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The Graham Album Review #2132

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Mommyheads: Genius Killer

(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/12/2022)

Progressive rock and melodic pop are generally seen as being at opposite ends of the rock spectrum, but there have been some groups that combine the musical complexity of the progressive rockers and some hummable melodies and appealing vocals. The British band XTC was a fine example, and Queen would occasionally add some musical complexity to their large-scale pop approach.

This week we have a new recording from a long-running group that is from this side of the Atlantic and has been making a creative art-pop blend for some 35 years now, though somewhat intermittently for a while. They are the Mommyheads, and their new 14th album is called Genius Killer.

The Mommyheads were founded by Adam Cohen, in New York, while he and the other members were still in high school, with their first official release coming out in 1988, and right off the bat went in for the a quirky, melodic sound with often complex arrangements. Adam Cohen later changed his stage name to Adam Elk, to avoid confusion with Leonard Cohen’s son Adam Cohen, also a musician. The other personnel with the band has been somewhat variable over the years.

The Mommyheads broke up in 1998, with the members working on other projects, with Adam Elk becoming a composer of music for television commercials. Drummer Dan Fisherman went from a career in computers to being a college professor of mathematics and philosophy the Randolph School in Wappinger’s Fall, NY, and other members did solo projects. But in 2008, ten years after their breakup, the Mommyheads reunited to do a new album, You’re Not a Dream, and they have been occasionally active ever since, but have been ramping up their activity recently, with Genius Killer being their fifth new album release in five years. They have also been reissuing some of their earlier material which had gone out of print.

Genius Killer continues with the band’s trademark blend of clever art-pop with sophisticated arrangements and often intriguing lyrics. The band on this album also includes bassist Jason McNair, keyboard man Michael Holt and guitarist Jackie Simons. A couple of jazz musicians make guest appearances including Larry Goldings on organ, and John “Scrapper” Sneider on trumpet. There are also some strings added here and there. The sound of this album is more electric than some of their other recent releases.

Opening is a track called Impulse Item which after orchestral introduction <<>> gets into the band’s trademark art-pop sound with influence heard from groups from “back in the day.” <<>>

The title track Genius Killer, takes on an almost theatrical rock approach, with its cryptic lyrics apparently about a non-conformist. <<>>

Another creatively notable piece is She’s a Fighter, about headstrong character, with a musical setting that provides a kind of duality. <<>>

Somewhat more laid back in sound is We Almost Lost It All which features the guest appearance by Larry Goldings on organ. <<>>

For me, one of the highlights of the album is a piece called Idealist, with its somewhat jazzy 6-beat rhythm and especially intriguing lyrics. <<>>

One of the edgier tracks is Privilege with vocals in the form of a dialogue, considering one’s options with as the lyrics say with “your head stuck in the sand.” <<>>

Bittersweet is one of the few love songs on the album, though it’s in a typically roundabout way. <<>>

The album ends with a composition called The First Five Seconds which goes all out art rock in its arrangement. It’s another highlight. <<>>

Genius Killer the new 14th album by the long-running, and reunited group Mommyheads, their fifth new release in the last five years, is a great example of a creative mix of the musical complexity of art rock with a sort of pop music sensibility. The band again pulls it off and keeps it interesting throughout, with elaborate arrangements and often intriguing lyrics. Thirty five years after their formation, and after reuniting a few years ago, they remain in great form, independently recording their music, and touring occasionally. Adam Cohen, a/k/a Adam Elk the principal composer and lead vocalist creates music than can be listened to on several different levels.

Our grade for sound quality is about a “B” with the mix handled well, and the vocals quite intelligible, but there are instances of distorted vocals which earn demerits in my book, and the dynamic range is not good from heavy volume compression.

Years ago, British groups like XTC and Queen straddled art-rock and pop with their blend of elements of both. Mommyheads have been doing that sort of thing decades now, and they remain in at the top of their game on their new release Genius Killer.

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This page last updated October 16, 2022