Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Spine-Tingling, Epic Noir Surrealism from Monika Roscher’s Big Band

The new Monika Roscher Big Band album, Failure in Wonderland is a wildly fearless, uncategorizable thrill ride. What is this? Noir cabaret? Psychedelic rock? Big band swing? Horror movie music? All of the above and more. As she tells it, guitarist/singer/composer Roscher spent a year in Illinois as a German exchange student. While her peers were watching tv, she was practicing, soaking up musical scores and learning Frank Zappa licks. Her young band has been together a bit over a year and already has this monstrous masterpiece to show for it. It’s sort of like the missing link between Mucca Pazza and Sexmob (who have a phenomenal new album of Nino Rota film pieces due out soon).Like the latter group’s leader Steve Bernstein, Roscher likes long, crescendoing vamps and seems to be noir to the core. If you like the idea of a Jeff Lynne-esque vocoder trip-hop intro into a creepy noir cabaret piano loop that builds to a stomping, surreal menace with marching Zappaesque guitar line as the brass pulses behind it, that’s just the first half of the first track. From there, the circus rock menace rises with Josef Ressle’s biting piano and squalling, smoky bari sax from Heiko Geiring – and it only gets better from there.

Deadpan, fractured English lyrics move in over another trip-hop intro on the second track, Future3, followed by pillowy reeds, Roscher shredding the scenery with some wild tremolo-picking punctuated by big incisions from the band as the arrangement grows more stately. The catchy yet utterly dissociative Irrlicht works big Gil Evans-ish swells into a carnivalesque pulse, up to a scorching crescendo that hands off to Matthias Lindrmayr’s rapidfire muted trumpet and then a slowly spinning, pitchblende vortical sway.

Wuste works a creepy minor-key come-hither Blonde Redhead-ish intro and then takes on a brooding, low-key gypsy rock feel that grows more and more macabre, spiced by Roscher’s surealistic, processed vocals, Ressle’s sepulcural wee-hours piano and Jan Kiesewetter’s lonesome soprano sax. Die Parade is a twisted funeral march, as plaintive as it is blackly amusing. As with the rest of the tracks here, the voicings are imaginative and often pack a wallop, here with Andreas Unterreiner’s trumpet nonchalantly pairing off with Peter Palmer’s even more morose trombone. The way the procession disintegrates is too clever and amusing to give away here; the trick ending is typical of the sheer unpredictability and gleeful menace of Roscher’s compositional style.

Human Machines establishes a torchy Lynchian atmosphere, a sardonic commentary on the human tendency toward conformity, fueled by Roscher’s noir tremolo lines and torchy vocals – she’s the rare bandleader who’s also a first-class singer – and Ressle’s incisive piano. Unlike the other tracks here, this one ends optimistically: humans win! By contrast, Schnee Aus Venedig is a defiantly macabre, tiptoeing sideshow theme that eventually follows a breathless trajectory up to a wry Beatles allusion. It foreshadows the Montenegrin cabaret gloom of When I Fall in Love, Kiesewetter’s Jon Irabagon-esque japes, Geiring’s baritone squall and Roscher’s wah-infused, funky menace taking it in a vintage P-Funk direction. The album ends, appropriately enough, with Nacht, rising from skeletal tango to a noir flamenco overture, reaching peak altitude on Roscher’s rippling, weirdly processed arpeggios.

Fans of dark ornate acts as diverse as Botanica, Gil Evans, and  Sexmob will eat this up. Best jazz album of the year? Maybe. Best rock record of the year? Probably. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. And in case you’re wondering what the title refers to, here’s Roscher: “The blemished beauty of Alice…the tension between harmony and disharmony that I can only vaguely approach with my lyrics. To me words cannot nail it the way music does.” It’s out now from Enja Records.

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April 15, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz Connect the Unexpected

If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.

To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.

The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.

They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.

The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.

Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.

December 15, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cult with No Name: For Those Who Don’t Fit In

This one makes a good segue with today’s album by David J. London duo Cult with No Name’s fourth album, Adrenalin, came out on Halloween on Trakwerx. With its deadpan, brooding vocals and goth-tinged keyboard melodies, it’s the best one yet from the self-styled “post punk electronica balladeers.” Once the Williamsburg crowd hears the 80s new wave pop of Breathing – an blippy, ambient track that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Stranglers post-1985 catalog – every “celebrity dj” will want to remix it into unrecognizability. The rest of the album is a lot more substantial (legendary Clash associate and punk/reggae dj Don Letts is a fan). It opens with a long, pensive solo piano intro punctuated by the occasional echoey synth splash, similar to the Walkabouts’ recent work. The sardonic title track sets lo-fi 80s synth-goth to a trip-hop drum loop like early Dead Can Dance: “I’m not addicted to love, I’m addicted to pain…”

Macabre piano rivulets and vocals build to a majestic orchestral sweep on the next track, reminding of Blonde Redhead at their most goth, followed by the icy, accusatory piano ballad The Way You’re Looking at Me. The felicitously titled Youlogy blends watery acoustic guitar and eerily airy synth washes – it could be a more overtly goth Bobby Vacant, a vivid portrayal of the struggle to express grief with any degree of eloquence. It’s quite a contrast with the irresisibly funny, blippy goth spoof The All Dead Burlesque Show: “So teasing, but don’t tell me it’s art…don’t think it’s all about good taste, and I don’t care about your eight-inch waist.”

The rest of the album eclectically mines various 80s dark rock veins: the understated, noir cabaret bounce of Gone; the lush, echoey guitar ballad 7 and its mirror image, -7, a sad, cinematic piano soundscape, and the clip-clop downtempo pop of Make a List. The album ends with a wallop with Generation That’s, a majestic, bitterly poetic slap at the expectation that one should fit into one generation or another, the implication here being that for those of us who will never fit in, it’s a long, lonely road. Like every Trakwerx album, this one is elegantly packaged, in this case in a lustrous, metallic blue-grey cardboard sleeve that blends austere Factory Records minimalism with playful, retro 60-style, Doorsy embellishments.

December 28, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Carol Lipnik – Cloud Girl

Every now and then something comes over the transom here that slipped under the radar when it first came out – or in the case of this album, predated this blog. This is one of the best of those – the cd cover image of the rails of the Cyclone rollercoaster with its “REMAIN SEATED” sign overhead is apt. Celebrated for her alternately soaring and piercing four-octave range, Carol Lipnik is also a uniquely gifted songwriter with a frequently sinister, otherwise amusingly carnivalesque edge. Lately she’s been pursuing what appears to be developing into an extraordinary collaboration with singer John Kelly (John Kelly and Carol Lipnik on the same stage – just think about the possibilities that conjures for a minute). For the uninitiated, this is Lipnik’s most recent album and comprises much of what she plays live. It’s a good an introduction to this indelibly New York, Coney Island born-and-bred artist.

The cd opens with Tom Ward’s noir cabaret waltz Freak House Blues, a playfully lurid tale bouncing along with horror-movie organ from keyboardist Dred Scott – a first-rate jazz composer in his own right – and violin by Jacob Lawson. The second cut, Lipnik’s own Falling/Floating mines the same kind of creepy noir pop vein that DollHouse or occasionally Blonde Redhead would pursue back about ten years ago.

Last Dance ( a co-write with Jane LeCroy) flirts with madness:  “I can’t forget the last dance, because I’m dancing it still.” By contrast, another Lipnik original, Traveling is a lushly beautiful and sensually atmospheric. Then it’s back to the macabre with another waltz, Where Are You Going, examining the relationship between conformity and cannibalism as Lawson’s staccato violin screeches along on the beat. Atmospheric and echoey, the menace of Crushed is understated and effectively so: “Do you want me to stand on my knees for you?” Lipnik asks – but it’s obvious that she’s not offering. “I’ll be back, but I’ll be changed,” she warns on the soaring, crescendoing Mermaid Blues. Morir Sonando (a Spanish pun – it’s an orange milkshake) is a big bolero, pretty boisterous for a tribute to the delights of dreaming and sleep. The cd winds up with the haunting, hypnotic, somewhat Radiohead-inflected title track. For those who can’t get enough after all this, Lipnik’s just back from Yaddo and working on a new one. Carol Lipnik plays the Howl Festival, 8 PM on Sept 15 at the 45 Bleecker St. Theatre in the West Village.

August 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment