Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

Advertisements

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sometime Boys’ Debut: Excellent All the Way Through

With its layers of great guitar and smart Americana roots songwriting, the Sometime Boys’ album Any Day Now makes a good segue with the Hendrix box set reviewed here yesterday. It’s a lot more rustic and low-key but just as intense as frontwoman Sarah Mucho and guitarist Kurt Leege’s main project, the wildly powerful, cerebral art/funk/noiserock band System Noise. Mucho is a legitimate star in the New York cabaret world (she won a MAC award), best known for her unearthly, powerful wail. Here, she offers frequently chilling proof that she’s every bit as potent a stylist when she brings down the lights. Likewise, Leege’s electric playing is equal parts passion and virtuosity: here, his nimble, funky, soulful acoustic work is just as gripping if somewhat quieter than his usual unhinged, wailing tremolo-bar howl. The band here is rounded out by Pete O’Connell on bass, David Tuss on violin and eclectic drummer/percussionist Andy Blanco.

The album opens with Pretty Town, a slinky, smoldering acoustic version of a funk song by System Noise’s predecessor band Noxes Pond, Blanco’s lush cymbal washes mingling atmospherically with its understated angst and tersely edgy guitar solo. The bitter, backbeat-driven bluegrass number Master Misery is a gem, Mucho delivering its torrents of lyrics with a wounded grace: “There are no answers, just suggestions, and most folks don’t bother with the truth,” she posits. There’s a deft, ELO-style handoff as the solo moves from guitar to violin; in the end, Mucho’s tortured soul chooses solitude. The catchy Non Believers is a clinic in vocal subtlety and lyrical depth, Mucho gently railing at those who cluelessly accept the world around them at face value; Painted Bones, with its hypnotic verse building matter-of-factly to its big chorus hook, has more of a gothic, Siouxsie-esque undercurrent. With its rich layers of acoustic guitar, the title track manages to be both brisk and lush. The album winds up with a gorgeously allusive, understatedly suspenseful 6/8 Tom Waits country number about a house that may or may not be haunted, in every possible sense of the word; the band also reinvents Aimee Mann’s Wise Up as edgy funk. What a treat this is, all the way through: you’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2010 page when we finally put it up in the next week or so.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | country music, funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Patti Rothberg

Irrepressible, cleverly lyrical tunesmith Patti Rothberg has toured worldwide with Midnight Oil, the Wallflowers and Chris Isaak. She’s responsible for the albums Between the 1 and the 9, Candelabra Cadabra and Double Standards. She can play guitar behind her back if you ask her. And if you see a Patti Rothberg sticker at the Beacon Theatre, row P, seat 9, she’s the one who put it there, to commemorate her first show at the venue. Now she’s back with a new album, Overnite Sensation. As much as it’s a return to her roots, it also comes as something of a shock. We’ll let her explain:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You were one of the last quality songwriters to catch a ride on the major label gravy train: you had a hit album, Between the 1 and the 9, a Top 30 single, and you toured with a whole bunch of quality acts. I remember the first time I saw you play – you were sharing a bill with Aimee Mann at the Beacon Theatre. When your label EMI America sank without a trace, you went to an indie label, Cropduster, and then another one with your Double Standards album which came out a couple of years ago. Are you completely independent now? To what degree are you open to suggestion if a label should come knocking again?

Patti Rothberg: I am completely open to suggestions. After all, it’s only a suggestion, and these things are by nature negotiable. My friend Lou Christie – lightning’s striking again – puts it this way: the internet was the Pandora’s Box. It leveled the playing field for most artists. It comes down to dollars, but not necessarily who gets the boost and gets noticed. You could be the indiest of nubies or a dues paid old school road dog: someone is paying for manufacture, promotion, distribution. Some people use the words quote unquore Rock Star like a curse word. But that was certainly the model I grew up with, and gave me more to dream about and aspire to than say, a smelly van and Days Inns as far as the eye can see.

LCC: Do you miss those days at all?

PR: I miss it all! Even the Days Inns! The other talented musicians we encountered, the characters you couldn’t invent if you were the best scriptwriter in the world. The experience of playing in front of 70,000 screaming fans and making them do the wave, and them actually going for it! I’ve always wanted every day of my life to be different since I was very little. I wanted to be a bus driver, or astronomer, which is funny since either of those fantasies have a reality that’s quite repetitive…even being a “rock star” on the road is INSANELY repetitive – wake, interview, soundcheck, show, sleep, repeat… but it’s the inbetween that has magic.

LCC: Through all the ups and downs, you’ve maintained a consistent vision, both lyrically and musically. To what degree have you had to resist being twisted into a different shape? To avoid selling out?

PR: Let me tell you how lucky I am! My debut album was produced by my friend, basically a first timer, Dave Greenberg…because we had such a strong rapport – this was UNHEARD OF! I got to illustrate my entire cd artwork, experiment in the coolest studio around – Electric Ladyland – and experience life as a total rock and roll superstar! Because that was my first and only time doing this til then, I just thought it was ALWAYS like this, and, tougher to take…I thought it WOULD always be like that for me [sigh]…if you look at the nine portraits on the album Between the 1 and the 9, they have really foreshadowed my reluctance to be stuck to any KIND of music or physical appearance! I still write songs very much the way I did before I ever dreamed of having a giant record deal. The songs are like fireflies, and the albums capture them in a jar to be understood in context, later.

LCC: Do you ever feel that you were pigeonholed? Maybe as a singer-songwriter, when you’re really more of a rocker?

PR: Yes, at first I HATED being called quote unquote folk rocker or acoustic rocker because the combinations of those words created an image of myself which didn’t match my superego…in other words, here I am playing Rod Stewart, the Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, Jane’s Addiction, the Runaways, Black Sabbath, etcetera, and I felt I was being chalked up as some chick with a guitar. I thought this advent was insulting to the other chicks as well! Now, I don’t mind it so much. One reason is because there are plenty of other so-called folk rockers who I respect and think are beautiful – such as Joni Mitchell or even Lou Reed. Even if the bare bones of your song were written using an acoustic, this shouldn’t necessarily mean you’re a folkie. Some of it is instrumentation, some of it is simply image. How many copies of Dark Side of the Moon sell and continue to sell? The cover is black with the image of a prism. The music is fully orchestrated with lots of sound effects and genres I can’t even name – ok, Money is a blues riff…but it’s about the journey the music takes you on and people across the board can identify with it. By the way, which one’s pink? [laughs].

LCC: I think ultimately that we can attribute the death of the major labels to one crucial mistake, which is the failure to be willing to work with quality artists. Do you agree?

PR: Yes, quantity and the desire for more and more kills quality! When A&R folk became afraid to lose their jobs for choosing the “wrong” bands to stick their necks out for, for fear of having their heads chopped off, lots of amazing bands ended up on the chopping block too. At the end of the day it’s about the numbers…the mind numbing numbers. A&R used to stand for “Artist and Repetoire”..when talented artists were given the space to develop into geniuses and not this year’s models! It was a privilege to have a record deal, not just anyone could get one! Later I think A&R started to stand for “already” and “repeating,” Music Biz fat cat chomping on cigar: “Say, I hear Electra’s got Lady DaDa and she’s movin’ units! Go find us OUR DaDa!!!”

LCC: You have a unique vocal style: you sound like the cat who ate the canary, there’s something up your sleeve, but at the same time it doesn’t sound fake or contrived. How did you arrive at that style or did it just happen?

PR: I think sometimes mid vocal take I am amused at my own lyrics which makes for a smile in my voice [grins]. It’s nice to agree with or relate to oneself, even if it’s about something embarrasing, and that makes it inviting for others to sing along [smile].

LCC: You love puns and double entendres. I can’t help but think of Elvis Costello when I hear you sometimes, he has the same kind of classic pop sensibility matched to a lyrical wit. Did he influence you at all?

PR: Woah, that’s the magic! Go back to where I said “this year’s model” in this very interview! Yes, I adore Elvis Costello…when he says on Blood and Chocolate, “I hope you’re happy now,” he takes an idiomatic expression and makes it a delicious chocolate layer cake of double meaning. I love that he writes in all different tempos and sentiments, making him in my eyes a true artist with a full pallette! The song “I Want You” is one of the most exquisite demonstrations of obsessively wanting someone, through music and arrangement AND lyrics that I have ever heard!

LCC: Every time I see a good, lyrical live band, I’m impressed how many people I see in the crowd: there’s definitely an audience for accessible music that’s not stupid, even if the corporate media won’t acknowledge that it exists. How does a smart rocker get the word out these days?

PR: You know, it’s amazing…this buttery ladder we all climb in the music biz. When I was growing up, I looked up to rock bands, some who are guys now in their 60s. They are looking to open for younger, hotter bands who are really just trying to make it themselves…I think the best thing to do WHATEVER level you may be at is to stand still, let the universe scramble by, and seek for something true. All the best stuff in my career I can recall has been serendipitous.

LCC: I understand you have a great new band now. Who’s in it and where’d you find them?

PR: I am back with the bass player I’d played with live and on Double Standards for ten plus years, David Leatherwood. We met on the 1 train around 1997 when my cd 1&9 was still happening – serendipity!? We’ve always had a great vibe and I’m so happy to have him back! On drums is the lovely Mark Greenberg. We have a similar sense of mischief, and I met him singing back up vocals for [former Utopia keyboardist] Moogy Klingman’s band the Peacenicks. David and Mark were in the successful band Apache Stone together already as their rhythm section, and Mark and I had Peacenicks, David and I together are magic, so even the first and only time we rehearsed, it was like it was meant to be! So far we only played one gig, at Don Hill’s and it was beautiful. Electric! More to come!

LCC: On Between the 1 and the 9, you played all the guitars and bass, correct? Are you also doing that on the new one?

PR: Overnite Sensation’s first five tracks were prewritten with drum loops, synths and such on protools. I wrote and sang lyrics and melodies over them. As for the rock tracks – the rest of the album – the drums are played by Adrian Harpham, with the exception of the song “Interest” which was played by Mike Demetrius. Because I am always filled with so many ideas, I just instinctively grabbed the guitar and bass and played everything myself.

LCC: Where does a song start for you? What comes first, the hook, the tune, the lyrics? What’s your process?

PR: Believe it or not, my process often starts with a situation! The impossibly complex universe can sometimes seem like an unfriendly ocean, but then suddenly I’m thrown a life raft in the form of a song title which expresses the exact situation I’d been drowning to describe [smile]. Then it’s easy, I just transcribe that into lyrics which have their own meter…and meter implies melody in my mind. Then I just color inside, or even outside the lines. Other times a melodic hook or riff gets stuck in my head and I need to grab a pen and a napkin [grin].

LCC: Can we talk about the new album? It’s a mix of both the richly lyrical, catchy rock that we know and love…and also some Britney Spears-style dance-pop – is this all brand-new material or stuff that’s been percolating for awhile?

PR: The quote unquote fireflies that I described before became Overnite Sensation over many years! That’s why the the title is funny. Dave and my first record really WAS more of an Overnite Sensation for us…over the ten years I’d been recording with Freddie Katz – ’98 to ’08 – Dave and I made these dance demos and completely intended for them to go to Kylie Minogue, but I came to him with my new collection of rock tracks, which naturally sounded a lot like 1&9 due to our combo…but also Harphamed [referring to Adrian Harpham] back ’cause he was the drummer on both albums. When we were taking inventory of all the stuff we had done, we listened to the dance tracks with my vocals on them..and the concept of Overnite Sensation was born.

LCC: On the dance-pop songs – but not the rock songs – there’s autotune on your voice. With Taylor Swift, for example, that makes some sense, since she can’t hold a note. But you’re a strong singer, you don’t have a pitch problem. Why?

PR: Believe it or not, there is a technique to singing along with autotune! Theoretically if you sing a note flat or sharp and you set the parameters right it FIXES you. But…I can tell you as a blues style singer with lots of dips, wiggles and other stylistic goodies the folks today might call imperfections, you really have to vanillafy your voice…think it straight, focus into the mic to make that autotune work as an effect. I know you won’t believe this, but the theory behind my using autotune is that ears today can only hear autotuned vocals. I actually heard the executive producer of Double Standards say to me years ago, “I can’t even LISTEN to a vocal that hasn’t been pitch corrected.” So my autotune use is like ritalin in a riddled world. How can you reach the masses if you don’t speak their language!?

LCC: You’ve always had an individual voice – you’ve always come across as someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone. How would you respond if I said that all these lovey-dovey dance-pop songs send the message that a girl should put a guy’s needs before hers? Doesn’t that go against everything you’ve ever stood for? Or am I taking things way too seriously here?

PR: I could write a novel on this one. Do you remember the song “Treat Me Like Dirt” from 1&9? It was #1 in Kosovo! That’s a lotta masochists! I wrote it in the spirit of “here I go again falling for the bad boy,” kind of making fun of myself. But it could be argued that it means I would take A LOT of shit for love. I’m not sure which lovey dovey pop songs you are referring to, but lets start with the dance tracks.

LCC: Yeah, them.

PR: Remember when everyone danced in their black trenchcoats and asymetrical haircuts to “Tainted Love”? Have you listened to those lyrics recently!? This is a dysfunctional relationship, a very painful one that we have been boogieing to all these years. “Touch me baby, tainted love.” He might as well be saying “Treat Me Like Dirt.” I also think that it’s okay to sometimes put a guy’s needs before your own. It can be romantic! If you really want to know what I stand for, it’s being able to express every aspect of your being! To admit being hurt and fragile, while also sometimes screaming you want to beat somebody’s balls with your rolling pin.

LCC: One of the new rock tunes reminds me a lot of Ashes to Ashes by Bowie. You covered Moonage Daydream on Candelabra Cadabra. I’d love to hear what you could do with something a little more sinister…All the Madmen, maybe?

PR: Ooh, that’s a good one! I haven’t heard that whole album in a Diamond Dog’s age!

LCC: I’m hearing more of an artsy 70s powerpop style on some of the new stuff: that new piano ballad that sounds a little like ELO; that backbeat glamrock number, is that a deliberate move on your part?

PR: 70s powerpop is a natural direction I go in because I’ve listened to so much of it! I grew up listening to ELO A LOT – and then the Beatles – the fact that you picked up on Interest sounding like John Lennon’s Woman is quite astute. Track number 8 has lots of harmonies which always make things sound ELO-like which is fine with me!

LCC: The new rock stuff is more direct, more stripped-down, compared to the work you did with Freddie Katz which is a lot more ornate, sometimes psychedelic. Let It Slide, for example, very direct yet very allusive at the same time. A lot more like 1 and the 9. A return to your roots?

PR: YES!! Believe it or not, while Double Standards made some deliberate attempts to sound like 1&9 in places, Overnite does it effortlessly because of who done it! You can identify John Bonham’s drumming in one bar…Jerry Garcia’s slinky guitar in a few notes. This is signature, and though it can be developed a lot of times, it is the simple equation of artist plus instrument!

LCC: How about that torchy trip-hop song, you give it a really sultry jazz feel. I’ve never known you to have any interest in jazz, am I missing something?

PR: Would you call The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” jazz? If so I ADORE jazz. You aren’t missing a thing though, I’m not much of a jazz freak, but I LOVE some of the lighter 60s pop jazz stuff. I can get into anything if I like it, I try not to write off whole genres if I don’t yet know enough about them!

Q: I’ve noticed you’ve been doing a lot of live shows lately around town. Any plans to take the show on the road sometime in the near future?

PR: In between intentions and actions lies a lifetime. In other words, I’ve been performing the Overnite dance tracks as an alter ego character called “Precious Metals!”

LCC: I saw the flyer, you dressed up in this metallic outfit like Madonna. You should do Vegas…

PR: I’d love to do the act in Vegas, but as of now it’s so far from ideal, and my rock trio is KILLER!!! With just a few rehearsals we could play anywhere in the world and be astounding. Ah, but where to find the clubs that pay guarantees?

LCC: Out of town, Patti! People out in Middle America are starving for good music! One last question: You were famously discovered while busking in the subway. When’s the last time you played there? Any plans to go back?

PR: I had a wonderful thing happen! I met a fellow busker, Randy Stern, on the R train a few years ago. We have since become friends, and we learned the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin My Heart Around”. One night after hanging out at a Peacenicks show, Randy was going downtown on the subway platform as I was going up. He took out his guitar and we just started playing our duet across the tracks. People were amazed and the whole station applauded when we finished. That is the last time I played in the subway…but it won’t be the last time ever I’m certain!!!

Patti Rothberg plays Caffe Vivaldi on November 26 at 9:30 PM; watch this space for upcoming live dates.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Elizabeth and the Catapult Make Smart Popular Again

In case you need even further evidence that there’s a mass audience for pop music that’s not stupid, the response to this album is proof. Elizabeth and the Catapult’s new album The Other Side of Zero didn’t just happen to make the itunes singer/songwriter chart last week: it debuted at #1. But don’t let the category fool you – frontwoman/keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman’s defiantly lyrical, artsy chamber-pop songs haven’t the faintest resemblance to the dentist-office pop of, say, James Blunt or Taylor Swift. Aimee Mann is the most strikingly obvious influence here, right down to the George Harrison-esque major/minor chord changes, the uneasy lyricism and cynical worldview. There’s also a quirky counterintuitivity in the same vein as Greta Gertler, and a purist pop sensibility that evokes Sharon Goldman – both somewhat lesser-known but equally formidable writers. Which is no surprise. Just as we predicted, the playing field is shifting. Watching bands like Elizabeth and the Catapult take over centerstage is as heartwarming as it is sweet revenge: we’ve got a renaissance on our hands, folks. If you’re a corporate A&R guy and you still think that Taylor Swift has lasting power, you might want to think about changing careers right about now.

The group’s previous album Taller Children was more lyrically-oriented; this one is musically stronger, and more diverse. As with Aimee Mann’s work, the production on all but one of the songs here is purist and often surprisingly imaginative, Ziman’s piano and occasional electronic keyboards out in front of a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars and frequently rich orchestration, no autotune or drum machine in sight. The opening track sets the tone, swaying and distantly Beatlesque: “Take us to a wishing well, throw us in and sink us down,” Ziman suggest with characteristic brooding intensity. The next track is Aimee Mann-inflected powerpop with staccato strings; after that, they go in a more psychedelic 1960s pop direction with the insistent Julian, Darling. The understatedly snarling, orchestrated Thank You for Nothing is a study in dichotomies, a bitterly triumphant kiss-off song: “Thank you for laughing out loud even when you don’t mean it…they say hurting is growing if you believe when you say it…” It’s a typical moment on this album: Ziman won’t be defeated even in the darkest hours.

One of the strongest tracks here, The Horse and the Missing Cart is a fervent 6/8 ballad, words of wisdom to a generation who’ve turned yuppie and conservative before their time. Open Book is part plaintive art-rock ballad, part sultry come-on; the wary, sardonic, oldtimey-flavored torch ballad Worn Out Tune builds to a soaring, orchestrated Aimee Mann-style chorus, ominous minor key reverb guitar trading off with a blippy melodic bassline: “All the saddest songs we sing are the ones we can’t get enough of.” The title cut, another big 6/8 ballad features Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings on harmony vocals, taking on a pensive countrypolitan feel with pedal steel after the first chorus. The album winds up with an electric piano-driven indie pop song in the same vein as Mattison or the Secret History, banjo and mandolin adding some unexpectedly sweet textures, and the gospel-inflected, intensely crescendoing Do Not Hang Your Head. The only miss here sounds like an outtake from some other band’s demo session gone horribly wrong, a completely misguided, dated detour into 90s-style trip-hop. Elizabeth & the Catapult are on national tour through the end of the month, teaming up with Tift Merritt on a series of west coast dates; check their tour calendar for cities and details.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/3/10

Happy birthday Alicia!

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #849:

Aimee Mann – Lost in Space

We’re trying to limit this list to one album per artist, so this was a really tough call. Aimee Mann is one of the few who’s literally never made a bad one. We picked this because it’s so consistently intense and tuneful, although you could say that about just about everything else she’s done other than the Christmas albums. The fans’ choice is the Magnolia soundtrack, a dynamite album; the critics’ pick tends to be her solo debut, Whatever, from 1993 (a solidly good effort, but one she’d quickly surpass – goes to show how much they know, huh?). Many other songwriters would have made this 2002 concept album about addiction and rehab mawkish and self-absorbed: not this woman. Mann sings the bitter anguish of the richly George Harrisonesque Humpty Dumpty, the savage cynicism of This Is How It Goes and Guys Like Me (Mann still venting at clueless corporate record label types after all these years) and the rich levels of Invisible Ink with a vivid, wounded nuance over seamless, carefully crafted, tersely played midtempo rock changes. It winds up just as intensely as it began with the venom of The Moth and the bitter, downcast It’s Not, reminding that after all this, all the perfect drugs and superheroes still won’t be enough to pull its narrator up from zero. Clinical depression has seldom been more evocatively or memorably portrayed. Here’s a random torrent.

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

Krista Detor’s Chocolate Paper Suites Are Dark and Delicious

Krista Detor’s album Chocolate Paper Suites has been out for awhile this year – but who’s counting. It’s a dark lyrical feast. Images and symbols rain down in a phantasmagorical torrent and then reappear when least expected – and the pictures they paint pack a wallop. This is first and foremost a headphone album: casual listening will get you nowhere with her. Detor’s carefully modulated alto vocals land somewhere between Aimee Mann and Paula Carino over a bed of tastefully artsy piano-based midtempo rock/pop that downplays the lyrics’ frequent offhand menace. While Detor sings in character, a bitterness and a weariness connects the dots between the album’s five three-song suites. Allusion is everything; most of the action is off-camera and every image that makes it into the picture is loaded. Not exactly bland adult contemporary fare.

The first suite is Oranges Fall Like Rain. The opening track swirls hypnotic and Beatlesque, essentially a one-chord backbeat vamp in the same vein as the Church. Detor’s heavy symbolism sets the stage: a green umbrella, the rich guy in the title pulling out a knife to cut the orange, a desire for a “white car driving up to the sun.” Its second part, Lorca in Barcelona mingles surreal, death-fixated imagery with a dark, tango-tinged chorus. Its conclusion is savage, a rail against not only the dying of the light but any death of intelligence:

Poetry is dead, Delilah said,
Maybe in a pocket somewhere in Prague
That’s all that’s left of it
Are you a good dog?

The Night Light triptych puts a relationship’s last painful days on the autopsy table. Its first segment, Night Light – Dazzling is an Aimee Mann ripoff but a very good one, its slowly swinging acoustic guitar shuffle painting an offhandedly scathing portrait, a snide party scene where the entitled antagonist acts out to the point where the fire department comes. What they’re doing there, of course, is never stated. Night Light – All to Do with the Moon is a stargazer’s lament, all loaded imagery: “It’s the synchronous orbit that blinds my view.” It ends with the slow, embittered, oldtimey shades of Teeter-Totter on a Star, Mama Cass as done by Lianne Smith, maybe. The Madness of Love trio aims for a sultry acoustic funk vibe, with mixed results. Its high point is the concluding segment, gospel as seen though a minimalistic lens, the narrator regretting her caustic I-told-you-so to her heartbroken pal, even though she knows she’s right.

By Any Other Name opens with a pensive reflection on time forever lost, Joni Mitchell meets noir 60s folk-pop; set to a plaintive violin-and-piano arrangement, its second segment is another killer mystery track, a couple out on a romantic two-seater bicycle ride with some unexpected distractions. The final suite was written as part of the Darwin Songhouse, a series of songs on themes related to Charles Darwin: a very funny if somewhat macabre-tinged oldtimey swing number told from the point of view of an unreconstructed creationist; a live concert version of a long Irish-flavored ballad that quietly and matter-of-factly casts the idea of divine predestination as diabolical hell, and a lullaby. New Yorkers can experience Detor’s unique craftsmanship and understatedly beautiful voice live at City Winery on October 18.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Universal Thump at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 7/16/10

Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Universal Thump were something beyond amazing Friday night. The orchestrated rock bands of the 70s may have gone the way of the dinosaurs (except for the Moody Blues) but this was like being in the front row at an ELO or Procol Harum show at the Royal Albert Hall. Except with better vocals. Gertler’s sometimes stratospheric high soprano fits this band well: she went up so far that there was no competing sonically with the lush, rich atmospherics of the Thumpettes, a.k.a. the Osso String Quartet, whose presence made all the difference. With Adam D. Gold terse yet sometimes surprising behind the drum kit, equally terse bass from Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron, fiery powerpop guitar god Pete Galub on lead and Gertler at the piano, they segued seamlessly from one richly melodic, Romantically-tinged, counterintuitively structured song to the next.

Gertler’s been writing songs like that since she was in her teens: one Aimee Mann-inflected number in stately 6/8 time dated from 1993. Otherwise, the set was mostly all new material from the Universal Thump’s ongoing album (now an ep, with a kickstarter campaign in case you have money to burn). The opening number worked a wistful post-baroque melody down to a piano cascade where Gertler rumbled around in the low registers for awhile, then the strings took it up again. The wistful vibe kept going, an uneasy, brooding lyric soaring over an austere minor-key melody, with a terse viola solo out. Damien, from Gertler’s now-classic 2004 album The Baby That Brought Bad Weather was all understated longing, cached in the mighty swells of the strings.

Galub used the next song’s Penny Lane bounce as the launching pad for an unabashedly vicious, percussively crescendoing guitar solo, something he’d repeat a couple more times – even by his standards, he was especially energized. The best song of the evening, possible titled Closing Night began with a matter-of-factly dramatic series of piano chords, worked its way into a lush backbeat anthem with another one of those Galub slasher solos, and gracefully faded out. Gertler explained that her closing number had been appropriated (and turned into a sizeable hit) by an unnamed Australian band, who’d transformed it into a song about playing the lottery. As it rose to a ridiculously catchy chorus out of just vocals and strings, its hitworthiness struck home, hard. The audience wouldn’t let them go: the band encored with a majestically fluid version of Everybody Wants to Adore You, another smash of a pop song from The Baby That Brought Bad Weather. We do our own individual list of the best New York concerts of the year in December, and you can bet that this one will be on it. This was it for the Universal Thump’s shows this summer – adding yet another reason to look forward to fall, which at this point couldn’t come too soon.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Tris McCall – Let the Night Fall

As a tunesmith, keyboardist/songwriter Tris McCall (who also plays with Kerry Kennedy in indie powerpop supergroup Overlord) knows a catchy hook when he hears one. As a wordsmith, he is unsurpassed, on the same level as Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann or Paula Carino. If there’s anybody who knows the difference between sarcasm and irony, it’s this guy. There are loads of both here. His previous album was a refreshingly jaundiced excursion through trendoid indie Williamsburg; this time out, McCall turns an unsparing yet sometimes wistful gaze on the place he knows best, the state that actually once spawned a movement to make Born to Run its official anthem (death trap, suicide rap, we gotta get out, etc. – it happened). Springsteen hovers at the edge of the parking lot here, a distantly anthemic presence. Otherwise, the songs evoke Fountains of Wayne but with balls (hard to imagine, but try it), a defiant populism and much better tunes, McCall’s vocals casual, unaffected, often surprisingly cheery considering the underlying grimness.

The opening cut, WFMU builds from catchy trip-hop to a blazing chorus metaphorically loaded with unease, one rapidfire mot juste or double entendre after another. “The radio’s damnable when it’s programmable” is the keystone. At the end, McCall sends out friendly shout-outs not only to the long-running independent New Jersey station but also to WSOU (who knew?), WBGO, WFUV and even distant WPRN, halfway to Cape May. The Throwaway – “cut my neck and I bleed gasoline” – wonders why the neighborhood emo kids won’t accept him as one of their own, considering that all of them should have had the sense to get out, while The Ballad of Frank Vinieri harrowingly memorializes an up-and-coming populist ground down by the gentrifiers of Jungleland. Sugar Nobody Wants, an atmospheric nocturne, pays homage to the age-old anomie-driven sport of trespassing. The title track, an 80s-inflected powerpop stomp, paints a snide Fourth of July tableau set “where minutemen jump back and feign surprise when they get the tax bill.”

The centerpiece of the album, First World, Third Rate is a majestic, metaphorically charged kiss-off from a mallrat stuck working some ineffable fast-food salad bar. The poor kid’s life has been so barren that the best things he’s managed to live to eulogize are a Thomas Wolfe-esque litany of scuzzy chain restaurants – as the faux-Meatloaf arrangement grows more and more bombastic, an exuberant choir yells out their names in perfect time. It makes even more sense in the context of the next cut, You’re Dead After School, a creepy new wave-ish reminiscence of close encounters with pedophiles. Midnight (Now Approaching) follows with its guitars blasting, sort of a Meeting Across the River in reverse (this one’s actually set on the Staten Island Ferry), electric with both excitement and maybe imminent doom.

A gentle country song on the surface, Mountainside has the hometown folks contemplating a prodigal son’s return with bated breath – and cemetery plot ready, while We Could Be Killers layers one vintage synth patch over another in a big Pulp-style pop end-of-the-world epic. The album closes, coming full circle, with a hallucinatory early-morning roadside tableau. This one’s going to show up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year, including here. Tris McCall plays the Rockwood at 7 PM solo on piano on March 30, a good place for him to run through the album’s lone instrumental, a clever baroque-rock interlude.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Liz Tormes – Limelight

Long admired by New York’s songwriting elite, Liz Tormes has a new album, Limelight, that should help the rest of the world get to know what the Lower East Side has known for years. Intense, brooding, sultry and frequently wrathful, the power in Tormes’ casually wary voice resides in ellipses, the spaces between notes, the unsaid and conspicuous absences – she doesn’t raise it much, so when she does the effect packs a wallop, especially when she adds just the hint of a snarl at the end of a line. Her tersely crystallized lyrics are much the same: she says a lot with a little. Behind her, a tightly fiery Nashville gothic band swings, sways, clangs and roars its way through a mix of midtempo and slow, tuneful Americana rock. The arrangements are hypnotic, often psychedelic: if Aimee Mann had done with guitars what she did with keyboards on Fucking Smilers, it would have sounded a lot like this.

The album opens auspiciously with Read My Mind, a searing tale of disillusion and abandonment with a ferocious Jason Crigler slide guitar solo out, ending in a cloud of dust. It’s a classic of its kind. Without Truth has a hypnotic feel and characteristic understatement:

I know you can’t relate
But what I really want for you
Is to fly right and fly straight

With its echoey layers of guitar, the title track, a 6/8 ballad, sounds like Mazzy Star with balls. Maybe You Won’t follows, swaying trip-hop rhythm over simple muted guitar strums, backing vocals by Teddy Thompson – and no stupid drum machine. “Is it ever coming, have I been forsaken?” Tormes insists on an answer. She introduces a muse who provides bitter, metaphorically loaded solace on the matter-of-factly shuffling Don’t Love Back:

Take the wind and stay on track
Stop loving things that don’t love back
You can’t control the outcome all the time

And the garage-rock kiss-off ballad Sorry has the ring of sarcasm: “Paper posies and shiny things don’t make the earth rotate,” Tormes reminds, gloating not a little: “I’ll stay and play in the sunshine and vanish in the shadows.” There’s also a southwestern gothic, Steve Wynn-style number with Crigler’s layers of guitar blending ominously with echoey electric piano, a similarly guitar-fueled noir blues and a backbeat country hit whose upbeat melody make a sharp contrast with Tormes’ angst: “If I have better days let them come.”

With Bob Packwood’s insistent staccato piano bouncing off a wall of guitars, Fade Away closes the album on a driving yet vividly wounded note. This one’s been out since last year, so we’re a little late on the uptake which means that you’ll see it somewhere around the top of our best albums of 2010 list at the end of December. In the meantime Tormes promises a followup to this album sometime in the relatively near future.

March 18, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

CD Review: Dan Bryk – Pop Psychology

A strong candidate for best album of the year. Dan Bryk‘s new cd is a triumph of intelligence and wit, an oasis in a world full of idiots. It’s Costelloesque in the best possible way: lush layers of glimmering guitar and keys, song structures with a vintage 60s pop feel – catchy hooks and anthemic choruses  – and murderously smart, corrosive lyrics. Bryk delivers them calmly and casually, only cutting loose when he really needs to drive a point home. Otherwise, the songs speak for themelves. Bryk does not suffer fools gladly: he knows that American Idol is theatre of cruelty (and he’s not above cruelty himself, uh uh), he can feel the surrounding air reaching boiling point and he’s sussed the powers that be for who they are, a bunch of boring, greedy bastards. That’s a very prosaic description that doesn’t do justice to Bryk’s powers of observation or his gift for explaining them and making connections. The album title, like most of the lyrics here, is a pun: this is a probably semi-fictitious, corruscatingly bitter, Aimee Mann-style narrative about a rocker who never made it. Bryk has nothing but contempt for the music business and the entertainment-industrial complex as a whole, fueled by the knowledge that by all rights, the tuneful pop songs he writes deserve to be on the radio. And he knows they won’t be, on American commercial radio, at least, until Clear Channel goes bankrupt [memo to Bryk – dude, you’re Canadian – the CBC mandates mega airplay for homegrown artists – that’s a start…]. Additional venom is reserved for the “artists” who buy into the system: one of them Bryk wants to electricute, the others he’d merely bludgeon.

This album doesn’t waste time getting started with Treat of the Week, a caustic look at a wannabe corporate pop star’s pathetic fifteen minutes of fame. It’s just as deliciously brutal as the Room’s classic Jackpot Jack:

The kids are sitting down hanging off each tortured word

…falling from your lips like polished turds

And you’re thinking the kids are all right

I say crank up the houselights

You’ve got nothing much to say but you say it really well

With your sad tales of irony and the love gone sour to sell

Now the spotlight falls slowly on the kid from Soft Rock Town

It’s the next stop on the gold train to become…Jackson Browne

Next up is Discount Store, a happy, bouncy, deadpan vintage Britpop style number sung from the point of view of a kid quizzically watching the depression set in:

…The clock needs punching, the man is watching and the union is gone for good

With all this freedom how come there’s no more fun left in the neighborhood?

The Next Best Thing, with its slow-burning crescendo, looks at people who’re content to settle: “I know you wish I’d be more patient, cute and quirky and more complacent,” Bryk rails, and he can’t resist another slap at the record labels: ” I know it’s not a public service, supplying the freakshow to the circus.” Apologia is a hilarious solo piano ballad, a label exec’s disingenuous kiss-off to a troublesome rocker who dared to buck the system.

The best song on the album, and maybe the best song of the year, is City Of… If there’s anyone alive fifty years from now, they’ll refer to this deceptively soaring anthem as the definitive look at what music was like in 2009. Ruthlessly, Bryk pans around a Toronto of the mind, sometime after dark and then begins shooting, first the indie kids at the Constantines show, then the rest:

In the back of the legion hall the Goofs are playing faster

Turning up after every song til their heads are iced with plaster

The soundtrack of subjugation to to our friendly foreign masters

Downstairs in the bar the laptop kids are mashing

Some ungodly medley of Morbidox and Eria Fachin

If I didn’t think they’d love it I’d give them twenty lashes

Street Team is a spot-on, Orwellian analysis of how marketers attempt to Balkanize music audiences, set to a clever, decidedly un-Magical Mystery Tour theme perfect for the end of the zeros. My Alleged Career is sort of like Phil Ochs’ My Life. Its recurrent theme of “Please go away” is both a scream – “Can I get some time alone?” Bryk seems to say – as well as succinct distillation of how his music’s been received in the corporate world. The rest of the cd includes a beautifully orchestrated number with watery Leslie speaker guitar; a very funny, stubborn song whose interminable outro turns out to be a very good joke, and the ironically titled closing cut, Whatever, a bitter piano ballad. “Whatever doesn’t kill me can still make you cry, ” Bryk warns. Fans of all the best songwriters from throughout the ages – Elvis Costello, Bryk’s labelmate Amy Allison, LJ Murphy, Aimee Mann, Paula Carino, Steve Kilbey, ad infinitum – are in for a treat. Look for this one somewhere at the top of our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year.

August 24, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment