The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #151:
John Lennon – Scared
“Hatred and jealousy gonna be the death of me.” This was 1973, the Walls & Bridges album, could Lennon have seen it coming? Probably.
Friday night we caught the new jacks: last night was the old warriors. The Toneballs were sans drummer, but it didn’t matter to the trio of Dan Sallitt, Dann Baker and Paul McKenzie. Lead guitarist McKenzie is the best Richard Thompson style guitarist other than Thompson himself, firing off furious leaps of an octave or more, atmospheric washes with the tone control, anguished staccato and supersonic blues runs tinted with bitter amber and onyx. If the eunuchs at the indie blogs had their way, lead guitar would be a lost art: McKenzie is defiant proof of its eternal vitality and appeal. Back in the 80s, Sallitt led legendary/obscure post-new wave LA noir outfit Blow This Nightclub – who (mostly) reunited here back in 2007 – so it made sense to catch his new group here as well. Baker plays bass like the jangly, psychedelic lead guitar monster he is in his own band Love Camp 7, as well as Erica Smith’s 99 Cent Dreams, swooping up the scale and adding the occasional tone-control wash of sound just as McKenzie would do. They opened with an epic, Where and When, stalking along ominously without any need for a drummer, right through the first of McKenzie’s tsunami solos. The understatedly snarling, sarcastic, Big Star-inflected Mr. Insensitive riffed off a Mexican vacation theme that Sallitt has used before to powerful effect. The band pride themselves on doing a new Richard Thompson cover every time out: this time it was a spikily bouncing version of She Twists the Knife Again.
Sallitt and Baker have been working up new material: one of them an Arthur Lee-inflected ballad set in a vivid LA milieu:
The imaginary girlfriend’s role was written just for you
I can see you riding shotgun as the sun goes down on Gower Avenue…
Watch over those unhappy times for me
Another worked a dreamy, acoustic Atomheart Mother-era Pink Floyd vibe.The best song of the night was Max Planck’s Time, but far from being, say, a Max Reger prelude and fugue, it turned out to be a ferocious Middle Eastern art-rock anthem making savage use of the hijaz scale, McKenzie springboarding off it for his most pyrotechnic display of the night when Sallitt wasn’t making sardonic astrophysical puns. Their last number painted a furtively scurrying Hawaiian getaway tableau – no disrespect to Hawaii, Baker deadpanned. The crowd, heavily sprinkled with talent as good as what was onstage, kept silent: when you get songwriting and musicianship this effortlessly spectacular, you want to enjoy it.
Afterward, another old favorite, Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. were playing Hank’s. A leisurely stroll down Atlantic Ave. found the bar absolutely packed and SitNDie as fun as ever and doing the Bedbug Boogie, part satire, part homage to the early 50s hillbilly songwriting they replicate so well and have such a good time making fun of.
It’s hard to imagine a New York band right now who are more fun than than Cudzoo & the Fagettes. As one of the band members said Friday night at Arlene’s, it may have been snowy outside but it sure was hot inside. This group really pulls out all the stops, putting on a fullscale spectacle. While a screen was being set up in the corner, the mic stands each stood erect between a pair of big pink balloons. Juvenile as the visual was, it was impossible not to laugh. Meanwhile, a pretty girl wandered through the crowd handing out free raffle tickets (more on that later).
Dressed in matching pink sequined dresses, the band’s three frontwomen – the fearlessly bodacious E-Bomb and her cohorts J-Train and Mamrie – took the stage while a montage of old newsreel footage, complete with blaring, martial orchestral music, played on the screen. A voiceover began: “The world’s a fucked up place. War in the Middle East. A recession with no end in sight. Global warming. Wife-swapping. Very large, unhealthy fast-food portions.” Luckily, Cudzoo, “those sassy, sashaying little sweethearts out of Astoria, Queens” had arrived to spread their “brand of glitter and whiskey fun.” All of a sudden, their album – which we reviewed last year – started to make perfect sense. Funny as it is, it’s a soundtrack: the experience isn’t complete without the show.
Their first song bitchslapped sorority girl-style conspicuous consumption: the ditz doesn’t want her parents to know that a “dirty Mexican” knocked her up, but when she gets the abortion she gets the fetus goldplated and suddenly it’s bling. J-Train sang the hilariously weird You Beat the Shit Out of My Heart, which may or may not be a cautionary tale about S&M. A new one, Walk of Shame was even funnier, a girl waking up with poo-poo mouth, gum in her hair and having to fight strollers on the sidewalk in order to get home incognito. Another new one about the pros and cons of friends with benefits was their one semi-thoughtful number; they also did tributes to fingerfucking, sleeping with a guy’s siblings, and a rapidfire hip-hop song about breasts on the subway. That one’s open to audience participation – if you can come up with a rhyming couplet about seeing boobs on the train, bring it to the next Cudzoo show.
The grand prize winner of the raffle was a guy. He sent his girlfriend, Jenny, up to collect her prize. The band leered at her, sat her down onstage and proceeded to give her everything but a lap dance (Mamrie nibbled her ear lasciviously) while serenading her with a newly lesbian version of Drummer Boy, E-Bomb’s come-on to her favorite kind of musician. Jenny took it all bravely but the second the song was over, she bolted (Jenny’s boyfriend may also be single now). Meanwhile, the “drunkest working band in New York City,” the Fagettes stood deadpan behind the action, doing their lo-budget garage-pop and pseudo-Ramones thing and staying out of the way. That seems to be what they’re supposed to do. Actually, bassist Lorenzo Potenzo, platinum-haired drummer Dr. Eviller and the guitarist didn’t look drunk – but the front line did, particularly E-Bomb, who’d obviously been pregaming.
They closed with a phony country song, a girl getting revenge on her ex by blogging about his “tiny penis and lack of class,” and then the self-explanatory punk-pop My Boyfriend’s Got a Boyfriend. Before they left the stage, they fired off a couple of tubes of glitter into the crowd. The front rows were cannon fodder: they didn’t have a prayer. By now it was a little after one in the morning – the crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one. We’ll leave it to the Village Voice to talk about how these women speak truth to power about sexual politics – what’s important is that last night, Cudzoo got the whole house laughing, Democrats and wrong-thinkers alike.
Jazz falls into a lot of categories: boudoir jazz, solace-after-a-rough-day jazz, late night sleepy jazz, drunk jazz, fake jazz. Drummer Peppe Merolla’s debut as a bandleader, Stick with Me, is party jazz. It’s the kind of album you can actually put on repeat and not get sick of and it’s our favorite so far this year. Tunes leap from the grooves (ok, the, um, bitmap) of this one with a joyous exuberance that occasionally mellows out into warmly expansive reflection, contentment with a job well done. Merolla is a no-nonsense player with considerable wit, and the tone he sets is contagious. They’re off with a genial rumble from the toms and a characteristically playful yet ethereal Steve Turre shell motif into a modified latin groove (a vibe they’ll bring back again and again here) with casually blazing solos from Jim Rotondi’s trumpet and Turre’s trombone, tenor player John Farnsworth offhandedly quoting Trane, Mike LeDonne (on piano here) introducing some otherworldly tones before joining in the bounce. The fun continues on Ferris Wheel (a tongue-in-cheek title for sure – Bumper Cars would be more like it) with an insistent New Orleans horn riff, a buoyant Farnsworth solo and speeds up as Lee Smith walks the bass and the trombone plays deadpan staccato. A second consecutive Farnsworth tune, Junior, swings genially with a cinematic 70s New York flair, right down to LeDonne’s judiciously summery Rhodes piano. Yet another Farnsworth track builds from pensive, Coltrane-style majesty to irrepressible swing. And the everybody’s-invited after-hours vibe of their version of Willie Nelson’s Crazy has the melody making the rounds of the band with a joyous directness and simplicity before more contemplative turns from everybody.
There’s also the deliriously circling latin jazz of Mozzin’ (yet another tasty Farnsworth tune), the snaky Marbella with its characteristically boisterous, tuneful Turre trombone, the vividly anthemic Princess of the Mountain and the spiritedly bluesy, high-energy Bud Powell homage One for Bud, a counterintuitive showcase for horns rather than the piano. The small handful of solos Merolla takes here actually sound composed, with a definite trajectory and a punch line. Put this on when the party’s been going for a few hours and soon even your “I hate music that doesn’t have singing” crowd will be humming along. It may be only February, but this is one is likely to end up on a lot of best-of lists this year. And it’s also reason to look forward to what Farnsworth may have up his sleeve next time out.
Merolla has an interesting backstory. A drummer from the age of five, he toured with his parents, the actors Gino Morelli and Tina Barone. After opening for Sinatra at a New York City concert, Sinatra was so impressed that he re-christened the teenage Merolla as “Little Joe” and arranged a three-album record deal for him.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #152:
The Dead Kennedys – This Could Be Anywhere
Not only is Frankenchrist a great album, it’s also an irreplaceable historical document, a vivid look at what it was like being a kid during the Reagan years – the division between rich and poor growing ever wider, the dispossessed underclass distracted by media-generated fear of immigrants, punks and smart people in general. This song captures that era better than any prosaic description ever could. It also has a ferociously good bassline.
Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.
It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.
Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.
Introducing the Duo Figer-Khanina, Trinity Church’s organist said they’d put some warmth into a blustery day – they lived up to that expectation, and more. Violinist Guy Figer and pianist Anna Khanina dedicate themselves to “popularizing rarely played repertoire,” as they put it, which immediately earned them bonus points here. Seeing how they did it proved even more auspicious. This time out they seamlessly tackled two piano-and-violin numbers from the standard repertoire as well as two that deserve to be but aren’t. Schubert’s famous, sprightly Sonatine No. 1 was effortlessly jaunty. In places, notably the twinkling, nocturnal second movement, it was next to impossible to tell who was playing what, testament to the chemistry onstage. By contrast, Khanina roared her way through the more powerful segments of another chamber music standby, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7, Op. 30 with an almost reckless, percussive attack, a vivid contrast with Figer’s warm, sailing approach.
But the real treats were the obscure material. 20th century Polish violinist/composer Grazyna Bacewicz’ Sonata No. 4 was a delectable discovery, opening rigorously with jarring, modernist tonalities arranged in traditional, often contrapuntal classical architecture. The obdurate quasi-waltz of a second movement recalled Messiaen in its obstinate refusal to offer any kind of resolution; Bacewicz’ fellow Eastern European Leos Janacek came to mind later on, particularly in the otherworldly anthem that takes shape in the final movement (which built to a stubborn catchiness that would have been perfectly at home in a mid-80s rock anthem by Peter Gabriel). The duo closed with post-Romantic Russian composer Joseph Achron’s marvelous Hebrew Melody, a vividly plaintive, Chopinesque tune that grew cinematic with Figer’s swirling, nebulous flights up to a spine-tingling candenza downward, then ending all starlit and haunting. What an unexpected treat to catch them here, especially as Trinity is phasing out their concert series. They’ll be on European tour next month with the Arcos Chamber Orchestra, returning with a New York concert on May 21 at the Yamaha Concert Salon.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #153:
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
What a fortuitous coincidence – snow in New York! The apocalypse has arrived! Suspend civil liberties, declare Michael Bloomberg mayor for life, call out Blackwater…woops, the National Guard! Seriously though…written surprisingly by born-again El Lay scenester songwriter P.F. Sloan, this snarling Summer of Love single embodies yet transcends every folk-rock cliche of the era. You gotta love that kettledrum. The Dickies’ hardcore punk version is also a lot of fun; if janglerock is your thing, check out the Red Rockers’ 1984 cover.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #154:
The Dixie Bee-Liners – Roses Are Grey
Just so you know, we deleted The Elephants’ Graveyard by the Boomtown Rats to make room for this one. The Dixie Bee-Liners, purveyors of a uniquely rustic yet cutting-edge style of Bible Belt noir, have been burning up the bluegrass charts for the last couple of years. This is a particularly haunting, nocturnal one, frontwoman/guitarist Brandi Hart absolutely nailing the lyric’s deadpan despondency…so when redemption comes, it hits you like a tsunami. From their debut cd, 2006.
In terms of lush nocturnal beauty, this album tops the charts for 2010, end of story. Beguiling instrumental ensemble Redhooker defy categorization, incorporating elements of chamber music, ambient soundscapes, psychedelic rock and avant genres like minimalism and horizontal music, but whichever label you slap them with the result is the same, hypnotic and dreamlike. Where Brian Eno did ambient music for airports, this is ambient music for empty rooms in abandoned buildings, intimate yet impenetrably mysterious. There’s an almost magical symmetry to the compositions here, yet constantly an element of surprise. Essentially, this is a theme and variations interrupted by two long jams – which perhaps not ironically are the most captivating parts of the album. Guitarist/composer Stephen Griesgraber alternates between atmospheric washes of sound, simple but effective lead lines and gently insistent fingerpicking while the violins of Andie Springer and Maxim Moston trade harmonies and textures, with Peter Hess’ bass clarinet often carrying the lead counterintuitively in the lowest registers.
The opening track, Standing Still establishes a circular theme that weaves among the instruments like a lazy dragonfly in the bulrushes. The line goes straight back to Haydn if you follow it through the clouds. The aptly titled Bedside is a swaying minimalist lullaby with distant baroque echoes, a study in textural contrasts, guitar or bass clarinet playing stately melody versus the sweep of the violins. The first improvisation, Presence and Reflection begins ghostly, gently ominous with whispering waves of guitar noise, a draft-through-the-door atmosphere with distant echoes of (but not by) Pink Floyd. And then it’s a lullaby again, going out on a gentle, late afternoon tide.
Things get as lively as they’re going to here on the next cut, Friction, interwoven with subtly colliding textures and building to a tricky dance that wouldn’t be out of place in the Turtle Island String Quartet oeuvre. And then night falls again with the second jam, like Pink Floyd’s On the Run but quarterspeed – you could call it On the Crawl. In over fifteen minutes, starkly glimmering, Gilmouresque guitar rings out in the distance over dense waves of noise, the violins and then the bass clarinet eventually making a welcome, deftly terse return to paint in pieces of melody that slowly make shape out of shadow . The album ends with a rondo, each instrument working a judiciously studied piece of the original theme, ending with bass clarinet looming in from behind the strings like a sleepy caretaker who’s gotten to know the ghosts in this place by now. It takes a special kind of album to be this quiet and still keep the listener captivated, not to mention awake. This is that album.