For a dozen years, New York band Changing Modes have been been putting out solidly good, smart albums that blend an artsy 80s pop vibe with darker, sometimes more punk-oriented sounds. It’s not clear what the band name refers to – maybe that fashions come and go, but that good music is timeless. Although the group has three synthesizers, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them as retroists since they’re a lot more eclectic than the legions of Simple Minds and New Order worshippers. Their songs aren’t exactly trendy – imagine Pulp at their most enigmatic and biting, casually ferocious guitars amid swirly, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes lurid keys. Of their seven albums, Changing Modes’ new one, In Flight, is their fifth full-length effort, their most complex and opaque and arguably their best. Keyboardist Wendy Griffiths – who has a second career as an indie classical composer – typically fronts the band; the rest of the group includes singer/keyboardists Jen Rondeau (who also plays theremin) and Grace Pulliam (who also plays percussion), while Yuzuru Sadashige and Denise Mei Yan Hofmann switch between guitar and bass and David Oromaner provides brisk, punchy beats behind the drum kit.
Anger, apprehension and disappointment run deep in these hard-hitting songs. “Will you save for a Brave New World?” Griffiths scarcastically asks over the shuffling disco beat of Particle Collider as it spins further and further toward total annihilating chaos. The insistent piano pop of Life Drawing reflects on a lifetime of regret and disillusion, while Ghost in the Backseat, all one minute 42 seconds of it, reminds of X with its roaring guitar chromatics and unhinged noiserock solo. Anger and menace take centerstage in Down to You, lit up by tremoloing noir guitar: “Comatose and broken, you escape into a dream – did it hit you like a ton of bricks when she told you it wasn’t?” Griffiths asks with a vengeful swoop at the end of the line.
The closest thing to Pulp here is Blue, a cynical, murderously creepy piano tune sung by one of the guys in the band. The Politics of Fear strips the psychology of a police state to the basics, switching from snarling guitar-disco to a darkly carnivalesque waltz and then back again, with a deliciously atonal horror-guitar solo from Sadashige, while Professional Girl puts a feminist spin on uneasy Henry Mancini-style latin pop. Twisted circus piano, an all-too-brief theremin solo and some neat counterpoint between the keyboards all factor into the cryptic Firewall; To the Left sets a venomous lyric over sunny, bouncy 60s Carnaby Street pop. Likewise, Chinatown tells the anxious tale of a killer on the lam over torchy, pulsing cabaret-pop: “A list of accusations, DNA and information, read it on a sunny afternoon when Chinatown looks beautiful.” Houses of Cards, a cinematic noir-pop spy-on-the-run tale, unwinds with surreal layers of vocals; the album closes with the title track, its ominous Pink Floyd melody twinkling out with the steady pings of a glockenspiel.
While Griffiths is responsible for most of the writing here, Rondeau’s three contributions make up some of the strongest tracks. Nature of the Beast, a brooding, funereal, bitter kiss-off anthem blends Procol Harum gothic with a torchy cabaret vibe: “Left his message on the pillow sham/Doesn’t say a word, he’s an honest man,” Rondeau asserts coldly. Knock Once adds a macabre edge to a wounded, vintage soul-infused ballad, while the barely two-minute Thunderwing pulses along on a delicately reverberating Fender Rhodes bossa beat. And Reflection, by Pulliam, mines a lushly orchestrated wah-wah Philly soul ambience, layers of keyboards blaring ominously in place of what would have been guitars and strings forty years ago. Sixteen songs, and they’re all excellent – can you name another band who’ve done that this year? Probably not. Count this among the year’s best albums, another triumph for a group that deserves to be vastly better known than they are. Changing Modes are busy right now: they’re playing Trash tonight at 9, then a Make Music NY show scheduled for 3 PM at the boathouse in Prospect Park tomorrow. They’ll also be at Local 269 on July 5 at 10.