Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Debutante Hour Cover Up For Once

Musicians know that if you really want to keep an audience’s attention with a cover song, you have to find a way to make it different from the original. Usually the more you change it, the funnier it gets. The Debutante Hour’s new album Follow Me is all cover songs: hip-hop, new wave pop, bluegrass, Phil Spector and indie rock done oldtimey style with accordion, cello and percussion. Is the band being silly? Sarcastic? Serious? With the Debutante Hour, you never know. Accordionist Maria Sonevytsky, cellist Mia Pixley and multi-instrumentalist Susan Hwang’s stagewear may not leave much to the imagination, but their songs do the opposite: their deadpan surrealism isn’t always easy to figure out. Which is what makes them so appealing – aside from their perfectly charming three-part harmonies. And the outfits of course. They definitely were serious about putting the album together, with crystalline production from World Inferno’s Franz Nicolay.

The first song is No Scrubs, originally done by TLC, recast here as a ukelele shuffle. The original was mildly funny and this is funnier (live, it’s absolutely hilarious). When it comes time for the bridge, Baltimore hip-hop diva TK Wonder reminds that girl in the song isn’t a gold digger, she’s just sick of getting hit on by scuzzy guys – beeyatch!

Just What I Needed by the Cars is a horrible song, one cliche after another, absolutely unredeemable unless maybe as death metal or industrial. Here it’s reinvented as a tongue-in-cheek accordion tune, as the Main Squeeze Orchestra might have done it. When Nicolay comes in with his banjo, that’s when it gets really funny.

The third track is an acoustic hip-hop hit by popular Ukrainian duo 5’Nizza (whose name is a Russian pun, meaning “Friday”). It seems to be a come-on (the hook seems to mean something along the lines of “I’m not like that”). To a non-Ukrainian speaker, it comes across as catchy, innocuous trip-hop. The first serious song here is an unselfconsciously beautiful version of the Stanley Bros.’ If That’s the Way You Feel, evocative of the Roulette Sisters. Another serious one is Be My Baby, where they take the generic white doo-wop hit burned out by oldies radio decades ago and make it downright sultry. They close with the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize. If you missed the original, it’s Brian Jonestown Massacre-style nouveau psychedelia, in this case a third-rate John Lennon imitation with really awful (and kind of morbid) lyrics. The Debutante Hour’s version plays down the death fixation and plays up the pretty tune. They’re at Joe’s Pub on 3/25 at 7 PM.

Since now we know that the Debutante Hour’s covers are as fun and interesting as their originals, here’s some other cover ideas: John Sheppard or Thomas Tallis’ death-fixated sixteenth-century plainchant with intricate harmonies that scream out gothically for a reinterpretation by the Debutante Hour! How about Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, which is so idiotic that it wouldn’t be hard to have a little fun with – maybe bring back TK Wonder for that one? Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple, which pretty much everybody knows, and could use some harmonies? Camay by Ghostface Killah? The Girl’s Guide to the Modern Diva by Black Box Recorder? Vladimir Vysotksky’s acoustic gypsy-punk revolutionary anthem Okhata Na Volkov (The Wolf Hunt)? Just brainstorming here…

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March 13, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Katzenjammer – Le Pop

Katzenjammer’s new album Le Pop is pretty amazing, a strong contender for best of 2010. With their gorgeous harmonies, old-fashioned instrumentation and frequently lush production, the accordion-driven all-female Oslo quartet sound like the Dresden Dolls but better (more energetic, less cutesy and a whole lot darker as well). The self-styled “queens of sultry sound” balance an eerily rustic noir edge with tongue-in-cheek humor, and lyrics in English. On the new cd, multi-instrumentalist Solveig Heilo, accordionists Anne Marit Bergheim and Marianne Sveen and bassist Turid Jørgensen – who plays the largest four-string instrument in all of rock – bounce, scamper and blast their way through a mix of tempos and styles that evoke such diverse acts as the B-52s, Gruppo Sportivo and Gogol Bordello.

The album opens on a surprisingly pensive note with an instrumental “overture,” followed by the scurrying Keystone Kops vibe of A Bar in Amsterdam, which amusingly morphs into a Pat Benetar-style power ballad on the chorus. With its jaunty gypsy swing, Demon Kitty Rag evokes satirical New York trio the Debutante Hour. Tea with Cinnamon is an absolute delight, a vintage Toots and the Maytals-style rocksteady number with accordion and a surprisingly wistful lyric. The title track, a snidely exuberant Gruppo Sportivo-style satire of American corporate music is great fun, and the outro is absolutely priceless.

The darker material here is just as captivating. Hey Ho on the Devil’s Back sets charming harmonies and barrelhouse piano to a Nashville gothic arrangement with a funny but disquieting edge, and a series of trick endings. The big, anguished crescendo on the lushly orchestrated suicide anthem Wading in Deeper packs a visceral punch; the violin-driven To the Sea showcases the band’s harmonies at their most otherworldly, with an off-center, Icelandic vibe. There’s also the sternly tongue-in-cheek Mother Superior, with its eerie carnival organ; Der Kapitan, a macabre-tinged surf instrumental done oompah style; the coy country bounce of Play, My Darling; Ain’t No Thang, an oldtimey banjo tune; and Virginia Clemm, a sad, eerily atmospheric waltz. The depth and intelligence of the songs matches their good-time appeal: it’s been a long time since we discovered a band who could do that as consistently as Katzenjammer do. The group are currently on US tour (at Milwaukee’s Summerfest on July 3 and 4, opening for Elvis Costello), with a date at the Mercury Lounge on July 6.

June 29, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Debutante Hour and Kelli Rae Powell at the Jalopy, Brooklyn NY 6/15/10

The trip to Red Hook to see if the Debutante Hour could duplicate the harmonically-charged excellence of their new album was worth it. Live, the trio’s roots in 1920s/1930s ragtime and pop really show themselves, in an irresistibly sassy, lyrical Nellie McKay kind of way. The group’s two frontwomen Maria Sonevytsky and Susan Hwang passed an accordion back and forth when they weren’t plunking on a baritone uke or teasing a cocktail drum with brushes, while cellist Mia Pixley held everything together, a casual but compellingly forceful presence whether coloring the songs with plaintive washes of sound or plucking out catchy, bouncy basslines. As expected, their live show brings out their theatrical side, the clever charm of their lyrics and their spot-on three-part harmonies. “You try hard not to be an asshole like the one that’s in your head,” they sang on the tongue-in-cheek, logistically challenged but philosophically apt Organizing My Planner for Next Week. Be Yourself – which encourages listeners to seek out their inner Jennifer Jason Leigh rather than Alyssa Milano – was delivered with split-second choreography from the trio in their matching outfits and hats. Best song of the night, no surprise, was the Nashville gothic ballad Galax, unsettling on album and downright creepy live. A deadpan, oldtimey style cover of TLC’s 1999 top 40 hit No Scrubs had the crowd laughing all the way through to the final “beeyotch,” while the bizarre Sunday in the Trailer got a lot of smiles as the women contemplated who might be an alien: Kate Bush? Maybe? Bjork? No question.

That Kelli Rae Powell’s performance wasn’t anticlimactic is an understatement. At this point in history, stardom as it existed ten years ago may be dead, and if it isn’t, it’s no longer desirable. But from the point of view of someone who saw Neko Case on the way up in 1997, and Amanda Palmer three years later, Powell has that kind of star power, white-knuckle intensity and raw charisma that you only see once every ten years or so. She joked with the crowd, glad to be back at the Jalopy, a trip back to a different time and place, “But with the good beer,” she took care to note. But when she stepped up to the mic she took on a larger-than-life presence. Her vocals have crystallized: she can still do a killer Blossom Dearie or Bessie Smith, but she sang mostly in an insistent yet brittle vibrato that’s as eerie as it is coy, Betty Boop with a Ph. D., but in fullscale needle park panic mode. That voice alone is arresting: what she sings with it makes her so impossible to turn away from. Toward the end of the set, she put down her ukelele, and backed by upright bassist Jim McNamara and blues harpist Dave Pollack at their most torchily bluesy, she went into full-bore sultry mode, contemplating a seduction just as much as she pondered the unlikely possibility of not being alone for once in her life. Like Case, Powell cultivates a raw, wild, inconsolably distant persona, bruised and embittered yet hot to try for a simple connection one more time – at who knows what price. And somehow she ends up laughing at pretty much everything.

Her opening track, The Craggy Shuffle most perfectly captured that:

She could settle for more
He couldn’t ask for less
Under a setting sun
Driving a Pontiac hearse
There’s nothing bad that can’t get worse

Powell hails from Iowa, and did a couple of wistful numbers dedicated to that state, the first a poignant floodwater requiem, the second a request to be buried there since such a bittersweet girl deserves a final resting place in the land of fireflies and tornadoes. The “drinkaby” (combination drinking song and lullaby – a Powell invention) Midnight Sleeper Train came across as far more of a lament than the opiated version on her phenomenal 2009 album New Words for Old Lullabies, while the tour-from-hell narrative Don’t Look Back, Zachary played up the song’s surreal humor in the midst of what must have been one awful road trip, a Midwest late summer tour in a station wagon with no air conditioning.

And when it came to the innuendo-stuffed A Man What Takes His Time (originally written for Mae West), she pulled out every lascivious stop she could find, as her bandmates did. After both McNamara and Pollack had brought the temperature up a couple dozen degrees, she reached to say something for a second, then held back, finally flashing a triumphant grin and a double thumbs up for the band. The audience roared in agreement. Kelli Rae Powell plays Banjo Jim’s on June 27 at 9 PM with another first-class singer, Jo Williamson opening at 8. The Debutante Hour return to New York with a show at Union Pool at 9 on June 30.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: The Debutante Hour – The Birth and Death of Meaning

The Debutante Hour play oldtimey-flavored existentialist pop music. Clever and quirky but with an understated angst that sometimes goes straight down into the abyss, their soaring, soulful three-part harmonies deliver deadpan humor that’s sometimes completely black, other times totally absurdist and often hilarious. Their torchier songs remind a lot of Nellie McKay; their darker, more rustic stuff evokes the Dresden Dolls (whose drummer, Brian Viglione, guests here) as well as New York oldtimey stars Bobtown; World Inferno’s Franz Nicolay produced the album, squeezing every ounce of plaintiveness out of the songs. Pianist/accordionist Maria Sonevytsky and cellist Mia Pixley previously played together in indie harmony-pop band the Baby Pool, joined here by songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Susan Hwang. The trio romp, shuffle and sometimes tiptoe through an impressively diverse collection of styles.

There’s a couple of accordion oompah tunes, one a gentle kiss-off to somebody who takes himself a little too seriously, the other titled Watching Carrie Eat. The blackly funny Miracle Birth pokes fun at an impressive display of “origin stories” from around the globe, like the Roulette Sisters with an accordion, and a neat cello solo that leads nicely into guest Jonathan Vincent’s barrelhouse piano. Galax is an ominously chirpy oldtimey Nashville gothic swing tune about a couple on a doomed camping trip – and is that a theremin at the end? Sunday in the Trailer follows in the same vein, but even more creepy and more stream-of-consciousness:

As you pressed my shoulders
I thought of the claws of my feet.
I tried to hide them, but you found them eventually

What’s up with that?

Croak Hiss and Sputter, a swirling New Orleans reel, recounts a surreal road trip:

Wax dripped off the cylinders, frogs chirped like birds
The archive dust got windexed off by archive nerds

A tango, Organizing My Planner For Next Week transcends the mundane with the philosophical:

Can you plan surprises, like hope or skirting inevitable dread
The dread that killed your father, and all your mother’s regrets
That you swore would never get to you because you’re different from them

Other songs here tackle the zen of zombies as well as subatomic theory, along with a country waltz as Kurt Vonnegut might have done it; Scheherezade, which recasts the storytelling girl as a real schmoozer; and the chirpily sardonic Be Yourself:

So even if they assume you’re an Alyssa Milano
And you know you’re more like Jennifer Jason Leigh
Don’t let it affect what you do tomorrow

As much fun as this album is, it’s a likely bet that the band is just as fun live. The Debutante Hour play the Jalopy on June 15 at 8:45 PM, sandwiched between two other first-rate acts, ferocious New Orleans art-rock pianist Lady Baby Miss who kicks off the night at 8 and then irresistibly charismatic, deviously lyrical oldtimey siren Kelli Rae Powell at 9:30.

June 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment