Modern Plagues, the new album from The Whistles and the Bells, is a dizzy tangle of glam-Americana, electronics, and collage-rock. The opening track, “Harry Potter,” a dose of spare, sunny pop frosted with banjo, is followed by the off-center bluegrass-americana of “Small Time Criminals”; even with the sneaky presence of brass and woodwinds, they don’t prepare you for the weirdness to come.
Suddenly with “Playing God” and “Zombie Hearts” we’re in radically new territory, with syncopated beats, synthesizers, and echoes of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Bowie, and Beck in the melodies, moods, and arrangements. The most unlikely comparisons that came to my mind are, in “Good Drugs,” with the shanty-folk of Bellowhead and, in “Year of the Freakout,” with the Bee Gees if they collaborated with Hayes Carll.
As a whole, Modern Plagues is not much like singer-songwriter Bryan Simpson’s previous The Whistles and the Bells effort. But as he says, “I have always been bent towards refusing to recreate what I’ve already done.”
Tying everything together are three things: snarly vocals, literate and pointed lyrics, and creative muddling of roots and pop music traditions. Two of my favorite tracks are at opposite ends of the album’s spectrum, the ballad “Spiral Staircase” and the driving “40 Years” with its Alomar-esque guitar solo. The musicians Simpson gathers, including Brooke Waggoner on keyboards, create tight grooves, holding back most of the time, jumping out front in short bursts, serving the songs reverentially.
The songs frequently address growing up in a tough world, all the while commenting acidly on it with clever turns of phrase. “Nonsense is the devil’s anesthetic,” intones a harshly processed voice – the deity’s? – in “Playing God.” “Abercrombie zombie hearts” pledge allegiance to “America the cubicle” above “Sidewalks paved with puppy spas and homeless vets.” The lyrics indict everything from the nouveau riche to celebrity worship. Religious references pop up a lot too. The Devil has “got his style trademarked,” while his “army is a bunch of old white men.” A misunderstood sports hero complains, “You never heard the harlot knocking at my hotel door/Never saw the bloody flowers on Gethsemane’s floor.” (A “scarlet harlot” reappears at the top of the hermetical “Spiral Staircase.”) When a drug addict’s “straw breaks I say a little prayer/To the God of Abraham and anybody who cares/And hope they’re listening.”
Answers, to prayers or anything else, are elusive to Simpson’s denizens of doom. Where to even ask? “I put my head in the sand looking for the light,” cries the narrator of “Head in the Sand” against a backdrop of synthesized shrieks. But the quest is an entertaining and thought-provoking one as filtered through the brightly lit yet weirdly clouded lens of The Whistles and the Bells.