The Jazz Passengers’ new album Reunited – their first in over ten years – is as nonchalantly cool as anything they’ve ever released. Saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s cinematic compositions are as imagistic as ever, imbued with his signature wit, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes every bit the vintage soul crooner, both on the horn and the mic and vibraphonist Bill Ware his understatedly counterintuitive self. Violinist Sam Bardfeld, bassist Brad Jones, drummer E.J. Rodriguez and guitarist Marc Ribot channel their signature out-of-the-box arrangements, melodic pulse, slinky latin groove, and eclecticism, respectively. Much of this has an early 70s psychedelic feel, from the brief period where soul music, funk and jazz got to mingle unmolested before fusion came along and busted up the party.
Elvis Costello sings the opening track, Wind Walked By, a casually strolling noir-tinged New Depression era swing tune: “Shit out of luck, the American way.” Ware’s vibes eerily anchor Nathanson’s alto sax, Ribot’s guitar supplying a distant unease, swaying from nonchalant blues to off-center skronk on the outro. Seven, an instrumental works a hypnotic circular motif like an early 70s Herbie Hancock soundtrack number, Fowlkes and Ribot’s wah guitar building suspense up to a violin/guitar swirl. Fowlkes sings Button Up, a matter-of-fact soul/jazz groove, wah guitar mingling with Ware’s expansive, deadpan, bluesy cascades. Thom Yorke’s The National Anthem trades midnight Heathrow airport corridor atmosphere for 4 AM Ninth Avenue Manhattan drama – with Ribot and then Bardfeld skronking and screeching behind the aplomb of the rest of the crew, it’s every bit as menacing as the original. The best single song on the album might be Tell Me (by Fowlkes/Nathanson, not the Glimmer Twins), dark latin soul morphing into a buoyant 6/8 ballad, the warmth of the trombone silhouetted against the plinking thicket where Ware and Bardfeld are hiding out.
They redo Spanish Harlem as laid-back organ-driven swing with an amusing Spanglish skit, Ware, Fowlkes and Rodriguez joined by a whole different crew including Russ Johnson on trumpet, Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola and Susi Hyldgaard on vocals. There are also two bonus live tracks with longtime collaborator Deborah Harry. Think of Me, a Brad Jones/David Cale composition is lusciously restrained Twin Peaks swing. And who would have thought that she’d sing this 1995 concert version of One Way or Another (redone here brilliantly as Brat Pack-era suite) better than the original – or for that matter that she’d be an even more captivating singer in 2010, as recent Blondie tours have triumphantly shown. The only miss on the album is Reunited (the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop monstrosity), which pulls plenty of laughs in concert but misses the mark here: garbage in, garbage out. You could call this cd the comeback of the year except that there’s nothing really for them to come back from other than a long absence – which is happily over now. Last month’s shows at the Jazz Standard saw them clearly psyched to be back in action again; hopefully there’ll be more of it.
Track for track, this could be the best rock album of 2010. The New Collisions burst out of Boston last year with an ep that blended coy, quirky retro 80s new wave pop with a dark, literate lyrical edge. Their new full-length debut The Optimist is a lot more serious and more intense: the title is sarcastic to the extreme. It’s a concept album of sorts about a society in collapse. Musically, it’s a turn in a much louder direction, with more of a fiery powerpop edge, guitarist Scott Guild adding layer after layer of roar, jangle and clang. Casey Gruttadauria’s woozily oscillating vintage synthesizer is further back in the mix this time out alongside Alex Stern’s percussive, insistent, melodic bass and Zak Kahn’s drums. Maybe what’s most impressive of all is how much more of her range frontwoman Sarah Guild is using, wary and serious in the lower registers when she’s not soaring above the roar with the chirpy wail she utilized so effectively on the band’s early material. She sings in character – whether sarcastic, defiant or simply exhausted, she draws you in and makes these narratives hard to turn away from. She brings some of the outraged witness that Siouxsie Sioux played so well for so long to these songs.
The single is Dying Alone, impossibly catchy yet bitter and cynical to the extreme. “God knows you hate the quiet, when you’re dying, dying alone,” Sarah reminds with an understated angst. Swift Destruction is a fast new wave powerpop smash, a final concession to what sounds like the inevitable: “I’d like to order up a swift destruction…standing in the shadows of my pride,” she announces. The most memorable cut on the entire album is Over, an exasperated, uncharacteristically intimate kiss-off anthem (like the best punk performers, Sarah typically keeps the listener at a safe distance). They go back to the roaring powerpop vibe with Seven Generations, a chronicle of decay: “Are we happy yet?” Sarah asks sarcastically. The sarcasm reaches boiling point with Ne’er Do Well, the album’s lyrical high point, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Squeeze catalog from around 1979. Over a lush guitar-and-keyboard attack, Sarah savagely details the dissolute life of someone who just won’t grow up:
Bring me all your ablebodied men
So I don’t have to take on the chin
And I don’t have a confrontation with what might have been
I’ve got my suitcase in back to cushion the impact
Better not to have tried at all
Rules are beaten, I haven’t eaten and I want to be alone
Coattail Rider is sort of a smoother I Don’t Want to Got to Chelsea, with a big explosive chorus, Sarah’s absolutely nailing the lyric with a coy disingenuousness. The lone previously released track here, the dead-end anomine anthem In a Shadow benefits from bigger production than the version on last year’s ep (and a really funny quote from the 70s cheeseball hit Funkytown). They wind up the album with an almost unrecognizable, Joy Division-flavored cover of the B-52’s Give Me Back My Man and then the most overtly pop-oriented track here, Lazy, with its oscillating layers of synth and repetitive chorus hook. The New Collisions play the cd release show for this one at Great Scott in Allston, Massachusetts on October 6.
The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.
Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.
Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #887:
Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets
The best album by one of the best-loved cult artists in Americana music. For awhile back in the 90s, Allison could do no wrong: her wry, tersely and often wickedly lyrical alt-country albums The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl are both genuine classics, but this 2009 gem outdoes them since it’s a lot more stylistically diverse. And Allison’s finely nuanced voice is at the peak of its quirkily charming power here. There’s a duet with Elvis Costello on her dad Mose Allison’s wry, brooding jazz classic Monsters of the Id, with the Sage himself on piano; the clever litany of bizarre street names in the title track; the metaphorically loaded, wistful When the Needle Skips (a tribute to vintage vinyl, among other things); the genuinely haunting Dream World, with its down-and-out milieu; and the bitterly evocative Mardi Gras Moon, its jilted narrator high on pills and booze, losing the feeling in her hands on a night which is unseasonably cold in every possible way.
Walter Ego came out of retirement in a big way last night at Banjo Jim’s. The house was packed for a multiple-songwriter bill: Walter, who by his own admission hadn’t played a gig since 1995, was the star, solo on acoustic guitar, grabbing a restless crowd and holding them quiet for the duration of his too-brief set. Vintage, classic era Elvis Costello is the obvious influence: this guy’s songs are loaded with puns and double entendres, set to catchy melodies which are equal parts Beatles and Elvis C. with some blues thrown in. That there would be blues in the set was no surprise, considering that Walter used to be LJ Murphy’s bass player. There was also a surprising theatricality: he’d break what was obviously an intense focus to give his sidekick, a blow-up plastic octopus named Paul, a chance to reach into a bucket and pull a strip of paper with a song title on it. Paul didn’t do a good job, so there were even more unexpected changes in the set list. Walter went on wearing a wig, but that quickly came off, as did a plastic top hat during the set’s last song (it was muggy outside and only somewhat better inside). Undeterred, he sang with a low, dryly icy intensity.
The blues songs were a lot more interestingly assembled than just a simple 1-4-5; the rockers also had a counterintuitive feel. One of the best of the early songs chronicled the Adventures of Ethical Man, a superhero who’s a bigger phony than Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent ever dreamed of being, at least as alter egos. The bluesy, sarcastic Don’t Take Advice from Me was a ruthless sendup of anyone who enjoys being a killjoy: it wouldn’t be out of place in the LJ Murphy catalog. Walter closed with a characteristically lyrically rich number about some sort of hypocrisy-detection machine sold via infomercial, and how it can be modified if the owner becomes a born-again. Which doesn’t remotely do justice to its clever barrage of lyrics. Watch this space for future shows.
By the way, there are three other Walter Egos: a cover band from the Isle of Man, a Dutch rapper and a British disco producer. But this guy – whose first album, from the 90s, is a genuine NYC rock artifact – beat all of them to it.
Our best 666 songs of alltime countdown has reached the alltime top ten. When we started this countdown, in the fall of 2008, we had no idea that we’d last long enough to get this far! Here’s #10:
Elvis Costello – Man out of Time
Sympathy for the devil – one of Costello’s greatest achievements is how he can both demonize and humanize at the same time, as he does with the utterly evil character in question here. The best version we know of is on the long out-of-print three-cd live box set Costello & Nieve, from 1996; here’s one from before the original album version (on Imperial Bedroom) came out, 1982.
Just eleven more days til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1…and then we start with the 1000 best albums of alltime. Here’s Sunday’s song:
Elvis Costello – Brilliant Mistake
Ironically, this lyrical masterpiece – a continuation of the scathing anti-conformist kiss-off theme he first honed to perfection on New Amsterdam – is the only remotely interesting track on the otherwise forgettable King of America album from 1986. The link above is a live take from Milwaukee’s Summerfest some 23 years later.
Two weeks til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1…and then we start with the 1000 best albums of alltime. Thursday’s song is #14:
Elvis Costello – New Amsterdam
The personal as political: a savage dismissal of shallow American consumerism, and one of the most caustic kiss-off songs ever written: “Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten.” And a triumph for Costello, who played all the instruments himself. From Get Happy, 1980. Watch this list for another one of these coming up soon – can you guess which one it is?
Allowing the new live cd by the Mingus Big Band to qualify as a contender for best album of 2010 isn’t really fair – it’s like sponsoring a home run-hitting contest and then inviting the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete. Every Monday night at New York’s Jazz Standard, the three Mingus repertory bands rotate: the original Mingus Odyssey, the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra, and this unit. Broadcast live and recorded by NPR as 2008 turned into 2009, it captures the Mingus Big Band in particularly exuberant form, blazing through a mix of classics and obscurities. Credit drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts for characteristic breakneck intensity – and also for staying within himself as much as he does. The fun the group is having is visceral – but with this material, who wouldn’t? Mingus’ music leans toward the dark and stormy, but here, when the rains come, the band splashes through the puddles undeterred.
The concert kicks off with the joyously slinky blues of Gunslinging Birds, including brief, incisive breaks by Watts and bassist Boris Kozlov (whose regular gig with this unit is a bass player’s dream come true, especially as he gets to play Mingus’ old lions head bass). New Now Know How (which is a question: New, Now – Know How?, according to arranger Sy Johnson) has an infectious, buoyant enthusiasm that transcends its somewhat sly, swinging atmospherics, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton getting the chance to shine and making the gleaming most of it (this is the first recording of the song since the original Charles Mingus version). They follow the vivid, gentle Bill Evans-style ballad Self-Portrait in Three Colors with a lickety-split romp through Birdcalls, Wayne Escoffery’s blissfully extroverted, modally tinged tenor sax giving way to Vincent Herring’s alto while bari player Lauren Sevian, altoist Douglas Yates and tenorist Abraham Burton battle for the edges. Then they segue into Hora Decubitus, which is considerably more roughhewn and belligerently ominous than the version by Elvis Costello (who wrote the lyrics). Trombonist Ku’umba Frank Lacy growls them with a knowing wariness, and his solo comes down quickly out of the clouds.
Cryin’ Blues features a tightly restrained muted trumpet solo from Rampton, a deviously whispery one from Kozlov, and one that’s absolutely majestic from Lacy. And the whole ensemble takes the majesty up as far as it will go once they’ve scurried their way into the middle passages of Open Letter to Duke; Sevian and Escoffery segue it deftly and fluidly into an electric, soaring version of Moanin’, lit up by a long, biting, expressionistic David Kikoski piano solo. Lacy brings Goodbye Pork Pie Hat up out of chaos with a soaring vocal, Escoffery taking the spotlight, magisterial and intense. The band wraps up the night with a strikingly terse version of Song with Orange, waiting til the very end to take it out in a big explosive blaze. As good as the performances here are, the album is also remarkably well-produced, with a welcome absence of whooping and hollering – either the Jazz Standard folks managed to convince the New Year’s Eve revelers to keep it down, or the crowd was so blown away by the music that they didn’t make much noise til it was practically over. Nice to see – the man who was arguably the greatest American composer deserves no less.
The New Collisions are Boston’s best band; from the small crowd lingering at Arlene’s, you wouldn’t know it. Although what’s obvious from the first few notes is how tight they are. In a classy black dress, midriff jacket and heels, platinum blonde frontwoman Sarah Guild is wiry, intense and inscrutable. She hardly talks to the crowd – mystery seems to be her thing, and she works it. The rest of the band is anything but. Bass player Alex Stern does most of the talking – he’s in a good mood. He ought to be. This is a dream gig for a bass player. Most of their songs motor along with fast eight-note basslines which he plays with a pick and a trebly, Bruce Foxton-esque tone, so he’s always way up in the mix and gets to take a few bubbly, ska-inflected solos as well (no surprise – his other gig is with the Void Union). A year ago this band was mining a totally 80s vibe; the new songs in the set tonight evade referencing any particular time period. They’re just catchy, with a powerpop feel that’s considerably warmer, somewhat gentler than the edgy intensity of their 2009 debut ep. The keys have shifted from minor to major – one of the new songs could have been a hit for the Motels in 1983, with its skeletal verse building to a big, crescendoing chorus.
Guitarist Scott Guild pogos around the stage – he can’t stand still. But playing this kind of music, that would be hard. Firing off his chords with a casual dexterity, by the fourth song he’s lost his glasses, something that seems to happen at every show. There’s an optician in Cambridge or Somerville who owes his livelihood to this guy. Casey Gruttadauria works his keyboards methodically, adding soulful organ swells on the newer songs in place of the blippy, oscillating 80s patches that he’s so adept at. Drummer Zak Kahn hints at a fullscale stomp but doesn’t go there – he feels the room, feels the music for what it is, knowing that if he went over the top some of it would be camp.
Sarah Guild holds something in reserve tonight – she isn’t belting at full volume, at least early on. “This one you know,” she tells the crowd, with just the hint of a smile. It’s a vaguely familiar melody – Missing Persons, maybe? – oh wait, this is Give Me Back My Man by the B-52’s! And they’re doing it completely straight, completely deadpan. And Sarah actually sells the lyric. “I’ll give you fish, I’ll give you candy.” She makes it seem normal to wonder what it would be like if she flipped you a sardine and a box of Mike and Ikes.
The band is on a roll. They segue from one song into another: the tersely scurrying outsider anthem In a Shadow, followed by a couple of new ones, one of them with a This Year’s Model-era Elvis Costello feel. The forthcoming album is titled Optimism, which makes sense. Another new one has bass and guitar locking in sync like a smarter version of the Buzzcocks’ I Believe – and then they do a hailstorm of a twin solo after the chorus. And follow that with an uncharacteristically slow ballad.
Sarah finally takes off her coat. She’s been wailing pretty much full-throttle for over a half an hour now, dealing with one bad mic after another and she looks drained, emotionally depleted. But she rallies, ending the next song cold with a caustic “Shut up!” And then Scott launches into a staccato, Friday on My Mind-style intro and the band joins him on their best song, The Beautiful and Numb. Outside the club, the streets are littered with overdressed tourists talking loudly about nothing to no one – or maybe to their phones. They spill out of bars, still yelling even when they’ve stepped beyond the roar of the crowd. Inside Arlene’s, the New Collisions have an anthem for the night, and it’s about the apocalypse. “We’re in denial, but we’ve got style…we’re in denial, and I’m overcome,” Sarah rails, her voice suddenly lower, taking on a darker nuance. “Isn’t it ironic, this is how the world ends…we are the Beautiful and Numb.” The band fakes an ending, picks it up and then takes it out with a booming crash, everything falling apart, Scott losing his footing, going down with his guitar in the middle of the stage while the world collapses around him. Tonight the New Collisions seized the moment and had the perfect song for it. The kind that rattles around your brain all the way to the train, throughout the train ride and then finally up the steps out of the subway into the temporary beauty of the cool night air.