New Wave was a genre that thrived from roughly 1978 to 1986. Pioneered by Blondie and Joy Division and perhaps ended by The Smiths and The Cure, New Wave music was the strange upbeat sensation that the punk scene threw out for not being angry enough at the system. Borrowing equal parts from the energy and excitement punk so perfectly demonstrated on The Ramones’ self titled debut and the spirit of being out there for out there’s sake that art rock exemplified on David Bowie’s “Heroes.” It was short, fast, weird, and fun, and it dominated the charts for several years before fizzling out and largely falling off the map. You can still hear its influence in genres like pop punk and ska, but there’s a reason you won’t see a section for it in Spotify or iTunes, or even the haven of odd genres that is Bandcamp Discover. The Blues may be a shadow of its former self but at least the kids today know what it sounds like. New Wave is remembered only by those who lived under its brief reign.
Ironically, neither I nor the band I’m reviewing today are old enough to remember New Wave’s grand revolution, but still Naked Giants’ debut album SLUFF is largely a resurrection of New Wave in all its glory. The rhythmic sensations of The Knack and Devo return on tracks like “Slide.” I can’t emphasize enough how tight the rhythm is on these cuts. The odd emphasis on certain eighth notes could not be achieved without ace sense of timing in all members of the band. “TV” is the track that keeps getting stuck in my head, not just in that absent minded earworm sense, but also in the intellectual “how in the Hell did they do that” sense. “TV” places emphasis in its rhythmic values so strange I swore it had something up with it. I thought it was in 3/4 time or starting on the fourth beat before the first full measure, but no, that’s Naked Giants writing a totally normal 4/4 song starting on the 1. It’s bookended with a sparse arrangement, like if “My Sharona” took out all the extra beats. But then the middle is like if The Knack had taken too many amphetamines and gone off into a jam like Led Zeppelin used to do during a live performance of “Dazed and Confused.”
“TV” is the song that stands out to me as the most typical of what you’ll hear on this album, songs like ”Goldfish” (parts I and II) and “Dead/Alien” feel very similar with their rhythmic oddities and prog rock deconstruction and reconstruction. But when the last note of “TV” stops ringing, the opening blues riff for “Slow Dance II” comes stumbling in with a smooth organ backing it. This sweaty, passionate, swinging tune has New Wave elements (the guitar tones still sound like they could be off an Elvis Costello album) but the feel is much more like a heartbroken teenager singing at a high school dance. “Because I’m down on my knees/And I’m tired of pleasing, you’re never around/When I call you/You’re my love, darling” one verse cries over a slow and plodding but very emotional picked guitar. That is, until the chorus hits and it gets a little noisier, but the vocals still have that plodding phrasing to them and the guitar solo is more based out of the blues than the other songs on SLUFF.
And there’s the grand finale, which comes totally out of left field as a sixties flower power/psychedelia thing where guitarist Grant Mullen is joined by drummer Henry LaVallee as they both play “Bellzouki” 12 string guitars. The collective effect of the two esoteric instruments droning over lyrics about going on an absurd bender with marijuana make it feel like the ghost of Brian Jones was involved with the creation of this track.
For all that I reference New Wave sounds I don’t want to make SLUFF sound like a throwback album so heavily saturated in its predecessors it contributes nothing new to the genre. Naked Giants are bringing New Wave back and making it relevant again. Their introduction of prog rock and heavier punk elements make it a welcome revival. I hope some segment of the modern punk world hears this album and thinks “oh yeah, punk can be interesting again.”
Naked Giants’ SLUFF is available now from New West Records.
Correction: I misidentified the instrumentation on “Shredded Again.” Henry LaVallee informed me that it is just acoustic guitars. It’s such a departure from the rest of the album that I thought it must be the odd instrument out credited in the liner notes.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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