Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Radical Shostakovich Symphonies From the Mariinsky Orchestra

He was the perfect composer for another time and place, and in the post 9/11 era his work has taken on a tragic new significance. One of Dmitri Shostakovich’s greatest achievements was to give voice to a people who’d been terrorized. Apprehension and dread are everywhere in his music beginning with the wrenching anguish of his Fifth Symphony well past the venomous, vengeful Tenth and into his string quartets of the early 1960s. The most recent recording of Shostakovich by Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra features richly dynamic versions of two radically different works, Shostakovich’s Second and Eleventh Symphonies. Any preconception of Gergiev as a heavyhanded conductor goes out the window here: this version of the Eleventh is a masterpiece of peaks and valleys, terrifying crescendos and stunned, deathly, practically horizontal atmospherics (it’s also recorded much more quietly than previous releases by this orchestra).

The Eleventh Symphony has been described as cinematic, which is accurate as far as style is concerned. And while it was inspired by the brutal reprisals that followed the 1905 uprising in Russia, it is not any kind of linear depiction of those tragic events. And while it could be interpreted as foreshadowing the triumph of the Communists over the Tsar, it is just the opposite, a portrait of the Tsars’ victims as a metaphor for the millions murdered by Stalin. The second movement is officially supposed to portray the January, 1905 massacre in the St. Petersburg city square, but this massacre appears throughout the piece again and again: after the evocative tone poem that opens the first movement; more dramatically in the second, over and over, and in the third, adagio movement, as if to illustrate the cossacks blowing up a funeral procession (which US drone aircraft have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, in case anyone is wondering). The dynamics all the way through are brilliantly nuanced despite the fireworks all around: for example, a trumpet reveille toward the end of the second movement sounds perfectly distant from the bereavement of the dirge that follows, detached and oblivious to the horror left in its wake.

Likewise, the martial fourth movement offers the feel of a parade nobody wants to march in: to Shostakovich’s infinite credit, he doesn’t end it with the triumphant cymbal crash that punctuates the end of its first segment, instead letting it go on, sad, still and wary until a final reminder of the massacre. Shostakovich just won’t let it go: in 1957, with Stalin dead and Krushchev’s “thaw” underway, he didn’t have to anymore.

The Second Symphony, which opens the album, is a curio. Shostakovich was 21, ambitious and eager to accept commissions from Stalin’s henchmen over at the music office when he wrote it, just two years after his auspicious First Symphony. This wasn’t even designated as such until later and hasn’t aged well despite the young composer’s enthusiastic and considerably original embrace of post-Stravinsky atonalism. The ensemble play (and sing) its martial bombast with a straight face. It was viewed as propaganda at the time it appeared and seems even more so now. Without knowing the author of these two symphonies, one would hardly guess Shostakovich to have written the first one. But the second leaves no doubt. Harmonia Mundi’s distributing this one stateside.

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December 7, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Terrific Album from Sharon Goldman

This is an album for jellybean thieves and those who love them. Not only is Sharon Goldman one of this era’s most brilliant tunesmiths, she also has a sweet tooth. If her lyrics are to be taken at face value, she also steals ice cream – or appropriates other peoples’, anyway. Behind her bright, shiny, catchy classic pop melodies and her symbolically charged imagery, there’s a devious streak. Sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes both at once. Perfect example: Short Brown Hair, the opening cut on her new album Sleepless Lullaby. It’s a classic Snow White/Rose Red dichotomy: the narrator’s cute blonde little sister gets all the attention, but this pensive, brooding brunette has something up her sleeve (actually in her pocket). By the end of the song, she emerges resolute and unchastened. That sense of triumph and indomitability has always been a backdrop on her previous albums, especially the 1999 cult classic Semi-Broken Heart, and it comes to the forefront here.

What’s new here is Goldman’s turn toward an Americana sound, backed tersely and soulfully by guitarist/mandolinist Thad Debrock, bassist Mark Dann and drummer Cheryl Prashker. Dann’s production is remarkably purist: the album has rich, practically analog vinyl feel, vocals up front, drums tastefully in the back, no cheesy autotune or computerized instrumentation anywhere.

The rest of the songs paint vivid pictures, especially the fingerpicked ballad Winter’s Come Around Again, a woman traipsing around in the snow looking for any possible sign of warmth. The title track, a slow, 6/8 country ballad is a knockout. Goldman has always been a good singer – on this album she has become a brilliant one, unselfconsciously plaintive and wounded. “I lie awake with my big mistake” comes across as understatement rather than overkill, enhanced by some soulful slide guitar work by Pat Wictor. House of Stone, a Rich Deans cover, is a country blues tune: with its succession of bitter imagery, it stands up alongside Goldman’s originals here. And the Americana-tinged Letters, a kiss-off ballad that starts out characteristically subtle and gets as vicious as she’s ever allowed herself to be, is righteously wrathful. Goldman then flips the script with Weekend Afternoon, a blithely upbeat country/pop hit.

The 6/8 jazz-pop song Time Is an Airplane is one of her most musically sophisticated numbers – and it namechecks the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island, which makes it even harder to resist. Goldman wraps up the album by reinventing the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut Hazy Shade of Winter as piano-based art-rock, discovering a wintriness missing from the psych-pop arrangement of the original. It’s yet another display of smartly tuneful, captivating songcraft from one of the best songwriters you may have never heard of. Goldman’s next gig is at Brewed Awakening in Metuchen, NJ on Dec 16; watch this space for New York dates.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moroccan Music Star Hassan Erraji Makes a Big Comeback

Moroccan/British multi-instrumentalist Hassan Erraji’s career predates the moment when westerners began calling what he does “world music.” By the mid-80s, he’d already won a cult following outside the land of his birth for his ecstatic, virtuosic work on the oud, the violin, qanun and several other stringed instruments. Thirty years down the road finds him he as vital as ever on his new album Awal Mara (Love at First Sight). Recorded at the Kaiser Chiefs’ studio, he’s backed by the rhythm section of Kenny Higgins on bass and Ben Stevens on drums, taking a break here from Corinne Bailey Rae’s band. It’s a characteristically tuneful mix of oldschool-style habibi music (from before the time the drum machines and synthesizers took over), and it’s pretty amazing how he manages to overdub one instrument after another to the point that he sounds like a Middle Eastern orchestra.

The title track is a funky, syncopated, lushly sparkling dance number with some sizzling, rippling qanun cascades, Erraji’s daughter Yasmin contributing soaring backing vocals behind his impassioned, gritty baritone. The swaying, hypnotic second track features another machine-gun qanun solo. With its almost Celtic violin ambience, the next cut is an “I wanna be rich” dance number. They follow that with the dreamily pulsing, staccato jangle of Haili Ayouma (Where Has My Love Gone), a bracingly astringent violin crescendo breaking the trancelike spell of the rhythm.

After a blithely pulsing, violin-driven instrumental, they introduce some tricky clapalong counterrythms on Safir (Safe Journey), with its pensive, suspenseful violin fills. The following song has almost a British folksong feel leading up to its big, clanking crescendo. The last two songs on the album are marvelously catchy, hauntingly slinky Levantine numbers, the first a ballad, the second rich with unexpected harmonies between father and daughter. They wind it up with a joyous dance instrumental. It’s sort of the Middle Eastern equivalent of what Memphis soul from the 1960s – or disco from ten years after that – is here. It’s out now on World Village Music.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/7/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #784:

Come – Gently Down the Stream

One of the small handful of truly great indie rock bands from the 90s, Come’s two-guitar frontline of Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw were that era’s Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, combining for a ferocious, intuitive maelstrom of growling, roaring, reverb-drenched, evilly smoldering noise. This is their last album, from 1999, and it’s their best. The songs are longer, more ornate and complex, foreshadowing the art-rock direction Zedek would take in the years following the demise of the band. There’s no other group that sound remotely like them: while Zedek would borrow a little of the noiserock she’d been drenched in as frontwoman of legendary New York rockers Live Skull in the late 80s, ultimately she’s more of a Stonesy rock purist. Brokaw invents new elements with his trademark leads, expertly negotiating an underworldly labyrinth of passing tones. The album opens with the epic One Piece, continues in that vein with Recidivist before going more punk with the slightly shorter Stomp and then eventually the loudest track here, the screaming, riff-rocking Saints Around My Neck. The most magnificent track is the kiss-off anthem New Coat, another scorching dirge. After the band broke up, Brokaw would go on to even greater heights as the lead guitarist in the original incarnation of Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three as well as a noteworthy career as a solo act as well as with first-class indie songwriter Jennifer O’Connor. Here’s a random torrent.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment