Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ecstatic Epic Grandeur: Botanica at the Delancey, NYC 5/14/08

A triumphant homecoming. Although Botanica has done a lot of European touring in the last several months, it had been about a year since they last played New York. Transcending the limitations of an awful sound mix and a bizarre crowd situation, they reminded how badly they’ve been missed here: there is simply no darker, sexier band anywhere.

This was a drastically revamped version of the band: of the crew who last played here, only frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch and guitarist John Andrews remain. Losing a bassist the caliber of their longtime four-string guy Christian Bongers would ordinarily cripple a band, but they’ve replaced him with one of the world’s best, Bee & Flower frontwoman Dana Schechter, whose fluid, slide and chord-driven lines were unwaveringly brilliant, even though half the time it was hard to hear her. This was also the debut show for their new drummer, and if it was any kind of audition, he passed it with flying colors, particularly on the hauntingly swinging, 7/8 anthem Eleganza and Wines from their most recent American release, Berlin Hi-Fi. The woman playing violin stole the show half the time – a hard feat to pull off with this band – with her searing, incisive flights and fills.

They opened with a pop song: while menace is still their defining undercurrent, they’ve diversified their sound in the last couple of years, and this particular number was quite the surprise, albeit a successful one. Andrews picked another new number, a slowly crescendoing, Procol Harum-inflected, organ-driven art-rock number as the launching pad for a majestic, roaring slide guitar solo. Wallfisch sang the next song in French over a slowly circular, 6/8 melody with a rousing gypsy dance at the end. He then handed over vocals to Schechter, who was sadly almost completely inaudible, delivering a rapidly shuffling, macabre new tune that could have been vintage, mid-80 Siouxsie & the Banshees.

Then they launched into The Truth Fish, the (sort of) title track from their classic 2004 album, Wallfisch wandering offstage and into the audience with a bullhorn while the band swung the song’s noir cabaret melody around by the tail. Andrews and the violinist joined in a scorching crescendo as they wound up the the dance that builds up to the conclusion, wailing furiously until Wallfisch launched into the song’s ominous outro, the memory of the smoking pit at Ground Zero still fresh in everyone’s mind:

Fires
No one cares
To put out
Out
Out
Out
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE TRUTH FISH!!!!

“That was amazing,” Wallfisch exclaimed, and nobody was arguing with him, up front, at least. Unfortunately, the sound in the club was quieter than it’s possible to imagine it ever being here, making it very difficult to hear the band for anyone any further than, say, twenty feet from the stage. Compounding the bad sound was the fact that to celebrate the reopening of the club’s rooftop barbecue (which used to be free but now costs $5), they were serving free drinks at the bar in the back, where a loud crowd of yuppie puppies from out of town had congregated, bellowing at each other, oblivious to the music. Occasionally, a fratboy would drag his sorority girlfriend up through the crowd to see what all the fuss was about, only to stand there mystified for a few seconds before retreating back to the bar. Which was hardly a surprise: what Botanica does isn’t exactly safe or suburban, only underscoring the division between the throngs of amped-up fans at the front, and the New Jersey contingent in the back slurping down the free vodka.

They closed with another gypsy rocker, How, and then, counterintuitively, the quiet, slightly anxious This Perfect Spot. With Andrews punching his hammer-on chords over a swinging soul beat, it was totally 60s Stax-Volt. Wallfisch told the crowd he’d written it in Berlin, feeling good about the fact that he missed his wife, and the song hit the spot like a fine wine, rueful around the edges yet glad to be firing on all cylinders. So good to be alive while the whole world is going to hell. At least we have Botanica to provide a good soundtrack.

May 16, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Botanica – Berlin Hi-Fi

What do you do when your last album was arguably the best single-disc cd of the decade so far? Maybe you flip the script. Maybe you do something radically different, that no one can compare to your most recent effort. Maybe, you make a pop album – or part of one, anyway. That’s what Botanica has done with their latest masterpiece (their trademark epic grandeur and snarling ferocity roars back and takes over on the rest of the songs). It’s an unabashedly romantic (and Romantic) achievement, lush and orchestrated, eerie yet sexy as hell. Put this on the night table beside the Al Green and the Moonlighters: it’s bedroom music for cold starless nights.

Botanica’s trademark sound welds their towering, passionate, keyboard-driven melodicism to a dark, savage reverb guitar attack, blending elements of gypsy punk, classical music and goth into a powerful, potently cerebral cocktail. On this one, they don’t even start a song in 4/4 until the album’s fourth song. The album opens with the stately Eleganza and Wines, a beautiful, rueful lament for a time and place lost forever, played in slinky 7/8 meter. As is so typical with Botanica’s songs, it builds to a towering crescendo and then fades to its central hook. (And Then) Palermo maintains the feeling of regret, a gorgeously romantic pop song in 6/8. The cd’s following cut, its title track is the most overtly 90’s style indie rock song they’ve done to date, a little out of character, but it works: a joyous shout-out to Berlin, where they’ve built up a substantial following, and it’s obvious that the appreciation is mutual. Remember the last time you left the country, how good you felt, how absolutely liberated? If so, this is your anthem. Next song: Concrete Shoes. Classic Botanica, haunting and desperate. “Save me now/Tie the rope around my neck and pull me up.” The footfalls of Christian Bongers’ bass quickly creep along as the guitar and organ roar, building inexorable momentum. On the following cut, I’m Lifting, the tension recedes to the background, but just a little bit: the rest of the band plays over and around frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s central, haunting electric piano arpeggio.

Next up is A Freestyle Kiss to Hedy Lamarr (whose image graces the cover of the album), laden with sadness, melodies pouring in and overflowing the carafe, staining the tablecloth shiraz red. Then we get the frenetic concert favorite Someone Else Again, with its ascending bassline and Hollywood noir feel: David Lynch could use this for his next movie if it’s anything like Mulholland Drive.

The scorching antiwar song Waking Up clocks in at barely a minute and a half, a throwback to the furious politically charged power of Botanica’s career-defining previous album, Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. The album’s next tune, I Desire perfectly encapsulizes where Botanica is now. John Andrews’ scary reverb guitar plays the song’s central arpeggio as Wallfisch’s funereal electric piano tones reverberate against it and build to a firestorm of emotion.

The album’s most likely radio hit – and there are many to choose from – is its next track, Not a Bear: “more ambitious than your average bear,” as the lyric goes. “Why sleep when you could be wide awake?” It’s a curious question, with Andrews’ menacing guitar and Wallfisch’s organ lurking in the background, and it might be rhetorical. The alternative could be fatal.

More political gypsy punk (and a wildly frenetic, deliciously climactic violin solo) with How, which the band frequently uses as an aptly furious concert encore. Then the sarcastic, Nick Cave-inflected Fame, a savage blast back at the entertainment-industrial complex and all the rockstar wannabes who buy into it.

Then a return to the same reflective tone the album began on, with This Perfect Spot. The cd’s secret track is Eleganza and Wines rearranged for string quartet and it’s absolutely beautiful, a spot-on way to close this gorgeous, meticulously arranged and fearlessly intense album. This is not your neighbor’s whiny, tuneless indie rock. It’s not your father’s bloated, bombastic prog rock. It’s the soundtrack to your life at top speed, full volume, every synapse at full power. Why sleep when you could be wide awake. Albums are available in better record stores, at shows and online.

Frontman Paul Wallfisch is on tour right now with the “coalmine canary,” noir chanteuse Little Annie but we should expect at least one NYC area show this summer after they return.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments