Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Song of the Day 2/24/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s song is #155:

Richard Thompson – Mascara Tears

Big vicious rock anthem from the iconic British guitar god’s 1992 Mirror Blue cd, one of his best:

Mascara tears, bitter and black
Spent bullet through a hole in my back
Salt for the memories, black for the years
Black as forever, mascara tears

February 24, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/18/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #161:

String Driven Thing – Suicide

Just so you know, we deleted Decades by Joy Division to make room for this somewhat more direct, fiery blues-rock song by the cult band responsible for the 1972 The Machine That Cried album. This one’s from the band’s 1992 Live in Manchester reunion tour cd, a bitter rocker’s graveside tableau:

The T in contract

The I in impasse

The M in muzak

The E in Ex-lax

The S in suicide

The long, Dave Swarbrick style violin solo winds this up ferociously.

February 18, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man

This album is a reason why we wait til the eleventh hour – in this case, the eleventh hour of the decade – before we finalize our 50 Best Albums of the Year list. Robin O’Brien might be the best singer you’ve never heard: her recordings have been prized in the cassette underground for years. Like her previous album Eye and Storm, this new cd has been masterfully assembled layering some of those legendary vocal tracks over new arrangements with guitar, bass, some keys and percussion that manage to be lush yet austere, played by Luxotone Records’ George Reisch (AKA The Weary of Bobby Vacant and the Weary, another artist with an album high on the 2009 list here). While The Apple in Man is as dazzlingly multistylistic as her most recent effort, what may be most astonishing about it is how many other styles she tackles here that she didn’t the last time around. Is there anything this woman can’t sing? Dreampop, check. Haunting 70s-style Britfolk, got it. American psychedelic pop in the style of the decade before that, check again. Trance, you bet. The Laura Nyro-on-steroids gospel flavor that made Eye and Storm so gripping isn’t much in evidence here, but that doesn’t matter. Front and center is Hangman, an a-capella showstopper built out of layers and layers of O’Brien’s trademark vocal harmonies. Folk music fans may recognize the song as Gallows Pole, but the closest comparison might be the Bulgarian Womens’ Vocal Choir doing Bjork. With its righteous rage channeled through some of the eeriest harmonies on the album, there’s no reference to Odetta and even less to Led Zep.

The rest album veers from subtle and witty to absolutely haunted and back again. The titular Apple, a fresh and often hypnotic interpretation of the Eden myth, looms in with a disquieting feel, but it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom and liberation, its ethereal harmonies soaring over an almost minimalist rhythm section with swooping organ accents. With its sudden, playful tempo shifts, Bobby My Memory deviously memorializes O’Brien’s friendship with Bob Kinkel of Trans-Siberian Orchestra during their days as Berklee classmates back in the 80s. Julie, spiced up with just the hint of flamenco, is a bright psychedelic folk number that would have been perfectly at home on Chelsea Girl (except that O’Brien hits the notes that Nico never would have). And Reisch’s distorted guitar makes a perfect match for O’Brien’s effortless and strangely hypnotic exuberance on the following track, Gold Chain.

But the strongest songs here are, unsurprisingly, the darkest. October (click the link for the video) soars, but with a distinctly somber feel brought out with understated menace of Reisch’s orchestration. The single best one might be the even eerier Hand in the Window, O’Brien’s lower register blending ominously with Reisch’s steadily deliberate walk down on the guitar into pitch blackness. O’Brien’s intensity on the stately 12-string guitar ballad Traveller is nothing short of visceral: “Darling don’t go to sleep, there’s a way out and it’s way down,”  she intones with a Nyro-esque anguish, layers of vocals and guitar building to a creepy unresolved ending. But all is not despair: bouncing along on a nifty trip-hop groove, Mama is something akin to chamber pop meets early 80s Cure (think Faith, maybe). The cd ends on the hypnotic note where it began. This album leaves you somewhat breathless but also mystified why O’Brien never became famous. Then again, as cliche-free as this cd is, maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t. You can hear the whole thing (and buy it too) at Luxtone.fm.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 7/29/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #364:

Fairport Convention – Sloth

Richard Thompson once dismissed this as “an instrumental written by the bass player,” and whether it was Tyger Hutchings or Dave Pegg playing on it, the bassline is to die for. Yet ultimately it was Thompson who would always set this psychedelic antiwar epic ablaze. The 1969 studio version is excellent, but of the zillions of live versions out there, possibly the best is on the Live Convention reissue from 1974

July 28, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/29/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #455:

Richard Thompson – I Still Dream

The greatest rock songwriter ever? The greatest rock guitarist ever? Many would say that the answer to both questions is no-brainer and it’s this guy. This wrenching Britfolk-style ballad is a showcase for all kinds of chops: lyrical, compositional and musical. From the Amnesia album, 1987. The link above is a stream of the studio version; here’s a slightly lo-fi but still sweet live take from four years later.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

The Bedsit Poets Live at Banjo Jims, NYC 2/6/08

This show validates our Rainy Day Theory, that the ideal time to go out is during a monsoon or a blizzard because there are hardly any crowds to compete with, and the musicians onstage, driven by anger and frustration at the skies, often turn in an incandescent show. Even minus the big stage and big powerful PA system that the Bedsit Poets are used to – and also minus their bass player – they still delivered a lush set full of sweeping grandeur and soaring three-part harmonies. Lead guitarist Mac Randall’s Fender clanged and sang like a Rickenbacker; drummer Nancy Polstein had absolute command of the room with her subtle, quietly nuanced rimshots and accents (and played piano on one song, impressively well), while singers Amanda Thorpe and Ed Rogers traded parts and jokes and dazzled with their voices. Both of these two British expats love their 60s rock – if there’s ever another Austin Powers movie, this band should do the soundtrack – and sing as if they were brought up on it, which perhaps they were. They opened with the catchy Simple Twist of Emotion, from their debut album The Summer That Changed (whose deliciously jangly title track they also played). On a new number, perhaps titled Misery, Rogers clearly enjoyed playing a raffish, underworldly character versus Thorpe’s straitlaced persona. After a beautiful, darkly jangly 6/8 ballad sung by Thorpe, they played a bossa song with lots of harmonies, everyone in the band’s frontline singing a different lyric at one point, Randall obviously reveling in the complexities of the melody (titled Every Day I Fall in Love with You Again, maybe?)

“This one Amanda wrote in five minutes,” said Rogers with a straight face, as the band launched into an impressively bluesy cover of Dylan’s You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, Randall tossing off a few spot-on Bloomfield/Langhorne licks at the end. They ended the set with a big slow anthem evocative of the Church, its gorgeous, arpeggiated melody unfurling slowly and majestically, and closed with an original that Rogers said was a tribute to T Rex. What a treat to be able to hear such an inspiring, uplifting show in such an intimate setting.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Little Pink – Gladly Would We Anchor

Washington, DC band Little Pink’s third and best album effectively blends both British and American folk-rock traditions while managing to sound completely original. Richard & Linda Thompson is the influence that jumps out at you, blended with the resigned yet raging sensibility of Rosanne Cash’s recent work. Frontwoman Mary Battiata sings in a troubled, world-weary, haunting voice, appropriate for someone who covered the war in Bosnia as a journalist in the 1990s. Her lyrics remind of Sandy Denny, replete with images from nature and pastoral scenes, often painting a starkly evocative picture. Her melodies are terse, catchy and lend themselves to all sorts of commercial purposes: Lifetime TV dramas, NPR themes and – gasp – commercial radio. If this album had been released in 1976, Fleetwood Mac would have found themselves on a dead run to catch up. That’s a compliment. It is mind-boggling that this band is not huge right now.

With fifteen tracks, this is a long and richly rewarding album. “We took half our lives to find ourselves here,” Battiata relates casually in the opening track, the simple, ridiculously catchy country/folk song Like a Wheel. Charm Offensive, a bouncy blues, is spiced with baritone sax; Battiata does a nice, recurrent vocal jump on the chorus. With Battiata’s gently lilting chorus, Trance is Fleetwood Mac gone to Nashville. Ten Feet High, with its slowly stomping beat and layers of screaming guitar from lead player Philip Stevenson, is an obvious homage to the Richard & Linda Thompson classic Shoot Out the Lights. There’s more backbeat-driven folk-rock on China Sea, sounding like one of the good cuts on Sunnyvista. Stars Burn Out is a big crunchy guitar-driven rocker that could be a solid track from Mary Lee’s Corvette’s last album. Wind and Water is a quietly haunting, very Sandy Denny-ish traditionally styled number, seemingly about refugees adrift on the ocean.

The Britfolk continues with the fast, minor-key English reel Orange Moon and then the wickedly catchy John the Cat, with an absolutely killer chorus and more impressive vocal leaps and bounds from Battiata. Beggar’s Bowl is a slowly swinging political parable that crescendos gently into Battiata’s excellent acoustic guitar solo. The Brokenhearted is an accusation, building with amazing subtlety, the drums creeping up to the chorus marvelously as the song’s central hook kicks in: “You’re not brokenhearted.” The album ends on a riveting note with Battiata’s best song, the offhandedly creepy Magic Years, which sounds like a sentimental look back at an idyllic childhood, until you listen closely:

We carved our names
Up all the trees
We counted stars
Til we believed
On the edge of our beds, holding hands
Holding our breath

Absolutely brilliant. If Americana, British folk or just plain good, lyrically-driven songwriting is your thing, get this album.

January 31, 2008 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Amanda Thorpe/Randi Russo/Ninth House at Hank’s Saloon, Brooklyn NY 8/25/07

Amanda Thorpe has made a career out of joining bands that are ok and making them suddenly great. She did that with the Wirebirds, and recently with the Bedsit Poets. Tonight she showed how, with just her voice, her songs and her new Christian guitar (it’s a gospel model that New York musicians apparently love to play in the guitar store until they notice the big white cross on the headstock). She opened with a Richard Thompson song, a-capella.“That’s as close to Linda Thompson as I can get,” Thorpe sheepishly told the crowd, but what could have been pure hubris wasn’t. As a singer, British expat Thorpe is in the same league, with a similarly haunting, resigned delivery. But she can also belt and wail and has a very playful, jazzy side that she showed off tonight. If and when Norah Jones falls off the radar – not that she should – Thorpe could very well take her place.

She played a lot of material from her forthcoming cd Union Square, including its understatedly wistful, beautifully melancholy title track. Her Bedsit Poets bandmate Edward Rogers joined her onstage for a duet on the sad, knowing The Highs Can’t Beat the Lows. A couple of times, she tried to engage the audience in a singalong, but this fell flat: everybody was too busy listening. The crowd here drinks and gabs: that she got them to shut up pretty much says it all. Her best songs were an unreleased number called the River Song, a bitter tale of rejection and betrayal, and the morbid, 6/8 Bedsit Poets sea chantey Around and Around. She also did a marvelously nuanced version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire, jazzed up the Mama Cass hit Dream a Little Dream of Me and closed with a breathtakingly powerful version of the Steve Wynn classic For All I Care, bringing out every ounce of the lyrics’ suicidal wrath.

The only complaint about Randi Russo’s show was that it was too quiet. Otherwise, she and her trio (minus her lead guitarist Lenny Molotov, who was out of town) played a set of some of her most powerful songs, including the hypnotic, pounding, Velvets-inflected One Track Mind (from her obscure Live at CB’s Gallery ep), the eerie, chromatic Adored, the towering, 6/8 alienation anthem Prey and the scathing minor-key dayjob-from-hell number Battle on the Periphery. She’s been playing lead guitar in the Oxygen Ponies lately, and the careening, noisy solo she took toward the end of the unreleased Hurt Me Now turned the atmospheric, melancholy song into a blazing rocker as the rhythm section channeled Joy Division. Tonight, for some reason, all the bands were quiet: at least this put her cutting lyrics and velvety vocals out front and center.

Ninth House frontman Mark Sinnis was celebrating his birthday, and they predictably packed the place. They’ve shuffled their lineup yet again, with a new guitarist. Despite not having had the chance to do much rehearsing, the Anti-Dave, as he calls himself attacked the songs with passion and imagination. Until very recently Ninth House had a very 80s dark anthemic feel, and while the majesty of the songs remains, there’s a newly bluesy, somewhat improvisatory feel to the music, particularly in the interplay between the keyboards and the guitar: an unexpected and very promising development. They burned their way through the swinging, country-inflected When the Sun Bows to the Moon and Mistaken for Love, found some new, bluesy energy in Injury Home (from their second cd Swim in the Silence) and closed with a blistering cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky.

We went to Superfine afterward and were reassured to find this place as good a choice of late-night hang as it’s always been: all the yuppies go home by 1 AM, and the crowd that remains is pretty much like any other crowd you’d find in what used to be New York, a motley crew that keeps to themselves and doesn’t annoy.

August 26, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

CD Review: Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior

This is Richard Thompson’s best, angriest, most lyrically rich and stylistically diverse studio album in ages, in fact since Industry, his 1997 collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson. Some of you may wonder why we’re reviewing someone so well-known here, and there’s a reason: he’s actually not that well known. He hasn’t had a label deal in years. He does, however have a rabid cult following, some of who go on the road with him like the Grateful Dead. Those fans insist that Thompson is both the best rock guitarist AND the best rock songwriter ever. They might be right.

He was already a dazzling player at 19 when he joined legendary psychedelic/Britfolk rockers Fairport Convention in the late 60s. He left that band a few years later and then put out several critically acclaimed semi-acoustic albums with his wife Linda Thompson. That collaboration culminated with their legendary 1982 record Shoot Out the Lights, a brutal blow-by-blow chronicle of the dissolution of their marriage that ends with what would become his signature song, The Wall of Death. It’s safe to say that it’s one of the greatest albums ever made. Since then, he’s released innumerable solo albums, both live and studio recordings, and virtually all of them are terrific. This ranks with the best of them.

The album’s centerpiece is a towering, seven-minute epic about violence. Its setting is Ireland, but its cast of dubious characters and their inevitable charge towards tragedy could could just as easily be in Iraq. Toward the end, we get a typically febrile Stratocaster solo from Thompson. He generally plays with a round, open tone without any distortion or effects, similar to Robert Cray. Here, he fires away a fusillade and then the instruments fall away one by one, with an understated, somber grace that perfectly matches the lyrics. Thompson is a master of matching melody to words, and this is a prime example.

There’s also a fiery anti-Iraq war number called Dad’s Gonna Kill Me, told from the point of view of a British soldier with his patrol, “sitting targets in the Wild West Show.” Dad is someone in command: he’s never named. It’s a tense, terrified, loping minor-key number that builds to an eerie, pointillistic guitar solo.

A lot of this album is electrified English jigs and reels, spiced with ominous guitar chromatics: Thompson loves those Middle Eastern tonalities. The sarcastic Mr. Stupid is directed at a greedy ex (ex-wife Linda, perhaps?) living off his royalties and tour earnings: “Clear the streets and book your seats, Mr. Stupid’s back in town.” She may despise him, but he’s quick to remind her that he’s still the one who writes the checks. The theme recurs in the album’s concluding number, Sunset Song, Thompson railing about being “up there on the cross where some say I belong.” He hasn’t been this angry at anyone – other than the Bush regime – in a long time.

Otherwise, there’s the excellent, sarcastic, defiantly fast I’ll Never Give It Up; Bad Monkey, another broadside aimed at an ex; Francesca, a rueful minor-key lament set to a surprisingly effective reggae beat, and the scorching, anti-Tony Blair song Sneaky Boy. And six other good ones, beautifully arranged with antique instrumentation: strings, krummhorn, mandolin, even uillean pipes on the tail end of the aptly metaphorical Too Late to Come Fishing. If you’re in the Thompson cult, you undoubtedly have this by now along with everything else; if he’s new to you, this is a fine way to become acquainted with a criminally underrated, astonishingly powerful rocker.

August 17, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment