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Mike Rimbaud: The Closest Thing to the Clash That NYC Has Right Now

Much like Ward White, Mike Rimbaud has quietly and methodically built a vast catalog of wickedly smart, catchy, relevant lyrical rock songs. Where White has drawn on janglerock, Americana, chamber pop and most recently, an artsy glam sound, Rimbaud looks back to new wave and punk, but also to reggae, and jazz, and Phil Ochs. White’s narratives are elusive to the extreme; Rimbaud’s are disarmingly direct, with a savagely spot-on political sensibility. A strong case could be made that no other New York artist represents this city’s defiantly populist past – or, one hopes, its future – more than Mike Rimbaud. He’s playing the album release show for his characteristically excoriating new one, Put That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It (streaming at Spotify) at Bowery Electric at 8:30 PM on Jan 15. Cover is eight bucks.

The album title alone is intriguing. Is it a pipe dream to think that we could create a world that improves on the current paradigm of speculators taking their profits private and passing all their losses off to an increasingly destitute public? Should we take Rimbaud’s suggestion as a challenge, as fuel for our imagination…or is he just throwing a cynical swipe at dashed hopes? Whichever the case, isn’t that what song lyrics should do: draw you in, keep your interest, maybe make you laugh a little, and think at the same time?

The album opens with Frequent Flyer Subway Rider, a cruelly evocative narrative which will resonate with any New Yorker who shares Rimbaud’s feeling that we deserve a few free rides for all we’ve suffered with the trains over the years. Rimbaud plays all the guitars on the album, with Chris Fletcher on bass and Kevin Tooley on drums; Lee Feldman’s bluesy Rhodes piano perfectly matches Rimbaud’s gritty ambience here.

Friend is a snarling, reverbtoned new wave update on Highway 61 era Dylan, a slap at social media addicts that’s as funny as it is accurate: “Your BFF is only BS,” Rimbaud snickers. Likewise, Rimbaud takes a blackly amusing look at the all-too-real dangers of fracking in Shale ‘n’ Roll over brooding bolero-rock that wouldn’t be out of place on a Las Rubias Del Norte album, Marc Billon’s creepy electric piano matching Rimbaud’s watery menace.

Over a vamping psychedelic rock backdrop that offers a wink to Dave Brubeck, Know Nothing Know It All makes gleeful fun of limousine liberals, both among the electorate and the elected: “Owned by Coke, and the Koch brothers,” Rimbaud reminds, Feldman laying down a serpentine groove.

Erik Friedlander’s ambered cello lines anchor the swaying, jangly Apple Doesn’t Mean Apple Anymore and its sardonic wordplay, a look at how corporate newspeak subtly replaces everyday language. Poverty Is a Thief, a Gil Scott-Heron-inspired duet with soul singer Danni Gee, makes the connection between the credit trap and the prison-industrial complex.

Among the album’s more lighthearted numbers, Paris Is the Heart sends a shuffling, stream-of-consciousness latin-rock shout-out to that city’s haunts. The requisite Marley-esque reggae song here is Tears Don’t Fall in Outer Space; the album ends with a cover of the Clash’s Rock the Casbah, revealing it as the prophetic anthem it turned out to be. For what it’s worth, Rimbaud has never sung better than he does here. Where he used to snarl, he’s more likely to croon these days, which is somewhat ironic considering how much unbridled wrath there is in these songs. Another winner from a guy who refuses to quit.

Mike Rimbaud Captures the State of the City

No other songwriter has captured the current climate in New York better than Mike Rimbaud. One powerful influence on Rimbaud’s work, lyrically speaking, is Phil Ochs, (check out the absolutely vindictive version of The Ringing of Revolution from Rimbaud’s 2012 album You Can’t Judge a Song by Its Cover). Rimbaud’s latest album Night Rainbow – streaming at his site – is an eclectic, characteristically tuneful, savagely lyrical, cleverly amusing mix of songs that span from straight-up four-on-the-floor rock, to new wave, garage rock, psychedelia and reggae. Rimbaud has listened deeply and widely; his thinly veiled references to other songs, especially from the Rolling Stones, are cruelly spot-on. Rimbaud plays all the guitars as well as banjo, backed by tersely tuneful bassist Chris Fletcher and excellent drummer Kevin Tooley, with occasional keyboards from Marc Billon.

Image by image, Rimbaud portrays a city and a world on the brink, reeling from natural disasters, terminally distracted by the vapidity of status-grubbing and social media, the luxury of the corporate elite juxtaposed against crushing poverty and despair. Ultimately, this album is a call to action and revolution – and also one of the best  of 2013 by a Broadway mile.

The classic cut here is Jackhammer Jones. Over wickedly catchy, psychedelic minor key rock spiced with searing wah solos and guitar sitar – with a nod to the Lovin’ Spoonful – Rimbaud paints an allusive picture of a city being destroyed from within by gentrification:

Turn off your phone, what can you hear, baby?
Call it noise or call me a liar
Ears can bleed and eyes can weep
When you read between the lines

The jauntily swinging title track pictures an unlikely rainbow over the Empire State Building at night – hey, this is the global warming era, stranger things have happened. On Big Bad Bully, as he does on many of the other cuts here, Rimbaud takes aim at a target and riffs surrealistically on it, in this rounding up the Wall Street bulls who “treat everyone like cattle.”

Slow Down to Get Ahead layers clattery percussion over a reggae bassline and builds from there, an anthem for anyone tempted to unplug from the rat race. Rimbaud returns to that idea toward the end of the album with Time Burglar, a rapidfire stream of dissociative, sardonic imagery: “Swing over the Williamsburg Babylon, catching flies in one hand…relax with some hillbilly music, a song from another ice age.”

Sandy Must Be Crazy, a hurricane memoir, builds from dub reggae to roaring Stonesy rock. On one level, Rimbaud’s images capture an unfortunately indelible New York moment, on the other he’s also captured the more disturbing context that rose to the surface in the wake of the storm.

The sarcastically bubbling Teacher’s Got a Bad Mouth takes a counterintuitive look at schoolroom insanity, from the point of view of a teacher struggling to focus the attention of a class lobotomized by Facebook. Rimbaud revisits that theme a little later with the nonchalantly brooding, Indian-flavored Learning More About Less.

Robin Hood in Reverse is a stompingly snide Springsteen-style singalong: “Money talks, money is speech, this is a protest song and talk is cheap,” Rimbaud intones breathily. The metaphorically-charged Dark Money Can’t Buy Her Kisses grows from mysterious psych-pop to a brooding 70s soul sway. The album ends with a long, scruffy cover of the Beatles’ Baby, You’re Rich Man, bringing it full circle. Britain in 1977 had the Clash: New York in 2013 has Mike Rimbaud. That’s a start. Now bring on the revolution.