October 21, 2019
Released On September 16, 2014
The year was 2015. My friends in Freya Wilcox and the Howl invited me to a show they were playing at Arlene’s Grocery. I didn’t know any of the other bands playing that night but, ever the dutiful show-goer, I went early to make sure I caught the others bands playing (“early” being a relative term, after all this was a punk show). I honestly don’t remember the entire line up from that night. I don’t remember when Freya and the Howl played in relation to the other bands. I don’t really remember a whole lot about that night, I guess. But I do remember that it was my first time seeing Manic Pixi. They left an impression on me even before they started playing — as they were setting up, I saw a flash of pink from the corner of my eye in an otherwise dark and drab room (as most NYC bars, clubs, and venues are, but especially in the early parts of the year). It got me to look up from my phone and I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t a fluffy pink skirt [with the rise of Charly Bliss in the intervening years, I feel like this practice has become slightly more commonplace]. But it wasn’t just the vivid colors that stuck out; this same person was performing a mic check with wireless equipment… another less-than-common sight at the types of shows I was going to at the time. I was intrigued. Then they started playing, and I was hooked. I’m a sucker for a good pop song, and this band was playing sugary melody after sugary melody. By the time each song reached its second chorus, it felt like not only did I already know all the words, but it felt like I had known them for years.
Ever the shy type, I didn’t introduce myself to the band after their set despite how much I enjoyed it. But I did pull up their album on Bandcamp and bought it the moment I got my next paycheck. At first listen, I felt like the recorded versions of these songs lacked the same explosive punch as Manic Pixi’s live show, but I quickly got over that and soon enough Sugar Bomb! became my most listened to album of 2015… ignoring the fact that it came out in 2014. There were a lot of bands around that time that were doing the grunge-inspired pop punk, and I used to cover a lot of them for another site I contributed too. It always felt like far too many of those acts were pulling from the gloomiest parts of Alice In Chains and forgetting the pop. Sugar Bomb!, in comparison, had just the right balance of crunchy guitars, sing-along choruses, and lyrics that bounce between playful self-deprecation and worrisome self-loathing, all presented in a neat, glossy package.
“Kiss Me,” the album’s first (and possibly only?) single, and “Lion’s Cage,” the penultimate track, are two of the standout songs on an album that I consider to be full of strong songs. The former toes the line of being overly erotic but only if you’re paying attention, while the sound of the latter encapsulates what this album is about. But it’s the sequencing of “You Can’t Kill Me,” “Hangover,” and “Suddenly Stuck” that cements Sugar Bomb! as an album that I keep coming back to. I’m sure everyone reading this has seen at least one variation of a radio station or record label tweeting the question: “what’s your favorite three song sequence on an album?” I usually give some kind of smartass response and mention a three song EP, but if I were to ever answer in earnest, those three songs would easily be a top pick for me.
I got to see Manic Pixi several more times over the course of the next year and a half. The second time I saw them, Kat noticed I was singing every song and from that moment on she invited me to every show and was always excited to see me in the crowd. We haven’t really kept in touch since the band’s dissolution, but I’ve been keeping tabs on her solo career, even including her song “Bees” as the opening track on my OYR playlist last December. Bands like Manic Pixi are why I arrive to shows early. It’s been nearly five years and I’m still hoping that one day I’ll see another opening band that puts out an album that captures my immediate attention the same way Sugar Bomb! did.
Finding the sweet melody of music within the raucous reality of everday life.
Bursting in through the door with a shopping bag full of potato chips and brandishing a gleeful smile, my daughter was about to say hello. She stopped. I wondered if it might be the volume at which I was playing Manic Pixi’s record Sugar Bomb!. Perhaps she thought that I was busy or that she wasn’t, for a moment, the center of my attention. But no — she was just listening. Eventually she remembered what she was going to say — “We got chips!”. But then, as though the moment had already passed, she was far more interested in what I was listening to. “What is this song, Dad?” I told her it was “Sweet Tooth,” a clever pop-punk song that playfully uses candy as a metaphor for the sweetness of affections, and one’s addiction to them. As is often the case with Off Your Radar, Manic Pixi was completely new to me. Loud, wide open guitar riffs, solid percussion, and extremely notable vocals from Kat Hamilton make this a stand-out record in its genre. I was pleasantly surprised. If I am being honest, once I heard Distillers, The Bombpops, and Civet I felt as though there was little more that could be done to top them. I reconsidered once I heard how innovative The Beths were and now I am prepared to just blow the whole idea open. Admittedly Brody Dalle is hard to top if your approach to punk music is that traditional sloppy growl. But here, Hamilton takes on a far more dynamic, wide-ranging performance. On “Suddenly Stuck,” she keeps pace with every riff and then lays it down into a most satisfying pop hook which lands somewhere between No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani and Cyndi Lauper. Five tracks in, you think you’ve got them pegged and then the far more intimate “I’m Still Fighting” comes out of nowhere. It’s entirely an indie pop song that only hints at some punk origins in the latter half. All in all, it’s easy to see why someone might select this as an album which we might have missed and deserves to be highlighted. It delivers a diverse and rock-out rich listening experience from beginning to end. It wasn’t long before my 9 year old daughter was distractedly dancing around the room to “Lion’s Cage” (We glossed over the 24-second hardcore scream session called “Tongue Tunnel“). She, like me, was loving every rollercoaster moment of the band’s sometimes clever, sometimes powerful songwriting. It proved an opportune time for me to make off with that bag full of potato chips.
Something struck me (no pun intended) about two-thirds of the way through Sugar Bomb!, when Kat Hamilton was belting out “You are my meteor shower / I’m standing in the line of fire” — this album is a figurative language lover’s dream. The feast starts with “Sweet Tooth,” in which sugar equals desire: “You’re so delicious / I can’t help myself.” But listen to the song closely and you’ll find a whole ecosystem of similes and metaphors. Just in the first verse, you find flashing signals and a neon sign standing in for romantic availability, stubble that’s compared to witch’s brew, and a one-way ticket representing a voyage inside the mind of the object of her affection. Zoom out and big, bold metaphors are waiting everywhere you look, from the “Hangover” of a love that lingers regrettably to a relationship that resembles being under a spell. Much can (and should) be made of Hamilton’s singing — the way it can dart from gale-force chorus delivery and lightly rendered falsetto to the depths of a low, low register, all with an agility that pays off the group’s name generously. But give the lyrics their due; there’s so much to dig into. A quick parting observation from the parting moments of Sugar Bomb!: Hamilton brings “Blue Wine” to a close in the same way St. Vincent ends “Paris Is Burning” — holding the 7th note of the minor key the song’s in. Just a half step from resolution. Tense and memorable. A great way to conclude an album in which Manic Pixi brings about so much vivid imagery.
Overflowing with PDA and gyrating goofiness.
I want to meet Kat Hamilton’s ex(es) that inspired (caused?) the lyrics for Sugar Bomb!. I don’t necessarily want to befriend them or anything like that. Really, I just want to spend maybe five minutes asking questions. I gotta meet the person(s) who would inspire someone to sing “Your mouth walked me home” and “I’m in hell when you kiss me goodnight”, or to compare a person to alcohol and/or a hangover. There’s a story there and I need to know what it is. If nothing else, it’s usually illuminating to hear about a breakup from the other person’s side. I should clarify that I also wanna hear the story from Hamilton, especially the one behind “I’m not the girl you fell in love with / I’m just a girl who fell in love”. That’s fucking clever, and an important distinction that isn’t usually considered. The opening lines of “Meteor Shower” seem to shed some light on my curiosity here, but I sense that there’s more to tell. Also, they’re probably a little bit self-deprecating, so that may be a wash. I’ve had my share of messy relationships and breakups, but I doubt any of them compare to Hamilton’s experience(s). Maybe that’s because it’s true, but maybe it’s because she’s brilliant at expressing things like cynicism and disingenuousness in just a handful of words: “Hold me like you almost love me”. Kat Hamilton certainly has a way with words, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re put to some earworm hooks, either.
As I move into the pre-production phase of my own band’s debut album, Off Your Radar proves to be a great asset. Every week, I get to listen to an album I’ve never heard of before, sometimes from a genre I’ve never heard of before. I believe, without a doubt, that the many sonic elements I take in on these Sunday mornings will come out in our record’s finished product. I guess that’s my way of trying to say “thank you” to the other Off Your Radar contributors for their part in my growth as a listener and creator, because it’s certainly significant. Now, to Manic Pixi — there are many levels of underappreciated, as I’ve stated (more than once or twice) before, but Manic Pixi operates close to the top tier. This band and this album act as a sobering reminder of how many professionally written, executed, and produced records get cast to the wayside these days. Some people talk about the over-saturation of music with the internet, but honestly, I think that this “over-saturation” is a beautiful thing that we’re lucky to inherit from our ancestor’s innovations. There is any type of music available for every single person with a computer, and if it doesn’t exist, then you can make it and put it out there yourself. Manic Pixi’s biggest song doesn’t even have more than ten thousand streams, yet I bet those streams mean a lot, not just to the artists, but to the listeners who discovered the songs, as well. The highlight of this record is “I’m Still Fighting,” with its strong, early 2000s Kelly Clarkson vibe. I’m a real sucker for anything reminiscent of early 2000s pop music, and I’ll definitely be back to check out Manic Pixi.
In a way, I wasn’t surprised when I checked out Manic Pixi’s Facebook page after my first listen to Sugar Bomb! and discovered they had called it quits last year. I hear, like, three bands on this record and the fact that I only like 1.5 of them is perhaps indicative of the forces that tore them apart four years after they recorded it. Yep, they cited “artistic differences” in their announcement and it’s aurally obvious from the git-go that they have competing interests and are coming at different audiences on different songs. My favorite Sugar Bomb! tracks are the punkiest, like clangorous opener “Sweet Tooth,” which employs a classic descending chord sequence and struts confidently into neo-punk legend. “Hangover” is also a killer track with an indelible chorus and one of singer Kat Hamilton’s best attempts at combining a shouty style with a more open-throated approach. “Kiss Me” is also great and was probably an anthem among their early fans. But then you get songs like “I’m Still Fighting” and Hamilton sounds like she’s trying for an Ani DiFranco or Alanis Morrisette style earnestness, which I personally can’t tolerate in the original. Perhaps that’s the (shudder) Paramore influence mentioned in Manic Pixi’s press? I’m sure there are those for whom all of Sugar Bomb! fits together but for me, I wish they had just kept it all tight, sharp, and high-powered. Call me selfish, but I just want to hear them push the air out of the speakers in a way that kicks my ass, something at which they happened to have been very good, if not incredibly original. Maybe I can find three or four more good songs on their second and final album, Iron Heart, and create the perfect Manic Pixi album. I’ll call it Sugar Heart and put it on a 10″ using my Phonocut home vinyl recorder, whenever I get one!
Flashy & gritty, Manic Pixi dutifully lives up to it’s vivid moniker.
Lately on OYR, I feel like we’ve done a great job promoting strong, clever, and talented female voices. I’m typing one handed as I pat myself on the back. This week is no different. I have to admit that the title Sugar Bomb! had me expecting the worst — a collection of sugary “pop,” if you will. But what we’re treated to is actually quite the opposite. Sugar Bomb! is a mature, aggressive depiction of how a young woman deals with the not-so-sweet aspects of life. While there’s nothing new or ground breaking here, the album lives on a solid foundation that we see a lot here on OYR: great songwriting. It’s obvious that Manic Pixi possess some serious skills when it comes to concept, metaphor, and empathy. Records like “Hangover,” though humorous, actually bridge the gap between the sexes. I never knew girls thought of drunken one night stands nearly the same way I do. I really liked the use of the candy/sugar metaphor leading to the concept of being “Suddenly Stuck.” And I found “Meteor Shower” to be a very cool way to express a very familiar desire. While Sugar Bomb! isn’t a record that I’d normally listen to (trust me, that’s much more about my stubborn musical palette than the talents of Manix Pixi), it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the skillful execution here.
We can talk about all the good here: the forceful lyrics (“You’ve never been this crazy / No, I’ve never been this cool” on “Lion’s Cage“), the balls-to-the-wall energy (“Tongue Tunnel“), the syrupy melodies (“Sweet Tooth“), the expert sequencing, and the surprising production that services both raw and polished textures. And we should talk about all of these good qualities here, but really, each individual thing is going to lead to us talking about the single greatest aspect of this record… so let’s just talk about that. Kat Hamilton’s voice is amazing. Wait. It’s more than that. Kat Hamilton’s voice is incredible. No, that’s not quite it either. Dazzling? Eh. Spectacular? Maybe. Astonishing? Closer. Oh, here we go — Kat Hamilton’s voice is baffling. Utterly baffling. You could say “force of nature,” and I actually have seen that phrase attached to Manic Pixi over and over again, but really, it’s more than that. It’s an anomaly of music. Here she is fronting a pop-punk band and putting out both aspects in her voice, practically effortlessly, with the pop side gliding down the melodic path left in front of her with grace and ease, while the punk side sneers and mocks it at every turn. To dumb it down, Kat Hamilton is the type of singer who could audition for American Idol on the same day she closes down a bar with her rowdy voice overseeing a mosh pit. But that flimsy example also misses the mark on Hamilton — it’s not that she can do both, it’s that she is both… without even trying. At the hardest moments of Sugar Bomb! — which would be the twenty-four second onslaught of “Tongue Tunnel” — you can still find melody in her voice, particularly when she’s seemingly shouting nonsense before ending the song on a throat roar, like a brief peck on the cheek followed by a potent roundhouse kick. On the flipside, the album’s more tender moments still have Hamilton’s signature sneer come through, whether it’s her floating through the air with palpable contempt on “I’m Still Fighting” or ending the whole record with declarative taunting on “Blue Wine“. Simultaneously harmonic and discrepant, Hamilton is hardly the first singer to truly combine pop and punk here, but yet, she still seems on a pedestal of her own, with defiance and scorn permeating every last note on this record. Everything great about this record… it’s all in service of that duality, that confliction raging out of Hamilton. And like I said at the start — it is certainly worth talking about, in both an analytical and adulatory manner, but really, the only thing you need to know about Sugar Bomb! is that it contains some of the most baffling vocal work you’ll hear from a pop-punk band. Today and probably ever.
Originator by Brooke Waggoner
Chosen By Doug Nunnally