You have all of two short weeks – through February 16 – to rush over to Chelsea to the Brenda Taylor Gallery, 511 W 25th St. between 10th and 11th Sts., gallery #401 on the fourth floor, to catch some of the most astonishing art on display in New York right now. In the side room there are several boldly playful, colorful, somewhat tongue-in-cheek paintings by Kathleen Kucka, acrylic appliqué on acrylic. Although many of the accent colors here are pastels, Kucka’s clever cut-and-paste gives them an amusing, guilt-free edge.
But the stars of the show are in the main room where you’ll find A.D. Peters’ new work Iron Ridge: Sunsplash, which is oil and ferric oxide (translation: rust) on a sheet of iron. It’s absolutely brilliant, a reverse image of sorts, of light seen through a thicket of trees. Only the light is painted: the woods reside in the untouched iron. The painting’s focal point, where the light is greatest, is obscured by a tree trunk. It’s a stunningly imaginative, somewhat dark work and is surprisingly inexpensive for something of such imagination and quality. Kudos to the gallery for spotting it.
The piece de resistance here is Leonardo Drew’s Number 74, dating from 1999. Drew’s specialty is gargantuan, wall- and floorsize installations assembled from found objects, something akin to the toy town Bob Geldof constructed out of bits and pieces of sledgehammered appliances in the film The Wall, taken to its logical extreme. Drew’s work is deliberately unsettling, often grotesque. This piece is particularly visceral, practically nauseating: it packs a knockout punch. It is impossible to turn away from. Within its huge, approximately eight by ten foot frame, there are several hundred square wood boxes, each seemingly in various states of decay (Drew’s use of sawdust here, mixed with other debris, is spectacularly effective). Across the top are plastered what appear to be used mop heads (or something equally Blair Witch), along with a couple dozen stuffed toys in various states of decomposition. All of the toys’ faces are either turned away from the viewer, or have been deliberately effaced. Childhood has hardly ever been this brutally or dismissively portrayed: to call this piece iconoclastic is a gross understatement. A work this powerful is too important to reside in the hands of a private collector (although one has to wonder who would actually have the fortitude to come home at night and be greeted by this on the adjacent wall). Whatever price the gallery is charging is not too much for a world-class museum to afford. MOMA, are you listening?
Washington, DC band Little Pink’s third and best album effectively blends both British and American folk-rock traditions while managing to sound completely original. Richard & Linda Thompson is the influence that jumps out at you, blended with the resigned yet raging sensibility of Rosanne Cash’s recent work. Frontwoman Mary Battiata sings in a troubled, world-weary, haunting voice, appropriate for someone who covered the war in Bosnia as a journalist in the 1990s. Her lyrics remind of Sandy Denny, replete with images from nature and pastoral scenes, often painting a starkly evocative picture. Her melodies are terse, catchy and lend themselves to all sorts of commercial purposes: Lifetime TV dramas, NPR themes and – gasp – commercial radio. If this album had been released in 1976, Fleetwood Mac would have found themselves on a dead run to catch up. That’s a compliment. It is mind-boggling that this band is not huge right now.
With fifteen tracks, this is a long and richly rewarding album. “We took half our lives to find ourselves here,” Battiata relates casually in the opening track, the simple, ridiculously catchy country/folk song Like a Wheel. Charm Offensive, a bouncy blues, is spiced with baritone sax; Battiata does a nice, recurrent vocal jump on the chorus. With Battiata’s gently lilting chorus, Trance is Fleetwood Mac gone to Nashville. Ten Feet High, with its slowly stomping beat and layers of screaming guitar from lead player Philip Stevenson, is an obvious homage to the Richard & Linda Thompson classic Shoot Out the Lights. There’s more backbeat-driven folk-rock on China Sea, sounding like one of the good cuts on Sunnyvista. Stars Burn Out is a big crunchy guitar-driven rocker that could be a solid track from Mary Lee’s Corvette’s last album. Wind and Water is a quietly haunting, very Sandy Denny-ish traditionally styled number, seemingly about refugees adrift on the ocean.
The Britfolk continues with the fast, minor-key English reel Orange Moon and then the wickedly catchy John the Cat, with an absolutely killer chorus and more impressive vocal leaps and bounds from Battiata. Beggar’s Bowl is a slowly swinging political parable that crescendos gently into Battiata’s excellent acoustic guitar solo. The Brokenhearted is an accusation, building with amazing subtlety, the drums creeping up to the chorus marvelously as the song’s central hook kicks in: “You’re not brokenhearted.” The album ends on a riveting note with Battiata’s best song, the offhandedly creepy Magic Years, which sounds like a sentimental look back at an idyllic childhood, until you listen closely:
We carved our names
Up all the trees
We counted stars
Til we believed
On the edge of our beds, holding hands
Holding our breath
Absolutely brilliant. If Americana, British folk or just plain good, lyrically-driven songwriting is your thing, get this album.
The best show of the year so far. Erica Smith and her backing trio were celebrating the release of their long-overdue new album Snowblind, and rose to the occasion with a majestic, transcendent performance. Smith is one of those panstylistic rock goddesses like Neko Case, steeped in Americana but lately delving deep into jazz. Nonetheless, this is a rock band, and they rocked. Lead guitarist Dann Baker and drummer Dave Campbell are two-thirds of Beatlemaniac psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, and they were at the absolute top of their game. Baker’s playful, frequently fiery virtuosity is the perfect complement to Smith’s wickedly catchy, jangly songs, and Campbell might well be the best drummer in rock, an Elvin Jones disciple who in all fairness really ought to be leading his own jazz group.
They soared through the opening track on the cd, the Merseybeat hit Easy Now, then lit into a 60s Memphis soul soundalike driven by a bass riff stolen straight from Duck Dunn. Baker took a screaming, noisy solo after the second chorus and really got the crowd going. They followed with the heartbreakingly beautiful The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, a rivetingly sad, swaying, country ballad, and the lush, romantic Brazilian-inflected Tonight, Campbell expertly conducting the band through a slow, hypnotic fade at the end.
Smith’s set of jazz reminded what a vividly instinctive feel she has for the genre, with a high-spirited version of The Very Thought of You, a very slow, haunting take of One for My Baby, a bouncy Ain’t Misbehaving with false ending and an effectively jazzed-up cover of Livia Hoffman’s sad, beautifully literate Valentine. Campbell brought it down to almost complete silence with a tensely minimal solo. He also got the crowd roaring on a careening, bluesy cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester song Snowblind, the title track from the cd. When the band does this live, they generally don’t give Campbell enough time to solo, probably because drum solos – on the rare occasion that any rock bands other than, say, Journey play them anymore – can take a song into Spinal Tap territory in a split second and leave it there for good. This time, Campbell got at least a couple of minutes to span the globe, throw out some summer snapshots of Bahia, a trip into the mountains of Morocco and then before anyone knew it, he was back on the Lower East Side again.
They saved their best for last, with a towering, nine-minute version of their epic parable All the King’s Horses. It’s a slow, 6/8 ballad, music by Smith, Sean Dolan’s lyric transposing all the deadly effects of post-WWII monopoly capitalism onto a medieval battlefield. Audience members were brought to tears. The bass player, clearly caught up in the moment, went off-mic and sang along with Smith as she brought it to a crescendo at the end of the last verse: “Do you have enough hours to bury your dead, or days in which to atone?” Except that he sang “bodies” instead of “hours.” And then missed his cue to join in with the band singing harmonies on the chorus. They encored with 31st Avenue, a haunting, melancholy track from her previous album, rearranged as a backbeat-driven, psychedelic, lushly romantic hit.
At the risk of redundancy, we will continue to sing the praises of the stellar, 5:15 PM Sunday series of organ recitals that runs through the end of May at St. Thomas Church at 53rd and 5th Ave. Their 1913 Skinner organ is a magically potent instrument and the sonics in the church are spectacular, with about a three second decay (the time it takes for sound to fade completely after a note is played). As a result, all the best touring organists want to play here. But tonight was a completely unexpected treat. The scheduled organist was unavailable, so Miller was pressed into duty on short notice. A student at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey, the young organist’s regular assignation is Assistant Organist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey. St. Peter’s head organist and music director, Brian Harlow, is a specialist in duets and a regular guest at St. Thomas, which may explain what Miller – who doesn’t look much older than 16 – was doing behind the console tonight. Whatever the case, he was a revelation, playing a difficult and frequently ostentatious program with uncommon subtlety and sensitivity.
He opened with the famous Allegro from Widor’s Sixth Symphony, whose intro and outro Elton John infamously ripped off for Funeral for a Friend. It’s a standard in the organ repertoire and something of a showcase, meaning that diehard aficionados would immediately pick up on any imperfection. But there were none. In the fiery cascades and long crescendos of the work, it was as if Miller was sending out a particularly auspicious announcement: he had arrived.
The subway rattled underneath, and the church bells rang within seconds after he finished. Slowly, it became apparent that he had already launched into the next piece, Max Reger’s Benedictus. Building very gradually from an almost subsonically low, sustained pedal passage, it’s Reger sounding uncommonly modernist and ambient. The next piece, the great British composer Herbert Howells’ Psalm Prelude made a marvelous segue. Howells’ work is rich with melody, warmth and optimism, and Miller brought out every bit in this trademark composition. He closed with Maurice Durufle’s famous tribute to Jehan Alain, where quotes from many of the great French composer and WWII hero’s best-loved works are sewn into a strikingly dark, bracingly imaginative suite, as far outside the box as Durufle, the great traditionalist, ever went. Other organists blaze through this. Miller didn’t, finding the room to emphasize all the strange dissonances, longing and unease woven into the piece. You read it here first: this young organist is someone to watch, and to experience live, certainly worth a New Jersey Transit trip for the time being.
New Jersey garage/surf rockers the Brimstones have earned a reputation for being a great live act, but tonight they were somewhat upstaged by the Butchers, the garage/punk trio who opened the show. It wasn’t that the Brimstones played a bad set; on the contrary, they roared through about an hour’s worth of eardrum-damaging, Pabst Blue Ribbon-fueled riff-rock with a couple of surf-ish instrumentals thrown in for good measure. But the story of the night was the Butchers. This Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based trio – two guitarists, on Rickenbacker and Gibson, respectively, plus a drummer – absolutely set the place on fire. Their sound is raw, pummeling, unadorned, in other words every quality that makes a song catchy and fun to hear live. Their Rickenbacker player took most of the solos, getting the most gorgeous, distorted guitar tone we’ve witnessed anywhere since seeing Scott Morgan with Powertrane when they played Warsaw. That’s what an overdriven vintage Fender amp will do if you leave your effects pedals at home and just turn it up to…about 5. Otto’s is a small place and Fender Twins are mighty amps. Although the stuff on the Butchers’ myspace has bass, they don’t have a bass player. For a band who obviously take their cue from the 13th Floor Elevators, they don’t really need one.
It would have been nice if the Brimstones had played more of their surf stuff, because that’s what they really excel at, and that’s what differentiates them from the legions of other garage bands out there. That, and a completely authentic vintage 60s songwriting style, and an evident ability to consume mass quantities of alcohol and not miss a beat. Their organist/frontman delivered many of their tunes perched precariously atop his keyboard. When they finally called it a night, well past midnight, with a completely out-of-control, completely perfect cover of TV Eye, they’d outlasted many of the people who packed the little back room here. It was nice to see them in such an intimate setting: when they play New York, it’s usually opening for big-name acts like the Ventures or the Cramps.
The game plan was high-concept: to review two New York sirens at the absolute peak of their powers. But like so many high concepts it backfired, courtesy of a lack of contingency for late trains, and the fact that Amanda Thorpe had started her solo set on time and didn’t play for very long. At the end, she indulged the audience with a request, the title track to her new cd Songs from Union Square – which you’ll be reading about, very soon – and held the audience in the palm of her hand, as usual. She hadn’t rehearsed the song for this show, and when she came to the chorus, she stopped playing and did it a-capella. Just hearing that soaring, starkly emotional voice by itself made the whole ordeal of getting to the club worthwhile.
Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Smallz (which may be a shortlived name, considering that Edmonton punks the Smalls are something of a legend in the Great White North) was next. Gertler – whose song Edible Restaurant, the title track to her new cd, was NPR’s song of the day last week – is nothing if not imaginative, and this unit is clearly her fun project. It gives her a chance to be as devious as she can be, which is extremely. Sharing the stage were Groove Collective bassist Jonathan Maron, who plays his instrument like a great lead guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob DiPietro who doubled on drums and guitar, sometimes playing both at once, guitar in hand and foot on his kick pedal. Maron stole the show tonight with several solos, one which ran for about five minutes during an instrumental late in the set, filled with chords, bent notes and finally a searing, incisive run where he hit his octave and distortion pedals to perfectly recreate a guitar sound. From what they played tonight, DiPietro’s thing appears to be ruminative, slightly jazz-tinged pop songs (which he played on guitar). With tongue planted firmly in cheek and a frequent smirk on her face, Gertler was clearly reveling in the chance to go wild with her space echo effect and play some real funk, neither of which she gets to do much in her regular band, which has been off on a terrifically authentic oldtimey tangent lately. They closed with a delightful number driven by Gertler octaves which could have been a spot-on parody of early 80s synth new wave, or it could have been an actual hit from the era: imagine Kim Wilde’s Kids in America with some actual substance and a real long, psychedelic outro. Maron went up and down on his octave pedal for a siren effect at the end. Shows like this bring back fond memories of the days when there was a pot dealer on every corner of Avenue C, from Houston up to 14th. With this band, there was no need for drugs: they were the drug. Let’s hope they keep this unit together and find a name that sticks.
Add Dwight & Nicole to your list of must-see acts: if you like real, passionate, old-fashioned soul music that works on your mind as much as your heart, you owe it to yourself to discover them. The obvious comparison is Ike & Tina Turner, but beyond the fact that the duo is a brilliant guitarist and equally brilliant soul singer, it doesn’t go any further than that. Tastefully and subtly fingerpicking his Gibson Flying V guitar, Dwight Ritcher showed off his impeccable, purist feel for vintage soul and blues, which Nelson shares. With a voice like maple sugar, sweet but crystal clear, her subtle phrasing reveals her jazz background. Their myspace page likens them to Ella and Jimmy Rushing: it would be interesting to hear them dive into that repertoire (they have a Blue Note show coming up in the spring – why not?). Dimes to dollars they’ll nail it. Tonight they played an absolutely riveting set of mostly originals. Their best song of the night, Johnny Gets High – basically a one-chord vamp that sounded straight out of the Bill Withers songbook – slowly built tension until an explosion of gorgeous harmonies on the verse, chronicling the tribulations of a guy who wants to keep his life together but can’t resist the pipe, or the needle, or whatever it is he does. A little later they did a completely unselfconsciously romantic take on the old Slim Harpo classic Hip Shake, Ritcher’s nimble, walking bass contrasting with Nelson’s warm, summery Sunday afternoon vocals. Nelson’s tribute to her grandmother, an impatient soul who just wanted to get off Staten Island and get away, was a honeyed, straight-up pop song. They closed with another original that evoked Little Wing, Nelson crooning over Ritcher’s gentle, sparsely Hendrixian chordal work. The two were followed by Gary Wright, who thankfully didn’t do Dream Weaver (sorry, Gary, we know you hear this all the time). Of course, it wasn’t the Spooky Tooth guy: this Wright is infinitely better, a lefty guitarist who contributed tasty blues licks on a Dwight and Nicole song and later did a set of his own, solo, eventually running through a long cover of what is arguably Bob Marley’s best song, Burning and Looting, a spot-on critique of how the persecuted beat up on each other rather than taking out their frustrations on those who persecute them. Ritcher played piano on that one, revealing that roots reggae is possibly the only style of music he doesn’t know like the back of his hand. Dwight & Nicole will be at Banjo Jim’s starting around 9 every Thursday, giving them a chance to build up the fan base here that they so much deserve.
Lee Feldman is a keyboard player who excels at seemingly all styles of pop music, from ragtime to slightly Steely Dan-inflected jazz-rock. He’s perhaps best known for his musical Starboy, the rare adult entertainment which is actually suitable for children of all ages. It’s a marvelously lo-fi, heart-tugging yet completely schlock-free production about an alien who lives in the ocean and has all sorts of adventures, set to astonishingly imaginative piano-pop. As a vocalist, Feldman often takes on the character of a naïf, a plainspoken persona which on this cd allows him to be disarming, yet also gives him a truly sinister edge. If Jonathan Richman took his shtick to the logical extreme, he’d be Lee Feldman. This somewhat fragmentary concept album about the life of a man teetering on the edge of sanity, told in the first person, is very disquieting. At first listen, it’s awfully pretty, but the vocals and particularly the lyrics reveal something else entirely. It’s packed with allusions, defined more by what isn’t here than what is, ultimately revealing itself as a very subtle but extremely potent satire of American conformist culture.
The title track has the optimism of an amnesiac, piano and rhythm section until a nice organ flourish and strings on the outro: “We’ve got a lot of dreaming to do.” The following cut, My Sad Life pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the album, a not-so-fond look back at the protagonist’s early years, set to a deceptively bouncy melody punctuated by ba-ba-ba backup vocals and horn flourishes:
I’ve got a car and I’ve got a wife
She likes to be alone
So after dark I go for a drive
He’s stuck out in suburbia with just his wife, so he ends up smoking a lot of weed. We later learn on the upbeat, bracing blues Morning Train that the ride makes him feel optimistic, or so he says, “But I’m no magic when the evening comes.” Joel Frahm’s tenor sax takes a breezy solo, then Feldman comes in with some slightly eerie upper register piano at the end. The next song, titled Lee Feldman, takes an unexpectedly dark detour, the narrator reciting two Social Security numbers – both of which he claims are his – over piano that comes just thisclose to macabre but doesn’t completely go there.
On the next cut, Mrs. Green, it turns out he’s her limo driver. As we discover in the final verse, he has a very specific destination in mind and it’s clearly not somewhere she’s planning on going. Pete Galub supplies appropriately buoyant, supple, incisive lead guitar. After that, on the slow, pretty ballad Of All the Things, the guy applauds a woman who for some reason didn’t see the sign that everyone else saw up above. As usual, Feldman doesn’t say what it was. After the troubling piano/bass/drums instrumental Bowling Accident in Lane 3, there’s a slow 6/8 number, Give Me My Money with nice textures from Brock Mumford accordionist Will Holshouser and backing vocals from Greta Gertler. “You don’t need to worry, the baby is sleeping,” Feldman sings in his completely affect-free voice: suddenly the guy is old and misses his footsteps. “It’s not just athletes who hate to come last.”
On Big Woman on the Shelves, Holshouser and Feldman play together on a sweet Gallic run down the scale that punctuates the chorus. The proprietor of a store with big women on the shelf is trying to kick the guy out. In Paris. He ends up taking one of the women with him. Feldman finally gets to take a piano solo and really makes this one count. He follows with the self-explanatory instrumental Waltz for a Sad Girl and then the slinky, jazz-inflected organ-driven Diagonal S’s at the Motel 6. It turns out that the protagonist’s daughter is waiting there for some guy to pump her for information. And then it really gets disturbing:
Magic Shop is open
But everything inside is broken
How did we get so clumsy?
Clumsy with our fingers
I took a little piece of my own action
And let myself evaporate
In your swimming pool
Then the scene jumps to Little While, a sad solo piano number that seems to be when his Sara leaves him:
I would be walking into the snow
Watching the penguins play
Next we’re told that something bad happened in the basement of the Hippy Store and that’s why the guy’s afraid of it. Of course, the song doesn’t say what, maybe because he could spend his life with the people who did whatever they did there. At the end of the song, Feldman and band mimic the sound of a vinyl record slowing down. Then the lights go down, and then out completely on Cave, where he lights fires with his glasses and drinks from the falls:
Now that you’re living in a corporate nightmare
You look so sad
But you don’t have to feel bad
Feldman reminds, having reverted to mankind’s original, natural state. The horns go crazy for a long time at the end, falling away one by one until only Steven Bernstein’s slide trumpet is left. The next track, Mr. Feldman, has the protagonist talking to himself in a nuthouse. The cd comes to a close with See You Again, “in the shadows of time. Again.” Impeccably and tersely produced, this album has cult classic written all over it. Shame on us for taking so long to review it. Five bagels. With whitefish. Because it’s full of mercury and makes you forget everything.
I once dragged an acquaintance – I wouldn’t call him a friend – to see one of the great songwriters of our time. She was playing solo acoustic at a dingy little place, and even though the sound was lousy, she was great. I asked him afterward what he thought and he replied, “Yeah, one time I went to see a girl at a coffeehouse.” Obviously, he didn’t get it.
When producer Eric Ambel makes an album for someone, he doesn’t want to hear fancy, highly produced demos. All he wants to hear is voice and guitar. His reason is that if the song sounds good in its most basic, simple form, it’ll sound great once he builds something more complex around it. The reverse is true. And because of that, a lot of people shy away from acoustic shows, which is can be a mistake. The LJ Murphy fans who didn’t brave the cold tonight because, “oh, it’s just an acoustic show,” made a big mistake. The man wailed, as usual, even if it was just him and his guitar.
The best thing about acoustic shows is that you can hear all the lyrics. Murphy’s gruff baritone is a powerful instrument, but with the band roaring behind him it’s not always possible to make everything out, and with this guy, that’s what you want to do because that’s what he’s all about. Murphy has a vision: a dark, contrarian, stubbornly defiant vision. It’s often very funny, but it’s all about the here and now. There are other lyricists who will leave behind a chronicle of our time, should there be future generations, but it’s hard to think of anyone who paints a clearer, more concise picture than Murphy. Tonight, over an ominous E minor blues tune, he offered a look at the state of the nation from the point of view of an average working stiff:
Days of work and nights of fun
Shade your red eyes from the sun
Was it all a joke or were you mistaken
You stood pat while the world was shaken
Welcome to the golden age
Time to turn another page
Dreaming of the bells and towers
Pass the hat and send the flowers
When your life’s Geneva Conventional
From the hot bed to the confessional
Kiss the ground, dry your tears
See what’s come of your best years
Murphy wrote that a few years before 9/11, making it all the more prescient. Later he did a vividly surreal new number, Another Lesson I Never Learned, set to a deceptively simple, potently crescendoing post-Velvets melody:
The indiscretions of pillow talk
They don’t erase like limestone chalk
The broken wisdom was perfectly slurred
It wasn’t just your vision that blurred
Like the manuscript that refused to burn
Here’s another lesson I never learned
He also did the gorgeous, sad ballad Saturday’s Down, a requiem for the death of half the weekend (and for Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, soon to be surrounded by “luxury” towers made of plastic and sheetrock); the bouncy crowd-pleaser Midnight Espresso; the fiery blues Nowhere Now, and a newly reworked, 6/8 version of one of his most apt cautionary tales, Bovine Brothers:
The young girls and their brothers drink to victory in the bars
And a sermon blares out all night from the roof of a radio car
Now who’ll be left to be afraid when everyone’s so damn brave
Jump headlong into their graves, beware these bovine brothers
Since most clubs – this one included – usually don’t have a clue what the word “segue” means, most New York audiences reflexively get up and leave after the act they came to see leaves the stage. Which can be a big mistake (how do you think we discovered half the acts we’ve profiled here for the better part of a year?). Trash Bar is usually a rock venue, but tonight they were having acoustic performers. The sound was excellent as it always is here, but the following player had a hard act to follow in Murphy. And he absolutely kicked ass. Myles Turney played a passionate, virtuosic mix of acoustic delta blues along with a few choice Hank Williams covers, rearranged for slide and open tunings. Vocally, he’s not exactly overwhelming, but he’s a hell of a guitarist. Some players approach old Robert Johnson songs and the like tentatively, as if they’re in a museum, but Turney lit into them with absolute delight. All those old blues guys wrote those songs as dance tunes, and Turney completely understands that. Nobody left the room til he was done playing. As it turns out, he’s a guitar teacher: it’s not hard to imagine that his students have as much fun as he does.