Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

Advertisements

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/10/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #538:

Bobby Vacant and the Weary – Tear Back the Night

We picked this as one of the best albums of 2009. It’s as much a masterpiece of simple, potently imagistic wordsmithing as it is musically, multi-instrumentalist George Reisch a.k.a. The Weary giving these haunted, alienated songs the gravitas they deserve with some stunningly eclectic arrangements. Stand in Time gets an elegaic, vintage Moody Blues chamber pop treatment, while the surprisingly witty Waveflowers paints a portrait of slipping away in the night against a vividly nocturnal mid-period Pink Floyd style backdrop. Bobby Vacant opens the album by cautioning everybody to stay away; by the end, he’s willing to open the door a crack. In between, he chronicles acid casualties, sold-out ex-idealists and the down-and-out on the Arthur Lee-esque Clark Street and the snide country-rock romp Dylan’s Dead. The death obsession goes front and center on the dirge Some Walk; the most powerful songs here are the title track, a creepy post-party scenario, and Never Looking Back, a bitter, morbid escape anthem set to a triumphant janglerock tune that will resonate with anyone who ever felt surrounded and threatened by people who just don’t get it. Too obscure to make it to the sharelockers, it’s still available from the excellent Chicago label Luxotone, where you can hear the whole thing. Bobby Vacant continues as a solo artist while running another excellent upstart label, Switzerland’s Weak Records.

August 10, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/6/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #173:

Bowdoin Rocks – Waiting for the Breakdown

While students at Bowdoin College, bassist/singer Wendi Mitchell and keyboardist Alan Walker (later of the Brilliant Mistakes) recorded a lo-fi demo of this haunting, artsy pop gem. Years later, Walker’s ex-bandmate George Reisch of Luxotone Records would add some badly needed guitar and suddenly an underground classic was born. The link in the title above is the stream at radio luxotone.

February 6, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 1/9/10

So much for New Year’s resolutions – our attempt to bring back a daily post here at the site, at least as we count down our Top 666 Songs of Alltime list one step closer #1, took a nosedive when our internet connnection went out yesterday. So here’s today’s song, #201:

Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Never Looking Back

Our pick for best song of 2009, it’s tersely metaphorical, bitter yet defiant to the end, the high point of the expat American songwriter’s darkly intense album Tear Back the Night. And the lyric at the end sounds unmistakably like, “Went from my home, went from my friends, went from the land where the polygraph spins.” The link above is the stream at Radio Luxotone.

If you really want to know what yesterday’s song was supposed to be, click on the Top 666 list link above and find out. And by the way, in case you’re a newcomer here, we do a lot more than just have fun with a bunch of lists of good songs. Reviews of psychedelic rock in the West Village, latin music of all strange and wonderful sorts in Tribeca coming up along with a bunch of great rock, soul, jazz and indescribable vocal music cds coming up in the next week. If we can get online. Stay tuned.

January 9, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man

This album is a reason why we wait til the eleventh hour – in this case, the eleventh hour of the decade – before we finalize our 50 Best Albums of the Year list. Robin O’Brien might be the best singer you’ve never heard: her recordings have been prized in the cassette underground for years. Like her previous album Eye and Storm, this new cd has been masterfully assembled layering some of those legendary vocal tracks over new arrangements with guitar, bass, some keys and percussion that manage to be lush yet austere, played by Luxotone Records’ George Reisch (AKA The Weary of Bobby Vacant and the Weary, another artist with an album high on the 2009 list here). While The Apple in Man is as dazzlingly multistylistic as her most recent effort, what may be most astonishing about it is how many other styles she tackles here that she didn’t the last time around. Is there anything this woman can’t sing? Dreampop, check. Haunting 70s-style Britfolk, got it. American psychedelic pop in the style of the decade before that, check again. Trance, you bet. The Laura Nyro-on-steroids gospel flavor that made Eye and Storm so gripping isn’t much in evidence here, but that doesn’t matter. Front and center is Hangman, an a-capella showstopper built out of layers and layers of O’Brien’s trademark vocal harmonies. Folk music fans may recognize the song as Gallows Pole, but the closest comparison might be the Bulgarian Womens’ Vocal Choir doing Bjork. With its righteous rage channeled through some of the eeriest harmonies on the album, there’s no reference to Odetta and even less to Led Zep.

The rest album veers from subtle and witty to absolutely haunted and back again. The titular Apple, a fresh and often hypnotic interpretation of the Eden myth, looms in with a disquieting feel, but it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom and liberation, its ethereal harmonies soaring over an almost minimalist rhythm section with swooping organ accents. With its sudden, playful tempo shifts, Bobby My Memory deviously memorializes O’Brien’s friendship with Bob Kinkel of Trans-Siberian Orchestra during their days as Berklee classmates back in the 80s. Julie, spiced up with just the hint of flamenco, is a bright psychedelic folk number that would have been perfectly at home on Chelsea Girl (except that O’Brien hits the notes that Nico never would have). And Reisch’s distorted guitar makes a perfect match for O’Brien’s effortless and strangely hypnotic exuberance on the following track, Gold Chain.

But the strongest songs here are, unsurprisingly, the darkest. October (click the link for the video) soars, but with a distinctly somber feel brought out with understated menace of Reisch’s orchestration. The single best one might be the even eerier Hand in the Window, O’Brien’s lower register blending ominously with Reisch’s steadily deliberate walk down on the guitar into pitch blackness. O’Brien’s intensity on the stately 12-string guitar ballad Traveller is nothing short of visceral: “Darling don’t go to sleep, there’s a way out and it’s way down,”  she intones with a Nyro-esque anguish, layers of vocals and guitar building to a creepy unresolved ending. But all is not despair: bouncing along on a nifty trip-hop groove, Mama is something akin to chamber pop meets early 80s Cure (think Faith, maybe). The cd ends on the hypnotic note where it began. This album leaves you somewhat breathless but also mystified why O’Brien never became famous. Then again, as cliche-free as this cd is, maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t. You can hear the whole thing (and buy it too) at Luxtone.fm.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Tear Back the Night

This is one of those rare works of art where every element strengthens and reinforces the other. Consider the cd package: the wraparound cover photo shows a house at night from the shadows, beckoning yet unreachable like Kafka’s castle. Inside under the cd, another photo, a weatherbeaten wooden shack behind a picket fence, decrepit lounge chair rotting in front of a half-furled plastic canopy. Truth in advertising.

Roger Waters once said that he crafted the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon to read as simply as possible to make sure he got his point across and the same applies to singer/songwriter Bobby Vacant. His words are plainspoken yet potently metaphorical: there’s always another level of meaning lurking underneath, and it’s not pretty. It would not be an overstatement to call the new album by Bobby Vacant & the Weary a classic of dark existentialist rock, right up there with Closer by Joy Division and anything Pink Floyd ever recorded. Vacant sings in the thin, worn-down voice of a middleaged man. Homelessness and addiction are not merely alluded to but addressed directly with a disconcerting offhandedness: there’s a ring of authenticity here. Yet as bleak  as much of this is, Bobby Vacant maintains a vise grip. “Don’t look to tomorrow, just get through the day…don’t go gently, just leave the sky aflame,” he encourages in the nocturnally atmospheric Some Walk. From time to time, he imbues the songs with a gallows humor, as in the hypnotic seafaring ballad Waveflowers, where he can’t resist pulling up anchors and slipping off unseen into the night: “And if they ask/What the hell is the past/Just tell ’em it’s deep down below.” Or on the vitriolic Dylan’s Dead, a Nietzschean slap upside the head of boomer complacency:

You’re the one said Dylan’s dead

Flew a jet right through his head

Once again we killed the dream

Onward marching soldiers sing

The Weary (AKA George Reisch, mastermind of Chicago’s Luxotone label, one of this era’s most acerbic, accessible writers on philosophy and editor of Pink Floyd and Philosophy and other titles in the series) takes Vacant’s simple, catchy songs and orchestrates them with the gravitas of Floyd yet also with the terseness of Joy Division: as with pretty much everything else Reisch has ever recorded, there are no wasted notes here. A bell tolls in the distance, just twice, as Some Walk builds to a close. The title track works up an understated feast of jangly guitars worthy of the Byrds. The marvelously textured crescendo of guitars on Dylan’s Dead takes a blithe Forever Changes mood into surreal, distantly reverberating Sandinista territory; the stark twelve-string on Waveflowers evokes Marty Willson-Piper of the Church. There’s also a beautifully wistful interlude straight out of the Moody Blues circa 1967, and the even more lushly, vividly plaintive crescendo that closes the album.

Vacant vacillates between embracing the darkness and the occasional grasp backwards at a doomed relationship. The opening track, Don’t Love Me Anymore cautions that he won’t be around much longer: “All my years just wasted smears, wings too wet to fly.” The title track, on a literal level a snide after-the-party tableau, gleefully announces that “The night is kind, the night is warm, the night is calling your name.” The best song on the album is Never Looking Back, an anthem for anyone with a checkered past. “Here we go. Stand back. It’s a road. It’s black,” Vacant sings with not a little triumph in his voice: he knows that this isn’t merely where we all end up – it’s where we’ve been all along, and he’s finally been vindicated. “Went to the town, went to the school, went to the park with the lonely fool, uh huh,” he relates: the story of our lives, isn’t it?

Not much is known about Bobby Vacant. His real name is Tom Derungs, he lives in Switzerland, records vocals and guitar tracks in his home studio and sends the product to Luxtone for overdubs, mixing and pressing. He also plays the occasional acoustic gig (the next one is in Lausanne on August 14) and contributes to the blog Library of Inspiration. One hopes this cd – as strong a contender as any for best album of 2009 – will not be his last.

July 29, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments