The NYC-based garage rockers Dr. Ex & the Break-Ups released their debut album What the Hex Is Going On? earlier this spring, and the nine songs speed by at a dizzying fever pitch, like cruising through a high-speed cartoon chase. It’s not surprising that the release is named for an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You (season one, episode six, if you’re curious). The music here shimmies and spins around you with plenty of spooky craziness, wacky humor, and a clear mission of madcap fun. One of the band’s fans, Patrick Marton, described their sound with this question: “What if the Scooby Doo gang was super into garage punk and beat up Question Mark and The Mysterians and stole their instruments?” What if? Clearly, you end up dancing with vampires and werewolves while Dr. Ex and The Break-Ups rock out with the same frantic energy that their cartoon selves apply to solving mysteries
The album kicks off with “Mystery Machine,” an up-tempo track featuring the band’s signature mix of fuzzy guitars, driving bass lines, tight drum fills, and organ-esque freak outs on the keys. A direct homage to the slapstick humor of Scooby Doo is found in the lyrics: “Scooby-Dooby-Dooby / Roll another doobie / Gotta keep it groovy / Gotta keep it moving.” Apparently the crime-fighting dog always has a dime bag on hand so that when things get intense with those ghosts, you can hit a joint and then dance your ass off. Dig it!
The lead single and second track, “Jeepers, It’s the Creeper,” delivers more delirious energy to get you dancing. The song’s video shows the band playing live to a club full of people getting down, intercut with images of the group running through the NYC streets (presumably running away from creepy love). Sometimes the four of them appear with strange bug or alien-like masks, creepy love indeed! The entire sonic whirlwind culminates in a big organ/synth outro which drives the audience wild.
The title track percolates with more pop-focused energy, like a 60s girl group on speed. Once again, the lyrics are describing monster adventures, like what happens when you turn into a werewolf after being cursed by your witchy lover: “Baby, can’t you see I’m turning / My fangs are bloody / My claws are muddy.” The horror unrolls quickly though—at just one minute and fourteen seconds—and then poof, you’re on to the next lively adventure.
The penultimate track, “Hassle in the Castle,” turns the lyrical voice over to a vampire that serves his guests drinks, then gets drunk off their blood. “Well your neck looks so tasty, don’t mind I’ll have a slice / No need to worry, I’ve been vaccinated thrice! / You know I never go outside, it’s really such a hassle / I have all my aperitifs right here inside my castle.” The propulsive rhythms and crazed organ/synth sounds reflect the madness one must feel when getting drunk with Dracula, served up with tight vocal harmonies and a flirty little breakdown section complete with hand claps.
What the Hex Is Going On? finishes off with “No Friend of Mine,” that pushes forward with a repeated ascending hook played on the keys, guitar, and bass simultaneously. Each of the album’s nine songs clock in at under three minutes, and all of them will get you grooving and moving. The band presents their credits with fun aliases: Russ T. Ex (bass & lead vocals), Anky Ex (keys & backup vocals), Johnny Ex (drums & backup vocals), and Justone Ex (guitar), all of whom have played in various NYC bands over the years. There is no doubt that Dr. Ex and the Break-Ups will put on a fantastic live show, and you can catch them at Gold Sounds on Friday June 2 with The Piggies, Donut City, and Momsomnia.
Whether the inspiration is the violence of military states, the hypocrisy of organized religion, or just the wild force of love going always wrong, the Brooklyn-based punk trio Shop Talk heaves and shakes with poetic passion on their debut EP, The Offering (out now on Mon Amie Records). I realize that “poetic” might not be the most common adjective out there to describe punk bands (or even a desired description from the bands themselves sometimes). But Shop Talk’s literary chops— paired with their blistering guitar hooks and their frantic, driving rhythm section—deliver sharp and unapologetic storytelling, where the stakes are often mythic, and the narrator’s heart is almost always hanging out of his ripped open chest, bouncing along on a few tough threads.
The eponymous first song burns creepily bright, like an incantation to a dark power. After a clamor of guitar noise from Jon Garcia, Tristan Griffin’s bass line hypnotizes with slinky zig-zags, and both of them burst into fierce unison vocals: “I’ll set your world alight / with hopes and fears of all the years tonight / creatures of the night / all burning there for you.” Alexander Perelli crashes away on the drums through it all, like a demon afire.
“Black Friar,” the second track, starts out with an insistent bass line, and the guitar rings out under the verse, until the drums really kick in with driving power in the pre-chorus, as the lyrics play with a turn of rhyme that is both playful and disturbing: “and every beatrice is a drip / a bucket of sick / a slip of the lip / draggin’ your brush stroke long.”
“Mirage of Love,” the pre-released single from The Offering, heaves and thrashes, just like the dark waves of the turbulent sea that’s featured in the video for the song. The lyrics run over the roiling ocean imagery, once again putting the band’s talent with words in the foreground: “I’ve searched across the seven seas / i’ve chased each greedy fantasy / la fata she don’t call on me / and she don’t sail for free.” Garcia offered some back story for the track: “The song is loosely based on the legend of La Fata Morgana—a sorceress blamed for luring sailors to their deaths. The narrator knows that the mirage of love ends in catastrophe, but he’s also offended that Morgana hasn’t bothered to seduce him yet. It’s sorta like 53rd and 3rd, really.”
The fourth song and my favorite, “Ramona,” surges with an infectious guitar hook out front in the mix. The moral here seems to be that falling in love with a she-wolf (or a creature of similar ferocity) is a rough road. The lyrics give voice to a desperate guy who will do whatever this lady wants: “I’ll see if you will saw / I’ll abet if you break the law / I’ll see what no one saw / I’ll hear your voice if you come to call.”
The Offering concludes with “Camp Hero,” where the spooky seaside imagery returns, and we learn of sailors being used and abused in the mythic experiment of the USS Eldridge, the song’s inspiration. In 1943, the USS Eldridge sat in the Philadelphia Naval Yard and suddenly glowed with a blue-green light and then disappeared, momentarily showing up in Virginia, and then hours later flickering back to our reality in Philadelphia. The sailors aboard reported various ailments, and the entire affair became known as “The Philadelphia Experiment,” where the US government used its navy as guinea pigs. Although various sources now call the entire thing a hoax, the tale provides fantastic fodder for Garcia’s lyrics: “man make the weather / man make your mind / forward and back again / they’re stressing time / they’re bending time / they’re splitting time.” The trio charges through “Camp Hero” like an electric bolt of twisted energy form clandestine government experiments, and boom! The Offering has run its high octane course in a lean thirteen minutes and change, and you might want to relisten to the fever pitch of the five tracks again. And again. Go ahead. I did.
The world is full of dark creepy forces, and Shop Talk weave the myriad stories found therein into some pretty unique and satisfying punk rock. Long-time Guided By Voices producer Travis Harrison recorded The Offering at his Serious Business Studio in NYC; Harrison and Garcia mixed the EP. Shop Talk will be live at Le Poisson Rouge on June 3 in NYC, supporting Pissed Jeans (w/Carniverous Bells).
The Murlocs explore new countrified territory on their seventh LP, Calm Ya Farm, now out via ATO Records. While their previous album, Rapscallion, rocked out with garage-psych flair, this newest offering from the eclectic Melbourne-based quintet delivers a sound with much more bluesy twang and butt-shaking stomp. But this is no earnest and starry-eyed hoedown either. Frontman Ambrose Kenny-Smith (also of the prolific psych-rock project King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard) delivers satirical and at times surreal lyrics full of world-weariness, but never without his mischievous sense of humor. The band’s overall sound, too, could never come across as just straight ahead country rock. The personnel here (including the bassist Cook Craig, Callum Shortal on guitar, drummer Matt Blach, and Tim Karmouch on keys) bring a lot of experience and mastery in the garage, punk, doom, and psych realms. (Craig is in also King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with Kenny-Smith; Shortal plays with Orb, and Blach drums for Beans.)
The overall effect of Calm Ya Farm makes you dance away the absurdity of a world on edge. Kenny Smith described the process and product of this most recent record: “With this record we tried to steer away from all the distortion and dirt and grit, or at least let the grit come off a bit more clean-sounding…Instead of a bunch of people bashing away, it’s more intricate and precise—but at the same there’s a warm, summery, youthful feeling to most of the songs.”
Calm Ya Farm starts off with “Initiative,” a song focused on wobbly desires toward stereotypical adulthood. “It’s about recognizing the need to start taking responsibility for your life instead of always living in the now and killing all your brain cells along the way,” Kenny-Smith explains. “Not in the sense of dropping everything and getting an office job, but just trying to take things more seriously and making sure you’ve lived a life that’s full.” “Initiative” also has an intriguing video directed by Guy Tyzack, where the viewer follows Kenny-Smith wandering through the hills of Australian suburbia.
Another standout track is the recently released single, “Undone and Unashamed,” featuring Kenny-Smith’s first-ever sax solo! In contrast to “Intiative,” where having the “rebel spirit” seems to be celebrated, “Undone and Unashamed” dips into the darker side of committing your life to the endless party. The lyrics say it all: “Strutting down the sidewalk, hopscotch footpath with your wrist in a cast/Whiskey cigarette breath toothless sipping from his hip flask.” The video for “Undone and Unashamed” (directed by Jack Rule) will turn you upside down, or at least try to.
My favorite songs on Calm Ya Farm, though, are “Queen Pinky” and “Catfish.” “Queen Pinky” motivates me to strut around pushing all the bullshit out of my way, like a queen does. Kenny-Smith’s lyrics are all a-glow with love for the queen in question here: “Count your blessings and be thankful for the queen / She’s just doing what she can to work her routine…All hail queen pinky.” According to the band, “Queen Pinky” is a romantic serenade to Kenny-Smith’s new wife, which makes it seem even more special.
“Catfish” musically captures the longing of online catfishing, with all the sonic seduction you would expect. The chorus stretches out, wiggling its fishy whiskers at you, a lush soundscape glittering, full of Craig bringing layers of mellotron, strings, and other equally alluring instruments. Kenny-Smith’s vocals, too, on this track, sink into the lower range of his tenor talents, and the effect is hypnotic.
The Murlocs will celebrate Calm Ya Farm by touring the UK and Europe in September, and I have no doubt these gents put on a fantastic show, so if you’re on that side of the pond, check out their tour dates and get there. (See our coverage from their Nov. 2022 stop in NYC) For the rest of us stateside, take a dip this summer into the sunshine sounds of Calm Ya Farm, and hopefully The Murlocs will come visit us again soon.
Calm Ya Farm is available now via ATO Records and is available on all major streamers.
Driving around Brooklyn with Fever Ray’s most recent album, Radical Romantics, at full volume transforms the frustration at double-parked cars and traffic into a sensual experience. But navigating the crowds at their sold-out show at Terminal 5 this past Wednesday was a bit more aggressively sensual than I might’ve wanted…a lot of packed-in bodies, most of them nearly a foot taller than me (I’m way fucking short). A path would open toward the stage and I would try to shimmy through, sometimes successfully, trying to remember that during the isolation of the pandemic I longed for sweaty clubs stuffed full of revelers. The crowd pressing in around me, too, was for the most part joyously queer and having a great fucking time. So hey, I took a deep breath and swayed with the multitudes, as the hypnotizing spectacle of Fever Ray (aka Karin Dreijer of The Knife) washed over us all.
But before Fever Ray, the hilarious, outrageous, trashy and wildly over the top performer Christeene—who describes herself as a “drag terrorist” and who we also declared a “DIY nightmare fashionista” at her album release show few months ago (read our coverage)—lovingly pummeled the gathering audience with her signature mix of flirtatious insults (“it’s a lunar eclipse for all you astrology shitheads” being a particular highlight), high-energy synth-punk-drag-fabulosity, and graphic lyrics about “shoving shit up your ass.” Her synth player glittered in a jacket of green sequins and spangles; her sax player sported a wild pair of shades while dancing all over; and Christeene worked it in a layered and tattered leotard/bodysuit number that she progressively removed bits of as the set wore on. All three of them looked fantastic and shook Terminal 5 with a delicious who-gives-a-fuck energy, and before her last song, she gave the audience one final irreverent shout out: “All you fuckin’ shitheads showed the fuck up tonight, thank you!” leaving with the parting “Good luck getting home you shitbags!”
Christeene at Terminal 5 (photo by Kate Hoos)
Fever Ray’s set began with the flames of an old-timey gaslight streetlamp flickering on stage. On platforms upstage, their percussionist and synth player vamped on the opening section of “What They Call Us” as two backing vocalists slinked out, taking their positions at microphones on either side of the stage. Finally, Fever Ray materialized in the haze and walked calmly toward the audience, beginning to sing. The packed-in crowd undulated, all eyes on the spectacle of the performers. This was my first time seeing Fever Ray live, and the experience is as mesmerizing visually as it is musically. All of the musicians’ outfits were works of art in themselves. The percussionist wore a crown of spikes. The synth player was topped with a giant cloud-like headdress covered in tiny lights. All three vocalists were decked out in different style suits, Fever Ray in white, a satin tie knotted at their throat. But it was their face and eyes that were most riveting, their skull-like make-up emphasizing the haunting energy of their smiling stare.
Fever Ray at Terminal 5 (photo by Kate Hoos)
The lengthy set included most of the songs from Radical Romantics, with “Shiver” being a real highlight of the night, as the three vocalists leaned on each other, becoming like one body, a three-headed sex caterpillar. They closed the night with “Coconut” (from their 2009 self-titled album) as an encore, after a quick costume change, with all three singers reappearing in black hooded capes. After triumphant bows to the ecstatic audience, they left the stage and the gaslight flickered out, and I was pushed out into the night satisfied, but looking forward to the next time. Fever Ray is headed to the West Coast and then back to Europe for the rest of the tour, so I’ll have to content myself with having Radical Romantics on repeat in the Brooklyn traffic until they return.
Scroll down for setlist, pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
Setlist: What They Call Us, New Utensils, When I Grow Up, Mustn’t Hurry, Triangle Walks, To the Moon and Back, Shiver, Kandy, Even It Out, An Itch, I’m Not Done, Carbon Dioxide, Now’s the Only Time I Know, Tapping Fingers, If I Had a Heart, Coconut
As I walked up to Baby’s All Right this past Thursday evening, Ron Gallo was laughing with friends outside, which made me smile. It made sense that he would be chilling with people he likes near the door of the venue of his sold-out show instead of hiding out somewhere in the back waiting for his big entrance. Gallo’s most recent release, Foreground Music (read our review), clearly shows his poetic lyrical talents with a heavy-hitting mix of sharp social critique and intimate honesty paired with a nuanced musical sensibility ranging from raucous post-punk to moving guitar ballads. The people lining up to get into the Baby’s back room were buzzing with excitement, and Gallo and company more than lived up to anyone’s expectations.
Gallo and his band instantly got the crowd bouncing with “Please Yourself” (from his 2017 album, Heavy Meta), and then kept the energy high with a series of songs off of the new album including “Entitled Man,” the title track, “At Least I’m Dancing,” and “Yucca Valley Marshalls.” Gallo possesses a delightfully quirky stage presence and his songs are simultaneously rocking and wise. The audience bopped about cathartically as he crooned the difficult truths of post-post-modern life, like in the chorus of “Foreground Music”: “I take my life pills one day at a time / My favorite thing to do is lie awake and panic.” And what makes panic go away like dancing? A question asked and answered in the catchy “At Least I’m Dancing” because the world may be going to hell in a hand basket but at least we can try to keep it moving as we burn. You know Ron Gallo understands this, and his band understands this (that’s Josh Friedman on drums, Chiara D’Anzieri on bass, and Jerry Bernhardt on guitar).
My favorite moment of the night, though, brought the energy to a more somber place with the beautiful “I Love Someone Buried Deep Inside of You,” Foreground Music’s most melancholy track about being in love with someone who’s struggling with addiction. But Gallo and company left on a more raucous note, and finishing off the set with “Put the Kids to Bed” and “Kill Medicine Man” (again from Heavy Meta). Gallo and D’Anzieri flew across the stage knocking over microphone stands and anything else they could get their hands on, channeling the destructive energy of their punk rock forebears. The fans went nuts as they should have, and the only big regret was that Baby’s had to end the night early to get things started for their late night DJ party. But so it goes with the hustle and churn of venues trying to survive in NYC, and Mr. Gallo joked about the time pressure to rush off the stage with both sarcasm and good spirit, true to form.
The evening was opened by John Roseboro and STUY. Foreground Music is out now on Kill Rock Stars. Ron Gallo and his band will be touring the US and Europe into September.
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Ray Rusinak)