Alex Burnet and Sam Carlson are standing in the middle of a New Haven street. Is it in Edgewood? It might be in Edgewood. It’s a cloudy, rainy day.
No, wait — they’re on the top of East Rock. Right? Or is it West Rock?
Wait. Now they’re in Romeo and Cesare’s. Now they’re under the bridge where Orange Street crosses the Mill River in East Rock Park.
The fast-changing scenes of New Haven provide the backdrop to a killer song from local band Laundry Day, for which Burnet and Carlson sing and play guitar. It’s the Independent’s pick for best local music video, and local song, of 2017.
The video is a breathtaking tour of New Haven that’s full of heart, a love letter to the Elm City. And the song, off Laundry Day’s album It’s Cool, It’s Whatever, is right there with it, overflowing with fondness, grit, and fun, a rough beauty of a pop song with a rhythm that’s driving and tricky at the same time. And it’s one of the songs that, after I heard it once, I couldn’t quite get out of my head.
“Sharp teeth,” Burnet sings. Carlson joins him, harmonizing.
Smoke cigarettes and invent diseases
Fly on airplanes over seven seas…
In the meantime, they take a whirlwind tour of New Haven without ever taking a step. Cafe Nine. The Owl Shop (on “smoke cigarettes,” which Burnet does with flair). The sleek, Star Wars-like tunnel in Union Station between the terminal and the tracks. Louis Lunch. A path on the Green. All that and more in the first minute.
New Haven’s musicians put out hundreds of hours of music a year. I can’t say I’ve listened to all of it. But I’ve listened to a fair amount — as a reporter covering live shows, as the host of a weekly two-hour local music program on WNHH FM called “Northern Remedy,” and as an arts editor scouring Bandcamp and Soundcloud — for the releases that fly under the radar if all you do is pay attention to live shows.
Some people, after all, just make great albums in their bedrooms, or in studios, and leave the live stage to someone else. A lot of the Elm City’s music is really good. And quite a few of the songs Elm City musicians became part of the soundtrack to my daily life, songs I’d catch singing to myself walking down the street to cover a story, or just playing in my head late at night. Here’s the rest of my list of favorites from 2017.
Manny James: Dear America
If Laundry Day traveled the city from end to end, soul artist Manny James went back to the place where he grew up — Church Street South — for inspiration, and dug deep. The resulting album, called Church Street South, has plenty of bangers on it, but the slower tempo “Dear America” just might hit even harder. The plaintive piano chords hook you in at the beginning. The beat is simple and sure. It gives James a chance to sing, really sing. “Dear America, what do you see when you look in my eyes? Did you know that I was born a king? Not a stereotype?” he begins. It’s a song swimming with questions, with anguish and despair. But by the end, when James gets to his final query — “because if this is truly the land of opportunity, then where do I stand?” — there’s another emotion rising from this meditation on what it is to be black in America right now: hope.
Mark Mulcahy: Stuck On Something Else
New Haven can lay claim to Mark Mulcahy from his days playing drums in the Saucers, and then as frontman for Miracle Legion. He’s moved on to his own solo projects and has moved out of town, but he came back to a packed show at Lyric Hall for the release of his latest album, The Possum in the Driveway. Years in the making, the album is a gloriously textured group of songs, full of dynamic vocals, lyrics that somehow manage to be labyrinthine and direct at the same time, and warm, sometimes surprising instrumentation. The album’s opening, “Stuck On Something Else,” is mesmerizing for how spare it is. With just an electric piano and a very simple harmony line on the chorus for support, Mulcahy uses a haunting melody to convey a heartbreaking story of emotional disconnection, of trying to come to terms with the past, of resignation and wisdom earned too hard. I’m stuck on it.
Mountain Movers: I Could Really See Things
The Mountain Movers are a four-piece band that sounds like an eight piece band. On 2015’s Death Magic, that band — Dan Greene on guitar and vocals, Kryssi Battalene on guitar, Rick Omonte on bass, and Ross Menze on drums — solidified its sound. But it makes sense that 2017’s release was eponymous; it feels both like a culmination of years of playing together and a fresh start, a new, ambitious direction. On “I Could Really See Things,” the band wastes no time in unleashing a wailing, grinding squall from its two guitars before the bass and drums find their groove. Greene’s lyrics, at their most mysterious, set the mood for an 11-minute round of hypnosis as Battalene finds sound after sound in her instrument, relaxed yet driving all at once. The song ends as it began. Yet the first time I heard it, I was changed.
Quiet Giant: Knee of the Curve
Quiet Giant‘s “Knee of the Curve” starts off with a melody made out of guitar harmonics, then lets loose with a echoey roar. Danielle Capalbo’s quivering voice starts off as a whispery rasp, but then turns up the power enough to bore a hole through the riotous noise on the chorus. It’s a song that goes from dream to rude awakening and back again in less than four minutes, but later, that voice is still in your head.
Mercy Choir: Cheyenne
Paul Belbusti, the prolific songwriter behind Mercy Choir, spent a long time writing and record Like A Fountain Stirred, a full-length album that he released in January and played from for months afterward with a six-piece band (including, in full disclosure, yours truly on upright bass). In April, however, he also secretly wrote and recorded an entirely new album, Fair Games, which he released quickly in order to give copies to those who attended a solo show he performed, as a special gift. That album included the song “Cheyenne,” a straightforward, quietly devastating song with lyrics that kill in their simplicity and a descending guitar line that works every time.
Myles Trip: Save Me
Funky and twitchy, Myles Tripp‘s “Save Me” finds Tripp skipping a melody over the surface of a swelling, snappy groove that tells the story of a love gone wrong, something lost. Tripp sings it with an urgency and desperation that commands attention, and that would be enough. But it’s the intimate bridge that drives the point home. Tripp first climbs into the upper registers of his falsetto, then delivers a confession. “I put your name on the altar / I told the father I quit / I gave your stuff to your mother / I sat for three hours at a CVS.” In the mixing of the specific and the elliptical, “Save Me” locks into the universal sense of vertigo that can come when love makes you do crazy things.
Underwear, a.k.a. Nick Grunerud, has made an art form of performing his music live, hovering over a table full of gear and dancing from button to button, from knob to knob, to produce glitchy electronic music that’s also surprisingly danceable. It helps that Grunerud is a gifted singer, effortlessly crooning melodies and then stacking harmonies on top to build songs from fragments of sound into cohesive wholes. Over its nearly seven minutes, “2006” moves from shifting vocals and short-circuiting backup to dance party that abruptly cuts off to bring it all back to the beginning. It’s surprising, engaging, and most of all, a lot of fun.
Musically, Grizzlor excels at heaviness, creating a vast, sludgy sound that generates a lot of heat and almost no light. Gaze into the gloom, though, and you’ll spot a wry, fatalistic sense of humor. Where else can you find a singer who will shout the word “Fruitloopville” at the top of his lungs? It’s not a song about giving in; it’s a song prodding people to take chances. “Don’t be a wimp!” singer Victor snarls, before burying the eardrums in distortion-drenched guitars. Message received.
It has become increasingly easy — and affordable — for musicians to get a hold of ways to produce electronic music. Sounds that used to require rooms full of synthesizers and a full recording studio now require not much more than a laptop with the right software and a microphone, as long as you know what you want to do with it. Enter Quietly, the music project of artist Cassie Bozicek. “Luxation,” from the album, Aestivation, employs a wide sonic palette to create an atmosphere of drama and menace, just the right space for her echo-soaked voice to float through. A great song for when the weather gets cold, and we wait for it to get warm again.