Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Razia – Zebu Nation

Malagasy songwriter/chanteuse Razia Said is on a mission: to raise consciousness worldwide about global warming, specifically the devastation it’s brought to her native land. The zebu of the album title – a member of the horse family – is only one of thousands of species in Madagascar who are in danger of extinction. An extraordinarily successful blend of polemic and music, this is a lush, hypnotic, frequently beautiful album, grounded in reality but at the same time transcending it. Said sings in several dialects, as well as one song in English, with a compellingly world-weary, highly nuanced voice that’s been compared to Sade but gentler and airier. On several of the tracks here, the somewhat more energetic but less subtle singer Abena Koomson handles the vocals, along with the rest of a first-rate band: noted jazz drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Michael Oletuja, Malagasy guitarist Dozzy Njava and accordionist Rabesiaka Jean Medicis. Said’s songwriting mixes traditional tsapiky and salegy music along with elements of American soul and Mediterranean balladry.

Said’s story is something of a triumph: growing up in the Comores Islands with her grandmother, she never knew who her real mother was until she was already in grade school. Her first exposure to music was the salegy songs of the Comores; while still a gradeschooler, she began singing French pop hits and then rock. She moved to Gabon and then France, earned a doctorate in pharmacology and eventually landed in New York where she flirted with several pop styles, unsatisfyingly. This is a return to her roots. The album kicks off with the clip-clop Babonao, a love song (available for free download from Cumbancha), followed by the absolutely gorgeous, wary minor-key ballad Omama, a tribute to motherhood. The band follows that with a lickety-split antiwar song and then the celebratory Salamalama Aby. The best song on the album is the understatedly magnificent epic NY Alantsika (Nature Laments), the first of the numbers sung by Said herself: with its stately 6/8 rhythm and lush atmospherics, it’s a call to action, a gently, compellingly persuasive one.

The hypnotic Slash and Burn takes on a south Indian feel with its circular rhythms and sitar, another gentle but insistent broadside, this one about deforestation: “I heard that the hills were burned away,” muses Said. Koomson and Njava join voices on the distantly melancholy Tsy Tara: “It’s not a malediction, but an urgent call; let’s react now so we won’t regret,” is the translation in the album’s meticulously detailed liner notes. The album winds up with a gentle acoustic guitar ballad, a requiem for an area that once was not a desert; the most Sade-esque number here, Tiaka Ro, a plea to the earth not to unleash disasters on us, and the slinky, West African-inflected wah-guitar anthem Mifohaza (Wake Up). The Clash used to make relevant, topical albums like this: Zebu Nation is considerably quieter but no less timely and important.

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July 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 7/13/10

Just a little over two weeks til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1…and then we start with the 1000 best albums of alltime. Tuesday’s song is #16:

Joy Division – The Eternal

Complete emotional depletion has never been so accurately depicted as in this Mellotron dirge from Closer, 1981. “With children my time is so wastefully spent.” Which raises the obvious question – if Ian Curtis’ doctor hadn’t prescribed him barbituates for his epilepsy, would he still be alive?

July 12, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bern & the Brights – Swing Shift Maisies

Bern & the Brights are a breath of fresh air. Their sound is absolutely original: they’re impossible to pigeonhole, creating a violin-and-guitar-driven swirl of artsy new wave, chamber pop, art-rock and indie rock, with a raw, plaintive, emotionally resonant edge. Their song structures are counterintuitive: this band refuses to be contained by a simple verse/chorus/verse pattern. The title of their new album, Swing Shift Maisies refers to the all-female bands that sprung up during World War I: Rosie the Rocker instead of Rosie the Riveter. The term was actually a slur, the band using it here sarcastically – they’re all first-rate musicians. Frontwoman/guitarist Bernadette Malavarca has playful command of an impressively wide range of styles, and she’s full of surprises: she’ll punch out a staccato new wave phrase and and suddenly toss off a tongue-in-cheek country riff – or stick out her tongue with a comical Jimmy Page lick. Acoustic guitarist Catherine McGowan – who also sings – holds the songs to the rails along with the nimble rhythm section of Shawn Fafara on bass and Jose Ulloa on drums. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist Nicole Scorsone, overdubbed here to the point that she’s a one-woman orchestra. For those who’ve never seen them live, this four-song ep makes an auspicious introduction: it may be short but it’s one of this year’s best so far.

The first track, Boo features characteristically plaintive violin over jangly guitar, with distant tango echoes. “Been so long since I’ve been myself,” Malavarca muses; the band works a catchy minor key guitar vamp that builds lushly with the strings, a suspenseful drum shuffle and a majestic, sweeping outro. The brisk Sangria Peaches kicks off with a tricky rhythm into a fast eight-note new wave groove with staccato violin, swirling strings and a coy break with castanets. McGowan sings Sleepless Aristotle – a live showstopper – with a chipper chirp: it’s a fast, swaying amalgam of chamber pop and vintage new wave, and a playful percussion breakdown. The last song here, It Goes Like That sounds like the Velvets jamming with the New Pornographers at Juilliard summer camp.

As a singer, Malavarca’s still finding her voice. It’s a powerful, versatile instrument with eye-popping range – when she’s projecting with an insistence that vividly recalls Martha Davis of the Motels (a little higher up the scale), she’s tremendously affecting. When she lapses into a drawl (which happily only happens every now and then), it’s an affectation that sticks out like a sore thumb in a band so original and so cliche-free. But given the quality and the imagination of the songs here, that’s a minor quibble. As good as the recordings are, the band is even better live: Bern & the Brights play the cd release for this album at Maxwell’s on July 17 at 8:30. Now’s your chance to enjoy them up close before it costs you twice as much at venues twice as big.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday’s Brooklyn County Fair: The Year’s Best New York Concert?

The Brooklyn Country folks like living dangerously: they didn’t even put a canopy over the stage before the all-day parade of bands started. But they didn’t let a few drops of rain, a massive bank of cumulo nimbus overhead moving closer and closer or the miserable tropical humidity stop them from putting on one of the best shows this city’s seen this year. Their frequent Brooklyn County Fair shindigs go all day and into the night: this time around, the daytime venue was the pleasant Urban Meadow community garden space where President Street deadends into the water in Red Hook. The only ironic thing about the country music being made in Brooklyn these days is that it’s better than 95% of what’s coming out of Nashville: Saturday’s lineup was a goldmine of both retro and cutting-edge country and Americana talent.

Plagued with technical difficulties, Maynard & the Musties’ opening set was a wash (and looked like it would be a wash in more ways than one, with the clouds as dark as they were, but the sky never broke). They’re playing Lakeside on Friday the 23rd if you missed them here – and by the looks of the crowd, you probably did.

String band Me Before You blended bluegrass, folk and oldtime hillbilly sounds with some gorgeous vocal harmonies from brother and sister Anthony and Amy Novak, who switched on and off between guitar and mandolin, anchored by Carlos Barriento’s often haunting, bowed bass and Joyce Chen’s soaring fiddle. Their version of Blue Moon of Kentucky started slow and soulful, then turned on a dime and went doublespeed. But their originals were the best, Amy’s wary, somewhat wounded delivery akin to Patsy Cline. Toward the end of the set, Anthony finally cut loose with a sizzling guitar solo on one of their upbeat numbers, somehow managing to keep his fingers on the fretboard despite the heat and humidity.

The Dixons didn’t let the heat phase them either. Decked out in their retro hats and suits, they looked and sounded straight out of Bakersfield, 1964 – there hasn’t been a New York band who’ve done this kind of honkytonk so effortlessly and expertly well since Buddy Woodward put the Nitro Express in mothballs and headed for the hills of Virginia. Dixons frontman and rhythm guitarist Jeff Mowrer sang with a sly baritone a lot like Junior Brown while drummer Brother Paul hung back with a stick in his right hand and a brush in his left, delivering the slinkiest shuffle beat you could possibly imagine, Smilin’ Joe Covington pushing it along with his upright bass and Telecaster player Chris Hartway bringing back the ghost of Duane Eddy to guide his fast fingers. Guest pedal steel player Skip Krevens would kick off the solos and then Hartway would finish them, taking it up a notch with one lusciously reverb-drenched, twangy, tuneful fill after another – a little bluegrass, a little blues, a little surf, he did it all. Between songs, the crowd was silent: they didn’t know what hit them. They turned Ernest Tubb’s Thanks a Lot into a Hudson Hornet era boogie and happily repatriated Waylon Jennings’ Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge to a time before Pam Tillis was born. Their briskly shuffling opening tune, Still Your Fool (title track to their excellent album) set the tone for the day; The Lonesome Side of Me was period perfect not just with the music but also the lyrics, a vibe that would happen again and again during their set.

Led by Texas expat and bartitone crooner (and Brooklyn Country honch0)  JD Duarte alongside chanteuse Carin Gorrell, the Newton Gang were just as good – but in a completely different way. The Dixons sound as fresh as they do because hardly anyone around these parts has that kind of sound, and the same goes for these guys. But where the Dixons have every part completely nailed down cold, the Newton Gang are just loose enough to be dangerous, part outlaw country, part evil-tinged paisley underground rockers. With a careening two-guitar attack of Duarte and agile, smartly terse Telecaster player Alan Lee Backer, they shifted unexpectedly and edgily between major and minor keys, through a brutal ballad about a kid who kills his entire family, several escape anthems (a recurrent theme in this band) and a pretty unhinged version of A Woman Scorned, a fiery, chugging tune from the band’s upcoming album. Pedal steel player Gordon Hartin built a river of dark textures, giving a fluid underpinning to the crash-and-burn overhead while drummer David Ciolino-Volano and bassist Chet Hartin teamed up for a backbeat pulse that swung like crazy – not what you’d expect from a twangy monster like this group. Unlike the parade of Carrie Underwood soundalikes out there, Gorrell goes for an often darkly aware, no-nonsense Tammy Wynette approach. Her lead vocals packed a mean punch on the rousing Mistreat Me, just as much a challenge as a come-on, a test to see if the guy’s man enough for her.

By the time they were done, the temperature had tumbled pleasantly by at least twenty degrees, but the clouds looked like they’d finally reached their limit. Alana Amram & the Rough Gems, another excellent band who mix country and rock in a cool rather than cheesy way, were next, followed by zydeco/honkytonk band the Doc Marshalls and then Americana singer Michaela Anne. But the way the sky was looking, it was time for a raincheck. We made it just past Abilene on Court St. before the monsoon hit.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | concert, country music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments