Moist Paula Henderson (whose nickname stems from her longtime leadership of legendary instrumental trio Moisturizer) has been the standout baritone saxophonist in the New York downtown scene for several years. Her own work has an irrepressible joie de vivre and wry humor; her new album with her latest project, Tzar, recorded live at the Stone this past February takes a turn in a considerably different, much darker direction. Here she’s joined by Ithaca, New York musicians Brian “Willie B” Wilson on drums, electronics and bass pedals (who really gets a workout, playing everything simultaneously, it seems) and Michael Stark on keyboards. Their intriguing multi-segmented pieces blend elements of trip-hop, downtempo, noise and the edgy jazz that Henderson has pursued more deeply in recent years. It’s a deliciously mysterious, eclectic ride. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
The first track, There’s a Prayer for That opens with a raw, bitter piano theme and variations against rumbling drums, Henderson’s stark, biting swirls enhancing the smoky ambience. Funereal organ then replaces the piano and the piece morphs into creepy trip-hop. Begin At Sunset maintains the vibe, sax mingling suspensefully with layers of uneasy synth and squiggly eleectronic EFX, then takes an unexpected turn into dub reggae. The most improvisational-sounding number is Ambient Subtraction, Henderson’s otherworldly, harmonically tingling polytonalities blending into a morass of textures as the storm builds to an ominously insectile rumble. By contrast, the cheery go-go theme Hibachi Sushi Dance sounds like a Moisturizer outtake, but even more minimalist. The album winds up with Knuckles & Milk, juxtaposing surreallistic, mechanical menace a la Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine with noisy, paint-peeling synth squalls over a martial beat, Henderson raising the tension with a marvelously terse, chromatically-charged interlude before turning it over to Wilson. Play this one with the lights out. Recommended equally for fans of jazz, psychedelia and dark rock.
Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with this week being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized Monday night upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This evening was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.
The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.
Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.
Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.
And the Wiremen - in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t. Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.
Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.
Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.
Bio Ritmo’s new album La Verdad uses oldschool, classic Fania era salsa as its stepping-off point and blends in trippy, hypnotic, sometimes fiery elements of Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat and dub for a sound that’s absolutely unique, and absolutely psychedelic. Keyboardist Marlysse Simmons-Argandona is their secret weapon. Sometimes she anchors the music with darkly reverberating Fender Rhodes lines; other times she goes way up for a glimmering, pointillistic, starlit vibe; then she’ll swoop in with the organ or shift to swinging Afro-Cuban salsa piano riffs. The horns move from bright, incisive bursts, to big, lushly jazzy swells, with frequent breaks for individual solos, as the timbales rattle, the congas hold the tunes close to the ground and the bass rises with a body-tugging groove. Singer Rei Alvarez is a mercurial, slyly surreal presence: when there are lyrics here, they work on several different levels.
As you would expect from a great oldschool album, there’s a distinct Side One and Side Two side here. The opening cut features unexpected touches like wah-wah keys and a blippy bass solo along with some tasty brass parts. A couple of the jazzier tracks, like the title number and Caravana del Vejicante (Clown Parade) often resemble the excellent, shapeshifting latin-influenced jazz group Either/Orchestra, with their cleverly shifting brass segments and smirking keyboard interludes. The third track, Dina’s Mambo, contrasts psychedelic slinky, conspiratorially swinging, psychedelic keys with hi-beam horns; the fourth, Carnaval, builds nonchalantly to a punked-out Afrobeat feel. There’s also the deliciously noir Verguenza (Shame); the bouncy, surprisingly carefree, sarcastic Majadero (The Noodge); the even creepier, Thelonious Monk-ish Lola’s Dilemma with its subtle dub echoes spicing up a tiptoeing son montuno melody; and the hidden track, an absolutely killer dub version of the second cut. If you wish you’d lived through the classic salsa era of the 70s – or if you did – this one’s for you. Bio Ritmo play the album release show for this one tonight at 10 at Southpaw; those who prefer the superior sonics at SOB’s should check out their Manhattan release show there at 8 PM on Nov 18. Also recommended: Bio Ritmo’s sister band Miramar, who recreate classic Puerto Rican boleros from the 1950s (and create some of their own) with a similarly dark psychedelic edge.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album was #471:
Sielun Veljet – Live
Sielun Veljet (Finnish for “Soul Brothers”) are iconic in their native land. Their earliest songs set eardrum-peeling, trebly PiL-style noise guitar over catchy, growling, snappy bass and roaring punk vocals. The Finnish lyrics are surreal and assaultive as well. This scorching 1983 concert recording takes most of the songs off their first album and rips them to shreds. The best of these is Turvaa (Saved), with its ominous, chromatics and catchy, burning bassline. There’s also Emil Zatopek, a hoarse, breathless tribute to the long-distance runner; the primal, tribal Haisa Vittu; the surprisingly ornate Karjalan Kunnaila; the spooky epic Yö Erottaa Pojasta Miehen; Politikkaa, a macabre, reverb-drenched chromatic noise-funk tune; and the most traditionally punk number, Huda Huda (basically Finnish for “Yay, yay” – the sarcasm transcends any language barrier). Because of the album title (not to mention that it was never released outside Finland), it’s awfully hard to find online; in lieu of this, here’s a random torrent for their first album.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #472:
Jenifer Jackson – Slowly Bright
This 1999 release was Jackson’s quantum leap: it established her as one of the world’s most astonishingly diverse, intelligent songwriters. Her vocals here are memorably hushed and gentle: since then, she’s diversified as a singer as well. The songwriting blends Beatlesque psychedelia with bossa nova, with the occasional hint of trip-hop or ambient music. Every track here is solid; the real stunner that resonates after all these years is When You Looked At Me, with its understated Ticket to Ride beat, swirling atmospherics and crescendoing chorus where Jackson goes way, way up to the top of her range. The title track, Anything Can Happen and the vividly imagistic Yesterday My Heart Was Free have a psychedelic tropicalia feel; Whole Wide World, Burned Down Summer and I’ll Be Back Soon are gorgeous janglerock hits; So Hard to Believe balances tenderness against dread. The catchiest track here may be the unexpectedly optimistic, soul-infused Look Down; the album closes with the lush, hypnotic, blithely swaying Dream. And believe it or not, this classic is nowhere to be found in the blogosphere or the other usual sources for music, although it’s still available from cdbaby. Her forthcoming one, The Day Happiness Found Me is every bit as good, maybe better; it comes out in December.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #474:
The New Trolls – Concerto Grosso
The New Trolls are sort of the Italian Genesis. This 1971 suite is something of a Mediterranean counterpart to Peter Gabriel’s playful, dramatic early Genesis, juxtaposing classical themes with catchy, surreal, Beatlesque art-rock that foreshadowed what ELO would be doing by the end of the decade. They kick it off with a lively, baroque tinged theme, rip off their fellow countryman Albinoni on the stately, stoic Adagio, go into potently chilling Vivaldi territory with the Cadenza – Andante and then the real classic, the darkly pensive Shadows. Side two is ostensibly a jam, although its endlessly shifting permutations, from Grateful Dead-style garage-rock vamps, to Blues Magoos stomps, to spacy drum-circle ambience, leads you to believe that it was all planned in advance. The band has been through a million different incarnations but are still around and still playing fascinatingly elaborate music. Here’s a random torrent via Prog Possession.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album was #475:
The Peanut Butter Conspiracy Is Spreading
The 1967 debut by this vastly underrated, eclectic psychedelic pop band combines the surreal folk-pop of early Jefferson Airplane with snarling garage rock and ornate chamber pop. Frontwoman Sandi Robinson’s vox are sort of a cross between Judy Collins and Grace Slick; the song arrangements are complex and sometimes haunting. The big innuendo-driven stoner-pop hits are Why Did I Get So High and You Took Too Much, both ostensibly love songs – back then, you couldn’t get on the radio if you sang about getting high on anything other than booze. There’s also the gorgeous chamber-rock of Then Came Love; the acid folk hit It’s a Happening Thing; the fuzztone-driven Twice Is Life; the punchy You Can’t Be Found, with its Leslie speaker guitar; and the intense, scampering Dark on You Now among the eleven tracks here. Here’s a random torrent via Hippy DJ Kit. The album was reissued in the early zeros as a twofer with the band’s second, more erratic one The Great Conspiracy, which you can get via Acid at Home.
The idea of a low-key guitar-and-violin duo putting on a charismatic, totally psychedelic show might seem improbable, but that’s exactly what Grey McMurray and Caleb Burhans did last night at le Poisson Rouge. It was hypnotic in the purest sense of the word. As the musicians launched into a lingering, gently sustained two-guitar phrase that slowly took on one permutation after another as it made its way through a maze of effects pedals, the crowd slowly assembled around the stage, as if a trance. By now, the lights had completely gone out: the only illumination in the club came from the sconces at the bar and the speakers overhead. The blend of ringing, bell-like tones and dreamily atmospheric washes grew more complex, and then pulled back a bit, Burhans working feverishly over a mixing board. When he introduced a sudden, swooping phrase that slyly panned the speakers, heads turned, virtually in unison. A little later, he broke the spell as he reached for the mic and let out a restrained, tense howl. At that point, a handful of people quickly moved to the bar for a drink. Had the intensity been too much to take?
Burhans’ and McMurray’s new double cd Everybody’s Pain Is Magnificent – released on the New Amsterdam label under the name itsnotyouitsme - is an unselfconsciously beautiful chillout record. This show assembled several of its ethereally ringing, lingering segments as two roughly 25-minute suites. After the first had ended, Burhans encouraged the crowd to sit on the floor and take in the rest of the show, and pretty much everyone complied. If Burhans had suggested that everybody take the L train to Morgan Avenue and then lie down on the subway tracks, would the crowd have done that too? In the age of color-coded terrorist alerts and satellite tracking via foursquare and innumerable other marketing schemes, is this what audiences have become? Or, was this simply the power of the music revealing itself in all its glistening, trippy splendor? Was the experience something akin to what it must have been like to watch Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead circa 1967?
Maybe. As Burhans lay down one judicious wash after another from his violin, McMurray adding one stately sequence of notes after another, there were tinges of Philip Glass and Gerard Grisey as well: both musicians come from a classical background. In order to maintain the quietly mesmerizing ambience, the two practically danced on their pedals as they added and then subtracted one texture after another from the flow of sound as it looped around. In order to avoid the kind of mechanical monotony that often characterizes this kind of music, they built several polyrhythms into the mix. With split-second timing, they made the effect seamlessly ethereal rather than chaotic. And not everything they played was quiet and soothing, either. For what seemed minutes at a time, McMurray would wail up and down on his strings, add the passage to the mix, then add and subtract minutely measured amounts of distortion, or reverb, or sustain, or a combination of several effects at once. By the time the second suite was over, they’d almost imperceptibly taken the sonic trajectory to wary, somewhat icy terrain much like the best stuff on Radiohead’s Kid A.
Is this meant to be stoner music? From the look of the crowd, quite possibly. Or maybe it was just the heat. Burhans and McMurray were working hard onstage and deserved some air conditioning, and like the crowd, they didn’t seem to be getting any. It’s one thing for the bartender at some dingy Williamsburg bar to show up late and forget to put on the AC, but it’s hard to understand how not a single person out of the Poisson Rouge’s entire nattily uniformed staff couldn’t have flipped a switch and given their customers a respite from a grimly unpleasant global warming-era evening.
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