by Nick Tate
Music writers — like most people, I suspect — take comfort in the familiar. We tend to compare an artist’s latest recording to something well known from the past by that same musician or someone else. It’s also why so many music critics are obsessed with familiar stylistic labels: Is it prog, rock, pop, indie, funk, metal, jazz?
But what happens when a musical act is so original that comparisons to such familiar reference points can’t be made and that elusive genre-defying quality is precisely the point?
That, in essence, is both the great joy of The Mommyheads’ eclectic music and the vexing challenge of trying to describe it. Case in point: The long-running American collective’s latest album, Coney Island Kid, which doesn’t sound quite like anything else even remotely familiar.
And, yes, that’s high praise — perhaps the highest a music critic can give.
Granted, the album displays flashes of Beatles-esque melodicism, the pop sensibility of XTC, the quirky wordplay of They Might Be Giants and the challenging math-rock arrangements of 1980s-era King Crimson. In places, there are also touches of the virtuosic musicianship of vintage Yes, the wild out-there-ness of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and enough shifting time signatures to make BT’s Brian Transeau take note.
But the 10 sparkling tracks on this release sound NOTHING at all like any of those artists. In fact, they sound NOTHING at all like anything you’ve ever heard before.
Which is precisely why Coney Island Kid — The Mommyheads’ 15th studio album — is such a sweet slice of genre-busting ear candy, even if it IS difficult to describe succinctly in a meaningful way.
That said, one comparison can be made: Coney Island Kid sounds very much like the logical extension of The Mommyheads’ stellar last album, Genius Killer, from 2022.
Now, before diving into the new record, a little background and band history are in order….
Formed in the late 1980s in New York City, this on-again, off-again collective is the brainchild of founder-singer-songwriter Adam Elk (formerly Adam Cohen) and has featured a variety of players over the years. From the beginning, the band drew a cult following for its eccentric pop-prog-what-have-you style, playing rock clubs in and around the city before moving to San Francisco in the 1990s. But The Mommyheads never quite caught fire with mainstream audiences. That’s one reason Elk and Co. might seem like an overnight session, if you’re just hearing the band for the first time. But the core group has actually been working in the trenches for decades, despite taking several long breaks from recording between 1998 and 2008, and 2012 and 2018. Over the past five years, The Mommyheads have been on a bit of a tear, producing a half-dozen albums of fantastic new material and re-releasing a host of remastered works from the past.
Coney Island Kid caps this recent surge of activity, finding the band at the top of its game.
In a recent interview with the Prog Report, Elk explained that it’s a concept album built around his childhood memories of growing up in Coney Island. At its core, it’s a peculiar personal musical diary of the people, places and things that defined this odd little slice of New York back in the 1960s and 1970s. Each track is like a musical postcard — “Greetings From Coney Island!” — slightly yellowed and nostalgic in places, but with poignant messages that still resonate today.
“It was like therapy, really, pure therapy to realize that a lot of my patterns in life were sculped so early,” he says. “There’s an urban amusement park down the block. Each song is a different side.”
Sound effects — carnivals, calliopes, coasters and crashing arcade games — enhance the experience, placing you in the middle of the action and giving the album a cinematic quality. Most tracks are (wisely) built around Elk’s boyish, urgent vocals, strong melodies and novelesque lyrics. You won’t find many solos or instrumental breaks here, but the band is as tight as a drum as it travels through a dazzling array of musical styles with precision and masterful performances.
The album opens with the title track, a funked-up prog-rocker in 5/4 time propelled by a staccato rhythm section and punctuated with abrupt stops and starts. Vocally, Elk assumes the role of a street tough kid from the get-go, warning: “I’m the kid that they warned you about, who would beg borrow or steal, who would burn his own house to the ground….”
With Elk as our intrepid, streetwise guide to the strange (and frequently wonderful) qualities of his iconic hometown, we’re then led through a series of musical vignettes that would make for a fantastic David Lynch-directed Netflix series.
• “Artificial Island” — a comic sendup of the crass commerciality of the seaside boardwalk’s tacky souvenir shops that features the key line, “Making T-shirts for dead artists, the gift shop is doing well today,” over a relentlessly upbeat melody line.
• “Spookarama” — a darkly rollicking ride through the ghostly Coney Island attraction that was the forerunner to Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” funhouse/rollercoaster ride.
• “Solemn by the Sea” — a radio-friendly slice of pop-prog finery that takes off on Freud’s observation that Coney Island was “Sodam by the Sea” — a haven for scandal and debauchery, where women shocked the polite-society set by wearing skin-baring bikinis in the 1930s (gasp!) and visitors paid to see freak shows and the like.
• “Why Aren’t You Smiling?” — a jazzy funk-prog workout that would have fit comfortably alongside any mid-1970s Steely Dan album, replete with a percolating bassline and snarky lyrics that question societal pressures to put on a smile “as our dreams are being crushed.”
Several tracks venture out but maintain the vibe and dark subject matter that informs the rest of the album.
“Suburban Office Park” is a new wave-ish mashup of Robert Fripp-inspired guitar lines and Talking Heads-like lyricism that explores the bleak soullessness of suburban living. “Onset, MA” is a discordant musical meditation on the isolation and alienation of small-town beach life in the dark days of winter. And “Learning to Live,” the proggiest track on the record, is a cathartic song of surviving trauma that features ascendant synth lines, symphonic-rock passages, crashing drums and stirring vocal melodies that calls to mind (of all things) the first two Tubes albums.
Throughout the album, Elk’s plaintive vocals and deeply personal lyrics reflect the sadness of the place where he grew up and yet, at the same time, manage to celebrate the unique and awesome weirdness of the town. What is perhaps most striking about Coney Island Kid is that Elk’s darkest observations are often balanced by surprisingly upbeat and sunny musical arrangements; the contrast between the lyrical and musical content is dramatic and arresting. Many tracks might leave you with a heavy heart — even as you’re smiling and tapping your feet in time to the uplifting music that carries Elk’s haunting words.
It’s also worth noting that, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if The Mommyheads’ music fits the classic mold of prog. Just give Coney Island Kid a listen and decide for yourself. Regardless of where you come down on the issue, you won’t be disappointed.
Coney Island Kid
Solemn By The Sea
Suburban Office Park
Learning To Live
Why Aren’t You Smiling
Such Beautiful Things