Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Linda Draper – Bridge and Tunnel

Quietly and methodically, New York songwriter Linda Draper has climbed into the ranks of the elite: to rank her with Aimee Mann, Richard Thompson or Neko Case would not be an overstatement. To put that statement in perspective, consider that this new cd is her sixth consecutive consistently excellent album, a rare achievement. Bridge and Tunnel harkens back to the strikingly direct, tersely catchy acoustic pop feel of her 2001 debut, Ricochet, without compromising her utterly unique, brilliantly literate, characteristically dark lyrical voice. Brad Albetta‘s production here is beautifully minimalist, with terse bass, live drums and occasional organ looming behind Draper’s alternately soaring and hushed vocals and dexterously fingerpicked guitar. Staring from the shadows, haunted but resolute and defiant, she sounds something akin to Nina Nastasia with a broader sonic palette.

The album title is a New York reference: the phrase”bridge and tunnel” is a slur meaning suburban and unsophisticated. The song itself, a bitter, bluesy, minor-key number is, like pretty much everything else here, spiked with sharp lyrical gems. Refusing to budge, the narrator holds her ground, knowing she’ll have to struggle to stay where she is, whether that place is literal or metaphorical:

There’s no tunnel without a light

Still my vision is failing me now

Little girl what you gonna do

When the day comes and there’s no one left to run to,

You could stand, you could stall

Play dead in the middle of it all…

There’s no way I’d rather feel tonight

Though tomorrow I will pay the price…

The cd’s catchy opening track alludes to madness and confinement:

Through the bars of my window I see many lives…

Black turns into blue as the day turns into night

How low will you go?

But it turns warmer with Sharks and Royalty, a quietly confident anthem for nonconformists everywhere:

Among the sharks and the royalty

There must be room for you and me

Oh my dear have no fear of what you can’t see

Oh my dear have no fear for me

I’ll tell you just what happened here

We all begin and end and tears

The moral of the story’s in your dreams

Sometimes things are the way they seem

Among the rotten ones we’ll run free…

With its swinging backbeat, Time Will Tell offers a vivid autopsy for a doomed relationship: the narrator misses the guy, but only when she’s “not quite at my best. You are the shipwreck, I am the sea, you’re sinking right through me,” she charges, matter-of-factly. After that, the cleverly titled Pushing up the Days offers a similarly jaundiced view of how relationships inevitably decay:

Instead of clutching I will fold

The daylight lives in the hearts of those

Who give without expecting a gift to be given in return

You can smell as long as you want to smell those roses

But keep in mind they’re from another time

When you’re pushing up the days, pushing up the daisies

Close Enough, with its insistent, percusssive fingerpicking is a throwback to the hypnotic feel of much of her most recent work: “If your love is not enough to bring home tonight, I suggest you take your pulse to make sure you’re still alive,” Draper taunts. Then it’s back to the defiant feel with the bouncy, Rhode piano-driven Broken Eggshell:

Every corner I meet there’s two more empty streets

I’ve been walking down

And every step that I take there’s an eggshell to break

It’s the perfect sound

The cd wraps up with a playful, tongue-in-cheek Stones cover and the country-inflected outsider anthem Last One Standing: “Some will lead, most will follow, then there are the lucky few who find better things to do.” So many levels of meaning, so many nuances in Draper’s voice and a wealth of beautifully minute detail in the music as well. You can bet this will be high on our best albums of 2009 list at the end of the year; watch this space for upcoming September live shows.

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August 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Serena Jost Live at Joe’s Pub, NYC 3/3/08

The adrenaline was flowing. Walking up Fourth Avenue at about half past ten, it was impossible not to be moving with a defiant bounce, humming Our Town, the stomping Iris DeMent cover that Serena Jost and band had just played to close their set at Joe’s Pub. And it wasn’t even all that good, mostly drums and hardly anything else in the mix. Not that the band played it badly, and drummer Colin Brooks was just doing his job. This was strictly a sound issue: Jost’s music is all about dynamics, tension and resolution, and this was their big crescendo of the night. It just must have caught the sound guy off-guard.

Between everybody who contributes here, we see scores if not hundreds of concerts, openings and movies every year. Serena Jost has been a fixture on the Lower East Side music scene for awhile. She’s been featured here before, and her new album Closer Than Far has been in heavy rotation here in Lucid Cultureland. Familiarity usually brings with it a certain comfort and ultimately a ho-hum factor, but not tonight. It was impossible not to be moved, tickled and sometimes even left spellbound by this show.

They opened with the absolutely, ridiculously catchy, bouncy Vertical World, an artsy pop song that serves as something of a centerpiece within the new album. It’s something that could become iconic if someone with good ears working on an indie film has the brains to run the whole song over the closing credits. The band followed that with another pretty, upbeat new one, In Time, which made a good segue. Jost moved around the stage a lot, beginning the set on keyboards, then switching to acoustic guitar, then cello, then back to keys. Her onstage persona is deliberately inscrutable. She often sings with a full, ripe, somewhat heartbroken tone, but she’s actually most mysterious when she’s having fun. The high point of the night as far as the audience was concerned was Jump, a playful straight-up 70s disco number driven by Brad Albetta’s stone-cold authentic, tongue-in-cheek bassline. But the melody gives the listener pause: it’s actually pretty dark. And why jump, anyway? This wasn’t exactly Van Halen. But the audience reveled in it. Jost and crew – once-and-future Mary Lee’s Corvette bassist Albetta holding pushing the rhythm along with Brooks, Julian Maile on electric guitar, and also guests Rob Jost (no relation) on French horn and Greta Gertler, contributing ethereal high harmonies on one song – were having the time of their lives. There was a lot of baton-tossing – Maile would fire off a solo, pass it along to the horn, then to the cello and so on – along with tricky time changes and clever wordplay. They encored with a song solo on cello, plumbing big, dark chords from the depths of the instrument: “her first love,” she reminded everyone. This is the kind of band, and the kind of show that would resonate especially with the latest yearly crop of 16-year-olds who have just discovered Pink Floyd: the passion, wit, melody and sheer intelligence that Jost and crew put into their music makes a good match.

March 4, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Serena Jost – Closer Than Far

A richly melodic, stylistically diverse masterpiece. Serena Jost (pronounced Yost) is a multi-instrumentalist who for quite a while played cello in Rasputina. On this album, her second, she also plays acoustic guitar and keyboards and sings in a truly beautiful, carefully modulated voice. What she does here falls under the nebulous umbrella of art-rock, although her tunes are uncommonly catchy, adding both classical and jazz influences. Jost’s lyrics are deliberately opaque, and like her music, they can be very playful: she clearly delights in paradoxes and contradictions, making her listeners think. This is a terrific ipod album. Here she’s backed by her band including Julian Maile on electric guitar, Brad Albetta (who also produced) on bass and keys, and Colin Brooks and Matt Johnson on drums along with strings and horns in places.

It opens, counterintuitively, with a cover, a stomping yet heartfelt take of Iris DeMent’s sad requiem Our Town: could this be a metaphor for New York? The next cut, Halfway There is a beautifully catchy, artsy pop song whose keys surprisingly end up in the hands of guest banjo player Jim Brunberg about halfway through, who drives it home with very rewarding results. The following cut Vertical World ought to be the hit single, opening all dramatic and coy with a faux-gospel intro:

No I’m not from Georgia, but you are on my mind
I swear I am from Georgia, ‘cause I like it when you take your time

From there it morphs into ridiculously catchy piano pop, on one level seemingly a view of New York through the eyes of an ingénue. But as in the rest of the songs here there are possibly several shades of meaning: taken as sarcasm, it’s a slap in the face of anyone in the permanent-tourist class with their 24/7 party lifestyle and fondness for chainstores like Krispy Kreme. After that, we get the inscrutable I Wait, with a long intro that eventually builds to a cello solo that Jost turns over to Maile, who responds by building something that could be Dick Dale in an unusually pensive moment. The next track, Almost Nothing, a lament, begins with stark classical guitar and features some nice background vocals from Alice Bierhorst and Greta Gertler. Speaking of the unexpected, Maile throws in a completely bombastic, Robin Trower-esque fuzztone guitar solo.

The following song Reasons and Lies reverts to a catchy art-pop feel, with a cello solo from Jost doubletracked with eerily reverberating vocalese. Jost likes to take the same kind of liberties with tempos that she pulls with melody and lyrics, and the next cut Awake in My Dreams gently jolts and prods the listener with echoey vocals and sudden tempo shifts. The next cut Jump is as eerie as it is playful: the production is pure 70s disco, utilizing cheesy period keyboard settings, but the darkness of the melody gives it away: “Down is not so far away,” intones Jost without divulging anything more. With its layers of fluttery acoustic guitars and cello, Falling Down reverts to a chiming pop feel. The album wraps up with In Time, featuring more tricky time changes, and then Stowaway, which perfectly sums up what Jost is all about:

I’m hoping for a shore I can seek
Where dusk and dawn always meet

Challenging, captivating, thought-provoking and very pretty. Time may judge this a classic. Serena Jost and band play the cd release show for Closer Than Far at Joe’s Pub on March 3 at 9:30 PM.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Amanda Thorpe – Union Square

This could be the ultimate autumnal New York album, perfect for grey days with a chill in the air, winter’s hand tugging impatiently on the curtains. The songs on Union Square are gorgeously wistful and intensely poignant. What Linda Thompson was to the 70s and early 80s, Amanda Thorpe is to this era, another British expat steeped in traditional English folk, possessed of one of the most beautifully haunting voices you will ever hear. Thorpe is somewhat more diverse, however: she will give you eerie austerity and resigned melancholy, but she also has a seductive, torchy side with great nuance. This is the first solo release for Thorpe – who also fronts the supremely catchy Bedsit Poets – since her first album, Mass, in 2002, and it was well worth the wait.

By contrast to Mass, a lushly produced, smokily atmospheric effort, this one is remarkably terse and direct. Every note on this album counts. Thorpe is accompanied here by a choice crew of New York luminaries – co-producer Brad Albetta (also of Mary Lee’s Corvette) on bass, Bill Frisell sideman Tony Scherr on guitar and upright bass, Bob Perry on lapsteel and ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on keys. The album kicks off with the sarcastic Life Is Great, a lament directed at a pillhead: “Life is great with a hole inside.” Perry adds layers of bluesy lapsteel over Thorpe’s understatedly frustrated vocals. Track two, Won’t You Let Me (a co-write with Phillip Shelley) is pure seduction set to a sweetly soaring Albetta bassline. The next track, River Song is arguably Thorpe’s finest hour as a songwriter, a vivid account of rejection and despair, here recast with something of a Madder Rose-style 90s trip-hop feel. After that, Next to Me makes a good segue, Thorpe holding up a red flag – albeit from a distance – to a would-be suitor.

Burn This House Down, spiced with juicy blues piano from McGinty, has Thorpe bringing the intensity up to redline as she pulls out all the stops and belts:

Though I still love you
The romance is dead
As you burn this house down

Then Scherr launches into a truly nasty slide guitar solo.

Other standout tracks on this album include the marvelously catchy You and Me in a Doorway (also a co-write with Shelley) with its lush bed of guitars and lapsteel; the hypnotic, pastoral Over the Sea (a Wirebirds soundalike); the beautifully melancholy title track, and the absolutely brilliant Show Me a Place. Thorpe’s voice longs for something transcending the ordinariness that she’s held on to with such a steely grip, until now. “As long as there were cigarettes and another glass of wine,” everything was ok. But now she sees “my own black silhouette reflect against the sky:” high time for a change. Perry’s layers of lapsteel punch at the melody like a string quartet. Few other singers in Thorpe’s league ever get to sing material this good; still fewer songwriters in Thorpe’s league can deliver it with as much passion, intensity and subtlety as she does. This ought to appeal to a very wide listenership encompassing the purist Richard & Linda Thompson contingent as well as fans of the current group of A-list chanteuses (Feist, Erica Smith, Rachelle Garniez et al.) and maybe even some of the less adventurous for whom Norah Jones is simply the greatest thing out there.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album Review: Willie Nile – Streets of New York

His best album. Some critics have called it his London Calling: a better reference point would be Sandinista, given how New York-obsessed the Clash were on their final masterpiece. This cd – Willie Nile’s sixth full-length album, released midway through last year – finds the NY underground rock eminence grise at the top of his game and the peak of his career, 25 years after he started, when Vagabond Moon was the #1 song of the year in Norway. Yeah, Norway. The folks stateside got it for awhile – just listen to the audience on Nile’s Archive Alive album, recorded in front of thousands in Central Park in 1981– but the corporations didn’t. No great surprise.

 

Nile’s trademark is the Big Rock Anthem, filled with Big Catchy Hooks, and this album is replete with them. It’s two-guitar, four-on-the-floor meat-and-potatoes R&R, with a nod to the Who, a wink to Dylan and a big high-five to vintage, Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen, seen through the skewed prism of early 80s new wave.  Good stuff. Mellencamp (and Mary Lee’s Corvette) lead guitarist Andy York is Nile’s not-so-secret weapon here, leading the jackhammer assault with an uncommon mastery of tones and textures – Twin Turbine fans will dig this record. The rhythm section of Brad Albetta (also of Mary Lee’s Corvette) on bass and Rich Pagano on drums kicks ass; the melody guy and the rhythm guy lock in and push this sleek, powerful vehicle to the limit.

 

The cd kicks off with the stomping Welcome to My Head, a surreal blast of West Village imagery. The album’s most obvious choice for a radio hit is Game Of Fools, which sounds like the Wallflowers. Ridiculously catchy, the lyrics of the verse firing like a Gatling gun right up to Nile’s trademark killer chorus. Nile’s requisite long Irish ballad (he has a fondness for these) is The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square, featuring none other than Jakob Dylan on harmony vocals. The sad, towering anthem Fading Flower of Broadway reportedly brought York to tears when Nile first played it for the band: it’s a ruefully gorgeous Times Square mise-en-scene, set in an era before Disney came through and wiped it off the map.

 

Another standout track is Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead), lyrically the most Dylanesque of all of them. With its cleverly phased noise guitar solo and tricky false ending, it reminds of the explosive, percussive power of Nile’s 1980 FM radio hit Old Men Sleeping on the Bowery. The last 30 metal-melting seconds of this song, a scorching evocation of the Madrid train bombings, alone justify the price of the album (although the same could be said for the paint-peeling vindictiveness of The Best Friends Money Can Buy, a delirious blast of derision at the trust fund crowd).

 

It’s also nice to hear Nile – who began his career as a keyboardist and remains a potent player – featured on piano here, especially on the overtly Blonde on Blonde-inflected piano/organ shuffle Back Home and on the album’s title track, a Jungleland-esque ballad that closes the album on a gorgeously climactic note. For not only is this a great rock record, it’s a piece of history: the places Nile immortalizes here will soon be gone. Mamoun’s Falafel? Soon to be replaced by a Starbuck’s and luxury condos upstairs, no doubt. That is if they don’t raze the whole building. Get this album if you have any affection whatsoever for this city and what it used to be or know anyone who does. CD’s are available in better record stores, online and at shows. Nile is no dummy: he doesn’t play that many live shows in NYC anymore, so there’s always a full house when he does, watch this space.

May 1, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments