Back in 2004, hauntingly lyrical punk/metal group the Larval Organs were one of New York’s hottest bands. They’d just released their second brilliant ep and frontman Dan Penta – who seemed to change his stage name every month or so – was at the top of his unhinged game as avatar for a million alienated, tortured souls. Then the band’s lead guitarist moved away. After that, they played a few shows and then pretty much disintegrated. Since that time, Penta has become more and more elusive a presence here but has remained one of the world’s most criminally underappreciated songwriters. No one mines the darkest corners of the human psyche with more insight, and gallows humor, and surrealistic expertise.
After the Larval Organs, he led an austerely elegant chamber pop unit called Hearth, when he wasn’t playing solo as Cockroach Bernstein or collaborating with his wife Erin Regan, who shares an avid cult following for her similarly brilliant, troubled songs. Happily, Penta has a new band, Jagged Leaves, and a new album, Nightmare Afternoon – streaming online – sort of a greatest hits collection from the past fifteen years or so. In a real stroke of serendipity, it reprises all but one of the tracks from that long out-of-print Larval Organs ep, although the best one, Mansion of Your Skull, is conspicuously absent. The band play the album release show on a rare good twinbill at Sidewalk on February 26 at around 9:30. Darkly gritty guitarist/singer Mallory Feuer’s power trio, the Grasping Straws, open the night beforehand at around 8:30.
Penta’s voice has deepened over the years, but he still basically just puts it out there, a caterwauling assault that draws a line straight back to grunge – expect honesty rather than polish here. The music here is acoustic-electric, a synthesis of pretty much everywhere he’s been. The album’s opening track is Low and Wet, Penta’s steady strums over a lush bed of strings; Regan’s high harmonies add subtlety and poignancy. They bring in a tremoloing funeral organ on the second chorus, setting the stage for the rest of the record.
City Parks, with its stark cello and Americana tinges, works familiar terrain: solitude and despondency in an urban milieu akin to “Grey skin like the hue of rotting meat that is cooking itself in the heat of its disease…I know that love is not some sort of prize, and that I am all alone on this ride…”
“Pack the ornaments and unstring the lights, we’ll be hanging ourselves from the tree tonight.” Penta wails in the broodingly waltzing Moth in the Sand – formerly titled Ziploc Torso. The cynicism is crushing in Sewn in the Seam, built around a Shoah metaphor: “In this winter holocaust, we warm ourselves around a burning cross…” The careening, horn-spiced Wizard Gardenia takes its title from a brand of air freshener:
With a Bible belt he stole her grace
That a rusted truckbed won’t erase
But drives the witches out of town
And they won’t come back to the judge’s crown…
If I never woke up for a thousand years
Would you still be blowing those Pyrex tears?
The centerpiece here is John Brown’s Grave. It’s one of the most harrowing rock songs ever written, end of story. The organ looms ominously under Penta’s drugged-out despondency
I want to break myself into my room
Pretend the lighting fixture is the moon
Pretend that we are not sketched on a page…
So let’s sleep late and drive all night
Into the diffused grey light
The pain inside, the scorching heat
I’m on the outside and I’ve been beat
And we go on to John Brown’s Grave
I’ve got a heartache the size of a Great Lake
She’s so faraway
I’m on the outside either way.
Fueled by a searing slide guitar hook, Devil Come Madness, the final Larval Organs track here, opens with twisted images of a psych ward:
In the padded room where I was born
With a million thorns to a black-eyed boy
From a cotton amnion with a cheap vinyl lining
How could I compete with the ancient gloom?
The choir shrieks, “Motherfucker, shoot!”
They locked me up for being crazy
Images of disease, drunken sickness and sorcery gone awry flit through Never Been Born, the most Nirvana-influenced track here. The reverb guitar bounce of Home thinly masks Penta’s usual cynicism,. He shifts the hopeless wish-I’d-never-been-born point of view to an only slightly depressed fling from younger days over the hypnotic ambience of Powderkeg. And they reinvent the stomping Larval Organs tune Calm Me Down Penta intoning his grisly images over a Jesus & Mary Chain-style fuzztone waltz. The final cut, Death Is a Charm seems to be a stab at something approaching optimism. Much as the idea of a single best album of the year isn’t meant to imply that there’s any kind of competition between artists, or that there should be, there hasn’t been any collection of songs this good released this year. While it’s still early in the year, it looks like this is the cult classic of 2016. For Penta, it’s about time.