Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

After Ten Years, Ninth House Finally Record Their Masterpiece

Long-running New York rockers Ninth House have been through as many incarnations as David Bowie or Madonna. Over the last decade, they’ve played ornate goth-tinged art-rock, straight-up punk, rockabilly, and even went through a brief jamband phase. Their new album 11 Cemetery & Western Classics finds them digging deep into frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ signature Nashville gothic songwriting style, and they’ve never sounded better: track for track, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a welcome return to the hard-hitting, stripped-down sound they first mined as a three-piece over ten years ago, with the added advantage of now having former Gotham Four frontman Keith Otten on guitar. He’s the best lead player you’ve never heard of, ripping through one intense, fire-and-brimstone solo after another, yet also just as likely to toss off a tongue-in-cheek rockabilly riff or poignant, plaintive washes of sound if a song calls for it, over the rumble and swing of Sinnis and drummer Francis Xavier.

They kick it off angry and bitter with Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate – “From New York City, the one that drags me into a hole,” Sinnis rages in between Otten’s alternately sparse and anguished leads. The relentless, doomed, pulsing Funeral for Your Mind features one of the most spine-tingling solos on any rock record this year; the fatalistic, tango-inflected Fallible Friend has a trumpet section that adds a spaghetti western feel, Otten’s savage, sardonic guitar a perfect complement to Sinnis’ cynical lyric. Otten’s countrypolitan guitar blends warmly with Susan Mitchell’s rustic, pastoral violin on the swinging Nashville gothic anthem The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, while When the Light Blinds and You Die takes a gospel melody and imbues it with suspenseful Steve Wynn-style psychedelic atmospherics.

A couple of tracks here date from the band’s landmark 2000 album Swim in the Silence. The Head on the Door-era Cure-style pop of Down Beneath is more swinging and carefree than the original, while Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, a genuine classic the first time around, trades lush 80s ambience for a raw, wounded intensity.

The album also includes a couple of covers: Lost Highway owes more to the Psychedelic Furs than it does Hank Williams, Mitchell adding unexpected flair with her violin, while guest pianist Matt Dundas gives a honkytonk edge to the Social Distortion-style stomp of Johnny Cash’s Blue Train. The album ends on a high note – as high a note as a song this morbid can hit, anyway – with the chaotic, sprawling country ballad 100 Years from Now, Sinnis announcing that when his time is up, he wants to be buried with a bottle of whiskey. Ninth House play the cd release show for this one on Sept 24 at midnight at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. between Delancey and Broome with free admission before 11.

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

Concert Review: The Hangdogs Reunion Show at Rodeo Bar, NYC 9/18/08

Shows like this can be extremely depressing; this benefit concert for Iowa flood relief was anything but (more on that later). The band actually looked better than ever. Maybe it was a good thing they broke up when they did, because the way they’d been drinking, they might not have lasted much longer anyway. For a substantial chunk of time in the late 90s and early zeros, there was no better New York band than the Hangdogs. Watching them evolve from overamped, politically incorrect honkytonkers to a magnificent, lyrically-charged Americana rock unit with a national following was one of the most satisfying things a concertgoer here could have witnessed – and countless did. But unable to tour constantly to support themselves, embittered by the corporatization of the music industry (and everything else) and the depletion of their mainly working-class audience, they packed it in in 2004, frontman Matthew “Banger” Grimm moving back to his native Iowa where he started an equally good, smart band, Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear. If memory serves right, this week’s two-night stand at their old haunt, the Rodeo (they play tonight as well) is the third time they’ve regrouped.

 

This time around, they didn’t have the full lineup – lead guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Karg AKA Texas Tex was AWOL. They did, however, have every bass player who’d ever been in the band, or so it seemed, a constant rotation taking turns depending on who knew what song. As usual, they saved most of the best stuff for their second set, toward the end of the night when everybody’d had more than a few. Standing in for Karg was Mick Hargreaves (formerly of Buddy Woodward’s Nitro Express), playing acoustic; southpaw guitarist Automatic Slim delivered his usual fast, crescendoing lead lines, and for once Grimm’s Telecaster wasn’t too low in the mix. The result was a fiery, ferocious blend of roar and twang. While a little loose from the booze and time spent away from the songs, they still played what has to be one of the best shows of the year so far.

 

Grimm marveled at how many sports bars have sprung up in the neighborhood since he left town. He was taken aback by a comment from somebody in the crowd: “I’m a pacifist. You have to hit me first.” As a writer, he’s as politically astute as Steve Earle or James McMurtry but a whole lot funnier, which is probably the secret to his success: instead of smacking you upside the head, he makes you laugh.  He and the band barreled through a mix of funny songs – the anti-consumerist Memo from the Corner Office, the New Nashville satire Drink Yourself to Death (which poses the question, why does country radio sound like Celine Dion?), Alcohol of Fame (sung by one of the bass players) and their signature song, Beware the Dog – along with more serious fare like The Little Man in the Boat, a darkly prophetic number about the destitution of the working class.

 

With a gleeful grin, Grimm got his amp howling with feedback before lauching into a blistering version of Flatlands, a savage chronicle of bad times on the great plains that’s been a crowd favorite for years. As usual, they threw some covers into the set: Cheri Knight’s pensive If Wishes Were Horses, a Johnny Horton cover and a Chuck Berry-ish number that a ton of bar bands do. As much as this could have been a cruelly tantalizing nostalgia trip for those who miss the days before 9/11, it wasn’t. The best song of the night was their last, a brand-new number possibly titled 1/20/09, delivered by just Grimm and the rhythm section. It’s a brutal yet ultimately optimistic 6/8 ballad, set indelibly in the here and now, looking forward to the day when 5.4 billion people on the planet will rejoice in George W. Bush’s departure from the office he stole in the coup d’etat in 2000. Like Grimm, many or maybe even most of us would rejoice if Cheney’s Toy got terminal cancer, and nobody’s looking forward to the messy task of cleaning up the debacle he leaves behind. It’s the kind of song you walk out of the bar singing to yourself, at least in the snippets you can remember. If Grimm can get it recorded in the next couple of months, we’ll have the anthem of the decade.

 

In case you missed this one, the Hangdogs are playing a second show, pretty much the same stuff, tonight (Friday, 9/19/08) at the Rodeo starting around 10ish.     

September 19, 2008 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Spanking Charlene – Dismissed with a Kiss

This band sounds almost exactly like X! Except with better vocals. Spanking Charlene’s frontwoman Charlene McPherson sings with a powerful, accusatory wail: her voice can be very pretty, and it is on a couple of the quiet songs on the album. But most of the time it’s fierce and intense, and really packs a wallop. The songs are gritty and slightly Stonesy: this could be the great lost X album, sandwiched between Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World. Although McPherson’s songs are more intentionally amusing, and she doesn’t try to be deliberately poetic like Exene: her lyrics rhyme, often very cleverly. “Beauty is subjective/And I know your objective,” McPherson taunts the guy trying to pick her up, in the in-your-face punk smash Pussy Is Pussy.

The other songs are a mix of short, roaring guitar tunes along with a couple of surprisingly thoughtful, quiet numbers. I Hate Girls catalogs the innumerable ways women can make each other miserable with catty behavior; When I Get Skinny is a sarcastic swipe at the multibillion-dollar business of making women insecure about their looks. “When I’m skinny maybe I’ll finally get myself that record deal” and “drink red red wine with every meal…the girls I see on MTV shake their ass and don’t look like me,” McPherson laments, speaking for every normal woman perplexed by the popularity of anorexics with implants.

Guitarist Mo Goldner sings the potently gritty, percussive Fidgety – “My dog is on that Prozac too!” – slamming out a series of licks straight out of the early Billy Zoom catalog. Red Rolling Papers is McPherson’s not-so-nostalgic look back at the hungover residue of late-night high school partying. The brief, lickety-split When Things Were New evokes X’s Year One, from Wild Gift. The gentle, introspective Easy to Be Sad and Behind (as in, leaving it all behind) prove McPherson isn’t just a one-trick pony, giving her the chance to show off her subtle, country-inflected side. On the album, bassist Keith Christopher (of Yayhoos notoriety) also shows off his versatility, keeping everything impressively simple and direct. Drummer Phil Cimino (from the Demolition String Band) proves he can play this hard fast stuff just as well as the more complicated material he’s used to. Eric Ambel’s production is spot-on, as usual: everything is dirty right where it needs to. Unsurprisingly, Spanking Charlene’s New York home base is Lakeside, where they play this coming February 16 at 10 PM. We reviewed one of their shows there last year [third most popular review in the history of this blog – Ed.] and it was as excellent as you would expect after hearing this fun, fiery album. Four bagels. With safety pins stuck through them.

January 11, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fuck American Idol

Tonight voices ruled: not the tiresome parade of flashy melismatic effects that the American Idol crowd reaches for, but uniquely individual voices, each with its own signature style. Pure, unleashed passion, wit, sadness, rage, exuberance, the whole gamut. Real, original voices delivering real, original material with real emotion.

After several rounds of stiff Bacardi 151 drinks at the Holiday Lounge, the Ukrainian bar on St. Mark’s (that venerable dive doesn’t take credit cards, so there’s no worry about losing your place at the bar to some trust fund child from Malibu), we made our way down to the LES to a tourist trap we would normally never be caught dead at. Ninth House was scheduled to play, but their drummer was stuck in midtown traffic, caught in a security gauntlet, a byproduct of the current westside gathering of multinational robber barons. So frontman Mark Sinnis did a trio show with his lead guitarist and piano player. Sinnis sings in a low, ominous baritone somewhere from the nether regions where Johnny Cash, Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison reside. He can croon with anyone, but he’d rather belt, raging against the dying of the light. Death figures in most of his Nashville gothic songs: he knows that country is the original goth music and mines it for every eerie tonality he can pull out of that deep, dark well. The sound at this yuppie puppie trashpit usually frightfully bad, and it was tonight, the vocals struggling to pull themselves from under the piano. One would think that at a folkie club like this that bills itself as sonically superior, vocals should automatically be the highest thing in the mix, but the sound guy was lost in his comic book and didn’t do anything to fix things. Sinnis fought the PA, and like John Henry, man against machine, the machine won. But he put up a good fight: hearing him project all the way to the back of the little room, virtually without amplification, was pretty impressive. If you were there (you probably weren’t – it was a small crowd) and liked what you heard, wait til you hear this guy through a mic that’s on.

Elsewhere, janglerock quartet Sputnik took the stage just as Sinnis and crew were wrapping up their set. Shockingly, the sound they had to deal with was actually pretty good: their tall, willowy blonde frontwoman Genie Morrow has never sung better. Tonight she was in effortlessly seductive mode, her sultry, breathy, sometimes whispery soprano peeking around the corners of the melodies. You have to listen closely for the drama in this band’s pleasantly catchy, jangly songs, but it’s there. Part of a frontperson’s job is to grab the audience somehow or other and hold them, while keeping the band all on the same page at the same time (a job that most corporate and indie rockers don’t have a clue about). Morrow delivered as if she was born to do this, and with a little luck (maybe a song in a good cult indie flick), she’ll be able to. She’d borrowed an accordion from an especially generous neighborhood shop, and its gently wistful tones were the perfect complement to her vocals’ gentle allure. This band has everything it takes to be big: hooks, tunes, a generally sunny disposition and casually virtuosic musicianship. And they were clearly having a great time onstage. It was particularly nice to see excellent drummer Nigel Rawles involved with something that has as much promise as his previous band Scout.

The high point of the night was at Lakeside where the excellent 4-piece punk band Spanking Charlene were playing. They’re not straight-up punk like the Ramones or UK Subs, but more Stonesy, like the Heartbreakers. Like Sputnik, they also have a casually charismatic frontwoman, but she’s a completely different type of animal, armed with a big, powerful wail. It’s a dangerous weapon, and she wields it expertly. This band’s lyrics are sardonic and funny. As with any punk band, they also have some anger, but in their case it seems to be inner-directed. In the night’s most intense moment – there were a lot of them – the singer launched into a crescendoing chorus, singing “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid me,” berating herself over and over again, and this was as incongruous as it was disturbing. From the lyrics, it was obvious that she’s no dummy: what on earth could she have done that was so stupid? Maybe the song is a cautionary tale. Either way, it made an impact. She also proved that she’s no one-trick pony with a surprisingly quiet, sweetly twangy country song. Their big audience hit right now seems to be a riff-rocker called Pussy Is Pussy (“People are afraid of pussy,” the singer knowingly told the audience) which isn’t even their best number. But it’ll be huge if they can get somebody to pull some public-domain footage (or, hell, any footage), make a primitive video and put it up on youtube. Spanking Charlene have a cd coming out in November, and if the live show is any indication, it will kick serious ass. Stay tuned.

Like Bob Lefsetz is fond of saying, the mainstream is dead. But the underground has never been more vital. So good to be alive in a place where, against all odds, there are still so many great bands – and killer singers. American Idol? Simon says, stick a fork in it.

September 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments