Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Art Review: Shaun El C. Leonardo and Alexis Duque in Chelsea

Dominican-Guatemalan-American illustrator Shaun El C. Leonardo draws on his multicultural background, his early education at a Jesuit high school and college football career in a powerfully provocative display, titled Death of a King, that asks a lot of important questions rather than trying to answer any of them. That is left up to the viewer.

As you come up the stairs, the lifesize silhouette of a muscled man falls backwards in relief against the white of the wall behind him: a World Trade Center allusion? The questions begin before you get in the door of the gallery. Inside, a series of more silhouettes – self-portraits, it seems – appear against a shadowy, earthtone-splashed backdrop of bombed-out, smoldering urban scenes – an Iraq war reference, maybe? And are the hulking, brooding strongmen planning on saving the day…or savoring the bitter taste of defeat? The most stunning of all the images is a the upper body of a black man reaching high, either strung up with chains…or decisively grasping a boltcutter, to sever them triumphantly?

Leonardo’s pencil drawings are similarly provocative and enigmatic. One shows a man in armor with what looks like the pop-up tab of a beer can where his nose should be, Obama portraits adorning his shoulder and knee guards. A rightwinger making fun of the President, daring others to hit him? Nope. “I just wanted to be a warrior for Obama,” explained Leonardo to the crowd at last night’s viewing, who all seemed to want to join him. Other drawings match stylized medieval and Aztec warrior images to contemporary brands ranging from the Nike swooshtika, to Spiderman, to the coat of arms from Leonardo’s high school.

And in the back, there’s a painting that deserves to be in the MoMA collection. Alexis Duque’s Slums series includes this surreal brick-and-white-toned architectural view of an empty, war-riddled building turned inside out. It’s part Escher, part Aztec pueblo. Imagining what happened to all the people amid the shrapnel wounds, the headless statue, the hints of random furniture and household goods, satellite dishes, the abandoned guitar on the balcony and numerous bullseyes, none of which have been hit dead center, sends a potent message. A must see after passing through Leonardo’s compelling exhibit, which runs through November 27 at Praxis International Art, 541 W 25th St., open Tues-Sat 10 AM to 6 PM.

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November 16, 2010 Posted by | Art, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Vital Vox Festival Takes Vocals to New Levels

This year’s Vital Vox Festival, artfully assembled by the perennially eclectic and innovative Sabrina Lastman, wound up Saturday Night at Issue Project Room with some impressively captivating and entertaining performances. First on the bill was the Takadimi Duo, a.k.a. singer Lori Cotler and percussionist Glen Velez. In this project, their shtick is creating music out of the staccato, rhythmic konokol drum language frequently utilized by Indian percussionists – say “samosapapadum, canihavesomemorewaterplease” five times fast and you’ll get the picture. They got everyone, including themselves, laughing at a tongue-in-cheek “conversation,” Velez gamely trying to hold up his end against Cotler’s rapidfire syllabication. Her most captivating moment in a set full of many was a torchy, mysterioso number, like a jazzier Alessandra Belloni, slinking modally among the blue notes and occasionally punctuating Velez’ nocturnal ambience with a little dinner bell. Velez took a couple of frame drum solos and wowed the crowd with his ability to effectively replicate a John Bonham-style workup with just the fingers of one hand. At the end of the set, Cotler tried to get the audience to rap along with her – from the first few beats, it was obvious that this was a rhythmically challenged crew. Still, it was a lot of fun trying to keep up with her – and with Velez, who succeeded in getting at least a portion of the audience to join him in a shimmery display of overtone-tinged Tuvan throat-singing.

Audrey Chen was next, performing a solo set on vocals and cello, augmented by a homemade loop machine that would send showers of audio sparks oscillating throughout the mix as she roared, purred, growled, rasped and assaulted the crowd: as much as Cotler and Velez had tried to pull them in, it seemed that she was trying to clear the room. It didn’t work. And by the time she was finished, it was impossible not to want more. Chen doesn’t mess around with words: she goes straight to the emotion, usually the most intense one. She’s not merely in touch with her inner four-year-old – she also channeled her inner four-day-old, a voracious and easily disturbed presence whose violently perplexed, contrarian vocalese – if you could call it that – was impossible to turn away from. She scraped on her cello, looped the noise and ran it through a series of echo effects, sometimes mimicking them with her voice, sometimes adding the same effects to her vocals. If she hadn’t been such a forceful presence onstage, it would have been hard to tell which was which, woman or machine. Self-indulgent? Maybe. A riveting portrait of madness? Possibly. Compelling? Beyond words. Between her two, long pieces, she explained with a casual and considerably contrasting warmth that they were both improvisations. The lone linguistic phrase that made its way into her performance was a sinister, breathy whisper, “I’m hungry…for a bite of you.” After scraping yet more varnish off the edge of her cello between the bridge and the fingerboard, evoking a thousand horror-movie doors closing in unison, then getting its murky insides to rumble even lower, she ended with a couple of lush, still, stunningly lyrical Messiaenesque chords. Where the devil’s choir ended, she’d found genuine, otherworldly beauty.

Chen’s doing a duo show with Jim Pugliese at Issue Project Room on January 21.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Patti Rothberg

Irrepressible, cleverly lyrical tunesmith Patti Rothberg has toured worldwide with Midnight Oil, the Wallflowers and Chris Isaak. She’s responsible for the albums Between the 1 and the 9, Candelabra Cadabra and Double Standards. She can play guitar behind her back if you ask her. And if you see a Patti Rothberg sticker at the Beacon Theatre, row P, seat 9, she’s the one who put it there, to commemorate her first show at the venue. Now she’s back with a new album, Overnite Sensation. As much as it’s a return to her roots, it also comes as something of a shock. We’ll let her explain:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You were one of the last quality songwriters to catch a ride on the major label gravy train: you had a hit album, Between the 1 and the 9, a Top 30 single, and you toured with a whole bunch of quality acts. I remember the first time I saw you play – you were sharing a bill with Aimee Mann at the Beacon Theatre. When your label EMI America sank without a trace, you went to an indie label, Cropduster, and then another one with your Double Standards album which came out a couple of years ago. Are you completely independent now? To what degree are you open to suggestion if a label should come knocking again?

Patti Rothberg: I am completely open to suggestions. After all, it’s only a suggestion, and these things are by nature negotiable. My friend Lou Christie – lightning’s striking again – puts it this way: the internet was the Pandora’s Box. It leveled the playing field for most artists. It comes down to dollars, but not necessarily who gets the boost and gets noticed. You could be the indiest of nubies or a dues paid old school road dog: someone is paying for manufacture, promotion, distribution. Some people use the words quote unquore Rock Star like a curse word. But that was certainly the model I grew up with, and gave me more to dream about and aspire to than say, a smelly van and Days Inns as far as the eye can see.

LCC: Do you miss those days at all?

PR: I miss it all! Even the Days Inns! The other talented musicians we encountered, the characters you couldn’t invent if you were the best scriptwriter in the world. The experience of playing in front of 70,000 screaming fans and making them do the wave, and them actually going for it! I’ve always wanted every day of my life to be different since I was very little. I wanted to be a bus driver, or astronomer, which is funny since either of those fantasies have a reality that’s quite repetitive…even being a “rock star” on the road is INSANELY repetitive – wake, interview, soundcheck, show, sleep, repeat… but it’s the inbetween that has magic.

LCC: Through all the ups and downs, you’ve maintained a consistent vision, both lyrically and musically. To what degree have you had to resist being twisted into a different shape? To avoid selling out?

PR: Let me tell you how lucky I am! My debut album was produced by my friend, basically a first timer, Dave Greenberg…because we had such a strong rapport – this was UNHEARD OF! I got to illustrate my entire cd artwork, experiment in the coolest studio around – Electric Ladyland – and experience life as a total rock and roll superstar! Because that was my first and only time doing this til then, I just thought it was ALWAYS like this, and, tougher to take…I thought it WOULD always be like that for me [sigh]…if you look at the nine portraits on the album Between the 1 and the 9, they have really foreshadowed my reluctance to be stuck to any KIND of music or physical appearance! I still write songs very much the way I did before I ever dreamed of having a giant record deal. The songs are like fireflies, and the albums capture them in a jar to be understood in context, later.

LCC: Do you ever feel that you were pigeonholed? Maybe as a singer-songwriter, when you’re really more of a rocker?

PR: Yes, at first I HATED being called quote unquote folk rocker or acoustic rocker because the combinations of those words created an image of myself which didn’t match my superego…in other words, here I am playing Rod Stewart, the Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, Jane’s Addiction, the Runaways, Black Sabbath, etcetera, and I felt I was being chalked up as some chick with a guitar. I thought this advent was insulting to the other chicks as well! Now, I don’t mind it so much. One reason is because there are plenty of other so-called folk rockers who I respect and think are beautiful – such as Joni Mitchell or even Lou Reed. Even if the bare bones of your song were written using an acoustic, this shouldn’t necessarily mean you’re a folkie. Some of it is instrumentation, some of it is simply image. How many copies of Dark Side of the Moon sell and continue to sell? The cover is black with the image of a prism. The music is fully orchestrated with lots of sound effects and genres I can’t even name – ok, Money is a blues riff…but it’s about the journey the music takes you on and people across the board can identify with it. By the way, which one’s pink? [laughs].

LCC: I think ultimately that we can attribute the death of the major labels to one crucial mistake, which is the failure to be willing to work with quality artists. Do you agree?

PR: Yes, quantity and the desire for more and more kills quality! When A&R folk became afraid to lose their jobs for choosing the “wrong” bands to stick their necks out for, for fear of having their heads chopped off, lots of amazing bands ended up on the chopping block too. At the end of the day it’s about the numbers…the mind numbing numbers. A&R used to stand for “Artist and Repetoire”..when talented artists were given the space to develop into geniuses and not this year’s models! It was a privilege to have a record deal, not just anyone could get one! Later I think A&R started to stand for “already” and “repeating,” Music Biz fat cat chomping on cigar: “Say, I hear Electra’s got Lady DaDa and she’s movin’ units! Go find us OUR DaDa!!!”

LCC: You have a unique vocal style: you sound like the cat who ate the canary, there’s something up your sleeve, but at the same time it doesn’t sound fake or contrived. How did you arrive at that style or did it just happen?

PR: I think sometimes mid vocal take I am amused at my own lyrics which makes for a smile in my voice [grins]. It’s nice to agree with or relate to oneself, even if it’s about something embarrasing, and that makes it inviting for others to sing along [smile].

LCC: You love puns and double entendres. I can’t help but think of Elvis Costello when I hear you sometimes, he has the same kind of classic pop sensibility matched to a lyrical wit. Did he influence you at all?

PR: Woah, that’s the magic! Go back to where I said “this year’s model” in this very interview! Yes, I adore Elvis Costello…when he says on Blood and Chocolate, “I hope you’re happy now,” he takes an idiomatic expression and makes it a delicious chocolate layer cake of double meaning. I love that he writes in all different tempos and sentiments, making him in my eyes a true artist with a full pallette! The song “I Want You” is one of the most exquisite demonstrations of obsessively wanting someone, through music and arrangement AND lyrics that I have ever heard!

LCC: Every time I see a good, lyrical live band, I’m impressed how many people I see in the crowd: there’s definitely an audience for accessible music that’s not stupid, even if the corporate media won’t acknowledge that it exists. How does a smart rocker get the word out these days?

PR: You know, it’s amazing…this buttery ladder we all climb in the music biz. When I was growing up, I looked up to rock bands, some who are guys now in their 60s. They are looking to open for younger, hotter bands who are really just trying to make it themselves…I think the best thing to do WHATEVER level you may be at is to stand still, let the universe scramble by, and seek for something true. All the best stuff in my career I can recall has been serendipitous.

LCC: I understand you have a great new band now. Who’s in it and where’d you find them?

PR: I am back with the bass player I’d played with live and on Double Standards for ten plus years, David Leatherwood. We met on the 1 train around 1997 when my cd 1&9 was still happening – serendipity!? We’ve always had a great vibe and I’m so happy to have him back! On drums is the lovely Mark Greenberg. We have a similar sense of mischief, and I met him singing back up vocals for [former Utopia keyboardist] Moogy Klingman’s band the Peacenicks. David and Mark were in the successful band Apache Stone together already as their rhythm section, and Mark and I had Peacenicks, David and I together are magic, so even the first and only time we rehearsed, it was like it was meant to be! So far we only played one gig, at Don Hill’s and it was beautiful. Electric! More to come!

LCC: On Between the 1 and the 9, you played all the guitars and bass, correct? Are you also doing that on the new one?

PR: Overnite Sensation’s first five tracks were prewritten with drum loops, synths and such on protools. I wrote and sang lyrics and melodies over them. As for the rock tracks – the rest of the album – the drums are played by Adrian Harpham, with the exception of the song “Interest” which was played by Mike Demetrius. Because I am always filled with so many ideas, I just instinctively grabbed the guitar and bass and played everything myself.

LCC: Where does a song start for you? What comes first, the hook, the tune, the lyrics? What’s your process?

PR: Believe it or not, my process often starts with a situation! The impossibly complex universe can sometimes seem like an unfriendly ocean, but then suddenly I’m thrown a life raft in the form of a song title which expresses the exact situation I’d been drowning to describe [smile]. Then it’s easy, I just transcribe that into lyrics which have their own meter…and meter implies melody in my mind. Then I just color inside, or even outside the lines. Other times a melodic hook or riff gets stuck in my head and I need to grab a pen and a napkin [grin].

LCC: Can we talk about the new album? It’s a mix of both the richly lyrical, catchy rock that we know and love…and also some Britney Spears-style dance-pop – is this all brand-new material or stuff that’s been percolating for awhile?

PR: The quote unquote fireflies that I described before became Overnite Sensation over many years! That’s why the the title is funny. Dave and my first record really WAS more of an Overnite Sensation for us…over the ten years I’d been recording with Freddie Katz – ’98 to ’08 – Dave and I made these dance demos and completely intended for them to go to Kylie Minogue, but I came to him with my new collection of rock tracks, which naturally sounded a lot like 1&9 due to our combo…but also Harphamed [referring to Adrian Harpham] back ’cause he was the drummer on both albums. When we were taking inventory of all the stuff we had done, we listened to the dance tracks with my vocals on them..and the concept of Overnite Sensation was born.

LCC: On the dance-pop songs – but not the rock songs – there’s autotune on your voice. With Taylor Swift, for example, that makes some sense, since she can’t hold a note. But you’re a strong singer, you don’t have a pitch problem. Why?

PR: Believe it or not, there is a technique to singing along with autotune! Theoretically if you sing a note flat or sharp and you set the parameters right it FIXES you. But…I can tell you as a blues style singer with lots of dips, wiggles and other stylistic goodies the folks today might call imperfections, you really have to vanillafy your voice…think it straight, focus into the mic to make that autotune work as an effect. I know you won’t believe this, but the theory behind my using autotune is that ears today can only hear autotuned vocals. I actually heard the executive producer of Double Standards say to me years ago, “I can’t even LISTEN to a vocal that hasn’t been pitch corrected.” So my autotune use is like ritalin in a riddled world. How can you reach the masses if you don’t speak their language!?

LCC: You’ve always had an individual voice – you’ve always come across as someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone. How would you respond if I said that all these lovey-dovey dance-pop songs send the message that a girl should put a guy’s needs before hers? Doesn’t that go against everything you’ve ever stood for? Or am I taking things way too seriously here?

PR: I could write a novel on this one. Do you remember the song “Treat Me Like Dirt” from 1&9? It was #1 in Kosovo! That’s a lotta masochists! I wrote it in the spirit of “here I go again falling for the bad boy,” kind of making fun of myself. But it could be argued that it means I would take A LOT of shit for love. I’m not sure which lovey dovey pop songs you are referring to, but lets start with the dance tracks.

LCC: Yeah, them.

PR: Remember when everyone danced in their black trenchcoats and asymetrical haircuts to “Tainted Love”? Have you listened to those lyrics recently!? This is a dysfunctional relationship, a very painful one that we have been boogieing to all these years. “Touch me baby, tainted love.” He might as well be saying “Treat Me Like Dirt.” I also think that it’s okay to sometimes put a guy’s needs before your own. It can be romantic! If you really want to know what I stand for, it’s being able to express every aspect of your being! To admit being hurt and fragile, while also sometimes screaming you want to beat somebody’s balls with your rolling pin.

LCC: One of the new rock tunes reminds me a lot of Ashes to Ashes by Bowie. You covered Moonage Daydream on Candelabra Cadabra. I’d love to hear what you could do with something a little more sinister…All the Madmen, maybe?

PR: Ooh, that’s a good one! I haven’t heard that whole album in a Diamond Dog’s age!

LCC: I’m hearing more of an artsy 70s powerpop style on some of the new stuff: that new piano ballad that sounds a little like ELO; that backbeat glamrock number, is that a deliberate move on your part?

PR: 70s powerpop is a natural direction I go in because I’ve listened to so much of it! I grew up listening to ELO A LOT – and then the Beatles – the fact that you picked up on Interest sounding like John Lennon’s Woman is quite astute. Track number 8 has lots of harmonies which always make things sound ELO-like which is fine with me!

LCC: The new rock stuff is more direct, more stripped-down, compared to the work you did with Freddie Katz which is a lot more ornate, sometimes psychedelic. Let It Slide, for example, very direct yet very allusive at the same time. A lot more like 1 and the 9. A return to your roots?

PR: YES!! Believe it or not, while Double Standards made some deliberate attempts to sound like 1&9 in places, Overnite does it effortlessly because of who done it! You can identify John Bonham’s drumming in one bar…Jerry Garcia’s slinky guitar in a few notes. This is signature, and though it can be developed a lot of times, it is the simple equation of artist plus instrument!

LCC: How about that torchy trip-hop song, you give it a really sultry jazz feel. I’ve never known you to have any interest in jazz, am I missing something?

PR: Would you call The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” jazz? If so I ADORE jazz. You aren’t missing a thing though, I’m not much of a jazz freak, but I LOVE some of the lighter 60s pop jazz stuff. I can get into anything if I like it, I try not to write off whole genres if I don’t yet know enough about them!

Q: I’ve noticed you’ve been doing a lot of live shows lately around town. Any plans to take the show on the road sometime in the near future?

PR: In between intentions and actions lies a lifetime. In other words, I’ve been performing the Overnite dance tracks as an alter ego character called “Precious Metals!”

LCC: I saw the flyer, you dressed up in this metallic outfit like Madonna. You should do Vegas…

PR: I’d love to do the act in Vegas, but as of now it’s so far from ideal, and my rock trio is KILLER!!! With just a few rehearsals we could play anywhere in the world and be astounding. Ah, but where to find the clubs that pay guarantees?

LCC: Out of town, Patti! People out in Middle America are starving for good music! One last question: You were famously discovered while busking in the subway. When’s the last time you played there? Any plans to go back?

PR: I had a wonderful thing happen! I met a fellow busker, Randy Stern, on the R train a few years ago. We have since become friends, and we learned the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin My Heart Around”. One night after hanging out at a Peacenicks show, Randy was going downtown on the subway platform as I was going up. He took out his guitar and we just started playing our duet across the tracks. People were amazed and the whole station applauded when we finished. That is the last time I played in the subway…but it won’t be the last time ever I’m certain!!!

Patti Rothberg plays Caffe Vivaldi on November 26 at 9:30 PM; watch this space for upcoming live dates.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Cypress String Quartet Play Debussy, Higdon and Schulhoff with Soul and Sensitivity

Thursday night at the New School’s Tenri Institute, Cypress String Quartet violinist Cecily Ward explained that the Debussy String Quartet was the first piece the ensemble had played together. That was 1996. Fourteen years later, the group still finds bliss in it. Ward played from memory, mostly with her eyes closed. It’s about the joy of discovery: Debussy famously wrote it after seeing a Javanese gamelan for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The Cypress’ version was all about the joy of rediscovery, of finding yet new levels of nuance in an old favorite. Underneath the expertly interwoven Balinese-inspired tonalities is just a hint of a Gallic barroom dance, which they seized with fluidity and grace, both as cellist Jennifer Kloetzel propelled them with alternately hushed and dramatic dynamics as the first movement wound up, and when it came to the rounds of pizzicato in the second movement. Brooklyn Rider played a stunningly edgy version of this piece earlier this year at the Orensanz Center that brought to mind how Debussy must have felt in the hours after writing it; this performance, with its soul and depth, put it in context, a period piece that also happened to shift the stage for practically everything that followed.

The earlier part of the program was just as revelatory. Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 suite Five Pieces for String Quartet first saw a revival right around the time this group was getting together. Other ensembles play up the occasional Roaring 20s archaisms that occur throughout its five dances, but this crew played it as satire with a deliciously snarky bite, from the faux waltz of the opening movement (it’s in straight-up 4/4 time), to the somewhat sinister boudoir theme of the second, which they gave a bolero-like sway. On the third, Kloetzel’s terse pedal point led to an angry fugue highlighted by the deadpan acerbity of violinist Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner, whose deft camaraderie would carry the following tango movement as well. They gave the final segment – a Flight of the Bumblebee parody of sorts – an eerie tinge that bordered on the macabre: this was a swarm of killer bees headed straight for the border.

Yet the piece that resonated the most with the audience was Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions, from 2003. The composer, who was in attendance, offered beforehand how she’d drawn on Impressionist art for inspiration. She explained her fondness for its lack of rough edges, which allows for a considerably broader scope of expression than more figurative styles. The intrigue (and advantage) of pointillism, as she put it, is that “You can’t tell what it is up close.” The first movement, a colorful dance, had the characteristically meticulous, diversely evocative architecture that defines her work, and was delivered with the same bustling joy as the Debussy. The following movement, titled Quiet Art, built from the pensive and sometimes apprehensive ambience of an artist struggling to find a path to expression and wound up with gusto, a dream fulfilled and a job well done. The third movement, a homage to Debussy, expertly wove individual lead lines from each instrument. The suite ended with an absolutely riveting chase scene, resolution and then unresolution, warmly sostenuto passages contrasting with a bracing percussive attack: if this was painting, it was a cross between Pollock and Escher. The crowd demanded an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly allusive version of the Orientale from Glazunov’s Fifth String Quartet, the Fertile Crescent through a glass, darkly. The Cypress String Quartet’s second volume in their conquest of the Beethoven late quartets is just out; watch this space.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/16/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #805:

Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution

The most musically sophisticated of all the classic roots reggae bands of the 70s, Steel Pulse’s career began with a string of brilliant albums that lasted into the early 80s. After a struggle with one producer after another who tried to dumb down their sound and turn them into a pop band, they returned to their roots like they’d never left and never looked back. Over thirty years after they started, they’re still an extraordinary live band (the single most popular concert review we’ve published to date concerns a 2008 Steel Pulse show). Since all their early and their most recent material is so consistently strong, we picked this album, their major label debut, from 1978. Frontman David Hinds’ jazzy chords, serpentine song structures and politically charged lyrics are as intense as ever: the title track captures the struggle of West Indians in racist England at the time; Ku Klux Klan, one of their biggest hits, works powerfully on several levels. There’s also the antiwar Soldiers; the snide Bad Man; the echoey, metaphorically driven Prodigal Son; the big dub-flavored concert hit Sound Check; and the ganja-fueled Rasta anthem Macka Splaff. Everything the band recorded through 1982’s True Democracy is worth a spin, as is their elaborate 1992 live concert album, Rastafari Centennial and pretty much everything they’ve done after that. Here’s a random torrent.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment