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Pom Pom Squad's Death of a Cheerleader and the Endless Summer

Now that the calendar reads "August" we've officially entered the dog days of summer which begs the questions of why summer is always so fleeting and what does it all reeeeally mean maaan so to help in considering the larger significance of summer in our daily lives it would probably help to name an Official Musical Statement of the Summerfor the year 2021 and herein we officially bestow this honour upon Pom Pom Squad’s inaugural full-length release Death of a Cheerleader (City Slang Records) which is not only a great record that happened to be released the first week of summer but it's also a record that powerfully evokes summer itself.

On Death of a Cheerleader Pom Pom Squad take elements of classic girl group R&B and balladry and combine them with power pop and post-punk and hints of psychedelia and emo (imagine a mashup of the Shirelles and the Pleasure Seekers and the Savage Rose and Cheap Trick and Joan Jett and Elastica and the Muffs and Rainer Maria and and Hot Sundae and Sleater-Kinney but that’s a vast oversimplification) which are well-chosen ingredients for a summer album that’s equally sweet as candy and gritty as sand. Against this musical backdrop squad leader Mia Berrin (alongside bassist Mari Alé Figeman, drummer Shelby Keller, and co-guitarist Alex Mercuri) paints a vivid picture of endorphin-rushing desire and brash F.U. bravado beset by waves of self-doubt and lovelorn ache. If this record were a book instead of a record it’d make a great beach something like the musical equivalent of a pulpy novel about forbidden love and crushing heartbreak and a voyage of self-discovery that hits harder than you'd expected cuz yeah we see those little puddles of mud next to your beach towel.

Plus there's something about summer's odd mashup of physical immediacy, romantic longing, and built-in nostalgia that this album taps into in a major way making it a worthy entry into the summer song canon, a musical repertoir notable for oscillating wildly between extremes of heedless abandon and pleasure seeking versus heedful self-reflection and lamentations hoping for something better—especially when it comes to the subject of summer flings, breif encounters that paradoxically linger in the memory forever—the escapism of having “Fun, Fun, Fun” (“Fun”) forever haunted by mournful Pet Sounds and that’s how this album hits imho. 

Death of A Cheerleader opens with “Soundcheck” which is something like the music you’d hear in a movie when the picture goes all wobbly and the protagonist get sucked into a daydream or fantasy or past recollection—here represented by a vortex of swirling vibraphone tones and a static-y radio signals beaming a spectral distorted voice from a distant star—thus setting the reflective and hyperreal tone for the rest of the album. After passing through this sonic portal we’re thrust straight into the sugary headrush of “Head Cheerleader” with its interrelated admissions that “I’m going to marry the scariest girl on the cheerleading team” and that “my worst decisions are the ones I like best” coyly delivered with a hint of Valley Girl uptalk—the exhilaration and vulnerability of the lyrics mirrored in a musical arrangement that audibly squirms with anticipation (“I’m squirming out of my skin”) and buzzes with nervous butterflies (“stay away from girls like me”).

The specters of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector haunt the next number, “Crying”, which shares a title and a theme with Orbison’s “Crying” but whose opening line (“it hits me and it feels like a kiss”) paraphrases Phil's most notorious song (“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” was written by Gerry Goffen and Carole King and recorded by the Crystals with Spector producing and arranging) but with Mia belting the song out Ronnie Spector style which complicates an already complicated dynamic despite the relative straight-forward simplicity of the lyrics—a pleasure/pain dialectic further amplified by Sarah Tudzin’s crucial role in co-producing/co-arranging/mastering/mixing the album which on this song results in a Spector-worthy Wall of Sound with glissing violins and angelically strummed harps creating an otherworldly tableau of tears streaking down the singer's cheeks as Berrin soars and sobs over the chorus and really this song is not fooling around (Tudzin is the lead hottie in Illuminati Hotties in addition to being a prolific and distinctive producer-engineer). 

Continuing down this intertextually referential path “Second That” reworks the titular phrase of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ soul music staple “I Second That Emotion” but re-imagined as internal dialogue more than romantic entreaty (“I saw someone you were with in the summer / and now I wanna be just like them”) with a fittingly minimalistic arrangement matched to the song's sense of isolation. Next up is “Cake” which is more punk rock confrontational and chaotic with the half-sung, half-spoken vocals eventually splitting into two parts Sybil-style between an upper register and a menacing low growl reflecting the multi-layer cake mix of assuredness and insecurity in the lyrics.

 

The identity play continues on the Joan Jett-inflected cover of “Crimson and Clover” and then on “Lux” where Mia provides an inner voice (“How do you expect me to figure myself out / when I cannot tell the difference between good and bad attention”) for Lux Lisbon, the mysterious lead protagonist of The Virgin Suicides, that's absent from both the book and the movie and in the song Lux redirecting her fury from inward to outward in a galvanizing ninety-nine second rave-up (just a few songs on Cheerleader crack the three-minute mark and just barely at that) followed by another crimson-themed song “Red With Love” that's flush with unflinching desire and defiance (“I need you closer and you’re not even an inch away”) and then next comes a soul-baring/spine-chilling ballad called “Forever” that marries a mournful string choir to an octave-jumping vocal and a “Be My Babybeat.

 

In its final act Death of a Cheerleader moves from the frenetic “Shame Reactions” wherein Ms. Berrin alludes for the first time to the album’s title and and its implication of murderous desire (“Is there a way for me to kill the girl I wish I were?”) followed by the sodden rebuke/pledge of devotion of “Drunk Voicemail” and the sign of resignation “This Couldn’t Happen” and the spent emotional afterglow of “Be Good” reprising the flashback vibraphone theme of the opening “Soundcheck” as if we’ve woking up from the album-long dream/flashback/fantasy before concluding with the short backmasked coda of “Thank You and Goodnight.”

In (almost) closing it’s worth noting that the title of Death of a Cheerleader is taken from a 1994 NBC-TV movie (originally titled “A Friend To Die For” but wisely renamed upon its many reairings on Lifetime and in that same network’s 2019 remake) which follows the trials and travails of a geeky-cute but deeply insecure girl-next-door type (portrayed by Kellie Martin who was known at the time for playing the similarly characterized albeit less murderous “Becca” on ABC’s Life Goes On) entering her sophomore year in high school who totally loses her marbles when she gets rejected by the yearbook committee and fails her cheerleading tryout on the same damn day. 

And so naturally she uses the rather large and sharp knife her older vegetarian sister keeps in the car for cutting up cucumbers as a makeshift murder weapon to dispose of the Heather Chandler-esque mean girl cheerleader who gives her shit (played by Tori Spelling aka “Donna” from Beverly Hills 90210) a crime of passion provoked in part by the high school’s principle who insists at a pep rally that secon best equals total failure and also most likely more than a touch of dissociative identity disorder which further manifests itself when the Homicidal Girl Next Door briefy takes over Mean Girl’s social standing after the murder while still remaining a Nice Girl and it’s like she’s a hybrid of Heather Duke and Heather McNamara but then finally the gnawing sense of guilt and a local priest’s sermon gets the better of her and she confesses and goes to trail with many upper-middle-class Santa Mira townies in attendance (the setting being a clever touch given that Santa Mira itself is an illusory town—the fictional setting for films ranging from the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Sharknado franchise g*d help us) who come to the difficult realization that they themselves helped create this situation through their materialism and aspirationalism resulting in a mere second degree murder conviction and really I gotta say it’s the happiest ending that a cheerleader slayer could hope for especially one in a Lifetime movie.



Anyway, the movie is really more of a trenchant examination of late capitalism and social class in America and their mental health impacts than it needed to be for a pulpy TV movie, but maybe this unexpected resonance had something to do with making Death of a Cheerleader the most watched TV movie of 1994 because surely it wasn't that viewers wanting to see Donna from 90210 stabbed to death by a goody-goody character from another show because you just know Americans aren't sick that way as a nation. And perhaps it’s maybe no wonder either that Mia Berrin and her Pom Pom Squaders would also identify with the TV movie because in certain respects it's deeply queer and plus it addresses double consciousness which is an ontological state familiar to individuals and social formations where the individual or social formation in question is effectively denied membership in the ruling class's hegemonic social world, a world they must nonetheless interact with on a daily basis—thus necessitating the development of a kind of adaptive split personality in order to cope with the unreal reality of being forced to live between two worlds, between two distinct and segregated realities.

Along these lines, Mia Berrin has explained elsewhere how her choice to take on the persona of the badass rule-breaking cheerleader was based in part on the overwhelming whiteness of indie rock subculture and how it can make a Queer Jewish-Puerto Rican Woman of Color feel more than a little out of place—a state of affairs that is (arguably) slowly improving thanks to bands like Pom Pom Squad—not to mention the Mean Girls and Mean Boys Ms. Berrin was forced to deal with in high school especially before she transferred to a private school (New York City’s public school system is one of the most segregated in the nation) and here it’s worth pointing out that Mia’s father happens to be MC Serch (Michael Berrin) who himself happens to be one of the most respected “white” (Jewish more specifically) emcees in hip hip history lauded for his work with 3rd Bass but who also helped bring the talents of major figures like Nas and Zev Love X (better known later as MF Doom (RIP)) to a bigger audience at a crucial point in both their careers and then standing back afterwards. 

And what does all this have to do with summer songs? Hmm. Well maybe this is reach but I’ll take a stab at it anyway (heh heh) because from the discussion above summer is basically the most “Other” of all the seasons—with summer viewed as a temporary reprieve from the more mundane day-to-day existence of fall, winter, and spring with summer desired and fantasised about but also straight-up exoticized. And then after it's over, summer is largely cast aside as irrelevant to “normal existence” (and maybe even disavowed, depending on one's extent of mischief) which probably goes some way to explaining the odd duality (double consciousness) of summer’s mix of carefree fun and complicated longing. So that's a working theory, but for now the more immediate takeaway is that all you weirdos who've read this far had better enjoy the rest of this summer to the fullest (because who knows if we'll have one next year, hello 2020) and either way try not to fogget about it once it's over. (Jason Lee)





UgLi blur the line between DTF and WTF on heavy AF debut album

The South Jersey/Philadelphia-based band UgLi unabashedly bash out ‘90s style alt rock with panache—but still their music feels uniquely relevant to right now and it rocks hard enough to be relevant to any era.

Taking a genre (grunge) originally associated with flannel-wearing, chainsaw-wielding, primal-screaming lone-wolf types, the Philly foursome uses it to address topics like mental health afflictions, gender fluidity, body dysmorphia, medication overutilization, and the pure unadulterated joy of a new love. Surprised you with last one, huh? And while in reality grunge was always pretty multifaceted (oddly enough it only became less so in the later ‘90s morphing into rap-rock, nü-metal, and post-grunge all culminating in the nightmare of Woodstock ‘99) and it’s always included great female musicians (L7 easily rocks just as hard as Soundgarden) but in 1992 it was still necessary for a certain “sad little sensitive Pisces man” to put a not-unsubstantial contingent of his own band’s fans on blast in the liner notes to the Incesticide comp:

“If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records.”

UgLi could in this way be considered the culmination of Kurt’s wishes, and one can only hope that in between floating around and hanging out on clouds that somewhere up there he’s looking down pretty happy about it. Because as a band that’s otherwise made up of three pretty average looking rock dudes (no offense guys!) UgLi is fronted by co-guitarist, vocalist, and primary songwriter Dylyn Durante who also happens to identify as a queer trans woman. So when she sings lines like “How would you find love / you don’t fit in the box / you’re mixing colors and shapes / I think you need to get off” (“Why Be Pretty…when you could be free”) it speaks not only to the youthful alienation of grunge-loving kids across a couple generations but also to a very specific situation—a situation driven home by the tight instrumental work of co-guitarist Andrew Iannarelli, bassist Lucas Gisonti, and drummer Teddy Paullin who pushes the album forward with Jimmy Chamberlin levels of energy.

Wait, what album? The track above plus seven others make up the band’s first full-length on the self-released FUCK, which at first glance may come off as a blunt, simple-minded attention grabber of a title. But when you break it down “fuck” is actually one of the more nuanced and versatile words in the English language given its dozens of potential meanings, ranging from a modifier used to add emphasis (“no fucking way!”) to a single-word exclamation indicating anger or disgust; ranging from the sensual physical union of two or more human beings to the state of being badly damaged or even ruined. And on FUCK, Dylyn covers all these meanings and more in songs where she “gets fucked” in every possible sense, and in songs where the band modifies the grunge formula to fit their own means—adding musical flavors ranging from the proggy side of the alt-rock spectrum (e.g., the Pumpkins/Radiohead-esque “Bad Egg” which deals with the difficulties of transitioning) to the dreamy chamber pop turned shoegazy slowcore rock ballad of the eight-plus-minute closer “Naegleriasis” with it’s vibey vibraphone and hazy horn section played in waltz time.

And finally, when it comes to the exclamatory qualities of FUCK, the record benefits greatly from the aforementioned intricate arrangements and the impressively warm/crisp/clear yet crunchy/dirty/overdriven production work on the album—produced in collaboration with Dave Downham at Gradwell House in Haddon Heights, New Jersey (Dave is credited with recording, mixing, and mastering the album alongside a full production credit on “Naegleriasis”) and I’m guessing that Butch Vig may be feeling just a little bit jealous now reading this. So whether you consider yourself a “House Pet” (“Nobody taught me how to care / I think I should’ve picked it up somewhere”) or a “Bad Egg” (“I’m searching for that high note / grasping for survival / well, what the fuck do I know”) you may want to follow the former song’s advice to “shimmer while you can” because the album itself follows this advice and it seems to work out pretty well. (Jason Lee)





"Subversive To Care" comp released to benefit AAPI communities

In today’s fast-paced modern era of music streaming and profligate playlist making (not to mention Twitch DJing and all the other means of assembling original musical mixes) the notion of an old-school compilation album (or “comp”) may seem hopelessly out of date. But comps can still be wonderful things, and Subversive To Care (referred to as Sub2Care forthwith), which has been released to coincide with the launch of Paul Is Dead Records, checks off many of the boxes that make them good things.



For one thing, comps are often assembled to raise money for charitable/activist organizations and this one fits the bill with proceeds going to several AAPI organizations—The National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (www.NAPAWF.org), Asian Mental Health Collective (www.ASIANMHC.org) and The Tibet Fund (www.TIBETFUND.org)—in response to alarming levels of hate crimes and ongoing struggles against prejudice against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

What’s more, a good comp is a great way to discover new music and new artists without having to continually troll Spotify’s Teen Beats playlist (granted, SyKo’s “#BrooklynBloodPop!” has its pleasures). And with 60 original songs by the original artists Sub2Care should keep you occupied for a while as you make your way from the start (Wake Up’s “Hurricane” in exclusive demo form; the band is pictured above) to the finish (Squires’ “Tombstoning”) so you basically have got a conceptual theme here of moving from wakefulness to the Big Sleep—not that you can’t skip around within and between individual tracks which is another one of the nice things about comps. They’re basically sampler platters in musical form.

Sub2Care was put together by the new LA-based label Paul Is Dead Records (with satellite offices in New York and Wisconsin apparently) and is likely named either after the notorious Beatles urban legend, or the recent death of Paul Van Doren, patriarch of the Van’s sneaker empire. And while LA artists predominate on the comp (speaking of Vans some of these LA artists no doubt look a lot like Jeff Spicoli or perhaps Phoebe Cates) there’s also a decent number from other locales including New York/New Jersey like Frankie Rose, New Myths, Mevius, Dahl Haus, CITYGIRL, Skyler Skjelset (Fleet Foxes), The Natvral (Kip Berman from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart), and Shana Falana (featuring Shana Falana).

Across musical history, comps have occasionally played a key role in defining the sound of a nascent genre or a new record label—like the Lenny Kaye-compiled Nuggets (1972) that set an early template for punk rock, or the 1988 Sub Pop 200 comp that was a who’s who of future grunge all-stars—and while Sub2Care isn’t strictly speaking a “label comp” since it’s made up of tracks donated by “artists who are close friends and family members of our label” quoting label head and co-founder Evan Mui, it’s still got a certain vibe or aesthetic, if you will, while being pretty darn eclectic at the same time.

I would prospectively call this vibe or aesthetic Twilight Music. By Twilight Music I mean songs that’ve got a certain hazy/dreamy/slightly off-kilter quality whether they’re upbeat or downbeat or mid-beat. And in this way it’s good music for putting on around twilight say when you’re pregaming for a Saturday night out (tracks #13 and 14 are two good examples: Smirk’s “Do You?” and Eternal Summers' “Belong”) or waking up Sunday morning trying to recall what happened the previous night (rewind to tracks #10-12: Four Dots’ “I Left My Heart Pump In San Francisco,” D.A. Stern’s “Funky Holocaust (Drunk Demo),” and Big Nitty’s “Chemical Plant”) or songs that fit equally well for either scenario (for example, tracks 32-34: Dahl Haus’ “Silhouettes and Alibis,” Black Needle Noise’s “And Nothing Remains,” Built Like Alaska’s “Ran Into A Coroner").

So throw a few bucks in the Bandcamp bin for Paul Is Dead Records if you like what you hear. And in return you may discover a new favorite artists or two--whether one of the ones mentioned/displayed here or some other deserving object of your musical admiration. (Jason Lee)









 








Bubble Tea and Cigarettes take road trip to "Santa Monica"

In keeping with their name, Bubble Tea and Cigarettes capture the enduring pleasures of the most fleeting of pleasures. On the two singles they released in 2020 the bedroom pop combo were just as likely to be found in the kitchen unpacking their latest comestibles with dreamy elegies dedicated to eating empanadas at 5am or about ordering fried chicken from the takeout joint downstairs in the middle of the night and the inevitable reflections upon one’s own mortality (“people all die soon”) provoked by such activities. 

Newly signed to Madrid-based Elefant Records, the duo’s latest single ventures a bit further afield from their local bodega for inspiration, namely all the way to the Left Coast and ocean-adjacent “Santa Monica” in particular where the song and the sumptuous shot-on-location video (dir: Shicong Zhu) depict an amorous yet hesitant couple cruising down the “violet street” of a purple-hued Pacific Coast Highway shooting home movies and sucking on candy ring pops and smoking cigarettes while pondering the question “is this love ended or it never started?” before ending up at an sparsely populated amusement park straight out of Carnival of Souls and cavorting together in slo-mo illuminated only by the lights of the ferris wheel and the colored flames of hand-held sparklers before our narrator is finally left “lost in love” waking up alone in a parking lot as her partner speeds off on a motorcycle.

The languid longing and overall slowcore/sadcore/dreampop vibes of "Santa Monica" are ably assisted by twangy “Duane Eddy on Xanax” guitar, lugubrious strings and mournful castanets (two words you won't see together elsewhere) with vocals that sound as if they’re emanating from a wormhole to another dimension more than from a human body and it all exerts an appropriate gravitational pull. BT&C is comprised of Andi Wang and Ruinan Zhang and while I’m not sure which one of them is “Bubble Tea” and which one is “Cigarettes” it's no matter because together they capture the sugar-and-nicotine rush and subsequent comedown inherent in the combo and I’m guessing that they only left “weed gummies” off from their name because it got to be too long. So grab a jumbo straw and suck down some taro covered tapioca globules in musical form in between drags on a Pall Mall assuming this is up your alley. (Jason Lee)





Phantom Handshakes: Shoegaze on Broadway

ALT TITLE: "Dream-pop Girls"

Way back in 2020, the Phantom Handshakes put out a song called “Aisha (Vs the Dirty Tongues)” which just from the title alone sounds like it should be a rock opera. And it’s not just the title because the song’s dramatic, moody music is likewise suited to the stage and would likely appeal to the youth of today since they don’t yet have a rock opera to call their own. Anyway I’d say the time has finally come for a shoegaze/dream pop takeover of Broadway and the West End.



The newest release by the Phantom Handshakes entitled No More Summer Songs could be the album to break the impasse and tap the potential for a dream pop rock opera if somebody could just find the next Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda and get him or her to write a staged adaptation. I mean just listen to “Cricket Songs” and it’s inner monologue describing the protagonist’s heightened sense of perception in the midst of a summer heatwave complete with bedroom dancing and sweaty sheets and overemotive mothers and drifting off to the sound of chirping crickets. It’s pretty evocative stuff and so is the video above.


The album’s opening track “I Worried” would make a perfect overture with its ghostly echoes looking back at past misspent summers (that’s my take on it anyway) which would serve as a perfect framing device for the musical, and then the next song “No Better Plan” would be the crossover crowd-pleaser with its wordless catchy yet slightly taunting “Nya Na Na” refrain which should translate well to foreign markets.



The song captures a doomed-yet-determined forlornness but with a sunny/boppy melody and beat (sidenote: the aforementioned hit song from Hamilton also has a “Na Na Na” refrain) with lyrics about “building sandcastles despite the wind” which is essentially what King George does in Hamilton

P.S. I’ll gratefully accept a producer co-credit and a modest percentage of the gross box office if this idea comes to fruition. But if it turns out to be the next Moose Murders just remember you didn’t hear any of this from me.

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