Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

A folk-pop masterpiece. If you consider that statement an oxymoron, give a listen to the Sweet Bitters‘ full-length debut. The cd features the absolutely unique and individual voices and songwriting of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (formerly one of the sirens in Aimee Van Dyne’s harmony-driven band). Goldman, who’s got three first-class albums of her own out, is one of those rare talents who could write a catchy, fun pop song seemingly in a split second. Like her songwriting, her vocals are almost breathtakingly warm and direct, delicately nuanced but completely unaffected. Schmir is more complex and oblique, both vocally and writing-wise, with just a tinge of smoke in the voice, blending a contemporary urban folk vibe (think Dar Williams) with oldschool Brill Building charm. Both are poignant, very bright and can be very funny – humor is a function of intellect anyway. Over a terse, impeccably tasteful, un-autotuned and drum machine-free mix of acoustic and electric guitar, rhythm section and Schmir’s incisive piano, the two blend voices and offer up an indelibly New York-flavored mix of struggle, despair and triumphant joy.

For the most part, Schmir’s songs are the darkest here. The cd’s opening cut Vegas is a knowing Harder They Come update for the end of the decade: “It’s all going nowhere fast.” From the opening lines of Last Time This Way, as the narrator grabs a cookie and some wine and runs out to meet her boyfriend, you just know that this is not going to work out well. Tom Thumb (on Brighton Beach), a quintessentially urban tale, is visceral with regret and longing. But then there’s the playfully metaphorical Little Aliens, driving out the demons with a lullaby.

Goldman’s Secret Scar is a great, crescendoing rock anthem disguised as pretty acoustic pop – one can only wonder what the BoDeans (or Ninth House, for that matter) could do with it. Falling Into Place is another catchy urban tale, perhaps the only song ever to immortalize Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “If I believed in god I would close my eyes and pray,” she sings in the imagistic, regret-laden acoustic Firefly. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upbeat Susie Sunshine, with its delicious layers of harmonies and lyrics, is less gloating schadenfreude than surprise that maybe things haven’t been so bad after all, in the years since Susie was in her prime (that was in college, Goldman wants you to know). But the centerpiece of the album, and one of the best songs released this decade, is Clocks Fall Back. If anyone is alive fifty years from now and wants to understand what New York was like at the end of the decade, let them listen to this, a towering, majestic harmony-driven anthem, vividly and unforgettably juxtaposing images of clueless excess and grinding poverty over a bittersweet, swaying 6/8 melody slightly evocative of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. The cd closes, something akin to sweet after bitter, with a love song: the guy can watch all the bad action movies he wants, but the girl’s not going to let him finish that pint of ice cream without giving her a bite!

The Sweet Bitters play the cd release for this one at Kenny’s Castaways on May 30 at 7.

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May 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

The Sound of the City

Saturday night’s show at Pete’s Candy Store was a quintessential New York experience, two solid hours of urbane, cosmopolitan tunesmithing. The Sweet Bitters opened, Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir taking turns playing guitar and singing lead, Schmir doubling effortlessly on piano, each singing harmony on the other’s songs. Goldman’s been a star in the under-the-radar New York songwriter community for awhile now, but Schmir was the real surprise tonight. Two years ago, the former backup singer from Aimee Van Dyne’s band was out of music completely; tonight, she held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Combining these two talents was something of a stroke of genius: both have a way with catchy hooks and eloquently witty lyrics which are often downright hilarious.

They opened with a Goldman song, Clocks Fall Back, the gorgeous opening track on the new Sweet Bitters ep with its rich harmonies and evocative rush-hour lyric. Schmir followed with the subtly satirical Rich Little Poor Girl, its sarcasm ever more apt as the New York that she and Goldman represent slides further into suburban torpor.

“I was an 80s girl before I turned into a folkie,” Goldman laughed as she launched into a stripped-down cover of In Between Days by the Cure. What a revelation that was: like Melomane frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s version of Overkill by Men at Work, or Ward White’s cover of Abba’s Dancing Queen, Goldman reached down deep into the song and pulled out a wellspring of emotion that she sent flying over Schmir’s pointillistic piano work. In their hands, what could have been schlock was anything but. The rest of the show was all originals, reaffirming the two womens’ singular sense of purpose: to cram as many catchy hooks into the set as time would permit.

“Now we’re going to play a Roches song that’s not by the Roches,” Goldman deadpanned at the end of the show, and the two women ran through a spot-on parody, a chipper, cheery summer camp singalong about little aliens taking over the world. Sleepy little aliens, as it turns out. It wouldn’t be fair to give away the rest of the joke.

Alice Lee was next on the bill, one of the best songwriters in New York before she was priced out of town like so many others. Soul music is her reference point – her 2004 album Lovers and Losers is one of the best in that style to be released in the last several years – but she’s always had a fondness for Brazilian sounds. She’s been living in Guatemala recently, and going deep into all kinds of tropicalia. Despite some technical difficulties (for some reason, it was impossible to get her acoustic guitar in the sound mix), she kept the crowd riveted throughout her hourlong set. Like the duo on the bill before her, Lee also has a devilish sense of humor, but her songwriting is stormy, passionate, frequently exasperated. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Using a variety of guitar tunings and singing in four languages, she played a mix of mostly new material along with covers from Brazil and elsewhere south of the border. The best songs on the bill were an audience request, the absolutely brilliant, Nina Simone-inflected Where Are You My Love, and a slow, pensive new one in 6/8 time. Yet another reminder that we shouldn’t take people like Alice Lee for granted: if you haven’t seen your favorite singer or band in awhile, maybe you should while you still can.

April 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Kirsten Williams at Bar on A, NYC 11/15/07

Kirsten Williams doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a singer-songwriter, a woman with a pretty voice and an acoustic guitar. She doesn’t need to. She makes it seem effortless, with her sweet, absolutely unaffected, slightly Kentucky-accented vocals and fluent, understatedly melodic fretwork. Country radio should seek her out: she’s got the tunes, the voice and – as horribly shallow as this is to admit, it’s inarguably true – the looks. She could be the next Kelly Willis. Which is a good thing. Her songs are terse, catchy and generally driven by disarmingly simple metaphors. Unsurprising, considering that she springs from the same fertile songwriting circle that springboarded the careers of Aimee Van Dyne, Ari Scott and Sharon Goldman, among others. It’s hard to imagine her sounding better than she did tonight.

Tonight onstage it was just her and bass player Andy Mattina, one of the busiest players in town, and for good reason: he’s one of the best players around, and he reaffirmed that. He gives this project a swing and a groove to the point where adding a drummer would be an afterthought. Mattina is well known for having great touch, lending an unexpected range of dynamics to Williams’ generally midtempo, somewhat Americana-inflected major-key pop songs. They opened with a bright, cheery country-pop number possibly called Burn Bright, Mattina taking off and embellishing the end of the tune. They followed with Happy Anyway, with its vivid East Village scenes and an impressively pro-graffiti stance. After that, they played the cleverly metaphorical To Catch a Thief: as the narrator’s cat “lulls itself to sleep with steady, heavy purrs,” she wonders who the thief is, and what’s been stolen from somebody’s heart.

The next song metaphorically examined the end of a relationship from the point of view of a prisoner searching for a way out. The following number was quite a contrast, a catchy, bouncy, 1-4-5 hit called Blue Sky. Other standout tracks Williams and Mattina delivered included the battlescarred Yesterday’s Waves, a metaphorical view of survival in rough emotional waters; the triumphant, upbeat New Lease on Life, and their best song of the night, the richly melodic, anthemic, crescendoing Down to the Road. At the end of the set, the crowd – an interesting mix of neighborhood folk and A-list New York rockers – pleaded for more. But the duo hadn’t played together in awhile and had run out of material.

Afterward we ended up at Banjo Jim’s where the high-energy Austin band the Shotgun Party were playing an upbeat Pete’s Candy Store-style blend of pop and bluegrass. The frontwoman is a cheerleader type who did the cheerleader dance throughout their set and sang cutesy, babyish lyrics in a cutesy, babyish voice, but the trio has a good upright bass player and their violinist Katy Cox was amazing. What she played could be called gypsy bluegrass. Her literally breathtaking solos were jampacked with lightning-fast sixteenth-note runs, bracing double-stops and spiraling swoops to the uppermost registers. As one member of the audience aptly put it, no matter how you felt about the band as a whole, she made them an impossible act to follow. Unsurprisingly, much of the crowd cleared out for Amy Speace, who played afterward.

In an impressive new development, Speace has taken on a strong antiwar and anti-Bush stance. A true democrat would say that having an antiwar and anti-Bush stance is a prerequisite to calling oneself a human being, and that may be true, but we need all the troops we can get, revolutionaries on the front lines no less than a rear guard quietly doing what they can to contribute to the cause. Unthinkable as it might seem at first thought, it’s people like Speace who could exert a lot more influence on the upcoming election than, say, Neil Young.

Now before you throw up and click “home” on your browser, consider that Shakey is pretty much preaching to the converted (other than the contingent of boomers who grew up to him on 70s rock radio and still get a nostalgia fix irrrespective of whatever his politics happen to be at the moment). Speace, on the other hand, doesn’t preach to anyone: it doesn’t seem that her audience is likely to lean very far one way or another, or, for that matter, to have much if any interest in voting at all. She’s just there in the background at that Starbucks in Weekawken, NJ where some bedraggled mortgage broker just might stumble in for his or her sixth HyperVigilLatte of the evening and hear Speace’s sad, plainspoken song about a woman who buries her soldier brother after his body comes home from Iraq. Maybe Speace’s otherwise completely innocuous song might encourage that bedraggled broker, or a couple of them, to actually vote, and make their vote count. And that doesn’t mean voting for Hillary. Neil Young – or Jello Biafra, or whatever Zach de la Rocha’s latest project is – probably won’t bring any upper middleclass, fortysomething Jersey housewives into the fold. But Speace can and probably will. Let’s not be ungrateful for that.

November 17, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment