On the Culture Front: Music from the Underground, Part 12

07/24/2017 01:52 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

Shawna Virago has the effortless phrasing and subdued subversion of Lou Reed, crafting unadorned folk punk songs that sooth as they bite. The transgender singer/songwriter writes about her experiences with a confessional intimacy that also feels universal on hauntingly beautiful tracks like “Last Night’s Sugar,” from her recently released album, “Heaven Sent Delinquent.” Its simple refrain is a plea as much as it is a warm memory whose transient pleasure has left emptiness in its wake. The title track is a road song driven by a persistent acoustic guitar picked riff. The line, “One of these days I’ll get away...and I won’t need a car or suitcase,” exudes wanderlust but others reveal darker and more immediate reasons for this journey. “Daddy called me a son-of-a-bitch...Mommy said I was the Devil’s daughter.” There’s no mention of the main character committing crimes, so it’s not hard for the listener to come to the conclusion that her crime was being trans.

According to the True Colors fund, LGBT youth make up 7% of the population but a disturbing 40% of the homeless youth population. Virago doesn’t make overt political statements, but by crafting a Springsteen-esque anthem for trans youth, she’s helping to provide a language with which to talk about this issue. Other songs on the album are rich genre sendups like the blues-inflected roadhouse travelogue “Land of Guns and Honey” on which she croons, “I have learned talk is cheap; whiskey is money.” One of the best lines comes towards the end: “this country can kill you, then again, what country won’t.” It captures Virago’s brazen pragmatism, a voice that deserves a wide audience.

As his name might imply, Togo Ultrarock is forging a space for himself somewhere between EDM and rock. His new single, “Cannonball,” takes a fairly standard pop love song structure and infuses it with a beat-heavy background. The most memorable thing about it is the chorus in which he belts “Like a cannonball crashing through my wall.” It’s a somewhat obvious but succinct simile for falling hard for someone. Throughout the video he keeps seeing this tall blonde woman in fleeting encounters. If it weren’t so elusive, it would feel stalkerish – and still does a little. Musically, the verse melody could be tighter and weave more organically into the chorus.

American High is a throwback to guitar-driven bands of the 90s and aughts, crafting quirky but easily digestible melodies. For a first record, “Bones in the Attic, Flowers in the Basement,” is impressively cohesive while avoiding the pitfalls of sounding generic or awkwardly unique. The group hails from California and at times their music reminds me of the messy jagged melodies of Pavement or Built to Spill but with less of a desire to delve into dissonance. Instead they favor pop hooks in the vein of acoustic Green Day ballads. The album opens with a line of West Coast contentment: “If I never get there, it just means I wasn’t meant to go.” Despite its nondescript title, “1.17.61” is one of the most interesting songs both lyrically and musically. The verses use references to people like Jackson Pollock, William Faulkner, and Jonas Salk to delve into a personal story about mental illness. The main refrain asks, “if I don’t believe it, is it true?” and acoustic guitar riff that drives the song in reminiscent of The White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends.” I’m eager to see what these guys release next.

Alarma evokes the festive punk energy of Gogol Bordello. They’re based in LA but the band has a true world music sound, drawing on a wide range of influences from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and filtering it through an American pop structure. This is most apparent on “Fire” which opens with a flamenco rhythmic guitar flourish that melds slowly into a 80s style anthem. “Indignados” is driven by a catchy brass riff while “Mas Y Mas” is a blaze of electric guitars layered on a reggae beat. Listening to the album “World Ignition” is a sonic “spin the globe” experience. While each track is wildly different, they are united by the band’s boundless energy. I’m guess they would be pretty fun to see live.

Underground rapper Avery LR released an ambitious 27-track mix tape “Surviving” that includes some of his older material. It opens with “Chiraq Intro,” which vividly paints an urban war zone. His flow has an effortlessly natural quality that adds a layer of counterpoint to the fury that pulses through most of the album. The piano-driven “One Dream” stands out as being a viscerally vulnerable contrast to the outright fury of others. “Enemies” finds a nice balance between the two styles. It starts with three eerie notes and is soon layered with a tighter beat and then Avery’s rapid-fire verses. His lyrics are simple, pointed and often aggressive, but he draws a distinction between show and substance: “having a gun in the video, don’t make you a thug.” His latest song, “Color of Skin,” focuses on the assumptions made based on race, touching on police shootings of unarmed black men and a sense of worry of being treated unfairly mixed with an affirming love for his skin color. The rhythm and melody isn’t as complex or engaging as on some of his other tracks but the message is nonetheless powerful.

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