Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Dina Rudeen’s Common Splendor is Uncommonly Splendid

Dina Rudeen is the missing link between Neko Case and Eartha Kitt. The way she slides up to a high note and then nails it triumphantly will give you shivers. Her songs draw you in, make you listen: they aren’t wordy or packed with innumerable chord changes, but they pack a wallop. With just a short verse and a catchy tune, Rudeen will paint a picture and then embellish it while the initial impact is still sinking in. Musically, she reaches back to the magical moment in the late 60s and early 70s when soul music collided with psychedelic rock; lyrically, she uses the metaphorically loaded, witty vernacular of the blues as a foundation for her own terse, literate style. Some of the songs on her new album The Common Splendor sound like what Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks could have been if he’d had a good band behind him; the rest runs the gamut from lush, nocturnal oldschool soul ballads, to jaunty, upbeat, Americana rock. Behind Rudeen’s nuanced vocals, Gary Langol plays keyboards and stringed instruments along with Tim Bright on electric guitars, Tim Luntzel on bass, Konrad Meissner on drums, Jordan MacLean on trumpet, the ubiquitously good Doug Wieselman on baritone sax and clarinet, Lawrence Zoernig on cello, bells and bowls, Smoota’s Dave Smith on trombone, Lars Jacobsen on tenor sax and Jake Engel of Lenny Molotov’s band on blues harp. The arrangements are exquisite, with tersely interwoven guitar and keyboard lines, and horn charts that punch in and then disappear, only to jump back in on a crescendo. This also happens to be the best-produced album of the year: it sounds like a vinyl record.

The opening track, Hittin’ the Town is a sly, ultimately triumphant tune about conquering inner demons, driven by a defiant horn chart over a vintage 50s Howlin Wolf shuffle beat:

I hit a dry spell
I hit a low note
I hit the deck
But missed the boat
I hit the top, cracked the jewel in my crown
When it hit me like a ton of bricks that’s when I hit the ground
But now I’m just hitting the town

The second cut, Steady the Plow slinks along on a low key gospel/blues shuffle, Rudeen’s sultry contralto contrasting with layers of reverberating lapsteel, piano and dobro moving through the mix – psychedelic Americana, 2011 style. Safe with Me, a southern soul tune, wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bettye Swann songbook circa 1967. The lush, gorgeously bittersweet, Rachelle Garniez-esque Yvette eulogizes a teenage party pal who died before her time, maybe because she pushed herself a little too hard (Rudeen doesn’t say, an example of how the ellipses here speak as loudly as the words). Hold Up the Night succinctly captures the “beautiful, unfolding sight” of a gritty wee hours street scene; Blue Bird, a bucolic tribute to the original songbird – or one of them – has more of Langol’s sweet steel work. And Prodigal One, another requiem, vividly memorializes a crazy neighborhood character who finally got on the Night Train and took it express all the way to the end.

Not everything here is quiet and pensive. There’s also some upbeat retro rock here, including the sultry Cadillac of Love and a couple of rockabilly numbers: Repeat Offender, with its Sun Records noir vibe, and Gray Pompadour, a tribute to an old guy who just won’t quit. There’s also the unselfconsciously joyous closing singalong, On My Way Back Home, namechecking a characteristically eclectic list of influences: Bowie, Elvis, the Grateful Dead, among others. Count this among one of the best releases of 2011 in any style of music. Watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

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April 6, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues

It’s hard to imagine a better Americana album released this year. This visionary, genre-transcending cd gives the rest of the world a chance to find out what New York audiences have known for years, that Lenny Molotov is one of the smartest, wittiest, most perceptive guitarists and songwriters of our time. As an electric guitarist, bassist and lapsteel player, he was indie rock siren Randi Russo’s not-so-secret weapon, both live and in the studio, throughout most of the past decade. Here, the setting is much more rustic, incorporating elements of delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, oldtime hillbilly songwriting and early jazz. Producer Joe Bendik (who also adds accordion) blends the textures of Molotov’s acoustic guitar and dobro, Jake Engel’s blues harp, Karl Meyer’s violin and a terse, subtle rhythm section of JD Wood on upright bass and Angela Webster (of Rhett Miller’s band) on drums into a lushly spiky, evocative web of sound. Yet the songs defy retro characterization. Molotov’s lyrics are richly metaphorical and set in the here-and-now, yet steeped in history and its lessons. Molotov knows all too well where we’ve been, and where we’re going if we keep making the same mistakes. If the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might sound something like this.

That which isn’t political here is vividly personal. Wilderness Bound chronicles one gritty image after another from a symbolically-charged pilgrimage its narrator never wanted to make in the first place. Book of Splendor is a New York roman a clef if there ever was one, an entreaty to a loved one to keep her head above water in the midst of a never-ending series of tribulations. The Woody Guthrie-esque Glorious is gorgeously dreamlike, accordion enhancing its awestruck optimism. Faded Label Blues, the most magnificently anthemic of the songs here is a corrosive, first-person account of the life and times of jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton: “I used to stand so tall and tempting like a fancy bottle of booze/Now I’m empty, discarded, with the faded label blues,” Meyer’s slinky tarantella violin adding considerable poignancy. Ill Moon is a characteristically wry, hypnotically surreal look at insomnia. And the bucolic waltz New Every Morning leaves no doubt where Molotov stands musically: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”

But the best songs here are the political ones. On face value, David Reddin’s Blues is a classic 1930s style outlaw ballad about a kid from the New York projects whose attempt to outrun the law ended tragically. But it’s also a vivid portrayal of life in a surveillance state: everywhere the guy turns, he’s being watched or tracked, from the spycam outside his girlfriend’s public housing complex to the DNA flowing from his wounds. Then, with the album’s finest track, Freedom Tower, Molotov tackles the spectre of a fascist America head-on. Over a steady, swaying, fingerpicked Piedmont-style blues melody, he again offers a potently metaphorical look at what a Freedom Tower (a name floated widely for a future replacement for New York’s World Trade Center) might actually be. In this case, you can’t get too close or security will accost you, you’d better keep your windows closed if you’re in the hotel across the way, and there are helicopter gunships stationed on the roof. And that’s not even the half of it. The cd closes with the self-explanatory Devil’s Empire, a cautionary tale that doubles as a nasty slap upside the head of the scam artists on the receiving end of the latest rounds of corporate bailouts. And with characteristic wit, Molotov makes a couple of Howlin Wolf and Robert Johnson quotes work back-to-back in a way neither icon ever would have imagined – or maybe they would have. Blues is always about subtext and innuendo anyway. This is a strong contender for best album of 2009; watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 9/11/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. This being 9/11, today’s song looks at one lesson we should have learned from the atrocity. It’s #320 on the list:

Elgin Movement – Freedom Tower

This oldtimey trio – with Jerome O’Brien of the Dog Show on upright bass and Jake Engel on chromatic harp – was a short-lived side project of the great New York Americana songwriter and blues guitarist Lenny Molotov. This song was inspired by plans to replace the World Trade Center: as he tells it, the Freedom Tower is actually a giant prison. Unreleased, and bootlegs don’t seem to have surfaced, although Molotov has a long-awaited new album due out most likely in early 2010.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lenny Molotov Live at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 2/16/08

Lenny Molotov is the greatest guitar-god songwriter you’ve never heard of. Actually, you probably have: he plays lead guitar in Randi Russo’s band. But his own work is just as good. Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison: technically, Molotov is equally breathtaking, although long extended solo flights are not his thing. Perhaps even more than Thompson, Molotov seems to want to make every single note count for something, to make the music work perfectly in the context of the song. While Thompson’s fallback place is traditional British folk, Molotov draws most deeply from the murky well of oldtime delta blues, although he’s fluent in country and rock and, to at least some extent, jazz.

Tonight he reaffirmed why club owners like blues acts so much: for some reason, everybody drinks as long as the band is playing, if they’re not drinking already. Although Molotov and band didn’t hit the stage here til after one on the morning, they kept the crowd of Jersey tourists in the house throughout their long, almost two-hour set. Playing a mix of about 50/50 covers and originals, they impressed with the quality of their musicianship and Molotov’s clever, witty, lyrically-driven songs.

They opened with an eerie, minor-key blues chronicling the last few hours of a kid from the projects in Brooklyn who goes out to buy some weed, ends up being entrapped by an undercover cop, panics and shoots the cop and ends up killing himself in the wee hours after running out of options. One by one, Molotov enumerated the obstacles that tripped up the poor guy: “It’s too hard to be an outlaw anymore,” he lamented. Another equally chilling Molotov original, Faded Label Blues traced the decline of blues/jazz legend Hoagy Carmichael’s career. Molotov has a remarkable political awareness which made itself apparent in these two songs as well as a bouncy, uncharacteristically sunny, major-key tune titled the Devil’s Empire (as in “I saw the devil’s empire coming down”).

Their covers were just as good. Molotov’s version of St. James Infirmary Blues ostensibly stays true to the original, fast and driving. Backing Molotov were an upright bassist as well as violinist Karl Meyer and harmonica wizard Jake Engel. Meyer’s soaring, fluid country fiddle made an interesting contrast with Engel’s heavy artillery: the guy was channeling Big Walter Horton half the night, blowing eerie chromatics like he wanted to shatter the big plate glass window that serves as the front wall here. They finally wrapped it up at about 3 AM, the club owner still sitting on his perch at the sound board above the stage, carefully tweaking the sound throughout the show to make sure everything was crystal-clear. It’s hard to think of anybody else who cares so passionately about the sound in the room or who is as good at it as this guy is. We’re going to pay close attention to the Rockwood schedule from now on: if someone you like is playing here, don’t pass up the opportunity.

February 18, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Lenny Molotov – Luminous Blues

The virtuoso guitarist steps up to the plate four times and hits three home runs on this tantalizingly brief ep. That’s a .750 batting average. Lenny Molotov, who fronts the impressively authentic delta blues outfit Elgin Movement and also plays lead in Randi Russo’s band, also happens to be a spectacularly good songwriter and lyricist as well as one of the best guitarists anywhere. An apt comparison would be Richard Thompson. Each draws deeply from traditional sources: in Thompson’s case, British folk; Molotov continues in the tradition of great bluesmen from Charley Patton to Robert Johnson, while adding contemporary lyrics. Like Thompson, Molotov is also a brilliant wordsmith, a master of symbolism, allusion and imagery: he doesn’t tell a story as much as show you a movie and let you figure out for yourself what’s going on.

The album opens with the innuendo-laden Ceiling Fan, a concert favorite that sounds something like a great lost track from Blonde on Blonde, except with much better guitar:

I could be Henry Miller and you could be Anais Nin
But you gotta let me know whether you want me out or in
I’m leaving now but you can gimme a call
When you’re ready to begin
Then we can both lay back and watch your ceiling fan spin

There’s a guitar break between the chorus and verse that sounds pretty much the same but a close listen reveals that it’s not: Molotov slowly changes it every go-round and by the time the song it’s over it’s become a macabre snake dance. It works perfectly, considering that this song is about cheating. After a routine popup, Molotov strides to batter’s box and hits another one into the upper deck with Love Train (not the O’Jays/Yayhoos hit). It riffs on pretty much every Manhattan subway line, a sardonic, open-tuned, fingerpicked blues about a relationship gone all the way out to Stillwell Avenue:

I cannot take the D train
Cause D it stands for dog
Cause that’s the animal I feel most like
When you were playing god
OOOh, stop this train…

It’s a classic New York song. The album concludes with the anthemic, crescendoing, vengeful Bottle Up and Go, which Molotov frequently uses to close his solo shows. Fans of current songwriters rooted in blues and Americana including Tom Waits, LJ Murphy and Rachelle Garniez – and the aforementioned Mr. Thompson – will love this stuff.

This is a hard album to find other than at shows. Four bagels, with whatever a bluesman would put on them. Which probably means hard salami and mustard – they both keep well. Molotov typically plays his own stuff on weekend nights at Sidewalk.

June 5, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments