Blondie – “Pollinator”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Already Naked,” “Fragments”

Certain bands hit a legendary status where they can have others write music for them. We saw it last with the proto-new Monkees album that had contributions from both Harry Nilsson and Rivers Cuomo. Well, Blondie have hit that status. Although they don’t have the amount of material or the longevity (remember their 15 year break), Blondie shook music so much that they’re able to have outside help.

But before we discuss the non-Blondie elements, we should discuss the band itself. This album has a renewed energy and a consistent groove to it, and it’s safe to say it rivals that of their original late ’70’s run. The band is locked in on every song. And, as with any great Blondie album, there’s a respectable mix of new wave, ballads, disco and punk. The album is bookended with two great rock songs, “Doom or Destiny” and “Fragments,” the latter sporting an unexpected and effective tempo change. “Long Time” balances out a pleasantly bouncy beat with a delicate bridge. “When I Gave Up On You” is a great ballad, and one that brings the album’s momentum down a bit. And although “My Monster” might not be the best track, the blending of guitar and synth over unexpectedly monotone vocals makes it arguably the most interesting. Debbie Harry hasn’t missed a beat – her voice dominates the album. It hasn’t changed in the slightest – modest, but dominating. Only in “Already Naked” does it feel like the band relies on her, though, which is good. In the album’s other ten tracks, her voice patiently but strongly leads the band.

After a fairly mediocre outing where the band took on a more electronic approach, Blondie decided to tag in to some other writers for this album. This isn’t to say they’ve given up – merely that they felt fans would rather appreciate great songs written by other people to decent songs written by them. And the person who shows up the most in the songwriting credits is indeed Debbie Harry. The classic duo of Harry and guitarist Chris Stein penned two tracks on this album: opener “Doom or Destiny” and “Love Level.” Harry also has a credit alongside Blood Orange on “Long Time.” Keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife Laurel are credited on two songs as well. Other songwriters that aided include Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Charli XCX, The Gregory Brothers, and Adam Johnston, a writer for YourMovieSucks.org. Almost ironically, the album’s weakest track “Best Day Ever,” was written by Sia and Nick Valensi of the Strokes.

Despite the credits, the album is somewhat sparse on actual guest appearances. Joan Jett (who is not credited as a songwriter) appears on opener “Doom or Destiny.” Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, the Gregory Brothers and Adam Johnston appear on the songs that they co-wrote. The sole other appearance is that of John Roberts. Readers may know Roberts as the voice of Linda Belcher on the unbelievably great FOX animated show “Bob’s Burgers.” I do not know the circumstances that led him to appearing on a Blondie record. The track he shows up on, “Love Level,” is the only one that approaches hip-hop in any way. Admittedly, it’s pretty jarring, because it’s not only the only pseudo-rap heard on the album, it’s also the only prominent male voice. As a song, it works, but in the context of the album, it’s a little much of a curveball.

At the end of the day, this is just a very good Blondie album. For a band that spent their heyday trying everything, they sound comfortable going back to some basics. They nail both the jams and the ballads, and they sound great as a collective. The energy is there, the diversity is there, and Debbie Harry’s vocals are there, so there is reason to rejoice. Forty-three years and eleven albums in, Blondie still sound young and fresh. And really, isn’t that what Blondie is supposed to be?

-By Andrew McNally

An Intimate Night With the Greatest Punk Band That Ever Was

(Photo by me)

Whomever said punk is a young man’s game is sorely mistaken. Last night, I got to see Television live, and even in 2015 they absolutely crushed it. I’ve been doing some thinking lately, nothing more than shower musings, about who I think is the best band in each genre of music, the one that defines it the most. I haven’t come to many conclusions, but one that I did come to was that Television was the best punk band. Sorry, Clash. The band’s attitude and style is what did it, but they convinced me as much in 2015 as they would have in 1976.

Punk, as I have come to understand in my years transitioning from Rancid to Patti Smith, is more a spirit than a genre. It’s not necessarily about anarchy and destruction, though a part of it. It’s about doing what’s unexpected, unwanted; breaking the status quo. Iggy & the Stooges did this in Detroit, so did the MC5. They rallied against the sex, drugs and blues-rock and roll of the time in the same way Black Sabbath did. They upped the volume and came out angrier. The Ramones changed the game again by setting a template – power chords, 2:30 songs with apathetic or political lyrics. This template is still in place today – everyone from NoFX to the Dropkick Murphys to FIDLAR follow this format in some way. But that’s the problem – it’s a format. Punk, itself, has an incredibly tired and ironic template to it.

Television was one of a few CBGB’s bands in the late 70’s that seemed to foresee this template problem. Blondie and the Talking Heads added pop elements, and took off a whole new genre. Patti Smith was setting her spoken word poems to music. Television looked less at the music and more at the template – short songs, fast, loud music, and did away with all of it. Their classic album “Marquee Moon” is marked with slow-burners, tracks over (or well over) five minutes, and long, technically proficient guitar solos on every song. A virgin ear might mistake them for a classic rock band living in the wrong part of the city. Their songs are restrained, but the band has an energy to them – noticeable on the very first chord of “See No Evil” – that says they can run with the big dogs, they’re just choosing not to.

Tom Verlaine’s lyrics, making allusions to poetry and art (the Venus de Milo, for instance), didn’t stand on the same platform as, say, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Maybe Television was in the right place at the right time. Or maybe, when we look back at them today, we still consider them a punk band because their music demands so. Technically remarkable lead and rhythm guitars interlock across albums, with Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s tension almost palpable. And with the general lack of guitar distortion, and a clean, jazzy sound, it was the purest of music. It was what the other bands weren’t doing. It was punk.

I truly had no worries about Television ruining this legacy for me. I knew that if they couldn’t sound great live, they wouldn’t tour. And they delivered, from a performance standpoint – next to nothing was changed in the songs. At first I was disappointed in the lost opportunity for longer solos, but then I remembered that their albums aren’t punk statements, they’re works of art, and fine art should not be tampered with. And as such, their setlist consisted of every song off “Marquee Moon,” out of order. Verlaine played piano sections on his guitar, muting his strings to sound like piano keys. And on a number of songs, he self-indulged and plucked and warped the strings to sound like a one-man string section. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and I still can’t.

The crowd was as diverse as expected – fathers and sons, lost young scuds like me, and older burn-outs. A man in front of me who could have passed for Hilly Kristal wore a Patti Smith Group sweatshirt and jammed to every song like it was his 200th time seeing the band, gleefully ignorant of the 35+ years behind him. To the right of me was a pretentious 30-something who played air guitar the whole night, despite having a drink in one hand and his other arm over his girlfriend’s shoulder.

But aside from the performance, Television delivered in the punk spirit as well. Permanent Lloyd stand-in Jimmy Rip came out in a bowl hat and beard that looked like a high-dollar Tom Waits Halloween costume. Verlaine, in an unzipped hoodie that may have been a size too big (he hasn’t gained a pound since they shot the “Moon” cover). The setlist consisted of “Marquee Moon,” but the encore was pure unpredictability – “Little Johnny Jewel,” a cover of Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” (always a staple of their live show), and an unreleased track called “I’m Gonna Find You.” Their second two albums “Adventure” and “Television” were left untouched. The show itself had an aura of unpredictability – opener Dennis Driscoll performed with an improvised saxophone, courtesy of Morphine’s Dana Colley, and his set ran long. Soon into Television’s set, someone behind me yelled to turn the bass up, to which Verlaine pointed to Fred Smith and said aloud, “Move closer to him.” Verlaine was louder when he was talking to the audience than when he was singing into the mic, the vocals lost in the music. And in the encore, when they were transitioning between “Reaction” and “Find You,” a game being played by an excruciatingly bored security guard on his phone was audible. For a show with 65+ year old men on stage, in a small but classy venue and a randomly assorted audience, a punk spirit still came through. The Ramones may have passed, the Sex Pistols riddled by death, the Clash riddled by maturity. But for one night, the spirit of 1976 came through, if only briefly. Television, keep doing your thing.

-By Andrew McNally (photo credit is mine)

White Lung – “Deep Fantasy”

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Drown With the Monster” “I Believe You”

In a world where punk is an ever-increasing and subjective term, we’re seeing more and more bands stretch the limits of the genre – the Waxahatachees and Andrew Jackson Jihads take a more acoustic-driven approach, and the Menzingers and the Modern Baseballs opt for deft poetry instead of angst. So it’s almost surprising to hear a band like White Lung, a well-oiled machine of anger and energy. They have a ferocity normally reserved for hardcore, and indeed, their music tends to hover towards hardcore and thrash metal, but it stays distinctly punk. Their excellent third album, 10 songs and 22 minutes, is a sweaty and kinetic burst that never once lets up.

White Lung aren’t changing anything on “Deep Fantasy.” This album isn’t an increase in power – they’ve always been as intense as they are here. But it’s still impressive. All ten songs on “Deep Fantasy” are at a non-stop, ferocious volume, as if they don’t know anything except that. White Lung have the ability to make a song that’s 2:26 feel long. The music is no frills – no drum fills, no theatrics, no breakdowns, no intros, no outros. Just volume. And yet, it doesn’t quite align with punk or metal. If they were to rely more on chords – which I’m glad they don’t – they’d veer into thrash metal. But the verses are usually marked by guitarist Kenneth William’s shearing, high-pitched rhythms, adding a shrieking element that isn’t metal at all.

Mish Way’s vocals dominate the album. She inverts some typical vocal structures by letting her voice fly high over the verses and taking a backseat, sometimes in a deeper pitch, during the choruses. Her voice is more stable on this time around, actually sounding intentionally conventional at most times. It creates a weird disparity – there’s clear, common vocals centered around a mass of volatile, unstable music. Her voice, at least on this record, actually resembles that of Debbie Harry’s, and the result is the album that Blondie always sounded like they wanted to experiment with, but never did.

To refer to a band, especially a punk band, as “female-fronted” in 2014 is ineffectual and stupidly ignorant, but for “Deep Fantasy,” it’s important to point out the album’s feminism. With blinding punk like this, you’d expect angry lyrics, whether personal, political, etc. And sometimes that’s the case – the repeated line “the water looks good on you” on “Drown With the Monster” speaks volumes. But some of the songs are poignant and rational. The album’s most intense track, the 1:42 blast “I Believe You,” is in response to sexual assault. Elsewhere, Way sings about other issues that society has laid on women – eating disorders, sexual fantasies and body image. To present rational and balanced lyrics in an otherwise aggressive setting brings home the importance of what Way presents – forcefully saying we need to address these issues in a safe manner.

White Lung only does one thing, and they do it extremely well. At 22 minutes, the album is a chugging engine that never gets repetitive or tired. It just keeps going, until you’re starting to break a sweat, and ending before the actual pain comes. Years ago, White Lung turned their instruments all the way up, and they haven’t adjusted them since. “Deep Fantasy” is an aural assault, and one of the best punk albums of the year. The band is a driving force in punk, and “Deep Fantasy” establishes them as a deafening group to watch out for.

If you like this try: an obvious comparison is equally feminist group Perfect Pussy, but they include effective moments of silence and feedback as major song points, that White Lung instead totally eschews. So, a better comparison might be noise-punk group So Stressed’s album “Attracted to Open Mouths.”

-By Andrew McNally