(August 11, 2015) Phoenix New Times - Curious City review - A grotesque vegetable, psychedelic rock is rarely served on its own. But just a smidgen lends weight to pop, color to blues, brains to country, and space to dance music. Modey Lemon is that unusual band that takes it straight. On The Curious City, the Pittsburgh trio's second album, fun-house mayhem rules. Overtones of progenitors like Alice Cooper and Jefferson Airplane are updated with punkier guitars and the odd dancey touch. Tempos snap from thundering groove to hypnotic march under rapt accounts of time travel, suspicious family men, weird berries, and a female lumberjack who "takes a sleepy axe to my skull." For the unaccustomed palate, singer Phil Boyd is a relief, narrating with little enough vocal affectation to keep things from veering around the bend from coherence. Nevertheless, Modey Lemon makes perhaps the most concentrated psych since Primus.
(September, 2005) Arthur Magazine - Curious City Review - D: A facemelting beast machinery soundtrack. Like Suicide, the band. C: Oneida’s march-thrust crossed with Fiery Furnaces’ unapologetic quirk factor five. D: With some of the driest singing not by a band called Om.
(October 5, 2005) Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Modey Lemon Let Creative Juices Flow on New CD - Being on the road so much, says Moog-abusing, guitar-playing singer Phil Boyd, has "made us appreciate Pittsburgh even more, being able to have a cool place to come back to. "It can be disorienting, though, says keyboard-playing bassist Jason Kirker, who admits, "A lot of times I don't know what to do with myself because I'm not in a van driving somewhere." And then there's the matter of sleeping,. I can't get to sleep until, like, 5 a.m.,” says local drum god Paul Quattrone. “I’m like that, too," says Kirker. "I stay up till 3 a.m. And interacting with people is weird." When Boyd first got back from the "Thunder + Lightning" tour in 2004, he recalls with a laugh, "I couldn't remember who to call to hang out with.”
This year's European dates, which included a handful of opening slots on the Dinosaur Jr. reunion tour, were to support the Mute UK release of "The Curious City," an avant-garage explosion fueled as much by post-Syd Barrett psychedelic whimsy, vintage horror films and synthesizers as it is by sheer adrenaline and chaos. Nine songs in, they turn the chaos down for "Countries," a haunted folk ballad, before embarking on a 16-minute journey through the noisy psychedelic sprawl of "Trapped Rabbits," a track that in places could pass for the Stooges recording the soundtrack to an acid-trip-gone-bad scene in some great lost hippie exploitation classic from the '60s. "Bucket of Butterflies," the lead-off UK single, pulled in raves from NME (which called it "smart modernist prog") and Kerrang!, which noted that "the clever thing about these demented genre-straddlers is that their chaotic sound could have been born in any of the past four decades. This particular dizzying, psychedelic sonic assault boasts wild, angular riffs, numerous sudden shifts in tempo and some of the coolest lyrics you'll hear this year.”
When "The Curious City" hit the streets on Birdman in the States a few months later, the Chicago Reader gushed that "Pittsburgh's Modey Lemon are that rare and glorious thing glimpsed from time to time creeping out of the primordial ooze of neo-garage: a bona fide new creature that is far, far more than the sum of its influences." Hell, even Pitchfork found good things to say about it, pointing out that compared to the previous Birdman/Mute UK release, "Thunder + Lightning," there's "more melody, more ambitious structures, more psychedelic detours, and more surprises."
All of which was apparently lost on the writer for Q magazine, where the record was given a scathing review, which for some reason brings a smile to Quattrone's face. "Q magazine hates us," he says, then emphasizes "hates us. And it's awesome because they're the biggest piece of [garbage] magazine.” At which point Kirker notes, in England, that's like being hated by the guy who writes for Entertainment Weekly. "We're a polarizing band," shrugs Boyd. "Like you said you really like 'Trapped Rabbits,' but a lot of people are like ….”
Quattrone interrupts and in a very proper if dismissive British accent finishes the sentence. "Dreadful," he says, with a smile. "Just dreadful.”
THE SUMMER OF FREE POOLS IN THE CURIOUS CITY
The trio recorded "The Curious City" last summer in Pittsburgh, working once again in Kirker's studio but this time bringing in a co-producer, Dave Katznelson of Birdman, so Kirker could focus on playing. As Quattrone recalls, they got home from the "Thunder + Lightning" tour in late May and started rehearsing in June and July for the album. "We were like kids," he says. We'd wake up and play music, play ping-pong, get ice cream, go swimming." "It was the summer of free pools in Pittsburgh," says Kirker. "We were sort of rediscovering ourselves and our city," says Boyd. Hence the title. A lot of what they did in those early rehearsals, Quattrone says, was "go off on these hour-long jams on pretty much the same chord, these really hypnotic, repetitive jams that would kind of slightly morph over the course of how long we were playing it.” That's how "Trapped Rabbits" came together. The version you hear on "The Curious City," Quattrone says, "was the first time we ever played that all the way through. We had a couple different parts worked out, and we were like, 'Let's just give it a shot.' We had the tape rolling.” The song was too long and too loose, says Boyd, to do it any other way. "I think the night before,” he says, "I'd finished all the lyrics I wanted to sing. And then that gave it a little more structure, in my mind at least, when I was playing it. So I'd know when to work in certain things. But there were also parts where we just let it go, like the ending. After the last chorus ended, we didn't know how we were gonna finish it up.” It could have been longer, says Kirker, but the reel of tape was only 16 minutes long. "Dave Katznelson was walking around with a sign that said, 'One minute left,' " Quattrone recalls. "I don't think we realized," says Kirker, "that it was that long when we were playing it because we were just into it, and then we got the one minute warning, and we were like, 'OK, let's wrap it up.’” The group made a conscious decision to end the album with "Trapped Rabbits” in all its unedited glory, Boyd explains, because a lot of the songs on the album are "a lot more focused than anything we'd ever done, so we wanted to have something on there that just sort of summed up what led to this session. If you look at a song like 'Countries' or 'Mr. Mercedes' or 'Sleepwalkers,' they're all kind of a lot of stuff crammed into three minutes. They originally might have gone on longer than that, but we tried to scale everything down. So we decided to have one song on there that spoke to what the sessions were like leading up to those other recordings.” And in Kirker's mind, "Trapped Rabbits" is a sign of things to come. "Not that everything's gonna be long and weird," he says. "But it's really rhythmic and conceptual. I think it kind of captures the way we are as a three-piece."
And as Boyd says, clearly hoping other people hear it that way, too, it's also melodic. Melodies take center stage on much of "The Curious City," with Boyd's vocals higher in the mix than Modey Lemon fans are used to hearing. "When our booking agent first heard this record," Boyd says, "he was like, 'Who's the singer?' He didn't realize it was me singing. So for people who know us by our last couple records, it might sound different, but for us, knowing all the music we make and the music we're into, it is kind of more like a return to ourselves.” The ballad, for instance, was written before The Modey Lemon even got together. "You have to realize," Quattrone says, “at most, half the songs Phil writes end up being songs that we play as a band because he just writes all kind of different songs.”
THE MODEY LEMON: THEN AND NOW
Boyd and Quattrone have been playing together since the '90s, having hooked up in what Boyd calls a "ramshackle" eight-piece band in 1998 before stripping it down to a blues-rocking duo the following year. They'd both moved here to go to Pitt, Quattrone from upstate New York, Boyd from Central Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. "My high school band came out and played a college party at one of their houses," says Boyd. "And they sort of recruited me to help write some original songs and play rhythm guitar. Paul wasn't too excited at first because he thought there were better guitarists out there and people that he liked more. But we ended up getting along." They launched The Modey Lemon, playing blues songs on the sidewalk in the Strip, where they stumbled across a band name in the moldy lemons at their feet. It wasn't long before that style began to grow into a sound The Modey Lemon could more accurately call its own, with elements of old-school punk and psychedelic rock washing over the blues.
After hitting the streets with the self-released "House on the Hill," the duo signed to A-F Records for 2002's "Modey Lemon,” hailed in Spin as follows: "These dirt buckets do it to death, dumping a mound of scuzz atop the graves of all your favorite, long-gone Nuggets wannabes.” A heavier follow-up, "Thunder + Lightning," emerged in 2003 on Birdman, by which point they'd added Kirker, who produced the album, to the live show, a must-see explosion of reckless abandon and violent physical force that led Lou Barlow to invite them to open for Dinosaur Jr. after having caught their set at this year's South-By-Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas.
But the new one marks their first full album as a three-piece, and the band was thrilled, says Boyd, to "make something that spoke to where we were as a three-piece. Just the fact that we were able to come back to our own space and concentrate all our energies on this one project, I think it was a pretty healthy process.”
That's one of the reasons “The Curious City" still sounds good to Boyd a year after laying it down. "Our previous records, we sort of outgrew kind of quickly," he says. "By the time they'd come out, we'd feel like we were kind of moving onto something else already. And obviously we still want to move forward, but I think of all three records, this one seems to be the most relevant the longest.”
In addition to relentless touring, future plans include a U.S. B-side compilation. As Boyd says, "When Mute puts out singles in the UK, they want us to do all these B-sides. So we're gonna put out an EP of all the B-sides and maybe record a couple more songs. We have a bunch of songs that we could do for that.” They may even include a few of those rehearsal jams that led to “The Curious City." As Quattrone says, "We recorded pretty much everything, so we have just hours and hours.” Boyd says he's hoping to take a similar approach to the next album. "I kind of want to get in and start jamming," he says, "and see what kind of direction the jams start taking. Then, from that we can get a sense of what we want to do with the next record.” Whatever they end up doing, he says, it'll probably be more melodic, while Quattrone, known to pummel his kit like a young Keith Moon as filtered through John Bonham, says he's been hoping to push the electronic side of the equation next time, adding, “I say less guitars, more keyboard.” In the meantime, "The Curious City" finds The Modey Lemon setting fire to a psychedelic envelope they merely pushed on their earlier records, getting harder to define with each succeeding move. As Boyd says, "We would want people to say this sounds like stuff I like but I can't put my finger on exactly what it is." You may hear traces of the early Who, "Funhouse," the Hendrix Experience, even a bit of the "Batman" theme (peeking out from behind all the clatter and chaos of "Trapped Rabbits"), but as Quattrone says, "Once everything is filtered through the three of us playing, it just kind of becomes its own thing."
All Music - 4/5 stars - The Modey Lemon's Phil Boyd (guitars, Moogs, vocals) and Paul Quattrone (drums) invited Jason Kirker to join the band on bass and keys after he produced Thunder + Lightning. But that's not the only change on 2005's Curious City. In the band's earlier work, Boyd sang in a slithering rasp that matched Modey's blues-punk skuzz ably, if only satisfactorily. But on City his suddenly clearer vocals are the key hinge to mounting blasts of hellacious Moog noise and weird melodies that slink from under the belly of classic rock & roll. (On Curious they're weird even when quiet, as the downcast Animals redux "Countries" proves.) The background of "Fingers, Drains" warbles in heat and melting instrument noises, and Boyd's vocal on it is downright sultry. Meanwhile "Sleep Walkers" is some of the most efficient music Modey Lemon's ever made; it sounds like a lost Golden Earring B-side with its throbbing bass and insistent drum clap. "Mr. Mercedes" is right behind that. Boyd's story couplets ("She takes a sleepy axe to my skull....") link the stretches of rumble and blurt, and the song could be DFA 1979 if cooler heads were ever to prevail in that band. On Curious City, Modey Lemon are cool. They're cocky too, but not in an annoying, look-at-my-awesome-haircut sort of way. Because there are actual songs here, Boyd's vocals get away with their haughty tinge. Fans of the band's past craziness will love the yowling, dirge-like, nearly 17-minute finale "Trapped Rabbits," while "Mountain Mist" is the opposite, rewarding the addition of a bass guitar to the Modey Lemon lineup with its efficient glower and strut.