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Joywave’s live album: Fear and loathing, and satire

Joywave's Joseph Morinelli, Daniel Armbruster and Paul Brenner.
Joywave's Joseph Morinelli, Daniel Armbruster and Paul Brenner.

Joywave cannot be taken at its word.

The band releases a live album Friday, and so you might pronounce the title — “Live” — as such. But in a typical Joywavian refusal to meet easy expectations, the “Live” of this album title is actually what you do every day: You live.

Similarly, “Live” presents us with two Joywaves. Stereo Joywave, if you will.

The collection sprints through 20 songs and lead singer Daniel Armbruster’s breezy, between-song chatter in just under 80 minutes. Out of one speaker, the live “Live” gives us the fun, lighthearted, Joywave. Funny, offbeat, the funhouse-mirror perspectives.

And out of the second speaker, the songs of “Live” reveal a band that, if not paralyzed by fear, is at least wary of it. “You bow down surrounded by your fears,” Joywave tells us in “F.E.A.R.”

Certainly the core of the band — Armbruster, guitarist Joseph Morinelli and drummer Paul Brenner — share that first view of their surroundings. “I think people who follow us on social media know that,” Armbruster said in an interview a couple of weeks ago, after the band had returned home to Rochester following its latest national tour.

“But maybe some people who are just buying the record at the store, or maybe, or maybe listening on streaming services and stuff, it’s a lot harder to convey that. And I think that’s why we wanted to do the live record, that’s going to be received on all those same channels where people are listening to the band and maybe not understanding the personalities.”

And with that, we have been given permission to hit the play button and enjoy “Live” and its many forays into satires of insincerity. “This is not something I say every single night,” Armbruster confesses to a wildly cheering Denver audience between songs. “Denver is our favorite city!”

Seconds later, in a medley of American geography encompassing this tour, Armbruster assures the “Live” listeners that, “Kansas City is our favorite city in America!” Then it’s “Seattle!” “Chicago!” “Atlanta!” “Portland!” “Minneapolis!”

I recall the Rolling Stones resorting to a similar trick years ago. Except it wasn’t a joke, just laziness, as Mick Jagger confessed to his audience that, “The boys and I were talking backstage before the show,” and that city — wherever we were, I’ve forgotten — was their favorite on the tour. Huge roar of approval. When I saw the Stones again, a few dates later on the same tour, Jagger confessed to his audience there that, “The boys and I were talking backstage before the show,” and that city — wherever we were, I’ve forgotten — was the best on the tour. Huge roar of approval.

But when Joywave offers us insincerity, it means it.

It also offers a catalogue of impressive songs, assembled over a dozen years. The sound is contemporary indie rock, yet circa 1983 Roxy Music as Prince. And something in Armbruster brings to mind Fee Waybill of The Tubes.

Take those comparisons as compliments.

Joywave, which hits the road again on Aug. 25, is a busy band. Mindful of the pandemic but refusing to be silenced by it. With “Cyn City 2000,” the opening track of “Live,” Joywave might be lamenting from the first line that “Possession,” the album it had released a year earlier, had been jettisoned into COVID oblivion, released almost to the day that the world began to shut down: “The last idea I had got swallowed by a black hole.”

Keyboardist Ben Bailey, who has amicably left the band since “Live” was recorded, and a couple of touring pros, add up to a venue-vibrating sound. Joywave doesn’t let a chorus show its face without turning it into a full, whoop-wharfing synth anthem. These songs seem to have been born to be played live.

Armbruster challenges the crowd. “It’s Friday night, are you people ready to act like it?” He may sing “I don’t wanna be cynical,” but that’s what Joywave is. In “Buy American,” the band tells us, “When it breaks, wе’ll get the whole thing replaced. Why are you worried ’bout someone that you’ve never met?

The cover of Joywave's new album "Live."
The cover of Joywave's new album "Live."

But we can’t oversimplify here because Joywave doesn’t. One song does not sound like the next, the mood cast by the music of each piece sets the tone for the lyrics.

There’s the foreboding “It’s a Trip!” and the unarguable lines, “When you’ve gotten what you want, there’s nothing left to want.” The dramatic shifts in instrumentation accompanying “Obsession” and its call for, “I just need something to get me through the night.” The atmospheric opening to “After Coffee” shifting smoothly into a groove and more words of uncertainty: “Yeah, I’m too scared to jump.” The ominous guitar of “Coming Apart” leads us to, “But it’s an age made for the stupid and numb,” and the ghostly chorus, “Why can't you unwind?”

There’s a breezy “Half Your Age,” the industrial grind of “Somebody New,” and a driving rhythm of “True Grit.” Is “Traveling at the Speed of Light” a love song, closing with Gothic pipe organs? How about the acid trip of “The Inversion,” a creepy call and response that sarcastically advises, “Don’t think too hard, thought’s in short supply.” But Joywave does think hard: “Goodbye Tommy” is a meditation on mass killings.

And so we live. As “Live” comes to a close, the audience demands “three more songs!” and Joywave delivers. Three of its best. “Tongues,” which it originally recorded with Rochester pals KOPPS, its release accompanied by a video that is perhaps the band’s most Dada vision, a tribe of naked people morphing into an amorphous clothing creature. Then “Dangerous,” with bass riffs that can be heard from outer space. And “Destruction,” with Joywave whistling while it works to heavy guitar.

About all we’re missing here is a polka. This kind of album beats a mere greatest hits collection because it delivers the band’s personality.

The highlights? How about “Every Window is a Mirror” as the perfect showcase for the Joywave dichotomy. A sarcastic reflection, a droll comment, on the suffocating cut-and-paste, temperature-controlled environments we create for ourselves:

Breathing in the cool air

Conditioned for your comfort, built to last

Humming with approval

But living carbon neutral fogs the glass

Chillingly, this uniformity we desire offers nowhere to escape from 21st-century troubles: “Every fear you had lost, returns.”

And yet, ever eager to not miss an opportunity, whether it be a joke or a marketing ploy, when Joywave noticed an uptick in the band’s music being streamed in Russia (what could that have been about?), it released a video of “Every Window Is a Mirror” subtitled in Russian.

What harm, as Armbruster asks between songs on “Live,” can there be in a little pandering to your audience? “Because people have been asking Joywave to sell out for years,” he answers defiantly. “And we will never, ever do it!”

Then he adds that the crowd, while on its way out the door after the show, should “check out the merch table.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.