Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads: One of the Year’s Best Albums

A blackly hilarious, cerebral portrayal of malfeasance, mismanagement and suffering in the wake of the Bush regime’s failure to react to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads evokes the surrealist political performance art of the 1960s. Released on the fifth anniversary of the disaster at the end of August, it balances the cruel cynicism of the Bushites, oblivious in their own comfortable version of reality, with the horrific experiences of the natives who for the most part probably did not vote for them. A mix of cinematic soundscapes and intricate art-rock with operatic vocals, its lyrics are taken entirely from news reports during the early days of the crisis. It’s like the Dead Kennedys for chamber orchestra.

Soprano Abby Fischer channels her inner soul diva on the opening track, stagy yet completely deadpan: “N’awlins is sinking.” She goes on to inform that in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ranked a New Orleans disaster as likely as a San Francisco earthquake or a terrorist attack on New York, over a backdrop that morphs from artsy indie classical rock to a hypnotic overlay of voices: “To some extent I think we’ve been lulled to sleep,” a quote from the head of the LSU hurricane center. The second track is a suspenseful instrumental that builds to matter-of-factly ominous art-rock. The deadpan operatics recur with the third track, a sadly terse account of a Biloxi resident whose wife was swept from the roof of their home, and with Isaiah Robinson’s recreation of Bush sympathizer Dennis Hastert’s assertion that “a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”

Bridge to Gretna vividly evokes the incident where white racists opened fire on unarmed black residents fleeing the destruction, a dialogue between Eileen Mack’s hopeful bass clarinet and Taylor Levine’s electric guitar slapping her away. The humor returns with CNN personality Anderson Cooper interviewing Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, done with a wickedly understated, satirical edge by Fischer and Anthony Turner: he’s all faux rage and she’s a robot, their carefully scripted vocal lines enhancing the fakeness. The funniest moment here is Hearne himself doing a sort of lo-fi hip-hop remix of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Anybody remember MC Rove?

Finally, a jazz-flavored piece appears – a salute at a funeral? – with murky David Hanlon piano, followed by more brutal levity, in this case the casual countrypolitan golf-club sway of a piece that quotes Barbara Bush: “Almost everyone I talk to says we’re moving to Houston…what I’m hearing which is sort of scary is that they want to stay in Texas. ” The album concludes with a long, elegiac chamber piece quoting New Orleans resident Ashley Nelson, whose feeling of abandonment is visceral, although she tragically fails to make the connection between 9/11 and the Katrina fiasco. It’s as valuable a piece of history as it is entertaining: look for this on our upcoming Best Albums of 2010 list next week.

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December 24, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

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