Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help takes on new urgency with second album

Glenn Morrow interview


Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help (from left, Ron Metz, Mike Rosenberg, Morrow and Ric Sherman).

Veteran Hoboken indie rocker and tastemaker Glenn Morrow, along with his energized band, Cry for Help, have recorded a potent second album, titled 2; it will be released on Jersey City’s Rhyme & Reason label on Dec. 18. The release date coincides with Keith Richards’ birthday, which is kismet given the band’s reverence for the Rolling Stones.

If you want to rock the coronavirus blues away, listen to Morrow’s well-written, clever, catchy and sometimes deceptively edgy tunes. With a songwriting style and vocal quality that remind me of Graham Parker & the Rumour’s album Squeezing Out Sparks, he demonstrates that he can still make music as engaging as the music he made in his 20s when his band The Individuals — part of the ’80s Hoboken music scene along with groups such as the Cucumbers and the dB’s — toured nationally. (You can listen to the Individuals songs “Dancing With My 80 Wives” and “Walk by Your House” in the embedded videos, below).

Morrow — joined by lead guitarist Ric Sherman, bassist Mike Rosenberg and drummer Ron Metz — sings powerfully and explores serious issues of racial and gender injustice, isolation, love and loss with a mature and unpretentious voice. (Rosenberg previously played with The Pussywillows and Amy Rigby; Metz with Human Switchboard, The Schramms and Tammy Faye Starlite.) The album was produced by Ray Ketchem at his Magic Door Recording studio in Montclair and also features keyboardist Andy Burton, while Ketchem is credited with adding “percussion and sonic touches.”

The ’80s band The Individuals (from left, Janet Wygal, Doug Wygal, Glenn Morrow and Jon Klages).

Morrow, who has supported indie artists for more than 30 years through his Hoboken-based Bar/None Records record label, has known his three bandmates for decades, on and off the stage. In fact, his children went to daycare with Sherman’s children.

There is an added benefit to Morrow’s songs during these sedentary times when the pandemic limits our movement: They make you dance. And they will sound great when venues safely reopen. While digital music cannot replace the experience of live music — which envelops you in a community of listeners — crank this album loud, dance to some raw rock ‘n’ roll and release some post-election stress.

I’ve heard Morrow call his music “post-dad rock” and that’s an intriguing way of describing passion projects and career changes during days when child-rearing duties and distractions diminish. Without the expectations of touring and the pressures younger musicians feel about anticipated achievements, Morrow relaxes into his success and thoroughly enjoys playing with his band.

This is not a nostalgia album of covers or old songs. Morrow’s material is fresh and relevant, and the pandemic and our turbulent political times provide a new lens to interpret lyrics written largely over the past four years.

Opening track “Yellowed Pages” — a clever tune with an alternating ominous and carefree sound, and one of my favorites on the album — expresses Morrow’s “frustration with communication in the modern world,” he says. The song reminds me that long, satisfying phone conversations don’t compare with hollow, pithy texts.

Morrow says he likes “the disembodied spirits that are part of an old-fashioned phone call.” In the context of the pandemic, our brief encounters, when the warmth of a smile is covered by masks, are as unremarkable as texting.

Morrow sings, “Is that you on the line calling through space and time from a phone booth in the rain on the astral plane?” and references “all those names, streets and places rising from those yellowed pages,” ending cleverly with the line “Oh my God, I can’t stop talkin’/Let your fingers do the walkin’… like walking in the rain.”

“Other Side of the Dream” (see video below) — which was sped up when remixed by Chris Stamey of the dB’s — features backing vocals by Rachel Kiel and has a dystopian quality that pulls me into Morrow’s reflections about a romance that he told me was “from decades back.” In the song, he describes his experience during “that summer of steam … we were two little fishes just swimming upstream/We were good for each other, or so it seemed, as we dove deep into the drink to the other side of the dream.”

He sings confessionally, “Sometimes I don’t know whose side I’m on/But I’m a player, baby, and I’ll take one for the team.”

He looks into the mirror in this song and doesn’t like what he sees. With the benefit of maturity, he aspires to move his relationship to a deeper place or the “other side of the dream,” which is “a place where a couple can get to, beyond dream fantasy and everyday reality,” he said. In the 1980s, when many of us were just learning about romance, we didn’t have the wisdom that aging brings, to know that only time brings depth and intimacy.

The video for “Other Side of the Dream” (see below) shows images of Black Lives Matter signs and shadows walking though empty streets. The fast-paced subway cars and flashing lights add to the feelings of agitation and despair.

The song “started out as an apology to the #metoo movement on behalf of old white guys, but by the time Chris Stamey re-mixed it and I made a video for it, it took on some of the vibe of the pandemic,” Morrow said. “The final line of the song is ‘when the man-child moans and the sirens scream, we got to find a way to the other side of the dream.’ I got Andy Burton to play some crazy keyboards that created an atmosphere of foreboding as well.”

Glenn Morrow performs at Little City Books in Hoboken in June 2019.

There are some fine love songs on the album, including the dreamy and romantic “Forever and a Day,” a ballad that offers a moment of whimsy and longing. Morrow sings:

I could be the one you thought you need to give a good talkin’ to
I’ll be the boombox out on the boulevard making all the beats come true
You could be the one without a care giving me that worried look
I’ll be a chess piece with a checkered past
It’s time to pawn that rook.

“Come Back” has a haunting quality, with Morrow’s seductive plea for his love to return to him. The song ends with an explosive guitar riff expressing his longing and a psychedelic plea to “come back,” and features Ketchem singing backing vocals. “Like a wave on a distant shore/Return to me once more, return to me/Like a wind on a raging sea, return your love to me,” Morrow wails.

Morrow explained that “that song is about messing with doggerel, the language of pop music, singing from the heart rather than the head, so not trying to be poetic.”

I was intrigued by the lines, “All the love that’s here stay will slowly drift away/All the love … that drifts away/Returns to shore one day.” He said this “rose up to the surface kind of slowly, but I think it means the love that is here to stay can drift away over time, but like a message in a bottle it will return.

“We spent an insane amount of time trying to get the groove down to this song. I wanted there to be this free-floating jam section at the beginning and end with different melodies on top, and then in the center was a pop song structure, kind of the candy center.”

“Watch It Burn,” which Morrow calls “a Trumpian fever dream,” expresses our collective nightmare about the narcissistic, incompetent liar-in-chief.

“The Ride,” a timely and observant song that speaks to systemic racism, poignantly describes our segregated society. Yearning to cross the borders that separate him from another person, Morrow sings:

I waved to you from the other side of the street
I think it’s time we both should meet on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard
Just half a mile away from JFK Boulevard

It was sunny on your side and shady on my side
It was shady on my side and sunny on your side
Well ain’t it time we go for a ride?

Morrow says the song is a “meditation on race relations and trying to find connection. I was surprised to discover Martin Luther King Boulevard and JFK Boulevard don’t actually connect in Jersey City.”

“Soul Hold” has an Elvis Costello feel and an important message: Guard your soul and maintain some sense of self despite the pressures that compel you to lose yourself. The video for this song below, filmed by Morrow, follows his shadow walking on the fire escape of his office building as the sun fades. He says it reminds him of Elvis Presley’s dance sequence in the movie “Jailhouse Rock” and that a class in non-narrative film appreciation at the University of Rhode Island profoundly affected him and he channeled his professor’s lessons into the video.

There are other gems on the album, including “Whistling Boy,” a gorgeous, melancholy song about a boy who was not deterred by being put into an unmarked car when “his hands were by his side.” This curious song focuses on the whistling boy who “sends his song out to the birds up in the trees.” The song resonates for those who effect change in gentle, indirect ways.

“It’s definitely open to interpretation,” Morrow says. “We are in a great time of change and some of the protest and resistance is transmitted in quiet ways, but still moves hearts and minds.

After growing up in Cedar Grove and Glen Ridge, Morrow lived mainly in Hoboken until 3 years ago when he moved to Harlem. He still comes back several times a week to Bar/None’s Hoboken offices. (In addition being a musician and label owner, he has worked as the managing editor of New York Rocker magazine and in the A&R department of Warner Bros.).

After The Individuals disbanded in 1983, Morrow formed Rage to Live and released its 1986 album, Blame the Victim, on Bar/None (they were the first band on the label). Morrow then took a long hiatus from performing to run the label with founder Tom Prendergast. In 2000, Prendergast left New Jersey and Morrow became the sole owner.

In its 34 years, Bar/None has churned out albums by artists including They Might Be Giants, The Front Bottoms, Alex Chilton, Elk City, Freedy Johnston, Health and Happiness Show and Yo La Tengo. Starting in 2009, the label has re-released four Feelies albums and also released two new ones.

“It has been a real privilege to get to work with them and to have them return after so long a time away with such power and commitment,” Morrow said. “They are still awe-inspiring every time they play and I can’t believe they added two albums to their catalog.”

When he signs new artists, he “always looked for artists that are way better writers than me,” he said.

He brings lessons he’s learned cultivating new artists to his own work. “If you can come up with an A and a B section, you probably have a song and a good bridge is the gravy,” he said.

The band “a” (from left, Rob Norris, Richard Barone, Frank Giannini and Glenn Morrow) played the first show ever at Maxwell’s in Hoboken.

After nearly three decades of supporting artists from behind the scenes — and still “messing around with music,” he said, but not doing much more than that with it — he got back onstage with members of “a” and The Individuals at a concert marking the closing of Maxwell’s in 2013. (“a,” featuring Morrow and future Bongos Richard Barone, Rob Norris and Frank Giannini, was the first band to play at Maxwell’s, in 1978.)

Soon after these 2013 reunions, he gathered his friends to form Cry for Help. “The songs were coming fast and furiously,” he said. “I was actually surprised by this.”

They released their well-received self-titled debut album in 2017 on Rhyme & Reason instead of Bar/None so he didn’t have to market his own music. Rhyme & Reason co-founders Emmy Black and Ann Marie Scuderi “have been really great supporters and I reduced the push-and-pull in my brain between artist and promotion person,” Morrow said.

You might wonder about the origin of the band’s name. “Mike blurted it out off the top of his head and we all cracked up,” said Morrow.

Ketchem — who has produced many stellar indie bands including Guided by Voices, Gramercy Arms and his own group, Elk City — recorded Cry for Help’s first album in his old studio space and 2 in his newer space. “When Glenn is written about in the press, it’s most often about how he’s the head honcho of Bar/None records, which is important and valid, but it doesn’t speak to his unique way of contextualizing disparate elements,” said Ketchem. “Glenn is first and foremost a match-maker. He pairs creators together to watch what might happen.”

Cry for Help, Ketchem said, “is as much his latest experiment as it is a band, except this time he got lucky. He’s put together a chemistry of players who are perfectly cast in their roles. Glenn is also a gifted songwriter. That’s what makes him good at his ‘other’ job.”

Morrow has observed Hoboken’s transition from a working-class town where his first apartment cost $65 monthly, to the now tony town of expensive coffee and high-priced rentals and condos.

Comparing the New York and Hoboken music scenes of the 1980s, Morrow said “there was a lot of overlap. Hoboken bands played the city and East Village bands played Maxwell’s. New York bands like the Fleshtones, the Bush Tetras and the Raybeats all played Maxwell’s regularly. While Maxwell’s was around, we played New York clubs like CBGB, the Ritz, Hurrah, the Bottom Line, the Mudd Club, Trax, the Peppermint Lounge, Danceteria. Maxwell’s outlasted them all and continued through two Knitting Factories, two Living Rooms, Brownies and many more.”

His retreat from performing coincided with raising children. “Having kids takes up some bandwidth and some of the self-absorption that you need for music gets sidelined,” he said.

He loves returning to Hoboken for work, but also exploring New York, and showcases the beautiful photos he takes on his Instagram account, likeacamera2.

He attended NYU in the ’70s, in part, to be part of the CBGB scene. “I was lucky to see all the bands from that time,” he said. “I even attempted to book Talking Heads at the beginning of their career. It wasn’t easy! Music is an endless sea of possibilities, to paraphrase Patti Smith. There’s always more to learn and the forms are constantly evolving.”

Morrow remains current with music through Bar/None and has enjoyed working with Little Hag, aka Avery Mandeville from Asbury Park. “She’s a fierce feminist who writes great songs,” he said. “She’s incredibly courageous and funny, too.”

He also praised Bar/None act Justus Proffit, who just finished his second album, and said “we also put out an album by Winter during the pandemic and her post-dystopian dream-pop tunes seem to be a way to look at the future.”

Glenn Morrow plays a prominent role in the Hoboken Band Family Tree.

He has been inspired by many, including “Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans, Monk … Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, Lou Reed and the Velvets and everything by Alex Chilton, the Replacements,” he said. “I keep going back to Fred Neil and his coterie, Karen Dalton, Tim Hardin and of course Dylan.”

He added that his listening habits have also included “Stax/Volt and Memphis music, all the Laurel Canyon stuff, Brill Building, Phil Spector, Carole King, all the CBGB stuff — Television, Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Feelies.”

He has found inspiration through some visual artists, including William Eggleston, Francis Bacon and the non-narrative filmmaker Stan Brakhage. And he loves the force that got me through college: the Beat Poets.

He reflected on the state of the music business during the pandemic, which has been dramatically depressed. “Bandcamp has been a real surprise, streaming continues to evolve,” he said. “It is tough. I especially feel for all the venue workers, bartenders, bus drivers and live sound technicians and roadies that are out of work. I hope they catch a break soon with another stimulus package.”

Age can change our perspective on how we live our lives, but sometimes when we bare our soul, we see that we haven’t changed in essential ways.

That seems true for Morrow’s sense of wonder about music.

“The Days to Come,” from the first Cry for Help album, “celebrates what’s left of the time ahead,” he said, “and is almost a bookend to a song I wrote when I was 21 for The Individuals called ‘Our World, where I sang about a world a couple would create, excited by all the things we had yet to accomplish when we had a little more time on our hands. The impulse in both songs is the same and the sea of possibilities is still endless.”

We should be hearing more from Morrow, given his renewed enthusiasm for performing.

“It has been absurdly fun to be back into the performing game,” he said. “A portal in my brain opened and the songs started coming and I knew I just had to go out and do it.”

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