Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Katie Brennan – Slowly

Her breakthrough album, a quantum leap for multi-instrumentalist/singer Katie Brennan, who is equally adept at the concert harp as at the piano. That’s right; the concert harp, instrument of the angels. But this album doesn’t remotely resemble anything Joanna Newsom has ever done. Instead, it’s a richly melodic collection of lushly arranged, sometimes country-inflected ballads, a terrific effort that instantly vaults Brennan into the upper echelon of current sirens like Eleni Mandell, Rachelle Garniez and Neko Case. The recurrent theme throughout many of the songs is breaking away and starting anew, reflected in Brennan’s voice: many of these songs have a rain-drenched, nocturnal feel to them. Since her first album with her indie rock band the Holy Bones, her vocals have taken on considerable gravitas and nuance: she can still be playful and funny, she still has that soaring range, but she’s reined in that big vibrato that you used to be able to drive a truck through (metaphorically speaking, anyway). The result is an instrument finely attuned to the most minute subtleties in emotion. Credit producer Itamar Ben-zakay (who also plays drums and guitar here) for putting Brennan front and center amidst the often sweeping arrangements.

The album opens with the unabashedly romantic, aptly named title track, Brennan’s piano meticulous against her harp work. The album’s second cut, My Piano picks up the pace a little, with a decidedly defiant, even triumphant feel – the narrator, spinning her wheels in the big city, has made up her mind that it’s time to go back to the country. Grandpa’s Boat follows, its insistent beat reinforcing the lyric, a tribute to resourcefulness.

The best song on the album is the swaying 3/4 ballad La Casa Rosada, spiced with tasteful, incisive acoustic slide guitar accents and a gorgeous acoustic solo from Ben-zakay, with trumpet soaring in the distance:

Forget her and the arms of your loved ones
They don’t belong to the daylight
You have guided yourself much too long
To get lost in the halls of the past

Other standout cuts among the album’s eleven tracks include On His Own, a dead ringer for something from Meddle-era Pink Floyd, with guest dobro and lapsteel player Lenny Molotov’s shimmering, bluesy slide work; the cheery, upbeat Cherry Pie, which could be vintage, 1960s Dolly Parton backed by Gilmour and company; and the big 6/8 anthem If We Were Whiskeys, Molotov again providing gorgeously terse fills throughout. The album concludes with the authentically rustic, oldtimey Drunkard’s Prayer.

As of this writing Brennan – who’s done most of her music here in New York over the past few years – will shortly be returning to her native Seattle. Their gain, our loss. At least we have this great album (and hopefully a return engagement or two) for the memories. The cd is available online and at shows; Katie Brennan plays the cd release show for Slowly at Jimmy’s no. 43 on 7th street between 2nd and 3rd Aves., 9 PM on Friday, May 2.

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April 12, 2008 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jennifer Niceley Live at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 2/7/08

Move over, Eleni Mandell. Make some room, Rachelle Garniez. Neko Case, scooch. Meet the next great noir chanteuse: Jennifer Niceley. Tonight the Tennessee singer/guitarist held the crowd at the Rockwood spellbound throughout her all-too-brief, barely half-hour set. Singing with a smoky, slightly breathy contralto rich with jazz and soul inflections and playing a hollowbody Danelectro Les Paul copy with just a hint of distortion, she proved as adept at sunny soul music as the eerily glimmering, reverb-drenched, slowly swaying minor-key ballads that she clearly loves so well. Her best song of the evening, possibly titled Shadows & Mountains, describes a woman taking a long, David Lynch-esque drive through the night. At the end of the song, after she’s finally gotten past them, she ends up at the edge of a lake praying in the dark that everything will be all right. Niceley followed this with two more slow, torchy minor-key numbers from her new album, Luminous, that were equally chilling.

Growing up in the country in East Tennessee, she explained, her father was a huge Jimmy Rodgers fan, so she played a slightly jazzed-up version of one of his songs. She also treated the audience to her own rearrangement of the Bobby Bland/Little Milton blues classic Blind Man (which she retitled Blind Woman), a showcase not only for her vocals but also for her lead guitarist, who played the most riveting solo we’ve heard all year long. Using a slide, he swooped around, pushing the beat as if to mimic the sound of backward masking (sounds like somebody in this band’s been listening to Jim Campilongo!). At the end, he abandoned the effect and flew up the fretboard to the highest registers, throwing in a couple of lickety-split, Ravi Shankar-ish licks to seal the deal. The crowd was awestruck. It’s early in the year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this turned out to be the best show of 2008. If the aforementioned Mme. Case, Garniez or Mandell are your cup of tea, or if you love Snorah Jones’ voice but wish the girl would grow up and learn how to write a damn song, don’t miss the chance to get to know Jennifer Niceley.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams – Snowblind

Erica Smith got her start as a bartender at the old Fast Folk Café singing sea chanteys and similar ancient folk material after hours, and her first album reflected that, just stark acoustic guitar and a voice that could draw blood from a stone. Friend or Foe, her next one, was a lushly orchestrated affair, but the material was still mostly covers. This time around, Smith sings mostly her own material, a vastly diverse mix of retro styles. This is her quantum leap, an album which firmly places her in the top echelon of current Americana sirens along with Neko Case, Eleni Mandell, Jenifer Jackson et al. It may be early in the year, but if this doesn’t turn out to be the best album of 2008, something very special will have to come along to unseat it.

Although most of the album is recent material, everything here sounds like it was written no later than 1980. Both of the jangly Merseybeat numbers, Easy Now and Amanda Carolyn have an authentically mid-60s feel, as does the slinky samba-pop number Tonight. The tantalizingly brief Firefly bounces along on an impossibly catchy Carnaby Street melody. Feel You Go is a vehicle for Smith’s dazzlingly powerful soul vocals, snaking along on a Booker T riff. The best song on the album, the gorgeously swaying, country-inflected The World Is Full of Pretty Girls could be the great lost track on American Beauty, guest steel player Jon Graboff playing soaring, haunting washes against lead guitarist Dann Baker’s steady jangle. And In Late July, with its pastoral, hypnotic layers of vocals and organ would fit well on an early 70s, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd album.

The title track is an authentically retro, completely psychedelic cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester blues/metal song, originally recorded in 1969. This version gives Smith a chance to do some goosebump-inducing belting, and lets drummer Dave Campbell – who may just be the finest drummer in all of rock – show off his devious, remarkably musical sensibility with a solo simmering with all kinds of unexpected textures. Guest organist Matt Keating spices the obscure Blow This Nightclub classic Where or When with weird, early 80s synth organ, as the bass player slams out a riff nicked directly from the Cure, circa 1980. And Smith’s lone venture into Nashville gothic here, appropriately titled Nashville, Tennessee evokes Calexico or the Friends of Dean Martinez with its eerie, tremolo guitar and haunting minor-key melody. The final cut on the album, a Beach Boys cover, may not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s beside the point. Recorded in analog on two-inch tape, Smith’s production gives this album the feel of a vinyl record, drums comfortably in the back, vocals and guitars front and center. In a particularly impressive display of generosity, the band will be giving away copies of the album to everyone in attendance at the cd release show this Friday, Jan 25 at 8 PM at the Parkside.

January 23, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments