Gary B and the Notions’ How Do We Explode is completely aptly named. The band that I praised for ’50s stylings on its last aptly titled release has largely dropped those for noisy, distorted late ’80s/ early ’90s guitar rock. This isn’t grunge, but it certainly comes from a similar spirit: these are pop songs played extremely loudly and with plenty of overdrive. From the Pavement-esque tones of “How to Eat a Brick Sandwich” to the dissonant crunch of “Too Busy for an Ambulance Ride” and “Street Drugs,” Gary B takes listeners through a rock’n’roll album. Those with a penchant for rock that features huge guitars, loud drums, dissonance and sung/hollered vocals will celebrate How Do We Explode. Also, I love the album art.
In my review of The Fierce and the Dead‘s last album, I desperately wanted the post-rock band to buckle down and make a statement. Their follow-up EP On VHS does that, pointing out a direction for the quartet. The four tracks here set out a gameplan of distorted bass, patterned guitar melodies/riffs, and aggression. This is best shown in “Hawaii,” which is not incorrectly described as thrashy in parts. There are melodies and tension in between the heavy sections, but the underlying feel is not one of tension/release; instead, the more apt metaphor is one of a boxer throwing a blitz of punches before retreating back to his stance to reload. It’s a punishing, powerful twenty minutes. If you’re into the heavy side of instrumental rock (Explosions in the Sky’s loudest, Sigur Ros’s loudest, Athletics, etc.), you’ll love On VHS. I’m interested to see where they take this approach in a full-length. Also, the album art creeps me out.
Patrick Watson‘s glorious chamber-pop tune “Into Giants” is impeccably orchestrated, inventively melodic, and intricately constructed. Watson’s tune evokes the complexities of Andrew Bird’s work, while his emotional falsetto cures the sterility that puts me off from much of Bird’s work. While “Into Giants” was an immediate lock in my mind, the rest of Adventures in Your Own Backyard took a while to grow on me. It’s still growing on me, but I’m not sure when it will come to a final resting place, so I just had to write the review.
The chiming “Blackwind,” comforting “Strange Crooked Road” and gentle “Words in the Fire” are all tunes that I had an “aha!” moment with; tunes like the sparse “Swimming Pools” and the woozy “Morning Sheets” still feel a little bit too much like Mark Richardson’s Faberge egg for me (beautiful, but without the ability to connect to me). Still, having a gorgeous album that’s a grower is absolutely no knock: it just means you’re going to have to spend some time with Watson to get the full effect of his album. If that sounds like your sort of invitation, there’s 48 minutes of music with your name written on it here. Also, I’m indifferent to the album art.
So, while we’re in the spirit of full disclosure from yesterday, here’s another one. Gary Barrett, who is the Gary B of Gary B and the Notions, has written for Independent Clauses even more recently than Nate Williams has. Doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about his record, but it does mean that they’re not totally sterilized. I mean, no one’s really objective these days. So passe.
Anyway. Gary B and the Notions just released New Twist and Shout, and it’s an incredibly appropriate title. Barrett has a strong affinity for ’50s pop, and he creates his own fractured and twisted version of it on this album. Barrett nicks the big pop swing and a chord progression straight out of 1954 in “Unannounced,” drops some creepy organ and oddly dissonant guitars over it, and turns it loose onto the world. “Jenny” has a bit of a surf-pop vibe to it (although I’m pretty sure Brian Wilson and Co. never accused anyone of being “Motherf****** who want to dance and get out of control”). “Hall and Oates” has a bouncy pop feel to it, similar to the girl-pop of the era (anything-ettes).
If the subverted and repurposed ’50s songwriting doesn’t turn you off, Barrett’s vocals might. Barrett has what can be best described as a Northern drawl; he lets syllables hang a long time, sings odd vocal lines, and generally does whatever he wants. The tone is a bit nasal, but not so much that he doesn’t have low notes. It’s just enough to drive a listener crazy on repeated listens. It’s really unique, but it’s an acquired taste.
The highlights here are “Sally,” “Jenny” and the dark “New York Jet Set Trash,” which was exciting because it was different that the rest. The honky tonk of “Landscapes & Skylines” also stands out, providing a punch of energy toward the end of the album.
If you like the ’50s revisited and don’t mind Gary Barrett’s distinctive, unusual vocals, you will like New Twist and Shout. If either of those things don’t happen for you, it’ll be unlikely that you won’t enjoy this.
Get Those Crazy Notions! is a crazy record in that I’ve been fascinated with it for a while, and it’s taken this long to figure out whether I like the thing or not. I can easily say that the songwriting is unique, the vocals aren’t your usual fare and the songs are genuinely inventive and quirky pop songs, but the question remains: do I like the thing?
I guess the answer lies in the fact that I keep listening to it. It’s not an album that I want to go out and shout about from the rooftops, because as soon as I start to feel the groove on a song, it changes. I start to hear 50’s influences (of which there are a lot), and then I hear some discordant chords that never would have made it into 1956. I hear rhythmic sections that segue straight into really melodic sections, and I just get confused.
For example, the nearly six-minute “Partridge vs. Magpie” crashes in on an electric guitar lead, then lets the bass guitar take over the melody for the verses. Gary B’s wild, boisterous vocals come in, dominating the song with a wild, flailing sound. A pre-chorus comes in, but is lead out by not the chord that should be leading out. It leads into a ‘chorus’ of sorts, anchored by an ooo-ahs and organ. The ‘chorus’ ushers in a new section of song that doesn’t sound familiar to anything that came before it. I have slowly come to a realization that there isn’t actually a chorus in “Partridge vs. Magpie” – it’s just a winding pop journey that begins in one place and rarely doubles back on itself.
“Taller than a Human” is another song whose songwriting throws me for a loop. It starts off as a mid-tempo, nostalgic electric-guitar-led pop song. The chorus drops in with “I got the news today/from the Holy Spirit/I am taller than a human/being,” but is followed with a weird, repetitive, and completely unexpected mood shift in which Gary B monotones “I am taller than a human, baby” eight times.
In a world where pop songs have become formulaic, it’s shocking and a little bit uncomfortable to hear pop songs that actually break the mold and do something interesting. It’s even more shocking when songwriters do something new not by adding layers, but by simply being really, really good guitar songwriters.
In the realm of pop music, Gary B is one of the most unique songwriters I’ve heard. His songs are so good that it takes a while to appreciate how simply good they are – it’s easy to just pass them off as weird and forget about ‘em. But that’s just not doing it justice. The seven songs on Get Those Crazy Notions! are odd, jarring, punchy, unique and wonderful. Who knows – after several more listens I may be shouting Gary B and the Notions from the rooftops. Only time will tell.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.