Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Elisa Flynn at Union Hall, Brooklyn NY 12/17/07

[Editor’s note – Elisa Flynn was good in 2007 when we reviewed this particular show. In the time since then she’s grown into one of the most eerily compelling, haunting singers, and songwriters, in all of New York. Her 2009 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts landed high on the Lucid Culture 50 best albums list that year. It’s always especially rewarding to be able to look back and say, “told you so!”]

The trendoid with the carefully coiffed, $300 bedhead haircut who preceded her onstage was a howl: “Ah learned ever-thang from television,” he yowled in ludicrous faux-ebonics, strumming his totally out-of-tune guitar, the hired-gun rhythm section behind him clearly in a hurry to get off the stage, grab their portions of the cash advance the guy had pulled off his parents’ credit card at the ATM, and go home. After he was finally done, the club played KT Tunstall’s cutesy powerpop over the PA, a respite akin to coming into a 40-degree room from subzero weather: in about a minute, it was cold again.

The songs on Elisa Flynn’s myspace page throw off some sparks, which was what brought us here in the first place. Backed only by musically diverse drummer Anders Griffen, Flynn sputtered and then caught fire, doing an impressive job under adverse circumstances. Nursing a cold with a pint of Guinness, she still sang terrifically well, casually, without a hint of affectation, which was even more impressive considering that for some inexplicable reason the drums in the small downstairs room here are miked into the sound mix. Even though Griffen clearly had a feel for the room and played with a considerable subtlety, there were times when he drowned her out. Obviously, it wasn’t his fault.

Flynn at her best has a great sense of melody along with a fondness for minor keys. Most of her songs are lyrically-driven, pensive and darkly reflective, yet rock with a guitar-driven bite. They’d probably have sounded more fully realized if she’d been playing electric instead of acoustic tonight. She may play under her own name, but she’s definitely a rocker. Her tunes match the mood of her lyrics. On more than one occasion tonight she proved how effectively she could turn a minute change in the melody into a pivotal moment. Unlike a lot of indie types, she likes dynamics and knows how to use them: no jarring barrages of noise during quiet moments, or vice versa. The mood of the songs varied from the somewhat bizarrely amusing Turtle King to the thoughtfully rustic Big Sky. Her best number was a burning, staccato rocker that unexpectedly turned the verse/chorus dynamic on its head, the anthemic verse going down into a quieter refrain and then back again.

But Flynn needs a séance. Like so many artists categorized as indie rock, she sometimes falls under the curse of the moveable chord, and it’s high time somebody lifted that curse. For the uninitiated, moveable chords are a lazy guitar-playing device, where the guitarist plays a major or minor chord and then changes chords by moving his or her hand a single fret, or two or three, in one direction or another without changing the fingering of the original chord. With a few exceptions (Flynn has discovered two of the really nice permutations that you can make with a D major chord), what results is either atonal or dissonant and usually throws whatever melody you have going off the rails. Moveable chords are the reason why most of the melody in grunge, emo and recent indie rock is played not by the guitar but by the bass. A lot of people who’d like to be musicians, but for one reason or another can’t pull it off, live and die by moveable chords and it’s strange that Flynn would employ them as much as she does since she’s a fluent player with a good ear for a catchy hook. Whether she continues to use them or continues to grow as a musician will determine whether in ten years’ time she takes it to the next level and gets some well-deserved props, or remains a relic of the zeros. See her next time out and you will probably be in for as beguiling and promising a show as she played tonight.

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December 18, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years

Melusine translates from the French as water nymph or naiad (Rachelle Garniez is a Pisces, which may explain a few things). Nothing very watery about this album, though, unless you count the picture on the cd’s lyric booklet showing Garniez lounging on the Staten Island Ferry. To say that this is her best album to date may not seem like the staggering achievement that it is, until you realize that her last one, Luckyday remains one of the best albums of the decade. To surpass it was a Herculean feat, and Garniez has pulled it off, seemingly effortlessly. Simply put, there is no better singer, no better songwriter, no better keyboard player and – especially – no better live performer in all of rock than Rachelle Garniez. If you can call what she does rock.

Luckyday was a lush, ornately orchestrated blend of retro styles, and this one, while drawing from the same corners of vintage Americana, is somewhat more intimate. Garniez sings and dazzles on accordion, piano, bells and plays a little nylon-stringed guitar, accompanied by brilliant lead guitarist Matt Munisteri and low-frequencies expert Dave Hofstra, who plays upright bass and also tuba on one song. Garniez’ songs are timeless yet immutably rooted in the here-and-now. Most of what’s here has a blackly humorous, apocalyptic undercurrent: this is a loosely thematic concept album about fiddling while Rome burns.

It kicks off with After the Afterparty, an understatedly bitter midtempo piano ballad with an absolutely killer chorus gently illuminated by some expert Munisteri electric guitar fills. Garniez loves to vary her vocal delivery from a whisper to a roar – she sings in character, and she has a whole stable of them. But her voice here is plainspoken and sad, and it’s nothing short of riveting. This is a story of rejection. In the spirit of perhaps her best song (Quality Star, from Luckyday), it ends on a subtly vengeful note:

After the afterparty
You hailed me a taxi
And I buckled up for safety
Maybe I’ll live to be an old lady
With lots of big hats and jewelry

And an inscrutable air of mystery
And when questioned about my history
I’ll smile oh so sweetly
And whisper oh so discreetly
I can’t remember a thing

The following track, the bouncy, old-timey, accordion-driven Tourmaline brings the low-end gemstone to life in 6/8 time:

We all know you came in through the kitchen
Cause the floor sorta sticks to your feet
When you go better you use the back door
He’ll be waiting for you on the street
Oh he closes his eyes when he kicks you
For a cat cannot look at a queen
Realize when his memory tricks you
Oh he’s nothing but snow on your screen

After the amusingly brief Back in the Day (“When the saints came marching in/Nobody paid no mind so they marched right back out again”) and a sweetly soaring country song, Garniez reverts to her fondness for the underdog with Shoemaker’s Children, a Munisteri showcase. It has the feel of a Charley Patton classic, a haunting, rustic open-tuned blues for banjo and guitar, and it’s one of the more overtly ominous numbers on the cd:

‘Bout an hour before the flood
There’s nary a rat to be seen
And the people swarm the city to grab one last glimmer of green
Make way for the shoemaker’s children
Here they come marching down your street
Ten million strong they limp along on their twisted and broken feet

The next cut, Bed of Cherries is deliberately inscrutable: other than a possible reference to a cover album by the Church, this strange but beautifully played and sung catalog of unrelated objects seems to be more of a secret message than something written for the world. Then Garniez overdubs layers and layers of her own vocals to create an entire gospel choir on the rousing fragment Mama’s Got a Brand New Baby (which she uses as an intro for Tourmaline at live shows).

Lyrically, the album’s high point is the following track, People Like You. The sarcasm is brutal: over a blithe, finger-popping beat, Garniez does her best Rickie Lee Jones imitation. It’s arguably the most scathing, spot-on critique of the trendoids who have taken over New York that anyone’s written to date:

If you came here to make it big, well I wish you the best of luck
You can always head back out west if you ever get stuck
But if you came here to jerk my chain, I wish you the very worst
I don’t mean to be a pain but baby I got here first
And it’s people like you
Who don’t know pride from shame
And it’s people like you…
Who will never place a face before a name

Garniez toys with the “people like you” hook on the chorus, first accenting the “you,” then the “like.” The reason for the effect becomes clear at the end of the song when she starts going on about how everyone likes the newcomers: in fact, she ends up unable to resist them too. Yeah, and pigs can fly.

The cd continues with the macabrely amusing Pre-Post Apocalypse, something of a punk rock oompah song, followed by The Best Revenge, a sardonic yet stoically mournful account of living it up while temperatures rise, the poles melt and unspoiled children face a tough road ahead. As Garniez tells it, they rise to meet it, an unexpectedly hopeful end to an otherwise completely pessimistic song.

Like its predecessor, Melusine Years falls into a category that transcends any “best album of the year” designation [although it did make it to #1 on Lucid Culture’s Best Albums of 2007 list – Ed.] If the human race exists a hundred years from now, this album will be as revered a cautionary tale as George Orwell’s 1984. If not, it’s a fitting epitaph. In the case of the former, it ensures Garniez a permanent place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. Rachelle Garniez plays the cd release for Melusine Years at Joe’s Pub on December 22 at 9:30 PM.

December 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

In Memoriam – Dan Fogelberg

The king of mid-80s sentimental Lite FM folkie ballads died this week from prostate cancer at age 56, ostensibly. That would have made him 26 in 1977, which is pretty dubious. Before his heyday – or at least his commercial heyday – he did a couple of albums with Tim Weissberg, a flautist (ordinarily he’d be called a flute player, but “flautist” has just the perfectly arch, pretentious connotation) who played with Bob Dylan at one time. One of those albums was called Twin Sons of Different Mothers, a Mighty Wind moment if there ever was one.

Like everyone else alive in the 80s, I too was tortured by Fogelberg’s radio hits in supermarkets and 7-11s. But I’ll always have bittersweet memories (he would have LOVED to have known that, no doubt) of one of his songs. The Reach is from – if memory serves right – a 1981 triple album that he dubbed a “song cycle.” It was a big 6/8 seafaring epic with a full string section, something that actually makes the days of big-budget major label productions seem a whole lot better than they actually were. Even so, not the kind of thing I’d be caught dead listening to under ordinary circumstances:

It’s Maine…
And it’s Autumn
The birches have just begun turning
It’s life and it’s dying
The lobstermen’s boats come returning

With the catch of the day in their holds
and the young boys cold and complaining
The fog meets the beaches and out on
the Reach it is raining…

And the morning will blow away
As the waves crash and fall
And the Reach like a siren sings
as she beckons and calls

As the coastline recedes from view
And the seas swell and roll
I will take from the Reach
all that she has to teach
To the depths of my soul

And it was Maine. And it was autumn. And I wanted to take from the Reach all that she had to teach to the depths of my soul. Except there was no reach. She would graduate in less than a year and I was a freshman, and she knew better (even if we shared a completely  inexplicable fondness for the song, among other equally inexplicable things). She was far too sweet to ever allude to it, but I was the last person anyone should have had a relationship with in those days. I’m still probably the last person anybody should have a relationship with.

And the song is a hornet’s nest of cliches – verbs where they shouldn’t be, adjectives following the noun, all kinds of pathetic, gratuitous attempts at “poetry.” As far as I know this is the only Fogelberg song with any sense of metaphor, whatsoever; all his other stuff is all straight-ahead narrative, no double meanings or other lyrical devices.

I never went so far as to get the album. The only version I have is a muddy, bass-heavy mix recorded off the radio on a cassette tape. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Something tells me that the old hippie would have approved. Wherever you are, Dan Fogelberg, I forgive you for Leader of the Band, Same Old Lang Syne, etc., etc., etc.

December 18, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment