New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: new wave rock

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.

A Brilliant, Scorchingly Lyrical Short Album From Swedish Rockers the Plastic Pals

Stockholm band the Plastic Pals are connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk. Frontman Håkan “Hawk” Soold sings in English and writes sharp, sardonic, spot-on lyrics in a very individualistic vernacular. The cover image of their new ep It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine – streaming at Bandcamp – nails their sensibility, a municipal worker on a bridge struggling with a chain while a shiny expanse of skyscrapers looms ahead.

They open with their signature song, Plastic Pal, a scorching mashup of Radio Birdman, the Buzzcocks and the Clash. In two minutes eighteen seconds, they let you know they want no part of any New Abnormal:

I’ve got a brain the size of a planet
And they have me parking cars
I’m cruising through the universe
For some money in my tip jar
Artificial intelligence sex dolls
And self-driving cars
I need a better option
Than stumbling home from the bars

They completely flip the script with the second track, If Love Should Call, a slow, pastoral Velvets-inspired nocturne with a subtle revolutionary message:

You say life is like a circus
Well here you are, there’s the ring
Do you comply with the terms of service?
You fly like a butterfly but how do you sting?

The layers of jangly, lingering guitars – that’s Soold and Anders Sahlin – are exquisite.

With a completely different twin-guitar attack, Hangin´in the Louvre is a slashingly cynical, backbeat-driven minor-key anthem, its secret agent man waiting for the museum to close so the team can pull off the heist.

They close the album with More Than an Icon,, bassist Bengt Alm and drummer Olov Öqvist driving the new wave pulse:

Like Elvis, you left the building, you just took your cross and split
This planet wasn’t big enough for you
Palm branches at your feet, the future was already writ
A classic case of too much too soon

Along with Karla Rose‘s ep from earlier this year, this is one of the best short albums of 2020.

Dark Rockers Galanos Return with a Vengeance

Back in 2017 this blog called Kingston, New York’s Galanos “the X of dark 21st century rock.” How convenient that their latest release, a similarly sinister three-song ep, would be streaming at Bandcamp in time for Halloween month this year. Fans of brooding punk-inspired sounds will love this band.

Frontwoman Netochka Nezvanova splits the vocals with a couple of the guys in the band, guitarist Gregjaw and bassist Joe Pugsley over drummer John Steele’s four-on-the-floor stomp. The first track, They Take it All Away is a punching, anthemic look at creeping fascism. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate anthem for the year of the lockdown: but the band offers hope at the end.

The second track is the most Halloweenish, a mashup of late 70s no wave and freaky jazz poetry. The final cut is The Death of a Wolf, which reminds a lot of early Siouxsie.

Dark Rituals and Gritty, Imaginative, Noisy Rock From Dorota

In a year where musicians and the arts are under assault more than at any other time in history, it’s heartwarming to see a group first featured on this page eight years ago still together and still putting out defiant and utterly unique music. Hungarian trio Dorota were characterized as “noisy noir punk surf jazz” here in 2012. Their latest album, Solar the Monk – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as noisy, more tuneful, and more influenced by late 70s no wave and 90s dreampop.

Is the blippy atmosphere at the beginning of the drony miniature that opens the album an allusion to sirens and lockdown-era fear? Actually not – the album predates the lockdown. The band don’t waste any time kicking into the first part of the album’s title track, a pouncing postrock stomp that recalls early Wire. Midway through, guitarist Dávid Somló, bassist Dániel Makkai and drummer Áron Porteleki slam out the same staccato E chord over and over as the overtones slowly rise. They reprise it later on with more syncopation and menacing clang.

The sternly marching third track, Neméreztem sounds like a group of Tibetan monks conjuring up an experimental rock ritual in a dingy Amsterdam club in 1979. Porteleki prowls mysteriously around his drum kit over spare atmospherics as Might Be Him takes shape, then the song morphs into a quasi-gospel groove punctuated by Makkai’s curlicue bass riffs.

Vacsorázin begins as a sputtering, drony dirge, then the monks return and chant their way slowly upward. The increasingly crazed instrumental Patient Religious Boys features flutes over boomy percussion, followed by the diptych The Stone Garden. The first part is just spare lo-fi keys and loops, then Somló switches back to guitar as Makkai’s looming chords rise along with Indian-flavored flutes.

From there we get dissociative ambience, Hare Krishnas on acid maybe, and twisted motorik noiserock. The concluding epic, It’s Gonna Rain slowly coalesces out of fuzzy, tensely wound bass to a wild stampede of guitar shred and huffing organ, and ends as you would expect. May this group survive the lockdown and continue to put out music as blissfully deranged as this.

Grim Early 80s-Style Guitar Rock From Linnea Olsson’s Maggot Heart

The last time anybody from this blog was in the house at a Linnea Olsson show, it was on a frigid February evening in 2014 at the now long-gone Highline Ballroom. Out in front of a big crowd that night, she played solo cello and sang a very brief, barely half-hour set of moody, skeletal chamber pop songs.

Olsson’s latest project is 180 degrees from that, a dark early 80s-influenced power trio, Maggot Heart. She leads the group and plays guitar, joined by bassist Olivia Airey and drummer Uno Bruniusso. Their latest album Mercy Machine is streaming at Bandcamp.

With its densely layered, ringing intro and contrastingly skronky loopiness, the opening track, Second Chance could be a more minimalist Bauhaus. For a song titled Sex Breath, the album’s punkish second cut is unexpectedly menacing, with a juicy, evilly watery guitar solo: Olsson has really taken her chops to the next level. This is a killer guitar record.

Driven by Airey’s gritty, chugging bassline, Justine wouldn’t be out of place on Siouxsie’s Juju album. The distortion on the bass gets even fuzzier for Roses, which comes across as syncopated Patti Smith with gothic chromatics and vocals spun tightly through a trebly flange effect.

Gutter Feeling has a ba-bump noir cabaret groove and some of the album’s most ghoulish lyrics: Olsson takes it galloping, doublespeed more or less, over a long bridge. The album’s death-obsessed title track is its most pummelingly punk-influenced moment: here as elsewhere, Olsson’s shrieking wide-angle chords bring to mind the late, great Siouxsie guitarist John McGeoch.

“All this talk about nothing gives us something to do,” Olsson intones cynically in High Rise, a mashup of Siouxsie and the Stooges. With its dissociative riffs popping up throughout the sonic picture, Lost Boys could be a straightforward, upbeat Live Skull number from the mid-80s.

Senseless has more of a slow, hypnotic early 80s growl and an ending where all hell breaks loose. The trio wind up this relentlessly interesting, disarmingly catchy album with Modern Cruelty and its contrastingly roaring and icy guitar multitracks, Olsson again threatening to go off the rails at any instant. Not a single substandard song on this album: there’s no telling what’s going to happen between now and the end of the year, but let’s hope there’s still a reason and an audience for a best albums of 2020 rundown when we get to December, Somebody has to keep music alive when the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to destroy it.

Sharply Lyrical, Smart Purist Rock Eclecticism From Spygenius

Canterbury, UK-based band Spygenius play densely lyrical, erudite rock that draws on sixty years of classic tunesmithing. Their new double gatefold vinyl album Man on the Sea – streaming at Bandcamp – is as ambitious as it is vast. Their ability to channel an amazing number of styles is breathtaking. New wave? Check. The Beatles? Doublecheck. 80s pop, 70s art-rock? Check and doublecheck. Clever puns and cynical humor notwithstanding, frontman/guitarist Peter Watts’ songs occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. But when this band connect, they really hit it out of the park (gratuitous American baseball reference in a review of an English band, WTF?), and they do that a lot here.

The opening track, Another True Story is Rubber Soul Beatles as Squeeze might have done it, with a twelve-string guitar: Oxford group Dada Paradox come to mind. Likewise, Albion, a snide dismissal of icy British conformity, is a McCartneyesque ballad with hints of the tropics and an unexpected snarl as it goes on.

Propelled by Ruth Rogers’ bubbly, dancing bass and Alan Cannings’ tightly clustering drums,  If You Go A-Roving looks back to the chimepop of 80s bands like Happy Mondays, with a Celtic tinge: keyboardist Matt Byrne’s trebly carnival organ is a deft touch. They keep the jangle and clang going throughout Salaud Days, a sendup of hypocrites. The title is a pun: “salaud” is French for “bastard,” Watts using the word in the Sartrean sense of an individual who refuses or neglects to exercise his free choice.

Side one concludes with Tomorrowland, a very clever critique of wide-eyed, futuristic techie fantasies, Byrne’s piano leaping and bounding uneasily. Side two begins with the Kinks-ish Café Emery Hill, followed by the sobering Dolphinarium 1986, a moody Celtic folk-rock reflection on how nostalgia is the enemy of history.

New Street is a snarky mashup of organ-driven 60s psychedelia and mid-80s REM. The album’s high point is the metaphorically loaded seafaring ballad Man Overboard: this grimly detailed account of a mutiny wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog if that band played eight-minute songs.

Green Eyed Monster opens side three amid wild sheets of noise and then an anthemic, minor-key sway like the Church circa 1985 or so. From there the group segue into In a Garden, Byrne’s phantasmagorically twinkling piano elevating it above REM ripoff level. “She can’t help being stupider than you,” Watts rails in the scampering, organ-fueled Don’t Blame It on Your Mother, a dis to somebody who’ll do anything to avoid facing up to responsibility – a recurrent theme here.

Midnight Bandola comes across as an Irish take on the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty.  Rogers sings Spite, its bright Manchester pop sheen masking her hilariously venomous portrait of a pompous twit. Watch Your Back rises slowly from unresolved Robyn Hitchcock jangle to a big payoff. Windy (an original, not the 60s pop hit) has its airy late Beatles ambience: it could be late-period Love Camp 7 with a keyboard. That’s where the album ought to end; the intro to the last track is torture. Back in the radio-and-records age, this band would have been huge.

The Psychedelic Furs’ New Album: As Dark and Witheringly Relevant As Ever

The Psychedelic Furs have a new album. It’s really good!

Let’s be clear, this isn’t the same band who channeled horrorstricken, Joy Division-class angst with their densely atmospheric 1989 classic Book of Days – or whose guitar/organ/alto sax-fueled post-Velvets stomp had established them as one of that decade’s most important bands several years earlier. The sound of this record is closer to the former than the latter, with an even techier, postrock feel in places. Among core members from the group’s classic period, only frontman Richard Butler and keyboardist Joe McGinty remain. Butler, however, is in strong voice, and writing with the same withering punk sarcasm and bleak imagery that informed his best work. And the replacements – Richard Fortus, Jon Carin and someone who goes only by “BT” (could that be another founding member, Butler’s bassist brother Tim?) – share a commitment to the murk.

The album is titled Made of Rain; it’s streaming at Spotify. The first track, The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll seems to be an Elvis parable, awash in vastly pulsing atmospherics and all kinds of guitar effects, Butler’s baritone a savage rasp overhead:

The druggy days the pointless pain
My glitter hips this bloodless ass
The endless days the starless dark
A bag of tears where love is gone
Her darling pays, a siren song…
The breathless air, the frozen tide
The greenless spring, the timeless night
The suicidal drunken dance
The sense that things will fall apart

In the wordless, echoey outro, the distantly reverberating flutter of a sax, and the snap and crackle of the bass rise up through the swirl.

You’ll Be Mine follows the same architecture: long, trancey verse and a big turnaround on the chorus. Butler works variations on a sarcastic “don’t be surprised” theme – this isn’t about seduction. He pushes his voice beyond where he really ought to (then again, he always did that) in the more upbeat, catchy, distinctly new wave-flavored Wrong Train. This song’s a typically imagistic narrative about a missed connection, in both senses of the word. Drugs and their dark side are a recurrent theme here.

This’ll Never Be Like Love has a slower, dreamlike sway: throughout the album, the soprano sax is a tasty, tasteful textural contrast. The band return to rainy-day washes of sound with the somber, wee-hours resignation of Ash Wednesday. Then they pick up the pace with the junkie cynicism of Don’t Believe, layers of icy chorus-box guitars filtering through the mix.

Come All Ye Faithful, a venomous minor-key kiss-off anthem, has as much of a funky bounce as this band could ever manage. No-One is a sequel, just as vicious and even catchier, set in a place where everyone’s “Dressed up in Halloween, where nobody ever screams.”

McGinty’s baroque electric piano ripples anxiously in Tiny Hands, a grimly knowing account of family dysfunction. Butler keeps that theme front and center over an acoustic-electric sway in Hide the Medicine. The band close the album with Turn Your Back on Me and its dreampop Dark Side of the Moon sonics, and then Stars, a wistfully twinkling, distantly Lynchian anthem.

Where does this fit in the Furs’ hall-of-fame lineup of albums? Somewhere in the middle. File this between the musically rich but lyrically deficient 1991 album World Outside and the 1982 classic Forever Now.

First-Wave Punk Era Legends Wire Put Out Yet Another Timely Album

Imagine if the Clash were still going strong, still making smart, relevant records.

What if Ian Curtis had gone off his prescription for barbituates, quit drinking, got his epilepsy under control, and Joy Division were still together?

One of those two bands’ contemporaries, Wire, are still together, and even arguably better than when they were beginning to define what would come to be known as postpunk and new wave. By quirk of fate, they were also one of the last bands scheduled to play Brooklyn before the lockdown. Sadly, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll get amother American tour out of Wire this year, but they have a typically strong new album,10:20, a collection of first-class outtakes and new material  streaming at Spotify.

Their previous release, Mind Hive, was their most dystopic yet. This one is more allusive. As the album title implies, the lyrics are all about foreshadowing and the clock winding down, although the music is generally more upbeat. They open with the steady, hypnotic Boiling Boy, glistening with the group’s icy chorus-box guitars: “Lock up your house,” is the mantra as the chords change suddenly from major to minor. Bassist Graham Lewis’ subtly shifting lines pack a psychedelic wallop.

The big stadium guitar hooks that introduce the second cut, German Shepherds, seem to be a red herring (this band’s deadpan sense of humor is legendary). Likewise, the lyrics’ seemingly mundane imagery masks a grim scenario. The next track, He Knows has a slow dreampop sway and a very cool major-on-minor trick.

Underwater Experience has a lickety-split, practically hardcore punk drive: it could be an outtake from the Pink Flag sessions redone with digital production values. The Art of Persistence has eerie early 80s Cure jangle blended in with the album’s catchiest and yet most counterituitive changes – it involves a murder mystery and ends cold. Small Black Reptile also brings to mind the Cure, but in blithe mid-decade pop mode – which is almost certainly sarcastic.

Pulsing loops echo behind a seemingly easygoing post-Velvets sway in Wolf Collides. The album’s final cut is Over Their’s, marching toward the precipice and ending with a drone – or is that a flatline? Some hall-of-famers refuse to quit – and in Wire’s case, that’s a good thing.

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

Richly Jangly, Intricate, Smart Retro Rock Songcraft From Diane and the Gentle Men

What if the Dream Syndicate was fronted by a woman? That’s pretty damn high praise for singer Diane Gentile‘s new album White Sea, with her band the Gentle Men, streaming at Bandcamp – but a lot of the record sounds exactly like that. If imaginatively crafted, darkly bristling rock anthems with layers of guitars and keys and a distinctively downtown, oldschool New York ambience are your thing, this is your jam.

Drummer Colin Brooks opens the first track, Motorcycle, with a rolling surf riff. If the tight, dreampop-tinged downstroke pulse reminds you of recent Steve Wynn material, that makes sense since Wynn produced the song! All kinds of tasty touches here; a little creepy organ here, a surreal clang there from Wynn’s longtime Dream Syndicate sparring partner, Jason Victor, who plays lead guitar throughout the album

Track two, Perfect People is a new wave song as an older version of the DS – say, the Out of the Grey lineup – might have done it, Victor’s multitracks spiraling in both channels. It’s Gentile’s dis to shallow people in general. “Take off your makeup, wake up!” is the mantra.

The poignant, death-fixated Wicked Hours has a gorgeous web of acoustic guitars and keening, moody Victor slide work. The band rise from an elegant, spare waltz to a mighty sweep in the album’s similarly brooding title track.

Little Things could be an especially gritty early Blondie number. Gentile reaches for a towering angst in the backbear-driven, Orbisonian breakup anthem Just Pretend, then goes back to new wave with Boyfriend.

She mashes up catchy, vamping post-Velvets rock with a swirling, Lynchian anthemc sensibility in Joe: it’s a good guess that was the real name of the guy who didn’t work out. The album’s most chillingly relevant song is Memories, pushed along by bassist Matt Basile’s trebly growl with the rest of the band raging behind him. “And there’s not enough to pay the rent, the cost of living makes no sense, the dream I dream keeps me awake at night,” Gentile wails.

She closes the record counteirntuitively with a spare piano elegy, Second Hand Heart. On one hand, it’s always fun to discover music this smartly crafted. On the other, this kind of music is very imperiled at the moment. Gentile’s usual gig was booking one of the few remaining New York rock venues, Bowery Electric. Even with that kind of resume, survival is giong to be a struggle for everyone in the nightlife industry. A moratorium on evictions til just the middle of June isn’t realistic: we need rent amnesty in New York for the entirety of the coronavirus crisis.