There’s the very distinct idea of a “New York band”: scrappy, distorted guitars hailing from the same town that once hosted CBGBs, the subtle Broadway glitz that’s drifted across the city, a comfortable knowledge of rock’s past, and a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude. That said, Haley Bowery and the Manimals are definitely a New York band, as their debut album Born Strange exudes confidence, hooks, and smarts.
Born Strange roars to life with it’s mission statement of a title track with frontwoman Haley Bowery snarling over a ferocious, Joan Jett style riff. It’s a fiery number with a half-time chorus that keeps things interesting and shows how tight the Manimals are as a band. “Blitzed” has some pop leanings–preppy drum beat, shamelessly major key guitar fills and chord progression, and backing “Ohhh oh whoa oh”s on the chorus–but never loses any muscle. It strikes a solid balance between pretty and pounding, especially thanks to Bowery’s lyrics and a capable solo. Unfortunately, the band’s tendency to go all or nothing comes up short on “29”, a nice enough song that’s just a little too earnest for its own good.
The real meat of Born Strange comes from a trio of songs in its middle. “Undertow” gets closer to balladry than “29” ever did, but the martial drumbeat and the song’s slow build keep it interesting. R&B-y “Lobotomy” is built around a double bass riff that works surprisingly well with the normally crunchy guitars and some keyboard work during the chorus. Rounding out this section is the more forward “Jukebox Dive”, an up and down rock band work out that’s all rise and fall/stop-start dynamics with one hell of a final chorus.
The real strength of the middle section of this album is how well Bowery and the band work with each other. The band has some different but accessible arrangements (“Lobotomy” in particular) that still hit hard and feel just familiar enough to be inviting, while giving Bowery plenty of room to breathe. And she puts it to good use; Bowery’s loaded with charisma, and the pipes to go with it. Combine a powerful voice like hers with whip-smart lyrics and a surprising amount of nuance, and you’ve got one hell of a package.
Born Strange goes out swinging with its last few songs. “Twelve Secrets” would make for a fine single, and “Halloween” works its numerous twists and turns feel free and fun as opposed to stiff and forced. “Dream of the Chelsea Hotel” acts best as a stop-gap between “Halloween” and massive closer “All Lies”, but has an angular arrangement that makes it stand out, not to mention an acid-spitting take by Bowery. “All Lies” goes for the Big Finishing Number; a minute longer than anything else on Born Strange, narrative lyrics about an ex-lover’s new thing, a grand chorus, and a closing guitar solo.
Born Strange is a rock fan’s record, both as a listener, and I assume as an artist. The album drops plenty of references to New York and New York music, and just the way it’s structured feels very traditionalist: opening with a one-two jump start, pushing itself to new areas in the middle, and then ending on a big, concert-closing finish. Play it all summer long, and play it loud.