Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Thomas Simon Brings His Kaleidoscopic, Psychedelic Sounds to the Gershwin Hotel

 Thursday night Thomas Simon brought his swirling, psychedelic, cinematic sounds to the lowlit stage at the Gershwin Hotel. What he really needs for his live show is a big stadium and a bank of smoke machines. Although most of his compositions segued from one into the other, this was as close to a set of separate, clearly defined songs as Simon has done lately. Typically, he’ll lay down a series of simple, catchy guitar loops, or a hypnotic drone and then add layers on top of it, sometimes going on for half an hour or more. It’s virtually impossible to tell how much of this is actually composed, and how much he’s making up on the spot, but either way, it’s hypnotic and often mesmerizing. Backed only by a terrific percussionist who ran his djembe through a series of trance-inducing echo effects, Simon opened with Up Against the Wall, the centerpiece from most recent album Moncao (ranked in the top twenty on our Best Albums of 2010 list). Building with stately, ominous guitar fragments that evoked peak-era Syd Barrett, it grew to a percussive gallop. “Stop this bloody war,” Simon whispered at one point: his lyrics have an improvisatory feel that seems to follow the mood of the music, or vice versa. Toward the end, they took the song down to an echoey thicket of fingertapping on the djembe before picking it up again: “There’s no more time,” Simon intoned against the distant, desolate grandeur of the atmospherics behind him. Although there were only two musicians onstage, they sounded like an entire guitar orchestra.

Much of the rest of the set evoked Bauhaus at their peak in the mid-80s, simple ascending progressions on the guitar, or brief series of chords that finally took on the shape of a distinct verse/chorus pattern on the evening’s last song. At one point, the djembe player – who was using a wireless mic – took an extended walk through the audience, one of the concertgoers responding with some wildly ecstatic dance moves, adding some unexpected but welcome drama. Occasionally, Thomas would augment the ringing, reverb-drenched overtones with some rapidfire lead guitar flourishes that moved rapidly through the mix. A trip-hop beat slowly made its way into a couple of later songs before oscillating out with a rapidfire “whoosh;” on one occasion, the djembe was processed to the point of sounding almost like a wood flute. Ringing tritones dominated torward the end. “It’s dark down here,” Thomas announced at one point with a half-snarled, half-spoken murmur, which pretty much summed up the night.

Advertisements

January 15, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

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

Small Beast, New York’s Edgiest Rock Night, Lives On

Monday night at the Delancey is still the most happening night of the week for rock music in New York. Small Beast founder and Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch may have taken his act on the road to Dortmund, Germany for the next year, but the weekly series lives on. This must have been close to Beast #100 and it was characteristically fascinating. Black Fortress of Opium frontwoman Ajda the Turkish Queen opened. That band’s 2008 Martin Bisi-produced album is a highwater mark in recent dark rock, but hearing their singer play solo was a real revelation. Switching between mandolin and piano, she showed off a versatile, nuanced and even playful vocal style that with the band sometimes gets subsumed in the din of the guitars. On album, her song Ari is a slowly crescendoing, ferociously guitar-fueled epic; live, it was hypnotic and plaintive. As it turns out, it imagines the life of the son Nico had with 70s French actor Alain Delon. A new, ornate ballad featuring some unexpectedly nimble mandolin work followed an upward trajectory; another new one, Fata Morgana was lyrically charged, “shot down by a man with disillusion in his eyes,” she sang with a wounded understatement. A fragmentary piano sketch with a long, intense a-cappella passage was claustrophobic and intense, followed by a percussive, insistent requiem. Her band is back in the studio working with Bisi again, a collaboration that promises even better results a second time around.

Pete Galub followed with a clinic in great guitar solos. He’s reached the point where he ranks with Gilmour, Frisell, B.B., whoever you care to put in your guitar pantheon. Galub matches wit to intensity, surprise to adrenaline and does it over incredibly catchy changes. He’s a powerpop guy at heart, so there’s always a memorable tune playing underneath his rhythmically tricky, dynamically shifting solo excursions. Watching him with just his Telecaster running through a few off-the-shelf pedals, it was a chance to see those solos completely unadorned: you could imagine any backing you wanted and they’d still work, whether that might be the Undertones, Big Star or even ELO. He’s a maven of melodic rock, opening with a relatively obscure but typically tuneful Only Ones anthem, Woke Up Sticky, eventually running through a thoughtfully paced version of his 6/8 ballad Boy Gone Wrong (title track to his surprisingly quiet singer-songwriter album from a couple of years back), and two fiery, noirish, minor-key anthems, the second a bitter, metaphorically loaded kiss-off song. He wrapped up his set with a clever, somewhat tongue-in-cheek reworking of Steely Dan’s Every Major Dude Will Tell You.

Atmospheric, edgy guitar noir soundtrack guy Thomas Simon – whose new album Moncao is one of the year’s best – had booked the night and was next on the bill, but the trains were messed up so it was time to go. And he’s gotten plenty of ink here before.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Botanica – americanundone

Their wildest album. What the Stones were to the 60s, what Pink Floyd was to the 70s, what the Church were to the 80s, what – good grief, who? maybe Pulp? were to the 90s – Botanica has been to this decade, simply the definitive rock band of our era. In their uncompromisingly lyrical, fiery, gypsy-flavored anthems, there’s a defiance against fascism, a raised middle finger at mindless conformity and the same unextinguishable passion shared by all the aforementioned bands. And as good as their studio albums are (look for more than one on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), nothing beats a Botanica live show. Finally, here’s one you can take with you. Last and final comparison: as live albums go, this ranks with the best of them, right up there with Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Night of the Living Dead Boys, and Metallic KO by the Stooges.

Frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s supporting cast this time out includes the equally powerful, melodic bassist Dana Schechter (of Bee and Flower), reverb guitar monster John Andrews, Mark Stepro on drums and Anne deWolff on violin. Unsurprisingly, this is Botanica’s loudest, most guitar-oriented album, Andrews in particularly savage mode from start to finish: even on the quieter numbers, he’s a threat to cut loose. The songs are a well-chosen mix of stomping crowd-pleasers and stately, ornate art-rock anthems. They’re off and running from the start with a particularly bruising version of Billboard Jesus, from their 2004 post-9/11 masterpiece Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Concrete Shoes, anguished and stalking on the Berlin Hi-Fi cd, is transformed into a nightmare vision in a reverb tunnel. La Valse Magnetique, title track to the band’s most recent studio effort (currently unreleased in the US) sets gentle violin and organ over a rhythm section that carries it away into scurrying, swinging gypsy punk straight out of the Gogol Bordello songbook. Wallfisch takes a glimmering cascade of Wurlitzer piano down to pregnant pause, a slow interlude and a startling cold ending. “Il nous reste que la fierte.” Pas de question.

Shira and Sofia is noir cabaret swing with a brutallly dismissive vocal cameo by Schechter and an evil slide guitar solo. The caustic Sex Offender takes the band to the edge of metal, daring to question the age of consent: “As long as she’s the girl next door and I’m the guy in college reading Schopenhauer. Sweet sixteen? She’s a sex offender. Hallelujah!” Wallfisch croons at the end in tribute to the flock who do such a good job saving us from ourselves.

The best tracks here are a study in contrasts, and they’re both from Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Swimming in the Ocean at Night is more evocatively, gleefully macabre than ever, shimmering with organ and reverb guitar, toy piano just enough out of tune to bring the menace to redline. The Truth Fish, Wallfisch’s ballistic response to the powers that be who let Ground Zero smolder for months on end, pulls out all the stops, building from noir bluesy stomp to whirling, apocalyptic gypsy dance ending with a wall of guitar feedback and then the outro that’s still pure redemption for anyone who lived and breathed through those  horrible days: “Fires. No. One. Cares. To. Put. Out [pregnant pause] OOOOOOUT! ” The show ends on an equally relevant note with How, another fast gypsy rock number sarcastically contemplating the reasons why some people simply refuse to get it, complete with wild, swirling violin, a long Middle Eastern interlude and a violent, crashing conclusion. Don’t take our word for it: in a remarkable stroke of generosity, the album is streaming at Botanica’s site. Physical copies only seem to be available at shows, but all the tracks are up on itunes. Watch this space for live dates: in addition, Wallfisch plays at around 9 every week at his ongoing Small Beast salon/performance at the Delancey.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment