Due to time constraints, Makin Waves has been limited to one record review per week, affectionately dubbed the Record of the Week. This week, several worthy platters come under the musical microscope for a new quarterly feature called The Makin Waves Record Roundup. They include Elk City, Exmaid, Secretary Legs, Doc Rotten, and Secret Sound. Look for another Record Roundup by summer’s end.
“Everybody’s Insecure,” Elk City’s first full-length in eight years and debut for Hoboken-based Bar/None Records, is like a jelly or cream-filled donut that rocks in the middle and is surrounded by sweet stuff. In the case of the Montclair-based band’s richly layered art pop, that sweet stuff often also sounds very pretty.
The standout track, “My Manual,” which kicks off the rockin’ middle of “Everybody’s Insecure,” has a strong pop sensibility within the artistic expanse of Elk City, kind of like The Monkees meet Cowboy Junkies. The well-layered “25 Lines” and flavorful “No Depth” also rock, but the rest of the album is a very beautiful tapestry of artistic synth-pop and strong poetics. Throughout co-founding drummer Ray Ketchem, who’s played for 28 years with vocalist-lyricist Renee LoBue, previously in Melting Hopefuls, delivers meticulously layered production that is akin to Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. It’s no wonder that his Orange Road studio has become quite a hot spot in Montclair. Together 21 years as Elk City, Ketchem and LoBue have played with ex-Luna guitarist Sean Eden since a couple years before the 2007 release of their third album, “New Believers,” and with Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Baggaley since their last outing, 2010’s “House of Tongues.” This time out, the evolving lineup includes contributions from bassist Martin Olson and guest violinist Claudia Chopek, who appeared on their label mate Overlake’s Bar/None debut, “Fall.”
Elk City’s turn on the long-established indie opens with the stunning “Sparrow” about a flighty little bird who would rather be as free as a sparrow then tied down to a new beau. I love the line: “Why take the time out to figure you out? You’re an open book.”
On “He’s Having a Baby” and “Ride the Slide,” Ketchem layers LoBue’s vocals in a style that is reminiscent of The Roches, a sister trio from Bergen County who recorded for Rounder and Warner Brothers. The latter track also sports an excellent Ray Manzarek-like contribution from Baggaley, a nice bouncy bottom from Olson, and a tasteful but spirited guitar solo by Eden.
Also of note is “What If I Said You Were Dead,” a strange but pretty track about the impact of death, sunshine and music on life. A beautiful, rousing choral ending adds to the emotional impact.
After 2016’s self-released EP, “Neurotic Fantasies,” Exmaid open their full-length SRA debut with the Patti Smith-like snarl ‘n’ doom of “Vamp.” But on most of the rest of the band’s full-length debut, New Brunswick-based ex-Hunchback/Black Wine front woman Miranda Taylor sounds sweet accompanied by the heavy, at times dissonant thunder of her ongoing collaboration with Joe, Dave and Larry from the Philly punk trio Psychic Teens.
One of my favorite things about Makin Waves is the opportunity to curate shows. I hope I get to do that with Exmaid and The Vaughns because they have a similar blast of sound behind a sweet vocal. But whereas The Vaughns sound like a butterfly fluttering above land mine, Exmaid are like a honey bee buzzing through a construction site.
I love the Sabbathy opening and breaks juxtapositioned with the well-meaning power-pop of “Sports.” The power-poppin’ indie rock of “Chained” is kind of like Garbage meets The Go Go’s. “Crying” is psych/surf-tinged morsel that looks at the challenges of love.
The appropriately entitled “Sludge” and inappropriately entitled “Easy” are two of the 10-song outing’s more menacing, squawking and pummeling tracks, yet Taylor still sings sweetly and softly, like a forlorn little girl who’s lost her way. The dichotomy is magnificent and mesmerizing.
“Devoted” is a trippy ‘60s-style nugget, kind of like a grunge take on Jefferson Airplane, but it breaks into a spat of monotony during which, Taylor repeats, “I guess,” a few too many times to be effective. The refreshing “Catholic” makes up for that with a fun look at two school girls at the age when they discover that makeup can’t cover up hardship.
“Surface” is another psych/surf tune that is as much fun musically as it is gloomy lyrically. And the closing “Dumb” is a foreboding Nirvana-like track that examines the ladder-like complexity of relationships. Musically, the tune matches the lyrics by climbing up and down a blistering scale.
At times, Taylor gets drowned out by the cacophony that surrounds her, so it’s hard to tell what’s she singing, but the dichotomy more often than not is very worthwhile. I also like the spare one-word titles of each track.
See Exmaid live May 12 at In the West; May 18, Sugar City, Buffalo, N.Y., and May 19, Rosen Krown, Rochester, N.Y.
After releasing EPs on their own in 2015 and with Don Giovanni in 2016, Secretary Legs return with their full-length and label debut for Sniffling Indie Kids, home to NGHTCRWLRS, LKFFCT, Haunt Club, Professor Caveman, The Vaughns, Well Wisher and others. The New Brunswick indie-pop trio prove with “Cool Myths” that they are as strong as any of those acts, especially when it comes to songwriting. This is splendid construction that celebrates and laments love and life.
My favorite is the quirky love song “Plow the Atlas,” especially the opening lines: “I don’t know where you’ve been, spoken tides of suffering. It can all be simple again, where you end and I begin.” Perhaps those sentiments were inspired by the recent marriage of vocalist-bassist KG Gogan and drummer Eric Truchan, who also were partners in the late great Don Giovanni recording act Brick Mower.
Rounding out the lineup is Dashiell Coombs (The Soft Maybes, Knights Tempar) whose guitar squawks and thunders to give the band edge, while also adding to the excellent compositions with a strong sense of tastefulness. A good example of both is the Nirvana-like “Wheeze,” on which Coombs make his axe sound like ’60s-style organ. This is the only track among the 12 that clocks in over 3 minutes.
Speaking of guitar, former Don Gon label mate Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females guests on the instrumental “Kind of You,” a rousing duel with Coombs that kicks off the second half of the collection. As the tempo mounts, they trade licks in a slightly kabuki-style that makes for some good six-string theatrics. Fans of the Screamales also will enjoy “Wooden Crawl,” which mines Pasternoster’s experimental intensity and angst-filled lyricism.
From the Don Gon outing, “Summer Hiatus,” resurfaces that record’s best track, “Bruiser,” which would have been a sure-fire alternative hit back in the days of 106.3 WHTG when major labels gave a damn. The opening “Nursing Home” also was culled from that collection. Yet, that seems like the same track, whereas “Bruiser” either was re-recorded or remixed with faster rhythms and an edgier, more dissonant guitar sound.
One of the things I love most about “Cool Myths” are the interesting openings, which sets the band apart and makes each song sound different. I also enjoy the frequent times tunes end on a dime without sounding repetitious. Some of this inventiveness can be credited to the production team of Eric Bennett and Dylan McClean of Lakehouse Studios, where “Summer Hiatus” also was recorded. Bennett also worked on the aforementioned Exmaid album.
Check out Secretary Legs live when they play May 3 at QXT’s in Newark, May 8 at In the West in New Brunswick with Glazer, Whelmed and Bad Sleep, and May 19 at the Jungeon in Rutherford.
If you like the attitudinal anthems of The Clash and Social Distortion, the strong lyrics of The Gaslight Anthem and The Cryptkeeper Five, and the gang vocals of Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, you’ll love the latest EP from Trenton-based Doc Rotten. Coming just four months after their similarly self-released four-song debut EP, “Fallout,” “Sick and Suffering” stretches to five tracks, all again dynamically recorded by Sean Glonek at his SRG Studios in Hamilton. The first two, “Gates,” about leaving home, and “Last Chance,” a revved-up ode to opportunity, are snarly snippets followed by three longer tracks.
“Federation” is an anthem about punk survival in the face of a lack of parental love. “Listen Up” is a fun, aggressive punch to the skull that features great vocal interplay between lead vocalist Wes Bentley and bassist Mike Romanowsky. And the standout, Social Distortion-like title track features awesome layers of vocals with Bentley blasting a high and strong part over a gang counter harmony that includes Johnny Ott of The Cryptkeeper Five, who also sings backup on “Last Chance” and “Listen Up.”
Since releasing “Fallout” in November, Doc Rotten have doubled the size of their following by continually touring. Upcoming dates include April 26 and June 23, The Brighton Bar, Long Branch; May 3 and 9, Millhill Basement, Trenton; May 4, Fat Boys’ Smokehouse, Fredericksburg, Va.; May 5, VFW Post 9274, Falls Church, Va.; May 25, Urban Farm Fermentory, Portland, Maine; May 26, Court Tavern, New Brunswick; May 30, Century, Philadelphia; May 31, Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse; June 9, Decicco’s Tavern, Raritan Borough, and July 28, Asbury Park Brewery.
I often say that bands who rush into recording before they become fully seasoned rarely realize a worthwhile collection that puts their best foot forward. With the veteran jam band Secret Sound, few local unsigned acts are as seasoned. That comes through in spades on their self-titled debut EP. Not only did vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Kevin Hill and company wait a long time to make the best record possible, but they limited the release to only five strong tracks, all of which I’ve heard live and whose energy remains true. Yet surprisingly for a jam ‘n’ groove band, “Secret Sound” focuses as much on Hill’s impressive songwriting as the playing of the all-star ensemble: keyboardist Andy Feldman (Turtle Soup), percussionist Bob Larsen (Amfibian), drummer Adam Alexander (Barefeet and Co.), and bassist Dave Ferraro (Days Awake).
The James Brown-inspired, Bootsy Collins-sounding funk of “I’ll Be Your Jungle Lover” kicks things off with an organic groove fortified by a delicious organ solo by Feldman. You know, it’s funny. After I played this track in iTunes, I didn’t notice the title of the next one that came up, assuming it was just going to play the rest of “Secret Sound.” Well, it turns out it was Santana, whom this band can nail live. Now that’s a testament of a great band: that you can mistake them for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act like Santana. Go see Secret Sound live, and you’ll know what I mean. They’re playing April 28 and May 12 at Blackthorn in New Brunswick; May 4, Triumph Brewing, New Hope; May 5, Jamian’s, Red Bank; May 26, Perth Amboy Waterfront Arts Festival, and June 30, Stone Pony, Asbury Park, after Umphrey’s McGee on the Summer Stage.
You also get a sense of that Santana vibe on the soulful, percussive jam “Metratron,” which Hill co-wrote with Ferraro. They and/or the other players also were inspired a bit by Phish, The Doors, and Earth Wind & Fire. The interplay between Hill and Feldman is particularly strong.
Another favorite is the rootsy groove of “Largemouth Bass.” In the vein of Jerry Garcia’s cover of Peter Rowan’s “Catfish John,” the fish tale tells the adventures of the young son of a fisherman frustrated by an elusive but, as it turns out, philosophical bass, who lives at the bottom of their lake.
The disc also includes “Never Too Much,” a funky train song about a fun-loving drifter who has several unfulfilled desires rather than a destination, and the closing “Little Hours.” The tales of travelers and losers looking for love that’s as elusive as that largemouth bass include one about a crusty fellow who sets up shop in a fun reference to Englishtown Auction.
Throughout “Secret Sound,” Brickwindow Studios’ Erik Anderson captures a warm vintage sound that greatly complements Hill’s organic songwriting and the band’s live energy. The results should bring this veteran jam band a whole bunch a new fans.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.