sounding something like Ledbetter. Lately, for atmospherics, onstage the Bright Smoke have been including an electroacoustic element.

The album’s opening track, Hard Pander, could be Sade covering Joy Division. Wilson’s lyrics are enigmatic, sardonic, often imbued with gallows humor and this number is typical:

I don’t have to fake my inclinations
I don’t have to draw on my scars
You’re in over your head, girl
Pander right and pander hard

The way the bass rises, a low harmony with the wary, wounded guitar overhead in Like Video is a recurrent, artful touch throughout the album: this band really works every dark corner of the sonic spectrum. And Wilson’s cynicism is crushing:

I hear the Midwest stretches on for miles
And calls you back and it’s always on time
I hear it don’t have a past like mine
I hear the Midwest don’t have a voice to raise
Just settles down on her knees and prays
And makes you feel big in your small way
Baby, I’m in town today

On Ten also works a recurrent trope, Wilson’s elegant fingerpicking against layers and layers of lingering ambience, a savage dissection of Notbrooklyn ennui:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

August/September is a diptych, the first part a plaintive piano waltz evoking Joy Division’s The Eternal, the second fueled by a menacing, echoing pulse that ends in crushing defeat: its quiet, sudden ending is one of the album’s most powerful moments. “There’s a bloody side to this, I don’t share your sunny disposition,” Wilson warns in Exit Door, with its wickedly catchy “You wanna know where the money comes from” mantra. Shakedown, a creepy roadhouse boogie in Lynchian disguise, brings to mind Randi Russo. “If there’s a game of losing friends…you and I would be Olympians,” Wilson broods.

Howl builds nonchalantly to an unexpectedly catchy, yet unpredictable chorus that would be the envy of any stadium rock band, a sardonic look at self-absorption lit up by a nimble tremolo-picked Ledbetter solo. City on an Island, with its watery chorus-box bass and 80s production values evokes early New Order and might be the album’s catchiest song. It might also be its most searing one, a kiss-off to a fauxhemian:

Good luck with your pylons
With your city on an island
And good luck with the small false hints
That you live the way I live

The album’s final track, simply titled Or, is a Mississippi hill country blues vamp, T-Model Ford spun through the prism of psychedelia and trip-hop, closer to the band’s stark, spare previous output than anything else here. Look for this around the top of the best albums of 2015 page in December if we make it that far.

The Bright Smoke Haunt Mercury Lounge

Friday night at the Mercury the Bright Smoke played a magical, haunting show. Since she fronted the equally haunting, even more angst-fueled French Exit back in the late zeros, frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s enigmatic alto voice has gone deeper into the lows. As unassailable, outraged witness, she’s sort of a teens counterpart to Siouxsie Sioux at her mid-80s peak. Guitarwise, Wilson has found her muse in the most otherworldly corners of old delta blues. She surrounds those ancient, rustic riffs with a swirling yet rhythmic, psychedelic ambience. Drummer Karl Thomas was given the difficult task of matching beats with Kevin the laptop (manipulated with split-second precision by Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter) and didn’t miss a beat, coloring the music with terse, emphatic cymbal shades and defly chosen rimshots. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter was a sorcerer in his lab, shifting seamlessly from wary circular riffs to biting clusters of Chicago blues riffage, minimalist 80s jangle and clang, and watery dreampop atmospherics.

They opened with Pure Light, Wilson and Ledbetter trading off and mingling notes as they would do throughout the set, nebulous clang versus ambient austerity, a girl-at-the-bottom-of-the-well milieu that grew more majestic, a la the Church circa Priest = Aura. They worked the same contrast on the broodingly strolling Late for War. Trade Up turned out to be the most exhilarating song of the night, Ledbetter slowly building a searing solo from enveloping, menacingly echoes to a skin-peeling, stygian slide down the fretboard as it wound out.

City on an Island, a slow, watery Joy Division-tinged anthem was the antithesis of the wet-behind-the-ears gentrifier tributes this city’s received so many of in the past few years: Wilson mused cynically about this “mess of a machine…take me to your parties, show me your scene.” She evoked Marissa Nadler with her steady, graceful fingerpicking throughout the achingly soul-infused trip-hop of On Ten, another number that grew to a majestic, Church-like crescendo

The band followed the same trajectory, with more white-knuckle Joy Division intensity on the simply titled Or, then made acid rock out of Sade with Hard Pander, the new album’s opening track: “You’re in over your head, so pander right and pander hard,” Wilson’s nameless narrator warned caustically. The band worked the swirly/jagged dynamic for all it was worth on Shakedown and closed with the understatedly ferocious, accusatory Exit Door, whose mantra is “I wanna know where the money comes from.” A logical question in real estate bubble era New York from a band who capture this particular age of anxiety better than pretty much anybody else. The Bright Smoke play at around 10 on May 9 at Nola Darling, 161 W 22nd St. east of 7th Ave. Cover is $10 on a bill to benefit homeless LGBT youth.

Haunting, Atmospheric, Blues-Infused Intensity from the Bright Smoke

The Bright Smoke is the more-or-less solo project from Mia Wilson, whose raw, wounded wail and menacing minor-key songwriting made her previous band the French Exit one of New York’s most riveting live acts for a couple of years in the late zeros. Her songwriting on the Bright Smoke’s new album Virginia Et. Al. is more blues-infused, in the same vein as a young PJ Harvey but more atmospheric. Likewise, her vocals here are more low-key and world-weary but no less haunted and intense. The recording quality is lush yet direct: organic instrumentation, darkly enveloping sonics. Along with Wilson’s guitars and vocals, producer Q. Ledbetter adds guitar and bass tracks over lo-fi percussion samples and loops.

Wilson’s stark blues lines resonate with a rustic, haunting quality on the opening track, God Willing. “God willing the creek don’t rise,” becomes a mantra. “My hands are shaking,” Wilson intones as simple, biting guitar layers linger in the background like a coiled snake that’s about to strike.

Sea Level is the rare song that’s Joy Division-influenced without being slavishily imitative. With its ba-BUMP beat and catchy, mournfully bluesy melody, it also brings to mind the Stooges classic I Need Somebody. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up after trying not to wake up again?” Wilson asks. Slow Burn is slightly more upbeat, like the Banana Album-era Velvets taking a stab at a classic country song. The ache in Wilson’s voice is visceral as she waves someone away for good.

Pure Light is the longest, most hypnotic track here, the low resonance of Wilson’s voice contrasting with the guitars’ overtones, gentle but uneasy slides and creepily tinkling piano overhead. “Can you feel the wind come to make you wild again?” Wilson asks on the next track – but the answer isn’t clear, and it’s as if the wind she’s talking about could freeze everything over, again with a minor-key, minimalist Joy Division intensity. The last track, Free, is ostensibly a demo, but Wilson obviously knew she had a gem when she recorded it. It’s a dirge, just simple guitar, vocals and a piano drenched in natural reverb and enough out of tune that it maxes out the horror factor: “What a beautiful means to an otherwise painful end,” Wilson muses, a vivid elegy for someone who chose to kill himself or herself by drowning. You want intense? The Bright Smoke’s next gig is at Lit on Second Ave. at 8 PM on Jan 18.