Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Greta Gertler & the Extroverts – Edible Restaurant

David Byrne got it right: we need more songs about buildings and food. This album doesn’t have much of the former, but there’s a lot of the latter. How delicious. This is Australian expat singer/keyboardist Greta Gertler’s third consecutive brilliant album. Her first one, The Baby That Brought Bad Weather (recorded after her second one), was a meticulously arranged pop masterpiece. Her second one, Nervous Breakthroughs, was a richly melodic orchestral rock record and even better than the first. This comes as quite a change: it’s a gorgeously stark, retro, mostly acoustic album, tastefully produced with grand piano, electric guitar, tuba, drums and occasional strings. Unsurprisingly, the whole cd has a somewhat old-timey, ragtimish feel to it.

The album opens with Wrist Slasher, a blithely eerie number that’s mostly just voice and solo piano: the narrator sometimes dreams of “floating away on the back of a stingray in a glass of champagne.” Gertler sings in a high, cheery soprano, which occasionally seems at odds with her frequently pensive songwriting. It gives the listener pause: she may want music, and happiness, that’s “good and simple,” as she explains on another track here, but there’s always a lot going on in her songs. Most usually it’s absolutely fascinating.

The album’s title track vividly evokes the chaos of a busy eatery at peak hour, an endless series of unexpected shifts: staccato piano, tuba and guitar, then horror-movie chromatics on the chorus, then back to bouncy, then the eerie piano again. It winds up with a slow, swinging passage straight out of 70s art-rockers Supertramp. The first time around, there’s a dirty, skronky guitar solo by head Extrovert Pete Galub, then a bluesy one by dangerous retro virtuoso Michael Gomez (who also plays lead in Hazmat Modine). The lyrics are a hoot, but they’re poignant as well:

This piano is out of tune
The neighbourhood is filled with gloom
I’m bumping into chairs
I’m spilling drinks on tables
Some may say I’m a nervous wreck
No therapist can cure my debt
I want to find a place
Where I know how to relax
Here I came from a lucky land
Sometimes I miss the grass and sand
An immigrant without a plan
Just a shitload of luggage
Now I’ve circled the city seven times
Like a conservative Jewish bride
And for the reception
I’d like to invite you all to
The Edible Restaurant
Where you can even take a bite out of the waitress

The next track, Bessie is a mostly slow piano ballad, an inscrutably wistful number, seemingly about a friend who’s gone AWOL. Gomez contributes a beautiful, deceptively dark David Gilmour-esque solo on lapsteel. After that, on the hustling, bustling Bergen Street, the narrator finds herself “caught in the middle of a passive aggressive storm,” yet intent on pursuing the object of her desires. The following track If Bob Was God is an intense, heartfelt ballad, electric with longing and desire:

I don’t want to be
One of the boys again
It’s happened to me
Ever since the age of ten…
I have to let you know tonight

This album is littered with New York references and this is one of the most evocative.

The next song, Aching Melody is a slinky, sexy tune, Wurlitzer and drum machine, which Gertler will employ occasionally to entertaining effect at solo shows. She follows that with a powerful antiwar anthem, Uniform, which could be for the zeros what Supertramp’s Crime of the Century was for the 70s. Told from the point of view of a nameless, nationless draftee who did everything to avoid joining in the killing, it’s the most powerful song on the album. The cd’s next track, Veselka, brings some substantial, stick-to-your-ribs comic relief: it’s a tribute to the legendary Ukrainian pierogi joint on Second Avenue. Apparently Gertler had been away from the place for awhile and the waitstaff missed her. “See the years passing by, Veselka still serves the oldest recipes!” Gertler blissfully exclaims. There’s a very witty Balkan interlude toward the end of the song, with some juicy guitar from Gomez (Gertler knows her gypsy music: see Nervous Breakthroughs for her sizzling instrumental The Hot Bulgar). The cd concludes with a brief instrumental reprise of the opening track. What a great album, definitely one of the two or three best of the year so far. Five pierogies. With applesauce and sour cream and several beers. CD’s are available at shows, in Australia and online. Incidentally, if you read the small print at the bottom of the cd case, you’ll see that the album was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. Now just imagine the NEA giving, say, Randi Russo a grant. Makes you want to…well, shouldn’t say here, not since everyone’s eating.

June 13, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Film review: The Waitress

 I Wonder if Heaven is filled with Pie…

By Christine Lloyd

 

The Waitress has the mixed blessing of being actress/director and writer Adrienne Shelly’s wide-screen release directorial debut and swan song. Prior to the The Waitress, Shelly directed four small, little known films: Lois Lives a Little, Sudden Manhattan, I’ll Take You There, and The Shadows of Bob & Zelda. The Waitress is Shelly’s first film to make it into the top ten Box Office films, and win critical recognition at Sundance.

 

As anyone living in New York knows by now, the media reported that Shelly was murdered in her bathroom last year by a construction worker who’d been doing some work on the floor below. According to news reports, Shelly had complained about noise below her apartment and threatened to call the authorities. Police reported that an argument ensued, the worker (a Salvadoran immigrant) allegedly killer her and tried to cover up the crime by making it appear to be a suicide. Tragic, considering the actress left behind a small child: Shelly died before her film was accepted into Sundance or was distributed to theaters. Her husband,  Andrew Ostroy, set up the Adrienne Shelly Foundation (http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org) to award film scholarships and grants to women filmmakers. 

 

Prior to directing, writing and acting in The Waitress – a story that deals with Shelly’s own experience as a struggling artist about to have an unwanted child – Shelly was best known for her work in several independent films by director Hal Hartley,  notably The Unbelievable Truth.

 

Knowing this doesn’t affect your enjoyment or appreciation of the movie all that much, except perhaps to make it more bittersweet, particularly when you realize which character Shelly is playing – a somewhat pasty-faced, not overly attractive co-worker and friend of the lead.

 

The film stars Keri Russell (from the tv sitcom Felicity) as Jenna; Ms. Shelly, as Jenna’s close friend and co-worker, Dawn; Andy Griffith – of Matlock and the Andy Griffith Show fame – as Joe, owner of the diner where Jenna works; Nathan Fillion, most recently seen in the television series Drive, as well as the feature films Slither and Serenity; Jeremy Sisto, as Jenna’s husband Earl; and Cheryl Hines as Becky, Jenna’s older co-worker.

 

With a running time of approximately an hour and thirty minutes, The Waitress is a feel-good character piece centered around the lead, who makes pies at Joe’s Pie Diner, a small, somewhat beaten down joint in central New Jersey. Jenna lives and breathes pies and has created over 147 different types throughout her career, a new one every day. She dreams up her pies while arguing with her abusive and controlling husband, or while sitting at the bus station.

 

The film is shot from Jenna’s perspective: we only see the other characters when she’s present, and only see what they tell Jenna or Jenna thinks about them. Shelly, unlike other directors, never cheats or pulls back from her lead’s point of view and utilizes dream sequences where Jenna is dreaming up a new brand of pie as a means of exploring her inner turmoil in a comedic way. For example, when Jenna discovers in the first five minutes of the film that she is pregnant by her no-account husband, she dreams up Bad Baby Pie, describes the filling and how it will be cooked. The next day, we see Joe, played by Andy Griffith, asking Jenna – after he learns of her pregnancy – to bring him a piece. When she visits her obstetrician,  she brings Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, which she holds like a shield against her stomach as she envisions all the pregnant women around her naked, cringing at the thought.

 

The story’s central arc addresses Jenna’s struggles to come to terms with her pregnancy and having a baby, how it will change her life, how it will effect her relationships and her dreams. At first, she hates the child within her belly. She sees it as an inconvenience and a parasite that will take away everything she has worked so hard to accomplish,  notably her chance to leave her husband and start a new life. As her co-workers make clear at the beginning, while Jenna is prettier than they are, has an attractive husband and a talent for piemaking, they wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. We find out why when we meet him. In the first ten minutes of the film, we see Jenna retreating into herself out of fear and loathing. We never see Earl outside of Jenna’s perspective, so he remains the film’s only two – dimensional character.

 

Yet, as testament to the director’s talent, there’s never a black-and-white villain. We come to know why Jenna got involved with him: there are glimpses of vulnerablity and insecurity beneath the sneers and abuse. Earl objectivizes Jenna, treating her as a possession without regard for her emotional wellbeing. Without falling into cliché, Shelly depicts a marriage gone bad.

 

The other male lead, a doctor portrayed by Nathan Fillion, is perhaps more complex and three-dimensional. He’s nebulous, yet empathetic, comical with a charm and restraint evocative of Cary Grant or a young Tom Hanks. At once bemused and taken aback by Jenna’s attraction to him, he seems more perplexed than manipulative, the happily married man who can’t help but find himself falling in love with the waitress who reminds him a bit too much of his childhood crush. Their relationship is both funny and bittersweet, but also manages to avoid cliche.

 

Outside of Earl and the Doctor, whose name escapes me – she rarely calls him by his first name – the other two characters portrayed in the film are Dawn and Becky, an older waitress, who has a little secret that Jenna discovers mid-way through. All three are fully developed characters, yet we never see them outside of Jenna. Unlike most romantic comedies, The Waitress does not employ stock characters in supporting roles: no “quirky best friend and confidant,” “wiser older friend,” or “wise old man.” At first glance, each of these characters may appear to fit those models, but their lives are their own, and it’s clear that they don’t simply revolve around Jenna. For example, there is a short and sweet little romantic subplot involving Dawn and a blind date, who stalks her with spontaneous poetry until she eventually accedes, much to her friends’ alarm. Shelly’s characters, unlike the typical blockbuster movie personage, have great verisimilitude: they actually resemble the kind of people you could meet and befriend in a small New Jersey diner, if only for a little while.

 

The film’s only weakness may well be its surreal ending, which in jarring contrast to the rest of the picture is filmed in bright cheery colors and flashes. Is it a dream or is it real? We’re not sure. Upon first viewing, I assumed it was meant to be real, but after discussing it with a friend, I am no longer certain. Without giving too much away, it is shown as a montage and does not quite fit with the overall tone, style, and color scheme of the rest of the picture. It is a slight difference, but enough of one to make you ponder its intent. If it is meant as a dream, then the film is an artistic achievement for reasons you will understand when you see it. If not, the fact that there is a question mark about it gives it a resonance it may have lacked otherwise.

 

The Waitress, albeit a small film in an action-packed summer of bigger, shinier fare, is that rare piece that resonates with you long after it is over, much like Little Miss Sunshine last year. It is a testament to Shelly’s craft and in a way a fitting memorial to her life, however tragic and shortlived.

   

June 13, 2007 Posted by | Film, Reviews | 2 Comments

Concert Review: LJ Murphy at the Knitting Factory, NYC 6/12/07

One of the most charismatic performers in rock, LJ Murphy and his band blazed through an incendiary performance including a lot of recent, unreleased material. Murphy was rocking his usual black suit, porkpie hat and Ray Charles shades, so it was impossible to see the expression on his face, but it was obvious from the start that he was especially amped for this show. This time around, in addition to his rhythm section, he had Jerome O’Brien from the Dog Show guesting on Rickenbacker guitar. O’Brien’s judiciously percussive fills and chordal work added a lush, jangling waterfall of textures to Murphy’s usual careening, blues-inflected sound. From beginning to end, Murphy belted his sharp, biting lyrics in a raspy baritone, with a characteristic panache that sometimes bordered on the theatrical. He’s quite the showman.

They opened with the tersely powerful Geneva Conventional, a minor-key cautionary tale about the dangers of selling out. They followed that with the bouncy, Elvis Costello-esque Damaged Goods. On the long, surreal Falling Backwards Up the Stairs, drummer Jonathan Levy set the tone for the rest of the night, flailing on the top of his ride cymbal as the song grew to a crescendo.

O’Brien added some welcome twang to the haunting country song Long Way to Lose. The dark undercurrent continued with the swinging, understatedly ominous Sleeping Mind, one of the most accurate depictions of clinical depression ever sung. Then they did the title track from Murphy’s latest album, Mad Within Reason, a Weimar blues with a scathing lyric that sounds as if it was written about the Bush regime (it wasn’t: it’s more of a general critique of creeping fascism). The beautiful, sad, 6/8 ballad Saturday’s Down, a vividly imagistic, symbolically loaded look at how fast the weekend goes by, was an audience singalong: the crowd of young women closest to the stage became an accidental choir. Murphy then played a brand-new song, possibly titled Lesson I Never Learned, a chronicle of misadventures in romance. After the bluesy Buffalo Red and the supercharged rocker Imperfect Strangers, he and the band closed the set with a bruising take of what is arguably his most potent song, the Velvet Underground-inflected Happy Hour. It’s an indelible portrait of the idiocy that sticks to you even after the workday is over:

Swallowing the two-for-ones
Dressed in chewing-gum cologne
Dancing in corporate uniforms
To the exalted metronome
As the aging dollies chuckle
At a joke that no one gets
Their daytime dramas wait at home
On videocassette

Then it was over, the band high-fiving each other, the lights went up and the house music went on.

Now what’s up with this new trend, not giving bands an encore? The audience screamed and roared for a long time while somebody’s ipod played over the PA. The sound guy fled the booth, not wanting to deal with the wrath of the crowd. Memo to venues: there’s an overproliferation of you. Alienate your customers and you’ll lose them. There are literally scoress of other places for people to see their favorite bands.

June 13, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments