New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: power pop

Purist, Sharply Crafted Twin-Guitar Rock From Ratstar

The cover image of powerpop band Ratstar’s short album In the Kitchen – streaming at Bandcamp – displays an industrial-sized countertop that’s got to be twenty feet long. Next to the sink, there’s a blender overflowing with a suspicious grey substance that’s been blasted all over the floor. That’s truth in advertising. If searing layers of guitars and smart retro tunesmithing that brings to mind bands as diverse as the Stones, Squeeze, Cheap Trick and the British pub rock groups of the 70s are your thing, you should check them out.

The first track, Love You Again sets the stage for the rest of the record: Dave Hudson and Marty Collins’ tightly roaring guitars over a punchy, swaying beat that finally shifts toward reggae underneath a jagged solo. The bass uncurls to a slinky peak in the highest registers; these guys can really play.

The second cut, Stay a While starts out as a chugging, Stonesy tune, hits an unexpectedly lithe, funky groove from bassist Matt Collins and drummer Dean Mozian, then the band go back to It’s Only Rock n Roll territory. The band stay there for Unheavenly Dog, which is a little slower and brings to mind one of the great New York bands of the early zeros, the Sloe Guns.

The icing on the cake here, and the album’s punkest song, is No Encounter. Clustering drum breaks and high-tension lead lines rise to a spectacular exchange of solos between the guitars at the end, one of the best rock outros of the decade.

All-Female Norwegian Janglerockers Veps Get Off to a Good Start

Usually when a publicist sends out a pitch for a recording by someone under 20, it’s because somewhere there are parents with a spoiled brat…or those parents are trying to live vicariously through their poor offspring. At the same time, it’s stupid to disrespect people because of their age. Annabella Lwin was fronting Bow Wow Wow at 14. John Lydon was 17 when he joined the Sex Pistols; George Harrison was 19 when John Lennon recruited him for the Beatles. Not to mention acts like the Carter Family or the Staples Singers.

All-female Oslo group Veps’ four members are all 17, they don’t sound anything like the Sex Pistols or much like the Beatles either, but they’re a good band. Guitarist Laura, keyboardist Helena, bassist June and drummer Maja are all competent musicians and they can write a catchy janglerock song. Their debut album Open the Door is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track is Girl on TV, a slow, catchy, knowingly cynical look at the the dark side of celebrity:

Her fingers wrapped around her secrets
Tearing down the walls is getting frequent
She’s the kind that’s always insecure
She’s lonely so she never shuts the door

And it gets more disturbing from there.

The second track is Do I Hear a Maybe: the ooh-oohs are a schlocky touch, but this post-Velvets anthem, with its big chorus, has balls. Track three, Ecstasy is a bizarre mashup of gothic early 80s Cure and current-day urban corporate pop.

“You ran away on demand,” the band scream at Oliver, the faithless dude in the big powerpop ballad they wrote about him. Funny Things has a lot of haphazardly biting chord changes: the Cure are in there, but maybe early Lush too. Somebody in this band has a good record collection (or Spotify playlists).

They close the album with Colorblind, a brisk, skittish, strutting tune with some unexpected Pink Floyd changes. Here’s hoping Veps stay together, survive this year and go on to even better things.

Fun fact: the inspiration for the band’s name comes from the time a wasp flew into their rehearsal space and everybody screamed, “VEPS!” Maya was able to kill the invader before anyone got stung.

A Legend of 80s Metal, Still Going Strong

Who knew how prophetic Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime would become, thirty years after it came out? Did the band have a sleeper agent in Davos, keeping an eye on developments in predictive policing and data mining? Or did the group just have a healthy cynicism about transnational elites and their drift toward Orwellian totalitarianism?

And who knew that in 2021, the band’s frontman would still be going strong? Geoff Tate‘s vocals have weathered the storm well. In addition to fronting the Operation Mindcrime touring band, he also has a new album, Relentless, with his Sweet Oblivion project streaming at Spotify. His sound hasn’t changed much over the years: NWOBHM rock with cinematic keyboard ambience.

The opening track, Once Again One Sin immediately hits an ornate, symphonic drive, keyboardist Antonio Agate fueling it with his elegant minor-key piano and wafting string synth, much as he does with the rest of the album. The band reach for a steady, storm-brewing backbeat atmosphere in the second track, Strong Pressure, driven by bassist Luigi Andreone and drummer Michele Sanna’s leaden thump. Guitarist and main songwriter Aldo Lonobile contributes a careening, blues-infused solo.

It takes a lot of balls to name your own song Let It Be – this stomping, midtempo minor-key ballad is infinitely better than the one you’ve been subjected to on the Beatles’ worst album. Another Change, a breakup anthem, has some wild tapping from the guitar – it’s not clear if that’s Lonobile, Walter Cianciusi, or Dario Parente, the latter two also being Operation Mindcrime members.

Wake Up Call has a suspicious similarity to a famous Pink Floyd tune: “How do we get beyond the lies?” Tate wants to know. His wintry vocals hit an unexpectedly operatic peak in Remember Me: imagine the Psychedelic Furs playing metal.

The art-rock alienation anthem Anybody Out There is built around a familiar David Gilmour riff – but it’s not the delicate acoustic one you might be thinking of. As you might expect from a bunch of Italians, there’s a tune here titled Aria…and Tate sings it in dramatic Italian, with a twin guitar solo to match midway through. The album winds up with I’ll Be the One, a pretty generic, mostly acoustic ballad which could have been left on the cutting room floor, and then Fly Angel Fly, the darkest and heaviest track here and a strong coda.

Theme From a Twisted Summer Place

Irene Pena‘s new single The Summer Place – streaming at Big Stir Records – is a venomously hilarious powerpop gem, the missing link between LJ Murphy’s Pretty For the Parlor and that famous Squeeze song. Behind the chalet, this holiday is never complete with some sick drama.. If JD Salinger had been a janglerock guy, he would have written this. “Injuries fade but the memories last a lifetime.”

Unmasking One of the Most Deviously Brilliant Rock Hoaxes Ever

Working over the web last year, the Armoires decided to release a whole slew of singles under a bunch of assumed names (you bastards, you snagged October Surprise, the best bandname ever!). Despite widespread interest online and on radio, nobody ever got wise to the fact that it was really them. Finally, the muzzle is off, and this alternately hilarious and poignant, erudite mix of originals and covers – inspired by the Dukes of Stratosphear‘s immortal parodies of 60s psychedelic rock excess – has been released as an official Armoires record, Incognito, streaming at Bandcamp.

Based in California, the harmony-rock band found themselves stymied in attempts to pull the whole group together under dictator Gavin Nuisance’s fascist lockdowner restrictions. Fortuitously, the core of the band, keyboardist Christina Bulbenko and multi-instrumentalist Rex Broome, also run a very popular specialty label, Big Stir Records, so they have access to a global talent base. Drawing on a rotating cast of guitarists and drummers, the result is the most eclectically delicious album of the year so far.

The Armoires are more likely to slyly quote from late 70s powerpop than 60s psychedelia, although pretty much every rock style since then is fair game for their sometimes loving, sometimes witheringly cynical satire. What differentiates this album from the Dukes of Stratosphear’s (a.k.a. XTC’s) mashups is the cleverness of the lyrics.

Say what you want that “October Surprise” turn John Cale’s iconic proto-goth Paris 1919 into bouncy Penny Lane Beatles: that’s the spirit of punk, right? The B-side, Just Can’t See the Attraction, is an acidic original immersed in schadenfreude and driven by Larysa Bulbenko’s violin. “She was maybe too much, too demanding/She was surely too much in demand,” and the haters abound.

As D.F.E., the band give themselves several fictitious shout-outs in their A-side, I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit, a seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media. The quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. But the B-side is sobering, a lively, deadpan cover of Zager and Evans Hall of Famers Christie’s 1970 pentatonic folk-rock hit Yellow River, a post-Vietnam War anthem told from the winning side of that pyrrhic victory.

Bagfoot Run, the A-side of the single by “The Chessie System” is an irresistibly funny bluegrass escape anthem. You’d think that somebody would have figured out the joke from the subtly venomous anti-lockdown flip side, Homebound, a Louvin Brothers sendup, but nobody did.

As The Yes It Is, their jangly, anthemic cover of new wave band 20/20’s The Night I Heard a Scream, a portrait of an unsolved hit-and-run is infinitely more chilling. The cover of XTC’s Senses Working Overtime blows away the original, raising the Orwellian ambience several notches with piano and violin. Likewise, the line about “we’ll give it pause to breathe the air” in the triumphantly jangly, unlikely cover of the Andy Gibb rarity Words and Music.

Jackrabbit Protector, released under the name Zed Cats, is part Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir parody, part metaphorically-loaded populist throwdown. “I can count my friends on the palm of my hand,” Broome laments in the Beatlesque Walking Distance, awash in searing guitar multitracks. The lyrically torrential Sergeant Pepper-esque stroll, Ohma, Bring Your Light Into This Place, by the “Ceramic Age,” follows in the same vein: it could be a parable. Their B-side is Magenta Moon, a gorgeous, lushly swaying kiss-off anthem and cautionary tale (and maybe a Nick Drake shout-out). This eerie orb is “My one and true companion in the way you never were,” as Bulbenko relates in her simmering, mentholated mezzo-soprano.

Great Distances, by “Gospel Swamps” will rip your face off: over a tense twelve-string janglerock pulse, the band salute a time, and a person, lost to transcontinental barriers. It’s the great lost track from the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies record. The concluding cut, Awkward City Limits makes an apt segue, an irresistible, metaphorically-loaded road narrative set to simmering backbeat roadhouse rock, the New Pornographers mashed up with early ELO.

But wait! There’s more! There are bonus tracks including a hilarious Lou Reed reference; Nashville gothic gloom transposed to early Trump-era lockdown; and Babyshambles retro garage rock recast as Burroughs cut-and-paste novelette in New Abnormal hell. Was it worth risking being unmasked as pretenders throughout these wild adventures into the furthest reaches of the band’s creativity? “We’ve always believed that art without risk isn’t worth doing,” is their response in the liner notes.

Another Bleakly Amusing Album of Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

“I did more business in July than I did in all of 2019,” a Brooklyn liquor store owner confided to a friend of this blog last summer. In a locked-down city where domestic violence is up 50%, suicide among young people is up 60%, with the murder rate soaring, that’s no wonder. It’s been even worse in the UK. The Pocket Gods offer a cynical, distinctly British and very catchy take on lockdown hell in Alcoholics Enormous, one of the funniest songs on their characteristically eclectic new album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall, streaming at Spotify.

Speaking of overdoing it, the pun in that song title is just as endangered. Alcoholics Anonymous became just plain Alcoholics when the lockdowners shut down all the churches and community centers where the meetings were held, and everything went online.

Pocket Gods mastermind Mark Christopher Lee has put out a staggering amount of music over the past decade. The band’s equally desperate, bleakly funny previous record of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, made the ten best albums of 2020 list here, and the gallows humor of this one is just as spot-on.

Lee assesses the lockdowners’ crazymaking over a disquieting, hypnotic pulse in Conspiracy Collagen: what can you believe when the fake news media gets more and more outlandish every day? He takes that same disbelief to a sarcastic sendup of celebrity obsession in JS X RQ. My Next High is just as angst-fueled, and sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain doing a decent job covering the Byrds.

Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday, a horror movie theme for the past year’s insanity, is the best song on the album (the Wenzels chain is sort of a British cross between Au Bon Pain and 7-11). Narcissistic Jogger has a similarly macabre pulse: all the same, you can’t help but laugh at these double-muzzled sheep gasping for air. And the catchy powerpop nugget Pound Shop Junkie speaks truth to the cognitive dissonance of desperate consumers lined up around the block for formula retail. Today the dollar store, tomorrow the breadline, after the lockdowners bulldoze all the independent farms because a couple of workers were caught within six feet of each other.

For the record, this blog doesn’t really believe that any of those apocalyptic New Abnormal horror scenarios will ever be more than a pipe dream for a handful of oligarchs and their propaganda squads. More than 30% of the US has been liberated and is back to normal as of today. Then again, weren’t we lucky to be sitting here in our (quasi) safe American homes, able to lustily sing, “Don’t wanna go back there again.”

Joel Hoekstra’s 13 Reanimate an Extinct Breed of Dinosaur Metal

In olden days, before Odin delivered the runes which ordered the gods of metal to fixate on Viking regalia, pagan myths and the apocalypse, there was a strain of heavy rock that was pretty goofy. It was party music: catchy pop melodies played with loud guitars and a lot of winkingly comedic flourishes. Joel Hoekstra’s 13 come out of that late 70s school. He’s a great pop tunesmith, he loves volume and he knows this music inside out. His latest album Running Games – streaming at Spotify – is a prime example.

It’s a concept album about – gasp – a breakup. Who knew these leather-clad rogues had hearts that might not have been totally blackened, whether in a deal with the devil or by flying too close to the sun? The central metaphor is a race: themes of escape and the sobering possibility of a crushing loss permeate these otherwise very upbeat and adrenalizing tunes.

Guitars play ridiculously fast tapping solos over the steady gallop of the bass and drums. Divebomb effects, the occasional acoustic passage or grandiose keyboard break pop up in places. Hoekstra’s vocals have the requisite bombast, sometimes edging toward fullscale operatic drama. Don’t take this the wrong way, but the choruses on this album are straight out of Blondie, Bachman-Turner Overdrive or…Abba. No joke. Meanwhile, you half expect David Lee Roth to come swinging down to the stage on a couple of guidewires, wAAAAAAAAoooooh, wearing a yellow jumpsuit.

Serious fans will dismiss this as a parody, self- or otherwise, or 7-11 parking lot music for the under-15 crowd who haven’t discovered Sabbath or Led Zep yet. Yes, this is comic-book rock…but it’s a well-drawn comic book. Dare you to spin the tenth track, Cried Enough For You, without laughing at the faux-Floyd and faux-Zep touches…and then when Hoekstra takes a solo, he takes your breath away. And makes you laugh again. In the grimmest year in human history, we still need to smile sometimes.

A Sizzling Live Album From New England Rock Legends the Reducers

The Reducers were the American counterpart to the Jam – except that they lasted six times as long. And while the British punk band drew on the Who and 60s mod music, New London, Connecticut’s greatest musical export took inspiration from 70s pub rock acts like Ducks Deluxe and janglerockers the Flamin’ Groovies as well as the harder, faster sounds of the era. The quartet finally hung it up in 2012 after the tragic loss of their brilliant bassist, Steve Kaika. But there’s a lot of live Reducers kicking around, including a ferocious set, Live: New York City 2005, which is just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

Playing at a typical breakneck pace, the group blast through sixteen songs in forty-seven minutes, a mix of concert favorites, a couple of new tunes and a few covers. The sound quality, from Arlene’s on June 4 of that year, is shockingly good (founding member/guitarist Hugh Birdsall has gone on record as calling this arguably the best live recording of the band that’s widely available). They open with a cover, something they rarely did: in this case, it’s a straight-up punk take of the Boys’ Turning Grey, which is less about getting old than watching everyone around you get old inside.

“I hear that black and blue is the color scheme in town,” guitarist Peter Detmold sneers in one of the band’s catchiest songs, Nothing Cool About That, a spot-on evocation of dead-end life in New England rust belt decay.

Fistfight at the Beach, arguably the band’s best song, takes that anomie to the next level, from Birdsall and Detmold’s simmering twin-guitar intro, Kaika soaring skyward until drummer Tom Trombley kicks in hard. The riffs get more bludgeoning and Birdsall takes a tantalizingly brief, stinging solo in the similarly cynical workingman’s anthem Jackpot Fever.

The band slow down just a little for the more powerpop-oriented Meltdown – with a sweet pickslide at the end – and then their band-on-the-road saga San Antone (which they actually played in San Antonio). They follow that with an especially snarling take of the alienation anthem Out of Step, arguably the band’s biggest hit – and a chance for Kaika, who gave this band the luxury of a third lead player, a chance to slink his way up the fretboard.

The first of the new numbers is Tokyo Bay, referencing the band’s well-received tour of Japan a few months earlier. The band swing hard through I Call That Living, the closest thing to boogie rock they ever did, capped off by a slashing Birdsall solo. On the Road Again is not the Wilie Nelson hit but a punchy, relatively new original.

Let’s Go, another big live hit and the title track to the band’s second album, seems almost restrained, Kaika shadowing Birdsall’s best solo of the night all the way through. The Violent Femmes-ish bassline in Avoidance Factor will make you smile – although who came up with that first? And Bums I Used to Know is the high-octane rockabilly shuffle the Stray Cats only dreamed of pulling off.

The rest of the night’s covers are a mixed bag. Teengenerate’s I Don’t Mind is a pub rock New York Dolls knockoff, although the bit of a guitar duel is tasty. The Stones’ Get Off My Cloud…really? And the lone encore, Chris Spedding’s Hurt by Love isn’t much more than a vehicle for Kaika’s spring-loaded riffage. Still, who knew that in 2021, a soundboard recording by a Connecticut band who’ve been defunct for almost a decade would turn out to be one of the best albums of the year.

A Hilarious Powerpop Party Record From the Airport 77s

The Airport 77s write very funny, very catchy, perfectly retro late 70s style powerpop songs. If this was the year that the cheesy movie the band took their name from came out, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment. And their jokes extend beyond the lyrics to the music as well. In a year where so few rock acts have been releasing records, their debut album Rotation – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blast of fresh air.

The first track is Christine’s Coming Over, about a girl who won’t settle for scrubs – so the dude in the song has to frantically borrow a vacuum cleaner. And his choice of makeout music is spot-on for 1977! The band – frontman/bassist Chuck Dolan, guitarist Andy Sullivan and drummer John Kelly – nail all the requisite late 70s tropes. Brisk 2/4 beat, muted guitar downstrokes keeping time, twin guitar solo, the works.

When You’re Kissing On Me (Do You Think of James McAvoy) is a snidely funny scenario we all know too well: your crush just can’t get over theirs, with embarrassing results. The band hit a burning, minor-key, reggae-inflected groove with Shannon Speaks – it seems to be about a girl in a coma who has some kind of secret.

With its “whiskey/frisky” rhymes and devious innuendos, Wild Love comes across as the Romantics on steroids. The guitar quotes in All the Way, beginning with a smartly chosen Pink Floyd riff, are priceless, and match the lyrics. Their cover of Girl of My Dreams is more four-on-the-floor than the Bram Tchaikovsky original.

Strutting along on Dolan’s catchy bassline, Bad Mom! is the funniest track on the album: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols! And she’s been known to sneak a smoke every now and then! The group make you wait til the second verse of the final cut, Make It Happen before they drop a couple of their best jokes on you. Killer party record all the way through.

The Sideshow Tragedy Take an Embittered Detour into Powerpop

Over the past decade or so, Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy have done everything from unhinged, electrified country blues, to feral hillbilly boogies and savagely lyrical, hip-hop influenced political punk rock. Their masterpiece, and their most political release by far, is the searing 2015 album Capital. Their latest one After the Fall – streaming at Bandcamp – is a breakup album, sometimes allusive, sometimes completely grim.

They open with the title track, a departure into vintage 70s-style CBGB powerpop, guitarist Nathan Singleton’s surprisingly lushly layered guitars and bass over drummer Jeremy Harrell’s syncopated drive. “Wore a mask so long it became my face/I went in circles for years just to get to this place,” Singleton recalls. Prophetic, huh?

Ben Senerfit’s baritone sax punches in on the lows in Easy Action, which comes across as a mashup of Jon Spencer and Marcellus Hall. Guest lead guitarist Marc Ribot plays sizzling, noisy blues over Kenny Siegal’s blustery layers of keyboards in Hold On It: “I only walk on eggshells ‘cause I like the way it sounds,” Singleton snarls.

He channels Lou Reed, both musically and vocally, in The Lonely One, then he goes back toward the gutter blues of the band’s early years in the resolute Capital Crime. They hit a surprisingly funky pulse in the album’s best, most aphoristic and Dylanesque track, Same Thing:

Edge of the water at the end of time
You can see the other shore on the horizon line
It’s a trick of the light, it’s not too faraway
I’m at the bottom of the bottle next to the bay

Singleton’s Blood on the Tracks reference later on packs a wallop.

“Nothing to live for, it’s something to do,” Singleton muses in What I Mean, a stomping, stark, hypnotic blues anthem in a Jesus and Mary Chain vein. He goes back to Lou Reed mode over Harrell’s simple, steady stomp in Forty Days and the album’s cynical closing cut, Young Forever.