Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bastille Day, Georges Brassens Style

To celebrate Bastille Day, last night at Barbes the Snow’s frontman Pierre de Gaillande and his Bad Reputation project played a richly lyrical, amusing yet often intense tribute to a dead French songwriter who is iconic on his home turf but little-known here. De Gaillande has been coming up with English translations and edgy chamber-pop arrangements of Georges Brassens songs for a couple of years now, many of them available on Bad Reputation’s album (which received a rave review here last year). Last night’s show included several of those numbers as well as new versions that hold up mightly alongside what de Gaillande has already reworked. Behind him, clarinetist David Spinley’s lines smoldered and gleamed with an often eerie gypsy tinge against the accordion swirls of Chicha Libre keyboardist Josh Camp and the jaunty pulse from Christian Bongers’ upright bass and the group’s new drummer, who was clearly psyched to be playing this gig. De Gaillande is also a much better guitarist than Brassens (a brilliant wordsmith but limited musician who actually wrote most of his songs on piano before transposing them to guitar).

Brassens’ songs are a goldmine of irony and black humor. He eulogizes people while they’re still alive, kvetches that the only people who won’t gleefully witness his execution will be the blind, and goes to bat for young lovers engaged in overt displays of PDA, only to remind them to enjoy their moment of bliss before it goes straight to hell. The band played each of those songs (including a stoic, nonchalantly intense version of Brassens’ signature song, Mauvaise Reputation, in the original French) along with sly versions of Penelope – which recasts the tragic Greek heroine as seduction object – as well as the Princess and the Troubadour, where a busy singer somewhat disingenuously resists the temptation to hook up with jailbait, and the absolutely hilarious Don Juan, a ribald yet subtle satire of wannabe-macho ladykillers. And the newer arrangements were just as fascinating. The original version of La Complainte des Filles de Joie is a coyly sympathetic look at the daily life of a hooker. De Gaillande’s translation cast the “filles de joie” as “ladies of leisure,” adding yet another, unexpectedly spot-on satirical element, right down to the “sons of vapid women” who frequent them: yuppies and whores, one and the same. He also led the group through swinging versions of a wry number about a guy who succeeds in seducing the wife of his neighbor, a lightning rod salesman, as well as the uneasy tale of an accordionist who’s gone off to the afterlife, lit up by a long, nicely ironic musette solo from Camp. By the time they got to The Pornographer – Brassens’ defiantly X-rated response to being banned from French radio – it was past midnight and nobody had left the room. Nice to see the songs of “the perverted son of the singalong” getting discovered by an audience he assuredly never would have expected to reach.

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July 16, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Concert Review from the Archives: The John Kerry Fundraiser at Sin-e, 8/26/04

[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]

Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.

Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.

Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.

Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.

Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georges Brassens Comes Alive in English – An Interview with Pierre de Gaillande of Bad Reputation

One of the great songwriters of our time, Pierre de Gaillande plays in more great bands than maybe anybody else on the planet. In addition to fronting the poignantly multistylistic chamber-pop band The Snow, he’s recently resurrected his popular, fierily anthemic art-rock band, Melomane. Yet his current focus is a new project, Bad Reputation, the first American group dedicated to performing English-language versions of the songs of iconic French anarchist chansonnier Georges Brassens. In between rehearsals and the media crush of an upcoming cd release show for its debut on Barbes Records (June 12 at the Bell House), de Gaillande managed to find the time to get a few words in edgewise:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Let’s see if I can get this right: you’re American-born, French ancestry, bilingual in English and French – and speak Russian also, I believe – and according to the PR stuff I have here, your introduction to the work of the iconic French anarchist songwriter came via your professor father, as something of a literary exercise. And for that reason you weren’t particularly fond of Brassens as a kid, is that right?

Pierre de Gaillande: No. I was born in Paris, France to a French father and American mother. I was born with dual citizenship – we lived in Paris for the first seven years of my life. My first language was French, but my mother spoke English to me as a child and I could speak a little English when we moved to the states.

LCC: When did you start listening to Brassens purely for pleasure?

PDG: Brassens was always on in my house when we were growing up. It was part of the musical landscape of our home like the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, the Dubliners, the Kingston Trio and a multitude of other French singers. I always liked listening to Brassens. What I didn’t like was my father’s didactic and proprietary attitude towards everything French in general, and Brassens in particular. Which has changed, by the way: Brassens is a topic we definitely connect on these days.

LCC: The work of some French musical icons has insinuated itself into American culture: Piaf and Gainsbourg for example. Is there an explanation for why Brassens never caught on here, or anywhere else in the anglophone world as far as I can tell?

PDG: There are two reasons for this as far as I can tell. One is that the pleasure in Brassens is primarily lyrical. Without an understanding of the lyrics, at least half the point is gone. The other reason is that unlike Brel and Gainsbourg, Brassens never explored any new musical territory in the arrangements of his songs – he kept his arrangement to an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, his voice, and occasional lead guitar. He only used a lead guitarist live on certain television appearances, never on stage. Just an aside, Brassens’ guitarist for the last ten years of his career was Joel Favreau, who has agreed to come to New York in November to do a Brassens festival at Symphony Space, for which Bad Reputation will be the house band with a bunch of French singers. So this is an extremely proud occasion for me and a chance to come full circle.

So unless you really love this kind of folk guitar music, if you don’t speak French, there aren’t many other points of entry into Brassens’ music besides very catchy melodies and his rich voice. By contrast, Gainsbourg explored all kinds of musical territory, like rock, reggae, funk, and disco, and he pandered to an English-speaking crowd by dropping English in his lyrics constantly. Brassens just didn’t pander. You had to go to him, he wasn’t coming to you.

LCC: What is your motivation in putting out this record? It’s not like you’re riding a wave of Brassens success, or tapping into some vast cultural resonance, at least in this country…

PDG: It’s a lot of fun. And I think it is extremely culturally relevant. This country can definitely use some voices championing what Brassens stood for; a deep love of poetry, history, literary and intellectual achievement, a disdain for consumerism, fanaticism, and the sheep mentality in any form, and a morality based on humane common sense, not religion.

LCC: What would you say was the biggest challenge in translating Brassens? Contemporizing dated slang? Or attempting to maintain both the same rhyme and meter as the original French lyrics?

PDG: The biggest challenge was translating very specific French slang, and deciding when to make the meaning gibe with the original time period, 50s through the 70s, or when to make it sound current. And of course all of it had to rhyme and fit in the same number of syllables if possible. One little example: in the song Penelope the first line is “Toi l’epouse modele, le grillon du foyer.” I chose to translate that literally as “You, the cricket of the hearth; you, the ideal spouse.” As far as I know, “the cricket of the hearth” is not an expression in English, but to me it is such a graceful way of saying “housewife” that I chose to translate it literally. There were scores of decisions to make, and on many occasions I used a current English expression, sometimes I didn’t.

LCC: Brassens was kind of gangsta, he went for shock value every time. I know at least a few of his songs were banned in France. How much of that shock value were you able to maintain – or does any of that still have the capacity to shock, in the era of Fitty and L’il Wayne?

PDG: Brassens was a punk. He just didn’t care what “‘the public” thought of him. If you listen to the song The Pornographer on my cd, you’ll see I tried to leave in all the words that might get bleeped on the radio these days. Does anything shock anymore, I don’t know. What’s more shocking in Brassens is the subject matter; a 13 year old girl who tries to seduce a much older musician (Princess and the Troubadour), a nun who warms up a man’s penis because he has no arms (Don Juan), a marquise who gives a man crabs (Trumpets of Fortune and Fame) and on and on and on…

LCC: Brassens loved double entendres, and he was very good at them – as you are, in your own songwriting with the Snow and Melomane. In translating these songs, did you ever find yourself having to choose one level of meaning over another? How did you handle that?

PDG: Good question. Sometimes I had to compromise or improvise. Bear with me while I give you an example. There is a moment in Penelope where he says “Il n’y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un coeur/Qui bat la campagne et galope” which literally means, “There’s no reason here to whip a heart/Which beats a path into the fields at a gallop.” It’s actually a triple entendre. The first level of meaning is a play on words for “here’s no cause to whip a cat [fouetter un chat]” which basically means there’s no reason to freak out, you need to relax, but he changes it to “whip a heart” so that it fits with the next pun, which is “beating a path.” Now the heart is beating, and it is galloping like a horse in the fields (la campagne.) But “battre la campagne” also means to go on a war campaign. So there are three levels of meaning densely packed in to two lines.

So what I did was keep the heart beating motif, but instead of whipping a heart, I used “swinging a heart” as in “there’s not enough room in here to swing a cat.” This then connected nicely with the beating heart in the second half, “Beating a path to distant fields.” I sacrificed one expression (whipping a cat) and substituted an English one (swinging a cat). The whole project was full of these kinds of verbal gymnastics. It’s a game, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

LCC: Above all – and I think this is the key to his success in France at least – Brassens is hilarious! But a lot of the humor is in the wordplay – it doesn’t translate. Literally. Or does it?

PDG: Some does, some doesn’t. I did my best to capture it. Brassens had about 200 songs in his catalogue, and some of the best ones are untranslatable, but there are many that do work, and that’s my mission. I think there are tons of hilarious moments on this CD.

LCC: The press release here says you’ve deliberately avoided trying to make rock music out of these songs, even to the extent of not utilizing drums on the album. I know that Brassens was not an enormous fan of rock, and that you’re trying to be purist about this. At the same time I can’t help thinking, this guy was pretty punk. You know, the eternal refusenik, he wouldn’t let anybody fuck with him. These songs would kick ass if you turned up the guitar, added more of a beat, brought the vocals up in the mix, don’t you think?

PDG: First off, the vocals are way up in the mix, just as they are in the original. I deliberately did not want to make a rock or “modern” version of Brassens. There is a great band in France called Brassens Not Dead that does hardcore thrash punk versions of Brassens, and they do a fantastic job, and they capture his punk spirit to a tee. There are also tons of crappy “modern versions” of Brassens in France, they are embarrassing and wrongheaded, at least to my ears. The best versions of his stick to the gypsy-jazz folk vibe that inspired him. I wanted this introduction to Brassens for English speaking people to be all about the lyrics. The music is there, and it is artfully executed and arranged by my fantastic band, but it just felt natural to stay away from the drums. The last seven albums I have made were rock albums, and once you start layering sounds and adding instruments, there’s no turning back. I needed to explore having the courage to make my voice the most prevalent sound on the album.

LCC: Can I continue playing devil’s advocate? Where do you get the idea that most Americans – who can’t even find France on a map, let alone have any awareness of who Georges Brassens is or why he might be worth discovering – would have the slightest interest in these songs? Or is there something here that might resonate with at least a cult audience?

PDG: Americans, or anyone else for that matter, can take it or leave it, it’s not up to me to make them like it. I’ve never made music with a concern for how it’s going to be received. Like all of my music, this started with me playing guitar and scribbling notes frantically, by myself in the middle of the night, completely absorbed in a fascinating pursuit. I think there are a lot of people out there who like a good melody attached to some really smart lyrics. They will enjoy this music if they want to, I can’t control that.

LCC: Your new album includes a cynical song about celebrity worship – talk about Brassens being years ahead of his time, huh?; a very funny one about being pussywhipped; a defiant, punkish one about staying true to oneself; at least one and maybe more that were banned in France; and the poignant outsider anthem Bad Reputation, the first song Brassens ever wrote, from which you take the name of the band. Do you have a favorite? Or is it one that’s not here, that you haven’t covered yet?

PDG: I have translated 23 songs, 13 of which are on this album. There are 3 or 4 that were really hard to leave off the album, including Poor Martin (Pauvre Martin), The Bistro (Le Bistro), and The Old Man (L’ancetre). They will be on future albums or singles. I also have two favorites that I’m beginning to simmer in my brainpan for future translation: “La Rose, la bouteille, et la poignee de main” (The Rose, The Bottle, and The Handshake, which is about how all three of those things are abandoned and then adopted by the narrator) and one called Hecatombe which is about a group of irate women murdering some policemen at an outdoor market.

LCC: I’m curious – besides you, does anybody else in the band speak French?

PDG: Quentin Jennings, who plays keyboards, charango and xylophone in Bad Reputation, is British, but speaks French and helped with some translation problems when I got stuck. Christian Bongers, our bassist, is German but has a pretty good handle on French.

Pierre de Gaillande and Bad Reputation play the cd release show for the album on June 12 at the Bell House at 7:30 PM.

June 7, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: The Snow – I Die Every Night

Here we are in March with the first classic album of 2010 (this one actually came out in mid-January). The Snow’s debut album True Dirt was good: this is a lushly arranged, thoughtful, funny, richly lyrical art-rock masterpiece. Bandleader Pierre de Gaillande has been writing good, frequently great songs for several years, throughout his days with Melomane, Sea Foxx and numerous other side projects (like his English-language Georges Brassens cover band Bad Reputation), but this is the strongest effort he’s been a part of yet. Putting keyboardist/chanteuse Hilary Downes out in front of the group was a genius move, even if it was only logical. She’s a torch singer straight out of the Chris Connor/June Christy mold (or a darker Nellie McKay) with an alternately coy and murderous way of sliding up to a note and nailing it. She also contributes half of the songs on the album, alternating with Gaillande from track to track, with an additional number, a rueful tango, written by multi-reed virtuoso David Spinley. The rhythm section of Christian Bongers (ex-Botanica) on bass and Jeffrey Schaeffer on drums slink through the shadows as the clarinet or saxes soar above the swirl of layers and layers of keyboards and the occasional snarl and clang of the guitar. There are other bands who leap from genre to genre as avidly as the Snow do here, but few who have such obvious fun doing it.

The opening track is Albatross, an ironically straightforward, metaphorically loaded ballad by Downes that makes stately art-rock out of a Gaillande garage guitar riff. Handle Your Weapon, by Gaillande, throws out a lifeline to a possible would-be suicide miles from civilization in a symbolic middle of nowhere, swinging along on the pulse of Downes’ electric piano. By contrast, The Silent Parade – sort of a signature song for the band – delivers the understated, menacing majesty of the snowstorm to end all snowstorms, the last way anyone would expect the world to end at this point in history. The warmly torchy, soul-inflected Fool’s Gold could be a requiem for a relationship – or for the promise that indie rock seemed it might deliver on for a moment but never did.

Undertow is a tongue-in-cheek clinic in jazzy syncopation, a showcase for Downes’ darkly allusive lyrical wit, matched by Gaillande on the wryly swinging, Gainsbourg-esque Reptile, a hot-blooded creature’s lament. The most menacing cut on the album is the hypnotic, woozy 6/8 masquerade-ball themed Slow Orbit. The album winds up with Downes’ understatedly bitter, minor-key chamber-rock ballad Shadows and Ghosts and Gailllande’s hypnotic, aptly titled psychedelic anthem Life Is Long and Strange, far more subtle than it might seem. Live, the band surprisingly manage to capture most of the atmospherics of their studio work; watch this space for NYC dates.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Lillie Jayne, Alice Texas and We Intersect at the Delancey, NYC 8/24/09

Small Beast #31 (could that be?) was at least from this perspective a little sad yet ultimately optimistic, equal parts fond evocation of a lost time in New York music history and auspicious preview of the future. With the depression in full swing, many of the rock clubs here still prefer to book acts numbering among the idle rich. But with the market for “luxury” housing in freefall and the crowds of tourists who once swarmed like flies on the carcass of the Lower East Side largely absent, we’re getting our city back and with it the music of its dark underbelly. Last night was beautiful example.

Ten years ago, both Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch’s band Botanica and also Alice Texas made Tonic their home when they weren’t on the road. But Tonic closed in 2006, driven out by rising rents: the building site is now a shoddy, mostly vacant multimillion-dollar Legoland condo project. But with Small Beast on Monday nights (moving to Thursdays in September) upstairs at the Delancey, Tonic has been reborn. Once again, New York has a home for fearless, dark, adventurous rock and related styles. Wallfisch, with his blend of gypsy, Romantic, blues and gospel piano, gets a ton of ink here so suffice it to say that last night’s show was typical. His bad mood from the previous week hadn’t dissipated, and this was a solo show, without the ringer percussionist who’d stood in with him, representing the youngest generation of rock fans (who stand to inherit an impoverished, probably vastly more dangerous yet also probably vastly more fertile scene than has ever existed here). “Why do you want to fight when you can fuck all night? I cleared the room!” Wallfisch added gleefully, as the logic of one of the whores in the Botanica song Shira & Sofia sent a posse of overdressed, fake-tanned bridge-and-tunnel girls stumbling up the stairs on their once-a-week high heels to the rooftop barbecue. In a set that went on barely a half-hour, he veered from seduction to wrath to regret, covering Leonard Cohen,Marianne Faithfull and his longtime noir cabaret partner Little Annie.

He was followed by a brief set by actress and Glass Lamborghini frontwoman Lillie Jayne and her pianist “Fagen Beauregard” performing songs from her current Fringe Festival show A Night with Poppy Bulova. Channeling an obliviously self-obsessed Eastern European chanteuse, the obviousness of some of the comedy at least proved how well Jayne has assimilated the style. A living legend takes herself seriously, after all – except at the end, this one didn’t, which was the funniest part of the act. Her show runs through August 29 at the CSV Cultural and Educational Center at 107 Suffolk Street.

Alice Texas’ show here back in June was transcendent. This time out wasn’t bad either, especially considering that she was essentially backed by Botanica, or portions of various Botanicas: Dave Berger on drums, Wallfisch on piano and Christian Bongers on a gorgeous vintage 60s hollowbody bass. It was a considerably different set, more upbeat, giving the noir Americana chanteuse the chance to cut loose and really wail on a couple of numbers. She led the band into a long, mesmerizing Moonlight-mile style outro and kept going. It was obvious that the crew wasn’t particularly well-rehearsed, not because they made mistakes – these guys are pros, after all. But she made it clear that she was the only one who knew when it was going to stop, keeping the suspense on a knife’s edge. Then she did it again on one of the later numbers, giving Wallfisch another, welcome chance to get expansive. They closed with maybe the most hypnotic song of the night, Permission, a beautifully relentless post-Velvets dirge.

We Intersect is the side project of the Sad Little Stars‘ Rachel McIntosh and Max Low. With their insistent, pitch-perfect harmonies and Americana-inflected melodies, they played an hour of alternately warm and wary Pete’s Candy Store piano pop (to those outside New York, Pete’s Candy Store is the little Brooklyn bar that spawned a million country and bluegrass-inflected indie acts back in the 90s and early zeros). McIntosh added gently ambient layers of synth on occasion alongside Low’s smartly chordal piano work. They opened with a deadpan version of the Ramones’ The KKK Took My Baby Away, eventually did an impressive and understatedly fresh version of Big Star’s terminally overplayed 13 and at the end of the set, a suitably haunted take of the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. But the originals were the best, one an upbeat 6/8 gospelish number, a couple of pensive ballads and a matter-of-factly delivered nocturne: “You dim the lights when you’ve arrived,” the two sang with a meticulous certainty.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 6/4/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #419:

BotanicaGood

Our predecessor e-zine’s pick for best song of 2004 was this towering, anguished 6/8 anthem, the centerpiece of the New York noir art-rockers’ classic 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish, frontman Paul Wallfisch’s organ roaring in tandem with John Andrews’ reverb-drenched guitar. “I need a respite, just a moment of respite, I thought I caught it but now it is gone…” The link in the title above is the last.fm stream of the complete song. Wallfisch plays songs from the latest forthcoming Botanica studio album tonight at the Delancey at 8:30 PM.

June 4, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ecstatic Epic Grandeur: Botanica at the Delancey, NYC 5/14/08

A triumphant homecoming. Although Botanica has done a lot of European touring in the last several months, it had been about a year since they last played New York. Transcending the limitations of an awful sound mix and a bizarre crowd situation, they reminded how badly they’ve been missed here: there is simply no darker, sexier band anywhere.

This was a drastically revamped version of the band: of the crew who last played here, only frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch and guitarist John Andrews remain. Losing a bassist the caliber of their longtime four-string guy Christian Bongers would ordinarily cripple a band, but they’ve replaced him with one of the world’s best, Bee & Flower frontwoman Dana Schechter, whose fluid, slide and chord-driven lines were unwaveringly brilliant, even though half the time it was hard to hear her. This was also the debut show for their new drummer, and if it was any kind of audition, he passed it with flying colors, particularly on the hauntingly swinging, 7/8 anthem Eleganza and Wines from their most recent American release, Berlin Hi-Fi. The woman playing violin stole the show half the time – a hard feat to pull off with this band – with her searing, incisive flights and fills.

They opened with a pop song: while menace is still their defining undercurrent, they’ve diversified their sound in the last couple of years, and this particular number was quite the surprise, albeit a successful one. Andrews picked another new number, a slowly crescendoing, Procol Harum-inflected, organ-driven art-rock number as the launching pad for a majestic, roaring slide guitar solo. Wallfisch sang the next song in French over a slowly circular, 6/8 melody with a rousing gypsy dance at the end. He then handed over vocals to Schechter, who was sadly almost completely inaudible, delivering a rapidly shuffling, macabre new tune that could have been vintage, mid-80 Siouxsie & the Banshees.

Then they launched into The Truth Fish, the (sort of) title track from their classic 2004 album, Wallfisch wandering offstage and into the audience with a bullhorn while the band swung the song’s noir cabaret melody around by the tail. Andrews and the violinist joined in a scorching crescendo as they wound up the the dance that builds up to the conclusion, wailing furiously until Wallfisch launched into the song’s ominous outro, the memory of the smoking pit at Ground Zero still fresh in everyone’s mind:

Fires
No one cares
To put out
Out
Out
Out
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE TRUTH FISH!!!!

“That was amazing,” Wallfisch exclaimed, and nobody was arguing with him, up front, at least. Unfortunately, the sound in the club was quieter than it’s possible to imagine it ever being here, making it very difficult to hear the band for anyone any further than, say, twenty feet from the stage. Compounding the bad sound was the fact that to celebrate the reopening of the club’s rooftop barbecue (which used to be free but now costs $5), they were serving free drinks at the bar in the back, where a loud crowd of yuppie puppies from out of town had congregated, bellowing at each other, oblivious to the music. Occasionally, a fratboy would drag his sorority girlfriend up through the crowd to see what all the fuss was about, only to stand there mystified for a few seconds before retreating back to the bar. Which was hardly a surprise: what Botanica does isn’t exactly safe or suburban, only underscoring the division between the throngs of amped-up fans at the front, and the New Jersey contingent in the back slurping down the free vodka.

They closed with another gypsy rocker, How, and then, counterintuitively, the quiet, slightly anxious This Perfect Spot. With Andrews punching his hammer-on chords over a swinging soul beat, it was totally 60s Stax-Volt. Wallfisch told the crowd he’d written it in Berlin, feeling good about the fact that he missed his wife, and the song hit the spot like a fine wine, rueful around the edges yet glad to be firing on all cylinders. So good to be alive while the whole world is going to hell. At least we have Botanica to provide a good soundtrack.

May 16, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Botanica – Berlin Hi-Fi

What do you do when your last album was arguably the best single-disc cd of the decade so far? Maybe you flip the script. Maybe you do something radically different, that no one can compare to your most recent effort. Maybe, you make a pop album – or part of one, anyway. That’s what Botanica has done with their latest masterpiece (their trademark epic grandeur and snarling ferocity roars back and takes over on the rest of the songs). It’s an unabashedly romantic (and Romantic) achievement, lush and orchestrated, eerie yet sexy as hell. Put this on the night table beside the Al Green and the Moonlighters: it’s bedroom music for cold starless nights.

Botanica’s trademark sound welds their towering, passionate, keyboard-driven melodicism to a dark, savage reverb guitar attack, blending elements of gypsy punk, classical music and goth into a powerful, potently cerebral cocktail. On this one, they don’t even start a song in 4/4 until the album’s fourth song. The album opens with the stately Eleganza and Wines, a beautiful, rueful lament for a time and place lost forever, played in slinky 7/8 meter. As is so typical with Botanica’s songs, it builds to a towering crescendo and then fades to its central hook. (And Then) Palermo maintains the feeling of regret, a gorgeously romantic pop song in 6/8. The cd’s following cut, its title track is the most overtly 90’s style indie rock song they’ve done to date, a little out of character, but it works: a joyous shout-out to Berlin, where they’ve built up a substantial following, and it’s obvious that the appreciation is mutual. Remember the last time you left the country, how good you felt, how absolutely liberated? If so, this is your anthem. Next song: Concrete Shoes. Classic Botanica, haunting and desperate. “Save me now/Tie the rope around my neck and pull me up.” The footfalls of Christian Bongers’ bass quickly creep along as the guitar and organ roar, building inexorable momentum. On the following cut, I’m Lifting, the tension recedes to the background, but just a little bit: the rest of the band plays over and around frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s central, haunting electric piano arpeggio.

Next up is A Freestyle Kiss to Hedy Lamarr (whose image graces the cover of the album), laden with sadness, melodies pouring in and overflowing the carafe, staining the tablecloth shiraz red. Then we get the frenetic concert favorite Someone Else Again, with its ascending bassline and Hollywood noir feel: David Lynch could use this for his next movie if it’s anything like Mulholland Drive.

The scorching antiwar song Waking Up clocks in at barely a minute and a half, a throwback to the furious politically charged power of Botanica’s career-defining previous album, Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. The album’s next tune, I Desire perfectly encapsulizes where Botanica is now. John Andrews’ scary reverb guitar plays the song’s central arpeggio as Wallfisch’s funereal electric piano tones reverberate against it and build to a firestorm of emotion.

The album’s most likely radio hit – and there are many to choose from – is its next track, Not a Bear: “more ambitious than your average bear,” as the lyric goes. “Why sleep when you could be wide awake?” It’s a curious question, with Andrews’ menacing guitar and Wallfisch’s organ lurking in the background, and it might be rhetorical. The alternative could be fatal.

More political gypsy punk (and a wildly frenetic, deliciously climactic violin solo) with How, which the band frequently uses as an aptly furious concert encore. Then the sarcastic, Nick Cave-inflected Fame, a savage blast back at the entertainment-industrial complex and all the rockstar wannabes who buy into it.

Then a return to the same reflective tone the album began on, with This Perfect Spot. The cd’s secret track is Eleganza and Wines rearranged for string quartet and it’s absolutely beautiful, a spot-on way to close this gorgeous, meticulously arranged and fearlessly intense album. This is not your neighbor’s whiny, tuneless indie rock. It’s not your father’s bloated, bombastic prog rock. It’s the soundtrack to your life at top speed, full volume, every synapse at full power. Why sleep when you could be wide awake. Albums are available in better record stores, at shows and online.

Frontman Paul Wallfisch is on tour right now with the “coalmine canary,” noir chanteuse Little Annie but we should expect at least one NYC area show this summer after they return.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments