Lucid Culture


CD Review: Mark Growden – Saint Judas

File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.

Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.

They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.

This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes Again 6/5/08

As regular readers of this page know well, multi-instrumentalist/chanteuse Rachelle Garniez has been playing a regular residency at Barbes at 10 the first Thursday of the month for what seems like forever. Tonight it was just her and longtime bassist Dave Hofstra, who’d patiently pedal a chord or run the changes while Garniez made up her mind what joke she wanted to tell or what she wanted to play next. The primary reason Garniez is such a captivating performer is because she never plays the same song the same way twice, not remotely. The rotating cast of characters backing her onstage is part of it, as is the wide diversity of styles in her repertoire, but it’s mostly because she’s not just entertaining the crowd: she’s also entertaining herself. Being someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if something is good enough to tickle her, it’ll probably tickle everybody else too. Tonight it was less about the jokes and more about the music: she made up a set list on the spot and then played it, more or less all the way through without interruption.

Playing accordion, Garniez opened with a tongue-in-cheek, newish cabaret number. She likes to jam out intros and outros, using them basically as background for improv comedy. The big crowd-pleaser of the night was the bouncy Kid in the Candy Store with its sly Freudian metaphors and intro which of course Garniez made up on the spot. She also did another metaphor-driven number, Tourmaline, the anthropomorphosed semi-precious stone whose flaws make it all the more interesting, along with a towering, chordally-infused take of the Johnny Thunders classic You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory. When the scars go, they let you know, and Garniez brought out every ounce of ache in the lyric.

Later, she switched to piano for Quality Star, which might be her best song. It’s a long, slowly crescendoing art-rock epic that builds to become one of the most savage kiss-off anthems ever. Casually and matter-of-factly, Garniez related her tale of a marriage gone horribly wrong, tinkling the handbells she’d brought with her as she opened the song, an effect that gave the crowd pause even while they were chuckling, while Garniez took her time climbing to the chorus:

But you say
Monsters like us don’t make good husbands and wives
But monsters lead such interesting lives
Now I don’t know what you’re hoping the future might bring
But monsters make the best of everything

Then she took a solo. On the album, her guitarist Matt Munisteri cranks it up just enough to hammer the point home, gently; live, it screams out for a vindictive crescendo, but in typical counterintuitive fashion, Garniez didn’t do that. Instead, she gave it a dismissive, even indifferent tone with an offhand series of jazz chords down the scale to where the outro starts to kick in:

You couldn’t pay me to go back
You couldn’t pay me to go back
You couldn’t pay me to go back to where I’ve been

And followed that with the very subtle revenge anthem After the Afterparty, the opening track on her latest cd Melusine Years (our pick for best album of 2007). Then she picked up her accordion again and reverted to the lighthearted tone she’d started with, closing with the punked-out oompah song Pearls and Swine, a reliable crowd-pleaser.

Here in the blogosphere – isn’t that where we are? – it’s considered gauche to spend too much time on any one band or artist. Nobody wants their blog to be dismissed as just another fansite, after all. But Garniez’ shows are all so different and so much fun for such widely different reasons: she’s someone you can actually go see every month without ever running the risk of boredom. If this review – and the next, and the next, because there will be more, never fear – succeed in failing to bore you, that’ll mean that we’ve been able to capture a little of what makes this elusive performer so spectacularly good.

June 6, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Danny Federici

One of the greatest rock organists of alltime, Danny Federici of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band died this past Wednesday after a battle with melanoma. He was 58.

Originally an accordionist, Federici brought a sweepingly orchestral, haunting sensibility to Springsteen’s songs. Go to your favorite file-trading site and download the live version of Sandy from the live box set (you can also get the album version from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, but the vocals aren’t nearly as good because Springsteen goes way out of his 2-note range). Listen to how plaintive and beautiful Federici’s accordion intro is.

While you’re at it, download the album version of Independence Day, from The River, if you don’t already own it. Federici plays the lead, a soaring trumpet melody, a particularly nasty Sunday morning wakeup call. This is one of Springsteen’s best songs, a vicious, offhandedly dismissive slap upside the head of a controlling parent, as resonant today as it was almost three decades ago, and it’s Federici who makes it work, his organ line hopeful, optimistic and brutally inevitable behind the Boss’ vindictive vocal.

Also download Point Blank, arguably the best song on The River. Federici doesn’t really contribute til about three-quarters of the way through, when his organ starts mingling with Steve Van Zandt’s distant, reverbed-out guitar in a devil’s choir of overtones. It’s a song about losing a girlfriend to either drugs or simply the call of the underworld, something that happens to a whole lot of people who have nowhere else to go. The brilliance of Springsteen’s lyric is its blunt opaqueness, leaving the listener guessing as to what horrible fate befell the woman. Federici offers more than a hint.

And since everything Springsteen is up online for download, Federici’s first solo album, Flemington is worth owning. It’s a thoughtful, pensive, ultimately optimistic bunch of soundtrack-style instrumentals, the title track a particularly standout cut.

Federici wasn’t a “chops” guy – tens of thousands of classically or jazz-trained keyboardists could play faster and more fluently than he did. Federici’s genius was a seemingly instinctive ability to find the underlying emotion of a song and channel it with a purity and clarity that bordered on the supernatural. If you’re a Springsteen fan, now’s the time to revisit his good albums – Nebraska and everything before that, along with his criminally underrated Live in NYC double cd set, featuring Federici at his understated, brilliant best. If not, you’re missing out on one of the most soulful players who ever sat down behind a keyboard.

April 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years

Melusine translates from the French as water nymph or naiad (Rachelle Garniez is a Pisces, which may explain a few things). Nothing very watery about this album, though, unless you count the picture on the cd’s lyric booklet showing Garniez lounging on the Staten Island Ferry. To say that this is her best album to date may not seem like the staggering achievement that it is, until you realize that her last one, Luckyday remains one of the best albums of the decade. To surpass it was a Herculean feat, and Garniez has pulled it off, seemingly effortlessly. Simply put, there is no better singer, no better songwriter, no better keyboard player and – especially – no better live performer in all of rock than Rachelle Garniez. If you can call what she does rock.

Luckyday was a lush, ornately orchestrated blend of retro styles, and this one, while drawing from the same corners of vintage Americana, is somewhat more intimate. Garniez sings and dazzles on accordion, piano, bells and plays a little nylon-stringed guitar, accompanied by brilliant lead guitarist Matt Munisteri and low-frequencies expert Dave Hofstra, who plays upright bass and also tuba on one song. Garniez’ songs are timeless yet immutably rooted in the here-and-now. Most of what’s here has a blackly humorous, apocalyptic undercurrent: this is a loosely thematic concept album about fiddling while Rome burns.

It kicks off with After the Afterparty, an understatedly bitter midtempo piano ballad with an absolutely killer chorus gently illuminated by some expert Munisteri electric guitar fills. Garniez loves to vary her vocal delivery from a whisper to a roar – she sings in character, and she has a whole stable of them. But her voice here is plainspoken and sad, and it’s nothing short of riveting. This is a story of rejection. In the spirit of perhaps her best song (Quality Star, from Luckyday), it ends on a subtly vengeful note:

After the afterparty
You hailed me a taxi
And I buckled up for safety
Maybe I’ll live to be an old lady
With lots of big hats and jewelry

And an inscrutable air of mystery
And when questioned about my history
I’ll smile oh so sweetly
And whisper oh so discreetly
I can’t remember a thing

The following track, the bouncy, old-timey, accordion-driven Tourmaline brings the low-end gemstone to life in 6/8 time:

We all know you came in through the kitchen
Cause the floor sorta sticks to your feet
When you go better you use the back door
He’ll be waiting for you on the street
Oh he closes his eyes when he kicks you
For a cat cannot look at a queen
Realize when his memory tricks you
Oh he’s nothing but snow on your screen

After the amusingly brief Back in the Day (“When the saints came marching in/Nobody paid no mind so they marched right back out again”) and a sweetly soaring country song, Garniez reverts to her fondness for the underdog with Shoemaker’s Children, a Munisteri showcase. It has the feel of a Charley Patton classic, a haunting, rustic open-tuned blues for banjo and guitar, and it’s one of the more overtly ominous numbers on the cd:

‘Bout an hour before the flood
There’s nary a rat to be seen
And the people swarm the city to grab one last glimmer of green
Make way for the shoemaker’s children
Here they come marching down your street
Ten million strong they limp along on their twisted and broken feet

The next cut, Bed of Cherries is deliberately inscrutable: other than a possible reference to a cover album by the Church, this strange but beautifully played and sung catalog of unrelated objects seems to be more of a secret message than something written for the world. Then Garniez overdubs layers and layers of her own vocals to create an entire gospel choir on the rousing fragment Mama’s Got a Brand New Baby (which she uses as an intro for Tourmaline at live shows).

Lyrically, the album’s high point is the following track, People Like You. The sarcasm is brutal: over a blithe, finger-popping beat, Garniez does her best Rickie Lee Jones imitation. It’s arguably the most scathing, spot-on critique of the trendoids who have taken over New York that anyone’s written to date:

If you came here to make it big, well I wish you the best of luck
You can always head back out west if you ever get stuck
But if you came here to jerk my chain, I wish you the very worst
I don’t mean to be a pain but baby I got here first
And it’s people like you
Who don’t know pride from shame
And it’s people like you…
Who will never place a face before a name

Garniez toys with the “people like you” hook on the chorus, first accenting the “you,” then the “like.” The reason for the effect becomes clear at the end of the song when she starts going on about how everyone likes the newcomers: in fact, she ends up unable to resist them too. Yeah, and pigs can fly.

The cd continues with the macabrely amusing Pre-Post Apocalypse, something of a punk rock oompah song, followed by The Best Revenge, a sardonic yet stoically mournful account of living it up while temperatures rise, the poles melt and unspoiled children face a tough road ahead. As Garniez tells it, they rise to meet it, an unexpectedly hopeful end to an otherwise completely pessimistic song.

Like its predecessor, Melusine Years falls into a category that transcends any “best album of the year” designation [although it did make it to #1 on Lucid Culture’s Best Albums of 2007 list – Ed.] If the human race exists a hundred years from now, this album will be as revered a cautionary tale as George Orwell’s 1984. If not, it’s a fitting epitaph. In the case of the former, it ensures Garniez a permanent place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. Rachelle Garniez plays the cd release for Melusine Years at Joe’s Pub on December 22 at 9:30 PM.

December 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Concert Review: Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 11/1/07

Rachelle Garniez is the best thing going right now. She’s a songwriter completely in command of any style she wants to appropriate, as well as being a performer completely in command of any audience, anywhere. She ranks with Iggy Pop and James Brown as one of the great, charismatic live acts of our time. Not bad for a somewhat inscrutable woman whose main instrument is the accordion.

On a big stage, or any kind of stage (this place has none), Garniez will sometimes pull out all the stops. Her roots are punk, her accordion style somewhat cajun-inflected, but when she sees the opportunity she isn’t shy about showing off her spectacular vocal range, belting to the rafters for all it’s worth. Here, she whispered her jokes instead and held back a little on the mic, working the little room masterfully.

Garniez doesn’t confine herself to the accordion, and that’s a good thing because her chops on the piano are downright evil, her hands casually gliding over the changes, making the seemingly endless series of tough, staccato octaves and jazzy, chordal fills that she played tonight look absolutely effortless. It’s hard to imagine a better keyboardist in rock, if you can call what she does rock. Perhaps New York noir would be a more appropriate umbrella to throw over her, not that she’d stay there long, moving from ragtime to saloon jazz to psychedelic art-rock in the span of perhaps a dozen minutes during this evening’s show. Holding all her stylistic leaps and bounds together is an unflinching, utterly spontaneous, darkly bemused vision of a completely absurd, frequently threatening but ultimately conquerable world.

Tonight she began the show pedaling a big accordion chord, going way up into falsettoland with vocalese while guitarist Matt Munisteri (whose surgically smart, incisively minimalist acoustic fills were spot-on all night) slowly built a raga behind her. It eventually morphed into a 6/8 ballad called Tourmaline, the semiprecious stone triumphantly symbolizing everything that’s…not quite there. In a sometimes very roundabout way, Garniez champions the underdog, and this new song from her forthcoming album The Melusine Years is a prime example.

As she switched to piano, she divulged that she’d been hired as a witch for Halloween, which left her with a big dreadlock hanging over the back collar of her pristine vintage dress. “The witch hairspray gives you a very Elsa Lanchester kind of feeling,” she explained, and launched into a comfortable, upbeat country ballad, playing a couple of amusing quotes from pop songs during the song’s ragtimish bridge. There was a bag of Reese’s candy on the piano, which she examined with considerable skepticism. “Made in Pennsylvania. That’s what it says,” she shrugged. “It was here when I got here, so you know it has to be safe.”

The big anthem that followed was the highlight of the night, or the month, maybe, which Garniez opened with a vividly chordal, Asian melody:

After the afterparty
The sun rose oh so quickly
As you stared oh so blankly

And I spoke oh so frankly
So many words to you
So many words to you
I can’t remember a thing

Garniez virtually always sings in character, and by now she has enough of them to populate a small village. But every once in awhile, she drops her guard, and the effect is riveting:

After the afterparty
You hailed me a taxi

And I buckled up for safety
Maybe I’ll live to be an old lady
With lots of big hats and jewelry
And an inscrutable air of mystery

And when questioned about my history
I’ll smile oh so sweetly
And whisper oh so discreetly
I can’t remember a thing

The hurt in Garniez’ plainspoken delivery was visceral, just as much as the sweet taste of revenge at the end of the song. After that, redoubtable upright bassist Dave Hofstra switched to tuba for a bouncy, oldtimey number that she told the audience she’d been lambasted for writing, considering how cynical it is. But no matter: “Have yourself a nice pre-post apocalypse,” she sang triumphantly. If the rest of the material on the new album is remotely as good as what she played tonight, it’ll be one of the decade’s best. Just like her last one. Rachelle Garniez plays the cd release for The Melusine Years at Joe’s Pub on December 22.

November 5, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments