Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Emma Grace Stephenson Brings Her Dynamic Piano Songcraft to Gowanus This Weekend

If state-of-the-art tuneful songcraft is your thing, the place to be this weekend is at Shapeshifter Lab on April 29 at 7 PM where brilliantly eclectic Australian pianist and singer Emma Grace Stephenson opens a fantastic triplebill, leading a trio with a surprise mystery guest singer (the venue says it’s Kristin Berardi). Afterward at a little after 8 another pianist, Richard Sussman leads his sweeping, enveloping allstar Sextet, which includes Tim Hagans on trumpet; Rich Perry on tenor sax and Zach Brock on violin. Then at 9:30 by the Notet with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Andrew Green and guests playing he album release show for their new one.

Stephenson is an artist who rightfully could headline a bill like this. She’s an extraordinarily vivid composer whose work gravitates toward the dark side. Her greatest achievement so far is probably her work with the Hieronymus Trio, whose 2016 album is a high-water mark in recent noir cinematic jazz. But she’s also a songwriter, and has a plaintively dynamic new album, Where the Rest of the World Begins, with them and singer Gian Slater, due out soon but not yet up at her music page.

Maybe coincidentally, the opening track, Crows Will Still Fly comes across as a more rhythmically tricky take on the same kind of moody parlor pop that Stephenson’s fellow Oz songwriter Greta Gertler Gold has perfected over the past decade or so. Slater’s airy, expressive high soprano is a cross between Gertler Gold and Minnie Riperton, but more misty than either singer. The lithe bass and drums of Nick Henderson and Oliver Nelson push the song into a bright, triumphant clearing for Slater’s scatting; then Stephenson follows with a similarly crescendoing piano solo. “With great joy comes great sorrow” is the theme.

Song For My Piano is a wry, saloon blues-love ballad: “While you throw stones in the water, blowing my cover, who am I kidding?” Slater wants to know; then the bandleader goes for a cautiously rippling spiral of a solo. As a pianist, Stephenson brings to mind Mara Rosenbloom’s blend of neoromantic gleam and brushfire improvisation.

If the Sun Made a Choice has a jaunty Dawn Oberg-like bounce and an imagistic lyric pondering the pitfalls of narrow, dualistic thinking. Rising out of purposeful chords and washes of cymbals, Love Is Patient is much more expansive, even rubato in places: ”Always in the present tense with every sense, do less, live more,” Slater cajoles.

Stephenson switches to Rhodes, then eventually moves back to the grand piano for Going In Circles. an unlikely but successful mashup of artsy ELO-style pop, 70s soul and trickily metric, tightly  unspooling Philip Glass-ine melody. The final cut is the epic title track, which takes a turn in the brooding direction of the trio’s previous album. Stephenson opens it spaciously and expands from there with her rippling water imagery:

An endless flow of useless thoughts and consequent sensations
Can govern every step we take filling us with trepidation
But we are not the thoughts within nor just an empty vessel…

From there a magically misterioso drum solo and Stephenson’s pointillistic, music-box-like solo punctuate this poetic meditation on impermanence and change. Lots to sink your ears into here from a fearlessly individualistic talent who defies easy categorization.

April 27, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Kronos Quartet, Emily Wells and My Brightest Diamond Sparkle and Flicker at Lincoln Center

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – this past evening at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

July 25, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 6/18/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #591:

Black Box Recorder – Passionoia

Possibly the most witheringly cynical album ever recorded. Bandleader Luke Haines (also of the Auteurs – see #744 on this list) has said innocuously that this 1999 release was his adventure in exploring keyboard textures, but it sounds suspiciously like a parody of 90s British dance-pop, albeit with better tunes and artsy flourishes. Frontwoman Sarah Nixey delivers Haines’ corrosive lyrics in an ice-goddess whisper over the glossy sheen. The School Song does double duty as Eurovision satire (a moment that will return again with a vengeance on When Britain Refused to Sing) and knowing chronicle of the kind of torture schoolkids have to endure. GSOH QED is an early satire of internet dating; British Racing Green quietly and cruelly alludes to Britain’s fall from first world power to third world irrelevance. Although much of this is a period piece, the songs stand the test of time – The New Diana mocks the Princess Diana cult, but it’s a brutally insightful look at the cult of celebrity, as is Andrew Ridgeley, the funniest song here, a reference to the guy in Wham who wasn’t George Michael. Being Number One, These Are the Things and Girls Guide for the Modern Diva are savage sendups of yuppie narcissism. The album ends on a surprisingly poignant, haunting note with I Ran All the Way Home, a gorgeously apprehensive omnichord-driven art-pop song straight out of the ELO catalog, told from the point of view of an abused little girl. All the songs are streamable at myspace, but wait fifteen seconds before you put your earphones on, AND refresh the page after each listen or else you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad. Won’t it be a good day when myspace finally dies? Otherwise, here’s a random torrent.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vespertina Kills the Lights on the Bowery

In their New York debut at Bowery Poetry Club last night, Vespertina took the stage late. Was there an equipment malfunction? No, their string quartet were busy putting on their masks: evil, feline, woodland sprite faces. Frontwoman Lorrie Doriza went without one, as did her collaborator, a producer who goes by the name of Stoupe (from brilliant, socially aware hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks), standing to her left running ominous, lushly orchestrated backing tracks that sounded like something off a Wu-tang record circa 1996. There is no band in the world who sound anything like them, nor was there any respite from the intensity in their 45 minutes onstage. Doriza has one of those voices that comes along every ten years or so: from the point of view of someone who saw Neko Case in 1999 and Amanda Palmer a year later, she’s in the same league. There are other singers who have an equally impressive range, or an upper register just as powerful, but the most impressive thing about what she did is that she didn’t lapse into a single cliche all night. As the strings and the loops blended into a horror-film backdrop, the gleeful menace, and wounded angst, and rage, and sultriness in Doriza’s voice was so real it was scary. If those are characters she plays, she owns them.

Those girls are tortured. They want one thing, and that’s escape, beginning with the Girl in the Basement, the twisted waltz (and first single off the band’s new album The Waiting Wolf) that opened the show. That set the stage for the rest of the set. The only respite from the macabre was the closing number, a lushly arranged goodnight song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Abby Travis catalog, which relented just a little. Otherwise, the minor-key menace would not let up, and they managed to maintain the suspense because Doriza wouldn’t go completely over the top. When finally, finally, she let out a scream, it was a little one. Of course the laptop guy looped it and sent it back into the mix, echoing over and over – but in the distance, which made it all the more disturbing. One of the early songs in the set began like an aria, but quickly backed off. “Take me out,” Doriza implored – not on a date, one assumes. “She’ll be knocking down your door, burning down your home…nothing like a woman scorned,” she sang coldbloodedly on a tango-tinged song a bit later on.

The next number – like most of them, set to a prerecorded trip-hop beat – began with “You’ve been having trouble sleeping” and by the second verse it was “You’re having trouble breathing.” After that, the band got all atmospheric and trippy, slowly emerging from the abyss into a stately 6/8 anthem: “I’m not stupid – I just don’t care,” Doriza sang, desperate yet nonchalant. “You can’t escape me,” was the next song’s mantra, followed by “I’m running out of patience.” During the early part of the show, the string arrangements were too low in the mix; when they came up about a third of the way into the show, it was obvious how they’d been assembled to provide an artful lead track of sorts over the stuff that was in the can, which the ensemble delivered seamlessly yet emphatically beneath Doriza’s wounded wail. Count this as one of the best concerts of 2011, hands down – if the album is anything like this, it must be amazing. They’re playing the one town on Long Island that suits them best – Amityville – on May 29 at a place called Ollie’s Point.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Universal Thump Get One Step Closer to a Classic

One segment at a time, art-rock keyboardist/songwriter Greta Gertler’s latest project, the Universal Thump has been releasing their lush, gorgeous debut album. The first installment featured epic, sweepingly orchestrated ballads along with a droll cover of the Australian Crawl hit Reckless and the bouncy Martin’s Big Night Out, one of Gertler’s older songs. This latest installment, Chapter Two continues the blend of fun and finesse.

The first track, Honey Beat, is a richly orchestrated janglerock hit, sort of like an anatomically correct version of something from REM’s Reveal album. Gertler has never sung better – her nonchalantly sultry high soprano is impossible to turn away from. And the guitar solo into violin solo back into the guitar solo is irresistible, like the Church doing ELO.

To the Border (Wild Raspberries) alternates a stately, somewhat solemn anthem with a playful, coyly vivid motif first carried by the string section and later the woodwinds; it’s a sexy allusion. ELO is even more vividly referenced on the absolutely delightful Opening Night, which could be the long lost sequel to The Way Life’s Meant To Be, complete with baritone guitar solo and tongue-in-cheek, carnivalesque keyboard patches and sound effects. And is that a sample of whale song at the end of the long, psychedelic outro? This section of the album winds up with The Last Time, a slow stately piano/organ march, Kate Bush as done by Procol Harum. If the rest of the album is anything like this, you’ll see the whole thing on our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list. It’s available at the Universal Thump’s bandcamp site.

March 7, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/18/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #864:

The Electric Light Orchestra – No Answer

OK, we concede to all you ELO fans out there. There are more of you than we ever thought – what a pleasant surprise! This one was always lurking in the wings here, and you just pushed it onto the list. The 1972 ELO debut album – and the rest of the band’s early output – differentiates itself from most of the other orchestrated rock albums out there with its rustic feel. Jeff Lynne would overdub the string section over and over again to simulate the lushness of an orchestra, a sound that he was never quite able to replicate, which actually works better here than he probably ever thought at the time. The scrapy cellos add a sinister edge to the iconic, vaguelly Orwellian British hit 10538 Overture, the hallucinatory Queen of the Hours, the chamber-metal instrumental Battle of Marston Moor and the angst-ridden Look at Me Now, which picks up where Eleanor Rigby left off and takes it to the next level. There’s also the thorny Roy Wood acoustic guitar instrumental First Movement, Lynne’s piano boogie Manhattan Rumble, the charmingly oldtimey Nellie Takes Her Bow and Mr. Radio and the wrenchingly gorgeous lament Whisper in the Night, arguably the best song Wood ever wrote. He would exit after this album to do retro 50s Americana with Wizzard, leaving Lynne at the helm free to pursue his visionary blend of rock and classical music. Although we’re trying hard to limit this list to one album per band, you just might see these guys again here somewhere down the line. Here’s a random torrent.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Mike Edwards

Mike Edwards, whose work as the original cellist of the Electric Light Orchestra ranks as some of the most memorable in the history of rock, was killed Monday in Devonshire in the UK when a runaway bale of hay rolled down a hill, jumped a hedge and hit the van he was driving head-on. He was 62. A founding member of ELO, Edwards played on most of the band’s classic albums, beginning with No Answer in 1972 through Eldorado in 1975. Perhaps his greatest moment was one of his simplest, providing an eerie, low-register wash of sound that moved a distance of only three notes on the group’s 1972 antiwar epic Kuiama, from the ELO II album. Other notable Edwards contributions include his intense, whiplash lines on the stark, Eleanor Rigby-influenced chamber rock piece Look at Me Now and the equally haunting, elegaic Whisper in the Night, both songs from No Answer.

Edwards was something of a ham: when playing, he would frequently use random objects such as a grapefruit in place of a bow. According to the SF Weekly, he also entertained audiences by rigging his cello to look as if it was exploding. After leaving ELO, he converted to Buddhism, changed his name and taught privately.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Universal Thump at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 7/16/10

Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Universal Thump were something beyond amazing Friday night. The orchestrated rock bands of the 70s may have gone the way of the dinosaurs (except for the Moody Blues) but this was like being in the front row at an ELO or Procol Harum show at the Royal Albert Hall. Except with better vocals. Gertler’s sometimes stratospheric high soprano fits this band well: she went up so far that there was no competing sonically with the lush, rich atmospherics of the Thumpettes, a.k.a. the Osso String Quartet, whose presence made all the difference. With Adam D. Gold terse yet sometimes surprising behind the drum kit, equally terse bass from Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron, fiery powerpop guitar god Pete Galub on lead and Gertler at the piano, they segued seamlessly from one richly melodic, Romantically-tinged, counterintuitively structured song to the next.

Gertler’s been writing songs like that since she was in her teens: one Aimee Mann-inflected number in stately 6/8 time dated from 1993. Otherwise, the set was mostly all new material from the Universal Thump’s ongoing album (now an ep, with a kickstarter campaign in case you have money to burn). The opening number worked a wistful post-baroque melody down to a piano cascade where Gertler rumbled around in the low registers for awhile, then the strings took it up again. The wistful vibe kept going, an uneasy, brooding lyric soaring over an austere minor-key melody, with a terse viola solo out. Damien, from Gertler’s now-classic 2004 album The Baby That Brought Bad Weather was all understated longing, cached in the mighty swells of the strings.

Galub used the next song’s Penny Lane bounce as the launching pad for an unabashedly vicious, percussively crescendoing guitar solo, something he’d repeat a couple more times – even by his standards, he was especially energized. The best song of the evening, possible titled Closing Night began with a matter-of-factly dramatic series of piano chords, worked its way into a lush backbeat anthem with another one of those Galub slasher solos, and gracefully faded out. Gertler explained that her closing number had been appropriated (and turned into a sizeable hit) by an unnamed Australian band, who’d transformed it into a song about playing the lottery. As it rose to a ridiculously catchy chorus out of just vocals and strings, its hitworthiness struck home, hard. The audience wouldn’t let them go: the band encored with a majestically fluid version of Everybody Wants to Adore You, another smash of a pop song from The Baby That Brought Bad Weather. We do our own individual list of the best New York concerts of the year in December, and you can bet that this one will be on it. This was it for the Universal Thump’s shows this summer – adding yet another reason to look forward to fall, which at this point couldn’t come too soon.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 6/15/10

Every day, for the next month and a half anyway, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s song is #44:

The Electric Light Orchestra – Laredo Tornado

Raw, wounded, careening anthem mourning the loss of a better time and place. The tradeoff from Jeff Lynne’s lead guitar over to Mik Kaminsky’s electric violin midway through the solo out is one of the high points in rock history. From the Eldorado album, 1975.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 6/13/10

Every day, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Then we’ll start with the 666 best albums of alltime. Sunday’s song is #46:

The Electric Light Orchestra – Loser Gone Wild

This song is about losing it, completely and badly, and then equivocating about it. “I don’t care if violins don’t play/I wouldn’t listen to them anyway,” Jeff Lynne insists over the cheesiest faux jazz ever played on a synthesizer. Sure, Jeff, anything you say. Clinical depression has never been so vividly portrayed. From Secret Messages, 1983.

June 13, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment