Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amy Bezunartea Dishes on Restaurants and Bars

If you’ve followed this space at all, you’ve probably noticed that we very seldom cover singer-songwriters. There’s a reason for that. Your typical singer-songwriter plays one song over and over again. The melody, the beat or the lyrics may change, but it basically goes something like this: “I’m mad at you because you don’t pay attention to me.” And did you ever wonder why most folkie clubs have such an annoyingly uptight vibe? Because they’re filled with people who actually relate to songs like that. What those people don’t realize is that if they all got together and united, other people would pay attention to them. But they’re too narcissistic to do that.

In the far left corner of that field, or more likely behind the bar, is Brooklyn songwriter Amy Bezunartea. Although her music is typically gentle, acoustic-based and lyrically-driven, it doesn’t fit the typical singer-songwriter mold: if you have to put a label on her, acoustic rocker makes the most sense. Her new album Restaurants and Bars is just out on Jennifer O’Connor’s Kiam Records label and it’s excellent. Beautifully and warmly produced, Bezunartea’s unselfconsciously attractive, high soprano vocals shimmer with layers of harmonies that are often otherworldly. Her simple, tersely crystallized lyrics reflect the urban milieu of someone who’s supported herself working in the restaurants and bars of the title – and in the title track, she cynically wonders why no relationship that ever began in a place like that ever lasts. “But I long to believe you, I long to believe, too,” she affirms. Hope eludes the characters in her songs: maintaining faith in themselves is an everyday struggle. “I’m resigned to the turning of tables and waiting in line,” she sings on the album’s fastest, hardest-rocking track, I Lie Awake At Night (But That’s All Right). And on Doubles, a plaintive workingwoman’s ballad, she laments a loved one’s fading dreams:

Some girls they glow in darkness
But by our standards that’s not much
Some girls they’d like to win
But instead they’ll serve you lunch

The theme recurs just as vividly on the plaintive piano piece Mostly I’m Just Scared: “Mostly it’s the part of me that isn’t that I’m trying to get back,” the worn-down protagonist insists. The Light, starkly fingerpicked with a disarmingly beautiful mandolin break, longs for lost hope, “Many places to hide, further away away every time.” And the album’s concluding track, a live take of a strikingly jaunty oldtimey-flavored banjo tune, paints a similarly bleak picture: “People die younger and younger it seems, guys like you and girls like me…I hold you tight like a rope in the sky.”

There are more hopeful moments here as well. With its dreamy harmonies and harmonica atmospherics, Amy’s Spring Tune is striking and bittersweet:

Green leaves on your treelined streets
Fill me with such relief
Gather all the dark in me
And cast it off officially
Darkness in the afternoon
Holds the lights that filled this room
There are no brighter visions
No good conditions
Make the best of the decisions…

Bridges works both as a cityscape, and a metaphor for finding some kind of emotional footing. And the album’s opening track, All the Things We Were Supposed to Be, a shadowy, reverb-tinged solo piano piece, quietly and matter-of-factly dismisses the pressures of trying to conform to someone else’s standards: “Just brush them aside, each and everyone…not to compete is such a relief.” Words of wisdom from someone who’s been there: it’s one of many subtle gems here.

December 14, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Terrific Album from Sharon Goldman

This is an album for jellybean thieves and those who love them. Not only is Sharon Goldman one of this era’s most brilliant tunesmiths, she also has a sweet tooth. If her lyrics are to be taken at face value, she also steals ice cream – or appropriates other peoples’, anyway. Behind her bright, shiny, catchy classic pop melodies and her symbolically charged imagery, there’s a devious streak. Sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes both at once. Perfect example: Short Brown Hair, the opening cut on her new album Sleepless Lullaby. It’s a classic Snow White/Rose Red dichotomy: the narrator’s cute blonde little sister gets all the attention, but this pensive, brooding brunette has something up her sleeve (actually in her pocket). By the end of the song, she emerges resolute and unchastened. That sense of triumph and indomitability has always been a backdrop on her previous albums, especially the 1999 cult classic Semi-Broken Heart, and it comes to the forefront here.

What’s new here is Goldman’s turn toward an Americana sound, backed tersely and soulfully by guitarist/mandolinist Thad Debrock, bassist Mark Dann and drummer Cheryl Prashker. Dann’s production is remarkably purist: the album has rich, practically analog vinyl feel, vocals up front, drums tastefully in the back, no cheesy autotune or computerized instrumentation anywhere.

The rest of the songs paint vivid pictures, especially the fingerpicked ballad Winter’s Come Around Again, a woman traipsing around in the snow looking for any possible sign of warmth. The title track, a slow, 6/8 country ballad is a knockout. Goldman has always been a good singer – on this album she has become a brilliant one, unselfconsciously plaintive and wounded. “I lie awake with my big mistake” comes across as understatement rather than overkill, enhanced by some soulful slide guitar work by Pat Wictor. House of Stone, a Rich Deans cover, is a country blues tune: with its succession of bitter imagery, it stands up alongside Goldman’s originals here. And the Americana-tinged Letters, a kiss-off ballad that starts out characteristically subtle and gets as vicious as she’s ever allowed herself to be, is righteously wrathful. Goldman then flips the script with Weekend Afternoon, a blithely upbeat country/pop hit.

The 6/8 jazz-pop song Time Is an Airplane is one of her most musically sophisticated numbers – and it namechecks the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island, which makes it even harder to resist. Goldman wraps up the album by reinventing the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut Hazy Shade of Winter as piano-based art-rock, discovering a wintriness missing from the psych-pop arrangement of the original. It’s yet another display of smartly tuneful, captivating songcraft from one of the best songwriters you may have never heard of. Goldman’s next gig is at Brewed Awakening in Metuchen, NJ on Dec 16; watch this space for New York dates.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jesus Taco Put an Original, Literate Spin on Americana

Swiss-based lo-fi Americana trio the Jesus Taco’s debut album takes its cue from field recordings: it’s as if they decided to record everything in their collective songbooks. Along with the fully realized creations, there are the fragments, the unfinished numbers and sonic japes that fly by and are gone almost before you realize it. Perhaps to maintain a flow, pretty much every track here segues into the next. Frontman/guitarist Brett Davidson is a strong singer with some Gram Parsons inflections, accompanied by Sascha Greuter on acoustic and electric guitars along with respected luthier Tyko Runesson on mandolin, guitars and blues harp. Darkness alternates with good humor and some hijinks that sometimes seem more fun to the band than to an outsider along with others that are more accessible, and hard to resist. The longer songs and instrumentals are separated by a series of miniatures: simple fingerpicked melodies, astringent washes of feedback, a couple of brief, tuneful ragtime piano interludes, some folk-funk and what seems to be a woman laughing her way through either quoting or impersonating some ditz from reality tv.

The best song here is The Meek, a jangly, symbolically charged folk-rock gem:

When they found me on South Main
There were bruises on my brain
So they put me on ice
The charity wards were swollen with sorrow
But the nurses were nice…
Said I wanted to kill
So they put me on pills for a week…
Wretched are the ways of the weak
And the ways we pray for a winning streak …

The casual ominousness of Ten O’Clock evokes Lou Reed’s Sunday Morning, down to the glockenspiel. A simple litany of wanting more, and more, and more, wastes no time in making its point. One of the later numbers blends sci-fi imagery with an eerie rural milieu; there’s also the aptly titled, cantabile acoustic guitar instrumental So Calm, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the later works of John Fahey, a brief New Orleans/punk rock interlude that evokes the Dead Milkmen, and a gently fingerpicked acoustic ballad in Swedish. It’s another welcome surprise from upstart Swiss label Weak Records.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/1/10

New NYC live music calendar for September and October coming later today! In the meantime, every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #881:

New Model Army – Raw Melody Men

The missing link between the Clash and Midnight Oil, British rockers New Model Army have built a thirty-year career on the fiery, uncompromising, anthemic, politically aware songwriting of frontman Justin Sullivan: they’ve literally never made a bad record. This 1992 double live album captures the band at the peak of their majestic art-rock fury (they’ve been through many different phases: currently, they’re just as likely to whip out a gentle acoustic folk-rock number as a straight-up punk stomp). The swirls of electric violin and occasional keyboards here add an eerie ambience above the din of the guitar. Sullivan doesn’t confine his razor-sharp critiques to globalization or the evils of monopoly capitalism: there are few more astute critics of the left, especially coming from a progressive point of view. This one has most of the band’s early 90s concert favorites: the anguished escape anthem Get Me Out; the eco-disaster atmospherics of White Coats; the spot-on examinations of leftwing cliquishness Purity and Better Than Them; and the towering, Middle Eastern inflected majesty of Lurhstaap, a warning in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall that “You can buy a crown/It doesn’t make you king/Beware the trinkets that we bring.” Over the years, a NMA “family” has sprung up, sort of a more conscious Deadhead crew whose common passions happen to be intransigence and defiance of rightwing authority rather than drugs. New Yorkers can look forward to New Model Army’s latest appearance at 8 PM at the Bell House in Brooklyn on September 3 and 4.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 8/16/10

Here’s this week’s version of our hit parade, stuff that’s too cool for the Billboard charts and the corporations who rule them. We try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone: sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. It’s something you can do on your lunch break if you work at a computer (and you have headphones -your boss won’t approve of a lot of this stuff). If you don’t like one of these, you can always go on to the next one: every link here except #2 (youtube link coming soon) will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.

1. Kasey Anderson – Bellingham Blues

Smalltown anomie as Springsteen only wishes he still understood it. Great track from the literate Americana rocker’s new album Nowhere Nights

2. The Brooklyn What – Hot Wine

Newly unveiled surreal punk rock Coney Island battle scenario by the late great Billy Cohen: coming soon to youtube and then album, we hope.

3. Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble – Delirium

Slightly restrained, anguished noir cabaret rock, a lament: “I should have held you, not repelled you.”

4. Khaled – Block

Not the Algerian rai star but a typically smart, bracing cut by the electic American Middle Eastern-tinged acoustic guitarist/songwriter.

5. Isle of Klezbos – Abrah

All-female klezmer intensity. Watch closely at 4:10 into this youtube clip.

6. My Education – Concentration Waltz

A punk Friends of Dean Martinez – drone menace with organ, guitars and viola.

7. The Vivisectors – Tsunamy Light in Stonewall Tavern

Russian noir surf rock – gotta love that title.

8. Bobby Vacant – Wild Wind Blows

Characteristically understated haunting, tuneful acoustic songwriting from the guy who gave us the song we picked for best of 2009.

9. Pintura Roja – Te Olvidaste De Mi

Classic, obscure, surprisingly Asian-flavored Peruvian pop from the early 70s: the roots of metal cumbia.

10. Courtney Yasmineh – Daydrunk

Joke song of the week to leave you with a smile on your face.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | lists, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Billy Cohen Memorial Concert

Some people fade from memory after they’re gone. Billy Cohen just gets more and more intriguing. Cruelly cut down by cancer at 23, Cohen still managed to leave a stunningly diverse body of work ranging from punk rock, to modern classical, to the avant garde: if there is any justice in the world, someday there’ll be a Billy Cohen album. Thursday night, Bowery Poetry Club was packed with a mix of family, friends, what looked like every cool kid from the Murrow High School class of ’05, and his surviving bandmates in the Brooklyn What. His younger sister Gabi Cohen had assembled a slideshow that played throughout the night (a favorite shot: Cohen way up in the nosebleed seats at Shea Stadium), a vivid tribute to the multi-instrumentalist composer who was as devoted to the Mets as he was to music.

Politically incorrect singer-songwriter Mickey PG opened, joined at the end by members of the Brooklyn What, their frontman Jamie Frey holding down the bass. He’s quirky and funny in a snotty, punk rock Dead Milkmen/Violent Femmes kind of way. Among his tunes: a not-so-sly, faux R&B seduction song; a funny one about stealing a girl away from her much taller boyfriend; an even funnier one parodying the silly, Jesse Jackson-style slogans that high school teachers use; and the most hilarious one of the night, Dumpster Diving. See, she’s got a Harvard degree, but the only job she can get with it is at Burger King. So she and her man get their gourmet experience out back of the restaurant: it’s all they can afford.

The duo of southpaw guitarist Jonathan Ruderfer (Cohen’s college-era bandmate in Savage Panda) and Cohen’s old college roomie, keyboardist Derek Blustein followed with a stunningly tight, eye-opening set of Cohen compositions along with a couple of originals and some favorite covers. They opened with a catchy powerpop anthem, like Coldplay if that band had real blood in their veins. They nimbly and amusingly tackled a couple of video game themes, a spot-on take of a tricky Radiohead number and an equally tricky, melodically artsy original by Blustein. He explained how they’d been forced to slow down a particularly challenging Cohen instrumental – which came across as a rapidfire amalgam of Louis Andriessen and Thom Yorke – to the point where it was physically possible for them to play it. A terrific, full-voiced singer named Megan then joined them for an equally challenging, operatically-tinged vocal number, on which she had to use every inch of a genuinely breathtaking vocal range.

Cohen would be proud of how good, and how amazingly tight the Brooklyn What have become. Joining them onstage were Ruderfer, Blustein and former Escarioka alto sax player Clayton Costelloe, whose smartly chosen, bracing fills gave the more punk-oriented songs, like a particularly intense version of Gentrification Rock, a scary ska feel. Cohen was a big Kinks fan, so they did a trio of amped-up Kinks covers, the most ecstatic of these being I’m Not Like Everybody Else – not surprising, considering that once he’d brought it into the band, it quickly became a concert favorite. In fact, with the three guitars going at once, it was almost as if Cohen was there. They pounced on Mongoloid by Devo and beat it speechless and burned through an inspired, smartly short version of Moonage Daydream by Bowie. But it was the originals that everybody had come to hear and they got all the Billy Cohen songs from the band’s debut The Brooklyn What for Borough President: blistering takes of the dissociative, Shellac-on-speed rap Soviet Guns, the uneasy, biting punk fury of Sunbeam Sunscream and the quiet disquiet of Summer Song. The high point of the night was another Cohen song, the unreleased Hot Wine, a characteristically surreal Coney Island scenario that went on a doublespeed rampage in the middle. They closed with a delirious singalong of their anthem We Are the Only Ones, written by the band, Frey explained, on Cohen’s little synthesizer in his bedroom. As the audience bobbed and swayed, hands and fists waving furiously on the beat, joining in on the last verse, “I’m not afraid of anything at all, divided we stand, UNITED THEY WILL FALL,” the Brooklyn What were, to paraphrase Frey, undeniably the biggest band in New York. Billy Cohen would have liked that. The Brooklyn What play Arlene’s at 9 this Friday the 20th.

August 17, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Album of the Day 8/7/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #906:

Fairport Convention – What We Did on Our Holidays

This was a tough call: the best of the Britfolk bands, Richard Thompson’s first group, had a great run from the late 60s through the early 70s, with one great album after another. This one, their second, from 1969, was Sandy Denny’s debut recording (she’d previously done an wonderful chamber-pop album with the Strawbs that only saw a release in the 90s). We’ve decided to give it top billing over the band’s wonderfully jangly, psychedelic 1968 debut (with Judy Dyble handling the majority of the vocals) and their most expansive early album, Unhalfbricking: even though that one’s got Who Knows Where the Time Goes, it’s also got three C-list Dylan covers. This one is practically perfect top to bottom: bassist Tyger Hutchings’ scorching Mr. Lacey; the acoustic Saxon gothic of The Lord Is in This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place and an equally severe if rousing version of the traditional Nottamun Town; the gorgeously expressive Sandy Denny vocal showcase of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine, and Thompson’s most haunting, death-obsessed early anthem, Meet on the Ledge. Download it somewhere if you haven’t already.

August 7, 2010 Posted by | folk music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/4/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1.Wednesday’s album is #909:

Nina Nastasia – The Blackened Air

This album was recorded before 9/11, but released shortly thereafter, it made a potent soundtrack for a city, and an era, reeling from the impact and braced for the worst. Conventional wisdom is that Nastasia’s classic album is her 2000 debut, Dogs, and while its songs are wrenchingly vivid, this one’s the counterintuitive choice. Nastasia’s lyrics on Dogs were like a Weegee lens, sardonic portraits of dissolution, disillusion and sometimes despair, perfectly suited to her matter-of-factly plaintive, sometimes biting vocals. Here they tend to observe from a few hundred feet, often achieving a towering angst equal to Pink Floyd or the other great art-rockers. Backed by a brilliant band including Bowie collaborator Gerry Leonard on guitar, Dylan Willemsa on viola, Stephen Day on cello, Joshua Carlebach on accordion and Jay Bellerose on drums, Nastasia alternates between starkly bucolic minimalism, eerie miniatures and hypnotic pitchblende atmospherics. She’s never made a bad record: her other albums Run to Ruin and You Follow Me (a 2007 collaboration with Jim White of the Dirty Three) are closer to the vibe of Dogs and very much worth getting to know – ideally with the lights out.

August 3, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy Songwriters Bare Their Fangs at the Parkside

Songwriters in the round. No, wait, don’t click off the page, it was like that but it wasn’t. From the first few seconds of the night, the three women onstage at the Parkside on Thursday made it clear that this would not be a G-rated evening of terminally pretty voices singing terminally pretty songs. Given a chance to not only sing but also discuss their material at length, Rebecca Turner, Paula Carino and Erica Smith vented about the thankless side of their profession: clueless audiences, backhanded compliments, and the sheer expense of it all. Why do they do it? Because they can’t imagine not doing it – which was encouraging to hear. Carino is a wordsmith who can’t resist a catchy hook. Turner is a specialist, one of the finest, most indelibly original voices in Americana rock; Smith, the star of Beefstock 2010, is the eclectic one: she can write anything. Asked to explain how it feels to be a performer, Carino responded that it was much like police work: “Hours of boredom, moments of sheer terror.” Smith saved her derision for clueless listeners, the kind of morons who say things like “That’s a pretty song – who wrote it?” Turner explained that she’d come to grips with dumb crowds, especially since she’s been playing more covers at a lot of New Jersey gigs lately (she hastened to add that there’s also a considerable audience for quality original music there). Here on their home turf, the four fed off each others’ energy and banter and turned in a fascinating show.

Solo on electric guitar, Carino jangled her way through a bunch of rare gems that she seldom plays live: Readers Digest, which uses bulimia as a metaphor for a host of other ills; the angst-ridden existentialist lament Waiting for You (“Then the river froze and I started skating/Of course I’d rather swim but I’m tired of waiting”), and Sensitive Skin, a metaphorically loaded “public service announcement for people not to get involved with people who are too sensitive.” She explained that she’d changed the gender of the song’s central character to a woman: if the guy with the bathroom full of extra-sensitive formula lotions knows it, he’s undoubtedly grateful she did.

The night’s most exhilarating vocal moment belonged, unsurprisingly, to Turner. As the third verse of her big crowd-pleaser Tough Crowd (a little irony there) kicked in, she took it up as far as she could, which is a long way. She’d explained how each of the verses tackles a different subject: friends, then family, then an audience, deftly linking how absurd it can be to try to communicate with any of them sometimes. As warmly memorable as her melodies are, there’s also usually an undercurrent of unease, most strikingly apparent on Knocks, a chronicle of a trip to Maine circa 2004: “Go on, grey sky, open up,” she sang, as much a dare as resignation to an unwanted fate.

Smith pulled out a lot of new material: she’s never written better. “I lost my job and wanted to write a song about how good freedom is,” she explained defiantly and then launched into a catchy Americana-pop number: “If you’re lucky you’ll never work again in this town.” The last verse of another new one, River King, she explained, came to her in a dream, ostensibly written by Adam Cooper and her lead guitarist, Dann Baker. For whatever reason, that’s where central character, on vacation and miserable, gets dressed up in her lacy things and goes down to the waterfront bar. She clarified that it’s probably the last thing either of those two would ever be likely to write. And another new one, a garage rock number, turned out to be a bittersweet but encouraging tribute to enduring friendships – that’s why acoustic shows can be so interesting sometimes, since the lyrics are audible. Watch this space for future shows by these artists, very possibly as a trio again.

August 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Literate Rocker Walter Ego’s Big Understated Comeback

Walter Ego came out of retirement in a big way last night at Banjo Jim’s. The house was packed for a multiple-songwriter bill: Walter, who by his own admission hadn’t played a gig since 1995, was the star, solo on acoustic guitar, grabbing a restless crowd and holding them quiet for the duration of his too-brief set. Vintage, classic era Elvis Costello is the obvious influence: this guy’s songs are loaded with puns and double entendres, set to catchy melodies which are equal parts Beatles and Elvis C. with some blues thrown in. That there would be blues in the set was no surprise, considering that Walter used to be LJ Murphy’s bass player. There was also a surprising theatricality: he’d break what was obviously an intense focus to give his sidekick, a blow-up plastic octopus named Paul, a chance to reach into a bucket and pull a strip of paper with a song title on it. Paul didn’t do a good job, so there were even more unexpected changes in the set list. Walter went on wearing a wig, but that quickly came off, as did a plastic top hat during the set’s last song (it was muggy outside and only somewhat better inside). Undeterred, he sang with a low, dryly icy intensity.

The blues songs were a lot more interestingly assembled than just a simple 1-4-5; the rockers also had a counterintuitive feel. One of the best of the early songs chronicled the Adventures of Ethical Man, a superhero who’s a bigger phony than Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent ever dreamed of being, at least as alter egos. The bluesy, sarcastic Don’t Take Advice from Me was a ruthless sendup of anyone who enjoys being a killjoy: it wouldn’t be out of place in the LJ Murphy catalog. Walter closed with a characteristically lyrically rich number about some sort of hypocrisy-detection machine sold via infomercial, and how it can be modified if the owner becomes a born-again. Which doesn’t remotely do justice to its clever barrage of lyrics. Watch this space for future shows.

By the way, there are three other Walter Egos: a cover band from the Isle of Man, a Dutch rapper and a British disco producer. But this guy – whose first album, from the 90s, is a genuine NYC rock artifact – beat all of them to it.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment