Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Introducing the Pre-War Ponies

A fixture of the New York music scene, Daria Grace got her start playing bass in recently resuscitated art-rockers Melomane, and was one of the original Moonlighters – fans of that band took to calling her replacement “the new Daria.” But with a voice like hers – a warm, clear, billowy soprano with just the slightest hint of grit that tails off sometimes with a subtle vibrato – there can be only one Daria Grace. While holding down the bass spot in her husband Jack’s terrific country band, she found her way back to oldtime steampunk swing with the Pre-War Ponies. They should be far better-known than they are – this beautifully sunny cd is completely and unselfconsciously romantic and one of the best albums of the year so far. Grace shies away from standards – she’s far more at home with obscure sheet music rescued from junk shops, a reliable source for much of her material. She plays baritone ukelele in this band just as she used to do in the Moonlighters along with rambunctious trombonist J. Walter Hawkes, former Cocktail Angst pianist Jon Dryden and Doug Largent on bass, with fellow New York retro chanteuse Sasha Dobson providing harmonies on one track.

Grace follows the Connee Boswell version of All I Do Is Dream of You, Dryden adding jaunty barrelhouse piano beneath Hawkes’ wry muted trombone accents. It’s something of a shock that at least until now, the swaying, breezy Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn never became the borough’s official theme (once Marty Markowitz leaves office, the band can approach the new Borough President). Hawkes joins Grace here on uke to up the vintage ambience. Got the South in My Soul – a concert favorite and a Lee Wiley hit from 1932 – features a period-perfect, balmy trombone solo. Two Sleepy People (a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938) absolutely nails the cozy, endorphin-stoked ambience for two lovers who’ve been out all night and are out of thing to say but not to do with each other.

The band recasts Heart and Soul, the lone standard here, as a brisk 1920s style proto-swing strut. The darkly tender Under the Russian Moon, floating on the waves of Dryden’s accordion, is the most delightful obscurity of the whole bunch. The album winds up tantalizingly with The Gentleman Just Wouldn’t Say Goodnight, another junk shop find that Grace credits as “one of the most beautiful songs that nobody has ever heard of.” Grace weaves through its tasty major/minor changes with a wistful, late-night feel that is pure soul. With the Jack Grace Band’s killer new cd hot off the press, that group has been gigging up a storm lately; the Pre-War Ponies’ next scheduled gig is at Rodeo Bar on July 26.

Advertisements

May 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow

On the cover of his third solo album, Mark Sinnis, frontman of dark rockers Ninth House stands with his back to the camera, staring into a glaring New York sunset from a rooftop somewhere in Queens. The picture captures the subtext here far less subtly than Sinnis’ songs do: this is a requiem for lost time, lost hopes and by implication a lost time and place. It is a classic of gothic Americana. Richly and masterfully produced, electric guitars, strings, keyboards, lapsteel and accordion weave their way tersely into and out of the mix behind Sinnis’ remarkably nuanced baritone. Sinnis has been a good singer for a long time – he is an extraordinary one here, going down low for Leonard Cohen murk or reaching for Johnny Cash irony. If Ian Curtis had been an American, and he’d lived, he might sound like Sinnis does on this album.

The title track sets the tone for what’s to come, a slow, swaying, sad requiem, Sara Landeau’s sparse tremolo guitar mingling with Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel and Annette Kudrak’s plaintive accordion. It’s utterly hypnotic. The centerpiece of the album, or one of them anyway, is 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, classic country done chamber goth style:

Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate
And I’m a thousand miles from home
From New York City

The one that dragged me into a hole
I’m in my own purgatory
Where I pay for my sins each day
And I pay dearly
While my youth slowly slips away

He picks it up a little on the second verse. It’s gently and masterfully orchestrated.

Originally released on Ninth House’s 2000 album Swim in the Silence, the version of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me [#290 on our 666 Best Songs of Alltime list – Ed.] recasts the song as slow, Leonard Cohen-esque country sway, Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals quite a change from his usual roar when Ninth House plays it live. Fallible Friend, a catalog of failure and deceit, goes for a dusky southwestern feel capped by Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten’s perfecly minimalist fills. An understatedly desperate account of a drunk driver just trying to get home in one piece, Follow the Line takes on a hallucinatory, wee hours feel with Kudrak’s swirling accordion front and center – when Sinnis finally cuts loose and belts on the second verse, she’s there to calm him down. The Fever (not the Peggy Lee standard) could be a John Lennon song, a bitter metaphorically charged tale of alienation and rebellion.

Of the other originals here, wobbling funeral parlor organ makes the perfect final touch on the brooding Skeletons. Scars is gospel as the Velvet Underground might have done it, Out of Reach transformed from its original electric menace to haunting death-chamber pop with Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas’ piano and stark cello from star New York string multistylist Susan Mitchell. There’s also the ghoulish country shuffle In Harmony, the uncharacteristically sunny Quiet Change, and the album’s last song, a death-fixated, quite possibly sarcastic gospel clapalong. The covers are also terrifically inventive: Nine While Nine captures the song’s grim grey tube train platform ambience far better than Sisters of Mercy ever did, Otten perfectly nailing the menace of the song’s simple hook; St. James Infirmary rips the deathmask off the song’s inner goth, lapsteel pairing off warily against tense piano; and Gloomy Sunday gets a new final verse from Sinnis, who leaves not the slightest doubt as to what that one’s about.

Sinnis’ first solo album Into an Unhidden Future was a treat for Ninth House fans, a diverse, often radically rearranged acoustic mix of hits and rarities. His second, A Southern Tale was more country-oriented and surprisingly more upbeat. This is the best of them, in fact arguably the best thing that Sinnis has ever recorded. Mark Sinnis plays Otto’s on May 16 at 11, with a date at Small Beast at the Delancey coming up in July.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The American String Quartet with Natsumi Kuboyama at the Fabbri Library, NYC 5/12/10

Eighteen-year-old Japanese pianist Natsumi Kuboyama, the winner of all sorts of competitions and a performer since the age of six, opened last night’s program at upper East Side hideaway the Fabbri Library with the Sinfonia from Bach’s C Minor Partita. With a surprisingly forceful attack in the opening measures, she showed some moxie that otherwise never made itself known during the rest of her solo performance. Instead, she showed off a turbo-hydramatic legato and world-class articulation throughout perfect if perfectly safe renditions of two Chopin works, the Ballade in F, Op. 38 and the Andante Spinato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, a schlocky Japanese rock ballad and then, most strikingly, the bracingly modernist, otherworldly, Toru Takamitsu-esque Prelude by Kunihiro Nakamura.

To fans of classical and new music alike, the American String Quartet needs no introduction, combining an avant garde enthusiast’s passion and counterintuitive intelligence with a historically-informed purism and a seemingly effortless technical skill. Effortless, possibly, because, as violist Daniel Avshalomov opined, they play the most exciting repertoire anywhere. Last time we caught them they were tackling the abrasive intensity of Irving Fine along with Robert Sirota’s anguished, haunting 9/11 Triptych. This time out, they ran through a pleasantly familiar program with special flair and an unaffected sensitivity to joy. The highlight was the Schubert Quartetsatz in C Minor, D. 70s, which as Avshalomov reminded was as close to a complete string quartet as Schubert ever wrote (he left behind only this first movement). Ablaze with unpredictable counterpoint and gemlike melody, it left no doubt as to how much fun it is to play: it is a team effort with star turns for everyone. When cellist Wolfram Koessel’s delightfully casual, growling undertones led the rest of the ensemble into the final series of little exchanges, it was nothing short of exquisite.

They also brought Kuboyama out of her shell with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E Flat, Op. 44. Avshalomov explained the piece as Schumann’s unabashedly delighted response to having discovered what a piano and a string quartet can do together – it gave Kuboyama the chance to take her game up a level, notably throughout its many nocturnal, cantabile ripples and bends, towards which she seems to have a natural inclination. The rest of the ensemble romped through the call-and-response volleys of the opening Allegro Brillante, gave the swells of the second movement’s march an apt epic grandeur, barrelled through the playful dance of the Scherzo and made the most of the brilliant bittersweetness of the finale.

They closed with the first of the “late” Beethoven Quartets, Op. 127 in E-flat. “After the first part, you might imagine all the lights turned off, especially in this room,” Avshalomov suggested, which considering the medieval wood-paneled ambience, made sense. After they’d negotiated the tricky waves of the Maestoso Allegro, the Adagio provided a warmly cantabile architecture for violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney to embellish with a silvery vibrato, Avshalomov and Koessel each enhancing the plaintiveness in the lower registers. After all that, the symphonic crescendos of the Scherzando Vivace and the sterner, somewhat heroic Allegro finale were delivered with equal amounts spot-on precision and gusto. The crowd snapped out of their reverie and hoped for an encore, but by now it was ten in the evening and time for wine and snacks. The American String Quartet’s next two concerts are at Bargemusic on May 15 at 8 PM, repeating on May 16 at 3 PM with music of Mozart and Shostakovich along with Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” This is it for the Fabbri Library’s season, a sonically and visually delightful (and refreshingly friendly) space whose concert series will continue in the fall.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard

Jeremy Messersmith’s third album of smart indie pop continues in the same vein he mined on his first two. This one plays down the death fixation in favor of an upbeat, wistfully tuneful 60s psychedelic pop feel. But unlike the rest of the slavish Beach Boys and Ellliot Smith imitators, Messersmith has established a voice of his own: there’s a depth and a thoughtfulness to his lyrics and a subtly clever wit throughout the tunes and the arrangements, an indication of how successfully he’s immersed himself in intelligent oldschool pop sounds.

The first song here is something of a cross between late 60s English dancehall-style Kinks and Elliott Smith, with some absolutely gorgeous piano/guitar textures on the chorus. The second track, Dillinger Eyes is Badfinger-esque powerpop, followed by the album’s best song, Organ Donor. With a dark, reggae-inflected Watching the Detectives vibe enhanced by brooding strings, it’s a vividly metaphorical look at how we fall apart: “Took my brain to the seminary, never seen again…left my spine at the wedding chapel…” John the Determinist works off a bracing, tense string arrangement that underscores the narrator’s obliviously stubborn OCD vibe. Knots blends an old PiL guitar riff with a string section straight out of the Moody Blues circa 1967, a feel that returns with the mellotron-driven sympathy-for-the-devil ballad Repo Man, all sad and alone since nobody cares that he’s dead and gone. The funniest track here is the lushly jangly Rickenbacker guitar anthem Deathbed Salesman, its protagonist trying to upscale a potential casket buyer:

You’ve got a reservation
But you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to
You won’t feel a thing
All your friends are there already
This is how it has to end…

Fans of the original stuff as well as 60s revivalists like the Essex Green and Love Camp 7 will love this. Jeremy Messersmith plays Joe’s Pub on May 28 at 7 PM. Memo to Messersmith’s publicist; email this anonymously to pitchfork and tell them it’s the long lost Beach Boys album. They won’t be able to tell the difference.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Sarah Manning – Dandelion Clock

Count this as the best jazz album of this young decade – give it another ten years and it could be one of the best jazz albums of an old decade. Not only is Sarah Manning a fearless and intense player, she’s a fearless and intense composer, shades of another first-class alto saxophonist, Kenny Garrett. Restless, irrepressible, unafraid and unfailingly terse, much of what she does here is transcendent. Like Garrett, she likes a stinging chromatic edge, often taking on a potently modal, Middle Eastern tinge. Like JD Allen, she doesn’t waste notes: she doesn’t waste time making her point and the result reverberates, sometimes because she likes to hit the hook again and again, sometimes because her punches delivers so much wallop. There are plenty of other influences on her new cd Dandelion Clock (Coltrane, obviously), but her voice is uniquely hers. An obviously inspired supporting cast of Art Hirahara on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Kyle Struve on drums do more than just support, they seize the moment as you do when you get the chance to play songs like this. The tracks are originals bookended by a couple of covers (isn’t that what cover are for, anyway?).

The most Coltrane-esque composition, both melodically and architecturally, here is the dark, bracing ballad Marble, Manning’s circular hook giving way to Hirahara’s thoughtfully slinking piano that builds to an insistent staccato crescendo. Oh’s solo follows with similarly relentless insistence as piano and drums prowl around behind her. The title track contemplates the concept of time as children see it – it’s not finite. The song is pensive and uneasy, as if to say that Manning knows something the kids don’t and this is her rather oblique way of telling them. Bernard Herrmann-esque piano builds expansively to a tense rhythm that ticks like a bomb, Manning emerging off-center, circling her way down to a simple but brutally effective crescendo and an ominous diminuendo from there. Crossing, Waiting is an even more potently intense exercise in how to build tension, beginning with Oh’s marvelously laconic, pointed solo, Manning eventually adding raw little phraselets over Struve’s equally incisive rattle. The high point of the album is The Owls Are on the March, something of an epic. Hirahara’s haunted-attic righthand is the icing on Manning’s plaintively circling phrases. The way she builds and finally sails her way out of an expansive Hirahara solo, turns on a dime and finally brings up the lights, then winds them down mournfully again is one of the most exquisite moments on any jazz album in the last few years.

There’s also the aptly titled Phoenix Song, Manning’s easygoing congeniality a bright contrast with the brooding band arrangement until she goes otherworldly with them at the end; the equally otherworldly tone poem Through the Keyhole and the after-dark scenario Habersham St. The two covers are strikingly original, a defiantly unsettling post-bop interpretation of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks, and Michel Legrand’s The Windmills of Your Mind, taken with a murky tango feel to the back streets of Paris – prime Piaf territory – and then out to Toulouse. Manning is somebody to get to know now – the album’s just out on Posi-Tone.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Song of the Day 5/13/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #77:

The Doors – Hyacinth House

Conventional wisdom is that this gorgeous, midtempo guitar-and-organ pop song is about a favorite LA spot of Jim Morrison’s. It could just as easily be about a tomb. Anybody ever been to Pere Lachaise? From LA Woman, 1972.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment