In case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s been a recent crop of songwriters who seem to have decided to write in every single worthwhile style of pop music ever invented – with great success. For one reason or another, maybe having to do with vocals, most of these songwriters are women: Neko Case, Rachelle Garniez and Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette, to name a few. New York expat Jenifer Jackson is another.
“Now I know how to get people to come to my shows,” she knowingly told the crowd at Joe’s Pub Friday night. “Leave New York. I’ve figured it out!” Jackson wasn’t exactly a little fish in the pond here, either. Respected by her peers and revered by a fan base for whom she seemingly can do no wrong (if she made an album of Monkees covers, they’d probably buy it), she nonetheless ran into the same brick wall affecting seemingly every New York artist, no matter how well-regarded they might be. Building a following here is tough, with literally scores of live shows competing against each other every night, a hometown media that’s essentially oblivious to hometown acts, and an ongoing process of suburbanization where artistically-inclined New Yorkers are being priced out of their neighborhoods and being replaced by corporate executives and their children from the suburbs. In other words, not exactly the kind of crowd you’d expect to come out to see anything more sophisticated than, say, Justin Timberlake. So Jackson packed up and moved to Austin.
Even more than her show at the Rockwood late last year, this was the emotional homecoming she eventually had to make, and she gave the standing-room-only crowd what they wanted. Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by just violinist Roland Satterwhite, she ran through a mix of mostly more recent material, including several songs from her most recent (and best) cd The Outskirts of a Giant Town. She also debuted three excellent new songs: a hopeful, midtempo country tune, Spring, that wouldn’t have been out of place on her 2001 album Birds; a pensively catchy, upbeat number possibly titled Tired; and the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, sad country waltz called The Beauty of the Emptying, with one of Jackson’s signature imagistic lyrics. Jackson gets accolades for her songwriting, but tonight was a vivid reminder of what a brilliant song stylist she is, alternating between a nuanced lower register and the soaring, airy delivery that has been her trademark throughout her career. There’s great passion and intensity in her songs and in her voice, but it’s generally very subtle, tonight’s stripped-down arrangements giving her vocals the perfect opportunity to cut through.
“This is a song that earned me two thousand dollars,” she told the crowd with considerable irony before launching into a boisterous version of one of her earliest songs, Mercury, the Sun and Moon, a somewhat eerie tribute to the joys and pleasure of being a bon vivant. When she and Satterwhite reached the bridge, she slammed out the song’s tango rhythm as he went into a frenzied gypsy-inflected solo. They encored with a fetching duet on the standard Every Time We Say Goodbye, Satterwhite switching to guitar. He’s an excellent singer, with a smooth, Chet Baker style delivery, making a good foil for Jackson’s warm, wistful vocals. She ended the song with gentle vocalese, going down the scale with a jazzy seventh chord. More than anything, tonight’s show was a reminder of everything we stand to lose if this city continues the decline that the Bloomberg administration and its developer cronies are dead set on bringing to its logical conclusion.
In a move straight out of 1984 (the book), Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has just signed into law a bill requiring any bookstore selling “sexually explicit materials” to register with the state. According to Publishers Weekly, stores will have to pay a $250 registration fee. Failure to register is against the law.
According to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the law is so broad that it could be applied to a mainstream novel, for example, the latest Danielle Steele.
Just in case you were wondering, Tipper Gore had nothing to do with this.
And in what looks like a blatant antitrust violation, amazon.com now requires that all print-on-demand books sold on their website be manufactured through their proprietary on-demand printer, whom they recently purchased to compete with Ingram Book Distributors’ popular Lightning Source supply system. This is especially disconcerting since amazon is a major source of sales for small or independent publishers whose books are kept on disc and printed as orders come in, rather than being manufactured and stored in a warehouse.
[postscript – good news on both fronts – the Indiana law was overturned and amazon backed down, allowing freedom of choice for small publishers
Earlier this week we set off on a mission to determine whether rock in this town is really dead, or if it’s just lurking in random dark corners. As an experiment, we chose two of New York’s best rock clubs, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, both being places with a good reputation for booking quality acts. We then looked up each and every act scheduled to play there in April to determine if we were missing out on anything, and if so, what.
The first part of the experiment yielded decidedly depressing results. Only 4 of the 57 acts on the bill at the first club were worth seeing. If this was baseball, that would translate to a puny .070 batting average, so bad that it’s almost impossible to achieve over 57 trips to the plate: you’d be dismissed to the minors, or, more likely, you’d be taken off the roster and put on irrevocable waivers long before you ever got that far.
Across the river, things took a more optimistic turn. Out of 114 bands on the bill for April, there were 12 who were solid hits. That works out to a pathetic .105 average, but the bright side is that there’s a good band playing at this place every three days, which is pretty good, especially compared to the competition. Moral of the story: we should stop being so cynical. Next step of the experiment: to dig even deeper at some of the more obscure places where bands who are just starting out, or who don’t have much of a following for one reason or another (which doesn’t mean that they’re bad) can be found.
All this digging uncovered a few other things. Both clubs, though small by comparison to, say, Bowery Ballroom, book an awful lot of out-of-town acts (who virtually always suck). The first club turned out to be primarily a gay bar catering to the trust-fund crowd; the second has much more of a ROCKNROLL!!! vibe and books a lot of theme nights featuring various corporate styles, from metal to Weezer-style nerd-rock. Check our NYC live music calendar (to your right, under Categories) to find out what we discovered – since bad press is better than no press, it doesn’t make any sense to identify any of the endless parade of eunuchs and posers who didn’t make the grade.
Mark Fry is the latest British folkie on the comeback trail. His new cd, Shooting the Moon is only his second recording. Thirty-six years have come and gone since RCA Italy released his only other album, Dreaming with Alice in 1972. Out of print for decades (although recently reissued on cd by Sunbeam), it’s a strange yet compelling blend of British folk and psychedelia, perhaps a British counterpart to Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s utterly bizarre yet sometimes entrancing Farewell Aldebaran. In the years that passed, Fry never abandoned music, though his public performances became very infrequent while he pursued what would become a far more successful career as a painter, with several solo exibitions in the UK over the past few years.
This album, while hardly a follow-up, reveals that Fry hasn’t lost his utterly unique and somewhat disquieting vision. This album has a striking and also somewhat baffling resemblance to David J’s solo work, musically at least, right down to the darkly attractive, major-key chordal work, vocal phrasing, guitar tunings and sparse arrangements typical of the Bauhaus bassist’s quieter, more stark, late 80s/early 90s songs. But one can only wonder if the two even know each other exist. In any event, they’d make a great double bill! Fry’s acoustic guitar and casually bright vocals are backed in places by tasteful pedal steel, piano, violin and occasionally a rhythm section: it’s all very pretty and best when it takes on a nocturnal feel, which is often. The songwriting here is saturnine and somewhat woozy from time to time, precisely what one would expect from someone who lived through the sixties (insert amnesiac punchline here). The album’s opening track, Under the Milky Way (NOT the Church’s 1988 cocaine anthem) has the narrator perplexed, thinking the sky’s about to fall on him. As it turns out, it’s only the clouds messing around. One can only wonder what prompted that observation (definitely not cocaine). The same rings true for many of the other songs, like the following track, Big Silver Jet:
It’s slipping through my fingers
Like the rays of the sunset
It’s slipping through my radar
Like a big silver jet
As with the rest of the instruments, Fry’s fingerstyle acoustic and electric guitar work is understated but fluid, particularly the warm, lushly overdubbed You Make It Easy. But on the rest of the album, there’s a chill in the air, regrets over not having done one thing or another, and a pervasive sense of unease everywhere. “You’re like a box of chocolates that melts in the sun,” Fry wryly tells a lover.
The album’s most memorable – and concluding – cut, the brief, upbeat, gently swaying title track, is set in a junkyard, its residents raising a quiet racket by the light of the moon:
You can hear them dancing like soldiers
To their lost parade
Dancing to the junkyard serenade
We’re all shooting the moon tonight
But if you’re not paying attention, it sounds like Fry is singing “we’re all shivering in the moon tonight,” which probably isn’t intentional but perfectly capsulizes what he’s done here. For fans of eerie singer-songwriters everywhere, from Nick Drake to the aforementioned David J or even Syd Barrett.
Don’t let an oud scare you. Ouds don’t bite. Actually, they do – they sink their fangs into anything they play, with gusto. An oud is a Middle Eastern bass lute, one of the most beautiful and haunting instruments ever invented, as ubiquitous in Arab music as the guitar is in rock. They’re typically tuned in any number of maqams, the eerie, microtonal modal scales used in Arab music. Last night at Barbes an absolutely packed house was treated to rare solo performances by two superb Palestinian-American oud players.
Solo oud is as rare as solo guitar. It’s usually the lead instrument in the same type of configuration as a rock band, with frequently more than one percussionist, violin, maybe accordion and vocals. But the best oud players are worth seeing all by themselves, as Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh proved tonight. Tawil opened with a quietly crescendoing, ruminative, pastoral Moroccan piece evocative of Hamza El Din’s cult classic The Water Wheel. He followed with another pretty tune, this one from Turkey, utilizing a hammer-on technique frequently used in country guitar playing. The next number, a gorgeously dark, slinky, dance tune built over a catchy descending progression screamed out for a band to follow along with Tawil’s perfect timing and dynamics as the dance rose to a crescendo and then suddenly shifted before building ecstatically once again. The final works he played were less intense but no less captivating.
Unfortunately, prior commitments necessitated a departure early in Georges Ziadeh’s solo performance: his absolutely brilliant take on a long, hauntingly complex seven-minute Turkish overture made it very difficult to leave. The two performers were scheduled to play together at the end of the show, but, sadly, there were places to go and things to do. This performance was put together by the Brooklyn Arts Council, who, unbeknownst to us have been presenting numerous free shows as part of their annual Brooklyn Maqam Arab Music Festival throughout this past month. This year’s festival winds up with a two-hour free performance of music from throughout the Arab world at Alwan for the Arts, 16 Beaver St., 4th Floor in the Financial District at 9 tomorrow night, March 29 and concludes with a 1:30 PM interfaith show at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn on Sunday the 30th, featuring choral and instrumental works from Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts.
Driven with the sheer obsessiveness of a former college radio dj who can’t stand to be out of the loop, we’re on a mission to see how the other half lives. As you can see from our monthly NYC live music calendar, there are tons of great shows going on all over town. But from week to week, you’ll notice that we haven’t been listing much rock music, because most of what we see SUCKS.
In an ongoing effort to determine if we’re A) completely out of the loop or B) on to something, a decision was made to go through the entire April calendar at two of New York’s best venues, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn (no, NOT Bowery Ballroom and Luna Lounge – you already know the bands who play there). Both of the clubs we chose are professionally staffed, have excellent sound, and frequently good shows: we’ve reviewed several shows at each venue.
Unfortunately, part one of this experiment yielded decidedly horrible results: either this April is a particularly bad month, or else things are really as dead as we thought they were in the New York rock world. The few good bands we ran across are currently listed in our March/April calendar. Because no press is worse than bad press, we decided not to identify any of the others. Here’s the bands listed as playing next month at club #1:
1. Silly New Zealand disco-pop
2. A dorky, awkward, minimalist Japanese singer-songwriter
3. More lame, geeky dork-pop, this time from Virginia
4. Even more dorks, this time from San Francisco, who call themselves psychedelic/Americana/tropical when they’re really just dilettantes who can’t play their instruments or sing.
5. A fussy, random, nonsensical project involving computers and loops
6. Good Charlotte wannabes playing generically cheery, conformist shopping mall punk-pop. At least they can play their instruments.
7. Female-fronted Good Charlotte wannabes. At least they’re an original kind of ripoff.
8. Ramones wannabes from Wyoming with really awful lyrics and a singer who sounds like he’s about eleven.
9. Really horrible twee indie rock from Boston: childish lyrics and dorky off-key boy/girl vocals
10. Noisy, tuneless Gainesville, Florida indie rock: fast beats, loud lo-fi guitars
11. Grating, unmelodic, slow gothcore from Australia
12. A non-musical act, somebody who plugs in his ipod and then dances around
13. Loud, annoying, industrial noise – hard to tell if they’re using instruments or computers. It’s billed as “psychedelia.”
14. More random industrial noise, probably more annoying the more it’s amplified
15. Tuneless lo-fi mumblecore from Purchase, NY
16. A schizophrenic indie band from Richmond who can’t decide whether they’re mumblecore, trip-hop or Sonic Youth wannabes
17. Arch, singsongey indie pop from Philly with a guy who tries to sing falsetto but who can’t hit the notes
18. A guy who makes random, echoey stoner guitar loops
19. Yowling trendoids from Brooklyn who aren’t aware that banging on out-of-tune guitars and pretending to be country hicks is so 1985.
20. Sonic Youth wannabes from Brooklyn who can’t write or sing or for that matter really play guitar either
21. A really good, totally kick-ass garage punk band from Brooklyn
22. Boring, melodically-challenged Brooklynites who can’t figure out what corporate band they want to ape most: Marooon 5? Interpol?
23. A wimpy guitar/piano trendoid duo: teenage stoner poetry for lyrics, mumbly off-key vocals
24. Gawky, shambling lo-fi indie rock from DC with vocals so awful they make you laugh.
25. A fiftysomething ex-member of an obscure late 70s British new wave band playing solo
26. A promising garage/R&B-inflected NY punk band with a deliciously vicious sense of humor
27. A punky Brooklyn girlpop band with good energy and some promise, if they can put some tunes together
28. A thrashy Brooklyn band with some promise and a sense of satire but an unfortunate tendency to fall into wannabe-Sonic Youth clichés
29. A lo-fi acoustic dork who plays in that awful uber-trendy acoustic dork band with that girl with the really HUGE ass, who just got all those songs in that trendy movie
30. A precious, sixtysomething freak-folk singer from the 70s trying to cash in on the freak-folk revival a la Vashti Bunyan, with similarly dismal results
31. A singer-songwriter who’s also a first-class lyricist and a good singer with some cool narrative songs, even if some of her stuff comes across as a little stiff.
32. A precious, arch Portland indie pop band who sometimes venture into 80s goth territory
33. Somebody who, if the myspace the club calendar links to is actually hers (it might not be – you’ll see why), has absolutely no aptitude for either guitar or vocals and really shouldn’t embarrass herself by getting onstage and trying to play in front of a crowd.
34. A lo-fi Courtney Love wannabe from the UK
35. Somebody else from the UK doing Brian Eno-style ambient noise for stoners
36. A poetry reading
37. A pounding, tuneless Boston band, hardcore bordering on emo
38. Liz Phair wannabes from DC with literary pretensions
39. Lame lo-fi stoner “experimental” trendoid garbage from Brooklyn
40. An unlistenable, uncategorizable, grating, percussive, very popular indie band from Brooklyn whose silly, singsongey vocals rival #24 above
41. A weird Brooklyn stoner quintet who dabble in Latin, afropop and trancey instrumentals, who could be good if they can find some focus.
42. Tuneless trendoids who alternate between Sonic Youth wannabe stuff and twee acoustic songs
43. A drony goth-ish stoner noise band led by that woman from that popular indie band
44. An Israeli thrash-metal band
45. A lousy Athens, Georgia garage band with an annoying, preening vocalist
46. An unbelievably bad local indie band: shouted, atonal vocals, no tunes whatsoever and stupid high school stoner poetry
47. One of those new freak-folk types who’s just as weird and boring as the first wave
48. A campy, funny ha-ha, i.e. not funny at all gay acoustic duo
49. No music tonight –the club has a gay disco party in lieu of bands
50. A guy from New Hampshire with the same name as that Yankees prospect who was traded for that big star who never panned out, who sings in a stilted, declamatory voice and can’t write to save his life.
51. A decent, upbeat two-guitars-and-drums lo-fi garage band from Brooklyn
52. A trendoid trio from Atlanta who sort of attempt to play garage music but can’t even tune their guitars, let alone play them
53. A generic hardcore band from New Jersey (where else, right?)
54. A recent Parsons grad who’s trying to mesh Arab and Appalachian music, with mixed results.
55. A trendoid who plays as if he’s never seen a guitar or microphone in his life and is very afraid of both
56. See #24 above.
57. An inoffensive singer-songwriter who couldn’t wait to start playing out even though he really can’t sing or write songs with any originality.
But the experiment was worth it: two excellent, loud rock bands, one ok-to-good band and a familiar singer-songwriter who has a good way with words. Stay tuned for part 2 when we venture across the water, figuratively speaking.
Turn It All Red is the title of the excellent new janglerock album from Bay Area songwriter Deborah Crooks. Backed by a tight three-piece band, singer/guitarist Crooks opens the album with the catchy, bouncy title track. It’s about pulling out all the stops: “pull out your purple heart and turn it all red,” she cajoles. And what a fine song stylist she is, sounding like Chrissie Hynde at her late 80s peak as a vocalist on the next track, the beautifully pensive Land’s End. In a highly nuanced, subtly soul-inflected delivery, she retraces the steps of someone who’s finally come into her own, finally ready to stop burning her bridges. She maintains that feel on the next track, Raising Cain, whose narrator is simply trying to find her way through the storm while maintaining her sanity:
You can raise a nation, and birth a son
But where does a daughter get to stand
Who’s eaten that apple
Gleaned from this poisoned land
“Rock the cradle all the way to the grave,” Crooks sings with not a little bittersweetness at the end of the chorus. The ep concludes on the same upbeat note where it began with another catchy, bouncing pop-rock tune, Café la Vie. The only complaint about this album is that there aren’t more songs on it. What a nice surprise to get this in the mail!
A mesmerizing, passionate, intoxicatingly good performance by the Bronx-born, second-generation Iranian-American psychedelic rocker and her four-piece band. Haale – as in jalapeno – treated the crowd to a hypnotic, pulsing blend of indie rock and classical Persian music. Her backing unit featured violin, cello and two percussionists, one of whom had a spiral gong that he waited til almost the end of the show to make a massive, magnificent splash with. Most of the solos were taken by the violinist, who showed off a spectacularly eerie, gypsy side; the cellist often played dark chords low on the register, frequently evoking another superb New York band, Rasputina. Haale frequently utilizes open guitar tunings that lend themselves especially well to the trancelike feel of much of her music. Vocally, she goes for a drawling, soul-inflected style, but somehow she manages to make it sound completely unaffected, perhaps because it fits her lyrics and her vision so well: this artist is all about adrenaline, exhilaration and transcendence, the soaring exuberance of her voice contrasting with the frequently haunting chromatics of the music.
Speaking in Persian, she rattled off a poem with an obviously impressive, intricate rhythm and rhyme scheme. “That was written eight hundred years ago, in Iran,” she told the audience. “That’s hip-hop!” she exclaimed. And the beat her band was using was pure trip-hop, even if it dates back centuries. Much of the set was new songs from her just-released full-length debut cd, No Ceiling, including the tongue-in-cheek yet plaintive Off Duty Fortune Teller. She told the audience of how Jimi Hendrix, during his brief time as an Army paratrooper, resolved to find a way to make his guitar produce the droning rumble of an airplane engine, then played an evocative new song inspired by that revelation. The set built a crescendo to a wild, swirling finish; Haale saved her best songs for last. The crowd – an impressively diverse crew – wanted more, but it was almost closing time. If this show is any indication, the new album is amazing.
This just in: India has just successfully tested a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead at a distance of just 435 miles. Presumably, a successful test means that at the end of the flight, the missile crashes.
Isn’t this like building the kitchen over the septic tank?