Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mary Lee Kortes’ Songs of Beulah Rowley Strike a Nerve

The frontwoman of New York band Mary Lee’s Corvette, songwriter Mary Lee Kortes first gained prominence as a singer – she’s done vocal tracks for everybody from Billy Joel to Placido Domingo, and now leads the UN Voices choir. With a crystalline wail that resonates to the spectacular upper reaches of her range, that voice has made her arguably the most individually compelling rock stylist of our era. But it was her turn-of-the-century album True Lovers of Adventure that put her front and center among this era’s greatest tunesmiths: it ranks with Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement and Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space as one of the most brilliant lyrical rock records ever made. While over the years that followed, she’s put out a succession of good albums – including a full-length live version of Blood on the Tracks that’s even better than Dylan’s original – this is her best original recording in over a decade. Not bad for a five-song ep.

The name “Beulah Rowley” came to Kortes in a dream. Kortes has since fleshed Rowley out into an obscure but stunningly eclectic Midwestern songwriter from the previous century, and created a musical which includes songs from throughout her career. Compared with Kortes’ previous work, the songs here are a little more rustic, which makes them contemporaneous with Rowley’s life, but like everything she’s ever done, they’re timeless. Escape is a constant theme; puns and double meanings are everywhere, and more than anything, these songs are dark. Pound for pound, it’s the most intense collection she’s ever put together. The first song is Born a Happy Girl, a spare noir cabaret tune with accordion, bass and drums, the chilling tale of a mother who might have killed her daughter if the child hadn’t escaped. “I put my happy ending here, hallelujah,” the narrator sings, allusively: that happy ending, if it’s to be taken on face value, wasn’t planned.

Well By the Water also works a simple, repetitive, practically hypnotic verse and chorus, chillingly. The sarcasm of “we did well by the water” is crushing. “Hide the heart and cut the thread, all the dreaded secrets dead,” Kortes sings with a quiet, stoic intensity, assessing the cruel aftermath of the hidden, twisted side of smalltown Midwestern (or New England) life. The pace picks up with the jaunty, Moonlighters-esque swing tune Big Things, a defiant escape anthem that clatters along with piano and an evocatively mechanical percussion track. Finally, as the chorus rises, Kortes sails up and hits one of her signature statospheric notes – and then takes it even higher. It’s viscerally breathtaking.

Will Anybody Know That I Was Here is a September song as poignant as any jazz standard ever written. Backed gracefully and tersely by just a piano trio, Kortes traces a day in the life of a woman quietly and anxiously pondering what posterity might hold in store: “When my face is long gone from the mirror, will my voice echo clear?” She ends the song solo, with just a brittle, sustained vibrato. It’s another chilling moment. The ep ends with Someplace We Can’t See, the most rock-oriented song here. It’s sort of a more understated take on the towering intensity Kortes nailed so vividly on her signature ballad 1000 Promises Later, the centerpiece of True Lovers of Adventure. Here, over watery chorus-box guitar, she traces the somewhat embittered, tortuous trail of a couple’s unfulfilled life. Balancing optimism and emotional depletion, it ends ambiguously. It’s the perfect place to continue this haunting and powerfully resonant story: as it is, count it among the elite handful of albums at the top of this year’s already impressive crop.

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May 3, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jessi Robertson’s Small Town Girls Want Out

Why is there so much madness in small towns? Because that’s where dreams get ground down into the dirt? Because anyone who can get out does, and those who stay behind are hell to be around? Jessi Robertson explores themes like these on her intense new album Small Town Girls. The women here want one thing and and one thing only: to escape. In a breathy, occasionally gritty contralto, over smartly arranged Americana rock, Robertson chronicles how they do it, or what they substitute for the real thing. More often than not, it’s impossible to turn away from. If you like the idea of Lucinda Williams but don’t like all the cliches she falls back on, Jessi Robertson is for you.

The album gets off to a sort of a false start and then comes together fast. The slowly raging title track explores how “small town girls learn to tell big lies,” and deal with the nosy townfolk who don’t have a clue what an interior life is. There’s a bitter triumph here, something that doesn’t always happen in the other songs. A big rock tune, Half Moon’s title refers to the marks left by a girl’s fingernails on her palms as she clenches her firsts, hypnotic verse giving way to catchy chorus: “I tried to laugh, I screamed instead,” she wails, with an angst that is nothing if not genuine. The madness comes front and center on the quietly electric 6/8 ballad Don’t Come In Here:

I never wore a cap and gown
They said I’d never get out of this town
But I defied everyone…
I know how to hide
I don’t run

Robertson maintains the raging, tormented ambience with You Don’t Want to Taste My Heart, chronicling the rituals of a girl who cuts herself because she “likes the center of the storm.”

The hopelessness lifts for the resolute, deftly fingerpicked Sunstorm and then The Travelers, dreaming of a better life on the road playing music. The most vivid track here out of many is Broken Rosary, a child’s-eye view of her dysfunctional family: “We poured water on her head til the ambulance came, and I watched through the car window as they rushed her away,” she relates with a chilling matter-of-factness. The album closes with something of a honkytonk piano ballad, Whiskey and Cigarettes, whose defiant, inscrutable bad-girl protagonist has no regrets until the room is spinning. What happens after that Robertson doesn’t address. Robertson is a very prolific writer with a substantial back catalog, but here she’s taken her art to the next level – always nice to see a good songwriter realize their potential. Jessi Robertson plays the cd release show for this one at Bar 4 in Brooklyn at 10 PM on Feb 26 with another first-rate, intense songwriter, Kelli Rae Powell, opening the night at 8.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

Left on Red Bring Their Catchy Songs Out of the Underground

While the badge-wearing offspring of suburban wealth flounced from club to club on the east side Wednesday night – it’s Colossal Musical Joke time again – a far more polyglot crowd enjoyed an hourlong set by edgy acoustic harmony band Left on Red at the Bitter End. And while this show was actually a CMJ gig, the audience was as casually diverse as you’d find on the subway. Which is no surprise since that’s where Liah Alonso and Kelly Halloran play most of the time. All those hours in less than sonically ideal surroundings has given their music a captivating chemistry and tightness – having a bassist and drummer behind them was a nice touch, and it filled out the sound, but it was almost as if they didn’t really need the extra rhythm since theirs is so solid.

The set started out pleasantly catchy and got really really good, really really fast. Alonso alternated between acoustic guitar, tenor guitar and Strat; Halloran started out on violin, playing some acerbic, spot-on blues licks before switching to Strat and then acoustic, taking a couple of lead vocals herself at the end of the show. The reaction to the early material was a vivid reminder how much of an audience there is for accessible pop music that’s not stupid. The duo started out with a couple of bouncy, blues-tinged numbers, a train song that took on a funny tinge and then a gorgeously jangly if lyrically perplexing 1960s style psychedelic pop song called Way of the Zebra. Then they ratcheted the intensity up a few notches with the big college radio hit Jack and Jill. “I lost my halo and wings when I escaped from hell,” Alonso sang triumphantly, “This angel never fit me too well.” It spoke for a nation of millions who’ve held back from asserting that themselves.

Another briskly catchy, anthemic number vividly and tersely portrayed the destructive effects of gentrification: musicians and students forced to triple and quadruple up in crumbling, squalid conditions while the yuppies in their suits make it clear that they’re no longer welcome in their own town. “We’re gonna be ok, two cute girls can always find a place to stay,” Alonso sang sardonically, the implication being that those who aren’t so cute might find it somewhat harder.

“Some people thank you for your time – like telemarketers and stuff – but we really mean it,” explained Alonso before doing exactly that, ending the set with an optimistic tune about gaining strength from adversity that wound up with a breakneck, doublespeed violin breakdown. The audience screamed for an encore: several people hollered for Two Drinks Away from Gay, a big crowd-pleaser, which they didn’t play (they’ll do it at their next gig, they said), instead substituting a triumphant escape anthem. “I come from a place where dreams go to die…where hope comes to crawl,” went the lyric, but there was a happy ending, the two women trading a series of music box-tinged, beautifully interlocking, jangly guitar riffs, one after the other. It was the most beautiful moment in a night full of many. In addition to busking (usually in stations on the 1 and the 2 line), Left on Red play frequently for hospitalized veterans and for causes ranging from peace activism to fair trade.

October 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment