Pat Irwin and Daria Grace Bring Their Brilliantly Eclectic Sounds to an Laid-Back Outdoor Show in Queens
The theory that Sunday or Monday are the new Saturday cuts both ways. On one hand, the transformation of hallowed downtown New York and Brooklyn neighborhoods into Jersey tourist trashpits on the weekend has driven some of the best New York talent to gigs and venues that might seen off the beaten path. On the other hand, for the permanent-tourist class whose parent guarantors have driven rents in Bushwick and elsewhere sky-high, every day is Saturday because nobody works for a living. OK, some of them are interns. But that’s a story for another time. For an afternoon that perfectly reflects the state of the city, 2016 and also features some of the city’s most eclectic talent, brilliant singer Daria Grace has put together a triplebill starting at around 4 PM on July 31 in the backyard at LIC Bar, with ex-B-52’s guitarist Pat Irwin playing his often hauntingly cinematic instrumentals, then a set by Norah Jones collaborator Sasha Dobson and finally a set by Grace’s charming uke swing band the Pre-War Ponies at around 6.. The venue is about a three-minute walk from the 21st St. station on the 7 train.
Last month’s installment of this same lineup was a treat. Grace did triple duty, first joining Irwin on keys (who knew that she was a more than competent organist?), then adding her signature counterintuitive, swinging, slinky basslines to a set by Dobson, then switching to uke and leading her own band. Irwin opened the afternoon with a set that touched on Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, Brian Eno ambience and most significantly, Angelo Badalamenti noir. He mixed slowly crescendoing, shifting instrumentals from his film work across the years with a couple of new numbers, one more minimalist and atmospheric, the other far darker and distantly menacing. By the time his roughly forty-five minutes onstage was over, he’d gone from solo to having a whole band behind him. Dobson followed with a set that drew on roughhewn 80s indie rock, switching from harmonium to Strat as she led her trio – Grace on a gorgeous vintage 1966 hollowbody Vox bass – through a mix of her solo material and a couple of jaunty Americana-flavored numbers from her Puss & Boots album with Norah Jones and bassist Catherine Popper.
It’s hard to find a window of time for sets by three bands; the last time this blog caught Grace leading the Pre-War Ponies was on a twisted but actually fantastic twinbill back in May at Barbes, opening for psychedelic Middle Eastern metal band Greek Judas (who are back at Barbes tomorrow night, the 28th, at 10). Grace’s not-so-secret weapon, J. Walter Hawkes is an incorrigible extrovert and a charismatic showman, but he really was on his game this time out, whether firing off lickety-split cascades on his uke or on his trombone, which he typically employs for both low-register amusement and purist oldschool swing and blues. A real force of nature up there, he spent the set blasting out droll vaudevillian licks, foghorn riffs and serioso latin lines.
Lately Grace has been doing a lot of gigs with iconic latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez, but this time out she had Russ Meissner behind the kit, who had a ball adding counterintuitive hits and accents to cha-cha jazz numbers like Amapola, from the band’s latest album Get Out Under the Moon. As expected, the big audience hit was Moon Over Brooklyn, which Grace delivered with so much genuine, unselfconscious affection for her adopted hometown that it was easy to forget that you could change the lyrics just a smidge and it would make a romantic anthem for any city, anywhere. Romantic songs are usually cheesy and rote and this was anything but. You can get some romance and some sun on the 31st in Long Island City.
The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – this past evening at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering, It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.
Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.
In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”
Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.
Andy Akiho may be most closely associated with indie classical music, but underneath the cleverly shapeshifting arrangements on his new album No One to Know One beats the heart of a great pop tunesmith. Atonality may be all the rage (when, since about 1918, has it NOT been all the rage?) but this guy is all about melody. He has a long career in film scores staring him in the face if he wants it. The span from style to style on this record is a long and constantly unexpected one: bits of Middle Eastern music, reggae, noir jazz, Japanese folk songs and brooding 80s pop along with the bright, ringing soca tonalities you would expect from a composer whose axe is the steel pan. It’s a triumphant blend of cutting-edge creativity and accessibility.
The first six tracks here are from his Synesthesia Suite, and are color-coded (Akiho experiences specific pitches as colors). Hadairo (Beige) is the LAST thing you would expect beige to be – it inspired a bright, rhythmic, Balkan-tinged dance with a pointillistic bass solo, a potently dark interlude where the string section mimics the pans and then launches into a series of clever false endings (Akiho has a great wit and employs it generously here). Kiiro (Yellow) begins with a suspenseful music-box vibe enhanced by Maura Valenti’s harp, builds to carnivalesquely orchestrated atonalities and then a creepy waltz that takes on some jarring polyrhythms. Murasaki (Purple) alternates brooding reggae with shimmery glissandos from the harp and pans; Aka (Red) is the weak link here, although it could have been a massive pop hit back in the 80s – think Lisa Lisa or the”La-da-dee, La-da-da” song. Karakurenai (Crimson), a piece for solo prepared steel pan (with certain areas magnetized to shift the pitch downward) half-conceals what sounds like an old Japanese folk song amidst loopy atmospherics and accelerating polyrhythms. The last of the colors here is Daidai Iro (Orange), a trio piece for Akiho with bassist Samuel Adams and drummer Kenneth Salters, revisiting the pop undertone of Red but without the cloying 80s vibe.
The centerpiece here is to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem (read the toggle for subtext), a richly cinematic noir suite complete with simulated sirens and several chase scenes. It’s literally a movie for the ears: furtive polyrhythms, temporary respite at a safe house, strings rising and then screeching apprehensively and flurries of high woodwinds balanced against a relentless march and an ending which is pure menace. It was the hit of the Bang on a Can Marathon in 2008 and is just as much a showstopper here.
By contrast, The Ray’s End, a trio piece for pan, trumpet and violin juxtaposes a wary chromatic vamp with hypnotic ambience punctuated by Akiho’s judiciously spacious pan accents. NO one To kNOW one (read the toggle again) is another suspense movie, this one set in a disco invaded by Ian Rosenbaum’s vibraphone assault (he plays this one with chopsticks) and later an apprehensive, Middle Eastern-flavored dialogue between Akiho and Mariel Roberts’ cello. There’s a LOL-funny Beatles quote a little later on that’s too good to give away here. The album ends with 21, just pan and cello building loops that venture tensely into a thicket of interwoven melody and textural contrasts. These are just the highlights: to really enjoy all the entertainment this album has to offer, you need headphones and time alone. It’s out now on Innova.
File the “new” album Blow Wind Blow by the Blam under great rediscoveries. Why did the Shins get so popular and not the Blam? The Blam’s hooks were just as catchy, their guitars just as jangly, their vocals just as pleasantly pensive. And they never got to the point where they started imitating the Smiths and sucking at it, either. If you’re wondering why all this is in the past tense, that’s because the Blam is finished. Other than a rare reunion show, they’ve been history since the early zeros. But just like the Beatles, a band the Blam closely resembled, they still had some songs left in the can after the breakup. Their third album, unreleased until this year, is a breath of fresh air, one casually sunny, smartly tuneful three-minute hit after another. Maybe, rather than counting this among the best albums of 2011, we should go back to 2004 and see where this one falls…hmmm…maybe somewhere between Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill and Neil Finn’s One All?
The title track plays off a briskly shuffling, casually biting, lush acoustic guitar riff, balmy vocals “coming in out of the ill wind…thought you’d hit me with the rough stuff….” It’s kind of like the Shins with balls. The catchiest songs here go straight back to the Fab Four: the gently swaying, all-acoustic I Don’t Know, with its gorgeously terse twelve-string guitar leads; That Girl, sarcastically bouncing up the stairs and leaving the poor guy wanting more; No Surprise, which with its cool repeaterbox guitar wouldn’t be out of place on a late Elliott Smith album; and Careful Measured Careful Plain, its vocals matching the slow-burning guitars, Itmar Ziegler’s bass rising casual and McCartneyesque, the perfect blend of Beatlesque and shoegaze. There’s also See the Monkeys, whispery bossa-tinged Zombies-esque pop with a recurrent ominousness; One Good Blow, which evokes Crowded House at their loudest and most guitarish; and Now Entering Sandwich, an allusively apprehensive, Dylanesque folk-rock number that foreshadows Mumford and Sons (and also the direction frontman Jerry Adler would take with his subsequent solo project, Flugente, whose two often brilliantly lyrical albums have just been remastered and reissued as well). The album ends with the tensely tuneful Will Still Kill, just acoustic guitars, harmonica and vocals, more kiss-off than lament:
You might get soiled on the way
Or encounter quite a dry spell
Your heart’s million miles away
Breaking like the Liberty Bell
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #481:
Danny & Dusty – The Lost Weekend
This semi-legendary 1985 collaboration among several Paisley Underground types from the Dream Syndicate, Green on Red and Long Ryders has the feeling of an album made in a single afternoon fueled by a lot of alcohol, a story that Steve Wynn AKA Dusty has confirmed. Danny here is Dan Stuart of Green on Red. Most of the songs are about drinking, Wynn’s set in a typically surreal LA noir milieu. The Word Is Out focuses on a character who suddenly finds that he’s paying for everything he used to get for free; Song for the Dreamers and Miracle Mile are a memorable grab bag of boozers and losers, an idea they take to its logical extreme on King of the Losers. The best of the bunch is Wynn’s deliriously gospel-fueled Baby We All Gotta Go Down; there’s also the proto alt-country Send Me a Postcard and the creepy Down to the Bone, all of this good enough to make you forget about the pointless Dylan and Donovan covers at the end. Long out of print; here’s a random torrent. If you like this you may also like Danny & Dusty’s 2007 follow-up, still available at Wynn’s site.
Here we go again, getting caught up with the album countdown. A work in progress: as we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album was #488:
Guided by Voices – Do the Collapse
A lot of you will be scratching your heads over this one: of all the GBV albums, the one that Rick Ocasek produced?!? Yup. By 2001, GBV was a well-oiled (pun intended) road machine, and Robert Pollard had his arguably most lyrical, most straightforward and catchiest bunch of songs yet, equal parts British Invasion, powerpop and the Minutemen but without the phony beat poetry. The real gem here is Teenage FBI – as a teacher, Pollard knew a little something about high school fascism. The sarcastic, fragmentary Wormhole is also choice, as are the chromatically-charged riff-rocker Zoo Pie, the mocking Dragons Awake!, along with the subtly funny Liquid Indian, Strumpet Eye, Picture Me Big Time and the brief, under two-minute An Unmarketed Product among the sixteen characteristically unpredictable tracks here. Here’s a random torrent – and if you like this, check out the GBV homage Robert Pollard by the Brooklyn What.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album was #489:
Bee & Flower – What’s Mine Is Yours
The New York/Berlin band’s 2004 debut is a stark, often haunting mix of stately, slow-to-midtempo art-rock songs: some of them dirges, some more atmospheric, with slight variations on frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter’s various shades of grey. The catchy, relentless opening track I Know Your Name sets the tone, followed by the aptly titled, glimmering Twin Stars and the menacing funeral processional Wounded Walking. The pastoral Carpenter’s Fern is as light as it gets here; On the Mouth the most upbeat, which is not really a lot. There’s also the sardonic Let It Shine and then anthemic, Joy Division-tinged closing cut, This Time. Everything else the band has released since then is worth a listen; here’s a random torrent via My Melomania. The album is still available from the band.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #499:
Erika Simonian – All the Plastic Animals
A cult classic from 2004. Simonian’s wryly literate lyrics range from sardonic to casually savage, set to precisely fingerpicked, austere melodies sung in a minutely nuanced voice that can be deadpan hilarious…or absolutely brutal. An air of disillusion and betrayal creeps in with the opening vignette, sarcastically titled Food From the Cow, followed by the even more sarcastic Pretty Good Wife; the cabaret-inflected Self Made Drama Machine, a kiss-off to a selfish bitch; and Mr. Wrong, an amusing pickup scenario predictably on its way to going awry. The most unforgettable song here is Bitter and Brittle, a vivid portrait of the edge of madness; the blackly humorous Eternal Spinsterhood is awfully good too. Surprisingly, this one is AWOL from the usual sources of free music, but it’s still available from cdbaby, where there are also clips from each song. Simonian continues as a member of lyrical indie rockers Little Silver and the entertaining, punkish Sprinkle Genies.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #500:
Twin Turbine – Jolly Green Giant
The second album from these New York underground rock legends blends the surreal guitar assault of Guided by Voices with more straightforwardly melodic British Invasion and punk sounds. It’s got creepy, intense stuff like Fade For Sunday – frontman/guitarist Dave Popeck sounding like Roger Waters doing his best Darth Vader imitation – along with the scathing Made for TV Murder, a Jon-Benet Ramsey narrative. Downsizer, the single, is even more timely in these depression days, with its bitter lyrics and catchy Stiff Little Fingers-inflected tune. The best of all of these is Susquehanna, a gorgeous, vengefully hallucinatory anthem setting layers of guitars over a swaying country backbeat. There’s also the squalling Love Rock & Roll, the Stoogoid Stop This Thing and Womankind, and Both Kinds, which sets an old 60s garage rock riff to 90s GBV crunch. A cult classic from 2005, it’s AWOL from the usual sources for free music – even Spotify doesn’t have it – but it’s still available from the band.
Over the years, Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Piñataland has staked out an elegantly manicured piece of turf as purveyors of an inimitable brand of historically aware, hyper-literate chamber pop. Their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night – streaming in its entirety online – is their hardest-rocking effort to date, their least opaque and by far their best. Their previous one Songs for a Forgotten Future, Vol. 2 contemplated a Manhattan without humans, and the still-smoldering ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, among other places. This one skips in a heartbeat from the American Revolution (a recurrent milieu) to various eras of New York, across the country and back again. The driving rhythm section of Ross Bonadonna on bass and Bill Gerstel on drums give the louder songs here a mighty majesty – there are plenty of warmly inviting string-driven pop bands out there, nobody who attacks those songs with as much verve as Piñataland. Violinist Deni Bonet is a one-woman orchestra, showing off sizzling Balkan, country and classical chops, frequently contrasting with Dave Wechsler’s pensive, rain-drenched piano and organ.
The title track, which opens the album, is exactly as advertised, a gospel prelude of sorts. From there they leap into Island of Godless Men, a bouncy fiddle-driven Irish rock tune a la Black 47 with a clever trick ending and then a delirious reel to finish it off. An American Man is like Mumford & Sons on steroids, a rousing homage to Thomas Paine delivered via a team of archeologists (or graverobbers?) gone out into the darkness to find his grave.
A violin-fueled anger drives The Death of Silas Deane, which commemorates the Continental Congress’ first ambassador to France, later brought down (and possibly murdered) in the wake of an embezzlement scandal of which he was quite possibly innocent (and was officially exonerated, forty years after his death). “Let my reputation crawl through the mud of this unforgiving land,” the onetime Revolutionary hero rails at the end. The real classic here is a country song, Oppie Struck a Match, which recasts the detonation of the first atom bomb as the creepy tale of a rainmaker in a small town fifty years previously. Gerald Menke’s dobro ripples blithely as singer Doug Stone recalls the dreadful moment where Robert Oppenheimer, the “master from the other side” gave the order: “Will he open a cage to a heavenly age or set the skies onfire?”
The rest of the album is more allusive. Robin Aigner, who lights up many of these songs with her harmonies, knocks one out of the park with her lead vocal on the lush countrypolitan shuffle Border Guard, and plays her cameos to the hilt against Menke’s big-sky pedal steel whine on Hiawatha, a surreal, theatrical cross-country radio dial epic. The most chilling song on the album, musically at least, is The Oldest Band in Town, a bitter, Balkan-flavored requiem set in a Lower Bowery of the mind. The album closes with the towering, bittersweet, death-fixated anthem Cemetery Mink. Pinataland play the album release for this one this Friday the 26th at Barbes at 11; another first-class tunesmith, Greta Gertler kicks things off at 10.