The Brixton Riot are sort of an American counterpart to the Jam. Unlike the punk-era legends, their rhythms are more straight-ahead, four-on-the-floor, and the presence of two guitarists gives them a roaring, sometimes shimmering edge that the British band didn’t always have. And where the Jam looked to the Who and older American R&B bands for tunes, the Brixton Riot’s latest album Palace Amusements blends a Guided by Voices assault with catchy Big Star-influenced powerpop, sometimes veering into swirling dreampop or even toward the indie side of country. But otherwise the two bands have a lot in common, particularly a sharply literate lyrical vision. Frontman/guitarist Jerry Lardieri’s presence is strong but understated: much of the time this band lets the guitars do the talking. And that’s a great thing because they’re a blast; lead player Mark Wright adds some genuinely face-peeling intensity here. On top of all of this, the album is gorgeously produced: most bands these days can barely make it through a single verse before they loop it a couple of times and then call it done, but these guys fine-tune the sonic spectrum for ringing overtones, wailing bluesy lines, roaring punk rock grit and plenty of lush, attractive jangle and clang. Hardly anyone makes albums anymore that sound this good.
The title track, Signal to Noise, is an instant insight into how they work. The title is a snide metaphor for current pop music, “a hollow sound across the nation, signal to noise ratio.” It starts out with an insistent staccato riff, a bit like Wire, then morphs into something like a cross between GBV at their most lucid and Ted Leo at his least self-absorbed. The second track, Hard to See the Sun explores suburban anomie: “Keeping to yourself ’cause you love a mystery, deleting all the ghosts from your family history – it’s fine, it won’t change,” Lardieri observes sarcastically. There’s a series of big, shimmery dreampop swells, some nice terse slide guitar licks and then an offhandedly savage Mark Wright solo that goes chord-chopping and then sidewinding evilly into the last chorus. Wright is dangerous player, the rare lead guitarist you want to hear more from.
Canvas Shoes is just plain hilarious. With their silly accents and the music they’re compelled to make in order to conform to their peer group, the pampered children of Bushwick and Wicker Park make easy targets. But this is priceless: “Hey pretty boy, you know who you are, in your sister’s clothes, with your father’s guitar,” and it only gets better from there. The flip side of that equation is reflected in the scorching Motown rocker Our Cover’s Been Blown, an anxious and probably autobiographical look at a band staring at what looks more and more like a dead end, with “an easy road back to the commuter crawl,” as Lardieri bleakly puts it. They go back to only slightly less mean and sarcastic with Hipster Turns 30, a spot-on commentary for those on the wrong side of that number whose “accounts are overdrawn, no more rent checks from mom,” who’re finally trading in any claim to coolness in order to become their parents all over again.
Pinwheel stomps from a steady intro from bassist Steve Hass and drummer Matt Horutz to a catchy, Reducers-flavored pub rock tune, with more tremolo-picked menace from Wright, while Strange Matter sends out a snarling thank-you to the Jam’s Strange Town. But the closest thing to the Jam here is actually Ocean Avenue, punchy verse giving way to roaring chorus as Lardieri tells the bitter tale of a rocker who sees his neighborhood being destroyed by gentrification along with his dreams of not having to “turn all the amps down.”
The raging yet furtive Keep It a Secret takes a backbeat country tune and disguises it as punk, like Twin Turbine might have done ten years ago: it makes a good anthem for the era of Occupy sites. The bitter It’s Been Too Long goes deeper into a chronicle of a band reaching crisis point, with what by now is an expectedly cynical outlook:
Please spare me the speech, let’s get on with the rot
And count all the breaks that we never got
Let’s stop talking trash, let’s make a new start
Are we breaking new ground or just breaking apart?
The album ends with Losing Streak, one of the great baseball songs in the history of rock – trying to figure out if it’s pure fiction or a thinly veiled account of an actual blue-chip hitting prospect who’s going bust is maddening. When the band throws in a droll Wilco quote toward the end, that’s the only relief in sight. Like a lot of New Jersey bands, the Brixton Riot has been making Maxwell’s their home lately for live shows when they’re not playing in Manhattan; watch this space for upcoming dates.