Penny the Dreadful
From: Montclair, which is a good base of operations for a working band. A couple of places for independent musicians to play, quick escape routes to New York City and Philly, a community that supports artists, and a modest-sized, Live Nation-controlled concert hall for guitar-toting aspirants to dream about. Or not. There are probably a few recalcitrant punks in Montclair who wouldn’t appear at the Wellmont Theater even if they were asked politely. Those Mockingbirds isn’t that kind of band. They’d play. Their dreams are at least Wellmont-sized, and likely a whole lot bigger.
Format: Punchy 10-song album. It’s 2014 and these aren’t parsimonious individuals, so you can stream the whole thing on the band’s website. It’s also available on CD, because all of their heroes’ albums were, too.
Genre: Those Mockingbirds rock hard, so I guess it isn’t inaccurate or misleading to call Penny the Dreadful a hard rock album. There are echoes of grunge, or maybe just Stone Temple Pilots’ version of grunge, which is less about shooting drugs and dying under a bridge than it is about showing off your hot licks to the kids at Guitar Center. Occasionally the Mockingbirds rhythm section dives into the Southern-rock barbecue pit like Jersey is a Dixie state, and maybe it is. There’s a whiff of Turnpike metal about some of the songs, too. But I hope these characters won’t wanna clock me if I say that I think of Those Mockingbirds as a pop-rock band first and dark arts masters only after that. I mean nothing pejorative: I love pop, and when push comes to shove in the heat of the club, it’s likely you prefer groups that foreground melodic hooks and riffs and treat the noise and effrontery as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Nirvana was catchy; so were Skynyrd and the Sex Pistols. There are many, many great bands that aren’t catchy, or poppy, at all — they rock the hell out of basements, thrill everybody in attendance, and get left behind there. As you’d expect from a group that named their outfit named after a sky creature, Those Mockingbirds don’t want to be left behind in a basement.
Arrangements and sound: One good way to flutter out of the basement is by crafting a sound too big and bright to fit in a musty storage box. Those Mockingbirds is an independent project, but these musicians would like to sound at least as good as Cage the Elephant, or Young the Giant, or Foster the People. To that end, they hired engineers who’ve worked on some high-profile rock albums, and the visceral frontal attack of Penny The Dreadful suggests that it was money well spent. The production strikes a nice balance between clarity and crunch, and sounds rich without tipping into opulence or indulging in clutter. The band’s most vulnerable idiosyncrasy — Tory Anne Daines’ violin — never gets flattened by the overdriven six-strings, which must have taken some doing, even if her style is less classical than infernal. Like the Smashing Pumpkins, Those Mockingbirds dig the demonic association of stringed instruments; cellist Daniel DeJesus of Rasputina is enlisted to drone away on “Model Myself,” the most dramatic song on a colorful record. By now, I fear I’m giving you the wrong impression altogether: dramatic? Strings? Rasputina? That album title that suggests Victorian-era popular culture? Is Those Mockingbirds a steampunk outfit? To this I answer: no. No. Thank goodness, no.
What’s this record about? The CD copy of Penny the Dreadful comes with a story about the Devil’s unsatisfied appetite for earthly love, and an emotionally vexed ascension to Earth done in the name of skirt-chasing. Randy Newman fans might recognize this as the same plot conceit that animates his version of Faust; others will probably read it as typical vampiric hunger for the life force and the quest of the monster to shed his monstrous characteristics and become more human. Even Milton had a tough time imagining the Devil as an out-and-out Darth Vader-style baddie. (I mean the Darth Vader from the first movie, not the retconned and humanized villain of the prequels). Storytellers are more interested in an Old Nick who retains human characteristics and who can’t laugh off the sad consequences of evil in action. Tarot card readers will tell you that the Devil key in the Major Arcana means bondage to material concerns; if you’re unlucky enough to have the Devil come up in your fortune-telling spread, you’re probably fated to fall into a love affair that feels like incarceration. The Devil, or some nefarious facsimile, speaks up all over Penny the Dreadful — he begins the trip with an epistle from the void and ends the set entombed. Lyricist and frontman Adam Bird uses the language of imprisonment and coercion to tell his story: he sings about puppets, and people in chains, and time having the character of quicksand, and his lovers are torn between lust and an equally potent desire to drag their partners down. He loves mirrors, and bad dreams, and anything redolent of ill omen. It is possible, as all hard rockers know, to have great fun while dancing with the Devil, since he personifies temptation and finds avatars everywhere there are idle hands — and Bird is certainly having great fun here, even as his characters aren’t. If your protagonist is infernal, you don’t have to worry about happy endings: nobody is expecting one, and you can drive him straight off a cliff. Reprobates and moralists alike will cheer.
The singer: Ozzy bellowed like a man possessed by something clawed and hairy. Mr. Applegate from Damn Yankees was a suave, seductive fellow with sophisticated sales techniques. Both claimed familiarity with the flaming pit. Adam Bird splits the difference with an infernal voice that’s a little bruised, a little bratty, a tiny bit breathy, occasionally swaggering, rascally, identifiable. On “How to Rob a Bank,” Bird grabs the rudder as waves of guitar crash around him, and he keeps the ship steady in a story. Yet he doesn’t scream too often — like a pop singer, he’s always at his best when he’s carrying a tune. He slips a bit of sensitive falsetto into “Destroy My Love” without interrupting his stylish funk. Bird isn’t as confident on semi-acoustic songs like “Model Myself” as he is on the rockers; in general, the more muscular Those Mockingbirds get, the better his voice fits the music, and he’s never more at home than he is when he’s spitting out a big singalong chorus like the one that caps “Bodies on the Road.” Daines sweetens some of the songs with backing vocals, but her voice is used sparingly. For the most part, this is Bird’s show. While he’s probably had to contend with past comparisons to Josh Homme and Gerard Way, the singer he reminds me of the most — in spirit, if not in tone — is Aaron Lazar of the Giraffes, another hard rocker with a Man Voice who never felt the need to throw a tantrum on the microphone, and who danced on the brink of destabilization in natty dress.
The musicians: All demonic imagery aside, a group like Those Mockingbirds is only going to be as effective as its rhythm section. It is a testament to the skills of drummer Kevin Walters and bassist Rob Fitzgerald that the most exciting moments on Penny the Dreadful are the instrumental breakdowns where the band grinds riffs into powder and grease. “Destroy My Love” and “The Reckoning” both peak when Bird clams up and lets the drums do the talking. Likewise, Kyle Walters demonstrates on “Model Myself” that he’s an able soloist, but he, too, is at his best when he gets in step with Fitzgerald and crunches out a riff. This, more than anything, is what aligns Those Mockingbirds with grunge: these guys want you to think they’re good players, but they prefer the self-effacement of a tight group jam (that usually gives way to another sung verse) to the spectacular, aimless lead played for its own sake. They all understand that setting a menacing mood is job No. 1. It’s sonic atmosphere that drags the listener to perdition. Everything else is just a pit stop on the road to hell.
The songs: Penny the Dreadful begins as it ends: gently. “A Ballad From Hell” and “I Feel Like I Died” are both delicate acoustic pop songs, but their melodies hint at tribulation, and on the other eight tracks, the band aims to shake some earth beneath the listener. Those Mockingbirds rockers come in two varieties — there are the looser, QOTSA-influenced numbers that build to bludgeoning instrumental climaxes, like the two I mentioned in the previous section, and pop-punkier material like “Teenage Fantasies” that sell the choruses hard. Both types of songs are economical, purged of fat and anything that doesn’t advance the mood, or the mission to get the hook lodged in your head. Like several prominent alt-bands of the ’90s, the Mockingbirds have mastered the technique of going to a major chord when the progression suggests that a relative minor is coming, and making it sound sinister anyway. Sometimes the band plays it absolutely straight and loads the mixes with rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills. I’m not complaining; nobody in his right mind oughta complain. “Bodies on the Road” breaks down into a voice and drum iteration of the chorus, much as My Chemical Romance, or Twisted Sister, might have. (Guess what my favorite song on the album is.) Meanwhile “Loose Leather” gets a hair metal chug and squalls of souped-up Sambora guitar.
What’s not so good? About that “Loose Leather” — I don’t mind that it takes me back to junior high, because we had a swell music teacher and lots of space in the lunchroom to play Dungeons & Dragons, and what more can you ask for? No, what bugs me is that Bird suddenly runs out of juicy metaphors. The trouble with writing the Devil is that he’s been covered thoroughly over the years, and it’s hard to say anything about him and his works that Dante didn’t think of in the 14th century. Pop necromancers have been shuffling the dark stuff around for centuries, but sometimes it does get stale, and here we’ve got crime, a woman likened to a snake, a motorbike, etc. The rest of Penny the Dreadful works because Bird comes up with compelling images, or meditates on free will, or makes hay with his feelings of existential horror, or gets as goofy and over-the-top as a … well, as a penny dreadful. “Leather” has the heavy metal muscle, but the (evil) spirit is weaker than it should be.
What differentiates this record from others like it? It isn’t the violin; not really. Queens of the Stone Age and the Smashing Pumpkins — two models for Those Mockingbirds — integrated strings into their songs, too. Not too many hard rock bands have a violinist, true, let alone one as expressive as Daines, but you’re not going to spin Penny the Dreadful and fixate on the strings. You might get swept by up the exuberance of the songs, though. There are lots of groups that try to hang an upside-down cross in front of you, and many other hard rockers who wear their commercial ambitions like a badge. But by and large those bands approach their audiences with a poker face, and as a result their records feel joyless. Bird and his pals are having a blast with their dark material, and that, more than anything else, connects this outfit with its sources.
Recommended? I can imagine a headbanger saying that this album is way too polished. Forget that guy. Those Mockingbirds may be destined to be one of those Jersey bands that’s too rough for mainstream acceptance and too well-connected and well-produced — not to mention not-so-secretly poppy — for the basement circuit, but that’s their problem, not yours. They aim to rock you, and they’ve put their backs into the task. If you like hard rock, if you kinda miss grunge, if you’ve got a soft spot for MCR, if you’re an eensy-weensy bit steampunk, if you’ve got a deal with the Devil going or if you’re itching to sign one, Penny the Dreadful is an album worth engaging with.
If you’re from New Jersey, or if you grew up in New Jersey, or if you like New Jersey, and you’re interested in getting your music reviewed in this space, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.