Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Best Triplebill of the Year

We move from the year’s best doublebill to the best triplebill of 2011 so far: Caithlin De Marrais, the Oxygen Ponies and Randi Russo at the Mercury on Sunday night, where Russo was playing the cd release show for her new one Fragile Animal (our pick for best of the year, maybe not so coincidentally). Each act was different, and yet the same (other than the fact that each one was playing with two drummers, Ray Rizzo and Konrad Meissner, whose interlocking, earthy groove was an unexpected treat). Tuneful, intense rock doesn’t get any better than this.

Caithlin De Marrais’ 2008 album My Magic City had a gorgeous rainy-day atmosphere: this was her fun set, material from an auspicious forthcoming album now being mixed. The former Rainer Maria bass player chose her spots and made her riffs count: few bassists get so much mileage out of such simple ideas. Often the bass carried the melody above Josh Kaufman’s ringing, jangly guitar. A few times, De Marrais would run a riff for a bar or two before launching into the next song: “You’ve got to watch, they catch up with you,” she grinned, “Not that you have watch your back in this town anymore.” As someone who was here before there was a “luxury” condo project on every ghetto block, she knows what she’s talking about. Kaufman made his ideas count for just as much, firing off suspenseful volleys of reverb-infused Sputnik staccato, or throwing shards of jangly chords into the mix. De Marrais is best known for plaintiveness and poignancy, and with characteristic nuance she added a more upbeat tinge to her vocals. Half the bands in Bushwick rip off New Order, but what De Marrais does with simple, catchy 80s hooks takes the idea to the next level. One of the new ones, maybe titled Cocoon, had a moody bounce; another new one, Rose Wallpaper, added carefree ba-ba-ba pop flourishes; still another paired off a bass riff straight out of Joy Division’s Ceremony with Kaufman’s pointillistic punch. The end of the set gave De Marrais the chance to cut loose and belt with impressive power, particularly a stomping, garage rock-tinged number with some ferocious guitar chord-chopping at the end, and a dead ringer for Scout that fell and then rose, apprehensive yet hopeful. “Just a dreamer after all…but let’s try,” De Marrais cajoled.

Where her vocals were all unselfconscious beauty, the Oxygen Ponies’ frontman Paul Megna doesn’t shy away from ugliness, or outright rage. And yet, when his vocals were up high enough in the mix, he was also all about nuance, adding more than the hint of a snarl to drive a particularly corrosive lyric home. This particular version of the OxPos (a revolving cast of characters) featured the drummers along with Don Piper on lead guitar, Devin Greenwood on keys and Chris Buckridge on bass. Their first song kept the New Order vibe going, followed by the cruelly sarcastic psychedelic pop of Fevered Cyclones, from their 2009 Harmony Handgrenade album. A hypnotic dirge from their highly anticipated forthcoming one sounded like the Church, with eerie, echoey guitar from Piper, building to a soaring anthem. The brooding, bitter Get Over Yrself gave Piper the chance to add his own corrosive noiserock edge; a more hopeful new anthem rose to a big swell fueled by Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet. They wrapped up the set with a gleefully ferocious, bouncy version of the Bush-era The War Is Over, followed by a pensive, Velvets-flavored anthem and then another new one that brought the garage-psych intensity all the way up with the two drummers going full steam.

Russo got the two drummers, JD Wood on bass, plus Piper, plus Megna on keyboards, plus Lenny Molotov on lead guitar and lapsteel. Resolute and velvety, she sang over the mini-orchestra behind her with a visceral sense of triumph. The album took longer to finish than anyone anticipated, but it was worth it and Russo drove that point home, opening with an especially amped version of Invisible. Speaking for every alienated individualist in the room, she grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat: “I am, I am invisible/I feel, I feel invincible.” With the three guitars going, The Invitation was exuberantly Beatlesque; the self-explanatory Alienation was another launching pad for some volcanic noiserock from Piper. Molotov’s falcon swoops on lapsteel added a menacing edge to the gorgeous, somewhat wistful Get Me Over, while Megna’s swirling keys gave the blistering kiss-off song Venus on Saturn a hypnotic ambience. Piper switched to harmonium for a fast, unusually short version of the Doorsy Restless Raga, Molotov’s solar flares bursting out of the murky mantra pulse. After a couple more hypnotically pounding numbers, she closed the show with the defiant Head High – Patti Smith as backed by Led Zep, maybe – and a counterintuitive choice, Swallow, a study in survival in the midst of being hit from all sides. It took some nerve to close on a down note with that one, and it worked.

And a shout out to Sergio Paterno, who earlier in the evening was playing gypsy and flamenco-flavored instrumentals on his guitar by tapping on the frets, using a lot of piano voicings, on the L train platform at 14th Street. It would have been fun to have heard more of what he was doing before the Mercury show.

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April 21, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerpop Trifecta at Bowery Electric

Wednesday night at Bowery Electric, Don Piper and his group opened the evening with a richly melodic, often hypnotic set. Piper’s primary gig these days is producing great albums – the Oxygen Ponies’ lushly layered, darkly psychedelic classic Harmony Handgrenade is one of his credits – but he’s also a bandleader. This time out he alternated between slowly swirling, atmospheric, artsy rock and a vintage Memphis soul sound, backed by a large, spirited crew including keyboards, a two-piece horn section (with Ray Sapirstein from Lenny Molotov’s band on cornet), bass and the Silos’ Konrad Meissner on drums (doing double duty tonight, as would many of the other musicians). Midway through the set Briana Winter took over centerstage and held the crowd silent with her wary, austerely intense, Linda Thompson-esque voice on a couple of midtempo ballads. They closed with a long, 1960s style soul number, Piper and Winter joining in a big crescendo as the band slowly circled behind them.

Edward Rogers followed, backed by much of the same band including Piper, Meissner, Claudia Chopek on violin and Ward White playing bass. A British expat, Rogers’ wry, lyrical songs draw on pretty much every good British pop style through the mid-70s. The most modern-sounding song, a pounding, insistent number, evoked the Psychedelic Furs, White throwing in some Ventures-style tremolo-picking on his bass at a point where nobody seemed to be looking. Whatever You’ve Been Told, from Rogers’ latest album Sparkle Lane, held an impassioned, uneasy ambience that brought to mind early David Bowie. A pensive, midtempo backbeat tune with a refrain about the “seventh string on your guitar, the one you never use” reminded of the Move (like Roy Wood, Rogers hails from Birmingham), as did a bracingly dark new one, Porcelain, highlighted by some striking, acidic violin from Chopek. And a pair of Beatles homages wouldn’t have been out of place on the Rutles albums – or George’s later work with Jeff Lynne. But the best songs were the most original ones. The most stunning moment of the night came on the understatedly bitter Passing the Sunshine, a Moody Blues-inflected requiem for an edgy downtown New York destroyed by greedy developers, gentrifiers and the permanent-tourist class: “This’ll be the last time you steal with your lies,” Rogers insisted, over and over again. In its gentle, resolute way, it was as powerful as punk. They wound up the show with a surprisingly bouncy psychedelic pop tune and then the new album’s droll, swaying title track.

Seeing headliner Maura Kennedy onstage with a bright red Les Paul slung from her shoulder was a surprise, as it was to see her guitar genius husband Pete Kennedy in the back with the drums, leaving most of the solos to his wife. But as fans of their acoustic project the Kennedys know, she’s an excellent player – and also one of the most unselfconsciously soulful voices in rock, or folk, if you want to call them that. This was her powerpop set, many of the songs adding a subtly Beatlesque or Americana edge to fast new wave guitar pop. The best songs were the darker ones, including the bitterly pulsing 1960s style psych/pop hit Just the Rain. Sun Burns Gold swayed hauntingly and plaintively, leaving just a crack for the light to get in; another minor-key number, Chains was absolutely gorgeous in a jangly Dancing Barefoot garage-pop vein, and she used that as a springboard for one of several sharply staccato, chordally charged solos. “I wrap myself in melancholy comfort of the waiting game,” she sang on a brooding ballad that evoked Richard and Linda Thompson. But there were just as many upbeat moments. White, who was doing double duty despite being under the weather, took an unexpected and welcome bass solo on a funkily hypnotic number toward the end of the set; they wound it up with the first song she’d written, she said, the country-pop ballad Summer Coulda Lasted Forever. The rest of the musicians joined them for an amazingly tight, completely deadpan cover of A Day in the Life, Maura leading her little orchestra with split-second precision all the way through the two long, interminable crescendos, a wry vocal from her husband on Paul’s verse, and then up and up and up some more and then finally out. It was an apt way to end a night of similarly expert craftsmanship.

December 10, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Oxygen Ponies at the Bell House, Brooklyn NY 4/21/10

The Truck America Festival crosses the channel for the first time, taking place at the Full Moon Resort in the Catskills this coming April 30-May 1. The Oxygen Ponies will be featured among over two dozen acts including Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Randi Russo, Tim Easton, the Sadies and Dusty and the Dreaming Spires, on three stages over a two-night, three-day span – tickets are $120 including camping, available in New York at Beacon’s Closet locations. If Wednesday’s show at the Bell House is any indication, it should be a lot of fun (the Full Moon recently played host to Beefstock, covered in detail here, and the main stage there rivals the Bell House for quality sound). As he will upstate, frontman Paul Megna brought the whole band along for this show – Don Piper doing a first-class Marty Willson-Piper impression on lead guitar along with a nimble keyboardist, drums and a girl singing high harmonies. Megna’s growling, semi-assaultive vocals matched his guitar playing, swiping at the strings disdainfully without a thought to how much damage he could do to the instrument – or himself – if he hit any harder. The Oxygen Ponies’ most recent album Harmony Handgrenade ranked high on our best albums of 09 list – this set mixed in several choice cuts along with some new material that reminds even more of the band they most closely resemble, Australian art-rockers The Church.

Megna started the show solo, savaging the past via slow, methodical post-Velvets sway: “Looking back to yesterday is worse than giving up,” Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet a eulogy in the distance. The band came up and launched into a pulsing, crescendoing anthem replete with Megna’s trademark cynicism: “Twice is once too much,” he snarled. A brisk version of the even more cynical Fevered Cyclones mocked conspicuous consumptives from the suburbs, followed by a corrosive anti-trendoid anthem. Megna threw down the gauntlet: “Let’s take off those gloves.” They took it out on a soaring, ornately atmospheric note with their most Church-like number of the night, Piper’s washes of guitar against Megna’s voice adding a hypnotic magnetism, a call to kill as much as a challenge to individualists everywhere to stand up for themselves.

April 24, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Debut Album by the Oxygen Ponies

The great lost Luna album – at least most of it. Darkly glimmering second-generation Velvets rock hasn’t been done so well since Dean Wareham and crew, about 15 years ago. “Get me out!” is the theme that recurs again and again here. The Oxygen Ponies’ debut release is a not a happy album, and it doesn’t end well. It’s a concept record about a breakup and its aftermath, a pungee trap that’s left a thousand songwriters impaled on the sharp bamboo sticks of self-pity and bloated ego. Credit frontman/songwriter Paul Megna for getting through this one with just a few scratches, his morbid sense of humor and withering cynicism solidly intact.

It begins quiet and acoustic with the downcast It’s Yr Life, a theme that will recur later. The next cut, Devotion begins with a 6/8 nice piano intro that comes back in at the end (themes both lyrical and musical abound on this album). “God I hate asking for favors, just get me out of this mess,” complains Megna as dirty, dirgy wall of guitar like Luna or the Jesus & Mary Chain circa their late 80s peak kicks in. After that, Brooklyn Bridge sets the stage for what’s to follow:

Heard you been talking shit my friend
Well you can talk talk all you want
If she gets fuckin’ hit again
It’s the asphalt you will haunt
‘Cause I have known a lot of girls
In that swimming pool called romance
Where simple oysters crush the pearls
With a steel toe’s swift advance
Washington, Washington, god I miss the Brooklyn Bridge
Get me out of Washington, take me where she lives

The next track The Truest Thing begins with tasty, reverberating Wurlitzer electric piano and what sounds like standup bass:

I get up 6 AM
Coffee, paper, back to bed again
Cause the news is never good
I only read the parts I think I should
Think I should write the perfect song
But everything is wanting since you’re gone
I’m up again, 12:15
My body yearns for more caffeine
The coffee burned to the pot
I thought I turned it off
But I forgot

It’s one of the most evocative portrayals of clinical depression ever set to music. It’s followed by Chainsmoking, the big breakup song, with more Wurly and nice layers of guitar on the chorus, evoking the Church at their most atmospheric. There’s a delicious lapsteel solo straight out of the Jon Brion/Aimee Mann school of arranging.

The second side of the album (the cd is divided into two sections, pre-and post-breakup) starts out with the slowly, sadly swinging, slightly jazzy Umbrellas in the Rain with its buoyant, muted horns:

She thinks I’m having a party
She thinks I’m baking a cake
She thinks I’m celebrating
Great

Then the guitars – all jangle, clang and feedback – kick in on Have You Forgotten. Here’s where the Luna/J&MC comparisons are most apt. It’s even more apparent on the next cut I Don’t Know Why, with its insistent rhythm underneath a soaring steel guitar melody. The accusatory Happy Where U R follows, a dead ringer for the J&MC tune Happy When It Rains. If this is intentional, the irony is very clever; if not, it’s a fortuitous coincidence because it works so well.

The slow woozy waves of depression return with Get Over Yrself, turning to mania on Starshine, a glimmering, growling hit waiting to happen. The album winds up with the epic The Quickest Way to Happiness – which leads you straight to hell. “I’ll survive,” intones Megna as the song builds to a majestic, orchestral chorus, but one has to wonder how much he means it.

Don Piper’s pristine production deserves major props for making this cd sound like a vinyl record, drums back in the mix where they should be, vocals slightly out front, guitars always cutting through. Fans of the gutter-poet school of songwriting: Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Shane MacGowan et al. will love this just as much as the guitar aficionados who will revel in the album’s textures. One of the better efforts we’ve heard this year.

June 28, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Bedsit Poets, Don Piper and the Oxygen Ponies at Luna Lounge, Brooklyn NY 6/3/07

The show probably would have sold out if not for the elements: torrential rain, umbrellas blown inside out, everyone in the house soaked to the bone. The marvelous Bedsit Poets opened. Their sound is totally late 60s/early 70s, windswept pastoral beauty in places, otherwise super catchy harmony-driven Britpop, the Kinks circa Arthur hanging out with the Fairport Convention crowd. Frontman Ed Rogers and rhythm guitarist/singer Amanda Thorpe blend voices beautifully. Both British expats, he has a classic pop delivery which pairs well with Thorpe’s soaring, passionate Britfolk style.

Thorpe was celebrating her birthday, and she held the audience in the palm of her hand, particularly on the sweeping, anthemic Reach for the Sky, from their well-received album The Summer That Changed (as in “changed our lives”). On the quiet, ethereal Chemical Day, Thorpe played a small keyboard that for a minute sounded as if it was producing some quiet, strategically placed layers of feedback. They closed their rousing 50-minute set with the title track from the album, a supremely catchy pop tune punctuated by lead guitarist Mac Randall’s swinging country licks. Rogers and Thorpe sang a round with each other at the end of the song: he launched into Mungo Jerry and she countered with Gershwin, the result being a typical Bedsit moment. They’re a very playful band. The audience wanted an encore but didn’t get one.

Singer/guitarist Don Piper and his band – including many of the people who would play later in the evening – followed with a painless set of slow-to-midtempo jangle and clang. At one point, guest guitarist Drew Glackin (who also plays with the Jack Grace Band and the Silos) took a slowly growling climb up the scale, turned around and came back down the way he went up. Against the steady wash of the two guitars behind him, it was almost as if it was 1984 and True West was onstage. But they never hit that peak again: Piper seems to be more interested in mood and atmosphere than saying anything specific. He doesn’t have the voice for rock – it’s a keening, high tenor – but to his credit he tackled a Curtis Mayfield number and absolutely nailed it. He has a real future as a soul singer if he wants it.

The Oxygen Ponies are basically songwriter Paul Megna and whoever he can rustle up for a show. Tonight he brought a whole herd, 11 musicians including a trio of backup singers, two guitarists in addition to Megna himself, lapsteel, rhythm section and two horn players. Megna comes from the gutter-poet school of songwriting, all bedraggled, depressed and chain-smoking. His melodies are contagiously catchy (think a less skeletal Leonard Cohen, or a more pop-oriented Nick Cave) and he can write a hell of a lyric, with a sometimes savagely cynical edge. And the band pushed him to project and sing, keeping his vocals at a safe distance from the dreaded cesspool of grunge. The band’s ability to hit a crescendo out of nowhere was literally breathtaking, especially on the final track from their new cd, The Quickest Way to Happiness.

What was perhaps most striking about their performance was that everyone onstage was clearly having a great time, and this carried over to the audience. What could have been dirges became anthems. The lead guitarist didn’t play much, but when he did, his slashing pyrotechnics never failed to ignite. The horns played in perfect unison with each other and the backup singers delivered joyous, heartfelt harmonies. Megna’s songs tend to go on for at least five minutes, sometimes much more, but they never dragged. And the sound system was crystal clear all night long. What fun.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments