Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues

It’s hard to imagine a better Americana album released this year. This visionary, genre-transcending cd gives the rest of the world a chance to find out what New York audiences have known for years, that Lenny Molotov is one of the smartest, wittiest, most perceptive guitarists and songwriters of our time. As an electric guitarist, bassist and lapsteel player, he was indie rock siren Randi Russo’s not-so-secret weapon, both live and in the studio, throughout most of the past decade. Here, the setting is much more rustic, incorporating elements of delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, oldtime hillbilly songwriting and early jazz. Producer Joe Bendik (who also adds accordion) blends the textures of Molotov’s acoustic guitar and dobro, Jake Engel’s blues harp, Karl Meyer’s violin and a terse, subtle rhythm section of JD Wood on upright bass and Angela Webster (of Rhett Miller’s band) on drums into a lushly spiky, evocative web of sound. Yet the songs defy retro characterization. Molotov’s lyrics are richly metaphorical and set in the here-and-now, yet steeped in history and its lessons. Molotov knows all too well where we’ve been, and where we’re going if we keep making the same mistakes. If the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might sound something like this.

That which isn’t political here is vividly personal. Wilderness Bound chronicles one gritty image after another from a symbolically-charged pilgrimage its narrator never wanted to make in the first place. Book of Splendor is a New York roman a clef if there ever was one, an entreaty to a loved one to keep her head above water in the midst of a never-ending series of tribulations. The Woody Guthrie-esque Glorious is gorgeously dreamlike, accordion enhancing its awestruck optimism. Faded Label Blues, the most magnificently anthemic of the songs here is a corrosive, first-person account of the life and times of jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton: “I used to stand so tall and tempting like a fancy bottle of booze/Now I’m empty, discarded, with the faded label blues,” Meyer’s slinky tarantella violin adding considerable poignancy. Ill Moon is a characteristically wry, hypnotically surreal look at insomnia. And the bucolic waltz New Every Morning leaves no doubt where Molotov stands musically: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”

But the best songs here are the political ones. On face value, David Reddin’s Blues is a classic 1930s style outlaw ballad about a kid from the New York projects whose attempt to outrun the law ended tragically. But it’s also a vivid portrayal of life in a surveillance state: everywhere the guy turns, he’s being watched or tracked, from the spycam outside his girlfriend’s public housing complex to the DNA flowing from his wounds. Then, with the album’s finest track, Freedom Tower, Molotov tackles the spectre of a fascist America head-on. Over a steady, swaying, fingerpicked Piedmont-style blues melody, he again offers a potently metaphorical look at what a Freedom Tower (a name floated widely for a future replacement for New York’s World Trade Center) might actually be. In this case, you can’t get too close or security will accost you, you’d better keep your windows closed if you’re in the hotel across the way, and there are helicopter gunships stationed on the roof. And that’s not even the half of it. The cd closes with the self-explanatory Devil’s Empire, a cautionary tale that doubles as a nasty slap upside the head of the scam artists on the receiving end of the latest rounds of corporate bailouts. And with characteristic wit, Molotov makes a couple of Howlin Wolf and Robert Johnson quotes work back-to-back in a way neither icon ever would have imagined – or maybe they would have. Blues is always about subtext and innuendo anyway. This is a strong contender for best album of 2009; watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

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December 15, 2009 - Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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