I first took notice of Cayetana about two years ago, when Michael Tender shadowed the band during research for his excellent account of Philadelphia’s (rock) music scene. I bought their first full length, “Nervous Like Me”, and became a quick fan of their specific blend of pop punk coupled with lead singer Augusta Koch’s heart-on-her-sleeve lyrics.
The album was extremely catchy, if a little gritty, and their confidence and musicianship improved with each successive release (including a stellar cover of New Order’s “Age of Consent”). All of this is to say that I’d been eagerly anticipating their second full LP, “New Kind of Normal,” which did not disappoint.
The album starts out with a feedback fade into the uptempo “Am I Dead Yet?” The song serves as a nice transition from “Nervous Like Me,” keeping a classic three-chord structure while demonstrating an increased production value as well as one Allegra Ankra’s best bass lines to date. “Is there a way out of this? Is there a way out?” the whole group sings in the chorus. The real hook, however, comes with the quick instrumental that follows as Koch and Ankra’s interplay jangles and bounces from the speakers and lodges itself in your memory.
The song is followed up by lead single “Mesa,” another upbeat tune, where Koch sings “together we make flowers out of leaves” but still acknowledges the darkness that surrounds life, admitting “we can only hurt ourselves so long.” It stands as a more formal introduction to the album’s main theme: mental health. The theme is strung throughout the album, but Koch’s flowers metaphor is as close to summing up the bands worldview as any of her lyrics: make the best out of what the world has given you, but it won’t be easy.
After “Mesa” comes “Too Old for This,” a meditation on a failing relationship through the prism of writer’s block that serves as the closest thing to ’90s radio fare they have ever created. Tracks “Bus Ticket” and “Easy to Love” show Koch using her personal life the ground the LP’s theme, admitting “I’m adjusting to this medication so I can feel more, care less.” With the medication come major changes in the narrator’s life, and the struggle of the personal balance of mental illness can often bring apart a relationship, as it does on “Easy to Love.”
“Side Sleeper” comes in at the halfway point and is the first midtempo song on the album, and comes with Kelly Olsen playing with the precision of a drum machine as the rest of the instrumentation and vocals swim in a soup of reverb and echo. “It’s the crux of me to communicate cryptically,” Koch sings, but when in her plainspoken lyricism she finds a way to impart the burdens of self improvement quite simply: “I should get my shit together. You know I could be so much better.”
The back half the record doesn’t quite maintain the same ferocity and catchiness as the first, but that is more a testament to the LP’s starting six tracks. “Grumpy’s” is the true standout of the second half, with Olsen’s crashing cymbals and Anka’s best bass line on the whole album backing the catchy refrain, “Is that your friend or your drinking buddy? First call or the understudy?”
When Cayetana closes out “Nervous Like Me,” Koch sings “I go to sleep to the sound of violence and I wake up to the sound of sirens.” On the final cut “The World” those sirens return as atmospheric background to some truly ethereal vocals. The sound of South Philadelphia surrounding the band, Koch reminds us “The world is wide and I forget it all the time,” bringing a somber finish to the album.
The band’s undeniable ability to fill a song with hooks, coupled with Koch’s second person conversational lyrics makes for one of the best rock records out this year, as the girls exceeded my already high expectations.
Cayetana’s “New Kind of Normal” is streaming all this week via Hype Machine, and is out on the band’s very own Plum Records May 5. They will be performing a record release show at the First Unitarian Church. Doors open at 7 p.m.