Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #890:
The Snow – I Die Every Night
As we are officially on vacation, this part of the countdown features albums that we had the good fortune to discover when they came out: one of the great challenges about following music and writing about it is to identify a genuine classic when you see it and this is one of them, our first from the year 2010. The Snow’s nuanced, stylistically diverse art-rock masterpiece, their second album, came out in January. Guitarist Pierre de Gaillande contributes the soul-infused title track, reassurance for a would-be suicide, along with the understatedly apocalyptic anthem The Silent Parade – about the snowstorm to end all snowstorms – and the amusingly metaphorical, tongue-in-cheek Reptile. Keyboardist/torch singer Hilary Downes’ equally artsy, richly melodic and lyrical songs here include the stately opening cut, Albatross; the ominously symbolic, unexpectedly syncopated Undertow and the understatedly bitter, minor-key chamber-rock ballad Shadows and Ghosts. And as brilliant as this album is, we can’t figure out whether it’s actually the best album of 2010 or not. It’s been a good year – for music at least. Stay tuned.
Here we are in March with the first classic album of 2010 (this one actually came out in mid-January). The Snow’s debut album True Dirt was good: this is a lushly arranged, thoughtful, funny, richly lyrical art-rock masterpiece. Bandleader Pierre de Gaillande has been writing good, frequently great songs for several years, throughout his days with Melomane, Sea Foxx and numerous other side projects (like his English-language Georges Brassens cover band Bad Reputation), but this is the strongest effort he’s been a part of yet. Putting keyboardist/chanteuse Hilary Downes out in front of the group was a genius move, even if it was only logical. She’s a torch singer straight out of the Chris Connor/June Christy mold (or a darker Nellie McKay) with an alternately coy and murderous way of sliding up to a note and nailing it. She also contributes half of the songs on the album, alternating with Gaillande from track to track, with an additional number, a rueful tango, written by multi-reed virtuoso David Spinley. The rhythm section of Christian Bongers (ex-Botanica) on bass and Jeffrey Schaeffer on drums slink through the shadows as the clarinet or saxes soar above the swirl of layers and layers of keyboards and the occasional snarl and clang of the guitar. There are other bands who leap from genre to genre as avidly as the Snow do here, but few who have such obvious fun doing it.
The opening track is Albatross, an ironically straightforward, metaphorically loaded ballad by Downes that makes stately art-rock out of a Gaillande garage guitar riff. Handle Your Weapon, by Gaillande, throws out a lifeline to a possible would-be suicide miles from civilization in a symbolic middle of nowhere, swinging along on the pulse of Downes’ electric piano. By contrast, The Silent Parade – sort of a signature song for the band – delivers the understated, menacing majesty of the snowstorm to end all snowstorms, the last way anyone would expect the world to end at this point in history. The warmly torchy, soul-inflected Fool’s Gold could be a requiem for a relationship – or for the promise that indie rock seemed it might deliver on for a moment but never did.
Undertow is a tongue-in-cheek clinic in jazzy syncopation, a showcase for Downes’ darkly allusive lyrical wit, matched by Gaillande on the wryly swinging, Gainsbourg-esque Reptile, a hot-blooded creature’s lament. The most menacing cut on the album is the hypnotic, woozy 6/8 masquerade-ball themed Slow Orbit. The album winds up with Downes’ understatedly bitter, minor-key chamber-rock ballad Shadows and Ghosts and Gailllande’s hypnotic, aptly titled psychedelic anthem Life Is Long and Strange, far more subtle than it might seem. Live, the band surprisingly manage to capture most of the atmospherics of their studio work; watch this space for NYC dates.
Lucinda Black Bear open the night. They’re not bad. It’s always good to see a band start to realize their potential. They start with a couple of quiet 6/8 ballads that could have been ELO outtakes. The songwriting is getting closer to the level of the musicianship, which with all the strings and a killer rhythm section, is pretty stupendous. The bass player is doing all kinds of interesting things but he’s so low in the mix that you have to watch his fingers, which is a crime in a space like this. Quentin Jennings, late of Melomane, contributes some incisively memorable piano. The crowd seems have a collective case of cabin fever, just glad to be out of the house for a few hours. They love the band.
The Snow take the stage for the cd release show for their new one I Die Every Night with a three-piece reed section including Tony Jarvis, from main songwriter Pierre de Gaillande’s other project, Bad Reputation, playing bass clarinet. Hilary Downes, who will prove to have pretty much taken over fronting the band, is on piano. The first number is lush, artsy, with a funky rhythm and a bluesy horn break after the chorus. The lyrics are characteristically smart:
There’s a hole in the ice
There’s a hole in your heart
But the hole is greater
Than the sum of the parts
They play their signature song The Silent Parade, the band’s big 6/8 epic about the snowstorm to end all snowstorms. It’s more restrained than usual: that they resist turning this into gleeful grand guignol is impressive. There are sarcastic la-la-la’s and then some faux-blithe off-key whistling by Gaillande at the end.
Downes sings Undertow with her usual inscrutably sultry precision. It’s a clever, sarcastic narrative about a drowning. They follow that with Fool’s Gold, which welds an oldschool soul verse to a darker, more European chorus. And then a rather haunting, low-key number on which Gaillande switches to accordion, which as it blends with the horns enhances its noir cabaret plaintiveness.
Handle Your Weapon is pulsing and insistent – encouragement, maybe, for a would-be suicide to keep going. It’s hard to keep track of all the metaphors. “Soon it will be daylight.” Then they do Shadows and Ghost, by Downes and bring out every bit of its understated phantasmagoria, Gaillande tossing off a casual southwestern gothic guitar solo.
Moral Debtor, by tenor sax player Dave Spinley, is a tango. Long and Strange pulses along on a rumbling latin drumbeat. The guy/girl harmonies are gorgeous; Gaillande adds another twangy noir guitar solo that ends all too soon. They close with a darkly swinging Serge Gainsbourg-inflected pop song. The sold-out crowd wants more but the room has to be cleared for the next act, Bassam Saba of the NY Arabic Orchestra and his ensemble. The line outside grows longer and longer – no surprise, they’re really good.
After a show like this you need a drink to reflect and take it all in and remember the finer points.The party starts at Lakeside where Tie Me Up, the world’s only Spanking Charlene cover band are about to play all the hits: When I’m Skinny, Where Are the Freaks, Stupid Stupid Me (actually it’s really just Spanking Charlene playing their own stuff). And then vodka catches up with one of us and we end up missing the band – too bad, they sounded good from outside the bar.
Monday night began with a stellar performance of Romantic music for cello and piano featuring a gorgeously permutating version of terminally underrated Belgian composer Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major. It was as if his ghost was in the room. After the show, it was time to head up to Small Beast at the Delancey, the weekly edgy music salon (now with free barbecue!) that’s recently migrated from Thursdays to Mondays for at least the time being as the weather heats up (let’s face it, this respite we’ve been enjoying is about to end). Franck’s ghost came along for the ride, maybe bringing Chopin along (it’s unknown if the two composers knew each other – Chopin was at the height of his popularity just as Franck was graduating from the conservatory, but both were wallflowers so it’s unlikely). Seated at the Small Beast (the 88-key spinet piano) doing his own Romantic thing was Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, who since he books Small Beast has received an enormous amount of ink here. Suffice it to say that his own individual blend of classical and gypsy influences, along with the rock and the honkytonk and the gospel, is something you ought to see if you like any of those styles. This time was characteristic: some new Botanica material (one a dead ringer for vintage Procol Harum), some noir cabaret and a soul song.
Marni Rice was next. The accordionist/chanteuse is a quintessentially New York artist, a throwback to a more dangerous, vastly more interesting, pre-condo era, around the time Bernie Madoff was president of the NASDAQ exchange (presumably because his Ponzi scheme was so successful). She opened solo with one of Edith Piaf’s first recordings, Mon Pernod, a haphazard barroom narrative from 1926 that she’d transcribed from an old record. With a twilight feel on her accordion, Rice switched between a slightly menacing, noir cabaret delivery and a soulful alto, backed by former Pere Ubu bassist Michelle Temple (who also doubled on guitar) and Wallfisch on piano on one song. Another evocative narrative, Rice explained, she’d written after returning from Paris to her old stomping grounds near the old Second Ave. sidewalk sale, a reliable source of bargains run by a rotating cast of junkies and derelicts around 6th and 7th Sts. in the 80s and early 90s. “I’ll be all right…til winter comes,” one of them casually tells his sidewalk pal.
The duo also swung their way through the noir cabaret of Dripping with Blue, a spot-on rainy NYC street tableau and Priere, an original that gave Rice a chance to relate a hilarious anecdote about playing one of Louise Bourgeois’ salons, Bourgeois giving her an earful about how the stuff she grew up listening to in Paris was “so much more elevated” than the old barroom songs in Rice’s catalog…but did Rice know this one, and that one, and could she play it? They closed with Red Light, “about insomnia and spending too much time on the subway,” and a fuzz bass-driven punk rock song. When the luxury condos all turn into crackhouses and the old days come back, we’ll undoubtedly still have Marni Rice around to usher them in a second time.
Next on the bill: the Snow, rocker Pierre de Gaillande’s main band these days when he’s not doing his amazing Georges Brassens Translation Project, Melomane having gone on hiatus for the time being. This was a full-band show, drum kit down on the floor in front of the bar. Cesar Franck’s ghost was still in full effect, the Parisian vibe more evident than ever in Gaillande’s writing – in a lot of ways it makes sense that he’d be the one to introduce Brassens to English-speaking audiences because the two writers share a cleverness, a punk rock fearlessness but also a meticulous sense of craft. Frontwoman/keyboardist Hilary Downes, as usual, got to take center stage and keep the crowd entertained, but it was the songwriting that carried the night: the noir garage swing of Reptile, the subtly shifting, understatedly haunting Undertow, a swirling version of True Dirt (title track to the band’s excellent debut cd), a soul duet and the hilarious Russians, an aptly snide look at what happens when a corrupt communist regime goes even more corruptly capitalist.
Hindsight being 20/20, it would easily have been possible to stick around and see what Christof Widholm of Morex Optimo was doing with his latest project Pharmacy & Gardens. However, in the interest of staying on top of the scene to the extent that there is a scene and there’s a top to be found there, the game plan was to get over to Union Pool in time to see how Rev. Vince Anderson’s first night there was going. Answer: another mobscene, even more delirously populated than closing night at Black Betty a week ago. Union Pool is a lot bigger than Black Betty, and the crowd filled it, a swirl of bodies in refreshingly diverse shades swaying and bouncing to the pulse of the band. They were celebrating baritone sax player Moist Paula’s birthday, so there was a full horn section up with Anderson and the Moist One and the guitar and rhythm section and they were positively cooking, one of the jams going on for at least 25 minutes. While it’s a safe bet that most of the crowd had no concern about how late the party went – this was Williamsburg, after all – the house was still full well past two in the morning. And it was clear that Cesar had come along along for the ride – though you won’t hear any Franck in Anderson’s fiery electric piano cascades or Billy Preston-inflected organ, it’s safe to say that not only does Anderson know Franck’s work, but it’s quite possible he’s played it on a church organ at some point. At least the vibe was the same – Anderson’s gospel is the gospel of the heart, where emotion rules, where the rules are cast to the wind and the good guys always win. At least they did Monday night.
Most people aren’t aware of this dirty little secret (maybe not even Kasey Kasem), but American Top Forty wasn’t ever really any kind of barometer of how popular a song was, how well it sold or how many times it was played (we’re using the past tense here since it’s been years since there’s been a good song on the top 40). Rather, it was a creature of the corporate record labels, whose PR machines and their payola determined who’d end up where. Since we only have a quarter of the energy and no payola money, here’s the Lucid Culture weekly top ten, which likewise has no bearing on popularity or sales or spins, it’s just another one of our fun lists, a way to help spread the word about what’s happening out there. All the links here except for #1 and #9 are links to the actual songs (#1 and #9 being unreleased at the moment – you’ll have to go to the show to find out how good they are).
1. The Brooklyn What – Gentrification Rock
Get used to seeing the Brooklyn What at the top of the charts here for awhile – if this was back in the day when there were lps full of hit singles, their new cd The Brooklyn What For Borough President would have a whole bunch of them. This one isn’t from the album – it’s a big, fiery, sarcastic riff-rocker, unreleased as yet, and a staple of their live show (they have a lot more material than you think). They’re at Trash on 1/31 at midnight.
2. The New Collisions – Caged Us Kids
These Boston new wave revivalists are the real deal, frontwoman Sarah Guild’s sly, absolutely indomitable vocals soaring over biting, edgy guitar and an equally indomitable rhythm section. If their myspace is any indication they should be great fun live. They’re at Arlenes on 2/12.
3. Abby Travis – Now Was
Hired-gun bass player (she’s played with everybody from Beck to the Bangles) whose strongest suit is her songwriting, lush and pensive with an almost lurid noir cabaret style that sometimes takes on a nuevo-glam feel. And her voice, warm and compelling like a young Sally Norvell. She’s at the Delancey on 1/22 at 8:30.
4. La Fleur Fatale – Gigantic Boredom
Killer retro 60s folk-rock with Farfisa organ and a nice Strawberry Alarm Clock style solo from these Swedish revivalists. It’s on their cd available for free download here.
5. Coconami – Sheena Is a Punk Rocker
Two Japanese girls with ukeleles doing a Ramones cover. Totally deadpan, of course. Too funny. They’re at Joe’s Pub on 2/1 at 7.
6. The Voxys – Dirty Protest
Gorgeously fiery, jangly 60s rock with a classic garage vibe from these high-energy Irish rockers. They’re back here in town on 1/22.
7. Community Gun – Wasted
Sounds like vintage Uncle Tupelo (or, as New York fans might say, American Ambulance) – country gone hardcore with a good sense of humor. Thse guys also have a mean, bluesy Tom Waits streak. They’re at Spikehill on 2/3
8. Demolition String Band – Wisteria
Beautifully twangling, guitar-stoked Americana from one of New York’s finest, a tribute to the hardy plant that even grows “on the hills of Jersey City.” They’re doing one of their Americana Family Jamboree shows at Rodeo Bar on 1/25 at 3 PM which is a very sneaky way to get kids listening to good music so when they hear Miley Cyrus or Nickelback for the first time, they’ll know that it’s shit.
9. The Snow – Undertow
With Melomane in limbo, this crew have become frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s main focus and they’re just as good. This one is singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes contribution, a typically smart, imaginatively tongue-in-cheek lyric with a shape-shifting melody and gorgeous vocals. Unreleased, but they play it live. They’re at Barbes on 1/22 at 8.
10. The Paul Carlon Octet – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Give a listen to this characteristically smart, tongue-in-cheek version and then try saying it doesn’t sound a whole lot like Let’s Go Get Stoned. This is the kind of fun this big Ellington-inspired latin jazz crew comes up with all the time. They’re at Drom on 2/6 at 9.
We had absolutely no intention to see the Quavers. After all, their name begins with a Q. Hurry, how many good bands whose names begin with Q can you name? Umm…Quicksilver Messenger Service did a great live album, and about half of a studio one…then there was that band Quarterflash that had a couple of catchy radio hits in the early 80s…and of course, there’s that band that did the song you hear at every sporting event. But they sucked.
Half of the Quavers’ stuff sounds exactly like Melomane and the other half sounds like Kings County Queens. Which are two very good things. Their orchestrated art-rock is tuneful, haunting and sometimes absolutely hypnotic; their country stuff features soft, gentle male/female harmonies singing pretty, swaying country melodies. Halfway through their weekly Wednesday residency here this month, they didn’t have much of a crowd in the house (residencies will kill your draw), but they will be very popular. You heard it here first.
The Quavers build their songs by laying down a succession of loops. It takes excellent musicianship to be able to pull this off: you have to have split-second timing and know your part exactly, because that’s what the loop will be playing back to you over and over again until you turn it off. There are just three people in this band, the male singer on guitar, the female singer on violin, accompanied by a multi-instrumentalist alternating between vibes, trumpet and lapsteel. With all the loops going, they sound like they have a whole orchestra behind them. A lot of their songs are sweepingly beautiful. They have a political awareness as well as a fixation with shipwrecks – or at least sunken artifacts. One of their best songs was called The Sea Won’t Take Long, a brooding, 6/8 epic. Their country stuff was more lighthearted, including a very funny tune about a one-night stand called Snack (as in “you were just a snack”). Their lyrics are well thought-out, and the melodies are catchy and come around again and again (you have to have a simple underlying pattern if you’re going to add layers and layers of loops on top of it). You should see this band sometime.
The Snow are a Melomane side project. Side projects usually suck: Gorillaz, anyone? How about those awesome Traveling Wilburys? It’s not clear why the Snow even exists at all, since they sound exactly like Melomane. Maybe frontman/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande can’t get his regular band together every time he wants to play, so he assembled this crew, who are every bit as good as his main project, blending smartly crafted, noir 60s inflected pop songs with soaring, majestic art-rock epics. They opened with an artsy pop song showcasing the talents of their clarinetist, along with a good upright bass solo. They also did a couple of slightly oldtimey songs Gaillande wrote for a documentary on Dr. Bronner’s Soap, as well as a surprisingly captivating number about a romance between an octopus and a starfish, “our only math-rock song,” as keyboardist/vocalist Hilary Downes (who provided acerbically funny commentary all night) told the crowd. Their best songs were a swinging, understatedly sultry jazz-inflected number written by Downes, and their eponymous signature song. With Melomane, Gaillande is in the midst of writing a “disaster song cycle,” as he put it recently, and the songs in it are the strongest he’s ever done. This strange, crescendoing tune about the blizzard to literally end all blizzards fits right in. Add the Snow to the shortlist of the half-dozen or so best bands in New York, even if they sound identical to one of the others.