Changing Modes: Press
Changing Modes: Hard to Figure Out, Easy to Sing Along to at Spike Hill
Isn’t it a pain to have to choose between two equally tantalizing shows? Saturday night, it was impossible to resist the temptation to sneak away from the Brooklyn What’s album release gig at Public Assembly while the opening acts played, since Changing Modes were on the bill around the corner at Spike Hill. With two keyboardists, guitar, bass and drums, their music is complex yet manages to be extremely catchy. Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam both play synthesizers, and while they aren’t above hamming it up once in awhile with a woozy oscillation or a fat phony horn patch, their sound isn’t cheesy. As much as what they do has a very 80s feel, their sense of that decade’s sounds zeros in toward dark, often menacing new wave rather than cliched radio pop.
To say that this band has an edge is an understatement Throughout the set, the two women worked an inscrutably alluring, sometimes dangerous vein. Pulliam swayed with just the hint of what might have been a sadistic smile as she fine-tuned her pedalboard for minute orchestral adjustments, while Griffiths pogoed behind her keys, at one point emerging to put her foot up on a monitor and fix a thousand-yard stare on the crowd. But she also has a quirky sense of humor: at one point, she let out a random “whoop” seemingly just for the hell of it, later on putting on a pair of red shades with blinking lights, only to discard them seconds afterward. Meanwhile, Yuzuru Sadashige played nimble basslines for a couple of songs before switching to guitar, at which point a bassist came onstage to team up with their tight drummer Timur Yusef.
Unexpected tempo changes, loud/soft dynamic shifts and unpredictable song structures met their match in singalong choruses, Griffiths and Pulliam trading off verses or individual lines when they weren’t blending their voices for some soaring harmonies. Pulliam sang Down to You, a standout track from the band’s latest album In Flight, with a cold vengefulness, Sashadige cutting loose with a searing bluesiness as he would do all night, Griffiths adding a terse classically-tinged piano solo. A wickedly catchy, insistent new song, Jeanine (sp?) might have been about a cat, or someone with feline tendencies. The album version of Ghost in the Backseat is a dead ringer for early X, but this time out they slowed it down, making it more gothic than punk, at least until another blazing Sashadige guitar solo.
They followed a burning, ominously riff-driven cover of Jamiroquai’s Deeper Underground with a slow, creepy, watery art-rock anthem, an apprehensive new wave tune with an Afrobeat-flavored guitar intro and then a creepy version of Here, the darkly unpredictable title track from their 2010 album. They closed with what might have been a cover, Griffiths and Pulliam harmonizing energetically over a catchy new wave beat. Although the turnout was good and the crowd was into the show, a band this smart and original deserves more exposure. Somewhere there has to be an indie suspense movie that would be a perfect match for Changing Modes’ eclectic, moody yet upbeat songs.
Reviews of IN FLIGHT (2012)
Changing Modes’ ‘In Flight’ album has a bit of a soft pop slant to it. It sounds very safe and uncomplicated from the band but its veiled complexity is, in fact, a testament to the New York City based band’s mastery of their craft. Listeners will appreciate their ability to produce songs that are easy to swallow whilst not exuding amateurish plainness. Arrangements can be a bit stupefying as they refuse to adhere to any conventional linearity and the melodic nature springs from an overindulgence of instrumentation and the manner in which they play them.
Compositions are ideally short in length – at least for those, including myself, with shorter attention spans. Still, each 2-3 minute composition manages to deliver on the punchiness and artistic abstruseness of the band’s thought-inspiring messages. Changing Modes often demand that you consider what they’re relaying by repeating their one-lined communications - for example, within tracks like ‘Ghost in the Backseat’ and ‘Knock Once’ – and though there may be a definite meaning within the minds of the band members, lyrics are open to personal interpretation.
Describing themselves as art-rockers, Changing Modes’ wistful 80s punk rock stylings, which hare occasionally spiced up by the infusion of other musical genres - combine the zest of new wave energy with catchy instrumentation and playful, rather than distastefully recalcitrant opinions. On the whole, what this means for these experimenters is that ‘In Flight’ has a multidimensional appeal that will no doubt bring in a lot of unexpected punters.
Artsy Rockers Changing Modes Put Out Their Darkest and Best Album
For a dozen years, New York band Changing Modes have been been putting out solidly good, smart albums that blend an artsy 80s pop vibe with darker, sometimes more punk-oriented sounds. It’s not clear what the band name refers to – maybe that fashions come and go, but that good music is timeless. Although the group has three synthesizers, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them as retroists since they’re a lot more eclectic than the legions of Simple Minds and New Order worshippers. Their songs aren’t exactly trendy – imagine Pulp at their most enigmatic and biting, casually ferocious guitars amid swirly, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes lurid keys. Of their seven albums, Changing Modes’ new one, In Flight, is their fifth full-length effort, their most complex and opaque and arguably their best. Keyboardist Wendy Griffiths – who has a second career as an indie classical composer – typically fronts the band; the rest of the group includes singer/keyboardists Jen Rondeau (who also plays theremin) and Grace Pulliam (who also plays percussion), while Yuzuru Sadashige and Denise Mei Yan Hofmann switch between guitar and bass and David Oromaner provides brisk, punchy beats behind the drum kit.
Anger, apprehension and disappointment run deep in these hard-hitting songs. “Will you save for a Brave New World?” Griffiths scarcastically asks over the shuffling disco beat of Particle Collider as it spins further and further toward total annihilating chaos. The insistent piano pop of Life Drawing reflects on a lifetime of regret and disillusion, while Ghost in the Backseat, all one minute 42 seconds of it, reminds of X with its roaring guitar chromatics and unhinged noiserock solo. Anger and menace take centerstage in Down to You, lit up by tremoloing noir guitar: “Comatose and broken, you escape into a dream – did it hit you like a ton of bricks when she told you it wasn’t?” Griffiths asks with a vengeful swoop at the end of the line.
The closest thing to Pulp here is Blue, a cynical, murderously creepy piano tune sung by one of the guys in the band. The Politics of Fear strips the psychology of a police state to the basics, switching from snarling guitar-disco to a darkly carnivalesque waltz and then back again, with a deliciously atonal horror-guitar solo from Sadashige, while Professional Girl puts a feminist spin on uneasy Henry Mancini-style latin pop. Twisted circus piano, an all-too-brief theremin solo and some neat counterpoint between the keyboards all factor into the cryptic Firewall; To the Left sets a venomous lyric over sunny, bouncy 60s Carnaby Street pop. Likewise, Chinatown tells the anxious tale of a killer on the lam over torchy, pulsing cabaret-pop: “A list of accusations, DNA and information, read it on a sunny afternoon when Chinatown looks beautiful.” Houses of Cards, a cinematic noir-pop spy-on-the-run tale, unwinds with surreal layers of vocals; the album closes with the title track, its ominous Pink Floyd melody twinkling out with the steady pings of a glockenspiel.
While Griffiths is responsible for most of the writing here, Rondeau’s three contributions make up some of the strongest tracks. Nature of the Beast, a brooding, funereal, bitter kiss-off anthem blends Procol Harum gothic with a torchy cabaret vibe: “Left his message on the pillow sham/Doesn’t say a word, he’s an honest man,” Rondeau asserts coldly. Knock Once adds a macabre edge to a wounded, vintage soul-infused ballad, while the barely two-minute Thunderwing pulses along on a delicately reverberating Fender Rhodes bossa beat. And Reflection, by Pulliam, mines a lushly orchestrated wah-wah Philly soul ambience, layers of keyboards blaring ominously in place of what would have been guitars and strings forty years ago. Sixteen songs, and they’re all excellent – can you name another band who’ve done that this year? Probably not. Count this among the year’s best albums, another triumph for a group that deserves to be vastly better known than they are. Changing Modes are busy right now: they’re playing Trash tonight at 9, then a Make Music NY show scheduled for 3 PM at the boathouse in Prospect Park tomorrow. They’ll also be at Local 269 on July 5 at 10.
Flying High in Friendly Skies
There is an apocryphal story that Wendy Griffiths -- the primary singer/songwriter for Changing Modes -- initially "had no intention" of making her songs public. Five albums, two EPs, dozens of shows throughout the Northeast, and one M.E.A.N.Y. award (Musicians and Emerging Artists of New York) later, I can only say that I am happy she did not relegate her "bedroom tapes" to a shoebox in a closet.
Ms. Griffiths identifies her influences (at least on this album) well, particularly PJ Harvey and Blondie. However, the music on In Flight is quite a bit more "progressive" than that: there are whiffs of such prog-rock artists as Renaissance, The Decemberists, and even Frank Zappa here. Indeed, the most appropriate word I can find to describe Ms. Griffiths's music is: quirky. And I mean that as a very sincere compliment.
Ms. Griffiths uses lots of chromatics, tritones, deceptive cadences, and truly unexpected (even wild) chord progressions and melody lines, yet she has such amazing control over her music that this never comes across as random or inappropriate. Indeed, most of the songs have a "sense of the appropriate" (i.e., choice of instrumentation, arrangement, sound effects, etc. to create an overall atmosphere) that is fairly rare, particularly in current popular music.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Ms. Griffiths's compositions is that she has the rare ability to write satisfying (even jam-packed) songs in under three minutes: of sixteen songs, only four are longer than that, and none reach three-and-a-half minutes. In one case -- the hopelessly infectious "Ghost in the Backseat" -- she gives us a complete and satisfying song in under two minutes. Not since The Beatles have I heard that done with any degree of success.
Ms. Griffiths is not always consistent: though all of her compositions are good (and none are "plain vanilla"), and are certainly worthy of an ear (or two), not all rise to the same level. Still, the majority rise well above the norm of what passes for popular music these days, and Ms. Griffiths has set her own bar higher than most. I particularly like a number of songs that have a wonderful late '60s quality and feel to the music and lyrics, including "Particle Collider" (which has a complex rhythm and a Blondie-cum-Renaissance feel), "Life Drawing," and "Down to You." Also of note are "Reflection" (a sort of "slightly off" R&B), "Blue" (with a male vocal, weird (but excellent) piano, and that Decemberists feel), "Firewall" (a nice ballad with superb harmonies), "Thunderwing" (which goes from samba to circus and back), and the title track, which provides a truly wonderful coda to the album, including a nice use of synthesizer.
Yet if I had to pick the tracks that most represent Ms. Griffiths's approach on this album, it would be "Nature of the Beast" (with a chord progression and melody that are truly "out there"!), "Politics of Fear" (as quirky as it gets), and "Professional Girl" (a lovely song that moves from soft rock into a wonderful jazz feel).
Ms. Griffiths's voice is pleasant and expressive: less concerned with perfect tonality than with "getting her point across," which she does extremely well. She also has a deceptively subtle approach to vocal harmonies that is refreshing. Ms. Griffiths is also a very talented pianist: she obviously has a grasp on quite a few styles, and her choices are always interesting and often compelling. The band provides excellent, rock-solid back-up (particularly her guitarist), complementing the quirkiness of her writing style. And although her music is generally classified as "rock," I believe that, at least with this album, Ms. Griffiths straddles the line into progressive rock. And in my book, that cannot be a bad thing.
I very much look forward to hearing more Changing Modes in the future. - Ian Alterman
Playing a similar style of music to Quix*o*tic (Dischord/Kill Rock Stars), Changing Modes has a similar “wow” factor that Quix*o*tic had when I saw them perform at Tonic in the late 90’s.
Changing Modes recently released their fifth disc, In Flight, and the band’s music incorporates a veritable stew of musical sounds and influences. Similar to Quix*o*tic, Changing Modes’ music jumps across a range of styles: from late-night torch songs to punk to 70’s funk and bubblegum pop. While one can hear elements of the jagged art-punk of the early B-52s, the sultry cool of Blondie, and the slinky synth-driven dance club beats of Luscious Jackson along with the driving punk of bands like X and the Dead Kennedys (the twisting buzzsaw guitar licks in "Ghost in the Backseat" could have come straight from East Bay Ray's guitar), the band is able to mold all of these sounds into a disc whose sound is both recognizable and distinctive (…but not derivative). Adding to all of this are stellar vocals from the band’s two lead singers Wendy Griffiths and Jen Rondeau which are backed with rich vocal harmonies. In keeping with Changing Modes consistently changing music, drummer David Oromaner takes lead vocals on the slow-burning song “Blue”.
Reviews for HERE (2010)
A Classic From the 80s – Or From Right Now?
If this band had been around in the 80s and had recorded this album then – an era it easily could date from, had the band members not been in diapers or not yet born – it would be a cult classic today, and they would be packing clubs full of kids younger than they are now. On their fourth cd, Here, New York art-rockers Changing Modes leap from one radically dissimilar style to another with gusto, guile and a tunefulness that won’t quit. Blending classical flourishes, punk energy, playful and clever lyrics that draw on 80s new wave and a ubiquitous element of surprise, every time you think you’ve got them figured out, they drop something new on you. They have two first-rate lead singers and one of them plays the theremin – in a way that’s not cheesy or precious. The songs here, most of them clocking in at barely three minutes apiece, evoke such diverse acts as Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Adverts, Captain Beefheart, Pamelia Kurstin and the Go-Go’s.
Ironically, the simplest song on the album is the best – and it might be the best song any band has released this year. Moles, about the “mole people” living deep in the bowels of the New York City subway, is a scampering, ridiculously catchy, jaggedly sinister punk/new wave hit: “Your life underground is not what it seems, it’s worse than your strangest nightmares and better than your wildest dreams.” It goes out on Yuzuru Sadashige’s screaming, off-kilter reverb guitar crescendo, straight out of the Doctors of Madness playbook. The Great Beyond takes a pensive pop ballad and sends it tumbling into the abyss with some ominous Bernard Herrmann atmospherics, while the title track evokes Siouxsie with its eerie, lo-fi organ and skronky guitar – and a stark, classically-tinged piano bridge that comes out of nowhere but makes a perfect fit.
Bookended with a handful of lolcat string synth flourishes, Louise is singer/keyboardist Wendy Griffiths’ stomping powerpop tribute to a furry friend: love ultimately conquers all. Scratchy new wave/punk-pop, like the Cars with a college degree, Cell to Cell features a bizarre, noisy guitar solo from Sadashige, Beefheart as played by PiL’s Keith Levene, maybe. The rest of the album includes an uneasy, ornate ballad sung with effortless, soaring abandon by theremin player Jen Rondeau; a blistering ska-punk number; a playful new wave pop tune with a theremin solo, and a couple of jaunty vaudevillian numbers, one possibly about the evils of gentrification, the other a sarcastic sendup of catty drama queens. Count this among the half-dozen or so best albums of 2010 so far.
The ever changing music of "Changing Modes"
Many people are locked into one musical era, genre or type. Too bad too, because those people will always miss out on music that is truly interesting and innovative. If you thought you had my love of pop music pegged by reading or listening to the music reviewed here so far, then hold on to your hats! Enter Changing Modes and their 2010 CD, Here. Changing Modes isn't your average pop or rock band. Their influences range from progressive rock to modern rock, jazz and classical. While the bulk of this review highlights the talents of the vocalists and major instrumentalists, not enough can be said for the roles of David Oromander (drums, vocals, trumpet) and Grace Pulliam (vocals, percussion) who add all the right touches throughout. There is more to hear than one listen will allow, because there is so much going on. Whether you are mesmerized by the sometimes haunting vocals and harmonies, intrigued with the instrumentation or just taken away by the lyrics, you'll find many things worth discovering Here.
Dissonance is used throughout Here's title track and opener, a song about being in physical or mental distress and looking for a way out. Band co-leader, Wendy Griffiths, (keyboards, vocals) sounds alternately like Grace Slick, Chrissie Hynde or Kate Bush, depending on the moment in the song. The music adds an appropriate haunting urgency to the lyrics. Here too is some magical guitar work from the other co-leader of Changing Modes, Yuzuru Sadashige (bass, guitar). The interplay between the vocals and instrumentals really kicks in when the Theramin is included.
Here's theme is dissonant and haunting, and Moles is its counterpoint, revving up the speed and kicking it up a notch. It's the kind of song that wants your feet to move, even if the song's lyrics are about mole people in New York City who live in the subway tunnels. Wendy sings "But your life underground, is not what it seems, it's worse than your strangest nightmare and better than your wildest dreams" in the chorus, but that is just one of the images painted here. You'll need to listen carefully to hear them all.
Louise introduces Jen Hammaker (Theremin, keyboard) on lead vocal in a whimsical song about Wendy's cat, which is just plain fun! "What goes on behind those dark eyes? Where do you go when I turn out the light?" Not only is there a lot going on here instrumentally, but the backing vocals and harmonies are incredible too, with a truly interesting shift from major to minor key and back again.
And There's so much more! Cell to Cell is another fun toe tapper that explores carrying on a relationship via text messaging. Distorted guitar adds interesting texture here that gives it a very punkish feel. Embers Sweet has an almost "Yes" feel to it, if "Yes" were fronted by female vocals that is. It definitely has that progressive rock edge to it. A favorite track for me is the poppy, electronicly noodled One, which describes an obsession with lines like You are the One, you are the one. White Lightning, again with Jen Hammaker, is a jazzy number with great trumpet fill from Oromander. The White Room, sounds initially like a cover of Cream's White Room. When I asked Wendy about this, however, she assured me that "It's more of an homage to the Cream song than a cover." It is a delightful changeup that explores sleazy politicians and their abuse of power. Closing out the set is Meow Situation which has a swing piano feel that ends things on a light-hearted note.
Writing this review, I've been afraid that after listening to these tracks so many times, they would start to wear thin; They don't. If anything, you begin to hear more nuances and textures that were hidden from your ears on the first listen. Changing Modes deserves grand recognition for a diverse, haunting and playful set of music. Instrumentation and vocals are accomplished and fun to listen to and the lyrics are deceptively simple in their complexity and entirely singable. Formed in the mid-90's by a happenstance invitation to CBGB's, Wendy Griffiths was pried away from her classical practice room, to hear the band Soul Coughing with a friend. It occurred to her on that night that she really missed the world of rock; "How that music hits you in the gut, which, as much as I love classical music, the concert music never quite does; At least not for me." She came back to her room later that night and began to write rock songs, and has never turned back. We are the beneficiaries of this epiphany, and Here is just one of those gifts.
Reviews for Down and Out in Shangri-la (2008)
Changing Modes - Down and Out in Shangri-La
New York band Changing Modes delivers their third album with a bang. Volcanic, energetic, and sometimes full throttle, Down and Out in Shangri-La moves beyond the avant garde, art rock sound of the band’s previous records. Using long guitar riffs combined with lead singer Camille Atkinson’s powerful voice, Down and Out in Shangri-La provides electricity in tracks like “Shangri-La” and “Vital Signs.”
Changing Modes are nothing like New York’s other newly famous art rock band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The arrangement and affected voice in the opening track, “Off the Radar,” is more reminiscent of the B-52s because of its high energy vocals and kitschy '80s inspired background. And that’s just the first song. Because on another song, Changing Modes does just that. They change their method and mode. “No Fly Zone” has a Sleater Kinney feel to it, and on “Ship,” Changing Modes goes for broke and scores a big song, calling up Ann Wilson and Heart.
Lyrically, Changing Modes bring in outer space, dying, environmentalism, and the ideas of heaven and hell. In “Someone Anyone” one of the lines is: "You know all the lines at suicides and fancy dinners/wrap it up with some attitude." Down and Out in Shrangi-La is a chameleon, blending in and out with different styles, singers, and eras. This is one band that can thrash a stadium crowd or seduce a small club. One thing remains clear though; they have brought New York edginess back to rock music.
CHANGING MODES – Down And Out in Shangri-La
CHANGING MODES – Down And Out in Shangri-La (self release) – A discerning mix of Dresden Dolls drama, Todd Rundgren flavoured complexity and something that leans towards a more traditional neo-prog sound. Wendy Griffiths has a voice to rival Amanda Palmer, those stylish keyboards and that song construction make it hard to avoid the obvious Dresden Dolls comparison – we make it in a positive way. Changing Modes are clearly an ambitious band, they’re from New York, they have some delightful slices of genuinely chewy progressive awkwardness in there with their very listenable blend of constantly shifting sometimes demanding earfood.