Deli Girls – “I Don’t Know How To Be Happy” (2019)

I can’t stop listening to I Don’t Know How To Be Happy.

I got turned onto Deli Girls via one of those “The Best Albums So Far This Year That You Haven’t Heard” kind of articles, and even though I rarely buy digital-only releases it was clear after just a few song snipits that I wanted more of this. I NEEDED more of this.

Deli Girls are New Yorkers Danny Orlowski (vocals and pure, raw emotion) and Tommi Kelly (all things electronic), and they’re tired of the shit the world throws at them. Their first label release was the chaotic Evidence in 2017 (they self-released their six-song debut in 2016), an album that captured their live power in a way contained by the barest of structure. The songs straddled the line between control and the loss of it, often careening off into sheer cathartic anguish. It’s jarring and completely lacking in any kind of pretense or subtlety. The pain of objectification? Just listen to “Little Man, Little Camera”. Of being ignored by the authorities after being raped? “Evidence”. It’s not just rebelling against the powerlessness that society tries to impose on those who fall outside the mainstream. It’s about owning those experiences and drawing on that rage to push back against it.

Let’s be clear for a minute – I’m probably not in the Deli Girls’ target demographic. I’m a middle aged white guy who lives in the suburbs and has a very typical white collar job. As far as Society (capital S) is concerned I’m “normal”, at least outwardly so. And that generally makes it easier for me to navigate the day-to-day world. I hope that my cranking Deli Girls up to 11 on my car stereo while on my seemingly endless afternoon commute doesn’t make me look like the Michael Bolton character in Office Space. Maybe it does, at least on the outside. But I don’t care. Because even though I don’t share many of the same experiences that have shaped Danny and Tommi’s music and words, their power and honesty compel me to listen, and in so doing challenges and re-shapes my perceptions of the world around me, as well as the experiences of others. And that, my friends, is never a bad thing.

Which brings us to the duo’s latest release, I Don’t Know How To Be Happy, which finds Deli Girls in a more confident place. Certainly Kelly’s electro wizardry still makes unexpected jump cuts in the middle of tracks, maintaining a level of spontaneity, but the tracks feel more intentional. They’re not constructed from a detailed blueprint, but there’s still a high-level sense of overall design and flow that contains each composition. If the song is a box, then its sides aren’t made of stone, but more like rubber – something that vibrates like a speaker cone on your fingertip, giving it the flexibility to go where it needs to. And Orlowski? The power is still here, the rawness of the emotion right on the surface, but with a bit more emphasis. This is a structured rage, articulate and confident and maintaining a precise level of control, walking the razor’s edge. Orlowski doesn’t need a complex lyrical story to convey a message – that’s done by pounding repetition of just a handful of words or phrases colored by changes to tone and projection. I Don’t Know How To Be Happy also sees Deli Girls effectively using the studio’s tools to sometimes layer the vocals, providing additional nuance without detracting from the charged nature of the message.

I Don’t Know How To Be Happy is, frankly, outstanding, and it will definitely be a contender in a number of categories in my annual year-end lists. You can give it a listen HERE as well as purchase a digital copy. Recommended tracks are “Officer” and “Shut Up”, but you can’t go wrong regardless of where you click play.

Stevie Wonder – “Innervisions” (1973)

There are things I take for granted as a rapidly-approaching-fifty-year-old person. The relative convenience of air travel. Modern medicine. Grocery stores full of food. The bullshit that is the two-party political system. And, of course, recorded music.

Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions came out a couple of years after I was born, and the album itself is now 46 years old. And here I am listening to it on a vinyl disc that’s almost half a century old while enjoying some coffee on a Saturday morning. However, if I was my current age in 1973… would I be listening to a 46 year old recording for enjoyment? Said recording would have to date from 1927 and would have been on a shellac disc or a cylinder, so I guess it’s possible, though I likely would have needed a vintage machine to play it, unlike my ability to use my modern Rega to spin some old school Stevie. And would middle-aged 1973 me actually even want to listen to that music from 1927? Maybe. I don’t know. But chances are I wouldn’t have been born into and grown up in a household in which music was readily available on records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and dozens of radio stations. I suppose as I get older I’m simply more likely to notice how things change, but also how they stay the same, all the while recognizing that just because an experience has been ubiquitous in my lifetime doesn’t mean it was for people just a couple of generations older than me. People who are still alive. To paraphrase the incomparable Lemmy from Motörhead, “I remember a time when there was no rock ‘n’ roll, when there was only your parents’ Rosemary Clooney records.”

So what about Innervisions? Well, the more recent Rolling Stone lists rank it as one of the Top 25 albums of all time. Think whatever you like about Rolling Stone, but that’s still some high praise. And it won the Album of the Year Grammy, which despite some historically questionable choices (Toto IV in 1983) isn’t an accident.

Wonder’s signature ARP synth certainly makes it feel dated today, but his voice and passion, not to mention those sweet grooves, will still hold you. His original version of “Higher Ground” is every bit as funky as the better known (to my generation) cover by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lyrically it’s incredibly deep, covering a range of issues like drug abuse and racism while somehow being both cautionary and optimistic at the same time. And those Latin vibes on “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”? C’mon. If that doesn’t make you dream of dancing outside with that special someone you might be dead. And it goes pretty great with a cup of coffee on a quiet Saturday morning too.

Black Sabbath – “Technical Ecstasy” (1976) and “Never Say Die!” (1978)

My first exposure to Black Sabbath was, remarkably enough, via a post-Ozzy track. “Trashed” (released on 1983s Born Again) appeared on the Masters Of Metal compilation in 1984, and I wore that tape out. Shortly thereafter I discovered “Iron Man” and fell in love with side A of Paranoid. While I did spend some time absorbing the Ozzy-era catalog, for whatever reason I never moved beyond Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I’d run across the last two Ozzy Sabbath albums, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!, all the time at the used record stores (and still do…) and just on visual impact alone they didn’t seem to fit the Black Sabbath mold at all. It’s not that I didn’t like the covers. On the contrary, I think the front of Technical Ecstasy is one of the great all time jackets. But they certainly don’t fit the psychedelic doom-and-gloom of the band’s earlier releases. At that time I had no concept of Hipgnosis, but the separation from prior albums makes sense when you realize the design duties had been turned over to a team with deep artistic sensibilities.

After years and years of flipping past these titles and thinking, “Someday I’ll pick these up…”, they came my way as part of a big batch of freebies. In fact the load included the first nine Sabbath records. Unfortunately most had covers that were molded and rotted from water damage (though the records were pristine and came out looking like-new after a cleaning). That is all except for Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Day! It was like it was meant to be.

Technical Ecstasy (1976)

The record opens strong with “Back Street Kids”, a driving rhythm overlaid with other-worldly vocals from Ozzy. A bit of the self-indulgent, existential doom that inspires so much of Sabbath’s vocals returns for us on “You Won’t Change Me”, but that’s followed by the very un-Sabbath-like “It’s Alright”, a sort of proto-shoegaze song if there ever was one. The guitar solos feel like they’re influenced by what was happening elsewhere in rock at the time – the jam at the end of “Gypsy” has elements that would have been just at home on a Pink Floyd or Van Halen track from the same period.

The B side opens with the groovy “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)”, all blues rock riffs and steady pacing. And the keyboards on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor”? They’re straight out of 1950s first generation rock ‘n’ roll.

For someone like me (and seemingly for a lot of other people, given the reviews this received) Technical Ecstasy is a very un-Sabbath-like record. I wonder what my reaction would be to it if it had been done by a band I’d never heard of before. I’d probably like it more than I do. Which isn’t to say it’s bad; it’s just not your typical Sabbath album.

Never Say Die! (1978)

The recording of Never Say Die! appears to have encompassed every cliche of a rock band melting down. Too much drug and alcohol use. Firing the lead singer, then having him come back and refuse to sing the songs the band wrote in his absence. Booking a studio in another country sight-unseen and not being able to capture your band’s sound in it. And in fact it was the last album Ozzy did with Sabbath for three decades, finally returning to the fold in 2013 for the recording of 13.

Despite all of that, there’s a lot to like on Never Say Die! The title track is bad-ass and “A Hard Rock” has some pretty sharp edges, the pair being way harder than anything that on Technical Ecstasy. In fact the entire A side of this sucker is rock solid, though I confess my opinion may be influenced by listening to it immediately after Technical Ecstasy, as Never Say Die! clearly has more in common with early Sabbath. The only criticism I have of the side is that the recording quality is a bit inconsistent – it sounds like the last three songs on are quieter than the first two, to the point where I needed to actually turn up the volume. On the B side the much-maligned jazz influences come out, but despite that I’ll go out on a limb and say that “Air Dance” is one Sabbath’s best songs, and I don’t just mean on Never Say Die!

I know this album isn’t as heavy as the early stuff, but it holds up well.

Skepna – “Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku” (2019)

Skepna got a lot of people excited with their rocking debut in 2013 and garnered a lot of solid press for their live performances at Airwaves and Eistnaflug, but then seem to have gone radio silent for a bit. But all good things to those who wait, and last month the trio treated us to a new album, the hard-driving Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku. Skepna are back, and they’re as good as they ever were, if not maybe even a bit better.

All three Skepna members have impressive rock credentials. Bassist Hördur Ingi Stefànsson played with one of my all-time favorite Icelandic rock outfits Brain Police. Drummer Björn Stefánsson was part of the powerhouse Mínus. And Hallur Ingólfsson? Oh, he just played in a couple of OK bands like XIII and, you know, HAM. No biggie. Just a handful of the best hard rocking bands to ever come out of Iceland. I figure I probably have something like 15 albums on my shelves that these guys have played on over the years.

Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku doesn’t try to do anything fancy. It just rocks your face off. How can three guys get such a full sound (check out “Rautt”)? “Biturt Blóð” is the most intriguing song to my ears, one that captures the strengths of the members’ respective former bands – the heavy psych of Brain Policy, the edginess of Mínus, a dose of HAM doomishness, and the polish of XIII all compressed into a diamond-hard track of riffs. My other favorite is “Kjarval”, a sonic jackhammer, relentless with a tricky bass line adding character to the track and giving the whirlwind of the sonics something to circle. Everyone gets their space to explore and shine, but I want to give an extra shout-out to Stefànsson’s bass work. He’s not confined to keeping pace with the drums but instead given room to roam, and he takes full advantage. Often it’s difficult to pick out the bass on a hard rock record, but that’s not the case on Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku – it’s always right where it needs to be, sometimes supporting, sometimes out front leading the way.

I’m not sure about the press run on the vinyl – mine is on red, and that’s about all I can tell you. There’s a free download included on a sticker affixed to the bottom corner of the inner sleeve, so if you’re looking for a loose card inside you might miss it. Definitely recommended.

Wild Cherry – “Electrified Funk” (1977)

wildcherryelectrifiedfunk.jpggTake blues, funk, and disco, cram them into the blender with some Jack Daniels and a dash of cocaine, and you get Electrified Funk. Wild Cherry are generally regarded as one-hit-wonders, having released the mega-hit “Play That Funky Music” on their 1975 self-titled debut. That song took Wild Cherry platinum and garnered two Grammy nominations as well as awards from Billboard and an American Music Award. But after rocketing to stardom they found it difficult to replicate that success and by 1980 the band was no more.

It’s kind of odd, because there are some great jams on Electrified Funk, songs like “Dancin’ Music Band” and “Hole In The Wall” that seem like they should have become hits. Sure it’s dated, but if this record doesn’t make yo want to put on some polyester and hit the dance floor then you might be dead. It may not have the band’s big hit, but Electrified Funk is a good time just waiting for a needle drop, so if you find a clean copy cheap, pick it up.