Brooklyn string ensemble Trio Tritticali have just released their new Issue # 1, one of the most gripping, intelligent, richly eclectic albums of recent years. Drawing on elements as diverse as Egyptian dance vamps, the baroque, bossa nova, tango and European Romantic chamber music, they blend those styles together seamlessly and imaginatively for a bracingly intricate sound that’s uniquely their own. The chemistry between violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster is intuitively playful. As the songs slowly unwind, the band exchanges thematic variations, converses, intertwines and occasionally locks horns, individual voices often disappearing or reappearing when least expected: they may be a trio, but there are surprisingly many moments when it’s only two or even one of them. They love minor keys, and have a thing for chromatics, no surprise considering that Darling also jams with the Near East River Ensemble. Yee also plays yangqin dulcimer in Music from China; Dempster also performs with the avant-garde Dan Joseph Ensemble and with well-known dance ensembles.
Which makes a lot of sense: Dempster’s rhythmic, often funky edge is key to this group, right from the title track, which alternates stark, dark funk, then goes quiet and mysterious, then finally explodes in a blaze of chamber metal. It’s the most dramatic moment on the album. They follow that with a bracing tango, La Yumba, which takes a detour into early Beethoven with a cello solo that rises imperceptibly until it’s sailing over the lushness of the other strings. The dynamic shifts in this one are especially yummy.
A long, suspensefully crescendoing Middle Eastern piece, Azizah begins with a casually ominous series of taqsims (individual improvisations), shifting methodically from tone poem to processional to triumphant swing, voices constantly shifting and handing off ideas to each other. By contrast, Corcovado is a nostalgic bossa ballad that takes a turn in a more wistful direction, Dempster’s brooding solo leading to an intricate, stately thicket of violin and viola. A jazz-pop song in disguise that goes unexpectedly dark, Stolen Moments is a showcase for Dempster’s walking basslines, pensively swinging lines and bluesy accents. The sarcastically titled Ditty is actually one of the album’s most stunning compositions, another long detour into the Middle East with a funky modal edge, a memorably apprehensive Darling solo and an equally memorable lead-in from Yee, who comes in buzzing like a mosquito with an off-kilter, swoopy edge while the cello and viola lock in an intense, chordally pulsing bassline.
The seventh track, Who Knows Yet is a gorgeous, starkly wary waltz with a series of artful rhythmic shifts and a series of bitingly bluesy variations – it reminds a bit of Rasputina in an especially reflective moment. Psychedelic and very clever, Sakura is a diptych: an austere tone poem with the cello mimicking a koto, then a pensive, minor-key 5/4 funk theme with yet more deliciously unexpected tradeoffs between instruments. The concluding tone poem, Heart Lake, evokes Brooklyn Rider’s adventures in Asian music, viola and violin trading atmospherics over Dempster’s hypnotic, circular bassline – it’s like Copal at their most ambient, with distantly Asian motifs. This is one of those albums where every time you listen to it, you’ll discover something new – you can get lost in this music. With compositions like this, it won’t be long before Trio Tritticali will be playing big stages like Symphony Space; for the moment, you can catch them at low-key Brooklyn brunch spot Linger Cafe (533 Atlantic Ave. between 3rd and 4th Aves) on frequent Sundays – the next one is December 10 – starting around 1 PM.
Nation Beat’s new album Growing Stone is a potent reminder why New York has, despite all attempts to whitewash it, remained such a great cauldron for new music. This band is absolutely impossible to categorize – there is no other group who sound remotely like Nation Beat. Willie Nelson is a fan (he booked them at Farm Aid). With the improvisational flair of a jam band, the danceable vibe of a Brazilian maracatu drumline and the soul of a country band, what they play is first and foremost dance music. If you took Poi Dog Pondering – a good jam band from another generation – subtracted the bluegrass and replaced it with Brazilian flavor, you’d have a fair if not completely accurate approximation of what Nation Beat sound like. They’re sunny and upbeat but also pretty intense.
With its hip-hop beat and Mark Marshall’s wah guitar harmonizing with the violin, the opening track sets the stage for the rest of this incredibly eclectic record. The second track, Bicu de Lambu sets sunbaked slide guitar over Rob Curto’s accordion for a zydeco/country feel with blippy bass and bandleader Scott Kettner’s rolling surf drums. Meu Girassol is the Duke Ellington classic Caravan redone as eerily off-kilter, guitar-driven Afrobeat bubbling over guest Cyro Baptista’s percussion, followed by a briskly cheery horn-driven forro-ska number.
With its soaring fiddles and Memphis soul guitar, the bouncy, swaying title track is a showcase for frontwoman Liliana Araujo’s laid-back but raw, down-to-earth vocals – and is that a Dixie quote? Forro for Salu has a rustic Brazilian string band vibe with the twin fiddles of Skye Steele and Dennis Lichtman over Kettner’s rumbling, hypnotic percussion. They follow that with a summery soca-flavored tune and then a reggae song that goes sprinting into ska. The rest of the album blends bouncy forro, ecstatic New Orleans second-line sounds, retro 20s blues, rocksteady, vintage 60s funk and swaying oldschool C&W and and makes it all seem effortless. It’s out now on similarly eclectic Brooklyn label Barbes Records.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album was #492:
Rachelle Garniez – Crazy Blood
Garniez is unquestionably the most eclectic and quite possibly the best songwriter to emerge from the New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros. Serenade, her first album, is lushly pensive and unselfconsciously romantic, as you might expect from someone whose main axe is the accordion. This 2001 release, her second, was her quantum leap, where she established herself as a deviously witty master of every retro style ever invented, from the apocalyptic pop of Silly Me, the gorgeous Memphis soul of Odette and Mr. Lady, the sultry jazz ballad Swimming Pool Blue, the inscrutable psychedelia of Little Fish and Marie, the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek blues of New Dog, the blithe, meticulously arranged salsa of Regular Joe and the album’s chilling, intense tango centerpiece, Shadowland – which would become a tv show theme – and the anguished, Bessie Smith-tinged title track. Garniez’ multi-octave voice swoops and dips mischievously over a band of A-list downtown jazz types. She’d go on to even greater heights with 2003’s Luckyday and 2008’s Melusine Years, and has a new one coming out (the cd release show is November 11 at Dixon Place). Strangely AWOL from the usual sources of free music, it’s still available from Garniez herself as well as at cdbaby.
Kick-ass instrumental funk from Brooklyn. The vibe is raw and live. CSC Funk Band play killer tunes with all kinds of unexpected twists and turns, in other words, everything you could possibly want from a good jam band. On their new album Things Are Getting Too Casual they keep things simple and proper instead of getting all self-indulgent: after all, it’s obvious what they really want you to do, after you’re done bugging out, is dance to this. Most of the jams seem longer than they are: four minutes in their universe seems like twice that, considering how much the band manages to pack into them.
The opening track, Caneca, sets James Brown to a lickety-split Afrobeat groove, reverberating Wurly piano, clanky guitar and an eerie noir trombone solo that the guitars slither around. We Don’t Care is a launching pad for the whole band – the drumming on the album is good, but on this track it’s absolutely amazing, punching and slashing wherever it’s not expected. Usually having drums this loud in the mix is a dead giveaway that the rest of the band sucks, but not with these guys: funkmetal guitar squeaks distortedly, brass blasts over a fat, sustained, minimalist bass groove lit up by a trebly trippy organ solo, an apprehensive alto sax solo and a ripping reverb-toned psychedelic guitar solo that adds a paint-peeling noiserock edge. That’s just the second track, by the way.
Opening with a big, anthemic, Mission Impossible style hook, Little Business motors along on an insistent Afrobeat-fueled 2-chord vamp with swirling keys and guitar, the trombonist lighting into another ominous chromatic solo. The most psychedelic song here is Thrift Store Find, which kicks off as a suspensefully ragged roots reggae vamp that explodes into a big fireball and then hangs in the air with the whole band blasting and then goes back down. The horns get trippy and a little later the guitar goes all the way down the rabbit hole with a slow-baked bluesmetal solo that keeps blasting all the way through the chorus. After that, Fiesta sets an insistent Afrobeat groove over swirling atmospherics, noise versus murk. The murk drops out and the noise wins as the groove continues and finally straightens out, before slowly pulling apart – how that happens is what keeps you hooked. And the microtones created by the blippy, reverberating clavinova versus a screechy Moroccan ney flute will clean out your brain along with your ears.
Bad Banana Bread sounds like a vintage 70s cop show theme done as roots reggae: with its eerie roto organ and echoing soprano sax, it could be straight out of the early Quincy Jones catalog. Funk Shoppe – a 2 Live Crew reference? – is a summery midtempo groove and the most hypnotic tune here, casually bluesy guitar over organ swirling in the distance and finally another one of the band’s trademark, mammoth choruses. There’s a deliciously unexpected interlude where they take it down to the keys bubbling animatedly over the bass. A Troll’s Soiree adds subtle dub echoes to what could be an early 70s Mulatu Astatke tune. The album winds up with Old Motel, a completely unexpected turn into briskly stomping, straight-up anthemic Irish rock that goes on for almost eleven minutes. And you can dance to it, too. CSC Funk Band plays the cd release show tomorrow night, 9/22 at 9:30 PM at Zebulon – if you can’t make it, check them out at the Free Music Archive – where more bands should be.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #500:
Twin Turbine – Jolly Green Giant
The second album from these New York underground rock legends blends the surreal guitar assault of Guided by Voices with more straightforwardly melodic British Invasion and punk sounds. It’s got creepy, intense stuff like Fade For Sunday – frontman/guitarist Dave Popeck sounding like Roger Waters doing his best Darth Vader imitation – along with the scathing Made for TV Murder, a Jon-Benet Ramsey narrative. Downsizer, the single, is even more timely in these depression days, with its bitter lyrics and catchy Stiff Little Fingers-inflected tune. The best of all of these is Susquehanna, a gorgeous, vengefully hallucinatory anthem setting layers of guitars over a swaying country backbeat. There’s also the squalling Love Rock & Roll, the Stoogoid Stop This Thing and Womankind, and Both Kinds, which sets an old 60s garage rock riff to 90s GBV crunch. A cult classic from 2005, it’s AWOL from the usual sources for free music – even Spotify doesn’t have it – but it’s still available from the band.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #506:
Tandy – To a Friend/Did You Think I Was Gone
This is cheating a little, since this twofer combines Steve Earle’s favorite rock band’s two most recent albums, from 2005 and 2006. But it’s double the goodness. Frontman/guitarist Mike Ferrio’s jangly, lyrically driven songs linger in your mind, pensive and often haunting. Some of them, like The Fever Breaks, Evensong and I Am the Werewolf, mine a creepy southwestern gothic vein; others, like Home and Girls Like Us look back toward Springsteen when he was still blue-collar. There’s also the brooding Epitaph, On the Hill and Bait along with more upbeat stuff like the first album’s title track, which reverts to the Wilco-inflected pop that Ferrio was writing around the turn of the century. The band was until very recently extremely popular in Europe, but suffered a tragic setback with the unexpected death of their brilliant, eclectic lead player Drew Glackin. Since then, the band has performed sporadically but extremely well with a number of guest guitarists. Both albums are streaming in their entirety at cheesy myspace, here and here; surprisingly, the blogosphere hasn’t caught up with them yet, but the double cd is still available from the band.
Over the years, Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Piñataland has staked out an elegantly manicured piece of turf as purveyors of an inimitable brand of historically aware, hyper-literate chamber pop. Their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night – streaming in its entirety online – is their hardest-rocking effort to date, their least opaque and by far their best. Their previous one Songs for a Forgotten Future, Vol. 2 contemplated a Manhattan without humans, and the still-smoldering ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, among other places. This one skips in a heartbeat from the American Revolution (a recurrent milieu) to various eras of New York, across the country and back again. The driving rhythm section of Ross Bonadonna on bass and Bill Gerstel on drums give the louder songs here a mighty majesty – there are plenty of warmly inviting string-driven pop bands out there, nobody who attacks those songs with as much verve as Piñataland. Violinist Deni Bonet is a one-woman orchestra, showing off sizzling Balkan, country and classical chops, frequently contrasting with Dave Wechsler’s pensive, rain-drenched piano and organ.
The title track, which opens the album, is exactly as advertised, a gospel prelude of sorts. From there they leap into Island of Godless Men, a bouncy fiddle-driven Irish rock tune a la Black 47 with a clever trick ending and then a delirious reel to finish it off. An American Man is like Mumford & Sons on steroids, a rousing homage to Thomas Paine delivered via a team of archeologists (or graverobbers?) gone out into the darkness to find his grave.
A violin-fueled anger drives The Death of Silas Deane, which commemorates the Continental Congress’ first ambassador to France, later brought down (and possibly murdered) in the wake of an embezzlement scandal of which he was quite possibly innocent (and was officially exonerated, forty years after his death). “Let my reputation crawl through the mud of this unforgiving land,” the onetime Revolutionary hero rails at the end. The real classic here is a country song, Oppie Struck a Match, which recasts the detonation of the first atom bomb as the creepy tale of a rainmaker in a small town fifty years previously. Gerald Menke’s dobro ripples blithely as singer Doug Stone recalls the dreadful moment where Robert Oppenheimer, the “master from the other side” gave the order: “Will he open a cage to a heavenly age or set the skies onfire?”
The rest of the album is more allusive. Robin Aigner, who lights up many of these songs with her harmonies, knocks one out of the park with her lead vocal on the lush countrypolitan shuffle Border Guard, and plays her cameos to the hilt against Menke’s big-sky pedal steel whine on Hiawatha, a surreal, theatrical cross-country radio dial epic. The most chilling song on the album, musically at least, is The Oldest Band in Town, a bitter, Balkan-flavored requiem set in a Lower Bowery of the mind. The album closes with the towering, bittersweet, death-fixated anthem Cemetery Mink. Pinataland play the album release for this one this Friday the 26th at Barbes at 11; another first-class tunesmith, Greta Gertler kicks things off at 10.
New York rock duo the Mast’s latest album Wild Poppies blends elements of minimalism, dark 80s rock, goth and trip-hop into a pensive, completely original sound. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Haale writes darkly psychedelic, briskly rhythmic rock songs, backed by one-man percussion orchestra Matt Kilmer. In her previous work, Haale has explored classical Iranian melodies as well scorching, hypnotic, frequently exhilarating Jimi Hendrix-inspired jams. This time, while she pulls back on the volume, the songs are often just as intense and eclectic.
The album’s title track sets a bracingly catchy progression over rolling, rippling percussion and a characteristically surreal, imagistic lyric. The second cut, the sardonically titled Trump, is something of a dreampop take on Joy Division, or like early 90s Lush but with a more gritty, earthy vibe. Most of these songs use a lot of nature imagery: this one’s the most intense. “Oh some pockets run so deep, the rest are struggling for a piece of a fast-turning pie…the waters while we sleep are being bought up by a thief with paper bills for eyes,” Haale sings apprehensively.
EOA [End of Anxiety] shuffles eerily and minimalistically, like an analog version of Radiohead, its mantra-like hook shifting between major and minor modes. My All is hypnotic, minimalist trip-hop with a majestic post-Velvets processional pulse; Prize, a warped, syncopated one-chord boogie, winds down plaintively and hauntingly on the chorus. With its repetitive central riff and insistent 80s-style bass, The Lake builds to a potent crescendo with guitars slamming over a whirlwind of beats. Setting lush, ethereal vocals over yet another catchy, simple guitar riff and a stately shuffle beat (sounds like an oxymoron, but Kilmer pulls it off elegantly), Definitions wouldn’t be out of place on a Randi Russo album from about five years ago.
Hummingbird picks up the pace with fuzz bass and the vocals fading in and out, dreampop style, Kilmer rattling and then hitting some swirling cymbal crashes early on. Lucid Dream, a minimalist, moody early 90s style anthem, builds to a big, intense, anthemic outro. Carefully and tersely crafted, the album grows on you and carries even more of an impact with repeated listening: count this as one of 2011’s best. The whole thing is streaming at the band’s site. The Mast are great live: they’re at Bar 4 in Park Slope at 9 on 7/28.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #595:
Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – Snowblind
Erica Smith is the finest singer to come out of New York during the decade of the zeros, capable of extraordinary nuance as well as also extraordinary power (check out her Memphis soul wail on the red-hot shuffle Feel You Go). This 2008 album showcases the diversity of her songwriting: the irresistible 60s style psychedelic pop of Firefly; the lush janglerock of Easy Now and Amanda Carolyn; the bucolic Pink Floyd-esque art-rock of In Late July; the chilling Nashville gothic of Nashville, Tennessee and The World Is Full of Pretty Girls as well as sultry bossa nova and hypnotic Velvets pop tunes. There are also two ferocious covers: Judy Henske’s Snowblind, done as early 70s style metal, and Blow This Nightclub’s Where and When, amped up like early new wave. Guitarist Dann Baker and drummer Dave Campbell (both of Love Camp 7) add rich layers of jangle and clang along with a devious jazz edge. Campbell’s unexpected death in 2010 brought an end to the 99 Cent Dreams; Smith continues to perform and record as a solo artist and with her husband, powerpopmeister John Sharples and his band. This one hasn’t made it to the sharelockers yet, but it’s still available at Smith’s site.
Hazmat Modine are such an amazing live band that it’s almost impossible trying to imagine how they might be able to bottle that magic. Their new album Cicada is a good approximation. Live in concert, their rustic, blues-infused, minor-key jams can go on for ten or twenty minutes at a clip – here, they keep pretty much everything in the five-to-ten range, sometimes even less. While what they do definitely qualifies as psychedelic, otherwise they defy description: there is no other band in the world who sound remotely like them. They’re part delta blues shouters, part New Orleans brass band, part reggae, part klezmer, and all party. As you would expect from a psychedelic band, they put their surreal side front and center – it’s safe to say that nobody has more fun with sad minor keys than these guys. Not only is frontman/blues harpist/guitarist Wade Schuman a potently charismatic presence, he’s also a great wit, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of humor, both lyrical and musical, throughout this album.
The opening cut, Mocking Bird, is a bucolic blues, driven by the oldtimey bounce of Joe Daley’s tuba and the brass section of Reut Regev on trombone, Steve Elson on tenor sax and Pam Fleming on trumpet. They build it up to the point where the two guitars take over, Michael Gomez jabbing and weaving while Pete Smith blasts out distorted rhythm. All the intricate interplay and call-and-response sets the tone for the rest of the album. Natalie Merchant’s airily sultry vocals contrast with the surrealism of the lyrics over a swaying, slink groove on Child of a Blindman, with lapsteel, layers of guitars and horns punching out the hook in tandem with some welcome guest stars, Benin’s high-energy Gangbe Brass Band. The brisk, bluesy Two Forty Seven shifts from an artful series of tradeoffs between instruments to a hypnotic outro where everybody seems to be soloing at once – yet it works, magically. The title track sets a sly spoken-word tribute to the high-volume insect over ecstatic Afro-funk, sort of like a more rustic, acoustic Steely Dan. They follow that with a surprisingly snarling version of Buddy, the innuendo-packed tale of a real backstabber, Schuman in rare form as sly bluesman. The crazed, searing Gomez guitar solo is pure adrenaline.
The instrumental vignette In Two Years has trumbone sailing wistfully over a gamelanesque loop; I’ve Been Lonely for So Long is Memphis soul taken back and forth in time with doo-wop vocals and a New Orleans feel, with the tuba instead of a bass, a blithe harmonica solo, and Elson picking up the pace later on. The Tide, a mini-epic, switches from slowly unwinding delta blues, to a shuffle, to an unexpected Afrobeat interlude with more tasty, growling guitar from Smith. Walking Stick, which may be the most risque song that Irving Berlin ever wrote, gives Schuman and Fleming a launching pad for some genuinely exhilarating solos. A live showstopper, So Glad is a reggae/blues hybrid with some irresistibly amusing blues harp. The album winds up with Cotonou Stomp, an all-too-brief showcase for Gangbe Brass Band, and Dead Crow, an utterly bizarre, hypnotic number that sounds like Love Camp 7 covering Crosby, Stills and Nash and features the Kronos Quartet. Yet another triumph for insurgent Brooklyn label Barbes Records. Count this one high on the list of the year’s most entertaining albums.
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