New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: joy division

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.

Manchester’s Pins Headline at Rough Trade Tonight

At a CMJ show last October at Arlene’s, Pins had the misfortune of taking the stage on the heels of a searing, politically-charged performance by the brilliant and charismatic Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires. To their credit, the women in the Manchester, UK band – who come across as something akin to the bastard child of the early Go Go’s and Wire – held their own and managed not to be anticlimactic. The cheap advance tix for their midnight show tonight at Rough Trade are all gone, but it’s not sold out, general admission is a reasonable $12 and the L train is running, so you can get home afterward if you don’t live in Williamsburg. And who among us is still in that hideously gentrified part of town, anyway?

Pins’ new album, Wild Nights – streaming at Spotify – is considerably more polished than their stage show. Then again, they’re a lot more likely to strip the songs down and rock them out live than try to match the heft and bulk of the production. The opening track, Baby Bhangs takes a downtown NYC gutter blues riff and works around it, propelled by drummer Sophie Galpin’s artful blend of swing and stomp. “We’re not trying to be great, we don’t wanna be saved,”  guitarist/frontwoman Faith Vern intones matter-of-factly in Young Girls. But she’s nothing if not optimistic: “What will we do when our dreams come true?” she asks, over a chugging one-chord post-Velvets groove.

Bassist Lois Macdonald’s terse lead lines cut through the jangly nocturnal mist of Curse These Dreams. The album’s longest track, Oh Lord nicks a familiar Joy Division riff and builds a similarly hypnotic ambience, the guitars of Vern and Anna Donigan building a reverbtoned resonance. Likewise, Dazed By You sets a skittishly jangly early Go Go’s-style tune to a She’s Lost Control beat – and a really cool, surprisie ending. And the catchy, crescendoing House of Love works a minimalist, watery/gritty Unknown Pleasures dichotomy.

Got It Bad builds an echoey, repeaterbox-driven Lynchian soul ballad vibe: it wouldn’t be out of place in the catalog of fellow Brit Gemma Ray. Too Little Too Late, described by the band as “a middle-finger-to-the-world kind of song,” is a kiss-off number, a wall of distorted guitars and organ behind Macdonald’s catchy basslines, up to another trick ending.

If Only brings back the Lynchian pop sonics, post doo-wop melody lit up by blue-neon reverb guitar. Molly – a coy shout-out to the drug – sways along in a Black Angels-style garage-psych vein: “You look so good when you’re sad,” is the mantra. The album winds up with the mutedly brooding Everyone Says. Critical reaction to this album has been mixed – some have said that it lacks the punk spontaneity of their debut. But for all that defiant energy, at that point they could barely write or play their instruments: this is a strong step forward and a good late-night listen.

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.

Big Buzz Band Blouse Breezes into Bowery Ballroom

Portland, Oregon band Blouse‘s early singles worked moody 80s-style synth-pop terrain. Their latest album, Imperium – streaming at Spotify – finds the band evolving to put a more melodic spin on classic late 80s/early 90s-style dreampop. With the guitars’ enveloping, jangly chill, early Lush is the obvious comparison, but this band has become both more tuneful and uses more varied textures than just the watery chorus-box effects that give dreampop its icy swirl and echoey resonance. Blouse’s Bowery Ballroom gig on March 25 opening for the ghoul-pop Dum Dum Girls is sold out but there are still general tix for $15 for their Music Hall of Williamsburg show the following night, where they’re playing around 9:30.

Throughout the album’s ten tracks, bassist Patrick Adams plays with a gritty, trebly tone, his lines winding and twisting but not wasting notes. Guitarist Jacob Portrait will hit his distortion pedal when the chorus kicks in and go back to an echoey clang on the verse, or vice versa. Frontwoman Charlie Hilton varies her vocals from clipped and Teutonic to much more wamly alluring, particularly when she uses her lower register.

And the songs are catchy. The title cut follows a steady path from watery to searing and back again: with the mantra “Are you one of us?,” it sounds like a sci-fi narrative. On the second track, Eyesite, Portrait brings in a little scratchiness and then what sounds like a vintage repeater box. The strummy 1000 Years hides an echoey electric piano behind the layers of jangle, while In a Glass welds growly guitars to an insistently hypnotic 80s vamp. Capote juxtaposes nebulousness and noise over a steady sway, then A Feeling Like This hints at vintage disco.

No Shelter is totally Lush circa 1990, with an aptly apprehensive lyric: “We can’t keep anything, sky’s getting cloudy and it’s a different time…there is no shelter from this storm.” Happy Days goes back in time ten years for a lo-fi Siouxsie ambience; Arrested takes a familiar early Joy Division beat and beefs it up with ringing twelve-string guitars. The vamping final cut, Trust Me gingerly adds textures until the band has a full-fledged song. Judging from this band’s buzz, if only Lush, and My Bloody Valentine, and the Cocteau Twins would get back together and tour, they’d pack stadiums. At the very least they’d pack Bowery Ballroom.

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.