Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bobtown’s Harmonies Enchant and Deliver Some Chills

Bobtown’s debut album is a blast from the past yet completely original – they really know their roots, but they put an irresistibly unique spin on them. This is dark, vivid, sometimes lurid southern Americana, not the G-rated, sanitized version you hear in folkie clubs in the Yankee states. Their sound revolves around their three terrific lead singers, each of whom contribute songs as well as alternately lush and stark layers of harmonies to the album. Multi-instrumentalist Katherine Etzel holds down the midrange, taking the lead on the rustic Take Me Down, a 19th century-style chain gang song redone as stark suicide anthem with her voice sailing warily over Gary Keenan’s dobro. She also handles lead vocals on the gorgeous banjo-driven country gospel tune When Shall I Go and another swaying chain gang-style number, Boomer’s Blues, alongside guest Paul Pettit’s creepy funeral organ.

Jen McDearman handles the highest registers and excels at quirky, charmingly creepy songs. Black Dog could be cute and chirpy if it wasn’t about the monster in everybody’s dreams. The sad country waltz Don’t Wake It Up, a cautionary tale, warns that some sleeping dogs (metaphorical, this time) should be left alone. And her bouncy country gospel song My Soul is a showcase for the band’s rich four-part harmonies. Guitarist Karen Dahlstrom harmonizes with a finely nuanced alto voice that’s sultry yet plaintive on the old folk song Short Life of Trouble, then soars defiant and bluesy on her kiss-off anthem Hell and Gone. The best song on the album, by bassist Fred Stesney, is We Will Bury You, a genuine Nashville gothic classic that reaches a stirring but disquieting crescendo with all those beautiful harmonies going full blast. He also contributes the bluegrass hellraising anthem Little Bit of Living Before I Die and the cheery traveler’s tale Shadow of the Mountain, which has a tongue-in-cheek video up on the band’s site. Whether on dobro, mandolin or banjo, Keenan plays with a tersely tuneful fire. There literally isn’t a bad song on the album – without question, this is one of the year’s best. Bobtown are just as good live as they are in the studio – they’re at Union Hall at 9:30 on Oct 18.

September 2, 2010 Posted by | country music, folk music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Bobtown at Spikehill, Brooklyn NY 1/10/10

Sunday night at Spikehill is Americana night, with a rotating cast of frequently excellent roots bands from around the New York area. Last Sunday’s show opened with Rescue Bird, who’ve been on our shortlist to see for awhile, but that was not to be. The next band, Bobtown were even better than the few intriguing songs on their myspace indicated. There is no band in town who sound like them. Mixing elements of country gospel, bluegrass and field hollers with an often macabre Nashville gothic tinge and soaring four-part harmonies, they ran through a frequently riveting set of originals along with a plaintive, powerful cover of the old British folk ballad Short Life of Trouble sung with authority by guitarist Karen Dahlstrom.

They opened with three harmony-driven country gospel numbers, one an amusingly herky-jerky original by acoustic bass guitarist (and bass singer) Fred Stesney while lead player Gary Keenan played incisively and tersely as he moved from banjo, to resonator guitar, to mandolin, to what looked like a darkly twangy Turkish cumbus lute. Singer Jen McDearman appears to be the band’s main source of darkness, contributing both a blithe acoustic pop song, Black Dog, its casually menacing lyric making a striking contrast with its peppy tune, as well as the night’s best song, a big, ominous anthem titled We Will Bury You.

Accordionist Katherine Etzel, whose effortlessly high, twangy soprano reminds a lot of a young Dolly Parton, led the group through a series of stark, rhythmic, bluesy originals in the style of nineteenth century slaves’ field hollers. Then they picked up the pace with a rapidfire bluegrass tune, Hell and Gone (with a reference to smoking “all the tea in China”) delivered with a graceful intensity by Dahlstrom, and then reverted to country gospel to close the set. Bobtown have a new album coming out; ostensibly, all of these originals are on it. If they sound anything like how the band played them Sunday night, it should be killer. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Lillie Jayne, Alice Texas and We Intersect at the Delancey, NYC 8/24/09

Small Beast #31 (could that be?) was at least from this perspective a little sad yet ultimately optimistic, equal parts fond evocation of a lost time in New York music history and auspicious preview of the future. With the depression in full swing, many of the rock clubs here still prefer to book acts numbering among the idle rich. But with the market for “luxury” housing in freefall and the crowds of tourists who once swarmed like flies on the carcass of the Lower East Side largely absent, we’re getting our city back and with it the music of its dark underbelly. Last night was beautiful example.

Ten years ago, both Small Beast impresario Paul Wallfisch’s band Botanica and also Alice Texas made Tonic their home when they weren’t on the road. But Tonic closed in 2006, driven out by rising rents: the building site is now a shoddy, mostly vacant multimillion-dollar Legoland condo project. But with Small Beast on Monday nights (moving to Thursdays in September) upstairs at the Delancey, Tonic has been reborn. Once again, New York has a home for fearless, dark, adventurous rock and related styles. Wallfisch, with his blend of gypsy, Romantic, blues and gospel piano, gets a ton of ink here so suffice it to say that last night’s show was typical. His bad mood from the previous week hadn’t dissipated, and this was a solo show, without the ringer percussionist who’d stood in with him, representing the youngest generation of rock fans (who stand to inherit an impoverished, probably vastly more dangerous yet also probably vastly more fertile scene than has ever existed here). “Why do you want to fight when you can fuck all night? I cleared the room!” Wallfisch added gleefully, as the logic of one of the whores in the Botanica song Shira & Sofia sent a posse of overdressed, fake-tanned bridge-and-tunnel girls stumbling up the stairs on their once-a-week high heels to the rooftop barbecue. In a set that went on barely a half-hour, he veered from seduction to wrath to regret, covering Leonard Cohen,Marianne Faithfull and his longtime noir cabaret partner Little Annie.

He was followed by a brief set by actress and Glass Lamborghini frontwoman Lillie Jayne and her pianist “Fagen Beauregard” performing songs from her current Fringe Festival show A Night with Poppy Bulova. Channeling an obliviously self-obsessed Eastern European chanteuse, the obviousness of some of the comedy at least proved how well Jayne has assimilated the style. A living legend takes herself seriously, after all – except at the end, this one didn’t, which was the funniest part of the act. Her show runs through August 29 at the CSV Cultural and Educational Center at 107 Suffolk Street.

Alice Texas’ show here back in June was transcendent. This time out wasn’t bad either, especially considering that she was essentially backed by Botanica, or portions of various Botanicas: Dave Berger on drums, Wallfisch on piano and Christian Bongers on a gorgeous vintage 60s hollowbody bass. It was a considerably different set, more upbeat, giving the noir Americana chanteuse the chance to cut loose and really wail on a couple of numbers. She led the band into a long, mesmerizing Moonlight-mile style outro and kept going. It was obvious that the crew wasn’t particularly well-rehearsed, not because they made mistakes – these guys are pros, after all. But she made it clear that she was the only one who knew when it was going to stop, keeping the suspense on a knife’s edge. Then she did it again on one of the later numbers, giving Wallfisch another, welcome chance to get expansive. They closed with maybe the most hypnotic song of the night, Permission, a beautifully relentless post-Velvets dirge.

We Intersect is the side project of the Sad Little Stars‘ Rachel McIntosh and Max Low. With their insistent, pitch-perfect harmonies and Americana-inflected melodies, they played an hour of alternately warm and wary Pete’s Candy Store piano pop (to those outside New York, Pete’s Candy Store is the little Brooklyn bar that spawned a million country and bluegrass-inflected indie acts back in the 90s and early zeros). McIntosh added gently ambient layers of synth on occasion alongside Low’s smartly chordal piano work. They opened with a deadpan version of the Ramones’ The KKK Took My Baby Away, eventually did an impressive and understatedly fresh version of Big Star’s terminally overplayed 13 and at the end of the set, a suitably haunted take of the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. But the originals were the best, one an upbeat 6/8 gospelish number, a couple of pensive ballads and a matter-of-factly delivered nocturne: “You dim the lights when you’ve arrived,” the two sang with a meticulous certainty.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

A folk-pop masterpiece. If you consider that statement an oxymoron, give a listen to the Sweet Bitters‘ full-length debut. The cd features the absolutely unique and individual voices and songwriting of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (formerly one of the sirens in Aimee Van Dyne’s harmony-driven band). Goldman, who’s got three first-class albums of her own out, is one of those rare talents who could write a catchy, fun pop song seemingly in a split second. Like her songwriting, her vocals are almost breathtakingly warm and direct, delicately nuanced but completely unaffected. Schmir is more complex and oblique, both vocally and writing-wise, with just a tinge of smoke in the voice, blending a contemporary urban folk vibe (think Dar Williams) with oldschool Brill Building charm. Both are poignant, very bright and can be very funny – humor is a function of intellect anyway. Over a terse, impeccably tasteful, un-autotuned and drum machine-free mix of acoustic and electric guitar, rhythm section and Schmir’s incisive piano, the two blend voices and offer up an indelibly New York-flavored mix of struggle, despair and triumphant joy.

For the most part, Schmir’s songs are the darkest here. The cd’s opening cut Vegas is a knowing Harder They Come update for the end of the decade: “It’s all going nowhere fast.” From the opening lines of Last Time This Way, as the narrator grabs a cookie and some wine and runs out to meet her boyfriend, you just know that this is not going to work out well. Tom Thumb (on Brighton Beach), a quintessentially urban tale, is visceral with regret and longing. But then there’s the playfully metaphorical Little Aliens, driving out the demons with a lullaby.

Goldman’s Secret Scar is a great, crescendoing rock anthem disguised as pretty acoustic pop – one can only wonder what the BoDeans (or Ninth House, for that matter) could do with it. Falling Into Place is another catchy urban tale, perhaps the only song ever to immortalize Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “If I believed in god I would close my eyes and pray,” she sings in the imagistic, regret-laden acoustic Firefly. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upbeat Susie Sunshine, with its delicious layers of harmonies and lyrics, is less gloating schadenfreude than surprise that maybe things haven’t been so bad after all, in the years since Susie was in her prime (that was in college, Goldman wants you to know). But the centerpiece of the album, and one of the best songs released this decade, is Clocks Fall Back. If anyone is alive fifty years from now and wants to understand what New York was like at the end of the decade, let them listen to this, a towering, majestic harmony-driven anthem, vividly and unforgettably juxtaposing images of clueless excess and grinding poverty over a bittersweet, swaying 6/8 melody slightly evocative of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. The cd closes, something akin to sweet after bitter, with a love song: the guy can watch all the bad action movies he wants, but the girl’s not going to let him finish that pint of ice cream without giving her a bite!

The Sweet Bitters play the cd release for this one at Kenny’s Castaways on May 30 at 7.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

Meet the Sweet Bitters!

The astonishingly good, catchy, wickedly smart debut from the Sweet Bitters, two of New York’s most unique songwriting talents. When she’s at the top of her game, Sharon Goldman is one of the world’s foremost pop tunesmiths, alongside Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello. Her full-length debut (released under her former name Sharon Edry) is one of the best artsy pop albums ever made, a feast of luscious guitar and keyboard textures. Nina Schmir first made a mark in the New York scene as one of the superb harmony singers in Aimee Van Dyne’s band. Since that group broke up, she’s been plying her solo work, acoustic songs imbued equally with devious wit and haunting intensity. She’s also a tremendously good singer (as one would imagine from someone who worked closely with Van Dyne), with a velvety high soprano rich with subtlety and emotion. Goldman is just as subtle, with a slightly lower register and a casual, completely unaffected, almost conversational style. The duo’s layers of harmonies on this album are often wrenchingly beautiful. Each songwriter contributes two songs to this effort.

The first, Clocks Fall Back is a total 60s throwback, an instant classic with its lush bed of chiming acoustic guitars and soaring harmonies, an unforgettable melody that lingers like Hazy Shade of Winter or California Dreaming. Goldman’s evocative lyrics paint a vivid yet characteristically nuanced, somewhat melancholy picture of twilight New York, 2008.

Falling Into Place, another Sharon Goldman number is perhaps the Sweet Bitters’ Perfect Day, the song’s narrator breezing along Seventh Avenue (in Brooklyn, naturally) hoping to see her main squeeze: “Only gravity keeps me from flying,” she smiles. It’s another indelible New York (or make that Brooklyn!) moment.

Nina Schmir’s Last Time This Way bounces along on a classic piano pop melody, with tasteful strings in places. ““Don’t say silly things that make your ears ring,” she cautions. The album’s final track is the somewhat jazz-inflected, pensive, intriguingly titled Monterey SPBG. The Monterey in the song is actually a town in the Berkshires (although it’s not named here); SPBG stands for Suckling Pigs and Baby Goats, which was a silly working title Schmir came up with in characteristic fashion while playing the song for a friend in a park in Chinatown. A truck passed by, the phrase emblazoned on its side, and suddenly the tune had a name. For a little while, at least.

The album is available online and at shows. The Sweet Bitters play Saturday, March 22 at 9 PM at the Perch Café, 365 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.

March 23, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment