Caroline Rose has a sick sense of humor.
Take the cover of her new album, LONER. On it, Rose dons a bright red Adidas tracksuit (with the matching gym towel and sweatband) and lifts a lighter towards her gaping mouth, crammed full with about twenty cigarettes. It makes an immediate impression, and also, depending on your generational reference points, scans as a winking send-up of a certain indie subculture that considers chain-smoking Viceroys a suitable substitute for personality.
Then there’s the video for “Bikini,” where Rose, dressed as an overzealous game show host, slowly unravels in front of the camera and a procession of bikini-clad women with unsettlingly fake smiles. Or the video for “Money,” which begins with an allusion to a heist but descends into madness and aerial shots of Rose writhing around a motel bed as dollar bills rain down from above. The red feather boa and cheap wig barely survive the ordeal.
And then there’s the music itself. But that didn’t start weird.
The music started with 2014’s I Will Not Be Afraid, a straightforward collection of Americana-inspired alt-country. Earnest lyrics, folksy guitar, unimposing drums, maybe a tiny amount synth to taste, end scene.
“I’ll always love that style of music. I love the storytelling in it,” she says. “But when I was in it, almost immediately upon releasing my last album — and this was four years ago, so a considerable amount of time has passed and my tastes have broadened — I think I felt a bit constricted in it.”
She felt this keenly enough — along with how “immediately you get billed as a girl with a guitar” — that she decided to go in an undeniably different direction for her follow-up.
Enter LONER, a smartly produced indie rock record with a biting wit — “Pour three shots in a glass and call it a martini,” she quips on “Bikini” — and no shortage of pop flourish.
“For me, this really felt like a debut,” she says. “I wanted to make it sound like the inside of my brain. It’s very much an autobiography, but very much an absurdist realism kind of mentality.”
“Absurdist realism” is a rather spot-on term for the entire endeavor. How she got there is a story of its own. Born and raised on Long Island, Rose’s mother enrolled her in piano lessons early. She picked up guitar on her own at 13. Her musical upbringing was a veritable smorgasbord: childhood listening included Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet — “It made me feel cool listening to it,” she recalls — alongside Amy Grant’s Christmas album played year-round. Family vacations to various national parks were foundational musical experiences in themselves.
“Each trip was a different four CDs. We would just listen to that shit on repeat,” she says with a laugh. “Those are a lot more cringe-worthy. It was like Lenny Kravitz, Manhattan Transfer, The Drifters — that was a big, big influence.”
And her first concert? Age 13. Incubus at Madison Square Garden. Imagine her surprise upon hearing through a mutual friend that Incubus’ bassist had recently gotten stoned and had “a religious experience” to LONER.
“I was like, ‘You have no idea how much that means to me,’” she says. “I freaked out.”
Given Rose’s off-kilter and slightly absurdist way of existing and making music in the world, it feels awfully in character.
On LONER, the absurdist realism manifests in cutting observations of modern life, unplanned pregnancies, and narcissism packaged in hyperactive pop hooks and rock-solid guitar work. Sometimes she’s shriveling: “Everyone’s well-dressed with a perfect body / And they all have alternative haircuts and straight white teeth / But all I see is just more of the same thing,” she muses over a saucy, ’80s synth line on “More of the Same.” Elsewhere, she refuses to mince words over the lunacies of modern life and misogyny. “You and me girl, we have a really good time / But I like to hit ‘em and quit ‘em, that’s just my style,” she spouts on “Soul No. 5,” her voice dripping with all the requisite confidence of a mediocre man.
And while she’s not outwardly political, she learned her craft from people who are. She cites Bassem Youssef, a satirist and former late-night host often referred to as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt”, as a major inspiration. For Rose, Youssef’s speech about using satire to make people laugh about serious issues seriously stuck.
“If we didn’t have humor, everyone would just be going fucking crazy. We would all be on anxiety meds. We kind of already are,” she says. “We’re already there as a society where everyone is in a state of panic – for good reason! Whatever way you can cope with that, you have to utilize it. Satire is a way for me to cope with painful things.”
That her coping mechanism manifests in one of the most compulsively listenable rock records of the year is just a huge bonus for the rest of us.
Caroline Rose with Cardioid, Friday, June 15, 9 p.m., at Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., $12-14, rickshawstop.com