Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Top Ten Songs of the Week 9/14/09

We do this every week, almost always on Tuesday – back on schedule again, yaaay! You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here except for #1 will take you to each individual song.

1. Jang Sa-Ik – This Is Not It

The Korean superstar is on the brink of going global: be the first to know who he is. This one’s a haunting carpe diem cautionary tale from his latest cd, impossible to find via English-language search, but watch this space.

2. The Bright Room – Amerigo

Slashing, brooding, smartly lyrical indie rock – a real original sound. They’re at Spikehill on 9/19 at 9.

3. Mark Sinnis – St. James Infirmary

A vintage New Orleans take of this standard by the ominous Ninth House frontman  – especially haunting.

4. Natalie John & the Fine Columbians – Song from a Greyhound Bus

Up-and-coming jazz trumpeter/chanteuse. Prediction: she’ll be headlining Dizzy’s Club in five years.

5. Roosevelt Dime – Rants & Raves

Funny smart original oldtimey country with a banjo – a lot like White Hassle. They’re at the Rockwood at midnight on 9/18.

6. The Sunday Blues – Tinted Windows

They call themselves the alt-country Wings but they’re way better – gorgeously anthemic songs and neat keyboards although the lyrics aren’t much. They’re at Spikehill on 9/27 at 7.

7. The Wandering Bards – Spam in a Can

An oldtimey bluesy tribute to the processed meat delicacy – hard to resist. They’re at Spikehill on 9/20 at 11.

8. Abby Payne – Bad One

She’s a bad girl…or she wishes she was. Catchy jazzy piano pop. She’s at Spikehill on 9/24 at 10.

9. Parias Ensemble – Nublando

Thoughtful pensive Sunday afternoon song without words from this Colombian-tinged groove jazz outfit. They’re at Spikehill on 9/26 at 9.

10. Amanda White – Monica’s Getting Her Tits Done

Generic but funny bar band rock.

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September 14, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jang Sa-ik at New York City Center 4/18/09

[Editor’s note: special thanks to Jinho Jang, proprietor of the 32nd St. jazz hideaway J’z for his invaluable help with translations]

 

Jang Sa-ik is a populist phenomenon in his native South Korea. Despite being virtually ignored by corporate radio and tv, he’s become something of a Springsteen there, with six chart-topping albums and consistently sold-out concerts extending throughout the Korean diaspora around the world. As with Fela and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan before him, there’s every reason to believe that there’s a mass audience here in the US ready to anoint him as the first Korean world music star. Saturday night’s powerful, marathon performance vividly revealed some of the reasons behind his status as a cultural icon. With a fifteen-piece band and choir, the concert began as riveting, darkly rich orchestral spectacle, morphing into an upbeat stadium show and ending as carefree karaoke, the once-sedate, sold-out audience transformed and raising their voices.

 

The lights went down for the first part, ominous, majestic and white-knuckle intense like a Pink Floyd concert. Jang has lately been doing his live show in three stages, beginning with Death, moving to Life and then to what could be characterized as the Good Old Days. Unsurprisingly, it was death’s icy hand that exerted the most powerful grip as the 59-year-old singer, immaculate in a white traditional Korean robe, strode to the mic and in a potently projected baritone, backed only by the piano, worldlessly intoned the long introduction to the stately dirge Back to Heaven. As influenced by American soul music as by pansori (Korean operatic singing) and the rural folk music that he first heard as a child, Jang drew out the notes, often ending a phrase with an impassioned, somewhat raspy vibrato evocative of Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke. The majestic, epic orchestration of the next several songs aptly evoked their English titles: Empty Ocean, Dusk Road and then the best song of the night, This Is Not It, equal parts haunting, memorable minor-key anthem and cautionary tale to seize the day (otherwise This Is Not It becomes This Was It).

 

Jang then left the stage and the lights went up for an interminable drum solo that morphed into primitive heavy  metal, the guitarist (now on Telecaster) joining in the melee. Finally, Jang returned (he’d used the interlude to change into a loosely immaculate grey suit) and they launched into an irresistibly amusing version of the rock ballad Silly Angel (from Jang’s latest cd, Volume 6/Mother, See the Flowers) done here as simple Black Sabbath-style stomp complete with leaden funk-metal interlude. “Welcome to the club!” Jang laughed after they finally wrapped it up.

 

From there, the band made their way through a mix of Jang’s hits and Korean pop standards, mostly from the 60s and 70s. His Roy Orbison-inflected, somewhat noir pop hit Wild Rose took on an ELO-style grandeur, contrasting with lighter fare such as the popular standard Daejeon Blues (featuring some nice, jazzy muted trumpet) and a medley of singalong covers ranging from psychedelic-tinged 60s inflected pop to a rather cloying number that sounded like an Asian version of Bread. The last of the encores was Airirang, the national folk song of Korea, vastly preferred over the national anthem of either country because it predates the nation’s division by any of the colonizing powers who’ve tormented its native population over the centuries. At the end of the show, Jang offered a heartfelt thanks to the audience for having helped him conquer the nasty cold he’d caught after arriving here, telling them that they’d kept him warm throughout the show. No doubt he’d done the same. “You are deep and beautiful like the night,” Jang told the crowd as he left the stage, perhaps inadvertently but perfectly capsulizing his appeal.

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Top Ten Songs of the Week 4/13/09

We do this every week. You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list when we finalize it at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Each link here will take you to the song.

 

1. Jang Sa-ik – Wild Rose

The haunting, soulful “Voice of Korea”‘s big, noir, Orbison-esque hit. This is a characteristically gripping live version. He’ll be at NY City Center on 4/18. 

 

2. Raya Brass Band – Karsilamas

Wild delirious minor-key Balkan brass band madness by this allstar NYC crew. They’re at Mehanata on 4/16 at 9. 

 

3. Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Arguably better than the original!?! Roots reggae, funny but also really good! From the new album.

 

4. Jan Bell – Carpenter’s Arms

Absolutely haunting stuff from the British expat relocated to Brooklyn. 

 

5. Kerry Kennedy – Because You’re Gone

If memory serves right this is a Little Annie/Paul Wallfisch collaboration, done with characteristic dark panache by this excellent noir rocker. She’s at Small Beast at the Delancey upstairs on 4/16.

 

6. Dub Proof – Ocean Avenue

Woozy instrumental dub reggae with a nice funky groove.

 

7.Sari Schorr – Come Around

Artsy atmospheric ballad with bite.

 

8. Reigns – Everything Beyond These Walls Has Been Razed

Ambient, minimalist, atmospheric, gothy. This is the video.

 

9. Alana Amram & the Rough Gems – Take a Drink

Great party anthem from the NYC country/Americana chanteuse.

 

10. Michelle Citrin & William Levin – 20 Things to Do with Matzah

Now that Passover week is over, we’re looking forward to 50 cent matzoh in the supermarket! This isn’t new, some of you doubtlessly know it already but it is really funny.

April 14, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jang Sa-Ik Interview

Known as “The Voice of Korea,” singer Jang Sa-ik is poised to become the first worldwide Korean superstar. In a world of autotuned, prefabricated moppets, he casts a towering shadow, a dramatic yet tersely and often hauntingly soulful presence, blending traditional Korean folk music with an early 60s American noir pop sensibility. The story of how he got here is nothing short of heartwarming. Born the son of a farmer and traditional musician, he struggled through a succession of dead-end, mostly blue-collar jobs. It wasn’t til his mid-thirties that he took up the taepyeongso, the traditional Korean oboe, quickly discovering he had an aptitude for it. After playing with traditional music ensembles, in 1993 he won the first of a seemingly endless series of major awards in Korea, this one for instrumental artistry. However, his bandmates persuaded him to sing, and the rest is history: six hit albums later (including a striking new one, Chapter 6/”Mother, See the Flowers”), at age 59, he’s ready to conquer America. Charismatic yet thoughtful and philosophical, up close he responds with the same kind of poetic terseness that characterizes his music. Lucid Culture interrupted his busy schedule preparing for what will likely be his second consecutive sold-out show on April 18 at New York City Center:

 

Lucid Culture: What was your favorite kind of music when you were growing up?

 

Jang Sa-ik: Nong Ak, traditional rural Korean farming music.

 

LC: Did you want to be a musician when you were young?

 

JSI: No, I wanted to be a politician!

 

LC: What other artists have influenced your singing and your writing?

 

JSI: Kim Dae Whan, a free music drummer in Korea [who played in the pioneering 60s Korean rock band Add4].

 

LC: What other artists do you enjoy listening to these days?

 

JSI: World music artists, gypsy musicians, South American music.

 

LC: Was the taepyeongso your first instrument? When did you first start playing it, and why? Was your father responsible for this?

 

JSI: Yes, at the age of 35. The taepyeongso is a typical Nong Ak instrument.

 

LC: You’re best known as a singer, but you’ve also won major awards in South Korea as an instrumentalist. What do you prefer, singing or playing?

 

JSI: Of course, singing. I can express myself better by singing.

 

LC: When did you first start writing songs?

 

JSI: In 1993 I started writing songs, inspired by the many styles of Korean poetry.

 

LC: Do you remember what your first original song was?

 

JSI: Wild Rose [a beautiful ballad which became a runaway hit].

 

LC: What made you finally quit working at a sales job and start a professional career? Was it because you had finally saved up enough money at that point?

 

JSI: I did not make money doing other jobs. It is my destiny to be a singer.

 

LC: You frequently set other peoples’ lyrics to music. What qualities in other peoples’ poems are you looking for when you work with other peoples’ words?

 

JSI: The poems that match my heart and my life.

 

LC: Your songs are about working people, their families, their loves, everyday events. Do you do this because other singers aren’t writing socially relevant songs?

 

JSI: I like to explore the nuances of everyday life, and I also like to communicate through music. My life experience is deeper because I am old enough to have experienced all this.

 

LC: For example, one of your most famous songs, Daejeon Blues is about a guy who takes a train a long way to work, then he has to go to another city and leaves his girlfriend behind. Is this a common event in South Korea?

 

JSI: Daejeon Blues is a popular song, not mine!  It’s just a Korean pop tune.

 

LC: Some of your songs that I know – Wild Rose and Spring Rain, for example – sound like they’d be aptly suited to film. Have your songs appeared in movies in South Korea? 

 

JSI: Arirang [Jang Sa-ik’s version of the iconic Korean folk song, sung by a man cautioning his lover not to run away] is in the process of being put into a film. I’ve had several proposals about using my music in the movies. Korean TV dramas frequently use my music as well.

 

LC: Why did you sing Airirang at a soccer game between the North and South? Was it to create controversy, or to give hope to the idea of uniting the two countries?

 

JSI: Arirang is the national song of the Korean people. I often call this song a national anthem. Singing the national anthem of either country at the game wasn’t allowed. They specifically requested that I sing Arirang.

 

LC: You’re very successful in South Korea. What are your reasons for wanting to play to American audiences when nobody here outside the Korean community knows who you are?

 

JSI: I’d like to share modern and traditional Korean music with people all around the world.

 

LC: Most of your songs – at least the ones I’ve heard –  are slow, dramatic, very haunting and soulful. Do you ever write funny songs?

 

JSI: I think sadness is a very powerful emotion – I use it to free myself from life’s burdens. I don’t write funny songs. 

 

LC: Many of your songs are about old South Korean traditions. Do you write these songs for the Korean diaspora, or Korean-Americans who might miss their country and the old ways?

 

JSI: My songs are for all the Koreans over the world. My music probably appeals to their homesickness.

 

LC: Your new cd Volume 6/”Mother, See the Flowers” starts with two very powerful, very haunting songs. The first is This Is Not It, which is about looking back on life and wishing you’d done things differently. Are there things you wish you’d done differently?

 

JSI: The song doesn’t relate to my life. My intention is to encourage people to live their lives more seriously.

 

LC: The second song on the cd is a beautiful ballad about a mother whose son carries her into the mountains to die, because he can’t afford to support her in her old age. Was this a common practice in South Korea in the old days?

 

JSI: It was not a very common practice, but surely it was one of the ways to survive tough times during the Korea Dynasty about 800 years ago. These days I don’t see much difference in the way that young people treat their parents.

 

LC: Yet the mother in the song is not angry, she only wants the son to get home safe. Shouldn’t she be very angry at the son who’s left her to die?

 

JSI: Korean mothers know all that, but they sacrifice for their sons.

 

LC: Many of your songs deal with dying and the afterlife. What are your beliefs about that?

 

JSI: Death and life are the same. If you understand death, you will feel life is more precious and appreciate it more. In a roundabout way, the song puts this message across.

 

LC: The last song on the new cd is a big rock song with loud electric guitars. Is this a style you also enjoy? 

 

JSI: Yes, I like that style very much. It gives my music a different flavor.

 

LC: It appears that your audience covers a vast range of demographics, young and old alike. Is a reason for that?

 

JSI: I only sing songs – no dancing. So people focus more on listening  when I’m singing.

 

LC: You’re also a famous calligrapher in your native country. Is this something you’ve always done, or is it a new thing for you?

 

JSI: It was one of my hobbies. But I started realizing this was another thing that I enjoy doing. When I inscribe something on a sheet of white Korean traditional paper, I feel good.

 

LC: Can I ask you why in the past you’ve compared your music to Korean bean paste [a richly delicious, garlicky concoction that serves as the basis for most traditional stews and soups]? 

 

JSI: Korean bean paste is a completely natural, traditional ingredient. My music is the same.

 

Jang Sa-ik plays his only American appearance of the season at New York City Center on April 18 at 7:30 PM.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jang Sa-Ik at the Grand Hyatt Ballroom, NYC 2/25/09

Through an interpreter (his excellent acoustic guitarist), South Korean star Jang Sa-ik explained that due to jet lag (thirty hours, door to door from another time zone), he was only singing at thirty percent.

 

If what he delivered was less than a third of what he’s capable of, a full-strength show would defy the laws of physics. You heard it here first – Jang Sa-ik is the next world music star. Playing to a crowd of mostly music industry insiders and journalists, he held the audience riveted throughout a stark, intense trio set, backed only by acoustic guitar and drums instead of the chamber ensemble and choir who typically accompany him on his home turf. As a vocalist, Jang projects powerfully but without any of the campy kabuki theatricality that typifies so many popular Asian performers. Throughout the show, it always seemed that he had something in reserve, even on the biggest crescendos. In his delivery were hints of both Roy Orbison and Bobby Bland, especially when he’d add a tinge of grit at the end of a phrase, or let it trail off with a slight vibrato. Essentially, Jang is a soul singer, a fact that translated viscerally to the at least fifty percent American crowd, despite the fact that he sang only in Korean.

 

Vocals aside, Jang’s greatest strength is his songwriting, revealing itself as influenced by late 50s/early 60s American pop and blues as much, maybe if not more, than any traditional sound. He opened the set with a spiritual, a funeral march whose title translates as The Way to Heaven, intoning ominously like Howlin’ Wolf as the slow, haunting anthem got underway. Like something from the Harry Smith anthology, it sounded half slave hymn, half minimalist delta blues, except with lyrics in Korean and a big, dramatic conclusion where the narrator can finally see his golden reward.

 

The second song of the set was Jang’s biggest Korean hit, Wild Rose, a dark and eerie pop song with a noir 60s feel – wait til David Lynch finds out about this guy. Its theme is bittersweetness, although it felt much darker. Daejeon Blues – a swinging, ominous minor-key blues song – maintained the edgy intensity, a sad narrative told from the point of view of an intinerant worker having to leave his girlfriend behind because now he has to take a different, low-budget train to a different, low-budget city. Another 60s-inflected pop song, Spring Rain brought back the noir vibe, with vocalese on the outro that screamed out quietly for a singalong. He closed the set with what he said was the “Korean national anthem,” Airirang, a sardonically metaphorical folk song whose narrator cautions the woman who’s leaving him that she won’t get far before her feet get sore. Jang earned great acclaim (and considerable notoriety, on the north side anyway) for singing this before a soccer match between the South and North Korean national teams.

 

Jang is also something of a feel-good story (it’s a made-for-tv movie waiting to happen). Born in 1949, the son of an amateur oboeist, he only began playing his father’s instrument in adulthood. Well into his forties, after years of itinerant work, one dead-end job after another, he finally made his debut as a singer. In 1993, he embarked on a fulltime career in music and has never looked back. Now, at 59, he’s looking to conquer the west. It’s bound to happen, the only question is when – his New York City debut, at City Center in 2007, was a sellout. Discover him now for the sake of cachet…and for the haunting intensity of his voice and his songs. 

February 27, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments