Thursday, April 27, 2017
Music Pounding In My Head: Parlor Walls
Northern Spy Records
The Azerrad-approved outskirts of rock n’ roll music seem a largely accessible landscape since the days of tape trading and ‘zines, that subculture of miscreants and weirdos who, for a period of decades, subsisted on fodder cultivated by DIY record labels and performers who operated a little to the left of the synthetic tastes catered to by the American spoon feed. While rock music has lost relevance to a populace auto-tuned out and engaged by karaoke television, those outskirts still thrive and produce smart, thoughtful, and provocative sounds, aided by the tools granted them by the Internet to enable limitless self-promotion. This is necessary in post-truth America, especially when the powers-that-be seem poised to strip away funding for public broadcasting and the arts.
Listening to Parlor Walls’ debut LP, Opposites, I thought about how I would’ve interpreted an album like this twenty or thirty years ago, its makeup a bold clash of melodic pop and rhythmic irregularity. Questioning the legitimacy of working against oneself in both talk and action, Parlor Walls singer/guitarist Alyse Lamb asks, “Hey, why don’t we go… and play opposites?” her voice laced in tired disbelief, subtly pondering the need to address what could be, in her mind, an absence of commonsense.
This is the substance of "Play Opposites," the intro single from the Brooklyn trio, the examination of a population’s willingness to engage itself in self-sabotage. “Burn it to the ground… There ain’t nothin’ left…,” Lamb says again and again, applying repetition as if to convey the public’s annoying tendency to forget its history and its willingness to do the same shit again and again.
Throughout the length of Opposites, Parlor Walls recalibrates NYC Fringe while borrowing its convulsive free jazz cues from The Pop Group, the results a wiry, jazz-infused, often dissonant and fascinating work of art pop that recalls the creative angularity of early Blonde Redhead and the most abrasive aspects of Mars, DNA, and Sonic Youth. As a vocalist, Lamb exudes a delicate balance of vulnerability and angst, her demeanor liable to swing any which way the music requires, a corresponding melodic sensibility often giving way to more aggressive and abstract reactions. From the outset with "Crime Engine Failure," Lamb is the gentlest presence, her voice airy next to the honking saxophone blasts from Kate Mohanty and cyclical trashcan percussion from drummer, Chris Mulligan. Once the track fires up, though, there’s an artful confidence and confrontation to Lamb following the oft-referenced QUIETLOUDQUIETLOUD modern rock idiom, which Parlor Walls manages to make its own.
Referencing a type of music that Lydia Lunch once referred to as “music that references nothing else,” Parlor Walls revels in the aural mutations No Wave’s short-lived and seminal reign inspired, the lopsided disco rhythm of "Amabassadress" and the heightened wheeze Lamb chokes from her guitar in "Hesitation" recalling the era’s antagonistic disposition. And, it is these aspects of Opposites that garner the most attention upon first listen, outsider art nods that inform environs as anxious as those in "Teach Me Where To Roam," (which could owe something to Liars’ 2006 LP, Drum’s Not Dead), and the droning noise pollution of "Me Me My."
But, most striking is the sensitivity with which Parlor Walls approaches these sounds, never settling to compose weirdness for weirdness’ sake. During "Ambassadress," for example, there’s a section just following its initial beat-heavy stride when Lamb’s voice really emerges, bathing the activity beneath her in enough melody that a lushness is revealed, the sharp knock of the song taking on another dimension. Emotional resonance makes the album more accessible, enabling the group to find creative ways to satisfy their attachment to avant ideas while creating something cohesive. Even despite the lengthy tangent that courses through "Birthday," a midway section of repetitious throb that props up Mohanty’s free-flowing sax, Lamb’s melancholic tone is its most affecting characteristic, her vocal approach granting something that’s abruptly constructed a touch of grace.
With that said, though, my favorite offering is the album’s most direct inclusion, "Love Again," whose steady and sturdy pace is dramatized beautifully by Lamb’s guitar and Mohanty’s brass. As effective and affecting as Parlor Walls sounds when they dismiss the constraints of conventional songwriting, that three and a half minutes of riff and melody is the band’s true embrace of those outskirts I’d mentioned earlier and the necessary rewrite that rock n’ roll had undergone following the trappings of babyboomer nostalgia and the genre’s subsequent and unfortunate disconnectedness with then-new audiences. And maybe this album doesn’t constitute an independent and/or modern rock rejuvenation per sé, but it’s difficult to remain at odds with the possibility of such an occurrence when the genre still means something to some people and still inspires work this meaningful.
If rock is truly irrelevant, that’s fine. It still sounds great and it's a lot easier to find. You just have to be willing to dig.
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