Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

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May 8, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies

This is an album of nocturnes, and it’s one of the year’s best. Haunting, often hilarious, wickedly lyrical and soaked in alcohol – Kelli Rae Powell is credited with inventing the drinkaby, a combination drinking song and lullaby – it’s only fitting that the only cover song on her new album would have originally been written for Mae West. On that lusciously innuendo-laden number, A Man What Takes His Time, Powell does her best Bessie Smith imitation, although she has many other voices up her sleeve, not all of them here. Powell sings in character: while her style evokes Smith as well as Blossom Dearie, she sounds like she could do pretty much any belter or chanteuse from across the decades – or be just herself. With Powell’s voice and her ukelele over a slinky acoustic groove colored with electric guitar in places, this isn’t your typical uke record: the production puts the instrument front and center with a full, round sound instead of the usual plink-plink.

“Some bridges are just better burning,” emphasizes the caption on the inside of the cd cover, Powell shooting a smoldering look from the corner of her raccoon eye. That’s the crux of one of the album’s best songs, a slow waltz that leaves no doubt that the wounds are still fresh:

Some lessons can’t hurt you

If you leave them unlearned…

Maybe in the end

We’ll grow to be friends

Maybe at my death

I won’t be holding my breath

That intensity comes up even further on Don’t Slow Down, Zachary. Even here, Powell’s characteristic understatement and irrepressible humor are overshadowed by the subtle, diabolical details of a road trip that quickly went straight to hell:

Remember how she touched your hand

Remember solemn passing bands

Of old men smoking Parliaments

Chicago was a challenge

Louisville nearly kills them – but she’s hell-bent on not going home because what’s waiting for her there is even worse.

The rest of the album is a lot funnier, and steamier. Lullaby for Bad Girls goes the anthemic route; The Cowboy Song susses out hot-to-trot guys for the clueless creatures they are. There’s a warm, hypnotic lullaby that segues into the devious barroom seduction scene Old Tom, and then the paradigmatic Drinkaby which is even funnier. Powell is joined by a whistle-stop choir of the Ukuladies and Jo Williamson on the swing-flavored Midnight Sleeper Train, maintaining the woozy after-hours ambience while taking it up a notch, then bringing it back down with the understatedly cynical, Amy Rigby-esque Even Trade. Powell’s an amazing lyricist: like LJ Murphy and Bliss Blood, she’s as adept at the vernacular of earlier eras as she is in her own. A fearless and charismatic performer, her ceiling is awfully high: if she could find some way to take her act on the road, find a Zachary who really won’t slow down to take her gig to gig while she slumbers in the back seat, she could connect with a nationwide audience who recognize her for the star she probably knows  she is. Kelli Rae Powell plays the cd release show for this one on October 30 at the Jalopy.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 7/9/07

The blonde bombshell – sort of New York’s answer to Neko Case, a master of every retro style she’s ever touched – has really come into her own as a frontwoman and bandleader. Tonight Erica Smith owned this place, every square inch (it’s cozy), blazing through a largely upbeat set of mostly unreleased material. They opened with the beautifully evocative, windswept cityscape 31st Avenue (the opening track on her last album Friend or Foe), lead guitarist Dann Baker taking a gorgeous bent-note solo like the one in Blindspot by That Petrol Emotion (does anyone remember That Petrol Emotion? Dollars to donuts Baker does). They followed that with the unreleased Easy Now, a tasty upbeat Merseybeat melody set to a swinging country groove. The next song, a funk number propelled by a fast, growling bass hook stolen straight out of the Duck Dunn catalog, showed Smith at the peak of her powers as white soul sister, circa 1966 maybe. At the end, the band went into a wild noise jam as drummer Dave Campbell (who,with Baker, propels psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7) went looking for the second stone from the sun, but it was clearly Smith’s soaring soprano that left the crowd silent for several seconds after the song was over.

The next tune was also a new one, an impossibly catchy, bouncy 60s-style Britpop hit possibly titled Firefly, guitars and bass weaving and bobbing, alternating between punchy staccato and smooth legato lines. Smith and band like obscure covers, and tonight they mined the 80s LA new wave scene for Where and When by Blow This Nightclub (who were fronted by filmmaker Dan Sallitt), opening the song with pounding chords and a bassline nicked from the Cure’s Killing an Arab. Then they brought it down with a sultry bossa nova song, picked up the pace again with the scorching, unreleased Neil Young-inflected rocker Jesus’ Clown, kept it up with a practically heavy metal cover of Judy Henske’s Snowblind (with a strikingly quiet, artful solo from Campbell), took it back down with the obscure Livia Hoffman gem Valentine (completely redone as a smoldering torch song, something Smith does extraodinarily well) and closed with the old Sinatra standard One For My Baby. Not as good as the Iggy Pop version, but not bad either.

Cangelosi Cards (the Cangelosi Cards? a reference to the diminutive former Mets outfielder, maybe?) followed, an aptly chosen oldtimey quartet: vocals, guitar, harmonica and upright bass, playing blues and pop hits from the 20s and 30s. The musicians have the songs down cold and the petite, retro-garbed singer showed off a spectacular, girlish upper register that seems to owe a lot to Blossom Dearie. “It’s easy to like this band,” remarked one of the musicians who had just played, and he was right.

July 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment