Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #829:
Randi Russo – Live at CB’s 313 Gallery
We’ve included this limited-edition ep on this list because A) it’s transcendentally good and B) although it’s officially out of print, copies are frequently found in New York used record stores. It was the lefthanded guitar goddess/rock siren’s first multiple-track release, a boomy, off-the-cuff soundboard recording from September, 2000 at the late, lamented CB’s Gallery next door to CBGB. Any sonic deficiency here is more than made up for by the stunning spontaneity and ferocity of the playing and the quality of the songs. Russo’s growling Gibson SG guitar sets the tone on a careening version of the chromatically charged, overtone-laden, Siouxsie-esque Adored, followed by an even more otherworldly version of the haunting, flamenco-tinged epic So It Must Be True. Lead guitarist Spencer Chakedis – who would go on to play in the popular, aptly titled jam band Doofus – throws off one shower of sparks after another behind Russo’s velvet vocals and defiantly individualist lyrics. The version of One Track Mind here – the only one that’s been released to date – has an irrepressible Velvets stomp, followed by the catchy, 6/8 ballad Push-Pull, a concert favorite. They end with a sepulchral version of the suspenseful, minimalist Tenafly, the ultimate New Jersey deathtrap song. Russo has gone on to release four excellent, subsequent albums, with the highly anticipated, ferociously guitar-driven Fragile Animal due out any month now. Not to spoil the plot, but you might just see her again on this list a little closer to #1.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #858:
Paula Carino – Aquacade
Seven years after her solo debut came out, the former frontwoman of popular indie rockers Regular Einstein remains a titan among New York rock songwriters. With her cool, nuanced voice like a spun silk umbrella on a windswept beach, her catchy, distantly Pretenders-inflected janglerock melodies and fiercely witty, literate lyrics, Carino ranks with Richard Thompson, Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello as one of the world’s great lyrical tunesmiths. She never met a pun or a double entendre she could resist, has a thing for odd time signatures and wields a stun-gun bullshit detector. This was one of the great albums of 2003 and it remains a classic. Pensive, watery miniatures like the title track lurk side by side with the mordantly metric cautionary tale Discovering Fire, the offhandedly savage Stockholm Syndrome and Guru Glut and the wistful, richly evocative sound-movie Summer’s Over. The symbolism goes deep and icy on the deceptively upbeat Tip of the Iceberg; Venus Records immortalizes a legendary New York used record store and remains the most charming love song to a prized vinyl album ever (that one’s loaded with symbolism too). The high point of the cd is Paleoclimatology, a resolutely clanging masterpiece that will resonate with anyone longing to escape a past buried beneath “ancient snow that wrecked tyrannosaurus.” Carino’s 2010 album Open on Sunday is far darker yet still imbued with a similar wit: look for it high on our Best Albums of 2010 list at the end of the year. This one long since sold out its run of physical copies, although it’s still available online at emusic and all the other mp3 spots.
Pianist/composer Greta Gertler’s new band the Universal Thump play art-rock at its most richly, lushly beautiful. She’s no stranger to the style: her 2005 album Nervous Breakthroughs is a genuine classic of the genre. Their new album First Spout, available exclusively at the band’s bandcamp site, is a triumphant return to a warmly familiar sonic milieu following her unexpected but rousingly successful detour into an oldtimey/ragtime vein on her previous album Edible Restaurant. This is also work in progress, the first of three eps scheduled for release throughout 2010 and 2011 – where bands used to release singles one at a time, the Universal Thump are generously offering big slices of what looks right now to have the makings of an iconic full-length effort.
The opening track (available as a free download) is an absolute tour de force, an artsy pop epic with bouncy, staccato piano and horns, a baroque-inflected rondo between the string section and bassoon on the second verse, and a long, murky, absolutely psychedelic break midway through. The big 6/8 ballad Grasshoppers manages to be wary yet sultry, Gretler’s festive piano glissandos throwing the windows wide for the strings to sweep through, slowly and gracefully winding down and eventually fading out. Gertler has never sung better – as much as she still likes to go to the top of her practically supersonic range, Kate Bush style, she’s using her lower register more, a delightful new development.
They follow it with an austere, atmospheric, horizontally-inclined tone poem for strings. The two additional tracks mine a classic pop vein: a Jeff Lynne-style cover of the iconic new wave hit Reckless, by the Australian Crawl, complete with a devious portamento synth solo which actually manages not to be cheesy, which is quite an achievement. They wind it up with a new, bassoon-propelled, stripped down version of the bouncy, Elvis Costello-tinged pop hit Martin’s Big Night Out, from Nervous Breakthroughs. Although completely self-produced, it’s packed with the kind of subtle and playful symphonic touches more typically found on big-room productions from the 70s. Count this among the best albums of 2010, as is – not bad for a work that’s a long way from completion.
Their best album. Liza and the WonderWheels spun off of New York new wave/80s revivalists the Larch (who also have a career-defining new album out), and to a certain extent they mine a similar vibe: the songs here would have been huge hits in the 80s. Most of the numbers here work riffs and variations on those riffs – they’re singalongs, with an understated social awareness that hits you upside the head just like the melodies. Liza Garelik Roure (who also plays keys in the Larch with her husband, lead guitarist Ian Roure) leads this band on guitar, keys and vocals, anchored by the Plastic Beef rhythm section, Andy Mattina on bass and Joe Filosa on drums, who combine to create a sort of New York rock counterpart to Motown Records’ Funk Brothers. Liza’s always had ferocious vocal chops, but this is the first album they’ve done which fully utilizes them.
The opening cut After Last Night perfectly captures the vibe of being stuck at the dayjob but still resonating from the fun of the previous evening, a Standells stomp recast as sly new wave with a blazing guitar solo that quotes blithely from Reeling in the Years by Steely Dan. The catchy, riff-driven Where’s My Robot Maid sarcastically pokes fun at blind faith in technology, at a world where “Science will all make sense as we all eat such healthy foods.” Learning Lessons, a pounding girl-power anthem comes on like an edgier version of the Motels without all the drama – which is ironic because that’s what the song’s about. The backbeat anthem Straight to the Body evokes the Go Go’s with its snide lyric about gutless guys who won’t make a move on a girl, flying along on the wings of Mattina’s scurrying bass.
The two big live hits here are the ferociously sarcastic Petroleum: “Let’s go, oil barons, let’s go!” with Mattina leading the charge again, and No Exceptions, which rips the melody from Franklin’s Tower by the Grateful Dead for a subtly snarling anti-authoritarian anthem:
Your definitions should be doublechecked for accuracy…
Sometimes I feel our day has yet to dawn
To the end of the night we must journey on
There’s also The Hats, a scampering rocker that seems to be about a Chicago band that may or may not exist (although there is a British funk/blues act who go by that name); Smug Ugly which shifts the time back another ten years to the early 70s with a darkly psychedelic bluesy vibe, a strikingly thoughtful response to the too-cool-for-school affectations all the rage in New York music circles; and Take Us to the Stars, the only rock song to celebrate climbing Mount Rainier (although that could be purely metaphorical), a creepy, breathtaking art-rock epic driven by Ian’s magisterial, otherworldly bluesy guitar, and a showcase for Liza’s dramatic, operatic range. Count this among the best and most satisfying releases of 2010.
Paula Carino didn’t waste any time dedicating her set to Love Camp 7 and Erica Smith drummer Dave Campbell, whose unexpected death last Wednesday stunned the New York music scene – especially the crew who had come out to the Parkside fresh from a whiskey-fueled memorial get-together a few blocks away. Trying to play a show under these kind of circumstances can be a recipe for disaster – like pretty much everybody else, Carino was a friend of Campbell’s – yet she pulled herself together, delivering a calm, reassuring presence which by the end of her set had brought most of the crowd out of their shells. Which is something the gregarious Campbell would have wanted, being a fan of Carino’s catchy, lyrically dazzling janglerock songs.
Mixing cuts from her devastatingly good new album Open on Sunday with a handful of crowd-pleasers from years past, the high point of the set was the well-chosen Great Depression, a minefield of metaphors set to a characteristically propulsive, apprehensive minor-key melody anchored by a nasty descending progression from lead guitarist Ross Bonadonna. She resurrected a casually snarling old one from the 90s: “I’ve got nine mile legs to get away from you.” Another oldie, Discovering Fire was as tricky and vertiginous as always; on a warm, soaring version of Paleoclimatology, another metaphor-fest, she seemed to make up a new vocal line as she went along. She also did an unfamiliar but ridiculously catchy one that sounded straight out of the Liza Garelik Roure catalog and a brand-new riff-rocker pushed along with gusto from bassist Andy Mattina and drummer Tom Pope.
The Larch were celebrating the release of their latest album Larix Americana, which if this set is any indication, is also one of the year’s best. This clever, witty, 80s-inspired quartet has been a good band for a long time – they are a great one now. Frontman/lead guitarist Ian Roure was on fire, blasting through one supersonic yet remarkably terse solo after another. He’d give it maybe half a verse and then back away, leaving the crowd – particularly the guys on the bleachers in the back – hungry for more. With his wife Liza providing sultry harmonies along with alternately chirpy and atmospheric keyboards, Bonadonna on melodic and propulsive bass and Pope up there for another go-round behind the kit, they blasted through one psychedelic new wave rocker after another. The strikingly assaultive In the Name Of…, with its reverb-drenched acid wash of an outro, might have been the most arresting performance of the entire evening. The funnier, more sardonic numbers – a couple of them about “bad dayjobs,” as Roure put it – hit the spot, particularly the Elvis Costello-inflected Logical Enough, as well as the tongue-in-cheek Inside Hugh, another track from the new album. The rest of the set accentuated the diversity this band is capable of, from the ridiculously hummable, instant hitworthiness of The Strawberry Coast – a summer vacation classic if there ever was one – to the understated scorch of With Love from Region One (a DVD reference and a somewhat sideways but spot-on tribute to all good things American). Speaking of DVDs, somebody videoed this show – the band ought to make one out of it.
Artsy pop tunesmith Elaine Romanelli transcends any label you might be tempted to peg her with. She’s a tremendous singer – her soaring high soprano is sometimes poised and playful, sometimes brooding and bitter. Her songs are vivid, aphoristic, often metaphorically charged; many of them have an indelibly urban, New York-centricness about them. The inspired backing unit on her latest album, The Real Deal includes Josh Fox on guitar, Andrew Fox on piano, Clay Wilson on bass and Dave Gluck on drums along with lush, rich arrangements from the “Screaming Strings,” Patricia Cole on violin and Larry DiBello on cello.
“The salt you pour each day has left its sting,” Romanelli admits on the cd’s opening cut, Song About the Trees, but she’s insistent on pulling herself up out of misery. The evocative Iraq war wife’s tale, aptly titled Lament, packs a wallop: “Now the tours are longer and they happen every year…pray the chopper sets him down, pray that he can still walk,” the poor woman pleads over a machine-gun drumbeat. Merry Go Round, with a choice string arrangement, is wryly metaphorical:
Take off the training wheels
Try not to be afraid
Go for a test run
Go back and think some more
Go into hiding
Curl in a ball on the floor
Or stay on the merry-go-round…
Romanelli follows that with the 6/8 piano ballad Faust Revisited, a subtly caustic, insightful look at what some people might consider while contemplating plastic surgery:
And I yearn to be perfect
But I wonder if maybe by now it’s too late
‘Cause I grew up with this face
Which never was beautiful
So there’s years of old feelings
They’d have to replace
With a jaunty, wickedly catchy janglerock bounce, Not a Love Song is not the sneering Public Image Ltd. broadside but a soaring, Sharon Goldman-style pop hit. Stupid Boy, like its storyline, begins sultry and goes bitter fast, all the way into a killer chorus. Fly picks up the pace, revisiting the treadmill theme of the third cut but more optimistically this time, its narrator trying to nudge a bedraggled friend out of her comfortably sad routine. The rest of the album includes Naughty Lola, which blends a sultry lounge feel with janglerock; the scrambling punk-pop shuffle Unapologetic like something off the Go Go’s comeback album God Bless the Go Go’s; a Celtic-tinged a-cappella ballad, a bouncy piano pop number and finally, after all that, the crazed vaudevillian romp Pour Me a Drink – she and the band have earned it. Elaine Romanelli plays the cd release for The Real Deal at the Bitter End this Thursday, May 20 at 8.
On the cover of his third solo album, Mark Sinnis, frontman of dark rockers Ninth House stands with his back to the camera, staring into a glaring New York sunset from a rooftop somewhere in Queens. The picture captures the subtext here far less subtly than Sinnis’ songs do: this is a requiem for lost time, lost hopes and by implication a lost time and place. It is a classic of gothic Americana. Richly and masterfully produced, electric guitars, strings, keyboards, lapsteel and accordion weave their way tersely into and out of the mix behind Sinnis’ remarkably nuanced baritone. Sinnis has been a good singer for a long time – he is an extraordinary one here, going down low for Leonard Cohen murk or reaching for Johnny Cash irony. If Ian Curtis had been an American, and he’d lived, he might sound like Sinnis does on this album.
The title track sets the tone for what’s to come, a slow, swaying, sad requiem, Sara Landeau’s sparse tremolo guitar mingling with Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel and Annette Kudrak’s plaintive accordion. It’s utterly hypnotic. The centerpiece of the album, or one of them anyway, is 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, classic country done chamber goth style:
Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate
And I’m a thousand miles from home
From New York City
The one that dragged me into a hole
I’m in my own purgatory
Where I pay for my sins each day
And I pay dearly
While my youth slowly slips away
He picks it up a little on the second verse. It’s gently and masterfully orchestrated.
Originally released on Ninth House’s 2000 album Swim in the Silence, the version of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me [#290 on our 666 Best Songs of Alltime list – Ed.] recasts the song as slow, Leonard Cohen-esque country sway, Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals quite a change from his usual roar when Ninth House plays it live. Fallible Friend, a catalog of failure and deceit, goes for a dusky southwestern feel capped by Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten’s perfecly minimalist fills. An understatedly desperate account of a drunk driver just trying to get home in one piece, Follow the Line takes on a hallucinatory, wee hours feel with Kudrak’s swirling accordion front and center – when Sinnis finally cuts loose and belts on the second verse, she’s there to calm him down. The Fever (not the Peggy Lee standard) could be a John Lennon song, a bitter metaphorically charged tale of alienation and rebellion.
Of the other originals here, wobbling funeral parlor organ makes the perfect final touch on the brooding Skeletons. Scars is gospel as the Velvet Underground might have done it, Out of Reach transformed from its original electric menace to haunting death-chamber pop with Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas’ piano and stark cello from star New York string multistylist Susan Mitchell. There’s also the ghoulish country shuffle In Harmony, the uncharacteristically sunny Quiet Change, and the album’s last song, a death-fixated, quite possibly sarcastic gospel clapalong. The covers are also terrifically inventive: Nine While Nine captures the song’s grim grey tube train platform ambience far better than Sisters of Mercy ever did, Otten perfectly nailing the menace of the song’s simple hook; St. James Infirmary rips the deathmask off the song’s inner goth, lapsteel pairing off warily against tense piano; and Gloomy Sunday gets a new final verse from Sinnis, who leaves not the slightest doubt as to what that one’s about.
Sinnis’ first solo album Into an Unhidden Future was a treat for Ninth House fans, a diverse, often radically rearranged acoustic mix of hits and rarities. His second, A Southern Tale was more country-oriented and surprisingly more upbeat. This is the best of them, in fact arguably the best thing that Sinnis has ever recorded. Mark Sinnis plays Otto’s on May 16 at 11, with a date at Small Beast at the Delancey coming up in July.
Gently and methodically, Liz Tormes brought the lights down. She didn’t actually reach over to the wall and kill the switch, but she might as well have. Strumming her acoustic guitar with one hypnotic downstroke after another, she played a set that was as unaffectedly catchy and tuneful as it was disquieting. Keyboardist Glenn Patscha (of Ollabelle) provided a rich variety of textures, from echoey, spacy, upper-register synthesizer, to stark Supertramp-style electric art-rock piano, to matter-of-factly chordal acoustic piano work. The drummer mixed crafty jazz flourishes into his artful shuffles, at one point dampening the snare and one of the toms with towels to enhance a distantly ominous, boomy effect which worked perfectly with the songs’ frequent neo-Velvets vibe. The most affecting thing about Tormes’ voice is how casual it is: this show was as if she was humming to herself at your funeral – or somebody’s funeral, anyway. It’s a strikingly warm, atmospheric instrument, and while she’s capable of cutting loose if she feels like it, for her less is more and she works that like a charm, letting the songs and the lyrics go and find their mark, which they inevitably do. Like a lot of inevitable things.
Tormes hardly shies away from the darkness; on the contrary, she seems to embody it, whether in the back-to-back songs about death in the middle of the set – the second one dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut, a writer whose identity she’d encouraged the crowd to guess, but nobody could – or in the creepy little waltz based on a sinister tritone melody that she fingerpicked with grace and understatement. Most of the songs were unfamiliar. Tormes’ latest album Limelight is as good a contender for best-of-recent-months as any that’s come over the transom here, but she’s about to embark on a new one and if the concert was any indication it’ll be just as compelling. One featured a duet with Patscha; on several others, Tormes was joined by Fiona McBain (also of Ollabelle), who provided characteristically soaring high harmonies – the two have a sometime project called Fizz that specializes in murder ballads, “Because they’re beautiful,” Tormes deadpanned. The night’s most memorable number coldly immortalized Tormes’ old place on Second Ave. and Fourth St., a quietly caustic depiction of the parade of freaks who turn the neighborhood into fratboy hell after dark. She may have come here from Nashville, but Tormes spoke for an entire zip code with that one.
Afterward it was time to head over to Small Beast, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly salon/show/hangout, which we’ve been AWOL from for the last few weeks. Russian expat pianist/singer Mila Levine, backed by the extraordinary, ubiquitous and extraordinarily ubiquitous Susan Mitchell on viola, ran through a mix of noir-ish pop and rock tunes in both English and her native tongue. One had once appeared (radically rearranged, she took care to explain) in the Eurovision music contest and was actually not an embarrassment. Afterward, the reliably haunting and hypnotic Appalachian/Balkan vocal duo Æ (Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker) delivered a set of otherworldly old songs from Georgia, Greece, the Carolinas and the Jewish diaspora, an alternately ecstatic and wrenchingly sad end to a night full of affecting voices.
And while we’re on the subject of Small Beast, don’t forget what might be the year’s best rock or-rock-oriented concert, the Big Beast at the Angel Orensanz Center on May 21 with Botanica, Bee and Flower, Barbez, Little Annie, Black Sea Hotel, and free microbrew beer for an hour before the show.
LJ Murphy’s set last night started out incisive and sometimes menacing, picked up the pace and ended on a defiantly ecstatic note, the crowd afterward murmuring bits and pieces of whatever song lingered most resonantly to them. Murphy’s signature style is a noir, literate blend of oldschool blues and soul with a punk rock edge, sometimes venturing into other shades of Americana as with the gorgeously sad, swaying country song Long Way to Lose. Audiences frequently mistake that one for a classic by Hank Williams or someone similar – this crowd didn’t because it was obviously all fans.
Like the old blues and jazz guys Murphy admires, he’s been playing with a rotating cast of musicians lately. This time out featured first-rate New Orleans pianist Willie Davis and a drummer supplying a mostly minimalist beat on kick drum and cymbal. They set the tone with the ominous Weimar march of Mad Within Reason, the surreal, apocalyptic title track to his classic 2005 cd, kept the cynical double entendres going with the fast soul shuffle of Imperfect Strangers and then went deep into vintage blues with a more recent one, Nothing Like Bliss, a bitter chronicle of seduction gone hopelessly wrong: “Now that your train’s left the station, you might as well go home,” he reflected. The high point of the evening, at least the early part was Fearful Town, a minor key East Village nightmare of tourists and trendoids displacing all the familiar haunts, Davis throwing off a casual trail of sparks with his solo as he’d do all night.
Happy Hour, a savage afterwork Wall Street chronicle of young Republicans getting their freak on, took the intensity up, then Murphy brought it down with a cover of Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue (he’d learned it from Ray Charles and Van Morrison, he said), then his biggest hit, the gorgeously brooding Saturday’s Down and then brought the volume up again with the ferocious bluespunk of Nowhere Now. He closed with a couple other equally ferocious blues numbers and encored with a singalong of Barbed Wire Playpen, yet another swipe at Wall Street, in this case a hedge fund type who visits his favorite dungeon one time too many. Murphy dedicated that one to Goldman Sachs. The worse the depression gets, the more relevant Murphy becomes – it’s hard to imagine a more catchy chronicler of life among those of us whose Christmas bonus is simply having any job at all.
Mark Sinnis, frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House plays his solo acoustic show at least as frequently, maybe more than he does with his band. Celebrating the release of his third solo cd, The Night’s Last Tomorrow, he held the goth night crowd at the Slipper Room rapt Sunday night with his most energetic solo performance in a long time. Most recently, he’d been mining a quietly creepy, Leonard Cohen-esque, minimalist style. This time out, backed only by extraordinary string player Susan Mitchell – doubling on electric violin and electric cello – he alternated between a stygian croon and an unleashed roar, his acoustic guitar amped almost to the point of distortion. Still, the show maintained the same kind of nuance of his most recent acoustic gigs – it’s not often that you see a guy who plays with a band as loud as Ninth House projecting gently with a laid-back, black velvet Johnny Cash style delivery.
Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, the opener, is a furious stomp when done by the band, a not-so-subtle swipe at a no-longer-edgy New York where the fashion-centric shallowness of indie rock overshadows the real thing. This one downplayed the local angle, an elegy for dashed hopes and dreams. Mitchell’s gracefully descending violin gave the offhandedly dismissive Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me considerable added poignancy; their version of Saint James Infirmary unleashed the song’s inner goth, culminating in a flurry of Balkan violin madness. Another new one, Fallible Friend, a catalog of disillusionments, flipped the script with a trick ending; the gospel-tinged That’s Why I Won’t Love You became more of a backwoods funeral, Mitchell again adding white-knuckle intensity. She switched to cello for a macabre janglerock version of the once-banned classic Gloomy Sunday. They encored with the Ninth House concert favorite Follow the Line, a characteristically passionate tribute to drinking and driving, “poison” becoming “whiskey” as Sinnis let the word slip out, Freudian style, on the second verse. Watch this space for a review of the album, his best solo effort to date.