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

CD Review: Kiwi – Mischief Reigns

You just gotta love it – a Brazilian-inflected dub reggae cd by a band named after New Zealand’s tasty green version of the blueberry. True to their name, Kiwi have made a tasty album, warm, summery and hypnotic like all the best roots reggae is. This is the group that big up-and-coming retro soul buzz band the One and Nines spun off of. The two bands share a vocalist, the irresistibly soaring Vera Sousa, a guitarist (the smartly incisive Jeff Marino), a tenor sax player (Barami Waspe) and a keyboardist. On this album Sousa shares vocal duties with Alex Tyshkov, who distinguishes himself on bass, guitars, keys, percussion and more. The rest of the laid-back horn section comprises Kasey Lockwood on trumpet and Matt Ryan on trombone, with Will Hansen on keys, David Delgado on drums and G.D. Hemmings on percussion. The bass is always way up in the mix, guaranteeing that it’ll sound fat even if you’re playing it on a lo-fi system. Like the One and Nines, a band who completely nail the ambience, arrangements and spirit of 60s Memphis soul music, Kiwi’s sound is straight out of Kingston, 1977 but with sonically improved production values.

The album opens with a tantalizing bass-driven interlude with organ, giving way to No One Else featuring Sousa doing one of her irresistible, wise, slinky vocals. Most of these songs segue into each other, often separated by little interludes, mostly brief, introspective guitar instrumentals except for a completely unexpected, rippling, gamelanesque passage toward the end. The third track, Lemon has reverb organ and fat bass with a stripped-down John Brown’s Body vibe, a feeling that returns on the sixth track, Against the Wall and later on the catchy midtempo pulse of And You.

After a tense, mostly solo guitar meditation, the fifth track reminds of Bob Marley around the time of the Kaya album, when he was blending an American R&B/soul influence into his songwriting. Track eight, Return is fat, dubwise and kind of morbid; the title cut is understatedly hypnotic – they don’t waste a note – and Sousa’s wary voice on harmonies in the background is arrestingly exquisite. She also gets to slide and shine, in both English and Portuguese, on Aprendiz, a duet with Tyshkov. The album winds up with its most psychedelic track, Cherry Tree, and then a cut that has the feel of being a catchy One and Nines groove rearranged as reggae. This is one of those rare albums that doesn’t have a single lame track, not even those little interludes. Watch this space for NYC area shows.

June 9, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tris McCall – Let the Night Fall

As a tunesmith, keyboardist/songwriter Tris McCall (who also plays with Kerry Kennedy in indie powerpop supergroup Overlord) knows a catchy hook when he hears one. As a wordsmith, he is unsurpassed, on the same level as Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann or Paula Carino. If there’s anybody who knows the difference between sarcasm and irony, it’s this guy. There are loads of both here. His previous album was a refreshingly jaundiced excursion through trendoid indie Williamsburg; this time out, McCall turns an unsparing yet sometimes wistful gaze on the place he knows best, the state that actually once spawned a movement to make Born to Run its official anthem (death trap, suicide rap, we gotta get out, etc. – it happened). Springsteen hovers at the edge of the parking lot here, a distantly anthemic presence. Otherwise, the songs evoke Fountains of Wayne but with balls (hard to imagine, but try it), a defiant populism and much better tunes, McCall’s vocals casual, unaffected, often surprisingly cheery considering the underlying grimness.

The opening cut, WFMU builds from catchy trip-hop to a blazing chorus metaphorically loaded with unease, one rapidfire mot juste or double entendre after another. “The radio’s damnable when it’s programmable” is the keystone. At the end, McCall sends out friendly shout-outs not only to the long-running independent New Jersey station but also to WSOU (who knew?), WBGO, WFUV and even distant WPRN, halfway to Cape May. The Throwaway – “cut my neck and I bleed gasoline” – wonders why the neighborhood emo kids won’t accept him as one of their own, considering that all of them should have had the sense to get out, while The Ballad of Frank Vinieri harrowingly memorializes an up-and-coming populist ground down by the gentrifiers of Jungleland. Sugar Nobody Wants, an atmospheric nocturne, pays homage to the age-old anomie-driven sport of trespassing. The title track, an 80s-inflected powerpop stomp, paints a snide Fourth of July tableau set “where minutemen jump back and feign surprise when they get the tax bill.”

The centerpiece of the album, First World, Third Rate is a majestic, metaphorically charged kiss-off from a mallrat stuck working some ineffable fast-food salad bar. The poor kid’s life has been so barren that the best things he’s managed to live to eulogize are a Thomas Wolfe-esque litany of scuzzy chain restaurants – as the faux-Meatloaf arrangement grows more and more bombastic, an exuberant choir yells out their names in perfect time. It makes even more sense in the context of the next cut, You’re Dead After School, a creepy new wave-ish reminiscence of close encounters with pedophiles. Midnight (Now Approaching) follows with its guitars blasting, sort of a Meeting Across the River in reverse (this one’s actually set on the Staten Island Ferry), electric with both excitement and maybe imminent doom.

A gentle country song on the surface, Mountainside has the hometown folks contemplating a prodigal son’s return with bated breath – and cemetery plot ready, while We Could Be Killers layers one vintage synth patch over another in a big Pulp-style pop end-of-the-world epic. The album closes, coming full circle, with a hallucinatory early-morning roadside tableau. This one’s going to show up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year, including here. Tris McCall plays the Rockwood at 7 PM solo on piano on March 30, a good place for him to run through the album’s lone instrumental, a clever baroque-rock interlude.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment