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Tag: new wave music

Moodily Atmospheric New Wave and Lynchian Sounds From Brass Box

Sometimes Brass Box’s album The Cathedral – streaming at Bandcamp – totally nails a David Lynch soundtrack atmosphere. Other times the group totally nail a dark 80s new wave sound. Either way, their songs are catchy and tightly focused, frontwoman/bassist Ammo Bankoff channeling clear-eyed abandonment and despondency over the chilly echo and swirl.

The album opens with the title track, a mutedly galloping Pink Floyd Run Like Hell riff anchoring Neil Popkin and Matt Bennett’s broodingly echoey mix of guitars that explode in a ringing dreampop vortex on the chorus, Bankoff’s searching, anxious vocals awash in the icy mist.

With its resonant, reverberating deep-space sonics and wistful, starry backdrop, the second track, DDM could be the Lost Patrol. Surrender is not the Cheap Trick teen-rebellion anthem but a dead ringer for Siouxsie & the Banshees circa 1982, right down to the watery chorus-box guitar and prominent bass.

They follow the atmospheric, enveloping goth rock tune Latency with the allusively catchy Waves, which rise to some gorgeously Eastern European-tinged vocal harmonies on the chorus. Then they hit a steady, fast new wave groove with Towne, the album’s hardest-rocking track.

The record’s slowest track, Roses, comes across as a dreampop update on the more skeletal material on Unknown Pleasure-era Joy Division. The band go back to Lynchian/dreampop mashup mode with Ivory Skies and close the album with Parting Ways, a song they should have parted with prior to sequencing the record. On one hand, all the sounds that Brass Box evoke have been around for decades. On the other, nobody has figured out how to blend them quite like this.

Troubled Music For Troubled Times From Mary Ocher

One of the more darkly intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past couple of years is German singer Mary Ocher’s The West Against the People, which is still streaming at Bandcamp. It’s hard to think of a better way to describe what the world’s been through since the lockdown began, isn’t it? And the music itself tends to be grim, grey and unrelenting, with a skeletal late 70s/early 80s no wave influence.

The album begins with Firstling II, a shifting, echoey vocal soundscape, drifting further toward desolation. There are two versions of To the Light here: the first with Ocher’s watery, quavery vocals over oscillating organ and a shuffle beat, the second with elegant piano and echoey electronic washes, more evocative of the song’s understated desperation.

Zah Zah, a simple, catchy dub-influenced bass-and-drums loop is also reprised later as a brief electronic interlude. My Executioner is a coldly marching, minimalist no wave march: “We come face to face, my butcher,” Ocher snarls, “How do you deconstruct fear?”

Pounding drums and carnivalesque synth underscore Ocher’s cynical defiance in Authority’s Hold: it could be an early Creatures song. Gritty wordless vocals contrast with blippy synth in The Irrevocable Temple of Knowledge, while Arms is unexpectedly calmer and seems more improvised.

With its pulsing, echoey synth, The Endlessness (Song For Young Xenophobes) could be Carol Lipnik in especially minimalist mode, Ocher’s voice jumping to spectacular heights. Washed Upon Your Shores is even more rustically simple, just vocals over a persistent high bass note and rattly percussion.

Ocher revisits a dub milieu with the spoken-word piece The Becoming, featuring Die Todliche Doris. “It is not uncommon to think of acts of unnecessary violence,” Ocher demurs in this sardonically detailed tale of revenge. Ocher closes the album with the eeriliy loopy Wulkania, a collaboration with Felix Cubin.

A Characteristically Brilliant, Surprising, Slashingly Lyrical New Album by Changing Modes

Changing Modes have been one of the best bands in New York since the zeros, when they began releasing a formidable series of catchy, ambitious, individualistic rock records. Their music features layers of keyboards and vocal harmonies from frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, enigmatically virtuosic and often slashing lead guitar from Yuzuru Sadashige, with drummer Timur Yusef colorfully negotiating the songs’ serpentine, shapeshifting rhythms. As the years went on, their playful lyrical edge grew angrier and more politically-inspired, particularly as the Metoo movement gained momentum. Their latest album Wax World is streaming at youtube.

From a performance point of view, what’s most amazing is that it sounds as lush and contiguous as the rest of their catalog, considering that Yusef – one of the most colorfully nimble players in town – recorded his tracks remotely from the UK.

The opening number, Audio Polaroid, is a searing, sardonic commentary on IG-era narcissism: “Audio Polaroid never will fill the void,” the two women harmonize over a surreal blend of reggae and skittish new wave. The ultimate message seems to be that it’s never more than a memory – and a hazy one at that.

Griffiths and Pulliam exchange lyrical lines and harmonies over haphazard Beatles blues in Nothing to Say: “You’re selling your soul on ebay, you’re selling secrets that aren’t yours to give away,” Pulliam accuses. Strychnine is not the Cramps classic but an slyly blippy, very subtly venomous, new wave-tinged original with a hilarious intro.

Stasis Loop rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys, a macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York, “Stuck in a place where nobody waits for summer or fall…playgrounds are empty, their friends are all gone and even their masters are someone else’s boss.” It might be the best song of 2021.

The band maintain the chilly ambience in Autumn, a vehicle for Sadashige’s enigmatically skeletal guitar leads. Likewise, the rainy-day guitar clusters, keening organ and plaintive vocal harmonies in Glass of Winter. If this song is any indication, Sadashige was a great surf guitarist in a past life and has graduated to jazz.

Solitary, a brisk punchy new wave/punk number, speaks for itself: this time the grisly joke is the outro. Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend On an Island, a gorgeously symphonic, surreal esape ballad. Baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane caps off Haze, a ba-bump cabaret-tinged number, with an incisively lyrical solo.

The band close with Undertow, a dynamically shifting, baroque-tinged anthem, late Beatles through a glass darkly. Changing Modes’ records have been ubiquitous on this blog’s annual Best Albums of the Year page since day one and this one will be high on the list for 2021.

Another Allusively Menacing, Lyrical Masterpiece From Ward White

Ward White is the Elvis Costello of the 21st century. Nobody does deviously whirlwind literary wordplay and catchy tunesmithing better. Like Costello, White is prolific – thirteen albums, including his latest, The Tender Age, streaming at Bandcamp. His influences are vast, he thinks outside the box, but he’s had the good sense to resist getting in over his head (Elvis C turned out to be great at string quartets but was, um, less successful with opera buffo and hip-hop). And White is arguably even darker than the past century’s greatest songwriter.

And he’s a hell of a lead guitarist, and a damn good bass player too. The new album features his longtime collaborators Tyler Chester on keys and the Wallflowers’ Mark Stepro on drums. This is their best album together: they’ve become White’s Attractions. Tenacious D bassist John Spiker engineered with his usual retro purism and flair.

Allusive violence and an ever-present menace have come to permeate most of White’s most recent material. The first track, Dirty Clouds, is a slow, funk-tinged number, Chester’s echoey Wurlitzer percolating beneath White’s dissociatively grim imagery. Check out the hilarious video – is this a metaphor for media terrormongering? Maybe a little bit. There are innumerable levels of meaning in White’s songs: they don’t just stand up to repeated listening, they require it. Catchy as his catalog is, it’s not for people with short attention spans or the faint of heart.

Track two, Easy Meat is one of White’s more sinisterly evocative narratives, vintage 80s powerpop pulsing along on a tense new wave beat, with a spacerock guitar solo at the center. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.

Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in the Bowie-tinged Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight – like the gunfire White once found himself caught in while waiting at an intersection:

It’s not what he expects
But how he expects it
So quick to arrive
So grisly an exit
The eye takes an eye
And the windshield reflects it
You can put it into gear again….

White imagines Chet Baker in the afterlife, trying to pull himself together in Dentures, a mashup of piano-fueled Bowie balladry and Richard Thompson ghoulishness:

You’re either making art or getting paid
And the angel licked his nails and thought,
“All the really good ones die afraid.”
Put down your horn, you won’t need it
The day you’re born, you’re defeated…

Chester’s enigmatic organ solo is spot-on beyond belief.

On Foot, a brisk new wave/powerpop burner, is a murder ballad: the cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. The most Bowie-inspired song here is the album’s bittersweetly catchy title track, White channeling Mick Ronson with his solo in a surreal tale of a LA cop casually making a shocking existential choice.

One of White’s recurrent themes is the question of where everyday mishegas crosses the line, whether that might endanger merely the crazy person or everyone around them. Gail, Where’s Your Shoes is a prime example, complete with tantalizingly woozy guitar solo. Is this a thinly veiled portrait of a woman pouring herself out of a cab on a Williamsburg avenue in the fall of 2006? Hmm…..

White builds a more overtly cynical, vengeful narrative over Stonesy sarcasm in Wasn’t It Here: as he does throughout the album, Stepro’s casual flurries drive the murderous point home. White hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s gloss in Heavy Lifting, the album’s funniest number.

“Suicide rates are an urban myth if you look into it,” White’s titular Karate Dentist relates over a backdrop that could be Steely Dan at their most rocking, White closes the album with Monrovia, a distantly Turkish (or Smiths) tinged kiss-off anthem, and the only place where he stops trying to conceal the snarl beneath the surface. He’s no stranger to best-albums-of-the-year list here: his 2013 album Bob and his 2020 release Leonard at the Audit both topped the full-length charts here, and this may end up at the top of the crop of 2021 as well.

New York Underground Legends Faith Bring Their Shapeshifting Sound Outside

Faith are one of the most individualistic and resilient bands in the history of the downtown scene. They’re also one of the very few left from that era. As far back as the 80s, frontwoman Felice Rosser made a mark with her imaginative, melodic, reggae-inspired bass playing and a distinctive, earthy contralto voice with a disarming falsetto. They have some outdoor shows on their East Village home turf coming up: Sept 25 at around 4 they’re at Tompkins Square Park, then on Oct 1 at 8 they’re at the LUNGS Festival in the Green Oasis Garden, 368 E 8th Street between Aves. C and D.

Their new album Shadowman is streaming at Bandcamp. Rosser has gone deep into dub, and improvisation, and low-key soul and funk in recent years, so this plunge into retro 80s rock is a real departure – and proves she’s just as much at home with a harder, more straight-ahead sound.

The first song on the album is Hey Emily, which has a catchy three-chord hook and a steady new wave beat from drummer Paddy Boom that gives away the band’s origins. “I found the thing that you gave me, it was in my purse with my loose change, it was still empty but I couldn’t throw it away,” Rosser explains. We never find out what it was.

The album’s title track shifts back and forth between an altered reggae beat – something Rosser is an expert at – and a straight-up new wave pulse, anchored around guitarist Nao Hakamada’s lingering, moody chords and jazzy octaves.

Surrender has spare, vintage 80s chorus-box guitar and a big, icy, oscillating chorus: it’s the band’s big stadium anthem. Rosser goes to the top of her range in Oh Father, a steady, understatedly aching soul ballad in 6/8 time with an unexpected reference to the Cure. It’s one of the band’s biggest audience hits in recent months – ok, years, considering that we were rudely interrupted in 2020.

There are two versions of the album’s final song, Saving All My Love, the first a cheery, Marley-inspired reggae tune, the second a wickedly psychedelic dub by E Blizza. No doubt the band will be airing out all these flavors and more over the next week or so.

Drifting Disconnection and Distant Disquiet From Lizzie Loveless

Singer/keyboardist Lizzie Loveless’ new album You Don’t Know – streaming at Bandcamp – falls somewhere between recent Courtney Marie Andrews and Julee Cruise. The former member of indie sister act Teen sings in an unadorned, unpretentious high soprano and likes strange synth textures. There’s a persistent unease to the songs here, no surprise considering the circumstances we all find ourselves under these days.

“You don’t know what it means to be me, and you don’t know what it means to stay,” she intones in the album’s opening, title track, a summery, bittersweet blue-eyed soul ballad in 6/8 time. The shimmering, sweeping, twinkling layers of keys make a decent digital facsimile of how, say, Dusty Springfield might have approached this song half a century ago.

Loveless’s disconnected, anomie-stricken vocals float over a skeletal guitar figure and more of those starry keys in The Joke, which could be about drugs, or just emotional abandonment – or both. There’s an even more opiated, hazily Lynchian pop feel to Memory: “When memory fails, does muscle prevail?” Loveless wants to know.

Eyes of a Man has surreal, techy new wave touches, Loveless ambitiously tackling the problem of viewing romance from a male perspective. Dudes don’t exactly come off well here.

The album’s fifth track, titled Loveless, also has a synthy new wave feel, but a more hypnotically propulsive one. She blends oldschool gospel allusions with wafting synth ambience in Hold Me Close and follows with Window, rising more quickly out of the ether to a catchy, shuffling anthem.

New York, Yesterday – how’s that for a gutpunch of a title? – is not a lockdown chronicle but a wintry, wistfully motorik reminiscence of a doomed relationship. It’s the best song on the album. There’s unexpected energy and a squiggly, funky bassline beneath the surface sheen of Underneath. Loveless stays with the upbeat (ok, that’s a relative word here) energy to wind up the album with Again, a catchy four-chord trip-hop groove.

A Searingly Catchy, Relevant New Album From Powerpop Icon Willie Nile

Willie Nile needs no introduction to fans of catchy powerpop anthems: he’s been one of the great practitioners of the art since the late 70s. He’s always had a populist streak, but his new album The Day the Earth Stood Still – streaming at Bandcamp – is his most fearlessly political album ever. It’s also one of his three or four best, right up there with Beautiful Wreck of the World and the sizzling Live at Mercury Lounge. Not bad for a guy who could have hung it up years ago and still would have been a first-ballot hall of famer.

Is this a lockdown parable? It could be – or maybe it’s simply a narrative of greed, deceit and ultimately, karmic payback. He doesn’t waste any time launching into the title track. By ten seconds in, all the nuts and bolts in Nile’s toolkit are in place: a solid four-on-the-floor beat, layers of guitar jangle and clang and roar, steady bass and torrential organ. The production is luscious, and Nile’s signature blend of lyrical surrealism and slash is as potent as ever, in this momentary, apocalyptic cautionary tale:

When the ABC’s of logic
Meet the CEO’s of greed
And the SRO’s of loneliness
Cry out and start to bleed
There comes a time for judgment
A time to pay the bill
And that is just the way it was
The day the earth stood still….
I saw grown men crying, making out their will
The day the earth stood still…

Nile channels a new wave stadium-rock catchiness in Sanctuary, which doesn’t have any political content. Where There’s a Willie There’s a Way is a song that needed to be written – and it’s good this guy wrote it, a defiant, punchy update on Buddy Holly.

Steve Earle guests on the stomping, venomous Blood on Your Hands, a shot across the bow at oligarchs everywhere:

Well you can dance with the devil
And you can run with the lord
And you can buy all the glory
That your conscience can afford
But there will come a day
When the pony gets played
When the goose gets cooked
When the piper gets paid
Blood on your hands, blood on your hands
There’s cracks in the walls of your best-laid plans
Blood on your hands, blood on your feet
There’s bodies piled up down on Blueblood Street

Nile moves to piano for The Justice Bell, a slow but resolute number dedicated to Civil Rights crusader and congressman John Lewis.

Fueled by a slinky, loopy minor-key bass, Expect Change is a creepy, unsettled psychedelic disco song and possibly the key to the album:

Hear the call
Hear the drumming
Say a mantra, say a prayer
Idols falling everywhere
Difference melting in the snow
Can you feel the wild wind blow

I Don’t Remember You begins as the most rustic, folky song Nile’s ever recorded: there’s wry sarcasm in that title. If you think that Off My Medication is just another bizarrely funny, free-associative, garage-rocking Nile narrative, wait til you get to the second verse. Then he slows down for I Will Stand, a gentle, richly textured, crescendoing ballad.

There’s more psychedelic disco-funk with Time to Be Great, an optimistic strut with one of the album’s best guitar solos. Nile winds up the album with Way of the Heart, which sounds a lot like the Jayhawks’ recent material and also has some sizzling guitar breaks. It may be one of the slowest years on record for rock albums, but this one’s on the shortlist for best of 2021.

Fun with Anthemic 80s Rock on Thought Leaders’ New Album

See if you can pull on your boots under those skinny jeans. Tell your girl to smudge on an extra layer of eyeliner and stick a couple of wine coolers in her Coach bag. We’ll see if the Ford Fiesta still runs after the thrashing we gave it the other night.

For those who weren’t there, those are 80s references. Thought Leaders‘ new album In Wastelands – streaming at Bandcamp – is the great lost soundtrack to the chilly European road movie that Jim Jarmusch never made. This is stylized, legacy music, but done with a surprising balance of period-perfect detail and unhinged energy.

The opening number, Enigma 41 is a mashup of the Cult and early U2, guitarist Andrew Lund throwing in a little Happy Mondays jangle among his spare, lingering chorus-box arpeggios. The chorus-box textures get icier and the chords get more menacingly juicy, in an early Wire vein, in the next song, Come Even.

Bassist Tyler Cox introduces Burning Glass with a growl before Lund slashes his way in, Daniel Ash style, just as he does on the way out: it’s the best and most savage song on the album. The band tighten up over drummer Kirk Snedeker’s 2/4 new wave beat in the next track, Jane Doe’s Estate (presumably a reference to an inheritance, however small: lyrics and vocals don’t really figure into this band’s music).

They make a memorable mashup of the Cult and Wire in the album’s title track and follow with Shallows, Lund turning up the chorus for a deep-freeze John McGeoch-era Siouxsie chill before a big, cinematic, doublespeed stampede out.

Tumbling Joy Division drums and freezer-burn Bauhaus broken chords mingle over the synths in the background in Desire Reserve, There’s a little vintage PiL in Enemy Flies Above; the band wind up the record with the careening Saturday Night Leave.

Subtle Protest Songs and Dark 80s-Influenced Sounds From Polish Chanteuse Brodka

In a review of Polish singer Monika Brodka’s 2016 album Clashes, this blog called her “an artist who’s found an original sound and is still experimenting with other ideas: may that experimentation continue and find a wider audience.” Fast forward to 2021: Brodka (who records under her last name) has taken her songwriting to a powerfully political new level with her new one, Brut, streaming at Spotify.

How far does she cast her musical net this time around? Clashes had a persistent 80s gothic sensibility, as this one often does. From time to time, Brodka moves forward into the early 21st century, around the time of Goldfrapp‘s heyday, with a similar dichotomy between wounded, ripe vocals and icy, airless, techy production.

Brodka sings exclusively in English this time out, more assertively and confidently than ever. Much of the material here is protest songs, no surprise considering how horrific the body count from the needle of death, and the lockdown itself, have been in Poland.

“Quarantine this heart of mine if I ever come back home,” Brodka’s fugitive narrator insists over a blippy, twisted faux-martial backdrop in The World Is You, the album’s most haunting track. The warpy, melancholy ballad Chasing Giants makes a good segue, Brodka’s voice hitting breaking point over a trippy quasar-synth background.

“Enough enough, capricious girl, you better follow the team,” Brodka intones in the cynical goth-pop anthem You Think You Know. Brodka seems potently aware that the lockdown is first and foremost an attack on women.

Trebly hollowbody bass contrasts with crunchy electro beats in Falling Into You, a pensively bouncy pop song which, beyond its anti-lockdown message, may also allude to the struggle for women to maintain their reproductive rights in her home country.

Fruits, an airy, warped psych-pop ballad, conspicuously mentions a “poison seed.” In My Eyes captures the ache and crushing isolation of the past sixteen months, with subtle dubwise touches. “How I’d love touch your hand in glove,” seems to be sarcastic to the extreme.

With the keys warping off pitch and back again, Sadness, the closing cut, doesn’t seem to have any political overtones. Other tracks are more lighthearted and less impactful. Brodka branches out into an exuberant Goldfrapp-hip-hop mashup in Hey Man. Imagination could be the Cure covering the Eurythmics with a good singer out front. There are also places where the iciness of the production overwhelms the content. Happily, that’s not the case with the protest songs. We need more artists like Brodka.

Revisiting the Dark Side of the 80s with Liela Moss

Liela Moss loves the 80s. Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Siouxsie, a blue Boss chorus pedal, layers and layers of chilly synths and short, concise, anthemic songs. Her album Who the Power is streaming at Bandcamp and will resonate with anyone else with a thing for the decade that brought us the goth subculture, the compact disc, wine coolers…and the ugly Reaganite and Thatcherite roots of the lockdown.

Brassy, echoey vintage synths, loud drums and a brisk 2/4 new wave beat propel the album’s opening track, Turn Your Back Around. It’s a cautionary tale: “Here begins an endless fall from rule,” Moss intones, “Everything we saw will go unknown.”

There’s more than a little stern, angst-fueled Marianne Faithfull in Moss’ voice in Watching the Wolf, a cynical, pissed-off, goth-tinged synth anthem. With its icily pulsing chorus-box bass and chorus nicked straight from Prince, Atoms At Me keeps the vengeful vibe going.

“Now I feel unstoppable as the sun drums down on my door,” Moss belts in Always Sliding, soaring triumphantly over echoey synth layers. Hypnotically stormy synths and Siouxsie-esque vocal harmonies pervade The Individual, while White Feather wouldn’t be out of place on one Siouxsie’s innumerable mid-80s ep’s.

Twinkle and fuzz from the keyboards contrast in Battlefield, the album’s most sophisticated, Siouxsie-esque track. “If the wind blows, do you spin like a leaf and lie to make the rules?” Moss demands in Nummah, the most kinetically pulsing, poppiest tune here.

Suako is a mashup of PiL’s attempts at funk and Sisters of Mercy, maybe. Moss closes the album with Stolen Careful, a wistful ballad awash in echo and loops. Uncap that black eyeliner and take a sip of Michelob – do they still make that stuff?