Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Parisian Flair and Subtlety with Chloe Perrier and Her Fantastic Band at the Winter Cabaret Festival

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning the irrepressibly charming show by chanteuse Chloe Perrier and the French Heart Jazz Band last weekend at the Winter Cabaret Festival. Working every subtle corner of her supple soprano and backed by a slinky, similarly nuanced trio – Aki Ishiguro on guitar, Jim Robertson on bass and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums – she sang an intriguing mix of jazz, chanson, Brazilian and occasionally Romany-tinged numbers in French as well as impressively competent English.

The best song of the evening was an American number, an unexpected treat. The group reinvented the old chestnut My Heart Belongs to Daddy as a bolero-tinged Twin Peaks theme, radiating danger and just enough seduction to ramp up the menace. Ishiguro’s lingering, eerily tremoloing lines channeled Jim Campilongo at his most shadowy; by the time Ishiguro hit his solo, he’d shifted the ambience toward vintage, terse Jim Hall postbop purism. Meanwhile, Perrier wore her cards close to the vest: the teasing in her voice trailed off enigmatically with just a tinge of vibrato. She wasn’t about to give anything away, just like the vintage black lace dress she was wearing.

The rest of the set was just as eclectic. The night’s most obscure, and upbeat number was a 20s hot jazz tune that Perrier had found in a history book. The most obvious, but least obviously arranged number, was La Vie En Rose. The languid, rubato intro gave it away, but then the band punched in and took it in a tropical direction, lowlit by Recabarren’s surprise rimshots and boomy flourishes on the toms. He would do that all night, just as Robertson would hang on a chord for looming ambience as a song would move down the runway.

Fro the rest of the set, Perrier and her band shifted back and forth between bossa nova, cabaret, lively swing and at least one wry original. She brought the torrents of lyrics in Menilmontant to life with the bittersweetness but also the informed gravitas of a Parisienne who’s been there. Exes were dissed, relationships gone wrong were dissected and remembered through glasses that weren’t exactly rose-colored. “I’m trying to take it easy up here,” Perrier grinned; no one would have guessed how hard she was actually working if she hadn’t acknowledged it. Her next gig is on Feb 1 at 10 PM at the McKittrick Hotel.

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January 26, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Torchy Chanteuse/Tunesmith Jeanne Marie Boes Transcends Styles and Eras

Jeanne Marie Boes first came to the attention of this blog back in the zeros. Back then, she’d play the occasional gig at places like Tavern on the Green or some bistro in Queens. Why was this singer with the wise, knowing, fortysomething voice and songs that blended cabaret, mischievous blues and big oldfashioned rock anthems not doing more shows? There was a reason: turns out, she wasn’t in her forties. She was a teenager then.

Which was something of a shock. Among her three albums and numerous singles, there’s one where a family member tells her that she’s an old soul – and is she ever. She’s got brass in her upper register, a pillowy, dreamy quality in the lows and a soaring range. She sings conversationally, intimately: you feel like she’s in the room with you. You have to go back a long ways to find a comparison: Shirley Bassey without the camp, maybe. It’s an urbane voice, one that’s seen a lot in a short time and internalized it. And much as she’ll confidently channel whatever emotion she wants, she seems to like the subtle ones. As nuanced as she is now, if she keeps growing, in five years she’ll be terrifying. She’s playing the release show for her new single, Strangers, at the small room at the Rockwood on Dec 10 at 6 (six) PM, as good a room as any for a voice like hers.

As a tunesmith, she also looks back to an earlier era, yet her mix of Rat Pack orchestral pop, torch song, blues, cabaret and occasional stadium rock bombast is uniquely her own. She likes a clever turn of phrase, yet she’s down to earth at the same time. Like Harold Arlen – someone she resembles thematically if not really stylistically – she’s created her own niche.

The new single, recorded live at the Metropolitan Room, is streaming at Bandcamp along with the rest of her catalog. It’s a big, angst-fueled piano anthem, with a gothic tinge in the same vein as Kristin Hoffmann‘s darker material. And it’s a showcase for Boes’ powerful flights to the top of her register, ending with an unexpectedly jaunty blues phrase. Her albums are also worth a spin. Some of those tracks sound like demos, with drum samples and various keyboard textures substituting for a full band. Others have a directness that matches her voice; she doesn’t waste notes. Even if this is a solo show, it’ll be interesting to see how far she’s come in the time since she put out her first album in 2009.

December 8, 2014 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celia Berk Thrills the Crowd in a Nuanced, Compelling Metropolitan Room Debut

Celia Berk’s website is gramercynightingale.com. It might just as well be seriouschutzpah.com. It’s one thing for a singer to namecheck the world’s best-loved songbird…but one with a key to the park, too? That takes some nerve. In her Metropolitan Room debut last night, the cabaret-jazz chanteuse packed the room and wowed the crowd with a richly dynamic, urbane, minutely jeweled performance. Elegantly backed by her pianist/musical director Alex Rybeck along with guitarist Sean Harkness and bassist Michael Goetz, Berk delivered a program studded with gems that she and Rybeck had rescued from obscurity. Fans of cosmopolitan songcraft ought to see this show, which repeats on November 30 at 7 PM and December 6 at 4 PM for $25: considering the turnout at yesterday’s show, reservations are a good idea.

As a singer, Berk revealed herself as a stylist with laser focus on meaning and subtext, with an irrepressible, sophisticated wit. As her domain name implies, she is New York to the core. Her expressive alto has some grain around the edges: it’s the voice of a survivor, though one who hasn’t lost her joie de vivre. She expressed this most forcefully, airing out her low register on a gale-force take of David Shire’s What About Today as the band took it up from a latin-tinged stroll to a gusty crescendo. That same bittersweetness resonated more quietly but no less potently throughout Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s This Dream, with its theme of hope against hope.

But Berk can also be very funny. The biggest hit with the crowd was a droll new translation of an early Irving Berlin vaudeville number, Yiddisha Nightingale, its centerpiece an excerpt from a Puccini aria that gave Berk a chance to go to the very top of her register for full-throttle thrills. The sly version of the Cliff Friend novelty song The Broken Record – recorded by Barbra Streisand, among others – made a good segue, with its metrically tricky choruses mimicking a needle stuck in a groove. The funniest of all the songs was Berk’s New York cabaret premiere of Tex Arnold and Lew Spence’s Such a Wonderful Town, a very sideways shout-out to a tonguetwisting Long Island burg, riddled with irresistibly amusing wordplay.

Berk channeled plenty of other emotions from across the spectrum. She bookeneded a luminous take of Stairway to the Stars (the showtune, not the Blue Oyster Cult hit) with a lushly evocative interpretation of Will Jason and Val Burton’s Penthouse Serenade, explaining how pefectly the song captures her feeling for her hometown, which turned out to be a mix of rapt appreciation, wistfulness and a tinge of angst. A recurrent theme was evoked poignantly via a lesser-known Alan and Marilyn Bergman number, I’ve Been Waiting All My Life: Berk is not new to this, as was immediately evident from her command of its nuances, and was on a mission to leave a mark as someone who’s no ingenue and has decided to embrace that role, one with the depth n0 ingenue could reach.

Many of the songs from this performance are on Berk’s new album You Can’t Rush Spring, with Rybeck and an expanded cast of musicians.

November 24, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Notes from the Underground: Tammy Faye Starlite as Nico in “Chelsea Madchen”

by Serena Angelique Williams

I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.

I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.

This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.

The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.

Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.

In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.

The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview.  We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.

Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.

As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.

And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.

The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission.  Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. There is one last performance on Saturday, and it should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in “Chelsea Madchen” at the Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. South on Nov 19th at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10; reservations are highly recommended to (212) 255-5438.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carol Lipnik Plays Hell’s Kitchen: A Match Made in Heaven

There are what seems like hundreds of flaming queens playing piano bars in New York and most of them are the cookie-cutter variety. Kim Smith is more the boxcutter type. He books a weekly, semi Weimar-styled show Monday nights at 10:30 PM at Vlada Bar on 51st Street that he calls Vauxhall, performing alongside what seems to be a solidly eclectic mix of performers. Last night, his icy slink and velvet delivery matched to a stiletto wit, he played the diva role to a hilt even when technical difficulties pulled the spotlight off him (he blamed his excellent, incisively forte pianist). And he’s a dynamite singer. Bang Bang and You Keep Me Hanging On were reinvented as completely over-the-top noir cabaret, while what sounded like a mashup of Marlene Dietrich and Kylie Minogue seemed like a perfectly natural segue, supported by his steady stream of snarky one-liners.

The second act, Daryl Glenn, opened with a long, hilarious number from a recent Fringe Festival musical memorializing the good old degenerate days of the 1970s. Much of it was told from the point of view of a kid whose grandfather leaves him and goes off with another guy to have tea – wait a minute, nobody goes to have tea in the men’s room! And a couple of Cat Stevens numbers from Harold and Maude which as much as they might evoke fond memories of that twisted flick, are best left to their minimal place within its score. Off to the side, his pianist Karen Dryer alternated smartly between artful flourishes and a hammering chordal attack.

Carol Lipnik didn’t have the reverb pedal she loves to use but she did have her longtime collaborator Dred Scott on piano, which is all New York’s foremost noir cabaret singer really needs. He was in particularly psychedelic mode (which makes sense, given his long-running Tuesday midnight jazz trio show at the Rockwood), and without her favorite gizmo, Lipnik joined the rest of the bill by doing her whole set unamplified. What a voice: some people don’t need a mic. Without the EFX, the phantasmagorical stuff like the surreal When I Was a Mermaid and the romping Freak House Blues let her show off just how powerful the top of her four-octave range really is. And the most surreal number of all of them, Two-Headed Calf took on an extra poignancy: he may be destined for the museum tomorrow, dead, but right now he’s looking at the stars. And he can see twice as many of them as we can. She wrapped up her set with the most mesmerizing moment of the night, Love Dogs, a Rumi poem set to a quietly torchy soul melody and it was there that she brought down the lights with a warmly comforting, maple sugar soprano, the last thing you would think you’d ever get out of Carol Lipnik. But it’s in her repertoire. Which comes as no surprise: she’s always got something up her sleeve. Watch this space for news about her upcoming residency at PS 122 with John Kelly.

February 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 1/14/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Friday’s is #746:

Edith Piaf – 65 Titres Originaux

The prototypical noir cabaret singer, tiny but tough, brassy but brittle, Edith Piaf earned the right to sound world-weary by the time she’d hit her teens. Brought up in a whorehouse, she may or may not have been a child prostitute, might have hired the hitman who killed a guy who wanted to pimp her out, lived hard and died young when all the booze and drugs caught up with her. In between she became the voice of a people – and she did it her way, defying convention. As a singer, she never marketed herself as a sex object, and she wrote many of her own lyrics – the ring of authenticity in all those tales of street urchindom is no affectation. Among the thousands of Piaf collections out there, we picked this three-disc reissue from a few years ago because it has so many songs, and most of them date from her peak period in the mid-thirties through the fifties. La Vie en Rose is the one that everybody knows, and by comparison to her other stuff at least, it’s schlock. Instead, try the bitter Milord, the anguish of La Foule (The Crowd, which is shockingly not on this album), the brooding, suspenseful Padam Padam or the downright creepy L’Accordeoniste. The rest of the songs range from gypsy jazz (Les Momes de la Cloche/Kids in the Street), to lyrically rich, wistful ballads (Le Disque Use/Used Record); ragtime (Un Refrain Courait Dans la Rue/There’s a Rumor Going Around); lush orchestrated tours de force (Je M’en Fous Pas Mal/I Don’t Give a Fuck) and completely over-the-top stuff like Misericorde, which is totally goth, right down to the tolling bell and the choir of bass voices. 65 songs here: every time, the pain in her voice transcends any language barrier. Here’s a random torrent.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Genius of Georges Brassens Revealed for English Listeners

By all accounts, Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation cd is the first full-length album devoted to English-language versions of songs by legendary, obscene French songwriter Georges Brassens. Brassens was more punk than just about anybody: an atheist and a communist, his records were frequently banned by the authorities during his early years in the 1950s, which only fueled his popularity. His songs are irresistibly funny, driven by a snarling contempt for middle-class conformity and an unwavering populism. Why did Brassens never catch on here? De Gaillande sidestepped the question when we asked him last summer. It’s because Brassens’ arrangements are simple to the point of sometimes being threadbare. It’s obvious that Brassens saw himself as a poète maudit with guitar rather than a musician lyricist like Richard Thompson or Steve Kilbey. Here, de Gaillande (frontman and lead guitarist of two of this era’s finest art-rock bands, the Snow and Melomane) tersely and brilliantly fleshes out the arrangements with a frequently ominous blend of gypsy jazz and noir cabaret, featuring his Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass. The result is fearlessly iconoclastic, vicious and hilarious: in other words, it does justice to the originals. And musically, it’s actually an improvement: de Gaillande’s strong, clear baritone adds nuance in a way that the gruff Brassens never could. The songs themselves date from the 40s (the shuffling title track, Brassens’ signature song, defiantly asserting that only the blind wouldn’t join in gleefully to watch his execution) – to the 70s (a literally obscenely funny version of Don Juan).

Brassens didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he had could smell a hypocrite a mile away. Those qualities brought out the cynic in him, front and center here on Public Benches (Les Amoureux des bancs publics). While the masses may see them as fit “for only the impotent or the obese,” they’re actually quite romantic. The song goes on as a ringing and surprisingly uncynical endorsement of PDA – for awhile anyway, until it becomes clear that the point is to let the young lovers have their way since the sum total of their happiness together will pretty much be limited to their time sitting in the park. Likewise, To Die For Your Ideas (Mourir pour des idées) lampoons the limousine liberals who can’t tell the difference between an idea that’s worth sacrificing oneself for and one that’s not, despite all evidence including the “killing fields and mass graves.” That one’s done as a deadpan duet with eclectic chanteuse Keren Ann.

The best songs here are the most harshly funny ones, which resonate with innumerable levels of meaning. On one hand, Don Juan lauds the lothario who’d rescue a lonely woman from a sad, otherwise permanent virginal state, along with the nun who “defrosted the penis of the amputee.” On the other, it’s a sendup of any wannabe ladies man who’d count a night with an utterly undesirable woman as a notch on the belt. The Pornographer rather disingenuously tries to play off Brassens’ sexually explicit lyrics as a decision to relent and give the people what they want – and the images are so over-the-top ridiculous, and perfectly rendered in English, that this version is no less entertaining or explicit than the original. The dilemma is revisited even more entertainingly on Trumpets of Fortune and Fame (Les Trompettes de la renommeé), a snide look at celebrity: then as now, sex sells.

There are three other angry classics here. On one level, Ninety-Five Percent gives a shout-out to a woman who wants sex with love; on another, it’s a springboard for another spot-on, obscenity-laden Brassens spoof of a wannabe stud. The resolutely swinging anticonformist anthem Philistines quietly takes pride in the “unwanted progeny” that the unthinking masses assume will grow up to be cleanshaven accountants: instead, they’re all going to turn into shaggy poets. And the savage I Made Myself Small (Je me suis fait tout petit) drips with equal amounts of contempt for the jealous bitch who’ll spear a flower with her parasol lest her boyfriend think it more attractive than she is, and for the spineless wimp who’ll let her get away with it. The rest of the album includes the wry Princess and the Troubadour (La princesse et le croque-notes), a missed opportunity for statutory rape; Penelope, a cynical look at seducing a married woman, and the surprisingly upbeat, proletarian Song for the Countryman (Chanson pour l’auvergnat).

De Gaillande’s translations match Brassens’ original lyrics in both rhyme and meter, an impressive achievement by any standard, fortuitously enabled by Brassens’ habit of continuing a single, long phrase over the course of several bars. It’s even more impressive considering how well the double entendres and slang of the original have been rendered here. In a couple of instances, de Gaillande mutes the dirty words: for example, in Ninety-Five Percent, “s’emmerde” is translated as “bores her out of her mind” rather than “pisses her off.” But in the spirit of Brassens, he adds an emphatic “fuck” or two where there were none before. Several of the translations’ subtleties are genuinely exquisite: for example, in To Die for Your Ideas, de Gaillande alludes to a guillotine rather than the scaffold in the original lyric. And in Trumpets of Fortune and Fame, he chooses to translate “pederasty” literally rather than going with its usual connotation (“pédérastique” is a somewhat dated way of saying “gay”). Francophones will have a field day comparing all these side by side (one reason why this review has been in the works for such a long time – the album’s official release was this summer). Pierre de Gaillande plays this album with his band along with special guests Joel Favreau (Brassens’ lead guitarist) and Favreau’s longtime collaborator, keyboardist Jean-Jacques Franchin Friday, December 17 at 9 PM at the 92YTribeca on Hudson St.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 10/30/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #822:

Carol Lipnik – Cloud Girl

Those of you who follow this list as we count it down with a new album every day might have noticed how lighthearted it’s been in recent weeks. That was deliberate: we didn’t want to beat you to death with one shade of black or grey after another like we did with the Best 666 Songs list that we just finished this past July. But with Halloween coming up, we’re going back to the dark stuff. This one, for example. Coney Island born and bred, noir chanteuse Carol Lipnik walks a tightrope between sinister and sultry. The cover image of this 2006 cd, a shot of the rails of the Cyclone rollercoaster with its “REMAIN SEATED” sign, is apt. Celebrated for her bone-chilling four-octave range, she’s also a multi-instrumentalist songwriter and a regular collaborator with jazz piano great Dred Scott.This is her most phantasmagorical album. It’s got a couple of creepy waltzes – one about cannibalism, another about madness; the playfully lurid Freak House Blues; the macabre pop of Falling/Floating By, and the lushly moody, menacing Crushed. Other songs work dreamy atmospherics for a more distant menace: the lushly beautiful Traveling and the haunting, hypnotic, Radiohead-inflected title track. Lipnik’s been working lately with cabaret/avant garde star singer John Kelly , which gives them about eight octaves worth of vocals put together. Her first two albums before this one, My Life As a Singing Mermaid and the intense Hope Street are more stylistically all over the map – she’s terrifically adept at soul, blues and gypsy music – and also worth getting to know.

October 30, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last True Small Beast?

Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, creator of the Small Beast concert series at the Delancey – New York’s most cutting-edge, exciting and important rock event – played his final set at the club Monday night, since he’s moving to host another Small Beast in Dortmund, Germany. Sharing a characteristically rich bill with Wallfisch were ”cemetery and western” crooner Mark Sinnis, cello rockers Blues in Space and Wallfisch’s longtime co-conspirator Little Annie Bandez.

All of these acts get a lot of ink here. Sinnis played a terse duo show on acoustic guitar, backed by the reliably extraordinary Susan Mitchell on gypsy-tinged violin. His trademark Nashville gothic material went over as well with the crowd gathered at the bar as the blast of air conditioning flowing from the back of the upstairs space did. The two mixed up creepily quiet and more upbeat songs from Sinnis’ new album The Night’s Last Tomorrow along with older ones like the hypnotic, vintage Carl Perkins-flavored That’s Why I Won’t Love You.

Blues in Space featured composer/frontman Rubin Kodheli playing electric cello, accompanied by eight-string guitar and drums. Hearing their swirling, chromatically charged, metal-spiced instrumentals up close (the band set up on the floor in front of the stage) was like being inside a cyclotron, witnessing the dawn and decay of one new element after another. And yet the compositions were lushly melodic, especially an unselfconsciously catchy new one which was basically just a good pop song arranged for dark chamber-rock trio. Kodheli fretted afterward that he wanted to take special care not to sound “bombastic,” something he shouldn’t worry about. A little bombast actually wouldn’t have hurt.

After Blues in Space, Wallfisch made the long wait for his set worthwhile. Small Beast is his baby, and as much passion as he put into it, it obviously wasn’t easy to let it go. As much as he didn’t hold back – the guy is one of the most charismatic frontmen in any style of music – he also didn’t go over the top, letting his songs speak for themselves. And they spoke volumes: his glimmering solo piano arrangement of the Paul Bowles poem Etiquette, and his closing number, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, equal parts seduction and anguish. “One and a half years, it seems like a lifetime ago,” he mused, which makes sense: in that short span of time, Small Beast in its own way took its place in the history of music in New York alongside CBGB, Minton’s and Carnegie Hall.

In between, Little Annie joined him for flickering, torchy, regret-steeped versions of Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away (interrupted by a posse of drunken tourists barreling down the stairs and past the stage, oblivious to the moment), the reliably amusing anti-trendoid anthem Cutesy Bootsies, a genuinely wrenching requiem for a suicide titled Dear John, and an apt encore of It Was a Very Good Year. Annie is reliably hilarious; tonight she was just as preoccupied. And who can blame her (she goes on tour with Baby Dee in late summer/early fall).

As for the future of Small Beast, the Delancey’s Dana McDonald has committed her ongoing support (she’s no dummy – being known for running a club that books smart music is always a plus, no matter how much more moronic the world of corporate and indie rock gets). Vera Beren – a rare bandleader who can match Wallfisch pound for pound in terms of charisma – hosts next week’s Beast on July 12, featuring her band along with ambient, minimalist synth goths Sullen Serenade and ornate, artsy Italian/New York 80s-style goth band the Spiritual Bat.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment