Smells Like 2020s Spirit: Dr. Martino’s No Outlet

If you’ve ever called yourself a “Nineties Kid” – or if you’re born in 2005 but feel the 1990s are your jam – Dr. Martino’s No Outlet is a must-listen. Thirteen tracks dirty up the best of 1990s modern-rock concepts and deliver them with the exuberance of a thousand bowls of sugary breakfast cereal. Yet the tone isn’t sweet, thanks to grungy layered strings and lyrics with full of sly details. The result is catchy and hooky, with echoes of retro favorites, a 2020s worldview, and the energy of a crowded, dark club.

Because the title was teasing at me, I did some Googling and learned the difference between “no outlet” and “dead end.” The latter marks a street that ends with no cross streets. The former can indicate an entire neighborhood network of streets that don’t go anywhere but into one another. That’s a clue to No Outlet’s lyrics: they cover a lot of relationship ground and often feel homey, but much of the content is about going around in circles with only one way out.

Buy it on Bandcamp, or, if you’re on the fence, listen with Spotify way down at the bottom, and let’s go track by track. (Yes, I know we all hate Spotify, and we should, but it embeds reliably.)

Flights

From it’s first “woo!” over the guitar riffs, “Flights” combines compelling energy with an oddly comforting feel. There’s a sense of grunge and power-pop, with riffs that reach back to rockabilly, all in a lofi buzz. Lightly cheerful vocals delivering bad news in the form of “she’s stopped eating the soup of the day” introduce what’s going to be a theme: hope, tragedy, and absurdity delivered through the smallest mundane details. 

Waiting Song

Part of the delight of this album is its construction: “Flights” ends with a long instrumental section that runs through several moods before fetching up at the beginning of “Waiting Song.” The song builds on the 1960s surf “drive around” sound; if the B-52s grunged themselves up and drove around your suburban neighborhood instead of out to the Love Shack, it’d end up about here. It’s an immensely fun jam.

When You Want It

It’s like a sitcom theme, but evil. That insistent percussion is a musical migraine; lyrics about feeling depressed are delivered with high-speed perkiness; and the “when you want it” chorus is ridiculously earwormy. The more I listen to “when you want it / there’s a place to hang your coat” and “if you want it / give my change so I can go,” the more I feel like there’s a critique here of the “place where everybody knows your name” ideal from the Cheers and Friends era. 

Ode to V.

Halfway through the gentle, hazy dawn beauty of this track, I wondered “is this a different angle on Don McClean’s ‘Vincent’?” (You know, “starry starry night.”) Every word of the lyrics works for that, in a way that’s gorgeous and timely. (If it’s not, there’s a lesson here about the universality of impermanence and loss.) I straight-up love the anthemic chorus as a musical representation of trying to pull oneself together, especially with the distortion on the bridge. 

Five Questions for Those Who Came Before

From the dawn haze emerges a dark, spy-drama riff, with an edge. The barrage of questions is delivered with the paranoid feel of the ghosts haunting you at the corner gas station at 3 a.m. (Yes, my ghosts have a beat and some good guitar riffs. Don’t yours?) That last guitar section is a whole drama in itself.

Interlude

The ghosts vanish into the void in a surprising gentle smattering of notes.

Not That Kind

The implied B-side starts with energy that comes after you’ve stepped outside, taken a deep breath, and demanded to know what’s going on. Note the callback to the opening track of “you can’t fly if I don’t let ya.” 

Matches

The recurring musical motif reminiscent of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” underlines lyrics about tension between aiming for fame and aiming for growth. “Lift the mattress / where the gunk is” is a whole mood. This is one of my favorites on the album, for its tone of so-sweet reason as it spirals through metaphors and contradictions before setting things on fire.

Nobody

It’s a lively head-banging struggle through… well, it fits a lot of things struggle-worthy in the current world. Executive dysfunction? Information overload? Isolation loneliness with a side of doom scrolling? It’s all plausibly here. 

Reruns Featuring Roger Moore

Once again, I adore the segues between songs on this album. This song manages to slither through a range from folk-rock to early grunge to the big arena-rock guitar section on its exploration of the futility of nostalgia. 

Problems

Every time I listen, I know there’s a surprise change of tone coming at the chorus; and every time, I’m surprised by the cleverness of how the same musical underpinnings support the moody verse and the sunny refrain. It’s the M.C. Escher reference as a musical idea. 

Get It For Free

Punk sensibility addresses the TikTok influencer generation. Anything I say is less trenchant and funny than the song.

Wireless Heart

I love this song with a blind devotion that will hear no argument, as it combines vocal sweetness with a tough sound and lyrics that can support a lot of poking-at. Is the wireless heart a real heart? A metaphor for releasing music into the electronic world? Something else? The way the ending is both elegiac and sheer mockery delights me. Maybe you have reached the end of the internet this time.

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