Lucid Culture


CD Review: Brooklyn Rider – Passport

Adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider have just released one of the year’s finest albums, Silent City (reviewed here recently), with brilliant Iranian composer/kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor. In addition to that cd, this strikingly original, melodically rich and beautifully recorded collection showcases the group playing arrangements of dark Armenian folk songs as well as an original and two brief pieces by noted violist/composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin (also very recently reviewed here). It should resonate equally well with rock and world music audiences as well as classical fans: there’s literally something for everyone here.


The Armenian pieces are all brief, some to the point of being fragmentary. All but one of them are very dark. Vagharshabadi Dance kicks off the cd on a fast and somewhat furtive note. If the slow, sad, 6/8 Harvest Song is to be taken on face value, it’s a bitter harvest. It’s Cloudy is appropriately nebulous, punctuated by gentle pizzicato plucks. Festive Song isn’t exactly festive, although it’s upbeat, the cello walking a bassline as the strings weave a path overhead. Only on the aptly titled The Partridge does a sprightly arrangement manage to push the clouds away. 


Brooklesca, by violinist Colin Jacobsen begins frenetic over a tricky time signature, with a darkly anticipatory edge much in the same vein as the group’s work with Kalhor that blends a latin feel with the crescendoing intensity of their ventures into Persian territory. The percussion lets the strings get ambient without ever losing sight of the piece’s underlying tension. It winds up to the very end on a delirious Balkan note.


La Muerte Chiquita is an imaginatively intense, fast instrumental reworking of Café Tacuba’s hypnotic, wah-wah guitar-driven mariachi-rock hit. The cd wraps up with the two Ljova compositions, Plume ranging from dark and nocturnal to atmospheric, Crosstown a beautiful, heartfelt tango that goes absolutely pitch-black before a remarkable transformation into a spiritual. Brooklyn Rider’s next New York performance is Dec 10 at 7 PM at Barbes, a rare and marvelous opportunity to see this magically rustic, haunting and pioneering group in an intimate setting.

November 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Marykate O’Neil – mkULTRA

Truth in advertising. The cd cover pictures a deadpan Marykate O’Neil in shirt and tie with old-fashioned 1950s glasses, holding a bottle of a suspicious, possibly mind-altering and tortuous substance designated for some poor unfortunate prisoner of the CIA. Onstage, O’Neil typically relies on a subtle wit to get her melodic, purist songs across, but this is one dark album. Needless to say, this isn’t your typical singer/songwriter fare.


Switching evocatively from Boston to a New York milieu, O’Neil’s vocals on the cd’s opening lament Green Street have Barbara Brousal-class subtlety and a lyric glistening with little gems:


The last time I saw you on Storrow Drive

You were walking your three-speed Huffy bike…

Dropping a nickel on the dime


Set to an imaginative acoustic trip-hop arrangement, Man manages to straddle the line between sensuality and frustration: “How did I get so fucked up,” O’Neil wails. On the bleak, depressed 6/8 ballad Nothing I Say or Do, layers of synth make their way in like a draft under the door. 


With its stately, eerily reverberating 6/8 guitar and insistent backing vocals leading up to the end of the verse, Trouble evokes Erika Simonian at her most angst-ridden, all the way up to the top of a towering, roaring crescendo, a vivid East Village tale that namechecks the Lakeside Lounge (yay!). 


The way the cd closes testifies to O’Neil’s fondness for classic pop songs. A stark take of Without You surpasses the Randy Newman original but falls short of the transcendent, bass-driven version that made the top 40 for Manfred Mann. The concluding cut, Happy, steals the eerie riff from Walking in the Rain (more evocative of the Flash & the Pan original than the Grace Jones version). “All I wanna be is happy,” is the anguished mantra O’Neil repeats over and over, making it clear that she’s a long way from there as the guitars burn and the percussion reaches a breakneck pace. Intense, powerful stuff. Marykate O’Neil plays Kenny’s Castaways at 8:30 PM on Nov 7; her December 8 show at Maxwell’s is sold out.

November 4, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ljova and the Kontraband – Mnemosyne

As richly captivating as it is innovative, the only problem this New York band’s mostly instrumental debut cd poses is one of categorization. There’s a jazz rhythm section, accordion and layers of strings and melodies here that veer between classical, Russian dances, klezmer and Balkan traditional songs, many with a decidedly cinematic feel. All this should come as no surprise since frontman/violist Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin is a Russian-born composer who gets a lot of film work. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the arch-muse and goddess of memory; there is also a river in Hades named Mnemosyne which serves as the opposite of the Lethe (from which dead souls were supposed to drink to forget their past lives).  While there’s certainly an otherworldly quality to some of this, most of it has an inspired improvisational vibe. This is a very playful group. There’s a great deal of communication and jousting between members, passing the baton, running relays and jumping out from behind things unexpectedly, and it sounds like everyone is having a great time.


The cd’s first cut, Mathias, seems to be a barnyard scene, opening with samples from a chicken coop and building to fast dance featuring Patrick Farrell’s accordion before an almost bop breakdown. The stately, accordion-driven title track features Ljova’s wife Inna Barmash (frontwoman of the wild Balkan party band Romashka) singing a nostalgic lyric by late 19th Century poet Trumbull Stickney, her voice ringing out with characteristic bell-like clarity up to big, lushly orchestrated crescendo. Walking on Willoughby effectively captures a bustling walk through downtown Brooklyn – or Paris, since Farrell approaches it as a musette, bassist Mike Savino walking a brisk 6/8 beat.


The most cinematic of the cuts here, Love Potion, Expired is a frenetic dance tense with anticipation that becomes evocatively furtive. Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet”) is a mournful, vengeful ballad sung by Barmash with some gorgeously restrained trumpet work from Frank London over a bed of strings and accordion ambience. The next two cuts, How Easily I Get Lost and Less both have something of a hypnotic afrobeat feel. The cd’s single best number is Untango, Uli Geissendoerfer’s piano’s vivid and rain-streaked with guest accordionist William Schimmel providing a perfect backdrop. There’s also a slow, percussive, haunting instrumental as well as a brisk klezmer dance, a mélange of latin and Balkan with a clever musical quote, and even a showtune (albeit one which doesn’t do the band or its singer justice). Live, the band definitely picks it up a notch, and has a considerably larger repertoire than this cd alludes to. If the members can find sufficient time to keep this band active – they’re all involved with other, excellent projects – the Kontraband’s ceiling is enormously high. They’re fun enough to win over the Gogol Bordello crowd, while their prodigious chops and imaginative genre-bending will draw in all the Kronos Quartet fans. Discover them before they’re samizdat. Ljova and the Kontraband’s next gig is Dec 13 at the Stone.

November 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Republic Tigers – Keep Color

Don’t let first appearances spoil the Republic Tigers’ debut cd for you. Sure, the Kansas City band could use a stylist and at first listen it seems they may be simply the latest to mine the early Radiohead/Coldplay, post-U2 ballad format. Not so. And just when you’re about to throw in the towel and call their lyrics high school stoner poetry, they throw a great line at you like “Don’t think I’ll tell you ‘bout the secret to victory…Remain who you are, and it will remain a mystery.” That’s from Give Arm to Its Socket, a quietly determined and quite sympathetic account of a terrorist with explosive in his pocket. That’s a characteristic touch here: the Republic Tigers are not a complacent band. They won’t go gladly into any kind of good night.


The production is terse, reverberating echoes of simple, single-note synth and electric piano with jangly guitar in the background, drums too high in the mix as with every major label release since…well, since Nirvana. The cd opens with Buildings and Mountains, a stoic reflection on the future with rather beautiful vocal harmonies on the chorus, hypnotic synthesizer runs waterfalling in the background. That vibe continues on Feelin’ the Future, after a number that nicks a very familiar Radiohead lick. The next cut continues the sardonic Britrock anthem feel: “Marching into the syncopated cold/It’s orchestrated to play til we give up and just grow old.”


There’s an impressively self-aware sensibility here. The casually desperate Fight Song leaves no doubt where the band stands on abiding by the status quo:


Everybody’s frightened

By the radically enlightened

And they say to jump

Still you reply

How high?


Not everything here is up to that level – and where did that goofy number about air guitar come from (looking for a product placement guys???). But ipod this and get drawn in by the understated lushness of the tunes and a refusenik sensibility that in the end is impossible to refuse. This band – which started out as simply a collaboration between two guys in the studio – is about to kick off a Midwest tour starting Nov 15, 9ish at the Hi Dive in Denver, $12 at the door. Watch this space for New York dates; a Bowery Ballroom show is likely.


November 4, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment