Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: The Big Small Beast

The big show happened at the Orensanz Center Friday night. Because the night had to end before midnight, it was like the Rolling Stones Revue, 2010 style: everybody got short sets but made the most of them. Spottiswoode opened, solo on piano. He’s never sounded better. He has a musical theatre production coming up in the fall and if the trio of brand-new songs he played are any indication, it ought to be good. Intense and pensive, he began with a gospel flavored number, following with one of the best songs of the whole night, a bitter, brooding wee-hours tableau possibly titled Wall of Shame. He then dedicated a passionate ballad to a pretty, short-haired brunette in the crowd named Nicole: “I would follow you to Philadelphia,” he intoned.

Barbez have never sounded better either – their set was amazing, maybe the best of the entire night, an offhanded reminder of how brilliant this band is. Even more impressive, when you consider that their van had just been broken into the previous night, most of their gear stolen (Williamsburg bands beware – this is the second one in two days). This was their instrumental set, all minor keys, erasing all cross-country and cross-genre borders with perfect effortlessness. Guitarist Dan Kaufman led the band into a Balkan surf groove in 7/8 time, building to a squall with the clarinet going full blast, down to a masterfully nuanced passage featuring the marimba, then bringing it up again and ending it cold. The next one had a tango flavor, more prominent marimba and tricky rhythms. After that, they worked down from a furious gallop to atmospherics and then more tango, then started the next one with an ominously funereal, minimalist rumble that picked up in a rawtoned Savage Republic vein, ending with a creepy, carnivalesque waltz.

Since Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch had booked the night, he was pulling triple duty onstage, his first set of the night being with his longtime sparring partner Little Annie Bandez. This was the cd release show for their new one, Genderful, arguably the high point of their career together up to now. The crowd was silent, rapt, amazed – as a raconteur, Bandez has no equal, but since time was tight she kept the songs tight and terse and absolutely haunting, beginning with Wallfisch on guitar and backed by the full band on a wistful, sad version of Billy Martin Requiem, a tribute not only to the fallen Yankee skipper but also that era’s AIDS casualties. “Thirty years in business to learn a word like ‘monitor,'” she joked as soundman Marco, on loan from the Delancey, made some expert adjustments (big up to Marco by the way – the sound was outstanding all night). The wee-hours lament Suitcase Full of Secrets was poignant and loaded with understatement, on the wings of Heather Pauuwe’s violin; they closed with a brand-new song, Dear John, a requiem for a suicide. Bandez looked up, then around at the majestic synagogue facade behind the stage and did a slow, thoughtful 360, leading the crowd’s eyes just as she’d led their ears.

Bee and Flower have been conspicuously absent from the New York stage, but they haven’t lost a step. Frontwoman/bassist Dana Schechter began their all-too-brief set as chanteuse, swaying and playing shakers on a particularly haunting version of the slowly sweeping, characteristically cinematic minor-key 6/8 anthem Homeland. They picked up the pace briefly with a bouncy number that saw lead guitarist Lynn Wright (leader of the amazing And the Wiremen) swooping on his low E string to provide a second bassline against Schechter’s slinky groove. Switching pensively from tango inflections to starlit wonder to a pounding, hypnotically intense version of Twin Stars, a standout track from their first album, the only thing missing was the epic suspense film for which the songs would have made the perfect score.

The crowd peaked for Botanica, who were serenaded on and then offstage, from the balcony overhead, with the exquisive and otherworldly Balkan vocals of two completely unamplified singers, Black Sea Hotel’s Corinna Snyder and her equally haunting pal Kelly. Wallfisch had just played keys for Bee and Flower, so he switched to his battered Wurlitzer-and-organ combo and then went into a zone. Guitarist John Andrews blasted out wild Dick Dale-style tremolo-picked passages, playing through a skin-peeling cloud of reverb and delay. He also sang what might have been the best song of the whole night, the menacing art-rock epic Xmas, opening with just guitar and vocals for a Beatlesque verse, finally exploding with a crash on the second chorus. Their opener, the title track to their new album Who You Are (whose release was also being celebrated this evening) moved from stately menace to unaffected, longing angst; La Valse Magnetique, sort of the title track to their previous studio cd, featured more insane surf guitar and a very pregnant pause. Monster surf met Elvis Costello on a pointed, relentless version of the gypsy-punk Witness. There were other acts on the bill, but after a set like this, anything that followed it would have been anticlimactic – after five bands, maybe more (this is just the highlights), it was time to take a break and enjoy what was left of the early summer evening outside.

So sold as we were on this show (in case you were away, we plugged it shamelessly for a week), it pretty much delivered on its promise. The weekly Small Beast concert upstairs at the Delancey – from which this sprang – is the closest thing we have these days in New York to what CBGB was in the 70s, or what Tonic was from 1995 to 2005: the most fertile, fearlessly imaginative rock and rock-oriented scene in town. And from a blogger’s perspective, it’s a dream come true – for the price of a few hours worth of an otherwise fairly useless Monday, it’s an absurdly easy way to keep in touch with some of the world’s most vital rock and rock-oriented acts. Shame on the other Manhattan venues for not doing something like this on a Saturday and promoting it to a wider audience.

May 24, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Botanica – Who You Are

Another year, another great album by Botanica. That the latest cd by the inimitably dark, gypsy-tinged art-rockers is their first American release in ten years says more about the state of the music industry than just about anything else. Consider: the 9/11-themed 2004 cd Botanica vs. the Truth Fish, the best single-disc rock album of the entire decade of the zeros, never saw an official US release (although like the rest of the Botanica catalog, it’s up at itunes). Fortuitously, the band will be celebrating this one at the Big Small Beast at the Angel Orensanz Center on Friday, May 21, a night that could be the single best rock show in New York this year, and which kicks off with an hour of free beer. This album will be available there not only as a cd but also on limited edition white vinyl.

Where does it fall in the Botanica pantheon? It’s one of their best, and it’s warmer than anything they’ve done before. There’s still layer upon layer of John Andrews’ otherworldly, echoing reverb guitar, Paul Wallfisch’s menacing, smoky organ, piano and vocals and uneasy, wide-awake worldview, but this one’s somewhat more inviting, less assaultive than their previous albums. One notable development is the inclusion of several outstanding songs by Andrews, who brings a highly individual, ornately Beatlesque, wryly lyrical sensibility. Another is the album’s more straight-ahead rhythmic feel. Previous incarnations of Botanica explored all sorts of tricky time signatures, but this one sticks pretty much with the 4/4 – and yet, the rhythm section, Dave Berger on drums and either Dana Schechter (of the majestically cinematic Bee & Flower) or Jason Binnick (of haunting noir Americana rocker Kerry Kennedy’s band) on bass is perhaps more subtle than this band’s ever seen.

The title cut opens the album. Underneath the stately sway of this beautiful, crescendoing anthem, the menace of the lyrics contrasts with the longing of the melody, for someone other than the gestapo to know exactly who you are and what you need. The second cut, Witness builds from noir Watching the Detectives-style reggae to a clenched-teeth gypsy dance with some savage tremolo-picking from Andrews. Cocktails on the Moon, by Andrews takes an artsy late Beatlesque melody and makes it sardonic and surreal – like several other tracks here, the band it most resembles is legendary Australian art-rockers the Church. By contrast, You Might Be the One is scorching and percussive, like the Church in a particularly violent moment, with lush vocals from co-writer Schechter. With its pensive Weimar cabaret sway, Anhalter Bahnof reflects on the reslience of the spirit in the midst of materialism. Xmas, a big psychedelic anthem, is an otherworldly cloudburst of guitars, strings and gorgeous vocal harmonies that float sepulchrally throughout the mix, followed by the much more straight-ahead Perfection, fast and scurrying with a rapidfire lyric: Elvis Costello in a gypsy disguise. The version of Because You’re Gone (also recorded by Wallfisch with Little Annie, who wrote the lyrics, on their new album Genderful) is all frenetic manic depression reverberating off the keys of the Wurlitzer. Then, turning on a dime again, Wallfisch offers what could be considered the centerpiece of the album, For Love, its hypnotic Moonlight Mile ambience gently crescendoing to an understatedly majestic soul ballad.

The understated epic grandeur continues with some soaring slide work from Andrews on Backlit (the title referring to the phone numbers of Wallfisch’s dead friends’ numbers on his crumbling old Nokia phone). “Don’t know what to do with the dead,” he rails. Whispers and Calls sets a 1950’s 6/8 doo-wop melody down in Beatle territory, toy piano carrying the tune out eerily at the end. The album ends with the ghostly and hypnotic yet defiant So Far from Childhood, which could be the great missing track from Heroes by Bowie. Best album of the year? Certainly one of them – and available on vinyl at the Big Small Beast.

May 20, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Botanica at the Knitting Factory, Brooklyn NY 2/12/10

Botanica are off on European tour starting February 16 (their myspace has the complete list of dates). Friday night’s show at the Knitting Factory went from incandescent to pyrotechnic, transcending a wretchedly muddy sound mix, leaving no doubt that they are still New York’s best band, possibly the best band in America right now. EU audiences are in for a richly melodic, menacingly hypnotic treat over the next couple of months.

Along with frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch (heavily duct-taped since he’d ripped his trousers earlier during the day doing only god knows what) were longtime guitarist John Andrews – equal parts Daniel Ash and Dick Dale – along with bassist Jason Binnick (of Kerry Kennedy’s band) and Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione propelling the juggernaut with a joyous, careening Tamir Muskat-esque intensity. Bee & Flower’s Dana Schechter lent her soaring wail to a mercilessly pummeling, murderously reverberating version of a new Andrews song, You Might Be the One. The title track from the new album Who You Are, a defiantly unfashionable, insistently soulful defense of all things passionate got an especially energetic treatment, keys and guitar refracting a pointillistic metal-in-the-microwave Moonlight Mile vibe on a long, extended outro.

Andrews turned into Mr. Moto, tremolo-picking the opening bars of their first number, What You Need with a casually macabre reverb-fueled menace that turned warm and soulful on the chorus, only to revert to haunting, cautionary mode seconds later. This is the most diverse – and inclusionary – version of the band so far, with songwriting contributions beyond the constantly deepening Wallfisch catalog: the Binnick song they played was a strikingly warm, upbeat 6/8 ballad imbued with a vintage sixties soul feel. But the old classics still resonated: the stately, anguished requiem for lost time And Then Palermo; the furiously scurrying, savagely lyrical gypsy rock hit How, and the towering noir cabaret blues anthem The Truth Fish, one of the few 9/11 elegies to effectively capture the outrage and horror that swept through New York in the weeks afterward. Kinetic behind his battered Wurlitzer, Wallfisch railed against the dying of the light, the absence of missing people and places and “the code orange bullshit of Machiavellian ideals” of the Bush years. Zef Noise guested on violin along with a trumpeter who, though they clearly were giving it their all, simply weren’t given the chance to cut through the sound mix. Knowing European sound guys for who they are, they’ll get it right in Bratislava and Berlin.

February 15, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Song of the Day 6/4/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #419:

BotanicaGood

Our predecessor e-zine’s pick for best song of 2004 was this towering, anguished 6/8 anthem, the centerpiece of the New York noir art-rockers’ classic 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish, frontman Paul Wallfisch’s organ roaring in tandem with John Andrews’ reverb-drenched guitar. “I need a respite, just a moment of respite, I thought I caught it but now it is gone…” The link in the title above is the last.fm stream of the complete song. Wallfisch plays songs from the latest forthcoming Botanica studio album tonight at the Delancey at 8:30 PM.

June 4, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Botanica – americanundone

Their wildest album. What the Stones were to the 60s, what Pink Floyd was to the 70s, what the Church were to the 80s, what – good grief, who? maybe Pulp? were to the 90s – Botanica has been to this decade, simply the definitive rock band of our era. In their uncompromisingly lyrical, fiery, gypsy-flavored anthems, there’s a defiance against fascism, a raised middle finger at mindless conformity and the same unextinguishable passion shared by all the aforementioned bands. And as good as their studio albums are (look for more than one on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), nothing beats a Botanica live show. Finally, here’s one you can take with you. Last and final comparison: as live albums go, this ranks with the best of them, right up there with Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Night of the Living Dead Boys, and Metallic KO by the Stooges.

Frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s supporting cast this time out includes the equally powerful, melodic bassist Dana Schechter (of Bee and Flower), reverb guitar monster John Andrews, Mark Stepro on drums and Anne deWolff on violin. Unsurprisingly, this is Botanica’s loudest, most guitar-oriented album, Andrews in particularly savage mode from start to finish: even on the quieter numbers, he’s a threat to cut loose. The songs are a well-chosen mix of stomping crowd-pleasers and stately, ornate art-rock anthems. They’re off and running from the start with a particularly bruising version of Billboard Jesus, from their 2004 post-9/11 masterpiece Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Concrete Shoes, anguished and stalking on the Berlin Hi-Fi cd, is transformed into a nightmare vision in a reverb tunnel. La Valse Magnetique, title track to the band’s most recent studio effort (currently unreleased in the US) sets gentle violin and organ over a rhythm section that carries it away into scurrying, swinging gypsy punk straight out of the Gogol Bordello songbook. Wallfisch takes a glimmering cascade of Wurlitzer piano down to pregnant pause, a slow interlude and a startling cold ending. “Il nous reste que la fierte.” Pas de question.

Shira and Sofia is noir cabaret swing with a brutallly dismissive vocal cameo by Schechter and an evil slide guitar solo. The caustic Sex Offender takes the band to the edge of metal, daring to question the age of consent: “As long as she’s the girl next door and I’m the guy in college reading Schopenhauer. Sweet sixteen? She’s a sex offender. Hallelujah!” Wallfisch croons at the end in tribute to the flock who do such a good job saving us from ourselves.

The best tracks here are a study in contrasts, and they’re both from Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Swimming in the Ocean at Night is more evocatively, gleefully macabre than ever, shimmering with organ and reverb guitar, toy piano just enough out of tune to bring the menace to redline. The Truth Fish, Wallfisch’s ballistic response to the powers that be who let Ground Zero smolder for months on end, pulls out all the stops, building from noir bluesy stomp to whirling, apocalyptic gypsy dance ending with a wall of guitar feedback and then the outro that’s still pure redemption for anyone who lived and breathed through those  horrible days: “Fires. No. One. Cares. To. Put. Out [pregnant pause] OOOOOOUT! ” The show ends on an equally relevant note with How, another fast gypsy rock number sarcastically contemplating the reasons why some people simply refuse to get it, complete with wild, swirling violin, a long Middle Eastern interlude and a violent, crashing conclusion. Don’t take our word for it: in a remarkable stroke of generosity, the album is streaming at Botanica’s site. Physical copies only seem to be available at shows, but all the tracks are up on itunes. Watch this space for live dates: in addition, Wallfisch plays at around 9 every week at his ongoing Small Beast salon/performance at the Delancey.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ecstatic Epic Grandeur: Botanica at the Delancey, NYC 5/14/08

A triumphant homecoming. Although Botanica has done a lot of European touring in the last several months, it had been about a year since they last played New York. Transcending the limitations of an awful sound mix and a bizarre crowd situation, they reminded how badly they’ve been missed here: there is simply no darker, sexier band anywhere.

This was a drastically revamped version of the band: of the crew who last played here, only frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch and guitarist John Andrews remain. Losing a bassist the caliber of their longtime four-string guy Christian Bongers would ordinarily cripple a band, but they’ve replaced him with one of the world’s best, Bee & Flower frontwoman Dana Schechter, whose fluid, slide and chord-driven lines were unwaveringly brilliant, even though half the time it was hard to hear her. This was also the debut show for their new drummer, and if it was any kind of audition, he passed it with flying colors, particularly on the hauntingly swinging, 7/8 anthem Eleganza and Wines from their most recent American release, Berlin Hi-Fi. The woman playing violin stole the show half the time – a hard feat to pull off with this band – with her searing, incisive flights and fills.

They opened with a pop song: while menace is still their defining undercurrent, they’ve diversified their sound in the last couple of years, and this particular number was quite the surprise, albeit a successful one. Andrews picked another new number, a slowly crescendoing, Procol Harum-inflected, organ-driven art-rock number as the launching pad for a majestic, roaring slide guitar solo. Wallfisch sang the next song in French over a slowly circular, 6/8 melody with a rousing gypsy dance at the end. He then handed over vocals to Schechter, who was sadly almost completely inaudible, delivering a rapidly shuffling, macabre new tune that could have been vintage, mid-80 Siouxsie & the Banshees.

Then they launched into The Truth Fish, the (sort of) title track from their classic 2004 album, Wallfisch wandering offstage and into the audience with a bullhorn while the band swung the song’s noir cabaret melody around by the tail. Andrews and the violinist joined in a scorching crescendo as they wound up the the dance that builds up to the conclusion, wailing furiously until Wallfisch launched into the song’s ominous outro, the memory of the smoking pit at Ground Zero still fresh in everyone’s mind:

Fires
No one cares
To put out
Out
Out
Out
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE TRUTH FISH!!!!

“That was amazing,” Wallfisch exclaimed, and nobody was arguing with him, up front, at least. Unfortunately, the sound in the club was quieter than it’s possible to imagine it ever being here, making it very difficult to hear the band for anyone any further than, say, twenty feet from the stage. Compounding the bad sound was the fact that to celebrate the reopening of the club’s rooftop barbecue (which used to be free but now costs $5), they were serving free drinks at the bar in the back, where a loud crowd of yuppie puppies from out of town had congregated, bellowing at each other, oblivious to the music. Occasionally, a fratboy would drag his sorority girlfriend up through the crowd to see what all the fuss was about, only to stand there mystified for a few seconds before retreating back to the bar. Which was hardly a surprise: what Botanica does isn’t exactly safe or suburban, only underscoring the division between the throngs of amped-up fans at the front, and the New Jersey contingent in the back slurping down the free vodka.

They closed with another gypsy rocker, How, and then, counterintuitively, the quiet, slightly anxious This Perfect Spot. With Andrews punching his hammer-on chords over a swinging soul beat, it was totally 60s Stax-Volt. Wallfisch told the crowd he’d written it in Berlin, feeling good about the fact that he missed his wife, and the song hit the spot like a fine wine, rueful around the edges yet glad to be firing on all cylinders. So good to be alive while the whole world is going to hell. At least we have Botanica to provide a good soundtrack.

May 16, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Botanica – Berlin Hi-Fi

What do you do when your last album was arguably the best single-disc cd of the decade so far? Maybe you flip the script. Maybe you do something radically different, that no one can compare to your most recent effort. Maybe, you make a pop album – or part of one, anyway. That’s what Botanica has done with their latest masterpiece (their trademark epic grandeur and snarling ferocity roars back and takes over on the rest of the songs). It’s an unabashedly romantic (and Romantic) achievement, lush and orchestrated, eerie yet sexy as hell. Put this on the night table beside the Al Green and the Moonlighters: it’s bedroom music for cold starless nights.

Botanica’s trademark sound welds their towering, passionate, keyboard-driven melodicism to a dark, savage reverb guitar attack, blending elements of gypsy punk, classical music and goth into a powerful, potently cerebral cocktail. On this one, they don’t even start a song in 4/4 until the album’s fourth song. The album opens with the stately Eleganza and Wines, a beautiful, rueful lament for a time and place lost forever, played in slinky 7/8 meter. As is so typical with Botanica’s songs, it builds to a towering crescendo and then fades to its central hook. (And Then) Palermo maintains the feeling of regret, a gorgeously romantic pop song in 6/8. The cd’s following cut, its title track is the most overtly 90’s style indie rock song they’ve done to date, a little out of character, but it works: a joyous shout-out to Berlin, where they’ve built up a substantial following, and it’s obvious that the appreciation is mutual. Remember the last time you left the country, how good you felt, how absolutely liberated? If so, this is your anthem. Next song: Concrete Shoes. Classic Botanica, haunting and desperate. “Save me now/Tie the rope around my neck and pull me up.” The footfalls of Christian Bongers’ bass quickly creep along as the guitar and organ roar, building inexorable momentum. On the following cut, I’m Lifting, the tension recedes to the background, but just a little bit: the rest of the band plays over and around frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s central, haunting electric piano arpeggio.

Next up is A Freestyle Kiss to Hedy Lamarr (whose image graces the cover of the album), laden with sadness, melodies pouring in and overflowing the carafe, staining the tablecloth shiraz red. Then we get the frenetic concert favorite Someone Else Again, with its ascending bassline and Hollywood noir feel: David Lynch could use this for his next movie if it’s anything like Mulholland Drive.

The scorching antiwar song Waking Up clocks in at barely a minute and a half, a throwback to the furious politically charged power of Botanica’s career-defining previous album, Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. The album’s next tune, I Desire perfectly encapsulizes where Botanica is now. John Andrews’ scary reverb guitar plays the song’s central arpeggio as Wallfisch’s funereal electric piano tones reverberate against it and build to a firestorm of emotion.

The album’s most likely radio hit – and there are many to choose from – is its next track, Not a Bear: “more ambitious than your average bear,” as the lyric goes. “Why sleep when you could be wide awake?” It’s a curious question, with Andrews’ menacing guitar and Wallfisch’s organ lurking in the background, and it might be rhetorical. The alternative could be fatal.

More political gypsy punk (and a wildly frenetic, deliciously climactic violin solo) with How, which the band frequently uses as an aptly furious concert encore. Then the sarcastic, Nick Cave-inflected Fame, a savage blast back at the entertainment-industrial complex and all the rockstar wannabes who buy into it.

Then a return to the same reflective tone the album began on, with This Perfect Spot. The cd’s secret track is Eleganza and Wines rearranged for string quartet and it’s absolutely beautiful, a spot-on way to close this gorgeous, meticulously arranged and fearlessly intense album. This is not your neighbor’s whiny, tuneless indie rock. It’s not your father’s bloated, bombastic prog rock. It’s the soundtrack to your life at top speed, full volume, every synapse at full power. Why sleep when you could be wide awake. Albums are available in better record stores, at shows and online.

Frontman Paul Wallfisch is on tour right now with the “coalmine canary,” noir chanteuse Little Annie but we should expect at least one NYC area show this summer after they return.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments