New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: carl newman

The New Pornographers Go New Wave at Terminal 5 on the 26th

How many of you went to see the New Pornographers at Prospect Park in the summer of 2015? It was what you would expect: a lot of fun. They played the hits, keys swooshed and guitars crunched and clanged….and there was plenty of room to roam around. Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to get in to see them unless you were willing to wait in an impossibly long line at the gates.

That’s not to imply that this century’s premier powerpop supergroup are any less popular now than they ever were, considering that Terminal 5, where they’re playing this April 26 at 9 PM, is the largest Manhattan venue they’ve ever been booked into. It’s likely that a lot of the people who’ve been priced out of Brooklyn and who would have packed that show in the park may come out for this one, for the borderline-obscene advance ticket price of $38. Factored into that, no doubt, is the fact that this is an all-ages show where legal adults will be subsidizing their (officially at least) nondrinking concertmates. Imagine shaggy, tattooed dad and son in matching Beavis and Butthead (or Bevis Frond) shirts.

The group’s new album, Whiteout Conditions is streaming at Spotify. It’s a new wave record, and it’s a good one. There’s a suspiciously satirical edge to the swooshy synths, and crisply danceable beats, and the unease cached rather haphazardly in the lyrics. These songs are amazingly catchy: hooks fly fast and furious, and you can sing along to pretty much everything. What Squeeze was thirty years ago, the New Pornographers are to now. Real estate bubble-era malaise has never been so much fun.

Kathryn Calder sings the careful cadences of the vampy, Head on the Door-era Cure style opening track, Play Money, over a brisk backbeat. There’s a vocoder and pulsing layers of synths:

Just when I’d thought we’d beat the system
That we were gentlemen of leisure
He left to talk about his treasure
And how he’d gotten it for a song…

Carl Newman moves to the mic for the title cut, awash in echoing sequencer beats. It sounds like Big Country without the bombast – ok, that’s a stretch, but just imagine. Mid-80s Wire is also a reference point. It’s an escape anthem, more relevant than ever since January 20.

High Ticket Attraction – how about that title for irony, huh? – looks back to the early 80s, when Bowie glam from ten years earlier was such a big influence. Yuppie entitlement and conspicuous consumption factor into Newman’s torrents of lyrics – the Jigsaw Seen come to mind.

Calder’s sober enunciation in This Is the World of the Theatre, one of the poppiest tracks here, perfectly captures the self-referential preciousness of a generation of gentrifier fauxhemians. The glossy, vamping Darling Shade has a more opaque 80s glossiness: it’s about what happens “When you add your voice to bad choices…when you break through, it’s nothing.”

Second Sleep wafts in with a late-Beatles psychedelic intro, and then the new wave beat kicks in: “This time of the morning you’d swear it was night,” Newman, Calder and Neko Case insist in between short rhyming couplets. “Be awake for awhile” becomes “Been awake for awhile,” after awhile.

Fuzz bass underpins droll, synthesized phony windchimes in Colosseums: “A scalper’s price built into the designs…say it like a soothsayer, it’ll keep for days.” The most overlty political track is the atmospherically swooshy We’ve Been Here Before: “We couldn’t find a way out when were here the first time,” Newman admits. “Might as well leave him behind, might as well leave him behind.”

Juke has a slinky Bollywood psychedelic groove, spun through the eye of a Beatles needle. Case takes over lead vocals on Clock Wise, which maintains the psychedelic ambience. The final cut is the allusively apocalyptic Avalanche Alley, blippy electronic organ flitting through a haze of guitars over a tight 2/4 beat: “News from the last world, news from the future…we could use a ride,” the singers harmonize. As with everything this band has ever done, this album doesn’t just invite repeated listens: it demands them. How rewarding it is to see one of the last successful holdovers from the college-radio-and-cds era still going strong.

Hannah Vs. the Many Release the Best Rock Record of 2016

For the past five years or so, Hannah Vs. the Many have earned a reputation for incendiary live shows and brilliant albums equally informed by noir cabaret, punk, art-rock and theatre music, with a dash of magic realism. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Hannah Fairchild might not just be the best songwriter in New York: she might be the best songwriter anywhere in the world. Her torrential volleys of lyrics have stiletto wit, sardonic and often savage double entendres, and a towering angst that sometimes boils over into raw wrath. While her writing reflects elements of purist Carl Newman powerpop, epic Paul Wallfisch grandeur and Neko Case noir, she’s a stronger and more eclectic writer than any of them with the possible exception of the Botanica frontman. Her wounded wail is one of the most riveting and dramatic voices in New York as well. Originally a keyboardist, she was writing brooding acoustic guitar songs almost from the moment she first picked up the instrument, then pulled a band together and the rest is history.

Their debut, All Our Heroes Drank Here, made the shortlist of the best albums of 2012 here; the follow-up, Ghost Stories ranked high on that list two years later. Their latest release, Cinemascope, draws its inspiration from classic film from over the decades. In terms of vast lyrical scope, genre-defying sophistication and sheer catchiness, it’s the best rock record of the year (caveat: Karla Rose & the Thorns have one in the can that hasn’t hit yet). Hannah Vs. the Many are playing the album release show at around 9 this Saturday, Nov 19 at Bushwick Public House at 1288 Myrtle Ave; the closest train is the M to Central Ave.

The opening track, Smoke Is Rising begins as a pensive art-rock ballad, Fairchild adding a jazz tinge with her piano, and builds to a noisy metallic inferno. It follows the same arc as the suicide jumper in Fairchild’s similarly searing All Eyes on Me; this one’s about a woman’s self-immolation, and every metaphor that could imply. When Fairchild intones, “You notice me, don’t you?” it’s just as much a condemnation of those who would watch without intervening as it is a cynical comment on depressive self-absorption.

Lovely Resolution blends elements of Nordic valkyrie metal, punk and classic garage rock, carried by Fairchild’s melismatic shriek. It ponders questions of authenticity and motives in revolutionary politics, it’s the most punk track on the album, and it’s a good anthem in this surreal post-election netherworld. And it’s optimistic:

We are the preface of a new day rising
Last year’s hope
This year’s trash
Next year’s gods

Carl Limbacher’s bubbly bass opens the bitter Cameo, a chronicle of a flirtation to rival the crunching cynicism of the Church’s For a Moment We’re Strangers, tense blue-flame jangle giving way to an explosive chorus. Fairchild has written about the inspiration for these songs in a series of poignant, sometimes shockingly revealing blog posts; this one was spiringboarded by a late-night hookup thwarted by too much alcohol.

I won’t be remembered
I won’t be remembered
Curling up and drifting off under blanket statements
Draw near help me fight this chill
Resolutions wearing thin
Morals bending backwards
Don’t stay, only say you will

The skittish new wave that opens The Auteur gives way to stomping, lickety-split punk. Like much of Fairchild’s work, this one casts a cold eye on how men expect women to subsume themselves, how some women do so willingly, and at great expense. It’s also very funny:

Once we’re discovered the question will ever be
Which of us settled for whom?
It’s uninspired at best, another biblical fall
You’re unravelling under surveillance
And now we’ll all place our bets
On if you’ll come when you’re called

The saddest, quietest and most radical change for Fairchild here is Chiaroscuro. It’s a muted country song with a banjo, of all things, a chronicle of a family trip to a Washington, DC historic site as well as the divorce that followed years later, a psychological autopsy of Midwestern stoicism worthy of Upton Sinclair:

Every child becomes a murderer in time
We take our leave of absence and we scatter from our homes
They offer contrast, these killers out of context
Someone else’s brother has been chiseled into stone
Not ours, though.

The hard-charging Hotel Empire, as Fairchild has explained, is the album’s turning point. Up to now, the songs have mainly chronicled women trying to be good. All the narratives after this are from anti-heroines. It’s also the climactic song in a suite inspired by what was probably a horribly abusive real-life relationship. Fairchild uses the plotline from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the point of view of the Kim Novak character, as the springboard for this harrowing conclusion. “Go on. I said I’m fine,” is the mantra.

Surrender Dorothy is the key to the album, a lickety-split look at the madonna/whore dichotomy through the prism of high school musicals (Fairchild had quite a successful career as a stage actress while still in her teens). It sounds like Patti Smith backed by the UK Subs:

Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see

Max Tholenaar-Maples’ scrambling drums and Fairchild’s distorted guitar keep the punk rock going fulll-throttle in Murder Darling, bookending Wells Albritton’s brief, moody electric piano interlude. It’s another example of Fairchild at her most savagely hilarious and spot-on:

Flash right back to a boy in need of applause
Evading playground taunts
From bright young things with eyes rolled
Beat that track! Daddy said you’re whatever you want
And how that promise haunts

NSFW revisits love-as-war metaphors, both musically and lyrically, shifting between a sarcastic march and wounded jangle:

Curious trend
Isn’t it strange?
What information you chose to retain?
All of my fears, none of my wit
Drape me in jealousy tailored to fit
Lining your walls
Faces you’ve earned
Duchesses hanging themselves on your word
Women of rank I have surpassed

Kopfkino makes a harrowing coda to the album, an actress at the end of her rope in a Holocaust milieu whose ending you can’t see coming, but which brings the song cycle full circle. In terms of sheer ambition, epic grandeur and cruel insight, there’s no other album that’s been released this year that comes close to this one.

A Clinic in Tunesmithing with Daniel Stampfel

Thursday night Daniel Stampfel played the album release show for his new ep at Fontana’s. The singer/guitarist looks the same as he did when he was packing the old Luna Lounge ten years ago, fronting the Inevitable Breakups, a fantastic powerpop outfit that should have been the band representing New York around the world instead of the Strokes or Interpol. Stampfel’s crowd hasn’t changed any more than he has: fellow musicians out to watch a talented colleague work his magic live, and wide-eyed twentysomething women (Stampel always pulls the chicks no matter where he goes). The band was tremendous, as usual: good tunesmiths never have a hard time finding musicians to play those tunes. The lead guitarist switched expertly from searing, sun-drenched slide lines, to rapidfire, pointillistic bluesy runs, to plenty of nimble Johnny Marr-style jangle and clang, while the drummer walked the line expertly between swing and anthemic and the bassist picked out a steady, often suspenseful new wave pulse (and took the most interesting solo of the night on the next-to-last song). Stampfel’s nonchalantly soaring vocals sometimes took a back seat to the roar of the band, but that didn’t matter: people were there for the hooks.

As usual, there were plenty of those. Stampfel works a catchy area between the Jayhawks at their most cosmopolitan, the Raspberries at their most melodic and Big Star at their most focused, with a more propulsive, rhythmic drive than any of those bands. While those are all old groups, what Stampfel is doing is putting his own stamp on an oldschool style, tuneful verses working their way up to irresistibly catchy resolutions when the choruses hit. He opened playing acoustic guitar on a jangly midtempo number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Gary Louris songbook, following with a bouncy, 80s-influenced song that was the poppiest one of the night. The band picked up the pace with a biting riff-rock number, then a more laid-back soul-flavored tune with a gorgeous little hailstorm of tremolo-picking by the lead player. Hurricane Bells’ Steve Schiltz (who produced the record) then came up to add an extra layer of his characteristically thoughtful, spacious guitar on a lush, anthemic tune that reminded of the Church back when that band was writing the occasional pop song. They closed with an unexpectedly minor-key new wave tune (the one with that great bass solo) and then an exuberant one that might have been an Inevitable Breakups song.

That was the music. Lyrics don’t really figure into what Stampfel does: some of the songs could have been titled Oh Baby I Love Your Way or Just the Two of Us (they weren’t, but you get the picture). In order to take his stuff to the next level, i.e. Carl Newman/Steve Kilbey/Elvis Costello territory, he needs a lyricist: tunes as good as this guy’s deserve some substance. One can only imagine the greatness that would result from a collaboration with, say, a Paula Carino or Ward White.