It’s easy to be cynical about Jana Herzen’s new album Passion of a Lonely Heart. For one, the idea of a label head (she runs Motema) putting out a record brings to mind things like Leonard Chess’ adventures behind the drum kit during a Muddy Waters session. And while at first glance it might seem that this is an attempt to cash in on the ever-increasing popularity of torchy oldtimey swing and Americana, Herzen is doing it in an original and richly captivating way. Hearing this album is like discovering Karrin Allyson for the first time: it’s eye-opening. Herzen’s songs ought to resonate with an audience as wide as Allyson’s, maybe Norah Jones’ – their sophistication will satisfy the most hardheaded folks in the jazz camp, yet her tunes are accessible enough to catch on with the pop crowd.
Lilke Allyson, Herzen’s songwriting is strong, as is her instrumental work (guitar is her axe). Her nuanced mezzo-soprano makes a perfect vehicle for a mix of jaunty, often deviously witty originals along with some choice covers. Her choice of instrumentation – just acoustic guitar and bass – pays off handsomely. While she cites the 1976 Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass collaboration Fitzgerald and Pass…Again as her main influence, the ambience here reaches back further than that to the classic Sarah Vaughan collaborations with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Joe Comfort, notably 1962’s Sarah +2.
Herzen doesn’t sound anything like Vaughan, though. Her gossamer, sometimes airy delivery is disarmingly down-to-earth and unadorned. Her inflections reflect the lyrics to the nth degree: she chooses her spots to swoop down to a seductive purr, sail with an unselfconscious joy and explore the territory in between. Bassist Charnett Moffett’s approach is methodically agile, adding warmly nocturnal colors without cluttering the spare arrangements.
The album opens with a coyly nuanced, understatedly sultry take of Henry Nemo’s ‘Tis Autumn, just bass and vocals. It’s a showcase for the kind of contrasts that Herzen can deliver, cutting loose with a carefree “beeline to the sound” and then with a simmering sensuality when she hits the point where “it’s just to help that old mercury climb.” An elegant oldtime swing tune, Bali Holiday evokes a Pacific island of the mind circa 1937, Moffett capping it off with a twinkling solo way up the fingerboard.
A poignantly intertwined guitar/bass intro kicks off the title track and then shifts to slow, pillowy swing, Herzen hitting a gently powerful crescendo as reverie shifts to sobering reality with a knowing bittersweetness. The duo follow that with an absolutely brilliant reinvention of Chick Corea’s Spain (I Remember), swinging from haunting, gothic-tinged angst to a flamencoesque romp, a style the duo revisit later with more sensuality on the bolero-inflected My Latin Love. Then on Earth’s Heart Beats, Herzen reaches back for a vintage soul vibe over syncopated What’s Going On guitar, Moffett playing a period-perfect tiptoe funk line undeneath.
Night Blooming Jasmine is a gracefully sad, dynamically charged ballad with distant Cape Verdean tinges, a style Herzen embraces with a moody cover of Cesaria Evora’s Sodade. Secrets are Safe With Me builds a gorgeously brooding noir cabaret atmosphere with elegantly precise, bluesy guitar. There’s also a summery take of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, and Here With You, which blends carefree Afrobeat and Mexican folk sounds. Herzen covers an awful lot of ground here to create one of the most enjoyable and eclectic vocal albums in any style of music in recent months.
The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Robert Paterson’s Star Crossing was one of last year’s most enjoyable albums, a noir film for the ears. Right now the eclectic composer/percussionist is about to unleash a suite about former New York Mets star and suspected steroid juicer Mike Piazza. Sandwiched between those two works is the Book of Goddesses, which is essentially his Pictures at an Exhibition, a bright, rippling, generally upbeat theme and variations which takes its inspiration from illustrator Kris Waldherr’s Book of Goddesses. Rather than being a depiction of female archetypes, Paterson’s intent here is to employ a vast palette of motifs from all over the globe to breathe sonic life into a series of pictures from the book. Eclectic concert harpist Jacqueline Kerrod is the central performer here, whether in the trio Maya, with Sato Moughalian on flutes and John Hadfield on percussion; the duo Clockwise, with violinist Marc Uys; or the American Modern Ensemble, with Moughalian plus violist Danielle Farina. The compositions are more rambunctious, less delicate than this instrumentation might imply, a series of interwoven variations on themes reflecting the origin of the goddesses themselves – or not. For example, the Chinese fertility goddess Xi Wang Mu, if this is to be believed, has some Bollywood in her – and santeria goddess Oya is smartly introduced by a bolero. Maybe by design, maybe not, the composer whose work this collection most closely resembles is Bollywood legend S.D. Burman.
The opening overture is titled Sarasvati – the Hindu goddess of knowledge, whose portrait is included in the album’s lavish cd booklet along with the rest of Waldherr’s pantheon. Rippling Chinese-inflected ambience gives way to a Bollywood theme which then goes north again, followed by Aphrodite, which is essentially an acoustic take on Greek psychedelic rock (think Annabouboula or Magges) – not exactly what you’d expect from a chamber music trio, with a rhythmic pulse and catchy melodicism that has become Paterson’s trademark. A swirling Irish reel named after the Celtic goddess Brigit is followed by cleverly polyrhythmic interpolations of previous themes, dreamy ethereality, bouncy Mexican folkloric inflections, that Nigerian bolero, and a balletesque, vividly contrasting number titled Yemaya, where the percussion comes to the forefront against Moughalian’s graceful flute.
There are also two companion pieces here. Freya’s Tears is a triptych building from pensive spaciousness, to mysterioso ripples, to echoes of a baroque minuet and then delicate Middle Eastern allusions. The concluding work, Embracing the Wind, a portrait of a runner who seems more of a fugitive than an athlete, harks back to the ominous unease of Star Crossing. On one hand, there’s a “look, ma, I’m writing Indian music now” feel to some of this, but it’s less showoff-y than simply diverse: clearly, Paterson listens widely and has a passion for the global styles he’s so enthusiastically embraced. Play this loud and it becomes party music: play it softly and it makes for good late-night ambience
Where the Book of Goddesses is lively and animated, Due East’s Drawn Only Once: The Music of John Supko is often blissfully dreamy and nocturnal. Flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer join forces to create a frequently mesmerizing, intricate upper-register sonic web. There are two works here. Littoral, a lush, balmy, minutely nuanced seaside scene (including two spoken-word narrations comfortably back enough in the mix that they intrigue rather than drowning out the music) reaches symphonic length and sweep. Crescendoing almost imperceptibly, the flute flutters and then builds playful clusters over long, sustained, hypnotic tones and elegant vibraphone, becomes a dance and then a gamelan anthem that slowly and warmly winds down, a comfortable shoreline at dusk.
The second work, This Window Makes Me Feel, also rises with a slow, hypnotic elegance, growing closer and closer and finally achieving an optimistic resolution, with pianist David Broome and soprano Hai-Ting Chinn adding subtle textures to the mix. It’s a terrific late-night album and comes with an accompanying DVD, not viewed at press time.
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.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1.
Sunday’s album was #527:
Curtis Eller – Wirewalkers and Assassins
2009 was a particularly good year for music – if you’ve been following this space, you’ll see we’ve been mining it quite a bit lately. This is Curtis Eller’s latest and best album – he plays banjo and happens to be one of the finest lyrical songwriters of our time. His specialty is fiery, minor-key, bluesy songs full of historical references and punk energy. This one has his very best one, the apocalyptic After the Soil Fails; the New York-centric Sugar for the Horses; the grim party anthem Sweatshop Fire; the chillingly summery, hallucinatory Hartford Circus Fire; the sardonic Firing Squad; the gentle, blackly humorous country sway of the Plea of the Aerialist’s Wife, and the wrenchingly haunting, whispery Save Me Joe Louis, its title taken from what were reputedly the last words of the first man (who was probably wrongfully convicted) to be executed in the gas chamber. It hasn’t made it to the filesharing sites yet but it’s still available from Eller’s bandcamp, where you can hear the whole thing.
Sometimes in this so-called business, you have to go to plan B. Case in point: Wednesday night at Madison Square Park, where jazz bassist Christian McBride and his quintet Inside Straight launched into a jaunty, tuneful early evening set as clouds swooped in overhead. McBride – who’s got a new album out on Mack Avenue, one of the few remaining record labels that actually serves a useful purpose – gave the two opening tunes his characteristically muscular but fluid pulse, vibraphonist Warren Wolf following the pianist with rippling waves and rivulets. In case you were there, you know where this whole thing is going: into the drink, because it was then that the clouds exploded and within a couple of minutes, everybody who didn’t have an umbrella (guess who) was soaked to the bone.
It wasn’t clear when or if the concert would restart, which meant that it was time for plan B, a trip across the bridge to Williamsburg for the duo art show by photographer Jill Gewirtz and rocker Patti Rothberg at the Beehive Salon. It was a treat to hear the two harmonize in a brief, unamplified acoustic set of songs that included both a couple of unselfconsciously clever Rothberg originals plus covers of both Duran Duran and Prince that not only weren’t bad, but actually entertaining: Rothberg sailed and dove effortlessly as Gewirtz held everything together. Gewirtz’ shots on display range from black-and-white cinema verite – a subway platform scene, punk rocker, an absolutely dynamite bridge framed by sunset, and a gritty industrial city skyline – to her usual playful surrealism, the best of these being a Cadillac Ranch of sorts using cameras instead of tailfins. Many of these are up at her Saatchi photo site. Rothberg’s acrylics have a bright, Toulouse Lautrec-esque, pun-infused sensibility: an irresistible diptych of sorts called Elvi (the word is plural: you’ll get it when you see it); Marc Bolan doing exactly that, in an alley with lanes; Bono with Seano (Sean Penn – the resemblance seems more than coincidental); and a LOL, spot-on double portrait that finds a not-so-secret connection between Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks. All this and more is up on display through July 29 at Beehive Salon, 115 N 7th St. (Berry/Wythe) in Williamsburg.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #569:
Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues
A virtuoso guitarist equally adept at delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, early jazz and rock, Lenny Molotov is also an acerbic, brutally perceptive songwriter and lyricist. This is his latest album, from 2010, an eclectic mix of all of those styles: if the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might have sounded something like this. Here he’s backed by a rustic, inspired string band including bass, drums, fiddle and blues harp. The early Dylanesque Wilderness Bound chronicles a symbolically-charged journey its narrator never wanted to make; Book of Splendor and the eerily hypnotic Ill Moon hark back to the delta, while Glorious evokes Woody Guthrie. The classic here is Freedom Tower, dating from the early days of the Bush regime, a witheringly sarcastic sendup of fascist architectural iconography (he says it much more simply and poetically than that). David Reddin’s Blues follows a similar tangent, a sardonic modern-day outlaw ballad, its killer on the run caught in an Orwellian snare. There’s also the swinging Faded Label Blues, a wryly bitter Jelly Roll Morton homage; the quietly defiant Devil’s Empire, and the bucolic waltz New Every Morning, which leaves no doubt where Molotov stands: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues, and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” This one’s real hard to find, but still available at shows – or check the blues bin at your local used record store, if you have one.
Santa Cruz-based acoustic Americana hellraisers The Devil Makes Three play Maxwell’s tonight at nine. If you miss the Asylum Street Spankers, The Devil Makes Three are just as entertaining – and like the Spankers, they also happen to be an excellent band. The most recent album from guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean came out a couple of years ago. It’s called Do Wrong, Right, and it’s something that should have been on our radar at the time but wasn’t. It’s not just bluegrass with funny, surreal lyrics – the band also plays country swing, blues and Nashville gothic and does that stuff period-perfect as well.
The album is sort of a cross between the Spankers and Mojo Nixon’s duo stuff with Jello Biafra. The opening track, All Hail is a genuine classic: as they see it, the world is populated with clueless shoppers all wasted on crack and antidepressants: “It ain’t a drug, goddamn it, I give it to my only son,” says the guy on the way to the office thorazine party. The amusing intro of Poison Trees gives no indication of the ominous, apocalyptic shuffle that follows. The title track is a bouncy, violin-fueled bluegrass tune; they follow that with Gracefully Facedown, a woozy swing shuffle like early Dan Hicks. It’s a tribute to anyone who subscribes to the idea that “drinking bottom shelf bourbon seems to work all right til closing time.” For Good Again cynically mythologizes the band’s roots living in squalor, paying the rent in illegal drugs and writing songs that someday they’d get paid to play. “Everybody who’s anybody at one time lived in somebody’s hallway,” they assert, and they’re probably right.
Their Working Man’s Blues isn’t the Merle Haggard standard – it’s a haunting tobacco sharecropper’s lament with blues harp that sounds like it was recorded on another planet, a feeling echoed on a biting version of Statesboro Blues. The Johnson Family is an eerie, carnivalesque gypsy waltz; Helping Yourself puts a devious Curtis Eller-style spin on oldtime country gospel, spiced with an unexpectedly searing slide guitar solo. A spot-on early 50s style honkytonk tune that does double duty as raised middle finger to the boss, Cheap Reward unexpectedly quotes Elvis Costello; there’s also the careening slide guitar shuffle Aces and Twos and the unexpectedly epic Car Wreck. Good album – where the hell were we when this came out? You can get it at the band’s site or pick one up at the show.
The Jolly Boys’ new album Great Expectations – their first in possibly decades – might be the year’s funniest release. The octogenarian Jamaican band – who used to serenade Errol Flynn back in the 50s – plays mento, the folk music that gave birth to calypso, ska and eventually reggae. Where the Easy Star All-Stars have fun doing reggae versions of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Jolly Boys have just released an album of rock songs – most of them standards, with a few obscurities – done with vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar and stompbox. It’s hilarious and it’s totally punk rock even if it’s 100% acoustic – and the music is pretty good, too. The lead singer can’t hit the high notes, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s not as if he isn’t trying his best. Is this exploitation? No, it’s satire.
One of the funniest things about it is that you get to hear the lyrics clearly. The most brutal version here is Blue Monday, a synth-disco hit for New Order in 1986. Stark, rustic and the most punk track here, what’s obvious from the first few nonsensical lines is what a truly moronic song this is. It’s the one point on the album where you can sense that the band can’t wait to get this over with. Strangely, Golden Brown, a slick 1985 British pop hit by the Stranglers, isn’t funny – it’s as boring as the original. The rest is a long series of WTF moments. “Just a perfect day, drinking Bailey’s in the park,” rasps frontman/guitarist Albert Minott as the upbeat, bouncy version of the Lou Reed song gets underway – is that the actual lyric? Riders on the Storm is hilarious: “From the top to the very last drop,” Minott announces, obviously aware of who sang it the first time around. And their version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is every bit as interminable as the original, if not as annoying, Jagger’s fifth-rate Dylan impersonation naked and ugly in the stripped-down arrangement.
But not everything here is as cruel. There are two Iggy songs. The Passenger is just plain great, and the band responds joyously; Nightclubbing is reinvented as a banjo tune, where somebody takes a mean pickslide after Minott announces that “We learn dances like the Nuclear Bomb.” The Nerves’ (and later Blondie’s) Hanging on the Telephone is a period reference that fits the band perfectly; Steely Dan’s Do It Again is the least recognizable of all the songs; by contrast, I Fought the Law and Ring of Fire could both have been mento originals, considering how many influences it shares with oldtime American C&W. The most bizarrely amusing track here is the Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, which has to be heard to be appreciated (and has a clever video streaming at the band’s site). The album closes with three deviously aphoristic mento standards: the cautionary tale Dog War, the slyly metaphorical Night Food, and a hypnotic, harmony-driven version of Emmanuel Road. It’s safe to predict that many of these songs will end up on late-night mixes at bars and parties throughout the next few years and, who know, maybe for a long time. The Jolly Boys have been around for more than half a century and show no sign of going away.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #641:
The Stanley Bros. – All Time Greatest Hits
We’re gonna sneak another greatest-hits package in here because it’s representative, not necessarily because it’s any better than any other collection by these bluegrass legends – and their stuff has been packaged and repackaged a million times. Ralph and Carter Stanleys’ high lonesome voices, banjo and guitar, along with some topnotch 1940s and 50s Nashville players, rip through eleven songs, many of which have become standards. The real stunner here is Rank Strangers, one of the most vivid depictions of alienation ever set to music – its quietly resolute, suicidal atmosphere will give you chills. The one everybody knows is Man of Constant Sorrow; the rest of the gothic Americana includes Oh Death and White Dove. There’s also the prisoner’s lament Stone Walls and Steel Bars; the wry, amusing Don’t Cheat in Our Home Town; the English dance Little Maggie; the lickety-split Little Birdie, and for country gospel fans, there’s Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Mysteriously, this one isn’t very easy to find, so in lieu of this particular item you might want to check out something just as interesting, the complete Rich-R-Tone 78s collection, which is decent although the journey from 78 to digital was somewhat less than successful.