The Avengers never amassed a large discography, so it’s nice that New York Rel-X are willing to do the extra work for them. In addition to citing the pioneering West Coast band as a major influence on their own sing-along anthems of disaffection, they’ve also performed “We Are the One,” and they cover “Open Your Eyes” on She’s Got a Gun/Paranoia. The big difference is that vocalist Erika doesn’t mimic Penelope Houston’s snotty adolescent growl. Instead, she belts out songs like she was in a production of Annie Get Your Gun.
While not predisposed to like the idea of a ’77-style classic punk foursome fronted by Ethel Merman, I still find New York Rel-X entertaining. I have no idea if they’re “sincere” about their punk ethos or not, but their CD (which compiles two previously released EPs) sounds like pure showbiz. Erika’s vocals could use more grit, but she sings instead of just shrieking, and I don’t even mind that she emotes goth poetry such as “I shiver in fear, threatened for my life . . . as I hide and cry, as the night grows colder” as if she was performing “Anything You Can Do.”
The band has got its horror-punk shtick down cold: “slowly her blood poured all over the place”; “won’t rest until you die, you die, you die”; “black as night, clear as day, this is the final way”; “gonna have a blood feast tonight.” This doesn’t change even when they vary the subject matter with a couple of political rants; the thought police and corporate villains who exploit the poor in “Proles” and “Third World” are as much B-movie bogeymen as the serial killer narrator of “Fuad’s Delight” who’s “chopping virgins for my stew.” But despite all the darkness, the band sounds too chipper to convey menace. This is creepiness for the sheer joy of it.
Pretty Girls Make Graves don’t sound particularly menacing either, despite the morbid band name (reportedly taken from a Kerouac-inspired Smiths song) and the skeletally correct CD artwork of the Seattle quintet’s Good Health (which is also available as three seven-inch singles). They cover more musical ground than NY Rel-X, recalling at times At the Drive-In, Rites of Spring, Fugazi, and the entire Siren Festival roster playing simultaneously. They’re synthesizing ideas, not just copying them.
A sense of loss permeates this album. Vocalist Andrea Zollo reminisces about an old friendship in “Bad Girls Por Vida,” and notes elsewhere that “we can never go home” and “nothing lasts forever.” But neither Zollo nor her bandmates opt for melancholy, and they don’t spit out “If You Hate Your Friends, You’re Not Alone” (“So talk to yourself til you’re blue in the face/’Cause someone always wants to listen to hate”) with much bile either. They sound like they’re having a good time: Getting drunk and jamming in the studio, belting out call-and-response over swirling guitars, sliding into a song with a catchy keyboard intro, they’re more fun than most of their two dozen influences . . . fun enough, in fact, to even forgive for writing a song about touring.
They also know not to overstay their welcome. Twenty-seven minutes may seem short for an album (unless you’re NY Rel-X, whose CD clocks in at 26:37). But PGMG’s songs last as long as necessary with just enough frills (a techno-dub beat in “Bring It On Golden Pond,” an untitled one-minute instrumental reprising the bare structure of “The Get Away”) to keep the unrelenting urgency of the music from getting too repetitive. These small hints of experimentation might just be there to provide additional texture, but they still suggest something to look forward to.
That doesn’t mean that they’re completely free from the pull of history, though. “Speakers Push the Air” is almost as catchy as Pink’s “Get the Party Started,” but since this is punk and not teenpop, the female vocalist with the colored hair begins the song in past tense. “Do you remember when we couldn’t put it away? Do you remember what the music meant?”—Yeah, I even remember rock and roll radio. But why are you still looking back when you’re creating good new music? The party ain’t over yet.
New York Rel-X play CBGB September 22.