Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Bern & the Brights – Swing Shift Maisies

Bern & the Brights are a breath of fresh air. Their sound is absolutely original: they’re impossible to pigeonhole, creating a violin-and-guitar-driven swirl of artsy new wave, chamber pop, art-rock and indie rock, with a raw, plaintive, emotionally resonant edge. Their song structures are counterintuitive: this band refuses to be contained by a simple verse/chorus/verse pattern. The title of their new album, Swing Shift Maisies refers to the all-female bands that sprung up during World War I: Rosie the Rocker instead of Rosie the Riveter. The term was actually a slur, the band using it here sarcastically – they’re all first-rate musicians. Frontwoman/guitarist Bernadette Malavarca has playful command of an impressively wide range of styles, and she’s full of surprises: she’ll punch out a staccato new wave phrase and and suddenly toss off a tongue-in-cheek country riff – or stick out her tongue with a comical Jimmy Page lick. Acoustic guitarist Catherine McGowan – who also sings – holds the songs to the rails along with the nimble rhythm section of Shawn Fafara on bass and Jose Ulloa on drums. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist Nicole Scorsone, overdubbed here to the point that she’s a one-woman orchestra. For those who’ve never seen them live, this four-song ep makes an auspicious introduction: it may be short but it’s one of this year’s best so far.

The first track, Boo features characteristically plaintive violin over jangly guitar, with distant tango echoes. “Been so long since I’ve been myself,” Malavarca muses; the band works a catchy minor key guitar vamp that builds lushly with the strings, a suspenseful drum shuffle and a majestic, sweeping outro. The brisk Sangria Peaches kicks off with a tricky rhythm into a fast eight-note new wave groove with staccato violin, swirling strings and a coy break with castanets. McGowan sings Sleepless Aristotle – a live showstopper – with a chipper chirp: it’s a fast, swaying amalgam of chamber pop and vintage new wave, and a playful percussion breakdown. The last song here, It Goes Like That sounds like the Velvets jamming with the New Pornographers at Juilliard summer camp.

As a singer, Malavarca’s still finding her voice. It’s a powerful, versatile instrument with eye-popping range – when she’s projecting with an insistence that vividly recalls Martha Davis of the Motels (a little higher up the scale), she’s tremendously affecting. When she lapses into a drawl (which happily only happens every now and then), it’s an affectation that sticks out like a sore thumb in a band so original and so cliche-free. But given the quality and the imagination of the songs here, that’s a minor quibble. As good as the recordings are, the band is even better live: Bern & the Brights play the cd release for this album at Maxwell’s on July 17 at 8:30. Now’s your chance to enjoy them up close before it costs you twice as much at venues twice as big.

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July 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Bern & the Brights at Spikehill, Brooklyn NY 7/18/09

An auspicious Brooklyn show by one of the finest, most intelligent and original exports from the impressively fertile music scene scattered around Montclair, New Jersey. This show was yet further proof that the best new rock music out there bears absolutely no resemblance to anything coming out of Williamsburg. Bern & the Brights’ sound is raw, plaintive and lush in an artsy vein somewhat evocative of New York cello rockers Pearl & the Beard. They don’t waste notes, they vary their tempos and their two women singers deliver a potent emotional impact: this band does not sound like they go gently into their parents’ luxury condo at the end of the night. Bandleader/Telecaster player Bernadette Malavarca sings with a big, powerful, wounded wail, a soulful delivery shared with just a tinge less projectile force by acoustic guitarist Catherine McGowan. Violinist Nicole Scorsone plays vividly and tersely, adding considerable poignancy to the band’s sound. Their sub bass player locked in impressively with the drums.  Their first song was an apprehensive minor-key number: “So long since I’ve been myself,” mused Malavarca. My Black Cat, sung by McGowan had a rustic Nashville gothic feel: toward the end of the song, the cat dies, and it’s not pretty. As the song wound up, Malavarca moved to the standup drum kit they’d set up to the side of the stage.

Another song was fast and fiery, punctuated with staccato violin and a swaying rhythm that grew funkier toward the end. Built around a catchy, insistent two-chord riff, When It’s Real was captivatingly perturbed, Malavarca’s soulful vocals effectively capturing a feeling of being pushed past the limit of willingly putting up with someone’s bullshit. The show wound up with a fast, Paisley Underground inflected stomp, a swaying, stark anthem possibly titled Irish Moss, and the somewhat epic Sleepless Aristotle which wound up as a delirious percussion jam, the whole band (and a friend of the band) joining in the pandemonium, banging on whatever was nearby and would resonate. This is a band that’s still growing – in places, some of the songs fall into the kind of lazy atonality that makes so much of indie rock so lame, i.e. the tendency to move a single note in a chord up or down a half step instead of shifting hand position to the real major or minor chord that would resolve the phrase more memorably and melodically. But most of the songs don’t have that problem. And indie rock types wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Watch this space for upcoming NYC area live dates.

July 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment