What makes the saxophone so subversive when it enters the setting of rock music? In X-Ray Spex’s 1977 single “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”, the instrument is loud and immediately demands your attention. Lead singer Poly Styrene and her saxophone accompaniment embody musical rebellion. Shouting above the fray, Styrene emphatically rejects the double “bondage” of capitalism and misogyny. Matching her almost note-for-note, the saxophone and its soaring melody reminds the listener just how formulaic punk rock, and its traditional guitar-bass-drums lineup, had become.
In their new album “Happy Together,” Mega Bog, a Brooklyn-basd group led by Erin Birgy, also take to the saxophone to upend the drearily stagnant dream-pop, yacht-rock genre awash with the sloppy and cheap sounds of Mac DeMarco and the neo-psychedelia of Ariel Pink. On “192014”, Birgy’s vocal drone is backed by an ecstatic and swirling, even moaning, saxophone, rebellious in its pure lust and reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s 1960s free-jazz experiments. On “London,” Birgy channels a “From the Air” Laurie Anderson as a mysteriously elegant narrator, with a sometimes smooth, sometimes croaking saxophone accompaniment. What message does Mega Bog wish to convey? It’s as unclear as the band’s name itself. Like with Poly Styrene, it’s the comfort with which Birgy challenges dream-pop authority, as laughable as that may sound, that makes “Happy Together” stand out.
If Mega Bog’s uniqueness comes from their unfamiliar and experimental approach to dream-pop, Sam Skinner’s innovation is his ability to make his songs immediately familiar, as if you’ve been listening to them since you were a child. As a member of the New Jersey group Pinegrove, Skinner tapped into the emotion behind every teen’s sepia-toned vision of their mundane past. In “Danny Through Junior”, Montclair, NJ native Skinner crafts similarly nostalgic songs. “Stout” features Skinner on banjo weaving a faux-Midwestern “Americana” ode to growing older and his own self-doubts. On “Learn”, Skinner trudges through his thoughts, one at a time. Who doesn’t feel what Skinner feels?