New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: pulp band

A Good-Natured Change of Pace for Nicole Atkins

Goth music can be a riot, especially when it’s not trying to be. Same deal with Nicole Atkins‘ latest album, Slow Phaser, streaming at Spotify. It’s a sharp turn away from the brooding, frequently lurid, Americana-tinged sound that’s been her stock in trade. In much the same vein as Pulp, who built a career out of being simultaneously creepy and funny, this one goes in a satirical retro 70s and 80s vein. It’s a keyboard-driven album. Organ and an endless supply of cheesy vintage synth patches pop up everywhere, in lieu of the Irina Yalkowsky guitar solos that have made much of Atkins’ work so consistently intense. Atkins will be playing a lot of this new stuff, no doubt, at Madison Square Park on June 18 at 7 PM and if you’re going you should get there early.

Not everything on the album is funny and sarcastic. There’s We Wait Too Long, which looks back to early 80s Siouxsie & the Banshees: “I will soon find something wrong for you to find in me, I will bend the melody until it bleeds,” Atkins intones. With its creepy keys and church organ, Red Ropes is typical Atkins noir. “‘I’ll always be a prizefighter beaten up against the ropes; you’ll always be a liar, punchdrunk on busted hopes,” she laments. Then she segues into What Do You Know, which shifts from unexpectedly funky to 80s goth-pop with more of that ominous organ. And from there, into Gasoline Bride, which starts out as a savage Nashville gothic escape anthem but then goes into high camp as the synth raises the cheese factor to redline.

Building out of a cool noir piano-and-organ intro, It’s Only Chemistry becomes a blithely carnivalesque mashup of noir, oldschool soul and circus rock. Atkins reaches for a parched desperation against a backdrop of theatrical 80s goth-pop on The Worst Hangover. A wry miniature, Sin Song loops an acoustic guitar riff straight out of Supertramp underneath an obscenely amusing punk rock mantra.

Cool People nicks the riff from Walk on Wild Side, a snide outsider’s anthem juxtaposing silly synth flourishes with a typically moody Atkins lyric. There are also a couple of straight-up retro 70s disco songs: Who Killed the Moonlight, and the sarcastic post-party brushoff scenario Girl You Look Amazing. The album ends on a somberly enveloping note with the mysterious, swayingly nocturnal, metaphorically-charged seafaring anthem Above As Below, bringing to mind a slow ballad by the Church from around 1990 or so. Which could be a sign that since Atkins has had her fun, it’s time to go back to the shadows she knows so well.

Amanda Palmer: Pink Floyd for Girls?

So much has been written about Amanda Palmer that it obscures her music. Palmer is playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors this coming Friday, August 9 with her band the Grand Theft Orchestra at around 8:30: noir cabaret band Rosin Coven opens at 7:30 and you had better be there early if you’re going. For those who might be interested, this is an attempt to make sense of Palmer’s most recent album Theatre Is Evil (famously available as a name-your-price download at her website) without letting any of the media or social media static get in the way. If you dial up the Pitchfork app the second you get a signal, or you’re already in the Cult of Amanda, this won’t mean a thing to you: it’s for the suspiciously large percentage of us who aren’t in the clique. For what it’s worth, Palmer really gives you a lot of bang for the buck: a grand total of nineteen cuts including several b-sides and a full-color insert.

This is a glamrock album, a loosely thematic collection that traces the predictable decline of a doomed relationship: the album title could just as easily be called Drama Is Evil. Palmer’s songwriting draws on a long tradition of British bands that starts with David Bowie and runs through Suede and Blur and Pulp. When she’s at the top of her game, Palmer is plaintive and insightful: her songs can be shattering. When she’s not, the sounds veer closers to Paramore or the mostly forgotten infestation of focus-grouped Myspace-era Fueled by Ramen acts. Guitarist Chad Raines plays terse, lingering sustained lines and big crunchy chords; bassist Jherek Bischoff likes big dramatic slides up the scale as drummer Michael McQuilken holds down an explosive, pounding beat.

Palmer is a solid tunesmith and has a flair (oh, what flair!) for the dramatic. She likes a lot of reverb on her angst-ridden alto vocals. Her worldview is cynical, her sense of humor bleak but absolutely spot on: those who haven’t heard this have no idea of how deliciously funny she can be.

After a big flourish of an intro, the album beigns with Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen), a synth-fueled anthem that ponders the point where “everybody in the world was either getting killed or getting footage of the killing” – much as the songs are an interpersonal chronicle, Palmer never loses sight of the world outside. The Killing Type is a pacifist anthem – as it builds to an ominous reverb-drenched crescendo, the one thing that Palmer wants to kill is apathy. Do It with a Rockstar manages to be both funny and poignant: “All the practice in the world won’t get me good at loneliness,” Palmer wails. Even rock stars have their bad days and don’t always get what they want.

After a diversion toward top 40, Palmer brings back the laughs with Grown Men Cry: her critique of corporate radio pop lyrics is hysterical, and she nails it. And then abruptly shifts the mood into moody piano-based art-rock with Trout Heart Replica and its fish metaphors (which will recur later). A brief, mightily swelling circus-rock interlude follows, and then Lost, a catchy, death-obsessed anthem.

Bottomfeeder evokes Aimee Mann with its stately broken chords and more of that fish imagery, a pensive jab at a drama queen to snap out of it.  The album’s centerpiece, and most powerful moment is The Bed Song. Over chilly, sterile, waltzing piano, Palmer traces the long, slow decline of a WASPy couple. By the time you see them, the best is already over, and the cold grows more deadly as they make the jump from sketchy industrial loft to comfortable condo. You think you know where this song is going, but you don’t: as a portrait of existential angst, it’s telling, and it’s crushing.

Massachusetts Avenue brings back the powerpop, with a bitter, heartbroken bite and a similarly crushing ending, in a cemetery. Palmer picks up the pace with Melody Dean and its My Sharona quotes, then the towering anthem, Berlin. It’s Palmer’s brooding take on a familiar theme, angst-ridden American expat in search of a “space where your brain and your heart collide…a practical place you can hide.” But it doesn’t turn out that way. The cycle ends with the savage Olly Olly Oxen Free, which could be about a death or just an imagined one, its drama queen “gardening a rotting bed of Raygun era icons” and eventually leaving a situation where “your father, your sister, your drummer are sorting through your Soft Cell tapes and your Lifesaver collection.”

The b-sides are good.  The vengefully bouncy cabaret-pop tune Denial Thing might be the key to the album, while The Living Room sounds like Jenifer Jackson singing a Botanica epic (although she would have done it in twenty words instead of five hundred). The Ukulele Song, which went viral a couple of years ago, remains pretty much unsurpassed as brilliantly vitriolic pro-art antiwar statement. The final track is the dreamy, regret-tinged From St. Kilda to Fitzroy.

Who is the audience for this? Beyond the glamrock crowd – some who will see this as camp or kitsch and completely miss the point – it could be people who like Pink Floyd. Or the women and girls who gravitate toward lush, orchestrated sounds but can’t get into Roger Waters’ male-centric world. As a strong woman with a perceptive worldview to match her insight into the psychopathology of human relations, Palmer could be a female Waters.

A Lush Lyrical Masterpiece from the Leisure Society

The Leisure Society play erudite, wickedly catchy, smart chamber pop and art-rock. Frontman Nick Hemming’s vocals are gentle but resolute; his tunesmithing is brilliant and his influences reveal him as someone who’s listened widely and deeply to decades worth of literate rock. The references fly fast and furious on the band’s new album Alone Aboard the Ark: the Kinks (not surprising, since Ray Davies sought them out to record at his Konk Studios, where they cut the record more or less live), Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Pulp, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, obscure but sometimes brilliant 80s bands like the Wild Swans and Shelleyan Orphan. The album is streaming at the NY Times, of all places. The British press – always with a chip on its shoulder, more than willing to misrepresent in order to win an American audience – has compared them to Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists and the like, which is ridiculous, since the Leisure Society’s hooks hit you like a Rolls-Royce with no brakes and their lyrics are also strong.

The album’s opening track, Another Sunday Psalm, contrasts a breezy backbeat acoustic guitar-and-piano pop tune with Hemming’s pensive lyric:

Can you keep this pose too many other cats are craving
They’re polishing their claws and saying in fifteen words
What took me years to hang my name upon 

A Softer Voice Takes Longer Hearing sets a cynical, morose lyric over twangy Lynchian bolero pop: “Every hour is a cavalcade to be gazed upon as it slips away,” Hemming muses.  Fight for Everyone, inspired by watching the 2012 Olympics, kicks off with trumpet from Mumford & Sons’ Nick Etwell, then the period-perfect, drolly oscillating 80s synth kicks in. Faux Rick Wakeman riffage underscores the relentless bombast and pressure that elite athletes have to endure even before the starting gun fires.

Tearing the Arches Down sardonically mingles Ziggy-era Bowie and late T Rex glam, like Edward Rogers in a particularly 1972 moment. The album’s best song is the Sylvia Plath homage The Sober Scent of Paper, Botanica noir filtered through the misty prism of 70s Britfolk – a free download in exchange for your email. All I Have Seen blends northern soul with Ronsonesque glam, building to a mad crescendo, while Everyone Understands is La Bamba as Botanica might have done it, a bitter sendup of a drama queen in 7/8 time. “What do you get for all this freewheeling? A pirouette in a castle of sand,” Hemming grouses.

Life is a Cabriolet (Edwardian British for convertible) juxtaposes bouncy swing with a doomed cynicism, followed by the similarly cynical cabaret-infused chamber pop song One Man & His Fug. The Romany-flavored title track of sorts, Forever We Shall Wait follows a Jarvis Cocker-style party animal’s desperate trajectory up to a big circus rock ending. Gay overkill doesn’t set in til the last two tracks, and if homoeroticism is your thing, you’ll like those songs too. Big-studio 1970s production values and lush yet terse playing from multi-instrumentalist Christian Hardy, violinist Mike Siddell, cellist William Calderbank, flutist Helen Whitaker, bassist Darren Bonehill and drummer Sebastian Hankins propel this magnificent beast. A lock for one of the best albums of 2013.

Haunting, Picturesque Retro Chamber Pop from Jon DeRosa

Jon DeRosa’s latest album A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes is sort of the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen; or in a more modern context, between Ward White and Mark Sinnis. DeRosa grew up with punk, then took a plunge into goth (his Aarktika project was his main gig until he ventured into dark Americana in the mid-zeros). This one – available on vinyl in the US from Motherwest and out on Nov 5 from Rocket Girl in Europe – finds him alternating between dark, lushly crooned, Scott Walker-inflected chamber pop and more minimalist, postpunk-tinged, distantly creepy rock. Violinist Claudia Chopek’s string arrangements – also featuring Julia Kent on cello – are to die for, a rich, velvety chocolate truffle for the ears. Overhead, DeRosa’s nuanced, cat-ate-the-canary baritone lingers, sometimes ominous, sometimes with more than a hint of rakishness. And he paints a hell of a picture.

Birds of Brooklyn sets the scene, DeRosa’s crepuscular croon over Burt Bacharach-inflected chamber pop. It’s a cruel juxtaposition: all eyes are on the gentrifier girl, including the old blue-collar guy with the “thousand yard stare” drinking boilermakers and stuck with “love songs on the underside of the sports page, in a nom de plume.” That’s DeRosa’s genius: this scenario could go from elegance to cliche in a second, but he never caves in to sentimentality. This is one cynical album.

True Men sets a more wistful tone, boxing serving as its central metaphor. Over a sweeping arrangement straight out of late 50s Ricky Nelson, DeRosa lets the double entendres fly. “I’ve woken the neighbors, after hard nights of labor,” is the closing mantra. And who hasn’t? But the way he sets it up – and then knocks it down – is sweet science.

Over lush 80s goth-rock, Snow Coffin paints a chillingly allusive nocturnal scene lowlit by Sam Lazzara’s vibraphone, drummer Mike Pride throwing in some deadpan Atrocity Exhibition rolls. Teenage Goths is as sardonically funny as you’d hope it would be: it sounds like an outtake from a mid-90s Pulp album.

The hypnotic, echoey Tattooed Lady’s Blues paints an ominous afterparty scenario, with a cruelly offhand Lou Reed reference. By contrast, Who Decides balances jauntiness with a more somber noir 60s Orbisonesque vibe, weighing whether or not a “kiss is just as kiss – the sun that also rises might bring surprises.” Again, Pride’s Sonny Bono/Phil Spector drumming is spot-on. After that, DeRosa keeps the guarded optimism going with the clever, coy Don’t Say Goodnight.

Ladies in Love sets plaintive washes of strings against DeRosa’s starkly fingerpicked acoustic guitar; the album’s closing track, Hollow Earth Theory – previously released as an Aarktika song – takes the swirling, hypnotic factor up a notch.

DeRosa also gives a welcome sheen, heft and bulk to the Blue Nile‘s bitterly minimalist Easter Parade. Hearing it only makes you wonder what he could do with, say, John Cale’s Paris 1919. Throughout the album, the playing is understatedly seamless, terse, and tuneful, also including contributions from JJ Beck on accordion, Charles Newman on organ, Kendrick Strauch on piano, Matt Basile on electric and upright bass and a horn section of James Duncan on trumpet and Jon Natchez on a small army’s worth of instruments. One of the most haunting and intriguing albums of 2012: you”ll see this on the best albums of the year page here at the end of December if we make it that far.

Artsy Rockers Changing Modes Put Out Their Darkest and Best Album

For a dozen years, New York band Changing Modes have been been putting out solidly good, smart albums that blend an artsy 80s pop vibe with darker, sometimes more punk-oriented sounds. It’s not clear what the band name refers to – maybe that fashions come and go, but that good music is timeless. Although the group has three synthesizers, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them as retroists since they’re a lot more eclectic than the legions of Simple Minds and New Order worshippers. Their songs aren’t exactly trendy – imagine Pulp at their most enigmatic and biting, casually ferocious guitars amid swirly, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes lurid keys. Of their seven albums, Changing Modes’ new one, In Flight, is their fifth full-length effort, their most complex and opaque and arguably their best. Keyboardist Wendy Griffiths – who has a second career as an indie classical composer – typically fronts the band; the rest of the group includes singer/keyboardists Jen Rondeau (who also plays theremin) and Grace Pulliam (who also plays percussion), while Yuzuru Sadashige and Denise Mei Yan Hofmann switch between guitar and bass and David Oromaner provides brisk, punchy beats behind the drum kit.

Anger, apprehension and disappointment run deep in these hard-hitting songs. “Will you save for a Brave New World?” Griffiths scarcastically asks over the shuffling disco beat of Particle Collider as it spins further and further toward total annihilating chaos. The insistent piano pop of Life Drawing reflects on a lifetime of regret and disillusion, while Ghost in the Backseat, all one minute 42 seconds of it, reminds of X with its roaring guitar chromatics and unhinged noiserock solo. Anger and menace take centerstage in Down to You, lit up by tremoloing noir guitar: “Comatose and broken, you escape into a dream – did it hit you like a ton of bricks when she told you it wasn’t?” Griffiths asks with a vengeful swoop at the end of the line.

The closest thing to Pulp here is Blue, a cynical, murderously creepy piano tune sung by one of the guys in the band. The Politics of Fear strips the psychology of a police state to the basics, switching from snarling guitar-disco to a darkly carnivalesque waltz and then back again, with a deliciously atonal horror-guitar solo from Sadashige, while Professional Girl puts a feminist spin on uneasy Henry Mancini-style latin pop. Twisted circus piano, an all-too-brief theremin solo and some neat counterpoint between the keyboards all factor into the cryptic Firewall; To the Left sets a venomous lyric over sunny, bouncy 60s Carnaby Street pop. Likewise, Chinatown tells the anxious tale of a killer on the lam over torchy, pulsing cabaret-pop: “A list of accusations, DNA and information, read it on a sunny afternoon when Chinatown looks beautiful.” Houses of Cards, a cinematic noir-pop spy-on-the-run tale, unwinds with surreal layers of vocals; the album closes with the title track, its ominous Pink Floyd melody twinkling out with the steady pings of a glockenspiel.

While Griffiths is responsible for most of the writing here, Rondeau’s three contributions make up some of the strongest tracks. Nature of the Beast, a brooding, funereal, bitter kiss-off anthem blends Procol Harum gothic with a torchy cabaret vibe: “Left his message on the pillow sham/Doesn’t say a word, he’s an honest man,” Rondeau asserts coldly. Knock Once adds a macabre edge to a wounded, vintage soul-infused ballad, while the barely two-minute Thunderwing pulses along on a delicately reverberating Fender Rhodes bossa beat. And Reflection, by Pulliam, mines a lushly orchestrated wah-wah Philly soul ambience, layers of keyboards blaring ominously in place of what would have been guitars and strings forty years ago. Sixteen songs, and they’re all excellent – can you name another band who’ve done that this year? Probably not. Count this among the year’s best albums, another triumph for a group that deserves to be vastly better known than they are. Changing Modes are busy right now: they’re playing Trash tonight at 9, then a Make Music NY show scheduled for 3 PM at the boathouse in Prospect Park tomorrow. They’ll also be at Local 269 on July 5 at 10.

Hannah vs. the Many’s New Album Packs a Wallop

If you like the idea of Amanda Palmer but the nerdgirl shtick makes you want to barf, Hannah vs. the Many is the band for you. Their new album All Our Heroes Drank Here is streaming at their Bandcamp site, where it’s onsale for a sarcastic-as-hell $1. Hannah Fairchild’s acidic, unaffectedly malevolent, frequently menacing songs chronicle a bleak early 21st century depression-era New York drenched in disappointment and despair. She sings with a powerful wail, has a laserlike feel for a catchy tune and a worldview that’s something less than optimistic, no surprise given the uneasy, desperate milieu her characters inhabit. Her women drink hard and crash hard when their diminishing sense of hope finally deserts them – imagine a female Jarvis Cocker, or Aimee Mann in a really bad mood, with a harder-rocking band.

Over the roar and the chime of the guitars, Fairchild slings torrents of lyrics:

Looking for your echoes in the melodies I’ve found
There are songs I sing on days you’re not around
Every time the notes are pretty, every time the notes fail me
No kiss is ever more than sugar sweet
No affection is ever more than river deep

she wails, in Muse, the album’s loudest song, a hellbent, galloping rocker. Interestingly, her most opaque lyric is set to the album’s most striking, unpredictably memorable tune, the new wave-tinged Better Off My Way. Yet that one ends cruelly as well, her shellshocked protagonist standing in the harbor up to her ankles, freezing and fooling nobody. The most unselfconsciously beautiful song on the album, and maybe its strongest track, is Jordan Baker. Lushly watery Rickenbacker guitar chiming and mingling with the piano, Fairchild casually yet meticulously paints a picture that was doomed from the start – and it ends ambiguously with what might be a suicide…or maybe just the apocalypse.

Other songs are driven more by frustration and rage than by total emotional depletion. The bouncy, dramatic opening track, A Biography of Cells caustically chronicles a would-be up-and-coming New Yorker’s frustrations in an all-too-familiar milieu that later reaches fever pitch in the corrosive noir cabaret song The Party Faithful. Proof of Movement, a frustration anthem, contrasts a claustrophobic lyric with a bustling, insistent piano-driven art-rock melody, while 20 Paces quietly and apprehensively explores a budding, doomed, drunken relationship. True Believers is a lushly orchestrated art-rock anthem that takes an offhand swipe at a crowd who “came to be seen and we stay for the show, coming together to stand here alone.” The rest of the album includes an apprehensively glimmering chamber-rock ballad simply titled Nocturne, and the lickety-split noir cabaret scenario Hideous/Adorable. There’s a lot to like here – fans of noir rock, steampunk and gypsy rock as well as classic lyrical songwriters from Elvis Costello to Randi Russo should check out this band: solid, purist playing from Matthew Healy on piano, Jake W-M on bass, Erica Harsch on drums, Josh Fox on guitar and Meredith Leich on violin. It’s an early contender for best rock record of 2012.