Artsy pop tunesmith Elaine Romanelli transcends any label you might be tempted to peg her with. She’s a tremendous singer – her soaring high soprano is sometimes poised and playful, sometimes brooding and bitter. Her songs are vivid, aphoristic, often metaphorically charged; many of them have an indelibly urban, New York-centricness about them. The inspired backing unit on her latest album, The Real Deal includes Josh Fox on guitar, Andrew Fox on piano, Clay Wilson on bass and Dave Gluck on drums along with lush, rich arrangements from the “Screaming Strings,” Patricia Cole on violin and Larry DiBello on cello.
“The salt you pour each day has left its sting,” Romanelli admits on the cd’s opening cut, Song About the Trees, but she’s insistent on pulling herself up out of misery. The evocative Iraq war wife’s tale, aptly titled Lament, packs a wallop: “Now the tours are longer and they happen every year…pray the chopper sets him down, pray that he can still walk,” the poor woman pleads over a machine-gun drumbeat. Merry Go Round, with a choice string arrangement, is wryly metaphorical:
Take off the training wheels
Try not to be afraid
Go for a test run
Go back and think some more
Go into hiding
Curl in a ball on the floor
Or stay on the merry-go-round…
Romanelli follows that with the 6/8 piano ballad Faust Revisited, a subtly caustic, insightful look at what some people might consider while contemplating plastic surgery:
And I yearn to be perfect
But I wonder if maybe by now it’s too late
‘Cause I grew up with this face
Which never was beautiful
So there’s years of old feelings
They’d have to replace
With a jaunty, wickedly catchy janglerock bounce, Not a Love Song is not the sneering Public Image Ltd. broadside but a soaring, Sharon Goldman-style pop hit. Stupid Boy, like its storyline, begins sultry and goes bitter fast, all the way into a killer chorus. Fly picks up the pace, revisiting the treadmill theme of the third cut but more optimistically this time, its narrator trying to nudge a bedraggled friend out of her comfortably sad routine. The rest of the album includes Naughty Lola, which blends a sultry lounge feel with janglerock; the scrambling punk-pop shuffle Unapologetic like something off the Go Go’s comeback album God Bless the Go Go’s; a Celtic-tinged a-cappella ballad, a bouncy piano pop number and finally, after all that, the crazed vaudevillian romp Pour Me a Drink – she and the band have earned it. Elaine Romanelli plays the cd release for The Real Deal at the Bitter End this Thursday, May 20 at 8.
This is exquisitely creepy, surreal stuff. It’s as good a jazz album as has come over the turnstile here so far this year. Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg grew up in Helsinki, fascinated by carnivals and the circus – his neighborhood amusement park featured a small combo, the Tivoli Trio, with the unlikely combination of trumpet, organ and drums. As a composer, Carlberg particularly excels at big band arrangements; this time out, he endeavored to recreate what he’d heard as a child, if only in spirit rather than actual memory. It’s a deliciously twisted, disquieting ride, worth it for the rhythm section alone – John Hebert’s bass and Gerald Cleaver’s drums jump right in on the fun, each taking on a gleefully sinister, gnomish persona.
An off-center fanfare opens the album; bass and drums mimic a restless crowd, and then they’re off with Tricks, a scurrying, phantasmagorically creepy, repetitive music box themed tune. A chase sequence follows with suspenseful variations on the previous theme, Carlberg utilizing a marvelously eerie, repetitive series of horn voicings. On Rumble Mumble, drums take centerstage, Carlberg playing deftly diabolical tritone-flavored accents off them. They follow with a strange little vignette, circular piano riff against bass screeching and squealing like the ghost of a decapitated ape.
Bill’s Hat is sad, tired, possibly murderous little march that morphs into a swinging shuffle, the backstage crew at the sideshow having a little laugh at someone’s expense – Hebert gets to throw some knives at his bandmates’ feet as they dance around. On the next track, Two for Tea, the rhythm section bounces around playfully as Carlberg gets to throw knives this time. This is where the truth comes out: they’re a team of gremlins, everybody off on his own yet completely with the same mind when it comes to trouble. Next is another strange miniature with brief horror-movie, cello-like arco work by Hebert against methodical, glimmering block chords from Carlberg.
Devious and high-spirited, Potholes has Hebert providing atmospherics as the drums creep around disorientingly – then Carlberg comes sailing in, oblivious to the trouble the other two have just been up to. The most straight-up jazz number here, Spit (The Game) works from atonal punches on the piano to block chord work driven by judicious bass chords or scrapy bowing, Cleaver’s ever-present cymbal boom just a mallet’s-length away. Tumbles is evocatively if completely uneasily acrobatic with sizeable breaks for devious bass and drums; the cd winds up with the less-than-subtly menacing, expansive yet poignantly lyrical Harlequin and then a brief reprise for the crowd, Sgt. Pepper style. Put this on and then kill the lights – you’ll see it in December on our best albums of the year list.
“Which one are you?” host Paul Wallfisch asked, completely deadpan (his Big Small Beast extravaganza, maybe the best NYC rock show of the year, takes place on Friday at the Orensanz Center – tickets still available as of Monday night).
Price thought about it. “I’m the ‘and’.” And followed with a set of casually quirky art-rock that was as fun as it was virtuosically brilliant. Swaying on her feet instead of sitting down, she started out by building a series of loops – first a bouncy beat, then a cleverly plucked groove, then embellishments, building to ferocious, roaring cello metal – and then a cold ending. She varied her vocals from song to song, moving from a full, plaintive, soul-tinged delivery to one a lot more tongue-in-cheek and more than a little creepy on an oldschool country-style number that she played on tenor guitar. She explained that she’d just toured the south for the first time and gotten the inspiration for it from all the “Jesus Saves” billboards down there. “They don’t have a phone number – you know how billboards have phone numbers?”
Price is in the midst of a 365 project, writing a song a day for a year, ambitious to say the least, and she played a couple of what must be very recent creations, one a slinky cello groove number propelled along by fast broken chords, the other a mini-suite of sorts called War that began sparse and reflectively with judiciously dynamic textures and then grew to a fullscale roar. The audience demanded an encore: she rewarded them with the closest thing to a pop song she did all night. Price somehow finds the time to play frequent solo shows like this as well as gigs with her band, in addition to her daily compositions. Pearl and the Beard’s next NYC-area gig is at Maxwell’s on June 23.
According to the Karg-Elert Archive (of which organist Richard Webb is a member), the German composer’s work is “a peak of late Romantic music.” They aren’t kidding. Sigfrid Karg-Elert remains well-known in the organ world but too little-known outside it. He was a colorful character: born into poverty, he began his career while still in his teens, playing in saloons in disguise so that his teachers at the conservatory wouldn’t discover his aptitude for “low art.” A contemporary of Schoenberg and Webern, he abandoned the avant garde and rededicated himself to the pursuit of melody. Highly acclaimed during his lifetime for his choral works, he was a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, equally adept at wind and stringed instruments as at the keyboard. His favorite instrument for composing was a small French portable organ, similar to a harmonium: his lifelong goal, never realized, was to be a church organist. It’s about time somebody in New York decided to put on an all Karg-Elert program: on the venerable, smoky old Skinner organ at St. Thomas in midtown on Sunday evening, Webb passionately and expertly brought out every facet of the composer’s remarkably diverse work.
He began strikingly and dramatic with the insistence of the Preambulo, from the Music for Organ, Op. 145, with warmly melodic echoes of a Cesar Franck-style heroic anthem. Three of the Pastels, from his Twelve Pastels from the Lake of Constance made a balmy, atmospheric, almost minimalist contrast, long sheets of sustain casually woven together. The showstopper was the Funerale, Op. 75, No. 1, dedicated to the memory of his fellow composer Alexandre Guilmant. Plaintive sostenuto ambience gave way to the epic grandeur of ornate pedal passages, cannonball runs up the scale, stormy full-bore counterpoint and then a return to quiet poignancy. Webb closed with Aphorismus, Op. 86, No. 10, a frequently ferocious piece equally well known in piano literature, replete with drama and majesty. Here’s hoping another organist, or ensemble, will pick up and follow where Webb left off.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Tuesday’s song is #72:
Joy Division – Isolation
The goth song that launched a million others, none of which come close to the haunting anguish of this one. Peter Hook’s bassline is classic. From Closer, 1980.