New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: new wave pop

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.

A Creepy New Abnormal Single From Tessa Lena

For the past year, author and poet Tessa Lena has written some of the most lucid, insightful commentary on the lockdown and the sinister motivations of the oligarchs and tech Nazis behind it. As a first-generation American immigrant who spent her early childhood in the Soviet Union, she knows totalitarianism when she sees it and somehow manages to keep her withering sense of humor intact.

She also records as Tessa Makes Love. One of her particularly creepy, techy singles is I Want to Know You As a Computer. Rather than just scrolling to the bottom of the page where you can find the song, check out her latest critique of the New Abnormal on your way there.

Totally 80s Gloom From Nicole Marxen

Nicole Marxen’s new short album Tether – streaming at Bandcamp – is a mini horror movie for the ears. It’s totally 80s goth: orchestral washes of minor-key string synth and mechanical beats pervade this gloomy quartet of songs.

She opens with the title track, smoky waves of synthesized orchestration over a creepy chromatic vamp, a spy-movie sequencer flutter taking centerstage, her disembodied vocals back in the mix.

She begins Moonflower as a swirly tableau with a thud for a beat, then the helicopter-like rhythm returns: Siouxsie seems to be the obvious influence. Marxen goes up the scale for a desperate femme-fatale vibe in Bones Dust and closes the album with Wild Again, the closet thing here to Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights (and the Terminator soundtrack). Retro as this is, Marxen has really captured the relentless angst and despair of the past eleven months. And you can get it on cassette for ten bucks!

Playful, Bouncy, Quirky 80s-Influenced Sounds From Pom Poko

Pom Poko like big, simple riffs, noisy guitar and keyboard accents, a steady, danceable beat and 80s sonics. Sometimes that means new wave, sometimes the bracing, in-your-face side of the Pixies. Frontwoman Ragnhild Fangel sings in a chirpy high soprano over a generally bouncy, often rather spare mix anchored by  Jonas Krøvel’s similarly terse bass and Ola Djupvik’s drums. Their new album Cheater is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with the title track, a skittish, minimalist, skronky strut fueled by Martin Miguel Tonne’s jagged Gang of Four guitars. The group switch on a dime between buzzy and spare in LIke a Lady, like Goldfrapp with guitars instead of synths, a contrast they revisit a little later with Look.

The third track, Andrew, has blippy new wave keyboard and guitar accents and some rhythmic trickiness. The band shift between lo-fi sparseness, My Sharona octaves and a lickety-split punk stomp in My Candidacy.

Sparse, watery guitars give Danger an icy dreampop edge, with echoes of Siouxsie but also calypso. Andy Go to School comes across as math-y late 70s XTC with a woman out front, at least until the straight-ahead punk chorus kicks in. Baroque Denial is much the same with fuzz bass taking the place of the guitar roar.

Curly Romance is the closest thing here to classic powerpop, and the album’s most unselfconsciously catchy number. They close with Body Level, built around a catchy, circling bass riff. It’s hard to tell what these songs are about, other than dancing and having fun, two things that we need to be doing a lot more these days.

Pure Escapism From Cuushe

Isn’t it really weird that there was so much happy, upbeat music released in 2020, the worst year in human history? That’s because it was all made in 2019…or at least before the lockdown. Case in point: Cuushe, AKA Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi and her twinkly, pillowy new album Waken, streaming at Bandcamp. Most of this one could have been made before 9/11, before Facebook, youtube, Myspace or even the Y2K scam. You want escapism, this is your jam.

The opening number comes across as late 90s Missy Elliott in a particularly lighthearted interlude, taking a stab at trip-hop electro from five years earlier. The second track, Magic looks back ten years before then to glossy new wave pop, synthesized strings gusting and shimmering over a techy bounce.

Cuushe’s airy voice sails over blippy dancefloor beats and icy, playfully layered layers of upper-register keyb multitracks in Emergence. Not to Blame is all melting-plastic neosoul, while Nobody sounds like somebody’s sampler went on the blink during the mixing process.

Drip is aptly titled: burying those autotuned vocals behind all the keys was a good idea. Cuushe winds up the album with Beautiful, a slow jam with what sounds like an out-of-tune koto riff popping up here and there, and then Spread, a glistening, rainswept summer evening trip-hop tune.

Office Culture’s Cynical Frontman Gets Slightly More Organic

Winston Cook-Wilson a.k.a. Winston C.W. is the deadpan lounge lizard frontman and keyboardist of hilariously slick 80s pop parody band Office Culture – whose debut record you’ll see on the best albums of the year page here at the end of this month. He has a new album, Good Guess, out under his own name, streaming at Bandcamp. The music is a lot more stripped-down and less cynically plasticky than his main project, and maybe a little less insincere. Ward White at his most sardonic is a good point of comparison.

The album’s first track is Cakewalk, a slow, swaying, chiming, Debussy-esque piano pop ballad – with a characteristically cruel punchline. Guitarist Ryan Beckley does a good job emulating a horn with his volume knob as bassist Carmen Rothwell keeps a steady pulse.

Business is much the same, a stroll “past the trappings of defeat.”  As you might guess, the third track, Safety, is not about being safe at all, with its allusions to betrayal. The joke in Broken Drum is more musical rather than lyrical, the band gettting murky and rubato with some familiar “classic rock” riffs. “Maybe I look like someone who thrives for a minute in this brutal season, someone who forgets what it’s like to be that other guy,” Cook-Wilson muses innocently.

The sarcastically titled instrumental Swing Time is a slightly Lynchian stab at free jazz. The narrator of the increasingly creepy kiss-off ballad No Regrets is no less blithely callous than the characters in Cook-Wilson’s main band’s songs.

The album’s best story is Birds, an allusively grim narrative set to a cliched, saccharine 80s easy-listening pop backdrop. The abrasively trippy title track brings the record full circle, “a joyous day for a sad affair,” as Cook-Wilson puts it. For anyone who’s ever suffered through a retail dayjob where Lite FM plays on loop, this is sweet redemption.

Revisiting One of the Zeros’ Defining Bedroom Albums

Today is all about zeros nostalgia. Since nostalgia is the enemy of history, let’s put this in historical context. Goldfrapp’s third album Supernature came out in 2005. There wasn’t much to celebrate that year, globally speaking. The Bush regime was dropping thousands of tons of depleted uranium on Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and dooming generations to a plague of birth defects. Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg was scheming up ways to turn his campus photoblogging service into the world’s most dangerous surveillance system. But at least Napster was still going strong, opening up a world of music that millions around the world never would have discovered otherwise.

To commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the album’s initial release, it’s been remastered and reissued on green gatefold vinyl, and you can hear it at Spotify. Throughout the record, singer Alison Goldfrapp’s breathy vocals have been left as sultry as they were on the original release, although Will Gregory’s many layers of simple, catchy, playfully psychedelic keys seem more balanced, less dancefloor-oriented than on the cd.

Revisiting the album, the influence of early 80s new wave acts like Missing Persons, Yaz and early Madonna is more vivid than ever. And the songs are a trip, from Ride a White Horse, the duo’s thinly veiled ecstasy anthem, to Number 1, the motorik New Order ripoff that closes the record. In between, the duo’s frontwoman shows off her upper registers in You Never Know (a song that would be autotuned if it was released by a corporate label in 2020), descends to a seductive whisper in the loopy Let It Take You and purrs over the catchy synth bass in Fly Me Away.

Who can forget the cheery, completely deadpan Slide In? If you were around back then, maybe you slid in or smoked up to the woozy, P-Funkesque textures of Coco, the pogo-sticking Satin Chic or the drifty, oscillating Time Out From the World. In the time since, the two have stayed together – and why wouldn’t they? Their New York shows over the past several years have gotten more and more stratospherically expensive.

The album gets extra points for its effectiveness as a weapon to get noisy neighbors to shut up. Played on a sufficiently powerful system, those icy, bassy electronic beats really cut through the the walls and ceiling.

Hilarious Video Makes Fun of Lockdown-Era Paranoia

One of the funniest videos to come over the transom here in recent weeks is Media Bear’s I Wear My Face Mask in the Car. Lately youtube has been taking down pro-freedom videos, but this one’s still up there.

This LMFAO parody of masker behavior has new lyrics set to the tune of the cheesy 80s pop hit I Wear My Sunglasses At Night. The funniest part of the video starts with the shaving scene at about 3:05, and it gets even better from there. No spoilers!

The Ocean Blue Prove That There’s Life After Goth

“Suddenly, I feel that the world could end in a flash,” frontman David Schelzel muses early on in the opening track on the Ocean Blue‘s latest album Kings and Queens, Knaves and Thieves, streaming at Bandcamp. It could be the Smiths without the camp – hard to imagine, but just try. The point of the song echoes an old Roger Waters theme, that if we blow up the world, everybody’s equal in the end. If anything, the new record is more eclectic, more energetic and possibly even better than these veterans’ more overtly gothic, vintage 4AD-style back catalog. The Ocean Blue had an avid cult fanbase back at their late 80s/90s peak, who will no doubt come out in full force for their show at the Bell House on Feb 28 at 8:30 PM; general admission is $20.

The album’s bouncy second track, It Takes So Long could be Happy Mondays without the ditziness – how’s that for being iconoclastic with your contemporaries’ signature sounds? Love Doesn’t Make It Easy on Us has the band’s usual, watery, Cure-style guitars and contrasting synth textures, and just as much of a bounce.

Icy synths and tinkly guitar sonics echo over a steady new wave beat in All the Way Blue. Bobby Mittan’s rubberband bassline anchors Paraguay My Love, a bizarre mashup of 80s British goth and American bluegrass. F Major 7 – hey, back when this band was big, you had to actually know how to play your instrument – is a nifty, characteristically vamping little acoustic/electric instrumental, followed by the pouncingly catchy kiss-off anthem The Limit, with Scott Stouffer’s coy ska drums.

The resolutely swaying midtempo ballad Therein Lies the Problem (with My Life) could be Morrissey…or American powerpop legends Skooshny in a low-key moment. The steady, brooding nocturnal tableau 9 PM Direction is the album’s most vivid and strongest track, bringing to mind an even more legendary band, the Room.

Step into the Night blends the catchiness of the Cure at their most new-wavey and the Smiths at their most optimistic. The album ends with Frozen, a throwback to the group’s 4AD heyday. Some people will hear this and say here we go again, the damn 80s, can’t we just say goodbye for good to that awful decade, its pervasive Reagan/Thatcher fascism, cliched subcultures, beyond-ridiculous haircuts and lame synthesizers? On the other hand, for the Ocean Blue, old goths don’t die: they just find something to live for.

Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Subtly Sinister Songcraft and Soaring Voice to Gowanus Next Week

There was a four-song stretch in Jessie Kilguss‘ set last week at 11th Street Bar that was as evocative and mysteriously enticing as any show anywhere in New York this year. The first song was What Do Whales Dream About at Night, which was both enigmatic, and quirky, and had an ambitious sweep. Kilguss kept the jaws of fate open with Great White Shark, then sang the most haunting song of the night, The Master, one of the best of her folk noir masterpieces. Sinister as it seems, it’s actually a shout-out to Leonard Cohen, arguably Kilguss’ biggest influence

Then Kilguss and her jangly four-piece backing band careened through House of Rain and Leaves, a broodingly steady grey-sky narrative. With her calmly nuanced, crystalline voice soaring to the highs and murmuring among the lows, Kilguss channeled distant disaster and sudden menace as well as sardonic detachment. She knows that singing is acting, which makes sense since she built a career as a stage actress before plunging into songwriting more or less fulltime. She’s playing on an intriguing acoustic bill on Dec 4 at 7 PM at Mirror in the Woods, a tea shop at 575 Union St. in Gowanus. Take the R to Union St. and walk away from the slope. The other acts on the bill range from similarly strong tunesmiths like dark duo Lusterlit (Kilguss’ bandmates in lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club),, soulful cello-rocker Patricia Santos, Americana songstress Andi Rae Healy and some open mic lifers.

Kilguss’ other songs at the East Village show last week were subtler and somewhat more lighthearted. She opened, playing swaths of chords on harmonium, with Spain, a pensive blend of new wave and vintage soul and continued with Strangers, an opaque mix of Guided By Voices and Blondie, maybe. She closed the show with an unexpectedly upbeat Lori McKenna cover and then an almost completely deadpan take of a big radio hit from one of the most awful chick flicks of the 80s, a moment where nobody in the band could keep a straight face all the way through. Kilguss will probaby bring just as much angst, and menace, and ridiculous fun to the Brooklyn gig: it’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.