Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Tear Back the Night

This is one of those rare works of art where every element strengthens and reinforces the other. Consider the cd package: the wraparound cover photo shows a house at night from the shadows, beckoning yet unreachable like Kafka’s castle. Inside under the cd, another photo, a weatherbeaten wooden shack behind a picket fence, decrepit lounge chair rotting in front of a half-furled plastic canopy. Truth in advertising.

Roger Waters once said that he crafted the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon to read as simply as possible to make sure he got his point across and the same applies to singer/songwriter Bobby Vacant. His words are plainspoken yet potently metaphorical: there’s always another level of meaning lurking underneath, and it’s not pretty. It would not be an overstatement to call the new album by Bobby Vacant & the Weary a classic of dark existentialist rock, right up there with Closer by Joy Division and anything Pink Floyd ever recorded. Vacant sings in the thin, worn-down voice of a middleaged man. Homelessness and addiction are not merely alluded to but addressed directly with a disconcerting offhandedness: there’s a ring of authenticity here. Yet as bleak  as much of this is, Bobby Vacant maintains a vise grip. “Don’t look to tomorrow, just get through the day…don’t go gently, just leave the sky aflame,” he encourages in the nocturnally atmospheric Some Walk. From time to time, he imbues the songs with a gallows humor, as in the hypnotic seafaring ballad Waveflowers, where he can’t resist pulling up anchors and slipping off unseen into the night: “And if they ask/What the hell is the past/Just tell ’em it’s deep down below.” Or on the vitriolic Dylan’s Dead, a Nietzschean slap upside the head of boomer complacency:

You’re the one said Dylan’s dead

Flew a jet right through his head

Once again we killed the dream

Onward marching soldiers sing

The Weary (AKA George Reisch, mastermind of Chicago’s Luxotone label, one of this era’s most acerbic, accessible writers on philosophy and editor of Pink Floyd and Philosophy and other titles in the series) takes Vacant’s simple, catchy songs and orchestrates them with the gravitas of Floyd yet also with the terseness of Joy Division: as with pretty much everything else Reisch has ever recorded, there are no wasted notes here. A bell tolls in the distance, just twice, as Some Walk builds to a close. The title track works up an understated feast of jangly guitars worthy of the Byrds. The marvelously textured crescendo of guitars on Dylan’s Dead takes a blithe Forever Changes mood into surreal, distantly reverberating Sandinista territory; the stark twelve-string on Waveflowers evokes Marty Willson-Piper of the Church. There’s also a beautifully wistful interlude straight out of the Moody Blues circa 1967, and the even more lushly, vividly plaintive crescendo that closes the album.

Vacant vacillates between embracing the darkness and the occasional grasp backwards at a doomed relationship. The opening track, Don’t Love Me Anymore cautions that he won’t be around much longer: “All my years just wasted smears, wings too wet to fly.” The title track, on a literal level a snide after-the-party tableau, gleefully announces that “The night is kind, the night is warm, the night is calling your name.” The best song on the album is Never Looking Back, an anthem for anyone with a checkered past. “Here we go. Stand back. It’s a road. It’s black,” Vacant sings with not a little triumph in his voice: he knows that this isn’t merely where we all end up – it’s where we’ve been all along, and he’s finally been vindicated. “Went to the town, went to the school, went to the park with the lonely fool, uh huh,” he relates: the story of our lives, isn’t it?

Not much is known about Bobby Vacant. His real name is Tom Derungs, he lives in Switzerland, records vocals and guitar tracks in his home studio and sends the product to Luxtone for overdubs, mixing and pressing. He also plays the occasional acoustic gig (the next one is in Lausanne on August 14) and contributes to the blog Library of Inspiration. One hopes this cd – as strong a contender as any for best album of 2009 – will not be his last.

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July 29, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard, NYC 7/27/09

Every great city has its cosmopolitan traditions, but you can go to Paris or London and find something that equates to Shakespeare in the Park or a picnic at the Cloisters. Only New York has Mingus Mondays. No disrespect to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra or gonzo gospel pianist Rev. Vince Anderson, both of whose weekly Monday shows are rightfully the stuff of legend, but the weekly Monday Mingus show at the Jazz Standard is New York’s most transcendent weekly residency. It’s probably the best in the entire world.

Under the inspired stewardship of the great composer’s widow Sue Mingus, three ensembles alternate from week to week: Mingus Dynasty, the original seven-piece repertory unit; the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra and the mighty Mingus Big Band, who happened to be on the bill Monday night. To play Mingus, you have to have great chops but you also have to have real fire in the belly. Under the direction of bassist Boris Kozlov, the group treated what appeared to be a sold-out house to a passionate, frequently ecstatic performance, which wasn’t particularly surprising considering what a treat it must be to play this stuff. It could be argued that there has been no composer in any style of music who has written with such fearlessness, ferocity or consistently counterintuitive creativity since Mingus’ sadly early demise in 1979. Even when the band had to sight-read a piece, in this case a darkly swaying number doing double duty as workingman’s lament (an update on Stormy Monday) and somber meditation on race from Mingus’ 1965 collaboration with Langston Hughes, they dug in and gave it plenty of gravitas.

Otherwise, the show was a spirited romp through Mingus both popular and obscure. Beyond the noir atmospherics, the swing and the stomp, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mingus’ work is how he’d leap from genre to genre, from mood to mood, sometimes in the space of a few bars. Sometimes that makes for a jarring segue, but the effect is intentional – it keeps both the band and the audience completely tuned in. #29, an early 70s composition stuck a growling, marvelously murky low-register passage in the midst of a bustling, bluesy swing tune that gave tenor player Scott Robinson (who absolutely slayed earlier this month on bass sax with Musette Explosion) a chance to go jaggedly skyward, followed by alto player Mark Ross who took off in a bubblier, more playful direction.

Invisible Lady featured Elvis Costello lyrics sung by trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, pulling out every ounce of sly double entendre when it came to the phrase about the hourglass as the band wove in and out of a warped latin vamp. A 1959 outtake, GG Train,  was exactly the opposite of that other train with a similar name that never arrives, galloping down the track but taking the time to stop for some playful call-and-response between piano and drums and a completely macabre piano breakdown before picking up again with a blazing trumpet solo. They closed with the John Stubblefield arrangement of the classic Song with Orange, a noir blues that morphs into a boogie and then ends surprisingly on a quizzical note just thisclose to unrestrained wrath.

And a word about the venue: if you remember the Mingus Orchestra’s long-running residency at Fez back in the 90s, you’ll also remember how that club had delusions of grandeur but was really a dump, and an overpriced one at that. The Jazz Standard, by comparison has actual grandeur, yet the vibe is downtown and casual. And they have NYC’s best mac-and-cheese – it’s pricy ($8 as of this writing, 7/09) but it’s the gustatory equivalent of the lushest, richest Gil Evans arrangement you can imagine.

July 29, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments