In one sense every local music scene has a Joe Camerlengo, but in another sense Joe Camerlengo is one of a kind.
Camerlengo, my fellow Columbus resident, is one of those people who, despite holding down a day job, fits an astounding amount of musical activity into his life. I first encountered him about a decade ago, when I was writing for Columbus Alive and he was the fearlessly animated frontman for This Is My Suitcase, the ambitious pop-punk/chamber-pop hybrid he founded as a teenager, who at the time were readying a debut album called The Keys To Cat Heaven. That band was a reflection of Camerlengo’s emotionally transparent, enthusiastically loud personality. They never let the risk of obnoxiousness get in the way of grandiose personal expression. They had big ideas and bracing tenderness, and they let it all hang out. I liked them a lot.
This Is My Suitcase had a good run, but as Camerlengo moved through his twenties and into his thirties he expanded his horizons quite a bit, evolving into a prolific force something like Wayne Coyne crossed with Bob Pollard crossed with Ty Segall. He began habitually forming or joining new projects exploring different sides of indie rock: the bedroom-pop duo Blanket Boys, the tightly wound punk band Brat Curse, the kaleidoscopic lo-fi project Classical Baby, an experimental protest offshoot called Sam Pellegringo, a wide-reaching solo act under his own name. Even when I was a lot more tapped into the Columbus music scene than I am now, it was hard to keep track of all of the different groups he was in, to say nothing of the artists he has recording in his home studio.
Camerlengo has kept up that pace, becoming a Columbus mainstay in the process. He can usually be found giving ecstatic performances across town, putting people on to new artists like the immensely promising wyd, playing musical mad scientist with talents like Mary Lynn and Counterfeit Madison, stanning other Columbus greats as passionately as he stans the Beatles and Taylor Swift. Dude is so avidly involved in his local scene, with such rewarding results, that last year my former colleagues at Alive named him Best Musician in their annual Best Of Columbus issue.
Of all the groups Camerlengo is involved with, my favorite may be Van Dale, the drowsy fuzz-pop trio he plays bass and sings in. Van Dale began in 2012 at the urging of Way Yes drummer Tim Horak after he saw Camerlengo perform an exuberantly raw cover of Weezer’s “Tired Of Sex” and thought it’d be a rad template for a band. Sometime between 2013’s self-titled debut and 2017’s Of The Valley II, Camerlengo’s Blanket Boys bandmate Lisa Brokaw took over guitar duties from Horak’s Way Yes bandmate Travis Hall, and the three of them further honed in on the “Dale” aesthetic: “It’s the idea of being slack-jawed — like Xanax as a person,” Camerlengo told Alive a couple years back. “You don’t know if you didn’t make it all the way, or if you’re so far past it that you’re over it. But you’re definitely not on board with regular reality.” Horak helpfully added, “Tom Petty’s attitude is very Dale.”
Those vibes are readily apparent on Van Dale’s third album, The Visitor, out this week. Not that much about these songs resembles the late, great Heartbreakers frontman, though you may hear traces of Petty’s Florida drawl in the “Pier Pressure” refrain, “Do you wanna, do you wanna get down?” That particular enunciation reminds me more of J Mascis, whose legendary sludge-pop trio Dinosaur Jr. looms large over Van Dale along with other power-chord enthusiasts like Weezer, Pavement, Nirvana, Superchunk, Archers Of Loaf, My Bloody Valentine, the Ronald Jones-era Flaming Lips, and dozens of other ’90s guitar bands lodged in the recesses of your memory.
It’s a scrappy record, a document of cranking up the distortion pedals and bashing away in melodious fashion. Sometimes that means wilding out with so much nervous energy the song feels constantly in danger of derailing, as on lead single “Numbskull,” which careens like Les Savy Fav covering some lost In Utero B-side. Other times it means locking into a groove approaching black hole density and slathering it with gnarly lead work, as on “Pool Party,” where Brokaw carves out a virtuosic longform riff that evokes ecstatic memories of Built To Spill and Stone Temple Pilots. (This is a big compliment; I love Stone Temple Pilots.)
I’ve rambled a lot about Camerlengo here — partially because he brings his usual assortment of carefully honed hooks and live-wire outbursts to the proceedings, and partially because I respect the guy’s body of work and I’m not sure if I’ll ever have another chance to sing its praises for an international audience — but Van Dale is very much a team effort. Take Horak: He seems to be the band’s functional driving force, and he plays the same role in the music, keeping the pulse with a ragtag simplicity that suits the songs. The twee electronic Afro-pop of Way Yes required him to play with a soft, nuanced touch, but he blessedly approaches these songs exactly the opposite way. He also shows up near the end to narrate The Visitor’s titular anecdote about a mundane encounter in a storage unit, a bit that lends a pleasing air of mystery to the surrounding music. Van Dale quite literally would not exist if he had not envisioned it and willed it into existence.
And then there’s Brokaw, The Visitor’s MVP. Her high-end riffs slice across these songs like sparklers in the night, adding surprising bursts of color to music that otherwise might have been a bit monochromatic. The brief flickers that punctuate the “Mama” chorus, the sludge-surfing slides and hammer-ons of “Lower Bowl,” the reverb curlicues on compact epic “Have A Nice Life One Day,” that aforementioned “Pool Party” riff that’s so nasty I had to bring it up a second time — she basically does not stop wrecking shop. What’s more, her vocal interplay with Camerlengo turns “Porch” into much more than the “Say It Ain’t So” knockoff it threatens to become. And her beautifully understated lead vocal turn on the Fleetwood Mac-meets-Frankie Cosmos anthem “Burnin’ Up” yields the album’s best track.
Together Camerlengo, Brokaw, and Horak have cooked up an uncommonly good iteration of the common indie rock record. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a fuzz-pop album I liked this much. On the other hand, releases this good materialize all the time in cities around the globe, and many of them go unnoticed outside the close-knit networks that birthed them. With so much of the American entertainment media situated in New York, LA, and Chicago, these gems from other locales often remain unearthed. So I’m glad the release schedule played out in such a way that it made sense to give Van Dale some shine at Stereogum.
At the same time that they’re being introduced to a wider audience, one of the outlets that has consistently spotlighted Van Dale and so many other deserving Columbus acts is seeing a reduction in its reach. Alive — the weekly paper that employed me when I first met Camerlengo, the one that recently honored him as the city’s best musician — is publishing its final print issue this week. On the cover: Joe Camerlengo, posing in tribute to an iconic Bob Dylan portrait from the final issue of the Village Voice. Like the Voice, Alive will continue online, where it will hopefully continue to be a thriving hub for not just local arts and nightlife news but also heavily reported features on Neo-Nazis and a local brewer’s alleged predatory behavior. Still, it hurts to see the staff continue to shrink and the resources continue to dry up. It sucks that a vital source of local journalism will no longer sit waiting to be discovered in local bars, restaurants, and libraries.
Alive going digital-only with a distressingly small staff feels mild compared to what’s happening elsewhere around the country. Alt-weeklies are shuttering with alarming frequency. Newsrooms are being whittled down to nothing, and some cities are losing their local dailies entirely. Bloomberg reported yesterday that layoffs in the news business are at their worst since 2009. This means a lot fewer dogged observers keeping an eye on those in power. On a less severe but no less depressing note, it means fewer platforms for talented weekend warriors to get the word out about their music. If you value what your local journalists do, you should support it with your money and attention. The same goes for the music that’s pouring out of your neighborhood, or any neighborhood. Whether you live in Columbus or you’re just a visitor, the new Van Dale record is a great place to start.
The Visitor is out now on Keroleen Records. Purchase it here and stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
•Revenge Of The Dreamers III, the new comp from J. Cole’s Dreamville crew.
•Buffalo rapper Westside Gunn’s Flygod Is An Awesome God.
•The self-titled debut by the Soft Cavalry, Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell’s band with husband Steve Clarke.
•Chicago death metal combo Immortal Bird’s Thrive On Neglect.
•Machine Gun Kelly’s Hotel Diablo.