New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: power pop

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

Classic Influences and Catchy Rock Tunesmithing From the Fast Romantics

Toronto powerpop band the Fast Romantics’ new album Pick It Up – streaming at youtube – is their most keyboard-driven record yet. They draw on classic rock songcraft from the 60s through the 80s and have a sense of humor. This one isn’t as funny or melodically ambitious as their 2017 American Love album: it’s closer to what the New Pornographers have been up to most recently, along with influences from the Beatles to gospel.

The album opens with the title cut, a  slow gospel piano ballad and an enigmatic look at the potential pitfalls of artistic creativity. We’re Only People has George Harrison-style slide guitar over steady Penny Lane-ish piano: “How did you find me in my hideout, how did you get me to come down?” frontman Matthew Angus wants to know.

Keyboardist Lisa Lorenz’s fuzzy 80s textures buzz beneath more of that swooping slide guitar in Made For You, a techier update on the Born to Run-era Springsteen the band love so much. The keys get starrier and also more symphonic in Hallelujah What’s It to Ya, which is more subtly irreverent than the title would imply.

The Rules is a wry Let It Be Beatlesque piano ballad, a sardonic look back at the price of nonconformity, with an unexpectedly defiant coda. “Watch me blow it all on sellout serendipity,” Angus muses in Top of the Mountain, a stoner trip-hop number that brings to mind early 90s Pulp. 

The band follow Iso Radio, a creepily nocturnal, vaguely apocalyptic piano theme, with the album’s final track, Do No Wrong: “i made a mess so I’m clearing my history,” Angus relates over a catchy backdrop that’s part Motown, part new wave.

Rare Archival Discoveries From an Iconic Powerpop Band

Skooshny are contemporaries of both Elvis Costello and the Church, two references which validate the consistently brilliant quality of the band’s output, They’re revered in the powerpop demimonde for their bright, catchy, guitarishly rich anthems and frontman Mark Breyer’s slashingly clever wordplay. The band more or less called it quits back in the zeros, but Breyer has continued with a similarly erudite, irresistibly catchy series of mostly duo projects under the name Son of Skooshny.

It seemed that Skooshny’s final release was a brooding cover of a rare late 60s Robin Gibb single, Saved by the Bell, but it turns out that there was more rare, unreleased material in the can. Their new ep, Deep Dive is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a collection of newly digitized recordings dating all the way back to their teenage days in the 70s.

With Breyer’s labyrinthine chord changes and guest John Bunkelman’s dancing bassline, the primitive 1972 basement performance of One Wrong Move – the first thing that two of the band’s core members would ever got on tape – is a dead ringer for the Move circa 1967, with an American accent. By comparison, the second track, No For Yes is prime Skooshny, featuring all three members – Breyer, guitarist/bassist Bruce Wagner and drummer David Winogrond – and bristles with layer upon layer of guitars and a characteristically aphoristic Breyer lyric.

The final three tracks are lo-fi home recordings that would later be released as full-band productions in 1991. The tantalizingly brief Masking the Moon – a song title for our time, huh? – is just Breyer slamming out catchy changes on his acoustic, with some vocal harmonies overdubbed afterward:

Napping without dreams
Is sleeping without real proof
Tapping on the beams
Is a cat on a cold steel roof
The cafe band plays on and I open my eyes
Two moons in the mirror that I recognize

Likewise, Dessert For Two features Breyer solo on twelve-string; it could be a particularly catchy, wistful Marty Willson-Piper folk-rock number. The final cut here is Malibu, a haphazard home recording featuring multi-instrumentalist Mike Thompson, part Beatles, part southern soul. If this is Skooshny’s genuine swan song, they had a hell of a run. Not bad for a band who in their entire multiple decade career played one single show: an Arthur Lee benefit.

Catchy, Purist, Relevant Powerpop Songcraft From Elisa Peimer

It was about fifteen years ago that Elisa Peimer played a reasonably well-attended show at a long-gone Williamsburg venue, the Blu Lounge, as part of a multi-artist bill staged by the songwriters collective Chicks With Dip. It was early in her career, and she was one of the first of the acts to hit the stage that night, but it was obvious that she had a purist pop sensibility and a compelling blue-eyed soul voice.

In the years afterward, she’d contribute to a popular anthology celebrating the 40th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album and then tour with the core group behind it. She’s also a founding member of the Sonic Youth and Wilco powerpop spinoff The End of Love, and has put out a series of solo albums as well. Her latest one, Navigator, is streaming at Spotify.

The opening track comes across as late 70s Pat Benatar without the cliched heavy metal guitar. In I’m Gonna Start, a defiant anthem about getting off the screen and staying off, the references are quaint: just tv and radio. But maybe Peimer’s already a step ahead of most everybody else in getting off of evil Facebook and Instagram too.

The second track, Shouldn’t I is a throwback to late 70s/early 80s CBs style powerpop. Peimer’s got a great, purposeful band behind her: Jay Deegan and Irwin Menken on guitars and a killer rhythm section of Whisperado’s Jon Sobel on bass alongside longtime Graham Parker and Mekons drummer Steve Goulding.

Cyrano has a Highway 61 Dylan sway and a telling lyric:

He thinks he isn’t pretty
But he’s being pretty blind
He doesn’t seem to know
That the girls, they always go for a beautiful mind

Adrift is a metaphorically loaded, electrified sea chantey, reflecting back on getting away from ever-present distractions and finding one’s own way. Peimer goes back to 6/8 time for the soul-tinged, ballad End of the Sunset and winds up the record with the bitttersweetly elegaic Slipped into a Dream. If catchy, purist tunesmithing is your demimonde, Peimer should be on your radar.

Wickedly Catchy, Ferocious, Funny Powerpop From Wes Hollywood

Powerpop is one of the few niche genres left where if you make an album, you can sell a lot of vinyl without touring if word gets out that it’s good. That’s because the cult that lives and dies for Cheap Trick, the Go-Go’s and the Move never got rid of theirs. Wes Hollywood‘s 2019 album Dynamite – streaming at Bandcamp – deserves to be one of those. This band’s level of craft is astonishing, a real throwback without being a complete ripoff. If this was 1980, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment to the frontman/guitarist, lead player Pete Javier, bassist Spencer Matern and drummer Tom Shove

With a fond nod over the shoulder to a famous Buzzcocks hit, the opening track, Four Pound Twenty is a really funny story about a totally broke guy trying to hook up with a girl after missing his train home from a forgettable concert. Other than the reference to a lost phone, it could be a BBC hit from 1979.

When Sunday Rolls Around is a wryly simmering, blues-infused midtempo number, akin to LJ Murphy with beefier production. “You’ll never want to wind her up, she’ll never stop,” the bandleader sneers in Small Talk, a lickety-split pub rock tune. Nothing to See Here is a gorgeously jangly, cynically raging kiss-off anthem: there’s Orbison, and Ray Davies, and the Jigsaw Seen all wrapped up in overdriven guitar and soaring bass.

“You said some things that were not worth mentioniong/Just like the rings on the hand of a pensioner,’ Wes observes in Evelyn, a scampering, pummeling, tantalizingly brief burst of catchiness. The story seems to continue in the equally anthemic, riff-driven I’ll Take You Back: this broke ass dude just refuses to quit.

The blend of roaring, clanging, searing guitars over the breathless pulse of Get It Right is as tasty as the lyrics are sly. The calmly defiant, Kinks-inspired individualist’s anthem Fall Up a Ladder has a cynical vaudevillian strut. Kill Me With Your Smile is a mashup of riffy T-Rex and early Elvis Costello.

Dandelion is not a cover of the the Rolling Stones monstrosity but the closest thing to Cheap Trick here. The album closes with its finest, most slashingly majestic cut, No One Loves You, with echoes of both the Church and the Act. How rare that any group could evoke those two (semi) obscure, pantheonic bands in the span of about three minutes.

Gorgeously Bittersweet Powerpop and Retro Rock From High Waisted

The level of craft, and depth, and command of a whole slew of retro rock styles in High Waisted guitarist/frontwoman Jessica Louise Dye’s songs is just plain stunning. Her band’s debut album On Ludlow made the top ten albums of the year list here in 2016. The group’s long-awaited follow-up, Sick of Saying Sorry, is streaming at Bandcamp. On the mic, Dye really airs out her upper register this time around, and although the band pull back from a somewhat misguided second-gen new wave tangent they went off on for awhile, there’s more 80s influence.

It gets off to a false start. Things get better in a hurry with the early 80s-style powerpop of the second track, Modern Love and its exhilarating chorus. Bassist Jeremy Hansen adds a catchy reggae pulse in tandem with drummer Jono Bernstein under the starry, lingering guitars in Drive: it’s High Waisted at their Lynchian best.

Burdens is a weird mashup of jazzily vamping 70s soul ballad and Phil Spector pop, but it works. Dye teams up with lead guitarist Stephen Nielsen for an insistent attack in the powerpop anthem Easy As It Comes, with yet another killer, regret-tinged chorus.

She wistfully reflects on the struggles of her friends scattered around the world in the wryly titled Cereal: it’s like Amanda Palmer without the theatrics. 8th Amendment has a loping, syncopated surf rock clang, calmly defiant vocals and an unexpected turn into Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psychedelia.

Eyes Crying is the album’s most gorgeously angst-fueled, Lynchian track: the Wallflowers’ toweringly elegaic classic Sixth Avenue Heartache comes to mind. Giving Up has a steady backbeat, a Mellotron (or a close facsimile) and Dye’s most spine-tingling vocal flights: it’s the album’s strongest cut. She and the band bring it full circle with I’m Fine, a blend of early Go Go’s and swirly dreampop. Fans of the darkest, torchiest songwriters to come out of this city in recent years – Karla Rose, Julia Haltigan and Nicole Atkins, at least in her early career – should check out this band.

Iconic Heavy Psychedelic Band Revisit Deep Cuts With Surprising Results

Can you imagine if Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper made its debut on corporate radio in 2020? The politically correct crowd would crash Instagram with all their outraged selfie vids. “I can’t believe you’d be so irresponsible as to play a song that ADVOCATES TEEN SUICIDE!!!!!”

The band, of course, leave it open to multiple interpretations: it could just as easily be about drugs..or a love song, heh heh heh. And it’s a far cry from their best work: for that, you need to dig into their first four records. Over that initial span of releases, there is no other act in the history of rock music who were better.

Not the Stones, who weren’t ready for prime time. Not the Beatles, although they get an asterisk because their manager and record label held them back. Not the Dream Syndicate (who got screwed even worse by their label), the Velvets (who couldn’t pull their shit together, basically), the Stooges (who learned on the fly), Pink Floyd (who had to regroup after their bandleader self-destructed), the Dead Kennedys (whose second album was awful), David Bowie (who got off to a bad start) or Richard Thompson (ever try listening to Henry the Human Fly?). And as revolutionary and brilliant as the first four albums by Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Clash, X, Parliament/Funkadelic and several others are, Blue Oyster Cult’s classic early stuff is just as strong, and smart, and sometimes a lot funnier.

So why would this blog cover something as crazy as the band’s new recording, a 40th anniversary celebration of their uneven 1976 Agents of Fortune album, recorded live in concert in 2016 and streaming at Spotify? Because it’s just plain preposterous. Right off the bat, this isn’t even the same band that made the original: the Bouchard brothers’ rhythm section disintegrated back in the 80s, and we lost the great Allen Lanier a couple of decades later. Still, this is actually an improvement on the original!

Frontman/guitarist Eric Bloom, once a fine, clear-voice singer, doesn’t do much more than rasp these days. But lead guitarist Buck Dharma still has his chops here, and the replacements are clearly psyched to play a lot of material that these days falls into the deep-cuts category. There’s snap to the bass, a leadfoot groove but a groove nonetheless from the drums, and a lot of swirly organ.

They open with This Ain’t the Summer of Love, a riffy anti-hippie anthem that isn’t much more than rehashed Stones….but they seem to be having fun with it. They can’t do much with True Confessions, an ill-advised attempt at mashing up that sound with doo-woppy soul. Although Bloom can’t hit the high notes in the ominously circling hit single, and the band must be sick to death of it, they manage not to phone it in. “Forty thousand men and women coming every day!” State of the world, 2020, huh?

This edition of the band’s take of the “classic rock” radio staple E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) isn’t as quite as offhandedly macabre as the original, but it still has a gleefully sinister ring. The Revenge of Vera Gemini – which original keyboardist Lanier co-wrote with his girlfriend at the time, Patti Smith – is heavier and a lot more menacing.

Dharma’s icy chromatics can’t quite elevate Sinful Love above the level of generically strutting powerpop. Likewise, Tattoo Vampire is a second-rate Led Zep ripoff. Morning Final, a haphazard attempt to blend Lou Reed urban noir and latin soul as the Stones did it on Sticky Fingers, is so bizarre it’s pretty cool.

From there the band segue into Tenderloin: disco-pop was not their forte. They wind up the record, and the show, with Debbie Denise: what an understatedly bittersweet, profoundly Lynchian pop song! A sparse audience cheer enthusiastically afterward.

High Romantic Bombast and Catchy, Turbocharged Pop Tunes from the Dark Element

Former Nightwish frontwoman Anette Olzon and guitarist Jani Liimatainen’s new album The Dark Element – streaming at Spotify – is a clinic in tuneful bombast. This heartbroken, vengeful song cycle sounds like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, if the ultimate bombastic symphonic band had existed back in the 80s. The minor keys and short, sharp riffs draw a straight line back to Tschaikovsky. Olzon’s English is excellent, and Liimatainen’s epic orchestration is unexpectedly taseteful in what’s usually a completely over-the-top style.

With its blustery, synthesized arrangement, blend of guitar crunch and whistle and a neoromantic piano break, Not Your Monster sets the stage. For all the underlying Pat Benatar, it also has punk rock bite. The album’s title track has a bit of a lush, symphonic introduction before the big backbeat stomp kicks in. Without the grand guignol, the nifty bit of a bass solo and the divebomb guitar, this is Blondie in a minor key.

“Unwanted guest inside your chest will claim you, and then it’s time to rest,” Olzon warns amid the bluster of When It All Comes Down. Silence Between the Words comes across as a pop-metal paraphrase of Prince’s When Doves Cry. In a similar vein, Pills on My Pillow is a powerpop tune beefed up with punchy string synth and crunchy guitars. Olzon’s narrator anxiously weighs whether or not to do the Big Job on herself – why not do those pills while you’re awake, homegirl, so you can enjoy them?

Olzon channels elegant resignation over stately piano and strings before the guitars kick in on To Whatever End. The Pallbearer Walks Alone – a cautionary tale which could be Kim Wilde with a Nordic metal band behind her – is one of those songs that screams out for a subtitle. How about “Dude, Help Me Out With This Damn Coffin!”

Olzon finally gives the evil narcissist the boot in Get Out of My Head, an even more surreal blend of enveloping metal and synthy new wave pop – and disco too! Numbness and regret permeate the somewhat more subdued If I Had a Heart.

There’s more wounded intensity in You Will Learn, built around a stark Finnish folk theme. The album ends counterintuitively with the sad waltz I Have to Go. Some people will hear this and say, oy, Celine Dion with loud guitars, but there’s no denying this will wake you up in a hurry.

One complaint: Olzon is a perfectly competent singer. Thankfully, her vocals aren’t autotuned, but there are places where you can tell they’ve been pitch-corrected, an unwanted and cheesy touch. Was time so tight in the studio that she couldn’t have simply punched in and fixed what was necessary?

Spot-On, Frequently Hilarious Lyrical Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Gig From Whisperado

Catchy, purist New York powerpop band Whisperado make irresistibly satirical videos. Check out Popstar Girl: she’s a meme, she’s a toy, she’s a tv show…and she might actually be human. Whisperado have a wildly lyrical new album, Out the Door, streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on Jan 20 at 9 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10.

The first track is Vinegar Hill, an escape anthem tightly pulsing over the rhythm section of frontman/bassist Jon Sobel and drummer David Mills. The tradeoff between Sobel’s solo and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s guitar is so subtle it’s almost imperceptible, a rare and unexpected detail. And Sobel’s never sung with such unleashed intensity as he does here.

The album’s second song, Precisely is a droll, picturesque, jangly Rickenbacker guitar-fueled examination of the vagaries of memory, and all that might imply. Signal to Noise is not the Peter Gabriel classic but an Emma Bull cover done as steadily swaying 70s British pub rock, Elisa Peimer’s organ swooshing as the band gather steam. She switches to bouncy piano for Nina (rhymes with “concertina”).

The album’s pouncing, blues-tinged title track could be about the apocalypse, or suicide…or both. Round the Bend is a towering, Celtic-tinged ballad with soaring vocal harmonies and honkytonk piano from Peimer. Mass Extinction No. 6 has hints of funk and a Dylanesque, spot-on, New York-centric catalog of dire images, reprised in an alternate acoustic take at the end of the record.

I Don’t Want to Do It Anymore is a coldly aphoristic look back at a pre-NAFTA America seemingly gone forever:

Factory, come back to me
I like those old machines
Pushcart tricks and Velcro strips
And all those ways and means
Folk songs on the radio
Sung out by human beings…

The Diddleybeat-driven Pretty Please is more optimistic but just as circumspect: it could be an upbeat Matt Keating tune. The album’s most surreallistically grim number is Stone Deaf, a mashup of the Kinks and Willie Nile, its narrator insisting that he “never left the grassy knoll.” The best serious song here is the towering 6/8 anthem Ghost of the Girl, with its icy Rickenbacker clang and Sobel’s loaded imagery: “The witches were legion, they blotted the moon while Satan was splitting the atom.”

With Hayden’s twangy riffage and Sobel’s growly bass solo, Winter Blues isn’t a blues in the strict sense of the word. Forbidden is beyond hilarious, a true insider look at how musicians take the easy way out: the jokes are way too good to give away. Best song of 2020 so far! The album’s only miss is that Little Feat ditty that everyone who’s ever played Rockwood Music Hall has covered at some point – and which, like Hallelujah and Hotel California, needs to be permanently retired.

A Late-Inning Comeback by Janglerock Icons Son of Skooshny

It’s been awhile since Mark Breyer – who could be called the Elvis Costello of janglerock – has made an appearance on this page. It’s good to see him back in action, still releasing one brilliantly constructed single after another. His latest two, under the Son of Skooshny name (Skooshny being his iconic jangle/powerpop outfit dating back to the 70s) are up at Bandcamp.

The first tune, Cold has a majestic sway in the same vein as the Church, Steve Refling’s layers of acoustic and electric guitars building a rich sonic mesh over a steady backbeat. It’s a good companion piece to the Jayhawks classic Trouble, debating whether it’s better to settle for mediocrity or just be alone. Breyer’s metaphors are as withering as usual, a chronicle of “two old souls who can’t tolerate the cold.” The bridge is the best part:

It’s hard to stay in the moment
Out there on the trail
When the desert dawn contracts
Will the mountain lion attack
Will the rattlesnake recoil and flail

Staying In is one of the alltime great baseball songs ever written, but that’s just part of the picture. Wait til you get to the end, where Breyer puts everything in perspective, at his haunting, unflinching best. Getting there is a ride that brings to mind the 2016 World Series (Breyer’s beloved Cleveland Indians went down ignomimously to the typically cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs).

The starter only carries you so far
The setup gets you close but no cigar
The closer must have nerves of steel
To wrap it up and seal the deal
Here comes a heartbreak we all feel
The leadoff walk and then the steal
The liner into centerfield
Blown save
Be brave

Watch for this on the best songs of 2019 page at the end of the decade, i.e. in a couple of weeks.