synth pop

The Cuckoos: “Dirty Pictures”

If you mainly draw inspiration from older generations, after taking a lengthy break, you may find that the needle on your tastes has moved forward in time too. At least that’s what we’re seeing unfold with Austin project The Cuckoos.

Ostensibly the one-man band (who also operates as a four-piece) of flock leader/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/producer Ken Frost, The Cuckoos have historically nestled around classic rock, psych, and funk. But after flying off in a near half-decade-long songwriting hiatus, The Cuckoos have recently come home to roost in the best way possible – with a touch of New Wave.

Ahead of their next record (produced by KUTX Favorite Chris “Frenchie” Smith), this morning The Cuckoos clocked in somewhere between Soft Cell and Depeche Mode with “Dirty Pictures”. “Dirty Pictures” goes face to face with the ’80s aesthetic with four-to-the-floor drums, raunchy guitar, salacious synth stabs, arousing lyrics with moody vocals, and a snapshot sound effect that’d make Duran Duran nod knowingly. A lot of producers might say “don’t go crazy” with a new sonic direction…but c’mon Ken…if you keep going cuckoo for the flashback stuff, you sure won’t rustle our feathers.

Genuine Leather: “Getting Used to the Feel”

For a lot of self-made bedroom producers, lo-fi isn’t just a creative choice; it’s a necessity. Yeah, not everyone has the technical prowess, access to equipment, or funding to match the pristine masters of their commercial radio contemporaries. But when lo-fi folks like that gain the resources to make the leap up, it’s hard to step back down.

Now let’s jump to multi-instrumentalist-producer Chris Galis, AKA Genuine Leather. Galis has spent a decade tanning Genuine Leather’s lo-fi synth-pop-rock sound, so when GL’s label-supported debut Genuine Pleasure dropped last November, the higher production value felt like a significant departure – even though the songwriting formulas were still intact.

Well, given their latest standalone, Genuine Leather’s clearly comfortable in their newfound high-fidelity factory…and we sure as hell aren’t complaining. “Getting Used to the Feel” maintains that Tame Impala quality we gushed about last June, but slows its roll and finds Galis’ vocals in a more spacious arrangement, which totally makes sense in the context of its immediate post-COVID “return to normalcy” penning. That said, the tempo is real treat for a mix as polished as this one, and there’s no way “Getting Used to the Feel” could carry that arena-filling energy in a lo-fi forum. But we’re sure it’ll translate onstage when Genuine Leather plays the single release show 8PM this Thursday at the Mohawk alongside Minivan Dad and Mr. Kat. As far as Genuine Leather headlining bills and dropping highly professional recordings? Better get used to it.

Steel Gemini: “Only Freak”

If you’re a fan of that synth pop section of indie electronica in the ilk of Goldfrapp, Grimes, and CHVRCHES…there’s a relatively recent artist right here in town that’ll absolutely scratch that itch.

And that’s Steel Gemini, the Austin-based project of singer-songwriter-producer Joy Baldwin. Ever since her December 2022 debut, Baldwin’s been a real joy to listen to thanks to everything we mentioned last March. With a brand already as strong as her metal namesake and a standard of quality consistent enough to match, Steel Gemini’s standalones have left us patiently waiting for a fuller collection of tunes.

But that’s in no way meant to knock her sixth single “Only Freak” that just dropped last weekend. Its introductory four-bar coupling of sampled vocals and electric guitar almost misdirects you into thinking the rest’ll sound like The xx. But really, that’s more of an atmospheric backdrop throughout “Only Freak”‘s four minute runtime, where minimalist drum programming, massive bass synths, shimmering pads, and Baldwin’s featherweight vocals end up stealing the show. Safe to say, the only thing freaky about this is if it ended up being Steel Gemini’s sole output of the year.

Autogramm: “WannaBe”

Forty years after its original run, it truly feels like a piece of the ’80s is back with an attitude. And no…not just in terms of inflation, world conflicts, or a war on drugs; it’s the music too. Sure, there’ve been countless contemporaries who’ve incorporated a retro aesthetic into their modern sound, but we’re talking more about stuff that makes it hard to distinguish when it actually came out.

Take for instance Autogramm. The Vancouver quartet (with members also hailing from Seattle and Chicago) just wheeled out their third full-length Music That Humans Can Play last Friday, and just glancing at the cover, you can tell exactly which decade they’re trying to fit in with. Hell, even the title touches on that lovable Gen X-era sarcastic apathy. Made in the wake of their 2021 sophomore No Rules, MTHCP was a pandemic-stricken re-evaluation of the group as a whole, and goddamn are we happy Autogramm decided to stick with the program and add guitarist Lars Von Seattle to their ranks. Just like their 20th century predecessors, Autogramm’s transformed from artsy punk into synth-driven new wave and power pop, which, as mentioned before, makes this new material hard to separate from the authentic ’80s OGs.

If you happen to be in Western Europe next March, you’ve got ample chances to catch Autogramm live. If not, we recommend spinning Music That Humans Can Play in its entirety, whether or not you’ve got an old-school speaker setup because at a hair over a half hour, Music That Humans Can Play – true to its title – is plenty accessible. Shoot, you could probably get away with slipping the full album into your favorite ’80s playlist and no one would second guess that it came out this year. And that’s thanks to its big and bold production – processed to kingdom come but bearing the same simplistic formulas of chart-toppers like The Cars and Gary Numan. So without much more than the actual release date to convince us this record isn’t a long lost relic, if you love the ’80s, you’ll “WannaBe” in close company with Autogramm’s latest.

Night Drive: “Summerwaves”

Although Houston and Dallas are indisputably the hubs of such, car cruising culture is alive and thriving all over the Lone Star State. And while swangin’ looks best before dusk, these triple digit temps tormenting Texas have been making it tough to tempt daylight, even with top down. And especially if you’re less about “Tops Drop” and “Diamonds & Wood” and more into the Miami Vice or Kung Fury soundtracks…this is where the prospect of a good ol’ Night Drive shines. Back when we named Night Drive as our May 2017 Artist of the Month, we knew right away that these Austinite-Houstonians’ retro-bred blend of post-punk and synth-pop wasn’t just moonlighting for a sole getaway score. No, by the time their eponymous LP hit our airwaves, the pair had already spent the past half decade shaping their sound and shifting up their skills from Night Drive’s 2013 debut EP Position I. Now that 2017’s Night Drive marks an approximate midpoint between Position I and the present…there were only so many lanes for Night Drive to explore next. With the addition of a third member, Night Drive drops their sequentially titled sophomore EP Position II this Fall. Produced by Rick Rubin protege Phillip Broussard, these six new songs step away from Night Drive’s remix routines and instead embrace a less-formulaic middle ground between their strongest sounds. Position II drops August 4th ahead of a release show the following evening at The Parish with openers Haunt Me and Holy Wire and the record’s lead single just cut the engine on this stagnant Texas heatwave. Alongside its VHS-on-LSD music video, the record’s lead single “Summerwaves” veers past the saturated vaporwave aesthetic in favor of something timeless and authentic. Like if Joy Division hopped across the pond with a mouthful of MDMA, rented a Testarossa, and started plowing past rows of palm trees, “Summerwaves” is an ideal track both for piston-pushing under the sweltering sun and gentle swerving under the stars.

Primo the Alien: “Move”

With only one week left in LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we gotta get in as much queer representation as possible. So on the verge of Pride in Local Music tomorrow afternoon and evening, today we’re highlighting one of Austin’s most eccentric musical personalities, Primo the Alien. Aside from recent strides like making their ACL Fest debut last October and descending down to KUTX’s Rock the Park concert series a couple weeks later, this intergalactic master-of-MIDI and celestial synth-wizard has an incredibly prolific studio output – a Milky Way of singles often complemented by vibrant music videos. Style-wise, the synthesizer and MIDI sampler are always close at hand, so it makes sense that this singer-producer orbits around all things pop – synth-pop, electro-pop, dance-pop, you name it. Ahead of their slot 7PM tomorrow on Pride in Local Music’s main stage for the festival’s fourth celebration, this morning Primo dropped their fifth single of the year. Far from lost time at just shy of three-and-a-half minutes, “Move” will abduct your headspace with Tropical House chords, tasteful retro synth tones, perfectly-saturated beats that beg for the dance floor, and of course Primo’s indestructible, superstar-nearing-supernova singing.

Genuine Leather: “Tear It Down”

When the handle “Genuine Leather” first catches your eye, a number of potentials present themselves; like Genuine Leather could easily be the name of a Kiss-era glam metal outfit, a bunch of Ramones-esque punks, a Berghain-inspired Western European dance DJ, or even just a dusty posse of country cowboys. Well, consider those expectations subverted, ’cause Genuine Leather is actually the alias of Austin-based lo-fi synth-pop multi-instrumentalist producer Chris Galis. Born to a Fort Worth community where commercial rock radio was king, Galis only got into more adventurous acts like The Beatles and Radiohead when he started studying jazz bass and classical music in college. By the time he founded Genuine Leather after graduation in 2011, Galis’ instrumental expertise had broadened out to synth and guitar, and his pop music vocabulary had expanded from Wilco and Prince all the way to Talking Heads and Tears for Fears. Gen Leath’s ability to contextualize those Gen X jukebox hits within a modern lens has allowed Galis to tan adjacent hides (be they indie rock, post-punk, or folk) into well-fitted, genre-defying garments across three EPs and three full-lengths. Well, hot off being signed to a London label and having already shared two singles in 2023, Genuine Leather is gearing up for the release of their fourth EP, Genuine Pleasure, out later this Fall. As heard on February’s “Promises” and April’s “Even If I Could”, Genuine Pleasure gels effects-filled synth pop together with ’70s yacht rock guitar and some f***ing killer contemporary flavors. Today Genuine Leather lends us the third of Genuine Pleasure‘s six songs, “Tear It Down”, a Tame-Impala-meets-Toro-Y-Moi wrecking ball of psych-pop. Bookended by long-swelling, heavily-modulated synth chords, “Tear It Down” creates a must-hear atmospheric foundation before pulling the rug out and letting loose with some of the slickest pop-rock we’ve heard come out of Austin in a minute.

The Scary Jokes: “Demons of Accident”

Polymaths aren’t inherently better at their preferred forms of media…but honestly, when you start to think of modern multi-disciplinary creatives like Brandy, Donald Glover or Lucy Liu…it certainly seems like splitting interest into multiple fields can have a big payoff. So let’s talk about Pennsylvania’s Liz Lehman. On top of being an accomplished queer activist and visual artist, Lehman lathes those passions and more together with their truly intriguing synth pop project The Scary Jokes. Less of an abrupt punch line and more of an ongoing engagement that haunts far beyond the final chord, The Scary Jokes enjoyed an auspicious three-record streak between 2014’s Bad At Math and 2019’s Burn Pygmalion!!!. As with the rest of the world, things slowed down when COVID began dominating headlines in 2020, but aside from their 2021 remix of 2016’s April Fools, The Scary Jokes are about to return with their first post-lockdown offering. Championing vintage synth tones and an abundance of analog originality, Retinal Bloom is ten tracks of deep-eared dilations. Faithful to the full-length’s title, these tunes will expand your view of what synth pop really is, with sonic combos that sound like classic video game soundtracks were able to authentically encode Lehman’s supra-human voice, plus a bit of delightfully drab German New Wave. Retinal Bloom drops tomorrow and The Scary Jokes graciously let us open this Pandora’s Box of bizarrely-catchy confessions with its penultimate track “Demons of Accident”. Between its purposeful vibrato-pervading timbres and deliberate reverb-drenched vocals, “Demons of Accident” takes us to an underwater level from which we don’t want to surface.

Hey Cowboy!: “Mesmerize”

Cheer Up Charlie’s consecutively scores “Best of Austin” awards, and deservedly so. Within downtown’s highly competitive Red River District, this renowned venue has maintained staying power thanks to its all-welcoming attitude, calculated curations, and unique use of natural landscape. So unsurprisingly, most concertgoers in Austin have made fond memories at Cheer Up Charlie’s, no matter how hazy they may be. And concerning the creative community, we suspect Cheer Up’s has probably inspired more art than meets the eye.

Case in point, a modern tale of allure set against Cheer Up Charlie’s iconic neon lights from our April 2020 Artist of the Month, Hey Cowboy!. Since moseying down here in 2018, these three Dentonites continue to lasso listeners into their synth-pop posse. Less of a Mexican standoff and more of a guitar-verboten Wild Bunch, Hey Cowboy! corrals the best bits of vintage film scores, psychedelia, and even some punk, all sans-six-string. Their sandy, lambent arrangements plant you right in the saddle and entrance you towards a grainy horizon of mid-fi harmonies.

Like a steel plate beneath a poncho, Hey Cowboy!’s kept the new stuff under wraps, but promise their third full-length for release some time in 2023. Today, ahead of a live gig at Volstead Lounge 10pm on Valentine’s Day opening for fellow KUTX favorites Sun June and Star Parks, Hey Cowboy! casts a spell with their first jingling spur of the year, “Mesmerize”. Fastened by a hypnotic drum strut and intriguing, sedative intervals (both vocal and instrumental), it’s tough to resist Hey Cowboy’s command to dance in this misty recollection of a Cheer Up’s tryst.

Nation of Language: “From The Hill”

Just before noon tomorrow, the gate’s’ll open up and Austin City Limits Music Festival 2022 will officially be underway. So if you plan on being out there bright and early, you might want to taste the Big Apple flavors of Brooklyn three-piece Nation of Language. Bassist Michael Sue-Poi and multi-instrumentalist Ian Richard Devaney founded Nation of Language as an offshoot of their New Jersey rock quintet The Static Jacks about a half decade back, and have since formalized a pidgin tongue of post-punk, indie, and synth-pop. Nation of Language plays at ACL Fest 1:45PM tomorrow afternoon on the Miller Lite stage before shutting down Stubb’s this Saturday ’round midnight. No doubt they’ll both be sanguine, synth-heavy sets, whose serene soundscapes, ruminating arrangements, and magnetic melodies (like those of NoL’s latest single “From The Hill”) will keep you cool-headed whatever the weather.

Nolina: “Tourist”

Decades after acts like Les Paul & Mary Ford, Captain & Tenille, and Ike & Tina had their heyday, seeing the phrase “husband-and-wife duo” can personally make me wince. Like we get it; you love each other, you’ve got great chemistry together, and you have a lot of emotions you need to dispense, but often, quality output gets masked by the consummation of that creative process. So it’s refreshing as hell when you hear a married pair who removes their relationship from the sonic center stage. Folks like vocalist Stef Atkinson and multi-instrumentalist Nick Atkinson with their Austin-based project Nolina.

Since 2018 Nolina’s been blending synth-pop, new wave, indie rock, and even Italo Disco into their guitar-and-vocal-driven electronic sound. After dropping their Danny Reisch-produced debut EP The Otherside last November and a Mariclaire Glaeser-co-produced contribution to Jim Eno’s Project Traction, Nolina has just shared their latest standalone single, “Tourist”. And while “Tourist” does lean on themes of romance, its genre-inclusive arrangement and nuanced performances easily overshadow any matrimonial gimmicks.

Dena Hope: “Miss U”

Since 2019 Austin’s Dena Hope has been expanding on an eponymous solo synth-pop endeavor, which got its first leg up in 2020 with her debut EP In Transit. And while many synth-poppers out there tend to dabble with retro-’80s formulas, Dena Hope prefers to keep it more contemporary sounding and in line with her alluring vocal melodies. KUTX Presents Dena Hope alongsideHalf Dream and our 2022 Artist of the Month San Gabriel next Sunday at Far Out Lounge and even if you can’t make it out in person, you don’t want to miss out on Hope’s latest driving single, “Miss U”!

The Belle Sounds: “All About Love”

Austin has its fair share of synth pop acts but arguably the belle of the ball in terms of output is…well…The Belle Sounds. The brainchild of songwriting spouses Noëlle Hampton (vocals) and André Moran (guitar) premiered in 2013 with their eponymous debut LP, and has since grown into a quintet with an impressive work ethic, especially given their 2020 one-single-per-month endeavor Stay Alive.

And though the pandemic situation is once again in flux, these Studio 1A veterans are nevertheless refreshed after some time off but are keeping well within in the retro realm of Stay Alive. Their new EP All About Love dissolves that time capsule into a modern recounting of those bold ’70s/’80s production formulas and you can skate right into it on release day, August 20th. That said, The Belle Sounds just issued the EP’s title track (with a music video on its way), recapturing the passion of golden-era synth-pop on “All About Love”!

TC Superstar: “Nothing to Believe in”

As music technology marches on, the world of synthetic sounds continues to grow. But despite the digital wealth of wacky tones available in this home studio era of ours, for some folks, you just can’t improve on classic hardware. Case in point, Austin synth pop enthusiasts TC Superstar, who first gave us their teleporter to the ’80s with the 2017 LP Masc.

These Studio 1A veterans give the likes of Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode a run for their money, and make it look easy too, a legacy that continues with their new album. TC Superstar’s been sifting through the post-pandemic static for their upcoming concept record, As Seen On TV (out September 17th), and its most recent channel came through last Friday, “Nothing to Believe in”!