Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

More Nashville Gothic Intensity from Mark Sinnis

Dark, prolific rock songwriter Mark Sinnis’ long-running band Ninth House may be on life support at this point, but his solo career is thriving – he sold out the House of Blues in New Orleans the last time he played there. The powerful baritone singer’s fourth and latest solo album, The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror, is arguably his deepest and darkest. A loosely thematic collection of songs with a cautionary “carpe diem” message, it’s a mix of Johnny Cash-influenced Nashville gothic along with artsy, atmospheric rock, including a handful of Ninth House songs radically reinvented as hypnotic, brooding ballads. The quavery wail of Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel seeps from many of them like blood from a corpse; other than Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals, that’s the album’s signature sound. Zach Ingram provides deft, low-key keyboard orchestration on several of the songs, along with Ninth House drummer Francis Xavier, and Matthew Dundas’ incisive, gospel-tinged piano on three tracks.

The title track is a talking blues of sorts, a metaphorically-charged race with a hearse that wryly nicks the melody from Sympathy for the Devil, Molotov weaving back and forth across the yellow line in a duel with former Ninth House guitarist Bernard SanJuan. The angst-ridden Injury Home plays down the bluesiness of the Ninth House original in favor of atmospherics and a nonchalantly slashing Dundas piano solo. Peep Hole in the Wall was a standout track on Ninth House’s 2000 breakout album, Swim in the Silence; the version here is even creepier. Likewise, Cause You Want To takes an balmy wave pop song and makes a dirge out of it, courtesy of Susan Mitchell’s lush string arrangement. The most death-obsessed tracks here are the straight-up country numbers: 100 Years from Now, a voice from beyond the grave, and Sunday Morning Train, which looks grimly at the marble orchard as it passes by (the metaphors don’t stop coming here). Yet the closest thing to Johnny Cash here, a solo acoustic track, is also the most upbeat and optimistic.

With Xavier’s distantly echoey drums and mariachi trumpet, their version of Ghost Riders in the Sky imaginatively recasts it as an apprehensive border ballad. They also redo Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons as a revenge anthem, with lyrics updated for the new Great Depression, a theme they revisit with the bitter, tango-flavored Hills of Decline. The two most visceral tracks here both feature Randi Russo on vocals: a majestically orchestrated, vertigo-inducing version of Death Song (another Ninth House number) that chillingly pairs off her haunting stoicism against Sinnis’ morbid croon, and the David Lynch-style noir pop duet To Join the Departed in Their Dream. On her new album Fragile Animal, Russo sings with tremendous nuance; her vocals here are nothing short of exquisite.

The album ends with an uncharacteristically lighthearted singalong (lighthearted by comparison to everything else here, anyway), I’ll Have Another Drink of Whiskey, ‘Cause Death Is No So Far Away. A shout-out to Shane MacGowan, it’s a bittersweet enticement to seize the moment while it’s still here, even if that’s only to drink to forget how soon that moment will be gone. It’s also the funniest song Sinnis has ever written: if you can get through the turnaround into the chorus without at least cracking a smile, either you have no sense of humor, or you don’t like to drink. Count this among the increasingly crowded field at the top of our picks for best album of 2011.

June 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/30/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #852:

The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

This brand-new 2010 album has the Martini Cowboy reverting to the classic 1960s C&W party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with a better band, better songs and an unbeatable concept: this is party music for smart people. With a swing jazz rhythm section of Grace’s wife Daria on bass, Russ Meissner on drums and either longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball or New Orleans bluesman Bill Malchow on keys, Grace himself takes over the lead guitar here, with literally delirious results. It’s a tribute to all states of drunkenness and those who indulge in it: the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state, and the drunken parent (on the album’s absolutely brilliant centerpiece, If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk). The titles pretty much say it all: Morning Margaritas; Drink a Little Hooch; Drinkin’ and Gamblin’; I Drank Too Much Again; and a surprising, vividly cautionary cameo from Daria, Drank Yourself Into a Corner. Jack’s George Jones-inflected baritone offers just the hint of a tequila-infused wink as the band sway and careen behind him. For nondrinkers who find the appeal of this album utterly impossible to fathom, consider that reality – woops, we mean sobriety – might just be a little less fun.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Jack Grace Band at Rodeo Bar, NYC 5/5/10

The first thing you notice when you see the Jack Grace Band up close is what a well-oiled machine they are – in both senses of the word. OK, maybe not everyone onstage last night was half in the bag, but they’d been on close to a 36-hour tear, nonstop, with appearances on the WPIX morning show and then a live performance on satellite radio, so with a long Cinco de Mayo evening ahead of them at Rodeo Bar, the tequila was flowing and a lot of it had made it to the stage by the time they started playing. The Jack Grace Band’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is just out, so ultimately it all made sense. “Everything seems so simple after three martinis” is Grace’s mantra, and the band played that song, a careening version of The Lonesome Entertainer, on album a noir-ish blues shuffle a la Tom Waits but this time out it was more Grateful Dead, except with a brief interlude into a perfectly executed, funky excerpt from Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks. Tequila, an older song from Jack Grace’s old jam band Steak, swung mightily along on a sunbaked minor-key hook, part bossa nova, part hallucinatory Tex-Mex anthem.

Jack [scrunching his face into a tortured scowl]: Would you rather be dead?
Bass player Daria Grace: [completely deadpan]: No.

It’s kind of sweet how he gives his wife the best of the punch lines every time. They’d started, appropriately, with Morning Margaritas, the twangy, retro 60s country song that opens the album, everybody from the horn section to the pedal steel player stepping out, boisterous and tequila-fueled, so the sound guy could get the levels right. Daria swooped and dove on her gorgeous hollowbody bass on a more 70s, outlaw country style tune from the album, True Tonight. They jammed on Jambalaya, took a stab at the Mexican Hat Dance (Jack wanted to keep going but the band wouldn’t let him), then piano player Bill Malchow sang one. At the end, Jack put his guitar down and the piano and rhythm section playing a pretty generic power ballad melody. Which morphed into the early 70s Neil Diamond hit I Am, I Said. Jack got up on a chair, pondered the highly vandalized stuffed bison head coming out of the wall at the edge of the stage and then decided against doing something to it (that’s a prop for another song of his). Then when he got to the line in the song where no one heard him, not even the chair, he got off the chair and raised it high. And then went into the audience, caught a table full of diners completely off guard, sat down with them and then serenaded them. With the chair. Meanwhile, the band didn’t blink an eyelash. Pretty punk rock for a country band. And that was just the first set.

The Jack Grace Band continues to celebrate the release of the new album with shows at Hill Country tonight at 9, Barbes at 10 tomorrow (Friday the 7th), and a doublebill with the equally devious Luther Wright and the Wrongs at the Rodeo on the 11th.

May 6, 2010 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 4/30/10

Seeing Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes last night was a time warp back to a secret, revolutionary taverna in an Athens (or Istanbul) of the mind around 1936. Kontanis is an acknowledged virtuoso of the oud, an educator and the author of books on oud technique and is every bit the player you’d expect from someone with that background. The oud has been around forever and has an otherworldly resonance, a distant echo of the millions who’ve put their souls into the instrument over literally millennia. Alongside Kontanis’ soulful reverberation, voilinist Megan Gould and percussionist Timothy Quigley – who seems to be to Barbes what Willie Dixon was to Chess Records’ studio – added textures and lines that matched and then diverged, sometimes hypnotic, other times fiery and intense.

Much of the material they played was taken from Kontanis’ two 2008 cds (both ranked high on our list of best albums that year), notably an irresistibly woozy, sly version of the self-explanatory rembetiko ballad Ouzo. The trio opened with a segue of old songs from Athens and then Smyrna, Kontanis throwing the occasional sharp chord in among his fluid, snaky arabesque lines to raise the energy level, Gould firing off a solo that sizzled with trills at the top of the scale. Another Arabic-flavored one saw the two string players doubling each others’ lines with a casual rapport that bordered on the telepathic. Quigley put down his dumbek (goblet drum) and switched to the boomier riq frame drum on a rearrangement of a swaying, insistently psychedelic bouzouki song from around 1960 – “New for us is 1940,” Kontanis laughed. An audience request was ablaze with Kontanis’ tremolo picking and got even hotter when Gould went soaring over the melee; another rumbled along to a tricky 15/4 beat. Toward the end, they did a winsome number about a heartbroken drunk, finally wrapping up over an hour’s worth of music in a hypnotic, rattling blaze of oud chords, staccato violin and percussion. Plenty of tavernas around town have music but not like this. Mavrothi Kontanis has an intriguing residency coming up at 1:30 PM at the Silk Road exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History on May 9, 23 and 30; he’s back at Barbes on June 11 at 8.

May 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Jack Grace Band – Drinking Songs for Lovers

It’s surprising that nobody’s done this yet, and it’s a good thing that the Jack Grace Band did it instead of, say, Jimmy Buffett. The country crooner’s new album Drinking Songs for Lovers is party music for smart people, and it’s definitely the funnest album of the year so far. For Grace, whose previous album The Martini Cowboy was surprisingly dark and serious, most of this is a defiantly unapologetic return to the party vibe of his 2005 cd I Like It Wrong, but with more swing. Credit his better half, bass player Daria Grace, for joining in on a groove with their jazzy drummer Russ Meissner. Jack handles most of the guitar work, with Mike Neer on lapsteel, Bill Malchow on keys and longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball guesting on a couple of tracks.

The songs portray a wide variety of of drunks – the crazy neighborhood guy you run into at the bodega on a beer run right before four AM, the guys at OTB, the serious dude who watches his roommate drink himself into a dangerous state. These guys treat drinking as a serious business, a necessary alternative to some unthinkable alternate universe. Hangovers are a big part of it, an occupational hazard: it’s a tough job and somebody’s got to do it. Starting first thing with Morning Margaritas, a bracingly Tex-Mex way to kick off the album, featuring the Broken Mariachi Horns (J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and Rob Henke on trumpet). If You’re Gonna Raise a Drunk is one of those songs that needed to be writtten – beyond offering some useful tips, it manages to stick in a litany of favorite drinks and favorite places to drink them. I Drank Too Much Again vividly captures the grim aftermath – the headache pounding behind the late afternoon sunglasses is visceral. Drinkin’ and Gamblin’ is a surprisingly hard-rocking minor key banjo tune; a rapidfire honkytonk lesson in trucker lingo, The Worst Truck Driver in the World is a teens update on the 1976 C.W. McCall rig-rock classic Convoy minus all the CB radio references.

Jack Grace’s baritone is one of the most soulful voices in New York music, but the best vocals here actually belong to Daria, perhaps singing the apprehensive minor-key blues Drank Yourself into a Corner while Jack was on a beer run. Drink a Little Hooch is the album’s second tribute to drunken gamblers: “Is there something I’ve been missing out on?” the perplexed narrator wants to know. The album winds up with the surreal, heavily hungover-sounding, Tom Waits-ish Haven’t Had a Birthday Now for Years, the blazing lapsteel rocker So Ugly, a merengue number (the guy at the bodega, remember?) called It Was a Really Bad Year and a depressive, authentically retro 60s style country ballad that recalls Jack’s previous albums.

This cd isn’t for everyone. Country music fans will love it, as will drinkers of most every stripe. Serious-minded folks might object to how cavalierly and completely nonjudgmentally chronic alcoholism is portrayed here, but fuck them. They’re no fun. The Jack Grace Band will be at SXSW for a bunch of gigs including a show on March 19 at 4:30 PM at the Saxon Pub with Earl Poole Ball from Johnny Cash’s band on piano. Their next NYC show is April 2 at 10 PM at Barbes.

March 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Killer Vinyl EPs by the Hussy

The Hussy like short songs. They keep it simple, just volcanic, distorted guitar and drums, punk beats and blistering garage-inflected tunes. Both guitarist Bobby and drummer Heather sing. Sometimes they take turns, sometimes they do it together. It’s catchy, anthemic, fun stuff. If what they’re doing in the studio is any indication – a lot of this sounds completely live – their shows ought to be killer. And they have three records out on vinyl, something that more bands like this ought to be doing.

The Winter Daze 7″ manages to squeeze in six songs. One Word is like Ramones without the bass, with sassy punk pop vocals. A couple of these are barely a minute long: Herbie, sung by Heather sounds like a NY Dolls demo with one of the groupies joining in the melee. Turkey might or might not be about slaughtering a bird – it’s as assaultive as everything else here. Head Set  is sexy, confrontational 3-chord garage punk with guy/girl vox. Winter Daze is poppier, with layers of guitar including an incisive solo – and is that a Casio? The best song on the ep is the irresistibly fun bubblegum punk Drinking Song which turns the original idea of teenage pop on its head. What do kids do? They get wasted! “Let’s go out and drink tonight with me!”

Also available is the Science of Sound split 7″ with the entertainingly playful garage/punk/noise band Sleeping in the Aviary. The Hussy’s contributions are I Got Soul, a minor-key riff-rock rumble; One Time, which sounds a little like X,  layers of overtones and natural distortion screaming from Bobby’s amp, and a barely thirty-second number about snakes that resembles the DK’s.

The Creepy Season bonus tracks (which you can also get online) include Oh No, vintage Stooges gone unhinged, lo-fi, zeros style; Brown Eyes and its 60s Sonics fuzztone guitar vibe and Going Home, a snotty frenzy of cymbal crashes and a catchy walking guitar line. The Hussy have a whole slew of Madison and Milwaukee shows coming up: Summerfest next year, guys!

July 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?

In case you don’t get the reference, the album title is the punchline of an old vaudeville joke: the guy shovels shit, gets the short end of the stick every time, really has nothing to do with what’s happening onstage, but he just can’t quit the job. This sequence of tracks taken from their stagy, vaudevillian series of shows last year at the Barrow Street Theatre captures the band at the absolute peak of their consistently hilarious, raucous, virtuosic powers. In a lot of ways the Asylum Street Spankers are sort of the Dead Kennedys of oldtimey music, fearlessly aware, politically spot-on and funny as hell, especially in a live setting. This sprawling two-cd set intersperses several skits among a grand total of 25 songs. Smoking pot figures heavily in a number of them; sex is abundant, and there’s also one about beer. In other words, this is a party album guaranteed to clear the room of tight-assed yuppies and young Republicans in seconds flat.

Trying to choose which song is funniest is not easy. Everybody will get a kick out of their acoustic cover of the Black Flag hardcore classic TV Party, updated with contemporary references to emphasize the fact that the trendoids vegging out to Adult Swim or the Daily Show are no cooler than the bozos in the original, glued to Hill Street Blues. My Baby in the CIA is blackly funny, offhandedly managing to mention every CIA-sponsored coup against a democratically elected government around the world over the past half-century. The Medley of Burned-Out Songs, designed to placate rabid fans who can’t wait til the band plays their favorite, overplayed number is something that more bands should do. There’s also Christina Marrs’ deadpan Hawaiian swing number Pakalolo Baby, sounding something like the Moonlighters on good weed (or Pakalolo, for all the Hawaiian speakers out there). Winning the War on Drugs takes a quizzical, red-eyed view of prohibition, posing the logical question of why, if there’s a war on, are drugs so easy to find (My Baby in the CIA has the answer). The most technically dazzling number of them all is the medley My Favorite Records, kicking off with an absolutely perfect acoustic evocation of Black Sabbath, moving to Zep, Marrs eventually bringing down the house with her choice. And then they work a complicated contrapuntal vocal vamp to a crescendo where they replicate the sound of a stuck record without missing a beat.

Most of the skits are also funny, especially the Gig from Hell which any musician who’s spent any time on the road can relate to: not enough inputs for all the vocals, a stage that smells like vomit, the house manager trying to rip off the band like he did the one before…the list goes on and on. There’s also some remarkably straight-up and soulful blues and ragtime here too. The show finally ends with a full-length version of one of the heretofore Burned-Out Songs, the well-loved Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV (this having been recorded during the waning days of the Bush regime, there’s an undercurrent of righteous wrath just fractions of an inch below many of the jokes). The Asylum Street Spankers play the Bell House on May 19 with oldtimey/delta blues siren Mamie Minch opening the night auspiciously at 8:30 or so.

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Magges Live at Mehanata, NYC 1/12/08

[editor’s note: this is a half-assed review, although it’s the best we could do under the circumstances. Greek songwriters are known for their excellent lyrics and acerbic social commentary, and since we don’t have any native Greek speakers on staff, this review is limited to the band’s music. If any Greek speakers want to comment on the band here – in English, please – be our guest]

As a casual glance at just about any city courthouse will tell you, earlier generations of Americans were in love with everything Greek. The time has come for a new generation of Americans to discover what is perhaps Greece’s finest export: its music. A cynic might say that you can hear what Magges does in any taverna in Astoria on the weekend, but that’s not true. Magges is Greek slang for “bad guys,” which is something of an understatement: this band is positively evil. It was particularly appropriate to see them play at Gogol Bordello’s home base, since they share that band’s wild exuberance and unbridled passion. The place was packed, lots of people were dancing and taking shots from the ouzo bottles that the band very generously brings along to every show. Every New Yorker should experience this band at least once: they’re that good.

In a marathon set that went on for what seemed like hours, they played a wildly danceable mix of Greek vocal music from the past several decades, big major-key arenaesque ballads and long dance numbers burning with chromatic fire that went on for practically ten minutes apiece. Frontman Kyriakos “Chuck” Metaxas played exhilarating, fast runs on his electric bouzouki, accompanied by an acoustic bouzouki player, the ubiquitous Steve Antonakos on acoustic guitar, the also somewhat ubiquitious Susan Mitchell on violin as well as upright bass and percussion. And a belly dancer who got the crowd on their feet.

Metaxas sings in the somewhat dramatic, stagy style that’s characterized Greek pop for what seems forever. A lot of their songs utilize unorthodox time signatures and turn on the drop of a dime, but the band tackled the changes effortlessly. Even to foreign ears, several of the songs were recognizable, foremost among them a scorching, bouzouki-driven take of the original vocal song that Dick Dale appropriated and turned into Misirlou. Magges’ strongest suit is rembetiko, a dark, Middle Eastern-inflected style of stoner music that originated in the Greek underground resistance movement in the 1930s and 40s, and they played several of these. They also did their signature song, Ouzo, an upbeat, somewhat pastoral anthem that predictably got the crowd roaring. The only problem was the sound: the thud from the downstairs disco was painfully audible during quieter moments, and it was only then that Mitchell – one of the most captivating soloists around – could be heard. The chime and clang of the bouzoukis, guitar and bass was delicious, but Magges without Mitchell isn’t the same.

January 13, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments