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Tag: psychedelic pop

Catchy Dystopic Psychedelia and Powerpop From the Speed of Sound

“We were offered Star Trek, but they fed us Soylent Green,” guitarist Ann-Marie Crowley sings to open Tomorrow’s World, the first track on the Speed of Sound‘s new vinyl album The Museum Of Tomorrow, streaming at Big Stir Records:

There is no escape from the all-seeing eye
It records every word we mistype
This is not our future dream anymore
This is a futurescape to endure

As a whole, this is a characteristically cynical, dystopic, colorfully lyrical mix of jangly psychedelic pop tunes. Contemporaries of catchy neo-psychedelic bands like the Jigsaw Seen and Speed the Plough, the Manchester group been around since the late 80s. Frontman John Armstrong’s deadpan sense of humor and shiny melodies often conceal a much more troubled and insightful worldview. Lots of levels at work here: this is definitely a record for our time.

The second track is Opium Eyes, a late 60s style flange-rock anthem and antidepressant cautionary tale that bursts in and is gone in a minute forty five. Likewise, the cheery la-la’s in Smokescreen serve as exactly that, bassist Kevin Roache and drummer John Broadhurst supplying the deceptively lithe pulse.

The music darkens to match the narrative in Zombie Century, an appropriately marching portrait of a rudderless world on the express track to destruction, where the heretics who could save us are pushed out of the picture.

Henry Armstrong’s keyboards blend with the lush vocal harmonies and resonant guitars to lowlight the clueless neverland of Virtual Reality (Pt. 2). The band break out the twelve-string guitars and then the blippy spacerock keys for the gorgeously chiming, dissociatively wary Shadow Factory, John Armstrong twisting through a slithery solo.

Impossible Past wouldn’t be out of place in the Dada Paradox catalog, a knowing chronicle of revisionist history:

The golden time was never so sunny
Bleakly like a taste of honey
Duck-and-cover A-bomb drills
Among dark satanic mills

Set to a vampy retro 60s go-go tune, Leaf Blower is a metaphor for any kind of machine that blows hot air. Blood Sweat and Tears is not a shout-out to horrible 60s hitmakers but a scrambling workingman’s lament, stuck on a treadmill in a race to the bottom. Charlotte – a Jane Eyre-inspired anthem – has coy echoes of another veteran, jangly British band’s song by almost the same name.

The band reach their most epic sweep in the global warming apocalypse anthem The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  With the album’s final cut, Last Orders – a pouncing, late 60s Kinks-ish last-call scenario – this story doesn’t end optimistically. If smart lyricism and bright tunesmithing in a New Pornographers vein is your thing, this is your jam.

An Unintentionally Prophetic Protest Song

Christine LaRocca‘s icily synthy trip-hop single The New Normal – streaming at Soundcloud – turned out to be infinitely more prophetic than the Los Angeles singer ever could have wanted. She wrote it before the lockdown, not realizing that the sinister phrase “new normal” was introduced to the world at a conference sponsored by big pharma corporation Merck in 2004. In LaRocca’s own words:

“Corporations have been invading our privacy by digging into thoughts. They are learning our habits without our consent and selling our data to the highest bidder without asking you if it is okay. Social media has effected the mental health of our society and has also become a way to quickly spread lies and rumors. Artificial intelligence and robots are replacing human beings. My phone rang over 70 times in a 24 hour window when I decided to research health care. People are denying climate change. The common denominator? Money. Technology has made so many incredible things possible, yet not without a cost. At what point do we draw the line?”

A Characteristically Brilliant, Surprising, Slashingly Lyrical New Album by Changing Modes

Changing Modes have been one of the best bands in New York since the zeros, when they began releasing a formidable series of catchy, ambitious, individualistic rock records. Their music features layers of keyboards and vocal harmonies from frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, enigmatically virtuosic and often slashing lead guitar from Yuzuru Sadashige, with drummer Timur Yusef colorfully negotiating the songs’ serpentine, shapeshifting rhythms. As the years went on, their playful lyrical edge grew angrier and more politically-inspired, particularly as the Metoo movement gained momentum. Their latest album Wax World is streaming at youtube.

From a performance point of view, what’s most amazing is that it sounds as lush and contiguous as the rest of their catalog, considering that Yusef – one of the most colorfully nimble players in town – recorded his tracks remotely from the UK.

The opening number, Audio Polaroid, is a searing, sardonic commentary on IG-era narcissism: “Audio Polaroid never will fill the void,” the two women harmonize over a surreal blend of reggae and skittish new wave. The ultimate message seems to be that it’s never more than a memory – and a hazy one at that.

Griffiths and Pulliam exchange lyrical lines and harmonies over haphazard Beatles blues in Nothing to Say: “You’re selling your soul on ebay, you’re selling secrets that aren’t yours to give away,” Pulliam accuses. Strychnine is not the Cramps classic but an slyly blippy, very subtly venomous, new wave-tinged original with a hilarious intro.

Stasis Loop rises out of an evil morass of feedback and horror-movie keys, a macabre, picturesque account of the early days of the lockdown in New York, “Stuck in a place where nobody waits for summer or fall…playgrounds are empty, their friends are all gone and even their masters are someone else’s boss.” It might be the best song of 2021.

The band maintain the chilly ambience in Autumn, a vehicle for Sadashige’s enigmatically skeletal guitar leads. Likewise, the rainy-day guitar clusters, keening organ and plaintive vocal harmonies in Glass of Winter. If this song is any indication, Sadashige was a great surf guitarist in a past life and has graduated to jazz.

Solitary, a brisk punchy new wave/punk number, speaks for itself: this time the grisly joke is the outro. Yusef’s gracefully tumbling Atrocity Exhibition-style drums bookend On an Island, a gorgeously symphonic, surreal esape ballad. Baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane caps off Haze, a ba-bump cabaret-tinged number, with an incisively lyrical solo.

The band close with Undertow, a dynamically shifting, baroque-tinged anthem, late Beatles through a glass darkly. Changing Modes’ records have been ubiquitous on this blog’s annual Best Albums of the Year page since day one and this one will be high on the list for 2021.

Lurid, Lowlit, Slyly Reinvented Lounge Sounds From the Tiki Collective

Why did David Lynch take the title of his iconic second film from a lounge song? Because lounge jazz is creepy, and seedy, and phantasmagorical. Not everything on the Tiki Collective’s 2018 debut album Muse – streaming at Spotify – is creepy. In fact, some of the Toronto crew’s reinventions of pop hits are funny as hell, in a sarcastic Richard Cheese vein. But there’s sinister stuff here that’s perfect for any Halloween party playlist you have planned for this year.

The group chose a different vocalist for each song. There are subtle, ominous touches – a reverb guitar riff from Eric St-Lauren, a ripple of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone – in I’ve Never Left Your Arms, sung by Genevieve Marentette. With its moody klezmer overtones, It’s a good choice to open the record.

Did you know that Harlem Nocturne and Mood Indigo had words? Joanna Majoko and Tyra Juta do, and they sing them. Neither version is up to Ellington level…or the Ventures for that matter. The first of the really funny numbers is the Fleetwood Mac hit Hypnotized, reinvented as a deadpan, brooding soul song with Heather Luckhart and the Willows out front.

The Willows return with Melissa Lauren for a Sade-ized version of Don’t Fear the Reaper, which is also funny, though not quite as ridiculously surreal as Bobtown’s bluegrass cover. Speaking of Sade, guest singer Paget reaches for dreamy ambience in a slow, trip-hop influenced take of The Sweetest Taboo: the original vocalist would do just as well with these guys behind her.

The reliably excellent Lily Frost’s airy delivery matches the band’s spare Asian inflections in Mountain High, Valley Low. Irene Torres sings a muted, remarkable southwestern gothic remake of the old cheeseball mambo Quizas Quizas Quizas. Likewise, Chelsea Bridge gets the album’s most menacingly lingering intro before singer Mingjia Chen’s vocalese takes over.

There are two originals on the album. Avery Raquel sings the fluttering, bossa-tinged Dreaming, while Denielle Bassels closes the record with The Wanderer, a Ricky Nelson-style pop song. Also included are pretty straight-up covers of All Too Soon and I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Jocelyn Barth and Jessica LaLonde, respectively.

Catchy, Bittersweet 60s Pop-Influenced Sounds and a Couple of Brooklyn Gigs From War Violet

Songwriter Jummy Aremu performs under the name War Violet. She writes catchy, anthemic, assertive songs and sings in a resonant, unpretentious voice. Her music has a strong 60s influence, both on the folk side and the pop side: Burt Bacharach-era Dionne Warwick is a good comparison. Aremu sold out the vinyl edition of her latest ep, Getaway, but it’s still streaming at Bandcamp. She’s at Our Wicked Lady on July 27 at 10 PM for $12. Then she’s at Pete’s on July 31 at 10 for the tip jar.

The first track on the record, Just For the Night is one of the most elegant songs ever written about a one-night stand, the synth orchestration sweeping over Arenmu’s spare guitar. “I’ve been to all of the parties in my day,” Aremu intones soberly in the album’s bossa-tinged second track: they must not have been much fun.

The big, exasperatedly poignant singalong here is the title track: “I don’t need this, I don’t need this,” is the mantra. With just emphatic acoustic guitar, snappy bass and a string synth, it’s simple, direct and will be wafting through your head for hours

The last track is I Hope I See You Again, a mix of sparkle and scruffiness: “Just look to the wall for answers big and small.” War Violet also has a Soundcloud page which probably predates the Bandcamp tracks and as you can imagine, the songs are rougher, but it shows she hit the ground running. Since last year’s lockdown, there’s been more attrition than ever in what you might call the rock scene here: good thing for us that War Violet stuck around.

A Brilliant, Spot-On 60s-Style Psychedelic Debut From Langan Frost & Wane

Langan Frost & Wane are a fantastic psychedelic folk-pop band. Their debut album – streaming at Spotify – straddles the line between period-perfect homage to their influences from the 60s, and parody of psychedelic excess. Brian Langan, RJ Gilligan (a.k.a. Frost) and Nam Wayne‘s songcraft and musicianship is very precise and very British, distantly sinister Elizabethan folk surrealism spiced with a hit of good blotter. The blend of acoustic and electric textures is elegant; most of these songs are over in well under four minutes, sometimes much less. Yet this isn’t sunshine pop: there’s a persistent disquieted edge here. Acid is scary stuff, after all.

The opening track, Perhaps the Sorcerer sets the stage: it’s Jethro Tull meets the Peanut Butter Conspiracy out behind the Moody Blues’ tour van in a shady Laurel Canyon back alley around 1970. With its gorgeously uneasy close-harmonied vocals, mellotron and faux-Balkan guitars, it’s done in less than 2:30.

The Dandelion has somberly arpeggiated folk guitar behind all sorts of goofy mid-60s effects including a jawharp, akin to an acoustic Dukes of Stratosphear. Falcon Ridge is a medieval Scottish-tinged waltz – the singer assures his girl that he will be there with “wagons of wine in tow.”

Babe and the Devil, a murder mystery tale, is a delta blues as the Stones would have done it on Beggars Banquet, complete with djembe instead of Charlie Watts’ drums. The band channel the Pretty Things at their trippy mid-60s peak in King Laughter, guitar sitar oscillating and clanging behind the song’s troubled narrative: where do good times go when they’re over?

Delicate hammer-on folk guitar mingles with glockenspiel in Everyday Phoenix. Frozen Shell comes across as a tripped-out take on gloomy Celtic balladry. On the surface, Learn the Names of the Plants sounds like Peter Paul & Mary, but there’s guile here: “Know the nightshade from the blueberry and live to see tomorrow!”

Gentle penumbral oscillations from the guitars enhance the unease in the stark, minor-key Libra Moon. Is Alchemist of Hazy Row about a sad drug dealer or a bereaved father? Maybe neither – the soaring violin solo is a tantalizingly plaintive touch, and the ending is way too good to give away. It might be the best song on the album.

The trio go back to SF Sorrow-era Pretty Things for The Weaver and the Traveler, with hobbits on the keys to liven the somber mood. Then they shift from a pounding, echoey dulcimer theme to Moody Blues sweep and Syd Barrett playfulness in Orange Magic

Set to an aptly feathery web of acoustic guitars, Everywing is a brooding medieval existentialist love story. She Walks Alone could be a sequel, and is the only remotely Beatlesque track here. The album closes with the pensive, enigmatic, violin-fueled Diomyria. Admittedly, 2021 has been the slowest year for rock records since rock records first existed. But even in a busy year, this would be one of the best.

Aviva Chernick Mashes Up Haunting Old Ladino Songs With Americana

Aviva Chernick has an expressive, honeyed voice and leads an eclectic, sometimes psychedelically tinged band who reinvent old songs from across the Sephardic diaspora. Her album La Sirena, which also contains several of Chernick’s originals, is streaming at Bandcamp. If you think old Jewish songs and American country music have nothing in common, you haven’t heard this strangely beguiling record.

It begins with A Ti Espanya, a fond, gentle waltz.  Chernick sings Min Hametzar in Ladino and English, a brooding, metrically tricky psychedelic folk tune with Joel Schwartz’s moody washes of steel guitar over Justin Gray and Derek Gray’s rock rhythm section: “They call to you from an aeroplane,” is the refrain.

With Schwartz’s bluegrass-tinged leads Kol Dodi is the strangest old brooding medieval nigun you’ll ever hear, Likewise, the album’s title track, a muted bolero, has a simmering roadhouse blues undercurrent. And Arvoles Yorvan could be Dolly Parton…in Ladino, with National steel guitar and dobro swooping in the background.

The sad waltz Este Montanya de Enfrente has a delicate web of acoustic and Portuguese guitars. Notwithstanding her big crescendo on that one, Chernick’s alternately misty and acerbic delivery on a muted take of the traditional Adon Olam could be the album’s high point: the melody makes a good Balkan-tinged bounce. Chernick closes the record with the a-cappella miniature Rikondus de Mi Nona. The album also includes a couple of blithe tunes by Bosnian singer Flory Jagoda.

Irresistibly Fun Retro Cinematic Themes From Sven Wunder

Sven Wunder, like the soul/funk icon whose name he’s appropriated, is pretty much a one-man band. His specialty is balmy, cinematic instrumental themes with a psychedelic, late 60s/early 70s European feel. One good comparison is Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack in a particularly calm or pastoral moment. Among current bands, Tredici Bacci are another. This second Wunder’s playful, entertaining new album Natura Morta is streaming at Bandcamp.

Tinkly piano and fluttering flute breeze into the album’s opening track, En Plein Air before the strings go sweeping over a lithe, bouncy beat spiced with chiming keys. Is that an electric harpsichord? Is that real brass or the artificial kind?

More of those brassy patches alternate with brittle, trebly vintage clavinova, echoey Rhodes and sinuous hollowbody bass in Impasto. Prussian Blue begins with a cheery piano cascade and rustling flute but quickly becomes a strutting motorik surf rock theme. Surf popcorn? Popcorn surf?

The album’s title track is hardly the dirge the title implies: it comes across as a sort of orchestrated 70s soul take on Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain. Wunder subtly edges the beat in Panorama into a 6/8 sway with 12-string acoustic guitar, wafting strings and winds, and vintage keyboard textures.

He goes back to vampy, lushly orchestrated early 70s soul with Alla Prima, those layers of 12-string guitar sparkling overhead. The sparkle continues in Umber, which has a somewhat more uneasy, pensive edge. Barocco, Ma Non Troppo is a funny little number: it’s a canon of sorts, but with shuffling syncopation and a funky Rhodes interlude

Wry low-register clavinova contrasts with the sweep of the strings in Memento Mori: the message seems to be, let’s party while we can. Pentimento is the album’s most hypnotic track, sheets of strings and winds shifting through the mix over growly, clustering bass. Wunder reprises the title track at the end with slip-key piano that’s just a hair out of tune. Somewhere there’s an arthouse movie director or two who need this guy.

Azure Ray Return With a Gorgeously Lyrical Psychedelic Pop Record

It’s been twenty years since Azure Ray put out their debut album, a major influence on a generation of bedroom pop perpetrators which was finally issued for the first time on vinyl this year. In the years since, the duo of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink have not been idle, and they have a brand new album, Remedy, streaming at Bandcamp. In general, it’s more lush and keyboard-oriented, without the group’s earlier Americana touches. The vocals are calm but strong and the lyrics are fantastic: there’s a persistent existentialist streak throughout many of these otherwise warmly shimmery songs.

“How do you say hello when you know there is no more? What do you dream about when you’re not swallowing swords?” the two ask in the opening track, a spare, Lennonesque piano ballad.

They revert to the loopy keyboard pastiches they explored on their debut album in the second track, Bad Dream, but with more of a spacy, dreampop-influenced feel. It’s a wake-up call, possibly referencing an abusive relationship.

Likewise, there’s a gentle spacerock sway to Phantom Lover, swirly keys and chilly guitar clang over a simple drum machine loop. “All we’ve got is what we’ve done,” the duo observe in Already Written, an allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem that’s one of the best songs of the year:

I want to bite my tongue, I’m never great with decisions
Got a lot to be desired but never asked for permission
Thank god I was raised this way
Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen
Try to write it down but it’s already written
How I miss those days

The album’s title track has a lush hypnotic web of guitars and a lyric that seems to reference the Trump era:

Stand alone in an empty room
Scared to stay, stared to bloom
Little beast clawing at my door
I call for peace, they call for war…
I’ve disadmired old tendencies
A secret greed in the cemetery

“If you think about it long enough, you’ll question everything you know,” the two remind, over the surreal blend of acoustic guitar and drifting keys in Desert Waterfall. They stick with the spare/sleek dichotomy in Grow What You Want and How Wild: finally, seven tracks in, we get a pedal steel.

The Swan is the most sweepingly angst-fueled, orchestrated number here, a hauntingly allusive tale of a steep decline:

Another fight for the waking light
Did you lose your wings at a sacrifice
It’s impossible to understand
And what tore your fingers back from your closed-up fist
You closed your eyes with confidence
It’s impossible to understand

29 Palms, a strangely successful mashup of atmospheric Americana and balletesque chamber pop, is a soberly imagistic breakup narrative. They close the record with the techy, blippy I Don’t Want To Want To: “Inside part of me has died but I still have a photograph.” Who would have thought that Azure Ray would make an album in 2021, let alone that it would be one of the best of the year!

A Richly Lyrical, Understatedly Haunting New Album From the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris

With his usual modesty, Gary Louris would probably call himself the co-leader of the Jayhawks. But the reality is that they didn’t become one of the best bands in the world until he took over as their main songwriter. And that’s not meant as disrespect to Karen Grotberg, Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan, whose harmonies became so crucial to Louris’ eclectic lyrical brilliance, which blends influences from Big Star, to Bowie, to all sorts of Americana and psychedelia.

Beyond the Jayhawks, Louris has released plenty of material, notably with Golden Smog. His latest solo record, Jump for Joy is streaming at Spotify. The title could be taken at face value, or as total sarcasm. It’s definitely an album for our time: the spectre of death and impending doom hangs over many of the songs here, although there’s some upbeat material as well.

He opens with Almost Home, a cheerfully shuffling, Tex-Mex flavored, band-on-the-road saga livened by his usual colorful narrative detail. Living in Between could be the Jayhawks: gorgeously Beatlesque vocal harmonies, bittersweet changes, some George Harrison-ish slide guitar and an allusively troubled look at the bewildering state of the world. “All the books that I have read didn’t get me through,” Louris concedes. Ain’t that the truth.

Set to a hypnotic web of open-tuned acoustic guitars, White Squirrel is another typically imagistic number, a hopeful anthem for anyone who feels alienated and atomized by encroaching New Abnormal fascism. It’s Louris’ Rock N Roll Suicide.

Driven by a sunshiney keyboard riff that wouldn’t be out of place on the Jayhawks’ Smile album, the fourth track is titled New Normal. It’s surreal to the extreme, although Louris finally drops the facade as his guitar solo goes sputtering over the edge, the world outside “gathering like slow death, nipping at your heels.”

He salutes John Updike in the glamrock anthem after that: it brings to mind Ward White‘s most literary work. The guitars chime and shimmer throughout the Merseybeat-flavored next cut, Follow. The rest of the record alternates gloomy numbers with contrasting optimism, beginning with the richly textured, wintry guitars of Too Late the Key, a somber contemplation of missed exits with potentially catastrophic results.

One Way Conversation is an enigmatic, pensive, possibly elegaic number with tinges of Kraftwerk, Indian music and the Grateful Dead. The album’s chiming, lush title track is very guardedly exuberant: “Hip hip hooray for the longue dureé, bearing this parade of souls.” He closes with the eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic Dead Man’s Burden. It asks more questions than it answers. Do we have it in us to transcend the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way? We’re going to have to figure that out this fall and winter when the toll from the needle of death starts to skyrocket.