Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Song of the Day 5/31/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Sunday’s song is #423:

Mary Lee’s Corvette – Herculetta

This is a song about hubris – and about being casually crushed by a world that couldn’t care less. That’s what’s so cool about frontwoman Mary Lee Kortes’ songwriting – as with Elvis Costello, there are so many levels of meaning in everything she writes. Nicely ornate ELO-ish chamber-pop arrangement, too. From the 700 Miles cd, 2004.

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May 31, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview – Black Sea Hotel

One of New York’s most unique and exciting musical acts, Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir. They’re releasing their debut album, a starkly beautiful, otherworldly cd of traditional Bulgarian and Macedonian choral music, much of which they’ve imaginatively adapted and arranged for four voices. The cd release show is June 4 at 9 PM at Union Pool. The group’s four women: Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder took the time out of their busy performance schedule to discuss their upcoming album with Lucid Culture:

Lucid Culture: What’s up with the scary black octopus on the cd cover? 

Corinna Snyder: Joy had an encounter with a jellyfish in the Black Sea when we were all in Bulgaria a few years ago, and when we started thinking about images for our album, we kept thinking about unusual sea creatures, and kept coming back to the image of the octopus. We love our octopus. You know, they are insanely flexible, and they are very smart, very soulful animals. We want to stick pictures of octopi on everything Black Sea Hotel.  We also like that octopi have 8 arms. And, in total, so do we. We like that the 4 of us are in one creature—the octopus. 

LC: And how about the eerie horror-movie soft-focus pictures of the four of you on the cd booklet?

CS: Well we sometimes do have an otherworldly kind of sound, don’t you think? And we were going with an ethereal, watery feel for the album art, which makes some sense of a band named after a body of water…

LC: Let’s introduce the band. On your myspace page in the upper lefthand corner that’s – I think: left to right – Corinna, Joy, Willa and Sarah, right? –

CS: MMM…no. It’s Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa. And now we’re totally intrigued as to why you thought differently….

LC: I’ve seen you live a couple of times and one of you called Joy by name onstage so I know who she is – but the rest of you, I’m completely lost…

CS: But anyway I think the myspace changed.  On the back of the cd it’s left to right Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa.

LC: My favorite album track that’s up on your myspace page is Vecheraj Angjo, which is the third cut from the new cd. Who’s doing the lead vocal?

CS: The song starts with Joy and myself sharing the lead vocal line, so it is actually two of us glued together on one part. Then we move the melody across the voices over the course of the song.  We do that sometimes with our songs, maybe especially on the ones Joy arranges, now that we think about it. Sometimes we move songs back and forth between two lead singers too, trading verses, which is a traditional form for two voiced songs from the south west region of Bulgaria, so there’s something old embedded in that new arrangement.

LC: And what does the title mean? I think it’s a nocturne of some kind, right?

CS: You know, traditional titles of songs in Bulgaria are the first few words of the song – which means that sometimes you have many many different songs with the same name, because many songs start with the same opening images, like “They were gathering,” as in, they were gathering up a crop, which is also a very traditional way to start a song. It’s typical of oral poetry traditions, really – and that’s really what these songs are. When you talk to the great Balkan singers they really focus their emotional energy on the powerful stories that they’re telling.  

The actual title means Eat up, Angjo.  It’s not really a nocturne: it’s a dance song.  It’s a mother urging her son to eat up and get going – they have a long way to go with their bride, and on the way she’s afraid of passing Gjorgija, who will be standing in a doorway, bottle of rakija in hand – in that rakija there’s magic, and she’s afraid it will ensorcell the bride.  Rakija is the brandy they make in the Balkans. And it does have its own kind of magic, it’s true. 

LC: Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that Black Sea Hotel would ever exist?

CS: We all have such wild dreams I guess we could imagine anything.  

LC: Is it possible that New York is the only place – other than, say, Sofia – where this group could have actually come together?  

CS: Actually, it’s probably more likely to find a group like ours outside of Bulgaria. One of the things that distinguishes us from a lot of other groups is that we create most of our own arrangements.  Many other groups mostly stick to singing arrangements composed for the official Bulgarian choirs, a compositional practice that started in the 50s.  I don’t know of any other vocal group in Bulgaria where the singers get to be the arrangers too – that’s also a little different.   

LC: Do any of you have Balkan ancestry, a connection to the area?

CS: None of us have any Balkan background, which many Bulgarians find completely fascinating and flummoxing.  

LC: Is there a cute backstory to how Black Sea Hotel got started? Something like, Joy hears Corinna swearing under her breath in Macedonian on the subway and says to herself, “That’s just the girl I want to start a band with!”

CS: That would have been so cool. But it was way more pedestrian. We met in another Bulgarian singing group – that group disbanded, and we four started singing together as Black Sea Hotel almost two years ago.

LC: Obviously – educated guess – the Bulgarian Voices aka Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares are an influence, right? Was that the first exposure that you had to Balkan music, or specifically to Bulgarian choral music?

CS: Each of us has a different “first time'”story. I heard the Music of Bulgaria album by Nonesuch when I was about 10 years old and was totally taken. I grew up in Cambridge where I was lucky enough to join a Balkan choir when I was 12 – it continues to be the most physical music I have ever made, I think that’s what first connected me to it, and what keeps me connected.   

Sarah Small: I grew up with musician parents who played in opposingly different musical traditions – an atonal/modern piano player/composer, and a Renaissance lutenist mother. Those were my first musical influences. But it was not til college when I heard Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares while listening to music at the Providence Public Library and fell madly in love with Bulgarian music. Then, after moving to New York in 2001, while looking on craigslist for a goth-rock band to sing and play cello with, I came across auditions for start-up Bulgarian women’s choir. I ran right over to audition immediately. 

Willa Roberts: I’ve always had a serious love of ethnic and folk music from all over the world.  My mother was a bellydancer when I was born (in fact, it’s my earliest memory), and I grew up with Middle Eastern music in the house, which had a profound effect on my musical tastes.  She also plays piano and sings, and my whole family is musical.  I heard Le Mystere at some point in high school and fell in love.  Eventually I found my way into playing violin in the Mid East/Balkan ensemble at the College of Santa Fe, and the moment I had the opportunity to sing this music with them, I was totally hooked.  It was like a dream come true.

LC: How long did you study it before you started Black Sea Hotel?

CS: We all come from different backgrounds, but all of us have been musicians of some kind since we were kids. And we had worked together on this music in our previous group for almost two years.  

LC: What were you singing before then? 

CS: Joy was a big musical theater kid. Sarah studied classical cello. Willa studied Turkish violin and sang in a rock band. I studied classical voice and played standup bass.  We continue to do other music as well – Sarah writes trippy goth rock on Logic; Willa plays and sings with a Turkish band and a Balinese gamelan; Joy has a kirtan band; I sing with a Macedonian wedding band – we all do different things. 

LC: I described the music on the cd as otherworldly. Do you agree with that, is that an accurate assessment?

CS: We think the otherworldliness of our sound comes about for a few different reasons. One is that if you don’t speak Bulgarian, you have no lyrics to latch on to. Another is that we do work hard to blend our voices really tightly. The melodies themselves can also be undeniably haunting. And lastly, the timbre of the voice is different in Balkan music – as are the intervals and the rhythm. All together that does create a more otherworldly feel.

LC: There’s a lot of longing in those songs: one girl misses her home and family, another really wants a husband – or a boyfriend – another woman cries because she’s been having trouble conceiving. Is this a representative cross-section of your typical Bulgarian and Macedonian folk music, or did you deliberately go out looking for sad, beautiful songs?  

CS: There really are a lot of sad songs in this tradition. There are of course more light hearted songs out there, but the soulful old stuff usually tells a hard and heartbreaking story.

LC: How old are these songs? Do they still resonate culturally in Bulgaria or Macedonia, or are you reviving them? 

CS: Our source melodies come from all over. Many of our arrangements are based on melodies from Shopluk, in the southwest of Bulgaria, which is one of the few places where women sing melodies and drones together, and where there is a very rich tradition of work and field songs. Some songs in our repertoire are very obscure – Vardar Muten is based on a ritual melody that was collected by an ethnomusicologist in the 70s — and some are extremely well known – the melody for Makedonsko Devoiche [on the cd] was written in the 20th century and every Macedonian knows it.  Our arrangement, though, is totally different than the arrangement that usually accompanies this song – it’s as if a Macedonian completely rearranged the Star Spangled Banner.  This song is our most popular download, too.  

LC: I understand you’ve arranged a lot of these yourself. Sarah in particular gets credit on the cd for a lot of the arrangements. Are all of you arrangers?

CS: Sarah was the first to start arranging, and I’m the  last – I’m in the middle of my first piece now.

LC: How did you learn the songs? From albums, from hearing the songs live? I assume all of you read music. Anybody in the group with conservatory training?

CS: OK, so only one of us really reads music. But this is an oral tradition – the old songs are almost never transcribed.  The complex ornamentation, microtones and rhythms don’t really lend themselves to transcription.  So almost all the melodies we learned from other singers, or from recordings. When it is an existing arrangement, we either search long and hard for the sheet music, or we try to figure it out from the recordings that we have.

LC: Wow! On the cd, I hear all of you taking what in rock music would be called a “lead vocal.” In addition to your own parts, do you ever swap, for example, Willa and Sarah take over the other’s part? 

CS: Not sure what you mean – we sometimes trade the melody, like in Ja Izlezni, or Spava Mi Se, when the two pairs sing back and forth, or two voices trade verses, or in Momche and Vecheraj Agnjo, where the melody moves across our voices

LC: How about trying your hand, your hands at songwriting? You’re so good at the traditional stuff, have you ever thought of trying your hand at creating something new, adding to the canon?

CS: We are working on a new arrangement now that will be mostly in English.  It’s been really challenging, though, as the tradition of storytelling in American and English songs is totally different than in the Balkan tradition – the way stories work, the way phrases are repeated, the impact of certain images. It’s hard to sing Balkan in English. 

LC: How about improvisation? Does that factor at all into what you do, or into Bulgarian choral music in general?   

CS: OK, I’m gonna get pedantic for a sec. Bulgarian choral music was created by a cadre of very talented, classically trained composers in Bulgaria starting in the 50s.  They found extremely talented traditional singers from every musical region in Bulgaria and formed the national Radio choir, and they were the first to perform the multipart choral works.  A classic example of that compositional style is Dragana I Slavej. With a composed piece, the only room that there might be for improvisation is in something like Bezrodna Nevesta, another example of the “classical” folk pieces.  There the lead voice, when establishing the melody, might vary the way she ornaments and stretches the melody – but beyond that, there’s no room for anything more. 

There’s not much room for improvisation in this choral form, but there is lots of room for it in the old songs, especially the ballads, which are usually sung by one singer, and are unmetered. Our arrangement of Mome Stoje is based on that kind of ballad. There a singer will work with ornamentation, she’ll create tension by stretching lines and tones, she’ll work back and forth across fast and slow phrases, and every singer will have her own interpretation.  

LC: Can we be upfront about this: none of you are native Bulgarian or Macedonian speakers, right? I can tell right off the bat if somebody is speaking Spanglish, or bad French, or mangling one of the romance languages, but I haven’t got a clue how good your accents and your pronunciation are…

CS: Apparently we kick ass in the pronunciation department. This spring we performed in Philadelphia and a Bulgarian singer came to the show, and she said that usually, when she hears Americans singing in Bulgarian, there are always little give-aways – the pronunciation of the letters T, D, and L, in particular – but that we didn’t have any. We’ve even been told that our regional accents in songs are dead-on.  A couple of times we’ve had Bulgarians come up to us after shows and just start talking Bulgarian – they assume we must be fluent given our pronunciation.  That’s really gratifying, because we work hard on that part of our work. We don’t get caught up in maintaining authenticity in much of what we do – it would be ridiculous for us to do so, as contemporary American singers – but we do want to speak the language correctly.

LC: In addition to singing the part, you also look the part. Where do you get your stagewear, and are your outfits really Bulgarian? 

CS: We do have some seriously heavy and heatstroke-inducing old costumes that we bought in Bulgaria, but we don’t wear them that often because they often fit weird, they weigh as much as two sheep and are hard to wash. But they are cool looking. We’re thinking of reconstructing them at some point, so that we can wear them without passing out.

LC: As a lot, but I think not enough people know, there’s a very active Balkan music scene, a sort of Balkan underground here in NYC. I know you’ve played with Ansambl Mastika, a great band who you mention in your shout-outs in the cd package. Who else are you fans of? Here’s your chance to plug all your friends…

CS: Oh – so many! Raya Brass Band, Slavic Soul Party, Veveritse, Kadife, Zlatne Uste, Luminescent Orchestrii, AE, the Kolevi Family, Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni, Which Way East, Ivan Milev, Ansambl Mastika, Ljova and Inna’s various bands – Ljova and the Kontraband, Romashka, Barmaljova, etc.  Also we love Stagger Back Brass Band..I’m sure I’ve forgotten some already.

LC: This happens to me once in awhile: somebody hears something I’m listening to, makes a face and says it’s quote-unquote weird. Has this happened to you, and how do you respond to that?

CS: When people see us live it’s harder to call it weird because we look normal. But it does wig people out sometimes when we’ll do a really old-style song that’s totally dissonant and arrythmic and has lots of yipping and shaking sounds.  I guess we’re lucky so far that the audience who sees and hears us is usually one that’s open to this, or knows something about it. But we want to branch out. We’re waiting for the first gig we do where the audience just doesn’t get it – and seeing how we deal with that.  

LC: Where do you want to go with this? It seems to me that you have an extremely high ceiling. I mean, you could dump the dajyobs and support yourself by touring cultural centers across the country. Maybe around the world. Especially since le Mystere des Voix Bulgares don’t tour much anymore…

CS: We talk about doing a college road show, leading workshops and doing concerts.  It would be lucrative…but it might not be the most interesting thing for us to do musically. I guess touring never is. We’re talking a lot now about what to do next – thinking a lot about collaborating with other sounds, traditions, styles, to see what happens.

LC: Besides Balkan music, what else are you four listening to these days? I know for example, Willa, you’re also into gamelan music from Bali, being a member of Gamelan Dharma Swara, New York’s very own gamelan. How about the rest of you? 

CS: The other day in practice, Joy exclaimed how much she’s been loving listening to Moroccan desert blues. Then Willa concurred – and she’s into Mauritanian desert blues as well. So apparently half the group’s obsessed with desert blues.

LC: So am I! I just saw Tinariwen at le Poisson Rouge, they were great!

CS: Sarah tends to listen to a lot of beat driven heavy rock with blankets of vocal harmonies and likes listening to Philip Glass when editing photos. Willa’s been discovering more rock bands that have interesting harmonies, like Panda Bear and Dirty Projectors – she always wondered why there weren’t more bands that had dense and complex vocal harmonies, and recently there seem to be more emerging.  I am obsessively listening to this cd of Greek festival processions where men wear enormous sheep bells. You gotta hear it!

LC: You’ll probably laugh when you hear this, but has anybody suggested, “Hey you should try out for American Idol?” You’ve got the chops, there’s no doubt about it…

CS: Um, that would probably be the gig where the audience doesn’t get it. Actually we HAVE thought of this and it has been mentioned before. NOT kidding. It would be pretty wild and maybe stir things up. 

LC: You’re all fully capable of fronting pretty much any band you might want to sing for. Any interest in doing that – obviously while keeping Black Sea Hotel together of course!

CS: We are working on ways to take what we do best – sing close strange harmonies in weird rhythms — and do it in other genres, outside the confines of Balkan music. It would be a dream come true to be involved in something with a group like the Kronos Quartet, or collaborate with a composer like Tod Machover, or work with a rock band. 

LC: Here’s a conundrum that I hear all the time from all the promoters and publicists trying to get their world music acts some press. How do you cross over, out of a niche market? “If we could only find a way to get all the Lucinda Williams fans to listen to Angelique Kidjo,” etc. etc. Do you have any thoughts about building a following with what you do, considering how radically different it is from American music, especially the pop music coming out of the corporations these days?

CS: We struggle with this like many of our compatriots in that awfully named “world music” genre.  We get told that we could get booked more if we were more accessible. One of the challenges is the lyrics, and we’re actually working on a piece now that will combine English and Macedonian. But we’re not really sure what ‘more accessible’ really means – and how much we would have to change to get there. You could say if we sang in English we’d be more accessible, but I’m not sure that’s really honest either. Maybe more, but not a whole lot more.  

LC: Have you ever wondered what might happen if girls were exposed to what you do early in life? What I mean is obviously what you’ve achieved is a result of talent and brains rather than simply looking good. Would you consider yourselves role models in that sense? 

CS: Yow! Never thought about it that way. The music industry production mill for girl singers sucks, but at this point it’s just about as bad for boys too.  

LC: Since you started doing this, have Bulgarian guys started hitting on you?

CS: Not particularly. We have yet to meet the enormous émigré Bulgarian guy population that is into Bulgarian roots music.

Black Sea Hotel play the cd release for their debut album on a great bill starting at 9 PM at Union Pool on Thurs, June 4 with Sxip Shirey opening, then BSH, then Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Little Annie and the Miren at the Delancey, NYC 5/28/09

After next Thursday’s show (6/4/09 with Alice Texas and Darren Gaines & the Key Party), Small Beast will be moving from Thursdays to Mondays upstairs at the Delancey starting June 22 for the rest of the summer, then back to Thursdays in the fall. The official explanation is too many conflicts with private parties scheduled in the upstairs space: too many clueless tourists completely baffled and possibly annoyed by music far too edgy for the average New Jersey suburbanite is probably closer to the truth. More about that later.

As regular readers and Beastophiles know by heart, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch opened the show as usual, solo on piano, fiery and intense as always. You never know what you’re going to get, week in, week out. This time the set was rich with songs from recent Botanica albums along with a fast take on Wallfisch’s cohort, smoky-voiced noir cabaret singer/personality/legend Little Annie’s Because You’re Gone. Eventually he brought up the drummer from the Miren, the next act, for what’s become the Small Beast theme, Eleganza and Wines. Without missing a 7/8 beat, the guy added a triphop vibe, bringing out every bit of slinkiness and sexiness in the album version (there are two, from Berlin Hi-Fi, the second with a string quartet). Even though the room was pretty empty, Wallfisch couldn’t resist coming out from behind the Beast (in tune, as it has been lately, a particularly pleasant development) and leading the crowd in a clapalong in an odd tempo. If the tourists hadn’t all gone straight up to the bar on the roof, there no doubt would have been some odd looks – we’re getting to that.

The next act, the Miren, an avant-jazz trio utilizing sax, guitar, both upright and electric bass and drums, were great fun. Their first song sounded like Morphine gone post-bop, bassist Ben Miller wailing on some big chords. The next piece layered trippy guitar effects over a 6/8 groove; after that, Miller switched to electric bass for a murky mood piece, then a growling, lumbering King Crimson-inflected number with squealing sax. Their last number set James Blood Ulmer-inflected fractured blues to a strolling, bass-driven 6/8 beat. This was their debut gig together, and Miller intimated that this might also be their last. If that’s true, that’s too bad.

Then Wallfisch brought up Annie, looking “very Chanel,” as the petite chanteuse noted sarcastically from behind a big floppy hat and huge onyx earrings. She’d been stuck in traffic and was obviously perturbed: “Apparently if you live in midtown, everybody thinks you’re a tourist now.” Her cab driver had tried to sleazily cajole her into letting him take her via a lengthy detour up Sixth Avenue, so she’d put a quick stop to that. “The television in the back of the cab looked like William Burroughs put it together,” she groused, noting how expensive a distraction it could be for unwary passengers. When it comes to September songs, Little Annie is the standard of the world, and she brought out several, casting shadows against Wallfisch’s vividly shiny, coloristic piano. Beside You, Beside Myself was characteristically pensive; Before You Got Carried Away, a requiem, played up the black-humor angle. Her obviously autobiographical, aptly amusing catalog of bad behavior, The Other Side of Heartache was pretty straight-up this time out. As the set went on, the volume of tourists passing on their way to the stairs picked up, including a couple of openly derisive fratboys (the same thing had happened to the equally formidable Larkin Grimm a few weeks ago). “I’m gonna shoot you and then beat your ass,” Annie threatened. The heckling continued from the bathroom. Annie stopped, mid-song and looked around, exasperated. “Honey…I can’t do this,” she said to Wallfisch.

“That’s ok,” he replied calmly. The duo took a few seconds’ breather and then kept going. Eventually one of the goons returned and mumbled an apology.

Annie would have no part of it. “Are you in the service? Did you get dishonorably discharged?” Finally, she forgave the fool, who retreated to the rooftop CEO’s-and-secretary-ho’s party. From there the mood brightened; the crowd, such that there was – Annie’s sold out two consecutive shows at Joe’s Pub and is a star in Europe, but apparently those crowds don’t venture below Houston – screamed for an encore and were rewarded with a tongue-in-cheek, festively beachy number.   

Those curious as to what Small Beast is all about can read all the Lucid Culture reviews of past shows. This being New York’s edgiest weekly music series, this is our usual Thursday night destination – until we switch to Mondays, which will be great because then that frees up Thursdays for other stuff for us, at least until the fall. Come out on June 4 at around 9 and see what you’ve been missing.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The New York Scandia Symphony at Trinity Church, NYC 5/28/09

Thursday at Trinity Church conductor Dorrit Matson led the pioneering New York Scandia Symphony through a characteristically enlightening and exciting performance that left no doubt that the Scandinavian composers of the early classical era were just as substantial – and could be sometimes just as schlocky – as their counterparts a little further south. This program featured a trio of compositions drawing on Viennese School influences, and as is the custom with the Scandia, one piece was a US premiere and the other, C.E.F. Weyse’s Symphony No. 6, was making its New York debut, two hundred years after it was written.   

They opened with Kuhlau’s Robbers Castle Overture. This one you know even if you think you don’t – it’s the kind of piece WQXR plays right before the top of the hour. A blazing, heroic theme, it’s essentially a series of codas, one on top of the other, leaving barely room to breathe. But breathing room is what Matson gave it, enhancing the cleverness of what’s essentially a single, long crescendo. The US premiere, Gunnar Berg’s 1950 composition Hymnos (“That little violin piece,” as a member of the ensemble sardonically characterized it afterward) was a revelation. In the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, it’s a tone poem, striking, static and still, the orchestra bringing out every bit of unrelenting tension in its stark, Stravinskian ambience.

Johan Halvorsen’s Suite Ancienne works off a typical 19th century trope. With a few exceptions (notably Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances), lush orchestrations of old folk tunes often leave an uninspired impression, but not the way the Scandia opened this one, careening with a reckless, beery abandon that proved impossible to resist. The second and third segment are somewhat annoyingly jiggy in places, but to the orchestra’s credit, the boisterous cheer never let up and this paid off in the end when finally some wary intensity arrived in the form of a brief, recurring turnaround, stark in its contrast with the endless celebration all around. The Weyse was the closing number, working a simple, extremely straightforward and considerably effective chordal series building to a heroic theme with some striking textural appositions, horns against the strings. The Largo, which followed, was anything but, only backing off slightly from the majesty that would return with gusto as a big dance number in the third movement and conclude with lively exuberance and echoes of Vivaldi in the fourth. It’s the kind of piece that could easily open a Schubertiade bill.

Fans of brilliant obscurities (the Scandia dedicates itself to premiering works both old and new) are in for a treat, with members of the orchestra playing a series of free outdoor shows at Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights this June.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Memoriam: Jay Bennett

Jay Bennett, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist who joined Wilco on tour in 1995, played on their 1996 Being There album and remained with the band through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002, died at his home in Urbana, Illinois the night of May 24. An autopsy is pending. Bennett had been troubled by recurring hip pain stemming from a stage dive some ten years previously; he’d been recently scheduled for surgery. He was 45.

In many respects, Jay Bennett was Wilco, his inspired, tumbling piano, swirling organ and searing, incisive lead guitar giving the band’s songs an edge that vanished after he left. After departing Wilco, Bennett released four solo albums, the most recent, Whatever Happened, I Apologize released by pioneering Chicago label Rock Proper a few months ago (and very favorably reviewed here).  He also served as producer for several acts ranging from Blues Traveler to Leslie Nuss. An intense yet warm and engaging personality who seemed to take his virtuosity for granted, Bennett suffered for being a brilliant musician in a merely good band. A strong, passionate singer and a terse, sharply literate lyricist, his struggles within Wilco were painfully portrayed in the documentary film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Earlier this year he filed suit against his former bandmate Jeff Tweedy for breach of contract and unpaid royalties. Bennett leaves behind an unfinished album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air, its title quoting the Boomtown Rats’ sardonic 1980 new wave suicide song Diamond Smiles.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, obituary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 5/30/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Saturday’s song is #424:

Squeeze – Labelled with Love

Chris Difford at his most keenly perceptive with a sad country ballad from West Side Story, 1981. This is an actually commonplace tale, a WWII bride who “learned from a distance that love was a lesson,” who ends up taking up her husband’s bad habit back to the UK, ultimately finding herself completely and absolutely alone with a bottle “labelled with love.”

May 30, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 5/26/09

Yet another reminder of how the true test of a performer is how they hold up under less than ideal circumstances. In this case Jenifer Jackson was battling some nasty but hopefully short-acting bug, sweating and rallying and ultimately coming out victorious – if she hadn’t told the crowd, hardly anyone would have noticed. Jackson has gotten a lot of ink here and will continue to, because she’s criminally underrated: plainly and simply, most of the songwriters on her level are either dead (Lennon, Jobim, Arthur Lee) or in the accepted canon (Lou Reed, Loretta Lynn, Gamble & Huff). Those references are deliberate because Jackson either draws on or has a song or three resembling all those greats. This show was mostly a mix of newer material from her next cd, which is inching tantalizingly toward completion. Like her most recent song titles – Time, Words, Maybe – she’s mining a strikingly terse, richly lyrical, melodically simple yet minutely jewelled vein. And though visibly struggling, she still toyed with her vocal melodies with an otherwise effortless expertise, harmonizing off her usual vocal line or, at the end of the show, finally breaking into a soaring wail.

Backing her this time out were longtime bandmates Oren Bloedow (of the magnificent Elysian Fields) on guitar and the equally haunting, tasteful Matt Kanelos (who has a brilliantly subtle new album of his own out) on piano as well as her longtime drummer Greg Wieczorek AKA G Wiz who joined her on the last few songs of the set. The newest material continued to be the most impressive: the sadly resolute 6/8 country ballad The Beauty in the Emptying; a jazzier take on early 70’s Carole King, with a cautionary note to seize the day; a hypnotic, Velvets-ish version of the completely un-bluesy Let the Good Times Roll (another carpe diem theme); an absolutely riveting, minimalistically ominous version of the forthcoming Groundward and the best song of the set, Maybe, Bloedow adding a soulful energy to the lyric’s stoic resignation via a masterful series of slides and bends. If the new album is anything like what she played at this show, it’s a serious contender for best of the year in whatever year it comes out. Watch this space for upcoming New York dates.

May 29, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Song of the Day 5/29/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #425:

Buddy Woodward & Nitro Express – Lost in Austin

Before starting the Dixie Bee-Liners, the great Americana songwriter fronted this deliciously twangy New York “country combo” outfit that also featured the superb Danny Weiss (now with Reckon So) on lead guitar. This was their big crowd-pleaser, a characteristically clever but wrenching ballad. Recorded and unreleased but occasionally podcasted. By the way, you can win free VIP tix to Dixie Bee-Liners shows this summer – plus tix to their cd release show in Nashville this fall.

May 29, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Citi Field = Shitty Field

First time at the new ballpark. The first thing that greets you – after the shock of seeing the parking lot where Shea (a dump, but it was OUR dump) used to be is the facade, striking in its cheap resemblance to a roadside stripmall or an ATM. It isn’t even worthy of a little league team, let alone a major league franchise, all paper-thin brick and metal overlay and spray-on faux-adobe. The cheapness is even more evident once you get inside. In an even more brazen display of cost-cutting while ratcheting up ticket prices, there’s vastly less fully enclosed space than there was at Shea, the sky visible from below decks upwards. Meaning that when it’s hot, you’ll be hotter, when it rains, you’ll be wetter and when it’s cold, as it was last night, you’d better bring a jacket or else.

The concessions at Shea were pretty nasty, let’s face it. The new stadium’s are even less inviting, several on the field level with their winding, labyrinthine lines roped off and therefore vastly more difficult to escape should you tire after standing in the same place for half an hour waiting for that $7.50 12-ounce plastic cup of beer (wine is $10). Instead of the anonymous Shea vendors, several national chains are featured along with a local pizza place and numerous bracciole stands. The bathrooms are no nicer than at the old place, although to the Mets’ credit they pipe the radio broadcasts in there now.

And that new rightfield overhang is a nightmare for outfielders, fans and umpires (more on them a bit later). Situated way up on the third tier, about 3/4 down the rightfield line, it was impossible to see anything happening in foul territory down the line, or for that matter about fifteen feet foul behind first base. Was it really worth it to design the place as a graveyard for their current rival Phillies’ lefty power hitters? Call it the House that Utley Built. And he doesn’t even play here more than nine games a year unless you (doubtfully, at this point) count the playoffs.

And about the game. Johan Santana started, a cold mist rolling in along with a nasty garbage-dump smell from somewhere between Flushing and the Rockaways. Although he struck out the side in the first and the third, it didn’t look like he was getting a good grip on the ball, perhaps an explanation for his unusually high walk total (six in six innings along with eleven K’s). The low point was the fourth inning where Johan came unglued after giving up a Strawberry-esque two-run laser shot by Adam Dunn deep to right-center. After walking opposing pitcher Jordan Zimmerman (batting average: .000) to load the bases, he then missed with a 3-1 fastball to the free-swinging Christian Guzman to force in a run and tie the game. He managed to get out of the sixth courtesy of two marvelous, sprinting catches by backup centerfielder Angel Pagan to get Dunn on a ferocious liner and then the pitcher, making an impressive attempt to make his first hit of the season a grand slam. Could have happened – anybody remember Felix Hernandez last year? Against Johan, no less?

Jordan Zimmerman is a star in the making with mid-nineties heat countered by a nasty slider. He made it into the bottom of the sixth in a 3-3 tie as the hapless Nats (a phrase that’s too apt to avoid copying from every other sportswriter out there) threw the ball all over the place. Catcher Wil Nieves dropped an easy pop fly but managed to throw to first to get Ramon Martinez, and Josh Willingham misplayed a Ramon Castro drive into a double that bounced on the chalk down the leftfield line. And then there was the incident along the other foul line, a shot by Daniel Murphy initially ruled a double with Gary Sheffield (a juicer, but he’s OUR juicer) being thrown out at the plate trying to score from first. Then an interminable wait while the umpires reviewed the play, which stumped us as well since all we saw was the bounce after the ball hit…somewhere. Didn’t look like it made it into the visitors’ bullpen, that’s for sure, as the umpires eventually ruled after an least seven-minute delay. But anything that’s good for the Mets is good with us.

The Nats’ bullpen is a joke, and the Mets capitalized, Nats manager Manny Acta mysteriously leaving righthanded one-pitch wonder Jesus Colome in to face the lefty-hitting Murphy with the bases loaded, even though he had Mets nemesis Joe Beimel available. Murphy predictably  responded with a liner that bounced on the warning track in center to drive in a couple of insurance runs. Which turned out useful when with two outs in the ninth, Murphy ably lunged for a Guzman grounder that Carlos Delgado wouldn’t have been able to get to, but then misplayed it. Guzman then stole second without a throw  -and what’s with the stupidest new official scorer fad, “defensive indifference?” The guy scored on Nick Johnson’s single. Guzman rightfully deserves credit for taking the initiative to get into scoring position. K-Rod finally got Ryan Zimmerman (no relation to the pitcher) to take a dubious slider for a called third strike and put Washington out of their misery, 7-4.  Go Mets.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | baseball, Culture, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

A folk-pop masterpiece. If you consider that statement an oxymoron, give a listen to the Sweet Bitters‘ full-length debut. The cd features the absolutely unique and individual voices and songwriting of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (formerly one of the sirens in Aimee Van Dyne’s harmony-driven band). Goldman, who’s got three first-class albums of her own out, is one of those rare talents who could write a catchy, fun pop song seemingly in a split second. Like her songwriting, her vocals are almost breathtakingly warm and direct, delicately nuanced but completely unaffected. Schmir is more complex and oblique, both vocally and writing-wise, with just a tinge of smoke in the voice, blending a contemporary urban folk vibe (think Dar Williams) with oldschool Brill Building charm. Both are poignant, very bright and can be very funny – humor is a function of intellect anyway. Over a terse, impeccably tasteful, un-autotuned and drum machine-free mix of acoustic and electric guitar, rhythm section and Schmir’s incisive piano, the two blend voices and offer up an indelibly New York-flavored mix of struggle, despair and triumphant joy.

For the most part, Schmir’s songs are the darkest here. The cd’s opening cut Vegas is a knowing Harder They Come update for the end of the decade: “It’s all going nowhere fast.” From the opening lines of Last Time This Way, as the narrator grabs a cookie and some wine and runs out to meet her boyfriend, you just know that this is not going to work out well. Tom Thumb (on Brighton Beach), a quintessentially urban tale, is visceral with regret and longing. But then there’s the playfully metaphorical Little Aliens, driving out the demons with a lullaby.

Goldman’s Secret Scar is a great, crescendoing rock anthem disguised as pretty acoustic pop – one can only wonder what the BoDeans (or Ninth House, for that matter) could do with it. Falling Into Place is another catchy urban tale, perhaps the only song ever to immortalize Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “If I believed in god I would close my eyes and pray,” she sings in the imagistic, regret-laden acoustic Firefly. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upbeat Susie Sunshine, with its delicious layers of harmonies and lyrics, is less gloating schadenfreude than surprise that maybe things haven’t been so bad after all, in the years since Susie was in her prime (that was in college, Goldman wants you to know). But the centerpiece of the album, and one of the best songs released this decade, is Clocks Fall Back. If anyone is alive fifty years from now and wants to understand what New York was like at the end of the decade, let them listen to this, a towering, majestic harmony-driven anthem, vividly and unforgettably juxtaposing images of clueless excess and grinding poverty over a bittersweet, swaying 6/8 melody slightly evocative of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. The cd closes, something akin to sweet after bitter, with a love song: the guy can watch all the bad action movies he wants, but the girl’s not going to let him finish that pint of ice cream without giving her a bite!

The Sweet Bitters play the cd release for this one at Kenny’s Castaways on May 30 at 7.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album