Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album was #492:
Rachelle Garniez – Crazy Blood
Garniez is unquestionably the most eclectic and quite possibly the best songwriter to emerge from the New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros. Serenade, her first album, is lushly pensive and unselfconsciously romantic, as you might expect from someone whose main axe is the accordion. This 2001 release, her second, was her quantum leap, where she established herself as a deviously witty master of every retro style ever invented, from the apocalyptic pop of Silly Me, the gorgeous Memphis soul of Odette and Mr. Lady, the sultry jazz ballad Swimming Pool Blue, the inscrutable psychedelia of Little Fish and Marie, the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek blues of New Dog, the blithe, meticulously arranged salsa of Regular Joe and the album’s chilling, intense tango centerpiece, Shadowland – which would become a tv show theme – and the anguished, Bessie Smith-tinged title track. Garniez’ multi-octave voice swoops and dips mischievously over a band of A-list downtown jazz types. She’d go on to even greater heights with 2003’s Luckyday and 2008’s Melusine Years, and has a new one coming out (the cd release show is November 11 at Dixon Place). Strangely AWOL from the usual sources of free music, it’s still available from Garniez herself as well as at cdbaby.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #499:
Erika Simonian – All the Plastic Animals
A cult classic from 2004. Simonian’s wryly literate lyrics range from sardonic to casually savage, set to precisely fingerpicked, austere melodies sung in a minutely nuanced voice that can be deadpan hilarious…or absolutely brutal. An air of disillusion and betrayal creeps in with the opening vignette, sarcastically titled Food From the Cow, followed by the even more sarcastic Pretty Good Wife; the cabaret-inflected Self Made Drama Machine, a kiss-off to a selfish bitch; and Mr. Wrong, an amusing pickup scenario predictably on its way to going awry. The most unforgettable song here is Bitter and Brittle, a vivid portrait of the edge of madness; the blackly humorous Eternal Spinsterhood is awfully good too. Surprisingly, this one is AWOL from the usual sources of free music, but it’s still available from cdbaby, where there are also clips from each song. Simonian continues as a member of lyrical indie rockers Little Silver and the entertaining, punkish Sprinkle Genies.
Tuesday night the snow was swirling but Banjo Jim’s was packed and Walter Ego was onstage. This was the New York Walter Ego, not the cover band from the Isle of Man, the Dutch rapper or the disco guy from the 90s. Ironically, though this Walter Ego is arguably the most technologically savvy one of the whole crew, he’s also the one who doesn’t have a web presence: then again, there’s cachet in flying so far under the radar. With his icily sardonic vocals, pun-drenched lyrics and catchy, artsy pop melodies, he delivered a characteristically theatrical set that was all too brief. There’s a lot of surrealism in his lyrics, and that translates to his stage show. Just like last time here, he brought along an inflatable octopus, who’d had the wind knocked out of him, but one of the musicians in the bar “brought him back to life by blowing him,” as he explained. He also had a vintage die-cast model of the Beatles Yellow Submarine, although Ringo was stuck in “up” position. All these crazy props have a function: where Sybarite5 let their ipod shuffle choose what will be in the set, Walter Ego lets the props do it oldschool style by literally pulling the songs out of a hat: no two sets with this guy are ever the same.
This was a particularly good one. His opening song combined a country sway with a somewhat majestic Jeff Lynne style post-Beatles melody, about a “magician who makes magic disappear.” This particular killjoy can’t resist the urge to reduce everything to its lowest terms, literally – where somebody else hears a tune, he hears arithmetic. The theme echoed in the bluesy snarl of Don’t Take Advice from Me – “What use is one more yeasayer to boost your self-esteem when I can tell you the ugly truth that wakes you from your dream.” The high point was a rivetingly suspenseful version of the metaphorically charged I Am the Glass, the cruelly vengeful tale of an egotist who smashes everything around him, only to come face to face with the windshield in the last verse. The next song was the genuinely hilarious, Phil Ochs-ish Adventures of Ethical Man, a sanctimonious superhero who is either either “a saint or an idiot,” never missing an opportunity to show the world what a good guy he is…unless it takes too much effort.
“It costs a lot of money to make these props. I have to repurpose them when I can,” Walter Ego explained, bringing back the octopus to keep the set going with a sarcastic, bluesy number that quietly but forcefully mocked racism and extremism, in a vein that evoked LJ Murphy (which shouldn’t come as a surprise: Walter Ego served as Murphy’s bass player for a time a few years ago). He closed with The Immorality Detection Machine, which managed to be as Beatlesque as it was Orwellian. As funny and provocative as his songs are, this guy’s shtick would go over just as well at something like the Fringe Festival. Mystie Chamberlin, another songwriter with a considerable sense of humor, was next, but it was time to race for the M14C bus at 10th St. because even in a snowstorm, it’s a lot quicker than walking to the train at Union Square. Watch this space for upcoming Walter Ego showdates because it’s the only place on the web you’ll see them, at least for now.
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.
Walter Ego came out of retirement in a big way last night at Banjo Jim’s. The house was packed for a multiple-songwriter bill: Walter, who by his own admission hadn’t played a gig since 1995, was the star, solo on acoustic guitar, grabbing a restless crowd and holding them quiet for the duration of his too-brief set. Vintage, classic era Elvis Costello is the obvious influence: this guy’s songs are loaded with puns and double entendres, set to catchy melodies which are equal parts Beatles and Elvis C. with some blues thrown in. That there would be blues in the set was no surprise, considering that Walter used to be LJ Murphy’s bass player. There was also a surprising theatricality: he’d break what was obviously an intense focus to give his sidekick, a blow-up plastic octopus named Paul, a chance to reach into a bucket and pull a strip of paper with a song title on it. Paul didn’t do a good job, so there were even more unexpected changes in the set list. Walter went on wearing a wig, but that quickly came off, as did a plastic top hat during the set’s last song (it was muggy outside and only somewhat better inside). Undeterred, he sang with a low, dryly icy intensity.
The blues songs were a lot more interestingly assembled than just a simple 1-4-5; the rockers also had a counterintuitive feel. One of the best of the early songs chronicled the Adventures of Ethical Man, a superhero who’s a bigger phony than Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent ever dreamed of being, at least as alter egos. The bluesy, sarcastic Don’t Take Advice from Me was a ruthless sendup of anyone who enjoys being a killjoy: it wouldn’t be out of place in the LJ Murphy catalog. Walter closed with a characteristically lyrically rich number about some sort of hypocrisy-detection machine sold via infomercial, and how it can be modified if the owner becomes a born-again. Which doesn’t remotely do justice to its clever barrage of lyrics. Watch this space for future shows.
By the way, there are three other Walter Egos: a cover band from the Isle of Man, a Dutch rapper and a British disco producer. But this guy – whose first album, from the 90s, is a genuine NYC rock artifact – beat all of them to it.
Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Universal Thump were something beyond amazing Friday night. The orchestrated rock bands of the 70s may have gone the way of the dinosaurs (except for the Moody Blues) but this was like being in the front row at an ELO or Procol Harum show at the Royal Albert Hall. Except with better vocals. Gertler’s sometimes stratospheric high soprano fits this band well: she went up so far that there was no competing sonically with the lush, rich atmospherics of the Thumpettes, a.k.a. the Osso String Quartet, whose presence made all the difference. With Adam D. Gold terse yet sometimes surprising behind the drum kit, equally terse bass from Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron, fiery powerpop guitar god Pete Galub on lead and Gertler at the piano, they segued seamlessly from one richly melodic, Romantically-tinged, counterintuitively structured song to the next.
Gertler’s been writing songs like that since she was in her teens: one Aimee Mann-inflected number in stately 6/8 time dated from 1993. Otherwise, the set was mostly all new material from the Universal Thump’s ongoing album (now an ep, with a kickstarter campaign in case you have money to burn). The opening number worked a wistful post-baroque melody down to a piano cascade where Gertler rumbled around in the low registers for awhile, then the strings took it up again. The wistful vibe kept going, an uneasy, brooding lyric soaring over an austere minor-key melody, with a terse viola solo out. Damien, from Gertler’s now-classic 2004 album The Baby That Brought Bad Weather was all understated longing, cached in the mighty swells of the strings.
Galub used the next song’s Penny Lane bounce as the launching pad for an unabashedly vicious, percussively crescendoing guitar solo, something he’d repeat a couple more times – even by his standards, he was especially energized. The best song of the evening, possible titled Closing Night began with a matter-of-factly dramatic series of piano chords, worked its way into a lush backbeat anthem with another one of those Galub slasher solos, and gracefully faded out. Gertler explained that her closing number had been appropriated (and turned into a sizeable hit) by an unnamed Australian band, who’d transformed it into a song about playing the lottery. As it rose to a ridiculously catchy chorus out of just vocals and strings, its hitworthiness struck home, hard. The audience wouldn’t let them go: the band encored with a majestically fluid version of Everybody Wants to Adore You, another smash of a pop song from The Baby That Brought Bad Weather. We do our own individual list of the best New York concerts of the year in December, and you can bet that this one will be on it. This was it for the Universal Thump’s shows this summer – adding yet another reason to look forward to fall, which at this point couldn’t come too soon.
This album is a triumph on all possible levels. Tom Warnick is a great tunesmith, equally informed by classic 60s soul and gospel as he is by clever Elvis Costello-style songcraft, with a frequently disquieting, carnivalesque sensibility. He’s also a first-class lyricist, his genuinely Joycean stream-of-consciousness wit coupled to a blackly humorous streak. Which makes sense – four years ago, it wasn’t clear that Warnick was going to be around to make another album. A stroke following surgery for a brain tumor had put his guitar skills on the shelf, but Warnick wouldn’t be deterred: he moved to keyboards instead. Here he’s joined by guitarist to the stars of the underground Ross Bonadonna along with Dave Dorbin on bass and Peter Monica on drums. Warnick’s never sung better – there’s a gleeful defiance in his voice, as you might expect from a bon vivant joyously and somewhat unexpectedly returned to the land of the living.
“I’m gonna bust this ice cream headache,” he remarks nonchalantly on the catchy opening cut, Absorbing Man. The boxing parable Gravity Always Wins establishes what will be a recurrent theme here, beating the odds (or trying to, anyway). An indomitable pop gem, A Couple of Wrecks paints a pricelessly surreal post-sunup drunken scenario: “They stepped outside this morning and saw the setting sun.” And that was just the beginning. The Great Calamity kicks off with funeral-parlor organ, a grim but tongue-in-cheek look at disaster, Warnick sticking to his guns despite all odds: “We’re going to give just as good as we get.” A vintage soul vibe runs through several of the songs: the understatedly defiant We Win (Again), the ballad She’s Shining, and Bad Old World, where a Doomsday Book’s worth of apocalyptic omens all prove false.
The best song here is the lurid, creepy No Longer Gage, recounting the tale of Vermont railroad foreman Phineas Gage, who took an iron tamping rod from a blasting site through the head but survived, albeit with a completely different personality style (he turned surly and mean – who could blame him?). The album wraps up with a couple of psychedelically bluesy, Doorsy tracks, the title cut and then Keep Me Movin’, featuring an ecstatic gospel choir of Paula Carino, Neil Danziger, Lucy Foley, Dan Kilian, John Sharples and Erica Smith. Warnick and his band play the cd release show for this album – one of the best of 2010 – on June 26 at 10 PM at the Parkside, preceded at 9 by the excellent, new wave and ska-inspired Fumes.
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.