A large urban area, particularly its oldest sections, ought to have no shortage of ghosts, at least if you believe in them. We’ll put our cards on the table and reveal that none of the crew here have ever seen one: at least that’s the consensus, even after a Halloween eve trip to the Merchant’s House Museum at 29 E 4th St., reputedly Manhattan’s most haunted house. Ostensibly, one way to encourage the appearance of spectral images is to place two mirrors facing each other (the basic principle of Dr. Raymond Moody’s famous psychomantium). In the upstairs bedroom of the three-story 1832 brick Federal house where nonagenarian Gertrude Tredwell died in 1933 (and supposedly continues to reside), there are in fact two mirrors facing each other across the room. One was in desperate need of a dusting – or was it? Are the staff here more savvy about their ghostbusting than they let on? An attempt by one of our crew to squat down out of range and watch the surface of the clean mirror revealed a nebulous, shapeless blob of whitish grey that could have been…well, you figure it out. Ectoplasm, dust, or just bad eyesight? Maybe that’s why this guy’s experiences of the paranormal have been audio and tactile but never visual.
And if you don’t believe in ghosts, the museum is still marvelous. A current exhibit focuses on postmortem photography common in the late 1800s, including a rather sad collection of wallet-size deathbed and casket shots, most of them children. In the days before the invention of the Kodak box camera, this was a popular phenomenon in upper class America: funeral photos were keepsakes, and frequently the only portraits ever made of many of those unfortunate kids.
The rest of the house is stunning in its lowlit authenticity, complete with its owners’ 19th century furnishings. In the downstairs kitchen, where the Tredwell family’s four Irish servants cooked on the big iron stove, there’s the pie safe (a big breadbox on stilts, typically set in pails of water to keep the bugs from getting into the pastries inside). Outside in the garden, you’ll find evidence of the 4000 gallon cistern – a source of water for washing and cleaning but not for drinking, considering that the rainwater flowed down from the eaves overhead. The first-floor parlor with its chandeliers, high ceilings, pristine 1820 pink silk sofa and vintage 1840 piano, reminds that grubbing for status has been with us since the dawn of humankind (from the looks of it, the Tredwells do not appear to have been the deepest people in the neighborhood). The upstairs bedrooms, also complete with ornate, highly sought-after period furnishings, include both the room where patriarch Seabury Tredwell (1780-1865) died, as well as the actual bed where his daughter Gertrude left this world. Her mirror (the one covered with dust) hangs past it along the north wall. Sadly, the part of the house that probably tells the most tales – the servants’ quarters – is not open to the public. But the rest is a treat, as vivid a look at 19th century daily life in Manhattan as you’ll ever see. The museum is open Thursday-Monday, noon to 5 PM. Admission is a very reasonable $10.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #821:
Happy Halloween! Today we give you a classic Halloween album, prized on the collector market. If Dusseldorf organist Almut Rossler recorded frequently, the internet record doesn’t reflect it. But when she did – wow! Classical church organ music is extraordinarily hard to record: the blast of the bass from the pedals contrasts with the delicacy of the high reed stops to the point where it’s almost absurd to attempt to capture the entire sonic spectrum. And French composer Olivier Messiaen’s haunting, otherworldly works take up every inch of what a good pipe organ will give you. This 1973 recording includes a rivetingly powerful recording of his otherworldly, ghostly suite La Navitite du Seigneur (The Birth of the Lord), which rather than triumphantly signaling the birth of a deity, is completely macabre, to the point where it seems that Messiaen (a devout Catholic) was working for the other team. The album also includes the more matter-of-factly ominous Dyptique, the chilly, atmospheric Le Banquet Celeste and last but not least, a casually chilling version of L’Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (The Dawn of the Eternal Church), a work which many people consider to be the most life-changing piece of music ever written. We wouldn’t go quite that far, but its icy, burning ambience makes it impossible to turn away from. It’s iconic in the organ world; it has been known to terrify people whose taste in music is more timid. This recording is also absolutely impossible to find online. In lieu of this extraordinary album, here’s a torrent to the complete organ works of Messiaen by another gifted organist, Olivier Latry of Notre Dame in Paris, whose recordings of Messiaen are both thrilling and chilling.
There’s a backstory here, and it’s an encouraging, even paradigm-shifting one. Conductor Alondra de la Parra and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas’ new album Mi Alma Mexicana not only reached #1 on the Mexican classical charts, it also reached #2 on the pop charts there. Ironically, that may not be quite as extraordinary an achievement as it would have been ten years ago. But it is compelling evidence that even in the age of downloading, people are still willing to pay for quality. The album seeks to revive interest in pieces by Mexican orchestral composers from the past 150 years or so. Last night, de la Parra and the orchestra treated a sold-out Alice Tully Hall crowd to a handful, opening with Carlos Chavez’ Caballos de Vapor. De La Parra introduced it as “the horsepower suite,” a ballet whose original costumes were created by Diego Rivera. Rarely recorded or played in concert, it’s a richly dynamic piece that deserves to be vastly better known. The intricately bustling mechanics of the first movement grew to a sort of dance of the behemoths, and it was here where de la Parra’s emotional intelligence and meticulous approach really struck home: the crescendo could have become florid, but she wouldn’t let it go completely over the top. Was this supposed to be satirical, a cautionary tale about falling too deeply in love with the Industrial Revolution? Certainly the mournful intensity of the dance themes that followed – a brooding Mexican sandunga that brilliantly mimicked a guitar timbre, a troubled, languid, pulseless tango and a bolero that went from shadowy to almost sepulchral – could be interpreted as its aftereffects. The ensemble played singlemindedly, de la Parra always maintaining plenty of open space for the many brief solo spots, the orchestra parting the waters with split-second efficiency when the moment arrived.
Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a case of lyrics surpassing the quality of the music beneath. Actor Chris Noth (of Sex and the City fame/notoriety) gave Abraham Lincoln’s own words of warning and love for democracy the gravitas the orchestra couldn’t, although they did the best they could with what they had. De la Parra did the opposite of what she’d just done so well with the Chavez as they latched onto pretty much anything of even remote interest in this obviously hastily cobbled together, western movie-tinged, folk song-speckled tone poem by the Norman Rockwell of 20th century music.
The concluding piece, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra was a showstopper, every bit as extraordinary as de la Parra hinted it would be. The conductor emphasized how this orchestra’s mission is to promote composers and soloists from the whole of North America, and sardonically noted the American composer’s mastery of “a form several composers have tried and done successfully, ha ha, some of them…” Percussive as the work is, it paired off terrifically with the Chavez. The first movement built to brisk, intense, percussive yet distantly suspenseful unison riffage; the second, seemingly a tribute to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, paired off the basses and violins playfully as lushness and pleasing, Romantically tinged rondo themes made their appearance. Then the fun began, a series of motifs with a quiet nocturnal flair, some of them wryly swooping, moving through the orchestra, building to lush sostenuto brass passages that wouldn’t have been out of place in Brahms. The unselfconscious sense of fun returned in even fuller effect with the fourth movement and its long, gently unstoppable crescendo for percussion, timpani and kettledrums that owed more to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix (Moby Dick and Machine Gun, specifically) than anything else. De la Parra held the careening polyrhythms tightly to the rails as they rattled through to a triumphant drum roll of a conclusion. The crowd reacted with the delirious enthusiasm of a rock audience: on their feet, they literally wouldn’t let the orchestra go, eventually rewarded for their strenuous efforts with Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo Garcia, a playful, increasingly ornately arranged suite of Mexican folk songs and then Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, variations on a genuinely haunting, ballet-tinged, minor-key theme in the same vein as the well-known folk ballad La Llorona.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #822:
Carol Lipnik – Cloud Girl
Those of you who follow this list as we count it down with a new album every day might have noticed how lighthearted it’s been in recent weeks. That was deliberate: we didn’t want to beat you to death with one shade of black or grey after another like we did with the Best 666 Songs list that we just finished this past July. But with Halloween coming up, we’re going back to the dark stuff. This one, for example. Coney Island born and bred, noir chanteuse Carol Lipnik walks a tightrope between sinister and sultry. The cover image of this 2006 cd, a shot of the rails of the Cyclone rollercoaster with its “REMAIN SEATED” sign, is apt. Celebrated for her bone-chilling four-octave range, she’s also a multi-instrumentalist songwriter and a regular collaborator with jazz piano great Dred Scott.This is her most phantasmagorical album. It’s got a couple of creepy waltzes – one about cannibalism, another about madness; the playfully lurid Freak House Blues; the macabre pop of Falling/Floating By, and the lushly moody, menacing Crushed. Other songs work dreamy atmospherics for a more distant menace: the lushly beautiful Traveling and the haunting, hypnotic, Radiohead-inflected title track. Lipnik’s been working lately with cabaret/avant garde star singer John Kelly , which gives them about eight octaves worth of vocals put together. Her first two albums before this one, My Life As a Singing Mermaid and the intense Hope Street are more stylistically all over the map – she’s terrifically adept at soul, blues and gypsy music – and also worth getting to know.
More bands should do live albums. Boston-based Ethiopian groove orchestra Debo Band are as good a candidate as any. If their expansive new four-song ep Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn), recorded live on the band’s 2010 East African tour and available for five bucks at their bandcamp site, is any indication, their upcoming full-length concert cd will be unbelievable. Although they frequently indulge in the tricky polyrhythms in most Ethiopian dance music, this one grooves along to a pretty much straight-up 4/4. If these songs don’t make you move, you need to be defibrillated.
It’s amazing how interesting Debo Band can make a one-chord jam sound. Through all the catchy hooks, the hypnotic vamps, the funky grooves and sizzling horn motifs, there’s one chord change on the album. It’s on one of the songs’ choruses – that’s it. For those who listen to music from India, for example, that’s to be expected, but for music as funky as this, it’s quite a change. That it’s barely noticeable says a lot about how much fun it is. The six-minute opening track works a swaying, insanely catchy minor-key funk vamp with wah guitar, tight horns and incisive staccato violin accents from Jonah Rapino: he jumps on the hook and takes a juicy funk solo over the steady pulse of PJ Goodwin’s bass and the slinky shuffle of Keith Waters’ drums. Danny Mekkonen’s tenor sax sneaks in almost imperceptibly, then out, then in again with the rest of the section in tow. It’s a monster track. When’s the last time you heard a juicy funk solo played by a violin? Ever? That they’d have one pretty much speaks for itself.
The second cut has frontman Bruck Tesfaye singing lyrics in Amharic, careening along with wah-wah on the violin and snarling, distorted upper-register guitar from Brendon Wood. When it reaches the point where the interlocking guitar, horn and violin themes all mingle, it’s psychedelic beyond belief. The tension between squawking tenor sax and wailing electric lead guitar as the intensity rises slowly toward the end is typical of how this band works a crowd of dancers. A fervent, impassioned guest vocalist lends her powerful alto voice to the third cut, a bouncy, hook-driven joint with playful tradeoffs between the horns and Stacey Cordeiro’s accordion as it opens, followed by a seemingly endless series of oldschool funk turnarounds and a big fluttering crescendo at the end. The last cut works down to a mysterious, slinky reggae groove punctuated by a low ominous pulse from Arik Grier’s sousaphone, down even lower to a spooky dub breakdown, and out with a bang. Debo Band make frequent stops in NYC: their show last month at Joe’s Pub was characteristically fun. Watch this space for upcoming dates.
Hypnotic string band Copal’s brand-new second album Into the Shadow Garden is for dancing in the dark. Alternately lush and stark, vibrant and mysterious, bouncy and sultry, their violin-fueled grooves mix elements of Middle Eastern, Celtic, Nordic and Mediterranean styles. Violinist Hannah Thiem leads the group alongside cellists Isabel Castellvi and Robin Ryczek, bassist Chris Brown, drummer Karl Grohmann and percussionist Engin Gunaydin (of the NY Gypsy All-Stars). Right off the bat, it starts hypnotically with a drone that gradually fades up – then the drums come in, then a plaintive, Middle Eastern-tinged violin melody and the first of Thiem’s many gripping, suspense-building solos that will recur throughout the album. About halfway through, it becomes clear that this is a one-chord jam. Eventually, a second violin voice is introduced; some terse harmonies follow over the slinky beat, then it fades down to just an oscillating drone, the dumbek drum and violin, and out gracefully from there. In a way, it reduces the essence of this band to its purest form. It’s music that sets a mood, gets your body moving and keeps it going – it’s awfully easy to get lost in this.
There are a couple of vocal tracks. Ether is a slow, dirgelike piece with a spoken-word lyric – in German – that builds to a fullscale string orchestra groove over almost a trip-hop beat and a trance-inducing bass pulse, and then fades down like the first number. Velvet begins with an austere fugue between the violin and cello and then begins to sway on the waves of a catchy descending progression. It builds intensely with dramatic cymbal crashes and a cello bassline, then ends cold when you’d least expect it.
There are three other long pieces here, all of them instrumentals. Ungaro is a playful, bouncy tarantella dance. Cuetara gets a brooding minor-key vamp going over a slinky Levantine-tinged groove, Thiem soaring over a lush bed of strings and stark, staccato cello accents. The album ends as it began with a majestic one-chord jam, the aptly titled Shadows, Thiem’s long Middle Eastern opening taqsim building slowly, picking up other textures along the way, taking a bit of a lull for another long solo and ending on a surprisingly jaunty note. Although pegged as electroacoustic, there isn’t much going on here that’s electro other than the occasional atmospheric keyboard part. Copal are a deliriously fun live band – they play the cd release for this album on Nov 4 at Drom, headlining at 10 PM on a killer triplebill with haunting Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat opening at 8 followed by Middle Eastern-flavored rockers Raquy & the Cavemen at 9.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #823:
The Best of Spike Jones
The genius of Spike Jones is that his topical jokes from seventy years ago are as funny today as they were then. It helps if you know the source material, but it’s not necessary: after all these years, four-year-olds of all ages still laugh at all the bells and whistles and bumps and crashes in the drummer/bandleader’s crazed vaudevillian catalog. According to amazon, there are 55 Spike Jones albums currently in print; this one has only twelve tracks, but it’s the most solid singles collection we could find (in the early 40s, when the guy was at his peak, everybody was a singles artist). The classic of classics here is Der Fuehrer’s Face, a quintessentially and hilariously American response to Hitler’s WWII propaganda machine. But Jones lampooned the pop music of the era with only slightly less venom, with the horror-movie version of My Old Flame; the drunken, over-the-top Chloe; the Peter Lorre-inspired Laura and The Glow Worm (which surprisingly we couldn’t find streaming anywhere); and the very literal You Always Hurt the One You Love. None but the Lonely Heart is no less amusing a parody of soap operas than it was seven decades ago, and Hawaiian War Chant gives the then-current Hawaiian music craze a thorough stomping. Since classical music was broadcast nationwide on a daily basis during Jones’ heyday, he also lampooned that as well – this collection only has the surprisingly subtle (for him) Dance of the Hours and the arguably funniest moment in an album full of many, the gargling solo on the William Tell Overture, followed by the immortal horse race where the last-place Beetlebomb finally emerges triumphant. Absent here, and probably for the best, are less politically correct numbers like Chinese Mule Train and The Sheik of Araby, which have aged badly. But the album does have Jones’ biggest hit Cocktails for Two, innocuous pop song transformed into one of the great drinking anthems. Here’s a random torrent.
What is most stunning about Lilian Caruana’s photographs of punk rock kids in New York from 1984 to 1987, now on display through January 7, 2011 at the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, is how much space they have. As anyone who lived in New York, or who came here at the time can attest, it was a vastly more spacious place, offering freedom to pretty much anyone who sought it. Caruana, an Italian immigrant, draws on the populism of legendary Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith in an engaging series of black-and-white portraits offering a compassionate view of life as an outsider.
Caruana’s intent was to capture her subjects’ individuality, and it was fortuitous that she took these pictures when she did, when individuality of expression among young New York immigrants was not only not forbidden but actually pretty much de rigeur. Even then, the punk scene was not necessarily a nonconformists’s club: there were Nazi and racist elements, especially among the hardcore kids. But many of the people who came here did so not necessarily because they wanted to, but because there was nowhere else to go, and because they had the option of being pretty much by themselves if they felt like it. And because they could afford it. How times have changed. These East Village shots could be from another universe. There’s not a single $500 bedhead haircut, posse of overdressed, tiara-wearing suburban girls or their Humvee stretch limo, or for that matter, anyone, anywhere, except the subjects of the photos themselves.
Several capture squatters in their lowlit afternoon hovels: a scruffy but seemingly cheerful couple reclining by the window on a mattress; a young guy with a Simply Red haircut enjoying a smoke while playing with a trio of kittens who seemingly could have run off into the adjacent hole in the apartment wall if they felt like it; a girl on her bed, leaning on a Bellevue Hospital pillow and watching a war movie on an old portable tv at 4:35 in the morning, her wall decor limited to the label off a Budweiser torpedo bottle (those were the days before the forty-ounce) and what might be a bloody handprint. The multi-racialism and inclusiveness of the era is evident in the diversity of Caruana’s subjects, especially in her portraits of mixed-race couples. One of them playfully does the bump in front of a gated storefront, the guy holding one of those big Bud bottles – young people drinking on the street in broad daylight were not typically subjected to police persecution in those days. Another pose on their rooftop, the street below them empty save for a battered Chevy Monte Carlo and a shiny new Mazda coupe passing by. As is the case with an Iron Cross-wearing, heavily tattooed guy – his face out of the frame – down the block from an independently owned diner long since vanished from the neighborhood. The shot most likely to be destined for iconic mall-store t-shirt status depicts a father and toddler son with identical mohawks – again, this was from an era fifteen years before the hairstyle became popular with members of the military and the police force. The tattoos are homemade; expressions of peace, freedom and nonviolence predominate among the t-shirts and graffiti; and perhaps most obviously, none of these people seem the least bit threatening.
The John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute is located at 25 W 43rd St. (5th/6th Ave.), on the 17th floor. Gallery hours aren’t listed at their site: you may wish to call before visiting, (212) 642-2094.
Legendary photographer Mick Rock has a new book out, Mick Rock Exposed: The Faces of Rock n Roll and accompanying exhibit up at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in the old CB’s Gallery space just south of Bowery and Bleecker. It’s a must-see: the book is out just in time for the holidays and ought to do just as well if not better than his previous Bowie and glam-themed collections. As he explained before the show’s celebrity-packed opening Tuesday night, this is an eclectic book: he’s never been swayed by popular trends. Although Rock will forever be associated with iconic images like the covers of Lou Reed’s Transformer and the Stooges’ Raw Power, his portraiture over the last forty-plus years is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from Japanese kabuki theatre stars, to a somewhat notorious, self-referencing show featuring Kate Moss in all kinds of provocative poses, to bands as dissimilar as German proto-punks Can, current-day blues belter Shemekia Copeland and gypsy punk stars Gogol Bordello.
As much as Rock has an eye for drama, he often goes for understatement. The best of the most recent images here are an absolutely hilarious Snoop Dogg, looking old yet ganjifically defiant in a George Clinton kind of way (Rock and Snoop seem to have a great mutual appreciation), and a considerably clever spin on an otherwise cliched PR shot of Lady Gag “passed out” in a dirty, trashed bathtub. That shirtless guy standing over her, face out of view? That’s Jack White.
Fans of Rock’s legendary glam-era photography won’t come away disappointed. A Ziggy-era David Bowie is captured in black-and white, pensive and shirtless in an empty room; on the train to Aberdeen with guitarist Mick Ronson; onstage performing “guitar fellatio” as Ronson solos, and in an absolutely brilliant if worrisome 1972 shot where he joins Lou Reed (hiding behind his shades) to support a completely trashed Iggy Pop, who has a pack of Lucky Strikes stuffed in his mouth.
Iggy and the Stooges also figure prominently. A black-and-white shot from 1972 captures the band looking particularly young and vulnerable, a skinny Ron Asheton taking a stab at trying to appear menacing behind his innocuous wireframe glasses (this was before he discovered aviators). The most wrenching of all the photos here is a color headshot of Iggy onstage in 1977, dripping with angst and longing: it’s the visual equivalent of Gimme Danger. There are also a couple of vividly sad Syd Barrett black-and-whites, one where he strikes a karate-like pose in an empty room – he alone knows what it means, if anything – and another with him reclined haggardly on the hood of a battered old Buick convertible (look closely – it’s parked in front of a sparkling new MGB-GT coupe) somewhere in England. By contrast, Rock had the presence of mind to capture Madonna in black-and-white in 1980 (wearing a 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates World Champions tee, licking her shoulder lasciviously – she already knows she’s a star). Everything here that isn’t sold out already is on sale at depression-era prices (a limited edition Transformer print signed jointly by Rock and Reed is three grand). The Morrison Hotel Gallery is open Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 7 PM: shows here turn over fast, go now if you’re thinking about it.
Tons of new stuff waiting in the wings: Mick Rock’s latest photo exhibit at Morrison Hotel Gallery; a punk/skinhead photo retrospective at the Calandra Institute in midtown; Middle Eastern groove band Copal’s new album, and much more, check back in a few hours. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #824:
The UK Subs – Crash Course
Believe it or not, the prototypical oi punks’ first live album made the top ten on the British charts in 1980. This is the original, classic lineup with Charlie Harper backed by Nicky Garratt on guitar, Paul Slack on bass and Pete Davis on drums. Unlike so many of the hardcore bands that followed in their wake, the Subs’ irrepressible sense of humor and genuine defiance are in full effect here: Harper always let it be known that he and the rest of the crew were just glad to be able to make a living without having to work for some slimeball boss. The original vinyl album has 20 tracks; the cd includes the bonus ep with four additional live songs recorded considerably earlier. Unfortunately, you can’t download the big 20-inch UK SUBS stencil that came with the record, an absolutely brilliant piece of marketing that literally can still be seen 30 years later in places where long ago, punks used to get together. All their early hits are here: the hardcore classic I Live in a Car; the Subhumans-style reggae-rock Warhead; a trebly New York State Police (without the loud lead bass on the studio version); a comfortably unhinged Emotional Blackmail; the punk-pop of Tomorrow’s Girls and Teenage (Harper was 36 when he sang “I don’t wanna be teenage”). After awhile, a lot of this starts to sound the same, but there literally isn’t a bad song among the total of 24 tracks here. Harper has assembled several different outfits to back him over the years, Garratt and later bassist Alvin Gibbs rejoining at times; after a detour into a more metal-oriented direction in the mid-80s, they’d make a return to their punk roots in later years to cash in on the nostalgia circuit. Now in his late sixties, Harper remains as unstoppable as ever and still tours. Here’s a random torrent.