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Shapeshifting Art-Rockers Changing Modes Put Out Their Most Savagely Brilliant Record Yet

Changing Modes aren’t just one of the most instantly recognizable rock bands in the world: they’re also one of the best. Over the past ten years or so, they’ve put out an increasingly brilliant succession of sharply lyrical, mind-warpingly eclectic albums that span from quirky new wave to majestic art-rock to ferocious punk. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call them the American Pulp – or to call Pulp the British Changing Modes. The big news about the group’s latest album, What September Brings – streaming at Spotify – is that keyboardists and co-frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, guitarist/bassist Yuzuru Sadashige and drummer Timur Yusef have been bolstered by the addition of baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane. The new release is also arguably the band’s angriest and most political record yet (think about that title for a second). Griffiths has a short fuse when it comes to narcissists, and she torches several here. Changing Modes are playing the album release show on Sept 20 at 8 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10. It’s impossible to think of a more entertaining, consistently surprising Friday night rock act anywhere in New York right now.

The album’s opening track, Days, could be described as noir new wave Motown circus rock, but that’s only scratching the surface of how artfully the band blend those styles. The two women’s voices harmonize eerily over an uneasy, altered waltz, the sax adding a deliciously smoky undercurrent:

These are the days I never spent with you
Black eyes and broken wings
White lies don’t give away
Black eyes and broken wings
Butterflies don’t miss a day

Pretty Poisonous has gritty guitar majesty balancing those carnivalesque keys, an allusively snide slap upside the head of real estate bubble-era yuppies. With blippy Wurlitzer, fuzz bass and sarcastic ba-ba harmonies, Tightrope is a delicious dis aimed at a phone-fixated drama queen: It also might be the funniest song Griffiths has ever written.

Corey Booker Blues is not about the mayor and erstwhile candidate: it’s a slinky instrumental, sort of a mashup of Henry Mancini and mid-70s King Crimson, dedicated to Griffiths’ cat – that was his name when she got him from the shelter. Next, the band keep the shapeshifting menace going with another instrumental, 2 1/2 Minutes to Midnight, with some tremolo-picked savagery and more than a hint of heavy metal growl from Sadashige

The band romp lickety-split through 250 Smiles, a sardonic sendup of a catty girl whose “tiny lies accessorize.” Then Pulliam flips the script with January, a pensive tale of abandonment set to an insistent, ornate solo piano backdrop.

Rocket, a sinister surveillance state parable, brings to mind X at their most rockabillyish: “Tell me why the failsafe signal failed/Tell me why the driver never broke a sweat,” Griffiths wants to know. Fueled by Amy Boyd’s shivery violin, Alexander Springs is a more psychedelic take on classic, lush mid-70s ELO, laced with brooding Aimee Mann cynicism:

Wasted summer days on village greens
You wait to see what September brings ‘cause
You’ve been down that lonely road before

Fire has backbeat stomp from Yusef, wary chromatics from Tamezane and Griffiths’ most savagely dystopic lyrics here:

In the line of fire
There’s no reality
As they watch you on their flat screens
A blip is all they see
Caught by friendly fire
As drones divide the sky
You’ll just give in if you never ask why

The cynicism reaches redline in Glide, a sardonically twinkly boudoir soul-tinged nocturne, Griffiths fixing her crosshairs on slacker apathy. The band reach back toward circus rock, with a little Beatles, in Potassium and Riboflavin, a strutting kiss-off number. They close the record with Night Loop, recalling Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver score as much as Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch theme music. It’s going to be awfully hard to choose any album other than this as the best of 2019 at this point.

Another Darkly Brilliant Album and a Webster Hall Release Show from Art-Rockers Changing Modes

How many bands or artists have put out seven albums as strong as New York art-rockers Changing Modes’ catalog? Elvis Costello, sure. But the Clash? No. The Doors? Nope. Pink Floyd? Maybe. The Stones, or the Beatles? That’s open to debate. What’s clear is that Changing Modes deserve mention alongside all of those iconic acts, a distinction they’ve earned in over a decade of steady playing, touring and recording. Their latest release, Goodbye Teodora, is due out this Sunday. They’re playing the album release show on March 26 at 6:45 PM at the downstairs space at Webster Hall; cover is $15.

Changing Modes distinguish themselves from their many shapeshifting, ornately psychedelic colleagues around the world in many ways. They’re one of the few art-rock acts fronted by a woman. And they’re dark. Co-leader Wendy Griffiths’ sharply literate lyrics and allusive narratives are as intricately woven as the band’s musical themes, and they keep their songs short, seldom going on for more than three or four minutes. The lineup on the new record is the same as their previous masterpiece, 2014’s The Paradox of Traveling Light. Griffiths switches between keys and bass, joined by guitarist/bassist Yuzuru Sadashige, multi-keyboardist Grace Pulliam and expert drummer Timur Yusef. The album opens with the uneasy Mind Palace, part scampering circus rock-tinged anthem, part jagged King Crimson. It’s a characteristically intriguing, enigmatic number that could be about a robot, or not a robot: “He is a hoarder of broken memories, a savage mistake, a victim of technology.”

Griffiths’ hard-hitting piano and Pulliam’s swooshy organ fuel Amanda’s House, a vivid and wryly detailed portrait of a goth girl which also might be satirical – consider the song title. Sadashige’s sharped-edge, steadily stalking guitar builds to menacingly anthemic proportions throughout Door, a creepy study in suspense. Yusef’s tersely boomy Middle Eastern percussion in tandem with Sadashige’s sparse crime-jazz lines underscore Griffiths’ crystalline, nuanced vocals in Arizona: southwestern gothic doesn’t get any darker than this.

Sharkbird is a dancing surf rock instrumental in the same vein as the Slickee Boys’ psychedelically creepy adventures in that style. The surrealistically elegaic Wasted shifts between dub-infused reggae and catchy, windswept orchestrated rock. The brooding, dynamically shifting Too Far Gone – not the Emmylou Harris classic but a co-write with rising star indie classical composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, who also contributes guitar – comes across as a mashup of Throwing Muses grit and allusively dark Invisible Sun-era Police.

With its flickering electric piano, moody Middle Eastern guitar, tense flurries of drums and a majestically wounded Sadashige solo midway through, the album’s title track is a requiem:

Goodbye Teodora
Hello to my emptiness
Over time you’ll be inclined
To give it all a rest

Likewise, Sadashige’s unselfconsciously savage, distorted lines contrast with Griffiths’ stately piano throughout the metrically tricky Firestorm. The allusively Beatlesque symphonic-rock anthem Chinese Checkers explores power dynamics via boardgame metaphors. The album’s most straightforward track, Vigilante, has grim political overtones. The album winds up with Dust, a vast, ineluctably crescendoing postapocalyptic anthem. We’re only in March now, but this could be the best rock album of 2017, hands down. 

Changing Modes Bring Their Kinetic, Intense, Wickedly Tuneful Art-Rock to Spectrum

Art-rock band Changing Modes play some of the catchiest songs of any current New York band, plus they’re a lot of fun to watch. Part of that is because their musicianship is on such a high level, on par with a jazz or classical group. In the past, they’ve had as many as three keyboardists. The latest edition of the band has bandleader Wendy Griffiths sharing lead vocals with co-keyboardist Grace Pulliam while Yuzuru Sadashige switches between guitar and bass over drummer Timur Yusef’s undulating, shapeshifting groove. The album release for their new one, Traveling Light, at Bowery Electric last month was one of the best shows of the year. They’ve got another gig coming up at Spectrum, the sonically delicious, comfortable Ludlow Street space on August 23 at 9 PM for $15.

At the Bowery Electric gig, just when it seemed that Griffiths was going to be playing all the elegant, plaintive, classically-tinged piano lines and Pulliam was in charge of supplying an endlessly kaleidoscopic series of synth and organ textures (and synth bass when Sadashige played guitar) , the two would switch roles. On several songs, Griffiths emerged from behind her keys to play bass, bopping animatedly along with Yusef’s irrepressible drive. He and Pulliam were all smiles; Sadashige seemed to be the calm center of the storm while Griffiths played the role of mystery girl, deadpan and serious in contrast to her animated vocals and harmonies with Pulliam.

Guest Vincent Corrigan took a handful of cameos on vocals, on a duet of the briskly pulsing, sardonic breakup narrative Red and then Ship, a swaying disaster tale, which he brought to a climax with a long bellow worthy of Bruce Dickinson, or David Lee Roth for that matter. That contrasted with his stately, expressive crooning on the chamber pop piano ballad Sycamore Landing.

What was most striking about the show was that some of the strongest songs in the set weren’t from the new album. Too Far Gone, with its clave beat and Police-like hooks, turned into a springboard for savage tremolo-picking, eerily dancing postpunk riffs and bluesmetal spirals from Sadashige. And Shangri-La juxtaposed chromatically-charged X guitar riffage and a menacingly cinematic guitar/keys interlude with a telling Leonard Cohen reference. The songs from the album were just as memorable: the apocalyptic, Rasputina-esque piano-pop opening track, Dinosaur; the slyly feline narrative Jeanine; an understatedly creepy take of the darkly enigmatic, rhythmically shifting In June and Fly, a bitter, even creepier escape anthem.

Changing Modes Add to Their Legacy As One of the Great New York Bands

Quick: who’s the best rock songwriter in New York? Wendy Griffiths of Changing Modes is on the shortlist, no question. Quietly and efficiently, the keyboardist/bassist and her artsy, new wave-flavored band have put out a series of bitingly lyrical, wickedly catchy albums, all of which are streaming at Spotify. They’ve got a new one, The Paradox of Traveling Light, their sixth full-length album, due out momentarily and a release show at 9 PM on July 19 at Bowery Electric. Much as Changing Modes have made a name for themselves for elegant arrangements and shapeshifting tunes, they’re great fun live. Griffiths may be unsurpassed at creating a nonchalantly menacing ambience, but onstage she’s full of surprises, and the band feeds off her energy.

She also has a devious sense of humor, and that’s in full effect from the first few beats of Timur Yusef’s garage-rock drum intro on the album’s opening track, Dinosaur. A trickily rhythmic piano-pop song, it could be a snarky commentary on trendoids, or the human race in general on the fast track to the apocalypse. Griffiths’ scream on the way out is classic, Jello Biafra-class evil.

She works a neon luridness on the second track, Red, one of a handful of guy/girl duets here with the stagy-voiced Vincent Corrigan. The two spar and threaten each other over a punkish guitar-driven backdrop that brings to mind vintage X. The band follows that with the moody, Siouxsie-esque new wave anthem Give Up the Ghost, Griffiths and co-keyboardist Grace Pulliam shifting shades up to an expansive but purposeful Yuzuru Sadashige guitar solo.

The guy sings Sycamore Landing, an elegantly troubled 6/8 piano ballad that would fit perfectly in the Neil Finn catalog. In June alternates between a bouncy but creepy pulse and lingering atmospherics, a rich study in contrasts that might be a breakup song…or it might be about a suicide. That’s what makes Griffiths’ songwriting so interesting: she never hits anything head on, always drawing the listener into the mystery.

The one cover here is Black & Grey, a surprisingly solid, pensive song by otherwise lightweight quirk-pop band the Dream Bitches. Jeanine is the most lighthearted song here, and it’s not the first one the band has done about a cat. Fly morphs from macabre to wryly hilarious (Yusef gets the punchline), a bitter suburban escape anthem. Ride keeps the menacing chromatics going over a brisk new wave pulse, Griffiths’ venomous lyric driven to a crescendo by a snarling Sadashige guitar solo.

Lately takes an unlikely blend of spacerock lyrics and a brisk, surfy, organ-fueled groove and makes it all work: it seems to be a death-in-space scenario. The album ends with Sadashige’s pensive Triangle Heart, an understatedly dark ballad that shifts tempos all the way through to a funereal, tremoloing Griffiths organ solo that perfectly caps off this troubled and sometimes wrenchingly beautiful album, a strong contender for best of 2014.

Changing Modes: Hard to Figure Out, Easy to Sing Along to at Spike Hill

Isn’t it a pain to have to choose between two equally tantalizing shows? Saturday night, it was impossible to resist the temptation to sneak away from the Brooklyn What’s album release gig at Public Assembly while the opening acts played, since Changing Modes were on the bill around the corner at Spike Hill. With two keyboardists, guitar, bass and drums, their music is complex yet manages to be extremely catchy. Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam both play synthesizers, and while they aren’t above hamming it up once in awhile with a woozy oscillation or a fat phony horn patch, their sound isn’t cheesy. As much as what they do has a very 80s feel, their sense of that decade’s sounds zeros in toward dark, often menacing new wave rather than cliched radio pop.

To say that this band has an edge is an understatement  Throughout the set, the two women worked an inscrutably alluring, sometimes dangerous vein. Pulliam swayed with just the hint of what might have been a sadistic smile as she fine-tuned her pedalboard for minute orchestral adjustments, while Griffiths pogoed behind her keys, at one point emerging to put her foot up on a monitor and fix a thousand-yard stare on the crowd. But she also has a quirky sense of humor: at one point, she let out a random “whoop” seemingly just for the hell of it, later on putting on a pair of red shades with blinking lights, only to discard them seconds afterward. Meanwhile, Yuzuru Sadashige played nimble basslines for a couple of songs before switching to guitar, at which point a bassist came onstage to team up with their tight drummer Timur Yusef.

Unexpected tempo changes, loud/soft dynamic shifts and unpredictable song structures met their match in singalong choruses, Griffiths and Pulliam trading off verses or individual lines when they weren’t blending their voices for some soaring harmonies. Pulliam sang Down to You, a standout track from the band’s latest album In Flight, with a cold vengefulness, Sashadige cutting loose with a searing bluesiness as he would do all night, Griffiths adding a terse classically-tinged piano solo.  A wickedly catchy, insistent new song, Jeanine (sp?) might have been about a cat, or someone with feline tendencies. The album version of Ghost in the Backseat is a dead ringer for early X, but this time out they slowed it down, making it more gothic than punk, at least until another blazing Sashadige guitar solo.

They followed a burning, ominously riff-driven cover of Jamiroquai’s Deeper Underground with a slow, creepy, watery art-rock anthem, an apprehensive new wave tune with an Afrobeat-flavored guitar intro and then a creepy version of Here, the darkly unpredictable title track from their 2010 album. They closed with what might have been a cover, Griffiths and Pulliam harmonizing energetically over a catchy new wave beat. Although the turnout was good and the crowd was into the show, a band this smart and original deserves more exposure. Somewhere there has to be an indie suspense movie that would be a perfect match for Changing Modes’ eclectic, moody yet upbeat songs.

Artsy Rockers Changing Modes Put Out Their Darkest and Best Album

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.