Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Kimmo Pohjonen and Jeffrey Ziegler Battle With Noises from the River

You know electroacoustic? Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Ziegler’s duo show last month at South Street Seaport was diesel-acoustic. Positioned at the tip of a former shipping pier, possibly for the sake of approximating a nordic fjord, the two jammed their way through alternately rustic and assaultively improvisational themes against a rumbling backdrop of ferries, tugboats and water taxis. And it was totally punk rock, a style that Pohjonen seems to spring from.

When Ziegler wasn’t playing elegant washes of counterpoint to complement Pohjonen’s spiraling phrases, he was scraping on the strings, sticking a conductor’s baton under the bridge of his cello, wailing and screeching and shrieking to the point where it looked like something was about to break. Cellists from famous string quartets typically play ancient instruments from centuries past: this cello looked like it could have been a recent model, straight from the factory floor. Pity the musician who gets it secondhand: it’s been abused.

Pohjonen brought a pedalboard and played like a noiserock guitarist much of the time, with loops and distortion and also a setting that gave his squeezebox a majestic church organ sound. His technique was spectacular: blistering, machinegunning volleys of notes decaying to a drone or vice versa. Ziegler typically got to play good cop to Pohjonen’s viking madman when he wasn’t trying to burn holes in his fingerboard with his rasping attack. They hit a couple of big anthemic peaks, took a departure into a gracefully lilting dance that could have been Celtic – it’s amazing how much cross-pollination ancient folk music hints at – then a Middle Eastern-flavored interlude with a spiky acoustic guitar cameo from Gyan Riley and wound up on an ecstatic note. Props to the River to River Festival folks for having the courage to book an act this adrenalizing and cutting-edge.

Advertisements

July 1, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Devious Accordion Fun from Guy Klucevsek

Music blogger reading Downbeat on the subway spies a mention of Guy Klucevsek’s most recent album The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour. How could a (relatively) new release by such an important figure in jazz and its outskirts have slipped under the radar here? Breathless email to the publicist at Innova – who put out this delightfully witty album at the end of January – results in a package of files which translates, at least to some extent, into what you are reading right now. This is not a heavy album, but it’s very smart, a bright, playful mix of short, droll numbers along with a handful of more expansive tunes. Novoya polka stars Brave Combo join Klucevsek along with a vast supporting cast mostly hailing from the downtown New York scene.

Marcus Rojas’ pulsing tuba drives the Balkan-flavored opening track, Breathless and Bewildered, shifting from major to minor with twin accordions in perfect unison. The pensive, slow Waltz for Sandy features drummer John  Hollenbeck at his most tersely coloristic, adding vividly sepulchral brushwork. Jo Lawry’s deadpan, breathless layers of vocalese color the tongue-in-cheek Gimme a Minute, Please (My Sequins Are Showing).

Klucevsek follows that with Larsong, a diptych for solo accordion that shifts from a purposeful Nordic folk theme to a rather wary canon. Likewise, Ratatouille builds a circular west African motif up to a lavish choir of voices and then back again. There are also three imaginative rearrangements of Erik Satie “hymnopedies,” the first being a sort of mashup of Satie and a European hymn, the second a slightly more hopeful version of the famous Gymnopedie No. 2 featuring bright Dave Douglas trumpet, and the third a stately klezmer-inflected dirge that goes unexpectely bouncing with a surreal off-centeredness that would make its composer proud.

The best song here is Pink Elephant, climbing from an insistent Taxi Driver-style intro to a balmy but bracing Balkan dance. Klucevsek doesn’ t show off much on this album, but he pulls out all the stops on a deliriously thrilling, trilling solo. He follows that with O’o, a jauntily swinging psychedelic calypso number with all kinds of trippy efx. The album winds up with Ladereld, extrapolating on the riff from California Girls; The C and M Waltz, a coyly orchestrated schoolyard jumprope theme, and the irresistibly funny party-gone-wrong scenario Moja Baba Je Pijana, complete with understandably distraught English translation. Big up to Klucevsek’s like-minded supporting cast, which also includes fellow squeezebox guy Alex Meixner, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, bassist Pete Donovan, drummer Kenny Wollesen, singers Theo Bleckmann and Peter Eldridge, saxophonist Steve Elson and Texas bandleader Little Jack Melody.

Klucevsek works fast: he’s already got a lavish double album featuring even more collaborations than this one due out later this fall from Starkland.

September 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Debutante Hour Cover Up For Once

Musicians know that if you really want to keep an audience’s attention with a cover song, you have to find a way to make it different from the original. Usually the more you change it, the funnier it gets. The Debutante Hour’s new album Follow Me is all cover songs: hip-hop, new wave pop, bluegrass, Phil Spector and indie rock done oldtimey style with accordion, cello and percussion. Is the band being silly? Sarcastic? Serious? With the Debutante Hour, you never know. Accordionist Maria Sonevytsky, cellist Mia Pixley and multi-instrumentalist Susan Hwang’s stagewear may not leave much to the imagination, but their songs do the opposite: their deadpan surrealism isn’t always easy to figure out. Which is what makes them so appealing – aside from their perfectly charming three-part harmonies. And the outfits of course. They definitely were serious about putting the album together, with crystalline production from World Inferno’s Franz Nicolay.

The first song is No Scrubs, originally done by TLC, recast here as a ukelele shuffle. The original was mildly funny and this is funnier (live, it’s absolutely hilarious). When it comes time for the bridge, Baltimore hip-hop diva TK Wonder reminds that girl in the song isn’t a gold digger, she’s just sick of getting hit on by scuzzy guys – beeyatch!

Just What I Needed by the Cars is a horrible song, one cliche after another, absolutely unredeemable unless maybe as death metal or industrial. Here it’s reinvented as a tongue-in-cheek accordion tune, as the Main Squeeze Orchestra might have done it. When Nicolay comes in with his banjo, that’s when it gets really funny.

The third track is an acoustic hip-hop hit by popular Ukrainian duo 5’Nizza (whose name is a Russian pun, meaning “Friday”). It seems to be a come-on (the hook seems to mean something along the lines of “I’m not like that”). To a non-Ukrainian speaker, it comes across as catchy, innocuous trip-hop. The first serious song here is an unselfconsciously beautiful version of the Stanley Bros.’ If That’s the Way You Feel, evocative of the Roulette Sisters. Another serious one is Be My Baby, where they take the generic white doo-wop hit burned out by oldies radio decades ago and make it downright sultry. They close with the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize. If you missed the original, it’s Brian Jonestown Massacre-style nouveau psychedelia, in this case a third-rate John Lennon imitation with really awful (and kind of morbid) lyrics. The Debutante Hour’s version plays down the death fixation and plays up the pretty tune. They’re at Joe’s Pub on 3/25 at 7 PM.

Since now we know that the Debutante Hour’s covers are as fun and interesting as their originals, here’s some other cover ideas: John Sheppard or Thomas Tallis’ death-fixated sixteenth-century plainchant with intricate harmonies that scream out gothically for a reinterpretation by the Debutante Hour! How about Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, which is so idiotic that it wouldn’t be hard to have a little fun with – maybe bring back TK Wonder for that one? Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple, which pretty much everybody knows, and could use some harmonies? Camay by Ghostface Killah? The Girl’s Guide to the Modern Diva by Black Box Recorder? Vladimir Vysotksky’s acoustic gypsy-punk revolutionary anthem Okhata Na Volkov (The Wolf Hunt)? Just brainstorming here…

March 13, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Rainy Day Music from Pickpocket Ensemble

Sometimes the best albums take the longest to get to know: that’s our excuse for sitting on this one as long as we have (it came out last fall). Bay Area instrumentalists Pickpocket Ensemble’s latest album Memory is one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful ones to come over the transom in recent months. Their dark, austere, gypsy-tinged acoustic melodies linger over tricky rhythms that sometimes shift shape to the point where it’s impossible not to get lost. Plaintive but not sentimental, wistful without being hokey, this is tremendously captivating rainy-day music.

The opening cut, Home, blends elements of Belgian barroom musette with tricky gypsy rhythms, bandleader/accordionist Rick Corrigan layering one track over another like a piece of baklava, guitarist Yates Brown and violinist Marguerite Ostro’s lines mingling with the wary ambience over the shifting pulse of bassist Kurt Ribak and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz. The aptly titled 3 AM veers closer to gypsy jazz with staccato piano and memorably spiky solos from both piano and guitar. The third track, If (not to be confused with the cheeseball 70s hit by Bread…or the Pink Floyd tune, come to think of it) is another brooding minor key number, violin taking the lead over incisive, thoughtful fingerpicked guitar. Brown’s gorgeously spiraling solo over shuffling acoustic guitar and bright piano on the fourth track, Sometimes Never, is one of the album’s high points.

Baroque meets jazz on the wistful ballad Bird in a Web, featuring another beautiful Brown solo. They follow that with the bittersweet, elegaic waltz For Those Who’ve Left and then Seriously, which blends gypsy jazz with a cosmopolitan, Astor Piazzolla-ish elegance. The title track adds banjo and brass – and a sizzling muted trumpet solo – over a bracing minor-key gospel melody; after a brief Arab-flavored spot for solo cello, they close the album with a characteristically pensive, rhythmically dizzying number titled Nowhere Else. Fans of eclectic pan-global bands from Beirut to Kotorino will enjoy this: count it among the best we’ve heard lately.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fishtank Ensemble’s New Album Is More Gypsy Than Ever

Fishtank Ensemble boast that they’re the “leading American gypsy band.” Their third album, Woman in Sin goes a long way to back up that claim: they just might be right. Energetically speaking, they raise the bar for pretty much everybody else. Frontwoman Ursula Knudson’s dramatic four-octave voice soars to the stratosphere along with Fabrice Martinez’ violin over Doug Smolens’ fleet, nimble acoustic guitar and Djordje Stijepovic’s incisive bass, frequently augmented by accordion or Knudson’s singing saw. Their previous album Samurai Over Serbia mixed Asian melodies into a wide range of gypsy and Eastern European styles; the melodies on this one run from Spanish flamenco to a Greek ouzo anthem to the shores of Tripoli. It’s an excellent approximation of their high-energy live show.

The title track is a scurrying oldtimey swing number, a feel replicated on the gypsy jazz version of Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone and, later, the Betty Boop flapper vibe of CouCou, both punctuated by inspired, spikily virtuosic Smolens solos. The instrumental Espagnolette, a live showstopper, is basically a Belgian barroom dance featuring some wild singing saw and vocalese. The somewhat epic Amfurat de la Haidouck kicks off with the gypsy equivalent of a heavy metal intro, a tricky sway with furious, rapidfire chromatic accordion and a long, methodical buildup to a wild, frenzied, swirling coda. They follow that on a smaller scale with the shapeshifting dance Djordje’s Rachenitza and then Pena Andalouz, which sounds like an acoustic Alabina song. The  album also includes another crazily metamorphosizing dance tune, a stately waltz that gives Knudson and Martinez a chance to show off a more introspective side, an ecstatic Greek drinking song and another dance that interpolates dark Middle Eastern passages within a more upbeat gypsy framework. It’s another winner from one of this era’s most adrenalizing, captivating bands in any style of music.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 Leg Torso Do the Time Warp Again

Animals and Cannibals, the all-instrumental fifth album by Portland, Oregon’s 3 Leg Torso is of the year’s most enjoyably eclectic releases. Playfully, often psychedelically and amusingly blending elements of gypsy music, Belgian barroom songs, the baroque and jazz, the group is anchored by acclaimed violinist Bela R. Balogh and accordionist Courtney Von Drehle. T.J. Arko, Kyle MacLowry and drummer Gary Irvine take turns on the vibraphone, along with bass, tuba, weissenborn, piano and French horn. As the individual song titles indicate, they don’t take themselves particularly seriously (although they do the music): some of these pieces veer off into parody. Although the juxtaposition of the medieval and the modern here might seem jarring, it isn’t: this crew somehow makes it work.

The album opens with a swaying, 6/8 accordion tune with a lush string and vibraphone arrangement, a scurrying Balogh solo and a trick ending (a device that will recur here often). The tango standard Csardas, by Vittorio Monti is a joyous exercise in tempo shifts and doubletime. The cinematic, Brueghelesque The Life and Times and Good Deeds of St. Penguin – yup, that’s the title – works variations on a plaintive waltz with a tricky turnaround. Moving from a tv theme-style bounce to more complex, jazzy passages with incisive accordion and bluesy vibraphone, Toothless Cannibal winds up on the wings of another wailing Balogh solo. Driving Along with My Cow in My Volga could be a Spike Jones backing track, including a rustic Russian dirge, a blithe, tongue-in-cheek gypsy dance, and a bucolic waltz. And Von Drehle’s According to Chagall sounds suspiciously like a cumbia-tinged version of the Twin Peaks theme arranged for string band – it would make a great addition to the Chicha Libre catalog.

The mini-epic Bus Stop to Oblivion builds from rustic sentimentality to a wildly fusionesque stomp, violin blasting through a distortion pedal as the band roar their way out at the end. An original, Frailach #1 is a bracing klezmer raveup with a woozy bass solo and a deliciously long crescendo out of it. The album winds up on a pensive note with the cinematic theme The Last Dream. Somewhere there’s a contemporary black comedy set in a rainy Balkan milieu that needs this album for its soundtrack.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bosnian Emerald Gleams in the Dark

In Bosnia, the title of singer Amira Medunjanin and accordionist Merima Kljuco’s new album Zumra means “emerald,” which is a double entendre: it has a nonconformist connotation. Together the two musicians offer a new approach to a wide variety of traditional folk songs from the region, alternating between terse, starkly intense arrangements and more avant-garde interpretations. The group they most closely resemble is innovative Balkan/Appalachian vocal duo Æ, substituting Medunjanin’s stagy, operatic, traditional delivery for Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker’s otherworldly, primal intensity. Most interestingly, Kljuco’s accordion goes a lot further out than Medunjanin’s voice, firing off bracing, whistling overtones, breathless staccato passages and crashing waves of atonalities along with menacing chromatic runs and cadenzas that contrast with an eerie stillness. The songs are strung together as something of a suite: if you don’t speak the language or aren’t paying attention to beginnings and endings, you can get completely lost in this. It’s a brooding, beautifully atmospheric album.

The songs evoke a difficult and war-torn past. People long for home and lovers can’t consummate anything because of differences in their religion – in fact many of these songs concern people who go mad with love because society won’t let them have what they want. Kljuco meanders her way sadly through a gracefully ornamented, rubato solo instrumental of Svedah, a song from the 1920s, a bitter account of wartime destruction. The duo harrowingly deliver a metaphorically charged tale of a mother ripping out her child’s heart, white noise of the accordion quietly panting with understated anguish. The album winds up with a love song to a nonconformist – the best kind – and a Bosnian Sephardic song sung in Ladino, a vivid illustration of the kind of cultural cross-pollination that went on in their part of the world despite centuries of repression. It’s out now on World Village Music.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Katzenjammer – Le Pop

Katzenjammer’s new album Le Pop is pretty amazing, a strong contender for best of 2010. With their gorgeous harmonies, old-fashioned instrumentation and frequently lush production, the accordion-driven all-female Oslo quartet sound like the Dresden Dolls but better (more energetic, less cutesy and a whole lot darker as well). The self-styled “queens of sultry sound” balance an eerily rustic noir edge with tongue-in-cheek humor, and lyrics in English. On the new cd, multi-instrumentalist Solveig Heilo, accordionists Anne Marit Bergheim and Marianne Sveen and bassist Turid Jørgensen – who plays the largest four-string instrument in all of rock – bounce, scamper and blast their way through a mix of tempos and styles that evoke such diverse acts as the B-52s, Gruppo Sportivo and Gogol Bordello.

The album opens on a surprisingly pensive note with an instrumental “overture,” followed by the scurrying Keystone Kops vibe of A Bar in Amsterdam, which amusingly morphs into a Pat Benetar-style power ballad on the chorus. With its jaunty gypsy swing, Demon Kitty Rag evokes satirical New York trio the Debutante Hour. Tea with Cinnamon is an absolute delight, a vintage Toots and the Maytals-style rocksteady number with accordion and a surprisingly wistful lyric. The title track, a snidely exuberant Gruppo Sportivo-style satire of American corporate music is great fun, and the outro is absolutely priceless.

The darker material here is just as captivating. Hey Ho on the Devil’s Back sets charming harmonies and barrelhouse piano to a Nashville gothic arrangement with a funny but disquieting edge, and a series of trick endings. The big, anguished crescendo on the lushly orchestrated suicide anthem Wading in Deeper packs a visceral punch; the violin-driven To the Sea showcases the band’s harmonies at their most otherworldly, with an off-center, Icelandic vibe. There’s also the sternly tongue-in-cheek Mother Superior, with its eerie carnival organ; Der Kapitan, a macabre-tinged surf instrumental done oompah style; the coy country bounce of Play, My Darling; Ain’t No Thang, an oldtimey banjo tune; and Virginia Clemm, a sad, eerily atmospheric waltz. The depth and intelligence of the songs matches their good-time appeal: it’s been a long time since we discovered a band who could do that as consistently as Katzenjammer do. The group are currently on US tour (at Milwaukee’s Summerfest on July 3 and 4, opening for Elvis Costello), with a date at the Mercury Lounge on July 6.

June 29, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Debutante Hour – The Birth and Death of Meaning

The Debutante Hour play oldtimey-flavored existentialist pop music. Clever and quirky but with an understated angst that sometimes goes straight down into the abyss, their soaring, soulful three-part harmonies deliver deadpan humor that’s sometimes completely black, other times totally absurdist and often hilarious. Their torchier songs remind a lot of Nellie McKay; their darker, more rustic stuff evokes the Dresden Dolls (whose drummer, Brian Viglione, guests here) as well as New York oldtimey stars Bobtown; World Inferno’s Franz Nicolay produced the album, squeezing every ounce of plaintiveness out of the songs. Pianist/accordionist Maria Sonevytsky and cellist Mia Pixley previously played together in indie harmony-pop band the Baby Pool, joined here by songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Susan Hwang. The trio romp, shuffle and sometimes tiptoe through an impressively diverse collection of styles.

There’s a couple of accordion oompah tunes, one a gentle kiss-off to somebody who takes himself a little too seriously, the other titled Watching Carrie Eat. The blackly funny Miracle Birth pokes fun at an impressive display of “origin stories” from around the globe, like the Roulette Sisters with an accordion, and a neat cello solo that leads nicely into guest Jonathan Vincent’s barrelhouse piano. Galax is an ominously chirpy oldtimey Nashville gothic swing tune about a couple on a doomed camping trip – and is that a theremin at the end? Sunday in the Trailer follows in the same vein, but even more creepy and more stream-of-consciousness:

As you pressed my shoulders
I thought of the claws of my feet.
I tried to hide them, but you found them eventually

What’s up with that?

Croak Hiss and Sputter, a swirling New Orleans reel, recounts a surreal road trip:

Wax dripped off the cylinders, frogs chirped like birds
The archive dust got windexed off by archive nerds

A tango, Organizing My Planner For Next Week transcends the mundane with the philosophical:

Can you plan surprises, like hope or skirting inevitable dread
The dread that killed your father, and all your mother’s regrets
That you swore would never get to you because you’re different from them

Other songs here tackle the zen of zombies as well as subatomic theory, along with a country waltz as Kurt Vonnegut might have done it; Scheherezade, which recasts the storytelling girl as a real schmoozer; and the chirpily sardonic Be Yourself:

So even if they assume you’re an Alyssa Milano
And you know you’re more like Jennifer Jason Leigh
Don’t let it affect what you do tomorrow

As much fun as this album is, it’s a likely bet that the band is just as fun live. The Debutante Hour play the Jalopy on June 15 at 8:45 PM, sandwiched between two other first-rate acts, ferocious New Orleans art-rock pianist Lady Baby Miss who kicks off the night at 8 and then irresistibly charismatic, deviously lyrical oldtimey siren Kelli Rae Powell at 9:30.

June 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jeremy Udden’s Plainville at Bryant Park, NYC 6/2/10

Sax player Jeremy Udden’s most recent album Plainville is a warm, often offhandedly beautiful collection in the same vein as Bill Frisell’s Americana jazz. Tuesday night at Bryant Park, Udden (pronounded oo-DEEN) and his five-piece combo worked smartly counterintuitive, unexpected variations on wistful, nostalgically bucolic themes. It was the first concert we’ve worn earplugs to in a long time, a necessity that on face value seems absurd considering that Plainville’s music is contemplative and generally quiet. More about that later. With Pete Rende alternating between accordion and electric piano, Eivind Opsvik on bass, Bill Campbell on drums and sub banjoist Noam Pikelny clearly having a lot of fun taking the place of Udden’s usual collaborator Brandon Seabrook, they included a handful of new cuts alongside the older material along with a pulsing, riff-driven, tensely allusive Pharaoh Sanders cover.

The highlight of the night, unsurprisingly, was Christmas Song, the poignant jazz waltz that serves as the centerpiece of the Plainville album. Pikelny opened it, tersely, letting the band bring in the embellishments, Opsvik’s central solo beginning plaintively but growing vividly uneasy, like a family gathering where everybody knows it’s time to leave but never does. The album’s title track, named after Udden’s Massachusetts hometown, evoked early Pat Metheny with its bittersweet-tinged melody and long accordion intro by Rende. A new composition, Portland turned on a dime from simple riff-driven vamp into a brooding, wary ballad with a Wild Horses feel, courtesy of a brief and almost brutally terse soprano sax solo from Udden. And Opsvik’s muscular groove pulsed over Campbell’s modified bossa beat to anchor Udden’s cleverly playful flights on a number about the street the composer grew up on. In a way, it was a perfect match of music and early summer ambience, but in another way it was just the opposite. Remember those earplugs? They became a necessity with the first distant but still earsplitting shriek of the first alarm sounding as the bus at the stop around the corner opened its doors. Count this as our last Bryant Park concert, kind of sad considering what a great run this location had in the early 90s with all the jazz festivals here during the summer months.

June 4, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment