Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Hot Saturday Night Date with Les Chauds Lapins

Saturday night at Barbes the room was packed. Once Les Chauds Lapins began their set, it was literally impossible to get inside to see them playing their pillowy, bittersweet original arrangements of jazzy French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. Like Les Sans Culottes, Les Chauds Lapins (literally, “The Hot Rabbits,” 30s French slang for “hot to trot”) occupy a significant slice of the demimonde of Americans playing French music. Over the years, hotshot guitarist/singer Meg Reichardt’s French accent has gotten pretty good. Co-leader Kurt Hoffmann distinguishes himself with his meticulously witty new arrangements as well as his agile clarinet playing. But in this band, both musicians play banjo ukes on most of the songs, this time backed by a swoony string section with bass, cello and viola. So these new versions are considerably different from the original piano-and-orchestra or musette-style recordings.

Les Chauds Lapins further distinguish themselves by performing a lot of relatively obscure material, not just the best-known hits by Piaf, Charles Trenet and so forth. The chirpy sound of the two ukes enhances the songs’ droll, deadpan wit: both Hoffman and Reichardt have a thing for bouncy romantic ballads about affairs that start out looking just grand but by the second verse or so have gone straight to hell. And Hoffman had the strings punching and diving and dancing with a verve to match the songs’ lyrics.

They opened with Vous Avez L’Eclat de la Rose (a free download), about a girl who smells like jasmine but may not be so sweet after all. A little later on they did one of their big crowd-pleasers, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son): he’s in love with a circus freak, but if that doesn’t work out he’s always got a gig waiting for him playing accordion at a relative’s country whorehouse. Reichardt sang another surreal number from the point of view of a girl who gets trashed beyond belief early in the evening, hooks up in the bushes with some random guy and then starts to lose her buzz, realizing that she might have made a mistake. But, what the hell: “Let’s dance,” she tells him as she straightens her dress. Hoffman’s bubbly, precise clarinet added a cheery dixieland flavor; Reichardt, who’s a mean blues player, showed off her increasingly impressive jazz chops on one of the songs midway through the set. A lot of the material this time out was relatively new, at least for them, one of the most interesting numbers being a vocal version of Django Reinhardt’s Swing 33.

And most everybody listened through all the puns, and the innuendo, and the double entendres. OK, there was one gentrifier boy, or maybe not a boy, whatev, in the back of the room, hell-bent on impressing everyone within earshot with how blithe and fey he was, and he WOULDN’T SHUT UP. But nobody paid him any mind. People like that don’t usually go to Barbes anyway. Les Chauds Lapins will be there again on Valentine’s Day at 8.

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January 19, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Les Chauds Lapins’ Amourettes Isn’t Just a Flirtation

Les Chauds Lapins are one of New York’s most refreshingly original, interesting bands. They specialize in cleverly lyrical, sometimes obscure, innuendo-filled, sweepingly romantic French pop songs from the 1930s and 40s. It’s been a delight watching them evolve and blossom over the past four years, which is not to say that they weren’t already in bloom when they released their 2007 debut Parlez-Moi D’amour (Let’s Talk about Love), which made our Best Albums list that year. Four years later, their new one Amourettes (Flirtations) captures them pursuing a vein that’s both more sensual and more diverse. Frontwoman/uke player/guitarist Meg Reichardt’s voice has taken on even more of a lush sultriness than she brings to her other group, coy oldtime Americana hellraisers the Roulette Sisters. Her French accent has also gotten stronger; her partner in song, talented multi-instrumentalist Kurt Hoffman’s, has not. But he gets all the funniest songs here and makes the most of them, absolutely deadpan: if this was acting, he’d be Marcel Marceau.

The opening track, Nouveau Bonheur sets the stage for what’s to follow, the distant reverb of Frank London’s muted trumpet followed by Karen Waltuch’s viola and then Reichardt’s own nimble electric guitar against the balmy wash of strings. Cette Nuit-Là (That One Night), ultimately a sad song about waking up alone, is a showcase for Reichardt’s pillowy Catherine Deneuvesque delivery. Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son), a playfully deadpan, carnivalesque Charles Trenet tune, begins with an intro nicked from the Pachelbel Canon. Hoffman takes the lead vocals with sweet chirpy harmonies from Reichardt – born into a family of freaks, he hasn’t got a prayer, and eventually runs off to play accordion in a whorehouse.

Based on the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli classic, Je T’aime’s lyrics don’t add anything, but Reichardt sings it fetchingly with some deliciously bluesy viola from Waltuch, and another soulful guitar solo. A study in suspense, Presque Oui (Almost Yes – check out the cool surreal video) is enhanced by Hoffman’s clarinet and a tightlipped passing of the baton from Andy Cotton’s bass, to the uke, to the strings as they rise. A straight-up love song, Vous Avez L’éclat de la Rose (As Pretty As a Rose) gets an unexpected modulation and more genial muted trumpet from London. Next up is Charles Trenet’s Quand J’etais Petit, sung by Hoffman, a wry tale of a a childhood crush that may have an unexpected ending – or maybe not.

C’est Arrivé (It’s Happened) wryly follows a downward spiral from mutual attraction to mutual bliss and then less amicable moments, with some delicious tradeoffs between Hoffman’s clarinet, the strings and the bass. Voulez-Vous Danser, Madame has Hoffman following a similar theme over a gypsy jazz bounce; Si Je M’étais Couché caches longing and angst in a sweeping romantic narrative that floats on dreamy strings punctuated by a bouncy bass solo. A bracingly deadpan tale of a suicide in the making whose bitterness for the moment is satisfied by spitting on the fish in the river rather than diving in with them, Moi J’crache dans L’eau introduces a darker current, where the album unexpectedly ends, with the sad waltz, Pluie (Rain), sung by a bereaved lover. Ironically, singer Maguy Fred, who recorded the original in 1934, was murdered later that year by her boyfriend, who after sitting alone with her body for three days set fire to their apartment and then shot himself. It would make a great lyric for a song by Les Chauds Lapins. They play the cd release show for this one at the 92YTribeca at 10 PM this Friday the 25th.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/14/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Friday’s is #746:

Edith Piaf – 65 Titres Originaux

The prototypical noir cabaret singer, tiny but tough, brassy but brittle, Edith Piaf earned the right to sound world-weary by the time she’d hit her teens. Brought up in a whorehouse, she may or may not have been a child prostitute, might have hired the hitman who killed a guy who wanted to pimp her out, lived hard and died young when all the booze and drugs caught up with her. In between she became the voice of a people – and she did it her way, defying convention. As a singer, she never marketed herself as a sex object, and she wrote many of her own lyrics – the ring of authenticity in all those tales of street urchindom is no affectation. Among the thousands of Piaf collections out there, we picked this three-disc reissue from a few years ago because it has so many songs, and most of them date from her peak period in the mid-thirties through the fifties. La Vie en Rose is the one that everybody knows, and by comparison to her other stuff at least, it’s schlock. Instead, try the bitter Milord, the anguish of La Foule (The Crowd, which is shockingly not on this album), the brooding, suspenseful Padam Padam or the downright creepy L’Accordeoniste. The rest of the songs range from gypsy jazz (Les Momes de la Cloche/Kids in the Street), to lyrically rich, wistful ballads (Le Disque Use/Used Record); ragtime (Un Refrain Courait Dans la Rue/There’s a Rumor Going Around); lush orchestrated tours de force (Je M’en Fous Pas Mal/I Don’t Give a Fuck) and completely over-the-top stuff like Misericorde, which is totally goth, right down to the tolling bell and the choir of bass voices. 65 songs here: every time, the pain in her voice transcends any language barrier. Here’s a random torrent.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Genius of Georges Brassens Revealed for English Listeners

By all accounts, Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation cd is the first full-length album devoted to English-language versions of songs by legendary, obscene French songwriter Georges Brassens. Brassens was more punk than just about anybody: an atheist and a communist, his records were frequently banned by the authorities during his early years in the 1950s, which only fueled his popularity. His songs are irresistibly funny, driven by a snarling contempt for middle-class conformity and an unwavering populism. Why did Brassens never catch on here? De Gaillande sidestepped the question when we asked him last summer. It’s because Brassens’ arrangements are simple to the point of sometimes being threadbare. It’s obvious that Brassens saw himself as a poète maudit with guitar rather than a musician lyricist like Richard Thompson or Steve Kilbey. Here, de Gaillande (frontman and lead guitarist of two of this era’s finest art-rock bands, the Snow and Melomane) tersely and brilliantly fleshes out the arrangements with a frequently ominous blend of gypsy jazz and noir cabaret, featuring his Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass. The result is fearlessly iconoclastic, vicious and hilarious: in other words, it does justice to the originals. And musically, it’s actually an improvement: de Gaillande’s strong, clear baritone adds nuance in a way that the gruff Brassens never could. The songs themselves date from the 40s (the shuffling title track, Brassens’ signature song, defiantly asserting that only the blind wouldn’t join in gleefully to watch his execution) – to the 70s (a literally obscenely funny version of Don Juan).

Brassens didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he had could smell a hypocrite a mile away. Those qualities brought out the cynic in him, front and center here on Public Benches (Les Amoureux des bancs publics). While the masses may see them as fit “for only the impotent or the obese,” they’re actually quite romantic. The song goes on as a ringing and surprisingly uncynical endorsement of PDA – for awhile anyway, until it becomes clear that the point is to let the young lovers have their way since the sum total of their happiness together will pretty much be limited to their time sitting in the park. Likewise, To Die For Your Ideas (Mourir pour des idées) lampoons the limousine liberals who can’t tell the difference between an idea that’s worth sacrificing oneself for and one that’s not, despite all evidence including the “killing fields and mass graves.” That one’s done as a deadpan duet with eclectic chanteuse Keren Ann.

The best songs here are the most harshly funny ones, which resonate with innumerable levels of meaning. On one hand, Don Juan lauds the lothario who’d rescue a lonely woman from a sad, otherwise permanent virginal state, along with the nun who “defrosted the penis of the amputee.” On the other, it’s a sendup of any wannabe ladies man who’d count a night with an utterly undesirable woman as a notch on the belt. The Pornographer rather disingenuously tries to play off Brassens’ sexually explicit lyrics as a decision to relent and give the people what they want – and the images are so over-the-top ridiculous, and perfectly rendered in English, that this version is no less entertaining or explicit than the original. The dilemma is revisited even more entertainingly on Trumpets of Fortune and Fame (Les Trompettes de la renommeé), a snide look at celebrity: then as now, sex sells.

There are three other angry classics here. On one level, Ninety-Five Percent gives a shout-out to a woman who wants sex with love; on another, it’s a springboard for another spot-on, obscenity-laden Brassens spoof of a wannabe stud. The resolutely swinging anticonformist anthem Philistines quietly takes pride in the “unwanted progeny” that the unthinking masses assume will grow up to be cleanshaven accountants: instead, they’re all going to turn into shaggy poets. And the savage I Made Myself Small (Je me suis fait tout petit) drips with equal amounts of contempt for the jealous bitch who’ll spear a flower with her parasol lest her boyfriend think it more attractive than she is, and for the spineless wimp who’ll let her get away with it. The rest of the album includes the wry Princess and the Troubadour (La princesse et le croque-notes), a missed opportunity for statutory rape; Penelope, a cynical look at seducing a married woman, and the surprisingly upbeat, proletarian Song for the Countryman (Chanson pour l’auvergnat).

De Gaillande’s translations match Brassens’ original lyrics in both rhyme and meter, an impressive achievement by any standard, fortuitously enabled by Brassens’ habit of continuing a single, long phrase over the course of several bars. It’s even more impressive considering how well the double entendres and slang of the original have been rendered here. In a couple of instances, de Gaillande mutes the dirty words: for example, in Ninety-Five Percent, “s’emmerde” is translated as “bores her out of her mind” rather than “pisses her off.” But in the spirit of Brassens, he adds an emphatic “fuck” or two where there were none before. Several of the translations’ subtleties are genuinely exquisite: for example, in To Die for Your Ideas, de Gaillande alludes to a guillotine rather than the scaffold in the original lyric. And in Trumpets of Fortune and Fame, he chooses to translate “pederasty” literally rather than going with its usual connotation (“pédérastique” is a somewhat dated way of saying “gay”). Francophones will have a field day comparing all these side by side (one reason why this review has been in the works for such a long time – the album’s official release was this summer). Pierre de Gaillande plays this album with his band along with special guests Joel Favreau (Brassens’ lead guitarist) and Favreau’s longtime collaborator, keyboardist Jean-Jacques Franchin Friday, December 17 at 9 PM at the 92YTribeca on Hudson St.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Les Chauds Lapins at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 6/19/09

It was both impressive and heartwarming to see how this band has grown. Les Chauds Lapins means “hot rabbits,” literally – in the vernacular, the connotation is a guy who’s hot to trot. Their shtick is reviving old French chansons from the thirties and forties, predominantly from the Charles Trenet catalog. A Gallic icon, Trenet was flamboyant, frequently annoying but also very witty. His repertoire ranged from the odious Douce France (sort of the French equivalent of God Bless America) to dozens of vastly more entertaining and clever songs with a jazzy, theatrical feel, sometimes going completely over the edge into camp. Les Chauds Lapins play them with a knowing, tongue-in-cheek appreciation: former Ordinaires frontman Kurt Hoffman on banjo ukelele or clarinet; ex-Roulette Sister Meg Reichardt on guitar and banjo uke, sharing vocals with Hoffman; Andy Cotton on upright bass, Garo Yellin on cello and a ringer on violin adding a gypsy flair to several selections. The result was as lush and romantic as it was funny: Les Chauds Lapins prefer songs with multiple layers of meaning and they brought all of them out.

What was most impressive is how much their repertoire has expanded since their first album (which made the top 20 on our Best Albums of 2007 list). This time they opened with the coyly swinging Il M’a Vue Nue (He Saw Me Naked), Reichardt managing to hold herself back from completely hamming it up. The high point of their first set was Je Crache Dans L’Eau (I Spit Into the Water), a character study chronicling one unique and peculiar response to rejection, taking it out on fish in the river and marveling at all the ripples a mouthful of saliva can create. The band clearly had a great time with an even more bizarre chronicle, le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son) when it came to the bridge, which is a dead ringer for the Pachelbel Canon. The song was written forty years before Oprah rediscovered it and put the Canon back in the canon (ouch – sorry) – was this a case of reinventing the wheel or a very clever case of theft? Appropriate something previously unknown and you have a perfect crime.   

As a guitarist, Reichardt just gets more interesting, more incisive. Having honed her blues chops in the Roulette Sisters, she’s worked up her jazz side in this project and where she used to comp chords on banjo uke on most of the songs, she’s playing guitar with the same clever incisiveness and love for the low registers that’s so apparent when she plays blues. It was also nice to see Hoffman cut loose with a fiery clarinet solo toward the end of the set – it would be good to see those chops in action more often. And it would have been fun to stick around for a whole second set , but there were drunk people to watch over, the price of some pretty hard pregaming.

June 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Make Music NY Review 6/21/08

What a beautiful summer day. There are plenty of beautiful days in New York, just hardly ever from June to late September. Saturday was what New York was supposedly like in the summer in the 70s, temperatures around 80 but with a nice breeze and hardly any humidity, a very auspicious way to start the second annual Make Music NY, the local version of the international outdoor street music festival la Fete de la Musique. In keeping with the Lucid Culture tradition of trying to cover as many performances in as many diverse styles as possible, a decision was reached. The all-day punk show on Governors Island was tempting, but didn’t make the cut (and as it turned out, this Sunday’s NY Times covered it, in which case a report here would have been at least somewhat redundant). Since this is an outdoor festival, with most of the bands shlepping their own primitive PA systems and portable generators, performances tend to run behind schedule, with the inevitable snafus. The game plan: start in Williamsburg, where there were several intriguing shows scheduled within a short radius; then, to minimize travel time, to the East Village; then back to the Burg for a final show. A single indulgence would be allowed, one favorite band who’ve been profiled here before. Otherwise, everything would have to be either a new discovery or at least someone who hasn’t been reviewed here yet. The best-laid plans, ad infinitum…

Saturday’s tour began in the belly of the beast, beneath the scaffolding at one of those shoddy new luxury condo firetraps that seem to spring up overnight, this one on North Tenth. A handful of kids passed by, the pile of amps and band gear drawing lots of looks, but nobody stopped. Then a couple arrived, both looking somewhat puzzled. “You wanna buy a condo, talk to Patrice inside,” a worker on the catwalk told them, looking just as puzzled as they were. “We DON’T want to buy a condo,” the guy replied, practically shuddering at the thought – apparently he was looking for a friend in one of the bands who were scheduled to play there. A little after one, the punkish Bronx group Diabolique started playing: just two of the band members, a guy on lead guitar and a woman on drums who later switched to rhythm guitar while stomping on a tambourine. A work in progress: they started out with a decently growling cover of the Rumble, which was a good sign (Link Wray covers are almost always a sign of good chops and good taste). The band has several intriguing mp3s (available for free download) on their website, one of which they played, not as punk as the snarling broadside online. The woman is the better of the two musicians; maybe it was the early hour or lack of rehearsal, but for whatever reason, the guy needs practice. But the two had good energy and enough of a sense of what they were doing to make them worth checking back with in a couple of months.

Next stop was McCarren Park, where a gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara were scheduled for 2 PM. You’d think that it would be pretty impossible to hide a gamelan orchestra in this park, but they were nowhere to be found. An hour into the festival, and Plan B was already in full effect, which meant that the next stop was 780 Lorimer St., where the marvelous oldtime French chanson revivalists les Chauds Lapins were supposed to play. As it turned out, the address is the entrance to McCarren Pool (one wonders how many more of the band’s fans would have showed up had the band, or Time Out, who were in charge of the festival schedule, made this known). But no matter: the group’s frontman and woman, Kurt Hoffman and Meg Reichardt stood resolutely in the hot sun and played a characteristically delightful set. As they serenaded the crowd gathered beneath the trees, a fenderbender between a couple of SUV’s was narrowly averted. A Mr. Softee truck circled the block: in an absolutely unexpected act of politeness, the driver turned off his jingle as he passed the second time. Hoffman sang and played banjo ukulele; Reichardt also began on banjo uke and then switched to lead guitar. What was most apparent was how much their repertoire has grown in the months since they were last reviewed here, and what a fine jazz guitarist Reichardt is becoming. She’s always been a smartly incisive, original blues player, so this new direction she’s taking makes perfect sense. French speakers will find their songs a lyrical feast, loaded with innuendo and clever wordplay; the somewhat stagy charm of the melodies has plenty of appeal for English speakers as well.

When they’d finished, the greenmarket a short walk away beckoned: fresh cilantro, mmmm! And across the way from the stalls with all that delicious greenery was Gamelan Dharma Swara! “New York’s own gamelan,” or at least this edition of it is a community group with what seems to be a revolving membership based on who’s available to play. With a total of 17 members at this show, most of them playing traditional Balinese gamelan bells with bright yellow hammers, augmented by a boisterous bongo drummer who seemed to function as the group’s conductor, a trio of dancers and two magnificent gongs lurking behind the group (nobody took the opportunity to ring them, at least during the orchestra’s last half-hour). The music is both brightly tingling and hypnotically psychedelic. Pretty much anybody who watches PBS has probably at least caught a glimpse of a gamelan orchestra at some point, but live and up close, this kind of music reveals itself as soothing as it is fascinating, its ebbs and swells incorporating the most minute rhythmic and melodic intricacies between the performers. One of the Lucid Culture crew, nursing a pulled wing muscle, had taken a certain narcotic preferred by a certain terminally obese extreme-rightwing AM radio host, and the orchestra had her on her back and somewhere way off in dreamland within five minutes of arriving.

Gamelan Dharma Swara’s music dates back to an age where the dividing line between audience and performer was nebulous at best, before the point in history where music became a commodity, when pretty much everyone could beat on a drum or sing along or even lead the band with a lyre or a fiddle or a flute. The woman who served as the group’s spokesman informed the crowd that the public is invited to participate in rehearsals, and from the likes of it, this is a crew that is strictly in it for fun: the guy who serves as what might be called the lead bell player looks to be all of 14. Yet the orchestra came across as completely professional, assured and far beyond mere competence, even more impressive when their spokeswoman finally told the crowd that they hadn’t really rehearsed for this performance and that they were now just basically going to jam. This is the kind of group that Dave Matthews or (is Phish still together?) ought to take on the road with them if they had any brain cells left.

After that, it was back to the original agenda, to the day’s one scheduled indulgence, Linda Draper at Like the Spice Gallery on the south side. Lucid Culture’s resident part-time pillhead, back from her hippie heroin coma, had left her sore subscapularis in dreamland and, reinvigorated, went off in search of pizza. The crew’s temporarily more sober member took the long way through the park to Roebling Street, passing a bunch of trendoids playing little more than random squalls of feedback, a laughably bad Bad Company imitation yowling away where les Chauds Lapins had been an hour before, and an equally silly Interpol wannabe band out in front of the tattoo store on Roebling. As expected, everything was running behind schedule at this point. At Like the Spice, a guy/girl trendoid duo called the Dead Batteries were preening, posing and making stilted, declamatory attempts at vocals while accompanying themselves on drums and a screechy old analog synth from the 70s. Draper asked the two if she could borrow the PA their parents’ money had gotten them, but they couldn’t be bothered, so she decided to do her set old-school, completely without amplification, even though she was playing with a bleeding finger – “That’s punk rock, right?” she laughed. Meanwhile, the neighborhood Jesus freak was blasting his weekly Spanish-language Saturday sermon, with musical accompaniment, on the next block. The gallery owner, a pretty brunette named Marisa, made several attempts to get him to shut up (he’s been a nightmare for her and several other neighborhood businesses), and finally succeeded, while a crowd of skateboarders passed by, screaming and hollering at a slow-moving car competing for with them for space on the street. And then the fire department showed up. But then they left.

Distractions finally out of the way, Draper finally pulled up a chair and sang to a crowd that had obviously come from all over to hear her. Like Nina Nastasia, Draper expertly plucks her guitar more than she picks it, singing with the quiet, full, round tone of the ex-chorister she is. She did a lot of new material including songs from her soon-to-be-released sixth album, and they were uniformly excellent. From this show it was clear that Draper has grown into one of the world’s elite songwriters, finally managing to weld her rich, utterly surreal lyricism to the catchy, equally incisive tunefulness that characterized her earliest work. Frustration and sometimes raw rage frequently factor into her tersely crafted lyrics. Double entendres and an often laugh-out-loud stream-of-consciousness humor abound. Her best songs were both new numbers, one with a sharp, minor-key garage rock melody called Bridge and Tunnel which turned out to be not a slap at tourists but at just assholes in general. The other was an equally catchy, slowly burning 6/8 broadside. She asked if anyone had any requests, and someone did, the opening cut on her first album, a terrific pop tune set to a circular four-chord melody. But halfway through, she forgot the words. So she made up some new ones on the spot:

My finger has finally stopped bleeding
My hair smells like barbecue
From the restaurant down the street
Which is really good if you’re not a vegetarian…
I’m not
I always had a fast metabolism

Draper also unearthed a cover by obscure 70s songwriter Kath Bloom, a plaintive number which meshed well with all the originals. Indulgences done with, the cilantro still looked fresh, but it was time to put it in the fridge, so it was over the bridge and then over to the park at First St. and Houston where the Main Squeeze Orchestra were playing. The full orchestra is seventeen women all playing accordion, making for a sound potentially even more psychedelic and captivating than the gamelan orchestra in the park. For the first time today, the pungent smell of ganja was noticeable, wafting across the park from the benches, a crowd of derelicts relaxing to what they could hear while leaning against the fence since the the ten group members (including conductor Walter Kuhr) who’d come out today were doing the show completely without amplification. A five foot one guy in an Iggy t-shirt stopping briefly as the haunting sound fluttered in and out. Because the breeze had picked up, the womens’ sheet music was fluttering as well, creating some long pauses between songs. One of the women sat behind the front line of accordions, playing oompah basslines on a big, beautiful, oversize keyboard. She also contributed vocals on a singalong of the Kinks’ cabaret-inflected Demon Alcohol. The group alternated between haunting, classical sounding material and the amusingly orchestrated pop covers that have become their trademark: among them, a strangely straightforward Beach Boys tune, a gypsyish St. James Infirmary and Mack the Knife, and a completely over-the-top version of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean.

Perhaps frustrated by the windy conditions, the whole band took a lengthy smoke break – they all look like a bunch of party animals. So it was up to 14th St and the L, back to Williamsburg where melodic rock trio Violet Hour were supposed to play outside a bar. They had their equipment on the street, and after some lengthy soundchecking, it was apparent that they were waiting for the bar to start to fill up before playing their set. But that’s ok: Make Music NY is first and foremost for musicians. It wouldn’t make sense to fault them for not playing to a pretty much empty street where they could catch the beginning of the Saturday night bar turnout if they started an hour late. Or perhaps Time Out got their set time wrong, which would hardly be surprising. So perhaps at some point in the future Lucid Culture will cover one of their live shows. Til then, there are some good youtube clips of the band live at Trash Bar that you can listen to on their myspace.

June 22, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marni Rice, Bliss Blood and Dreamboat Live at Laila Lounge, Brooklyn NY 2/20/08

This is the kind of place where music is only an occasional thing, as evidenced by the chalkboard outside on the sidewalk which simply said “open mic.” As at innumerable other bars, the musicians who play here apparently also do all the promotion. Either the night was running ahead of schedule, or there had been a switchup after the email announcing the event was sent out, because by quarter after ten, accordionist Marni Rice was wrapping up her solo set. She’s excellent, a player who’s equally influenced by French chanson and American garage rock. Singing in a smooth, confident alto, her last two songs were both excellent originals, the last a new one perhaps titled Red Light, a scuffling, klezmer-inflected broadside about the New York subway system’s inability to treat their customers with even a minimum of respect. She’s playing another solo set at Hank’s this Saturday at about 9:30, opening for some garage-rock friends. Musically, it might not be the smoothest segue, but energy-wise it ought to be perfect: Rice has considerably more edge and originality than your typical accordion-playing chanteuse.

Bliss Blood is a one-woman time machine, a brilliant songwriter with breathtaking command of pretty much every oldtime blues, ragtime and swing style ever found on shellac or celluloid. Unsurprisingly, she’s a major force in the New York music scene, as leader of the wildly popular, lushly romantic Moonlighters, the sizzling barrelhouse blues act Delta Dreambox, macabre “crime jazz” trio Nightcall and swing dance band Cantonement (that seems to be all for the moment). A Bliss Blood solo show is so rare that it’s a can’t-miss event: even thought she got her start here in town playing solo, she virtually never gets a chance to do that anymore. In the Moonlighters, she favors lush, complicated, harmony-laden arrangements, so hearing her songs pared down to just vocals and chordal rhythm was a treat worth braving the cold and this somewhat suspect, frequently trendoid-infested venue. Accompanying herself tonight with just her trusty ukulele, Blood reaffirmed her status as one of the smartest, most captivating performers around. As a singer, she alternates between seduction and indictment. Her serenades were sweet and clear, but she put her fangs in for the sad, rueful ballads and politically-charged anthems. In the bar’s intimate confines, she transcended the dodgy sound and put on a riveting show, opening with a brief cover of the Goldfinger theme, then the explosively powerful Nightcall song Blackwater, a corrosive, spot-on critique of the mercenary company killing innocent civilians in Iraq.

Introducing the breezy, seemingly carefree hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, she explained that “gink” is Depression-era slang for someone who’s lost or homeless. Broken Doll, a stark narrative about a battered woman, was just as evocative as the version on the Moonlighters’ latest album Surrender. Blood also did a handful of covers of songs by her idol, Bessie Smith, and also debuted a touching new one entited Winter in My Heart (“and snow in my eyes,” she sang wistfully). It was hard to remain dry-eyed after that one.

Before launching into a tersely intense version of the Moonlighters classic Blue and Black-Eyed, she told the audience it evoked a different New York, one a little more dangerous, in this case the Bowery at the turn of the 20th century when prostitutes would drink carbolic acid and throw themselves off the fire escape of the recently demolished tenement that once housed the notorious bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. She wrapped up the set with a request, the charming Hello Heartstring and then her fiery, minor-key, tango-inflected maquiladora ballad Dirt Road Life, told through the eyes of a Mexican sweatshop slave.

Dreamboat, the headliners (no relation to Bliss Blood’s similarly-titled band) were terrific, the best new act we’ve encountered since unexpectedly discovering James Apollo back in December. This new trio features excellent acoustic guitarist/singer Craig Chesler, upright bassist Tony Masselli and a frontwoman who jokingly told the audience that she was Kelly Ripa. Iowa expat Kelli Rae Powell, alternating between a wink, a smirk and an occasional shit-eating grin, showed off a spectacular, vastly entertaining and delightfully witty ability to absolutely nail a range of styles from Bessie Smith subtle, to Shirley Bassey over-the-top, and seemingly everywhere in between. If this band stays together, they’ll be huge. Like the Moonlighters, there’s a fondness for harmonies and an unabashed romanticism in most of what they do, but playing for laughs is also part of it. Powell’s onstage persona is as devious as it is virtuosic. Their best song, appropriate for tonight’s chill, was a very pretty, soaringly optimistic ballad called When My Winter Turns to Spring. They’re playing the Jalopy Café on March 8 with the Moonlighters, well worth the B61 bus ride to Red Hook and back home again.

February 21, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Les Chauds Lapins at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 10/20/07

[editor’s note: the absence of French accent marks here is due to the computer, not us]

A lush, swinging, passionate performance of some very smart, funny, unabashedly romantic songs from 1930s and 1940s France, mostly. That’s les Chauds Lapins’ shtick: they’re a bunch of Americans playing stuff a continent and a few generations removed, and they do it well. They have a viola and a cello, and when the string section is playing at full steam, they will completely sweep you away as they did tonight. They opened with J’ai Danse avec l’Amour (I Danced with Love), the first cut on their excellent debut album Parlez-Moi d’Amour (Talk to Me About Love). Meg Reichardt (who also plays in the Roulette Sisters) was poised and assured on lead vocals, delivering it with her trademark breathy style, in an impressively good French accent. Then banjo uke/clarinet player Kurt Hoffman took a turn at the mic with the witty Swing Troubadour. It’s told from the point of view of a guy in an upstairs apartment listening to a guy downstairs serenading the girl who used to live there. But she’s not there anymore:

Comme toi je n’ai plus rien
Mais comme toi je chante pour mon bien

“Like you, I got nothing, but just like you I’m singing to myself too,” says the new tenant matter-of-factly. There were enough Francophones in the audience – this was Barbes, after all – to pick up on this and the innumerable other jokes and double entendres that littered the songs they played tonight. On the sardonic Presque Oui (Almost Yes), Hoffman and Reichardt traded off on vocals fetchingly, with an effervescent clarinet solo from Hoffman on the intro. Reichardt wowed the crowd with a banjo uke solo on the bouncy J’ai Connu de Vous (I Knew You), sung by Hoffman, about a guy reminiscing about all the horrible things his girlfriend did to him. Still he has fond memories of her. The album’s title track is a swoony number in 6/8, and Reichardt gave it “tant d’amour [so much love].” On a new number for them, Le Fils de la Femme Poisson (The Fishwife’s Son), Hoffman mined the song’s completely over-the-top humor for everything it was worth. After the gently swaying verse, which sounds suspiciously like the Pachelbel Canon, there’s a campy vaudeville chorus: the narrator can’t afford anything for his girlfriend, a circus headless woman. However, he has been offered a job in a relative’s whorehouse playing accordion. The strings were going full blast on this one, and they were gorgeous.

They followed that with Le Barque d’Yves (Yves’ Boat), a cautionary, 6/8 ballad about dating a sailor where on the last chorus he ends up inviting her to join him in his watery grave. Then Hoffman sang Quand J’Etais Petit, about someone who’s had a crush on a girl since she was a child. But “on n’est plus petit [we’re not kids anymore].” Reichardt pulled out all the passion stops for Si Tu M’Aimes, another cut from the new album, followed by Hoffman’s take on Parlez-Moi d’Autre Chose [Let’s Talk About Something Else, i.e. anything but love]. He forgot the words for a half a verse, but les Chauds Lapins owned the audience tonight, and they forgave him. And they probably forgot all about it after a particularly choice upright bass solo from their 4-string player Andy Cotton. They ended the set with the somewhat silly, coy Il M’a Vu Nue (He Saw Me Naked). The place was packed, but the sound was terrific and the crowd was pretty rapt til they’d finished playing. Nobody cried – people are frequently moved to tears at les Chauds Lapins shows – but a good time was clearly had by all, including a group of Quebecois nodding approvingly. If you can’t wait til the Moonlighters come around next time or you don’t have $200 to cough up for Al Green at B.B. King’s – assuming he ever comes back – les Chauds Lapins will do just fine.

October 22, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Les Chauds Lapins – Parlez-Moi d’Amour

The most romantic album of the year, and, so far, the best debut as well. Questions of authenticity always arise when bands mine a foreign genre, so the stakes were pretty high for this bunch of New Yorkers playing innuendo-laden, jazzy French pop songs from the 30s and 40s. But their love of the music transcends any difficulty they might have had with the language. A purist – and the French are notorious purists – might fault them for the occasional lapse of accent, but they absolutely nail the style. This is lush, harmony-driven, gorgeously orchestrated, swoony bedroom music. At les Chauds Lapins’ cd release show earlier this summer, people were in tears, and it’s a safe bet that most of them didn’t even speak French.

The nucleus of this band is Roulette Sisters lead guitarist Meg Reichardt, who sings and plays banjo ukelele here along with her sparring partner (or, better put, dance partner) Kurt Hoffman, former leader of rustic New York art-rockers the Ordinaires. Accompanied by another Roulette sister, Karen Waltuch on viola along with Garo Yellin on cello, Andy Cotton on upright bass and Frank London adding some balmy trumpet to several of the songs, the band wrings every ounce of subtlety and nuance out of both lyrics and melodies. As in Reichardt’s other band, most of the songs here are about sex: “les chauds lapins” translates roughly to “the horny bastards.” With their breathy yet restrained deliveries, Reichardt and Hoffman are the perfect combination to sing this stuff.

French songwriters have always been held to a higher standard than their American Tin Pan Alley counterparts: from Charles Trenet (many of whose songs Les Chauds Lapins cover here) to Didier Barbelivien, they’ve virtually always been much more artisanal. Double entendres, historical and mythological references, social commentary and great wit abound in a vastly higher proportion of the French top 40 than what Americans have been subjected to over the last century. Les Chauds Lapins revel in this: Reichardt and Hoffman articulate the lyrics to these songs with exceptional clarity, so that any French-speaking person can understand them (in case this might seem a sine qua non, try making sense of French hip-hop if you aren’t up on the latest argot).

There are thirteen lucky tracks on this album, and you might well get lucky if you use them the right way, i.e. late at night with someone you’re looking to se coucher avec. The Edith Piaf hit J’ai Danse Avec l’Amour (I Danced with Love), the coy Il M’a Vu Nue (He Saw Me Naked), the rueful Swing Troubadour (written as anyone who could afford to flee Paris had already fled, days ahead of the Nazi invasion) and the album’s sly, seductive title track are all performed with wit, charm and a barely restrained delight: it’s obvious that this band had a great time making the album. Fans of this obscure (stateside, anyway) subgenre will not be disappointed and newcomers will be completely seduced. You don’t have to speak French, but it helps. Quel plaisir to see such good musicians resurrecting such deserving songs. Terrific album: five baguettes with fresh camembert, tomato and a bottle of beaujolais nouveau. As a bonus, the album is also available on vinyl, complete with lyric sheet and ukelele chord charts for the album’s fifth track, Mon Reve C’Etait Vous.

[editor’s note – apologies to all you Academie Francaise types for the missing accent marks – attempting to use anything more complicated than plain text on a WordPress page, at least in 2007, is flirting with disaster]

September 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment