WEMP’s Discovery Mission


My column last week lamented in part the loss of radio stations with playlists emphasizing new music of the non–Top 40 variety. Almost immediately after it went to press, one of the stations that I called out for flipping to a talk-heavy format—101.9, the former WRXP rebranded as the news station WEMP last summer—went back to a music-heavy playlist, calling itself “New Rock 101.9” and running promos apologizing for the short-lived foray into headlines, traffic, and weather.

In its first week, the station has taken an aggressive stance toward the “new” in its name. At the end of WRXP’s run last year, its playlists were becoming confused, with a fair amount of classic-rock fodder mixed in among the seemingly fewer-by-the-hour new tracks. WEMP, on the other hand, claims to be all about discovery; the back-announcing of tracks is accompanied by the electronic glitch that accompanies an answer from the iPhone’s virtual assistant, Siri (the female voice supplying the track’s names is a bit more human-sounding than its companion). This doesn’t mean that whoever’s programming the station is plumbing the stacks at Other Music for the latest acts that are big on the blogs—perhaps that’ll come later, with a Sunday-morning program hosted by one of this city’s many self-styled online tastemakers. But it does allow for some genuine surprises to pop up, even for professional music enthusiasts like myself.

And even for this jaded listener, that serendipity has restored a sense of whimsy to music, at least. Yes, songs like Gotye’s melancholy breakup track “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun.’s still-anthemic “We Are Young” are in heavy rotation, just as they are elsewhere on the dial. (It wouldn’t be too surprising if the station’s parent company revealed that the crossover success of those two songs helped fuel this particular flip.) M83’s “Midnight City,” which finished fourth in the Voice‘s most recent Pazz & Jop poll, was by far the most-played song during the hours (and hours!) that I tuned in. Brand-new tracks by Green Day (the stomping “Oh Love,” which sounds less plodding with each listen) and the Killers (“Runaways,” in which the over-the-top Las Vegas act continues to straddle the line between Elton John pomp and shrinking-violet twee) were, as well, in heavy rotation. But a few other songs stood out:

fun., “Some Nights.” “We Are Young” remains a rallying cry for late-summer nights, but the title track from one of my favorite albums of the year has singer Nate Ruess showing off his formidable pipes—seeing them live at Terminal 5 earlier this summer was a joyous experience in large part because of the way he stuck the landing on each one of his vocal acrobatics—over a backdrop that balances Queen’s grandeur with herky-jerky percussion. The standout track on Some Nights is undoubtedly “Carry On,” a sing-along-ready anthem that’s equal parts emo lament, robust inspirational speech, and Irish drinking song. It should be a single, though probably in the fall, when melancholia is more likely to take over.

The Royal Concept, “Gimme Twice.” “Post-Phoenix” is sort of a funny concept to wrap one’s mind around, given that the more-sangfroid-than-thou French act only released its first album in 2000. But this single from an up-and-coming Swedish act possesses all of the hallmarks of that band—fizzy guitars, a jaunty beat, and lighter-than-air vocals that have just enough grit to avoid being called “fey.”

AWOLNATION, “Not Your Fault.” That this band is signed to the record-label imprint of the energy drink Red Bull didn’t surprise me after I heard their first single, the blustering “Sail.” Its marriage of storming electronics and Rock Dude Yelp (that specific brand of singing in which the vocalist sounds like his larynx was treated with acid immediately before heading into the studio) is the pop-song equivalent of a particularly nasty come down from that particular beverage. “Not Your Fault” is a peppier take on that formula, with a synth line that bounces alongside the lyrics’ postromantic-blowout apologia; lead singer Aaron Bruno’s voice still sounds like he has been gargling with pebbles on the chorus, but that relentless yelling is matched by a falsetto that’s almost touching.

Not all the new tracks hit the mark. Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men combine the hoedown stomp of Mumford & Sons with the synchronous triumphant yelling of the Arcade Fire in a way that sounds self-consciously in debt to those Grammy-winning acts, or at least to their accolades. And while the recurrents have provided me with a fair amount of glee (“Lump”!), some of the old tracks stick out like an oversucked thumb; that the noxious reggae-punk outfit Sublime is still getting played anywhere is a tragedy, with songs like the wearyingly “political” “April 29, 1992” immediately extinguishing any mood elevation offered by the selections it brackets. There are not many women in rotation, making the occasional appearance of Paramore even more of a delight. (Also, if you’re going to play the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By the Way,” which pays, ahem, strong homage to the morosely muscular New York act Interpol at its outset before turning into fumbling funk-punk, you might as well stick a couple of classic tracks by the hometown boys into the rotation. “Obstacle 1,” maybe?)

New Rock 101.9 might not have very long to prove itself: The station’s parent company Merlin Media flipped its Chicago outlet, which had also been a former haven for “alternative” music before its switch to news, to a format with the soft-underbelly name “Adult Hits.” Meanwhile, up in Boston last week, the longtime alt-rock stalwart WFNX had its final broadcasts with its longtime staff after being sold by the Boston Phoenix to the radio megamonolith Clear Channel. And the station’s innovative spirit might seem like a lot of same-old same-old in six months, or even six weeks, should focus group outreach discover that, well, people don’t really want to hear that much new music after all. But for now, something new, or at least somewhat new to New York, is happening.

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