Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine Find the Groove

Potently intelligent, pensively psychedelic, soul/funk band Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine’s new album The Only Way Out Is In sneaks up on you. Taken as a whole, it’s a mood piece, but it’s also a slinky dance album. What’s most impressive is how aware Rooker is. With her brooding, sometimes sultry, sometimes wounded contralto voice, her lyrics draw just as deeply from conscious hip-hop as from classic soul and funk. The band behind her plays with jazz chops, but with restraint: her collaborator Ben Tyree on guitar, Mamiko Watanabe on electric piano, Lawrence Qualls on drums, Jahmal Nichols handling most of the bass work, V. Jeffrey Smith on tenor and soprano saxes plus a number of guests including John Medeski on organ on several tracks along with Will Martina (of Burnt Sugar) on cello. The album kicks off auspiciously with What If, an existentialist’s dilemma:

What if there’s no rules
What if there’s no truth
What if all we’re believing is a story that we choose
What if what they told you
Don’t ever come true
Better come up with your own script
To live your life through

It sets the tone for the rest of the album, guitar and organ shifting over a slow, fluid, hip-tugging organic groove, with an aptly apprehensive trombone solo from Roland Barber.

The bouncy third-wave soul of Sellin Ya Soul brings back memories of acts like Sandra St. Victor back in the 90s. “I could be a pretty good plenty o’thangs but none of which could touch just being me and I’m good with that, thank you very much,” Rooker asserts. They follow that with the hypnotic I Feel Like and its dark, goth-tinged bassline: “Lord help me remember what I’m fighting for.” The next track, Play is wickedly catchy indie funk – did these guys used to go see Noxes Pond play shows around town about ten years ago? Weather offers blippy, rainy-day ambience; the big ballad Thank You is a trip back in time to Memphis, contrasting with the minimalist bass pulse of Rise and the lush balminess of the title track.

Rooker goes ballistic and straight to the target with the cinematic cautionary tale When We Gon Care, a furiously potent rant against a laundry list of evils: disinformation by the corporate media, the destruction of the environment by multinational corporations, drug companies inventing phony diseases to sell worthless “cures,” and most of all, apathy. It’s Jello Biafra updated for the teens, with better vocals. They wrap up the album with an instrumental, a James Brown-inspired number and the gospel-infused Wait in Line. Count this as one of the most kick-ass albums to come over the transom here recently. Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine play the big room at the Rockwood on Jan 23 at 8.

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January 21, 2011 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

J. Henry Fair’s Environmentalist Photography: A Pre-Apocalyptic Exhibit?

Photographer J. Henry Fair’s new exhibit, Landscapes of Extraction: The Collateral Damage of the Fossil Fuels Industries at the second floor gallery at Cooper Union is as important as it is surreal. And is it ever surreal. Esthetically, Fair goes for vividly colorful landscape shots of future Superfund sites: that is, if there is any Superfund left to clean up the decapitated mountaintops, lakesize cesspools of lethal sludge, and seemingly innocuous construction sites he shoots from a distance. Fair’s photos are accompanied by a series of multimedia stations and a grimly informative running text detailing the processes he documents: deep sea drilling, mountaintop clearcutting, messy metal refining and chemical manufacturing. And those matter-of-factly calm if predictably messy construction sites are actually hydrofracked natural gas wells.

“Fracking,” in the gas business is slang for “fracture,” a necessity when drilling through shale deposits to unleash the lucrative gas beneath. Hydrofracking began in the 70s, originally a process where high-pressure water was used to break up the rock. These days, courtesy of what’s commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole,” pushed through by the Bush regime in 2005, natural gas companies are allowed to use whatever liquid they want, no matter how caustic or lethal it might be. Furthermore, the law exempts the drilling companies from having to reveal the contents of their lethal concoctions on the grounds that they’re “trade secrets.” As Fair documents, what’s no secret is that highly toxic amounts of radium have turned up in groundwater running into the water table from these sites recently (ostensibly, there’s supposed to be a buffer zone around each well, although a particularly eerie aerial photo shows a portion of Garfield County, Colorado with wells side by side – from above, the effect is that of a graveyard). And while radium is silently lethal, there’s no ignoring the water in your kitchen sink catching fire, vividly described in Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland. Gas leases are lucrative: it’s not hard to imagine the residents of a neighborhood or town hit hard by the depression signing up for them en masse, only to discover their property polluted to the point of being unhabitable, never mind unsaleable. Is the current process of hydrofracking the teens equivalent of what munitions manufacturing became in the 90s, a convenient way to dispose of nuclear waste? Fair’s investigation doesn’t carry that far.

He also takes a sobering look at mountaintop clearcutting (a cause famously taken up by activist/gospel bandleader Reverend Billy), where coal companies like Massey Energy basically blast the top off mountains in Appalachia, raining down all sorts of debris, some more toxic than others, on the community below. Ultimately, Fair emphasizes, what’s happened since the invention of the steam engine is that millions of years worth of carbon have been re-released into the environment in the last 250 years, a blink of an eye and the equivalent of an explosion in evolutionary terms. The potentially apocalyptic environmental crises we face today, from global warming, to oil spills, to the highly contested effects of hydrofracking, are the blowback from that explosion. The exhibit is a must-see; it’s up through February 26 at Cooper Union (enter through the back entrance at the main building on the triangle between Bowery and Fourth Avenue at Seventh Street). Hours are Monday-Friday, 12-7 PM, Saturday 12-5 PM.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | Art, photography, Politics, Public Health | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/21/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Friday’s is #739:

Alice Lee – Lovers and Losers

Her third album, from 2005, edgily blends oldschool soul vocals and vibes with hip-hop and tropical rhythms, with Lee playing guitars and keys and backed by an inspired crew including Pere Ubu’s Tony Maimone (who also engineered the album) on bass. Her contralto voice cools the burn from lyrics that range from torchy to arsonistic, although the bitterness is sometimes cushioned by her wry sense of humor. A lot of this sounds like what Fiona Apple was reaching for about five years ago but never could hit. In a perfect world, the big hits would have been the concert favorite A New Bruise, the hypnotic trip-hop Retrograde Heart and the catchy, wounded soul-pop of Perfect Girl (which Lee assures she’ll never be). Friendly Fire sets artsy janglerock over a slinky funk beat; Heroin jolts you with a big metal guitar crescendo. The swirling, trippily atmospheric Gloria and I Breathe evoke Lee’s brief flirtation with downtempo chillout music; the masterpiece here is Last Night (as in “last night on earth”), one of the most evocative nocturnes ever written. Lee ends the album with the acoustic soul of Going Home, the gorgeously funky, bass-driven No Idea and the solo acoustic tropicalia of Hard to Forget. The album doesn’t seem to have made it to the share sites yet, but it’s still available at Lee’s site and cdbaby.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancing Late with the Cypress String Quartet’s Elena Ruehr Album

In the spirit of spreading the word about releases that slipped under our radar when they initially appeared, here’s one from last year. The Cypress String Quartet discovered composer Elena Ruehr’s work by listening to an unlabeled recording. Eight years later, they finally consummated their affinity for her compositions, and have captured that passion in an album. The Quartet’s next-to-most-recent cd How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr could not be more aptly titled. Throughout her First, Third and Fourth String Quartets, rhythm is everywhere: sometimes jaunty, often incredibly tricky, occasionally outright aggressive. The three quartets here, (Nos. 1, 3 and 4), performed in reverse chronological order here, are extraordinarily melodic, with tinges of Afrobeat, and Irish dances alternating with modernist astringencies and enticing consonance.

Quartet No. 4 is Ruehr’s response to the Cypress Quartet’s request for her to compare Beethoven’s Ninth Quartet with Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet (which isn’t all that dissonant – that one has a longish intro that takes longer than usual until the anticipated call-and-response kicks in). But it sounds nothing like either. It’s essentially variations on a circular, West African-flavored theme, beginning terse and pizzicato and ending with a flurry of stormclouds. In the meantime, there’s an absolutely riveting, pensive interlude featuring a long, windswept cello solo and alternating variations on the initial theme and its shadow. The same process repeats in Quartet No. 3: the two back-to-back make a marvelous suite. More rhythmically-oriented and somewhat more lighthearted – although not completely – it closely resembles some of maverick violist Ljova Zhurbin’s more playful work. Beginnings and endings are more aggressive here; the album title, based on a broken triad that first appears in what’s basically a minuet in disguise, derives from a Celtic-tinged theme. Its two themes intertwine and become friends on the way out.

Quartet #1, from 1991, won the ASCAP award that year. It’s the most cinematic of the three, introducing the African rhythms as shifting segments rather than a full-on drumbeat with pizzicato or staccato bowing. When it’s not establishing a dreamy, cantabile mood, there’s a hypnotic, tricky rondo anchored by the cello and hints of a levantine dance introducing the unexpectedly tense, unresolved finale. Spirited performances by violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel shine throughout the album. The Cypress String Quartet’s next New York appearance is on April 28 at 8 PM, playing works by Benjamin Lees at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th St.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/20/11

Hee hee, didn’t think we’d get one of these up tonight, did you? Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Thursday’s is #740:

Khaira Arby – Timbuktu Tarab

A cousin of Ali Farka Toure, Arby is sort of the Aretha Franklin of Mali. This 2010 album blends desert blues with elements of 60s American soul, psychedelic rock and even echoes of country music. Her two-guitar band here, playing through all kinds of vintage effects, is augmented by ngoni lute and screechy ritti fiddle, adding extra layers of spikiness to the hypnotically rambling, careening songs. Arby sings in four dialects, railing against offenses against women, her rasp soaring over the maelstrom. Some of the songs update folk themes – a tribute to a legendary warrior, for example – while others tackle contemporary topics, including a blistering broadside against female genital mutilation. Garage rock riffs give way to patiently circling Malian themes, the guitars sometimes playing off each other, sometimes intermingling to the point that it’s impossible to tell who’s playing what. File this under psychedelia – it’s a throwback to the golden age of the 60s, in spirit and in style. Here’s a random torrent.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment