Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

yMusic’s New Album: Beautiful and Not Particularly Mechanical

YMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical transcends the “indie classical” label. It definitely rocks, but it’s not exactly rock music. The instrumentation is typical of a classical chamber ensemble, but they have a guitar, some of the music here follows a steady, often rigorously precise rock beat, and frequently features imaginatively unorthodox arrangements. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. The group is a formidable mix of relatively young, familiar faces on the new music and classical scene, a couple of whom make money playing with trendy indie bands: Nadia Sirota (of Q2 fame) on viola; ACME leader Clarice Jensen on cello; Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet; CJ Camerieri on trumpet and horn; Rob Moose on violin and guitars, and Alex Sopp on violin and piccolo. On face value, the album title is an oxymoron: is it sarcastic, or purposefully paradoxical? The answer is not as readily accessible as the tunes themselves.

They get off to a false start with a dazzling display of technique (including what is most likely a live loop that the group plays with micro-perfect precision for over a minute) that’s more impressive than this coldly whimsical math-music vignette, something that might fit into a larger piece as a portrayal of shallowness and wasted energy, but doesn’t stand on its own. Track two is where the group strikes gold and you’ll probably want to start uploading. Proven Badlands, by Annie Clark (better known to indie rock fans as St. Vincent) starts pensively, but the guitar quickly signals a swing shuffle that works its way up to a bright Philly soul riff and then a gently swaying chorus pulsing along on the bass clarinet’s nimbly circling bassline as the woodwinds chirp energetically. And then the instruments start to trade themes.

Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond contributes the two most imaginative compositions here. A Whistle, a Tune, a Macaroon is a cinematic mini-suite, opening like a vintage Gil Evans arrangement (think Sketches of Spain), slowly shifting to a mysterious minimalist ambience punctuated by distant staccato accents, building almost imperceptibly until a catchy 60s pop theme emerges, hints at menace and then rides off on a big rock riff! Her other one, A Paper, a Pen, a Note to a Friend – now that’s oldschool – is bright and lively, with deliberate, fluttery strings and catchy bass clarinet that contrasts with all the highs.

Sarah Kirkland Snider contributes Daughter of the Waves, which makes a great segue. Even more so than the previous piece, it’s simultaneously anthemic and hypnotic, and also ebbs and goes out gracefully, almost like a ghost. Clearing, Dawn, Dance by Judd Greenstein is a triptych centered around a bubbly riff: fans of 60s rock will be reminded of Viv Stanshall’s orchestral breaks on the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Sopp’s animated piccolo over matter-of-factly paced strings leads to a more anthemic turn, followed by quiet atmospherics (that must be the dawn) and then a tug-of-war, bubbles vs. leaps and bounds. The album ends auspiciously with a brief, allusively chromatic trumpet tune by Gabriel Kahane simply titled Song, hinting at noir but never quite going all the way there. It could be a great new direction for a guy who first made a name for himself writing songs about internet dating. The album’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

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September 18, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 9/18/11

Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #499:

Erika Simonian – All the Plastic Animals

A cult classic from 2004. Simonian’s wryly literate lyrics range from sardonic to casually savage, set to precisely fingerpicked, austere melodies sung in a minutely nuanced voice that can be deadpan hilarious…or absolutely brutal. An air of disillusion and betrayal creeps in with the opening vignette, sarcastically titled Food From the Cow, followed by the even more sarcastic Pretty Good Wife; the cabaret-inflected Self Made Drama Machine, a kiss-off to a selfish bitch; and Mr. Wrong, an amusing pickup scenario predictably on its way to going awry. The most unforgettable song here is Bitter and Brittle, a vivid portrait of the edge of madness; the blackly humorous Eternal Spinsterhood is awfully good too. Surprisingly, this one is AWOL from the usual sources of free music, but it’s still available from cdbaby, where there are also clips from each song. Simonian continues as a member of lyrical indie rockers Little Silver and the entertaining, punkish Sprinkle Genies.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Donna Hughes Takes Bluegrass to New Places at Madison Square Park

Yesterday the most impressive and entertaining act at the bluegrass festival at Madison Square Park was Donna Hughes and her excellent band. She’s a quick study. It didn’t take her long to size up the crowd: “My manager wanted me to let you know that we’re also available for private parties and weddings,” she grinned – obviously, the kind of wealth she was playing to here isn’t so abundant in her native North Carolina. She bills herself as a singer-songwriter, which makes sense: throughout her show, there were all kinds of hints that she came to this music the long way around the mountain. But it also seems like she’s found a home in bluegrass – and is taking it to good new places. Her opening tune, Sad Old Train had a familiar ring to it, maybe because of the cover by the Seldom Scene. Hughes doesn’t go for high lonesome drama, instead maintaining a calm, gracefully nuanced vocal presence that was often chillingly plaintive (a gymnast who still coaches in the sport, she knows a little something about balance, and what the slightest move in one direction or another might mean). Like every other style of music, the best bluegrass is deep, whether that means deeply sad or deeply fun, and Hughes gets that. Playing acoustic guitar, she was backed by the effortlessly fluid flatpicking of guitarist Brian Stephens and his wife Maggie’s terse, casually strong bass pulse, plus the similarly skilled Thomas Wywrot on banjo.

There were plenty of good songs in her set, but one gentle knockout told the story of a dead lady’s possession’s being auctioned off (Hughes’ dad was an auctioneer: she was obviously paying close attention when he was working). It took took that woman a lifetime to get those things, and a day for them to be scattered into the fingers of whoever could afford them. Kitty Wells would have been lucky to have had that song in, say, 1955. Although Hughes told the crowd that she gravitates toward sad songs, they’re more complex than that, both moodwise and musically. One wryly chronicled what it’s like to date a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde kind of guy; Wywrot’s rolling banjo propelled a bitterly amusing minor-key tune listing pretty much everything that can slip through your hands.

Brian Stephens told the crowd that Hughes’ idea of writing a bluegrass song about a pirate was half-baked – until he heard the song. And then they played it, a stark, minor-key number possibly titled Bluebeard’s Ghost. Hughes put down her guitar, since she’d written it on piano, with an unexpected jazz tinge to the tune. As expected, the energy in the crowd picked up for the familiar tunes, Flatt & Scruggs’ Down the Road – sung by Brian Stephens, with a warm, down-home energy – and an instrumental version of Jesse James. Hughes also played a solo tribute to her late father, a vivid and unselfconsciously pretty song that would have been even better with the band lending a hand. But maybe they didn’t know it.

The bands afterward also took bluegrass to new places, but not particularly interesting ones. No matter how much you may try to gussy up a lame pop song with flashy bluegrass chops, at the end of the day it’s still a lame pop song.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment