New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: power pop

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.

A Powerful, Lyrical Solo Debut by the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

Dennis Davison built a formidable back catalog as the leader of the Jigsaw Seen, one of the best and most lyrical psychedelic rock bands of the 90s and zeros. They played their final New York gig in late March of 2017 at Bowery Electric, an inspired set which proved that even at the end, they hadn’t lost their edge. In the time since then, Davison has hardly been idle, and has a characteristically brilliant new solo album, The Book of Strongman streaming at Bandcamp.

Here, Davison plays all the instruments. he’s always been a solid guitarist and distinctively articulate singer, but it turns out he’s competent on bass, drums and keys as well. As usual, his historically-informed, metaphorically bristling narratives scream out for the repeat button. The album’s opening number, Strongman and Sonny James, a big, stomping, angst-fueled anthem, follows a grim escape scenario:

Yellow bellies left for dead
Everyone was seeing red
Sanity was hanging by a thread
Juvenile soldier, flee!
Run like hell and return home safely to me

The ending comes as a surprise and makes perfect sense considering the current state of the world.

Shadow on a Tall Tree has a 60s Kinks/Merseybeat pulse rising to a lush ELO-ish chorus, awash in tremolo guitar and what could be a Stylophone keyboard. In the Folly of Youth begins as a wistful accordion-fueled folk-rock tune and hits a swaying Bowie-esque gravitas:

When the living is free there’s no misery
So it is and it was throughout history

Museum Piece is a sweeping, dreamy, subtly slashing, distantly Beatlesque portrait of a drama queen who’s seen better days. Bitternesss and disillusion reach fever pitch in the otherwise lushly anthemic Can You Imagine, which could be an early 80s number by the Church. Heaven Bound has a susupiciously blithe, strutting new wave bassline and layers of chilly guitars and keys: “You set your sights on the sky, that doesn’t mean you can fly,” Davison advises.

Organ and layers of keys swirl over stately strummed guitars in The Spoken Word, a meticulously detailed, cynical social media era parable. With bubbly bass paired against fuzzy guitar layers, Auras is the closest thing here to Davison’s old band.

Awash in vintage analog chorus-box sonics, the toweringly bittersweet Aberdeen Vista is arguably the album’s high point:

Clipper ships have sailed
Politicians jailed
Birthday cards were mailed
Locust on a string
Orange and black birds sing
Now we live as kings
In Aberdeen Vista

Davison winds up the album with What the Hell Is That Noise, an uneasily tongue-in-cheek, Love Camp 7-ish reminiscence of teenage experiments in avant garde soundscaping, complete with samples from his 80s basement duo project Bizarre Trolls with Kevin Mackenzie. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of December, assuming there is a December this year.

Purist, Catchy Powerpop From Librarians With Hickeys

Akron, Ohio band Librarians with Hickeys play expertly crafted, catchy, 1979-style powerpop. They jangle and clang, they like layers of guitars, cool keyboard accents and vocal harmonies. And they would have been huge if they’d been around back four decades ago (that’s a compliment). Their debut album Long Overdue is streaming at Bandcamp,

On one hand, this is the kind of album that’s a dead giveaway for what’s in the band’s collective record collection. On the other, the four-piece group – guitarists Ray Carmen and Mike Crooker, bassist Andrew Wilco and drummer Rob Crossley – have good taste. The opening track, Until There Was You is sort of Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know About Us with twin-guitar grit and more of a four-on-the-floor drive. That Time Is Now follows a familiar rock progression (the best a band’s been able to do with it is the Church’s Bel Air) with dreamy harmony vocals by Lisa Mychols of the Seven And Six. And Then She’s Gone recounts the final scene in the film Ghost World where Enid, the Thora Burch character, gets on that magic bus at the end: the tune is a silkier take on Guided by Voices.

Be My Plus One is a sunshine pop number: Mrs. Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter, I’d like to ask her out. Next Time is pure 80s, complete with watery chorus-box guitars, Crossley getting the clap-clap going with his syndrums. Likewise, the trebly, jangly, vamping Obsession could be the Church in a particularly poppy moment circa the Seance album.

The band mash up organ-livened Lyres garage rock with a little spacy new wave in Leave Me Alone and follow that with Poor Reception, another Church-like janglerocker that also recalls legendary/obscure 80s Long Island space-pop band the Hatracks. Wilco goes way up on his G string for the boomy chorus hook in Silent Stars, the album’s most hypnotically psychedelic track.

Carmen breaks out his Rickenbacker for extra clang in Alex, a gentle backbeat folk-rock number. The Church – that damn Oz band again! – come most strongly to mind in Looking For Home, but in the vein of a big rocker from, say, the Gold Afternoon Fix album. The band close the record with Black Velvet Dress, Crossley’s piano rippling above the guitar flare in this empathetic tale of a girl throwing a party for herself. Singalong hooks, expert craftsmanship, no wasted notes: what more could you want from guitars, bass and drums?

Debra Devi’s Latest Album: A Feast of Psychedelic Guitar

Psychedelic guitarslinger Debra Devi opens her new album, A Zillion Stars Overhead – streaming at Spotify – with When It Comes Down, her John Coltrane Stereo Blues. If you’re a Steve Wynn fan, you get the reference: it might not be her signature song, but it’s the big epic jam that everybody screams for at the end of the encores.

This one’s the most epic she’s released yet (although we can hope for a concert version someday). Devi’s multitracks, from gentle acoustic phrases to sunbaked scream, shift through the mix over the slinky rhythm section of bassist Jorgen Carlsson and drummer John Hummel, with a stampeding doublespeed interlude.

She redeems her cover of Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done not only with her honeyed, bruised vocals but also by speeding the song up and giving it a plaintive slide guitar solo: freed from its hippie-rock associations, you really hear the cautionary tale.

Just when you think Stay is a twinkly stadium rock anthem, Devi hits her distortion pedal. Damn, this woman shreds. The album also includes an edited version of When It Comes Down as well as Canna Indica, an echoey riff-fest: now what could that one possibly be about?

Devi’s playing a rare solo gig on 6 PM on Aug 29 at Molly’s House Concerts in Linden, NJ. Cover is $25; email for location/deets and to reserve your spot in the outdoor garden