Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

Advertisements

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune Does Justice to a Legendary Cult Songwriter

For those who haven’t already discovered him, Phil Ochs was arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the 1960s. Ochs cut his teeth in the West Village folk movement in the early part of the decade alongside Bob Dylan, a friend in their early days who would become something of a competitor. A legendary party animal, rakishly handsome and considerably talented multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar, clarinet and piano, Ochs grew from a wryly witty singer of stinging topical songs, to become one of the most devastatingly powerful lyricists in the history of rock. But where Dylan found rock and roll, Ochs followed his muse into classical before embarking somewhat frantically on a rock career most notable for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement, probably the most resonant requiem ever written for the idealism of the 60s. With its cover image of Ochs’ tombstone, it left no doubt that it was also a somewhat early suicide note. Kenneth Bowser, producer of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, has a poignant, insightful new documentary out, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a rapidfire collage of period footage, brief snippets of live performances and interviews with colleagues and fans which traces Ochs’ career from his early coffehouse days to his 1975 suicide. It’s currently playing in New York at the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and West Third St.

Singer Judy Henske, who comes across the most articulately of all of Ochs’ contemporaries, explains that he “made people nervous.” Ochs’ brother Michael (whose halfhearted decision to manage his brother springboarded a successful career as a music executive and archivist) and sister Sunny dredge up some cringe-inducing childhood anecdotes including a candid assessment of the mental illness that had plagued their father, and which their brother probably shared. His plunge into chronic alcoholism may have only exacerbated what seems to be a pretty clear-cut case of manic depression. Bowser follows the theory that Ochs saw himself as an archetypical everyman who took every attack on his fellow freedom fighters personally, and substantiates it well. Ochs is credited with changing Bobby Kennedy’s views on Vietnam on a flight from Washington, DC to New York by playing him his epic JFK requiem Crucifixion, and took Kennedy’s assassination, just a few months later, very hard. The police brutality against protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, followed by the Kent State murders left Ochs at a loss as to how to address them; a particularly crushing blow seems to have been the coldblooded assassination of his friend the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara by a CIA-sponsored death squad in 1972. There’s almost as much footage of Ochs toward the end of his career is there is for his early years, and it is heartbreaking. A brief recovery promoting a benefit concert for Chile, alongside Dylan – who otherwise is conspicuously absent here – is followed by some cruelly vivid homemade footage of Ochs in various inebriated states shortly before the end. While there are numerous contributions on Ochs’ legacy from the likes of Sean Penn and Billy Bragg, Bowser also smartly puts Ochs’ producers Jac Holzman and Larry Marks on screen, who along with A&M Records’ co-founder Jerry Moss offer considerable insight into Ochs’ legacy as someone who was something of an eminence grise before his time. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when frequent Ochs collaborator and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, playing completely from memory, rips into the ragtime of Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, the uncharacteristically lighthearted 1967 song (and Dr. Demento staple) that remains, somewhat ironically, Ochs’ best-known composition. IFC showtimes are here.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | Film, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams Live at Parkside, NYC 1/25/08

The best show of the year so far. Erica Smith and her backing trio were celebrating the release of their long-overdue new album Snowblind, and rose to the occasion with a majestic, transcendent performance. Smith is one of those panstylistic rock goddesses like Neko Case, steeped in Americana but lately delving deep into jazz. Nonetheless, this is a rock band, and they rocked. Lead guitarist Dann Baker and drummer Dave Campbell are two-thirds of Beatlemaniac psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, and they were at the absolute top of their game. Baker’s playful, frequently fiery virtuosity is the perfect complement to Smith’s wickedly catchy, jangly songs, and Campbell might well be the best drummer in rock, an Elvin Jones disciple who in all fairness really ought to be leading his own jazz group.

They soared through the opening track on the cd, the Merseybeat hit Easy Now, then lit into a 60s Memphis soul soundalike driven by a bass riff stolen straight from Duck Dunn. Baker took a screaming, noisy solo after the second chorus and really got the crowd going. They followed with the heartbreakingly beautiful The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, a rivetingly sad, swaying, country ballad, and the lush, romantic Brazilian-inflected Tonight, Campbell expertly conducting the band through a slow, hypnotic fade at the end.

Smith’s set of jazz reminded what a vividly instinctive feel she has for the genre, with a high-spirited version of The Very Thought of You, a very slow, haunting take of One for My Baby, a bouncy Ain’t Misbehaving with false ending and an effectively jazzed-up cover of Livia Hoffman’s sad, beautifully literate Valentine. Campbell brought it down to almost complete silence with a tensely minimal solo. He also got the crowd roaring on a careening, bluesy cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester song Snowblind, the title track from the cd. When the band does this live, they generally don’t give Campbell enough time to solo, probably because drum solos – on the rare occasion that any rock bands other than, say, Journey play them anymore – can take a song into Spinal Tap territory in a split second and leave it there for good. This time, Campbell got at least a couple of minutes to span the globe, throw out some summer snapshots of Bahia, a trip into the mountains of Morocco and then before anyone knew it, he was back on the Lower East Side again.

They saved their best for last, with a towering, nine-minute version of their epic parable All the King’s Horses. It’s a slow, 6/8 ballad, music by Smith, Sean Dolan’s lyric transposing all the deadly effects of post-WWII monopoly capitalism onto a medieval battlefield. Audience members were brought to tears. The bass player, clearly caught up in the moment, went off-mic and sang along with Smith as she brought it to a crescendo at the end of the last verse: “Do you have enough hours to bury your dead, or days in which to atone?” Except that he sang “bodies” instead of “hours.” And then missed his cue to join in with the band singing harmonies on the chorus. They encored with 31st Avenue, a haunting, melancholy track from her previous album, rearranged as a backbeat-driven, psychedelic, lushly romantic hit.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four Headliners for the Price of a Beer at the Parkside 11/28/07

It was Freddy’s Bar night at the Parkside. Since Freddy’s is doomed – failing an intervention from some deus ex machina, the encroaching Atlantic Yards luxury condominium/arena monstrosity is scheduled to engulf and demolish the building that houses the venue– several of the bands from what’s left of the scene there have started playing other places. This is the latest. One of the ways you can tell if a scene is real is if bands share musicians, and this crew takes that concept to an extreme. Lead guitarist Ross Bonnadonna played with Paula Carino, Tom Warnick and John Sharples. Sharples himself drummed for Warnick and then fronted his own band at the end of the night. Bassist Andy Mattina also did double duty with Carino and Sharples.

Carino has made a name for herself by writing heartwrenchingly lyrical janglerock songs, but tonight was her fun set. She has a thing for weird time signatures and did four of them in a row: the caustic Rough Guide to You (“Just take me home,” the narrator sighs at the end, exasperated); the crunchy Discovering Fire; the hilariously punk Old People (“Old people must go/Set them all on an ice floe/Make room for the new old people”) and the quirk-rock hit Robots Helping Robots. She and band burned through the rockabilly-inflected yet mournful Saying Grace Before the Movie, a potently metaphorical tale of a woman alone in a theatre in a No Exit situation, knowing the villain always returns. They dusted off her classic, victorious Venus Records (“You’re my alltime favorite lucky find”) and encored with the scorching Coming To Your Senses, one of her most slashing numbers. The crowd was ecstatic: for once, the sound here was excellent, Carino’s vocals like velvet cake with creme de menthe icing. She would prove a very hard act to follow.

But Tom Warnick was up to the challenge. He’s simply one of the most dynamic, effortlessly hilarious frontmen in all of rock. Marcellus Hall is a good comparison: both like their retro styles, have a great sense of melody and an equally sharp sense of humor. Waving a hammer at the audience and pounding his keyboard with it – from the back of the room, it looked like the real thing, not a prop – he gave his completely off-the-wall, stream-of-consciousness songs just enough menace to give the crowd pause. Warnick does the evil-eye thing as well as Johnny Rotten in his prime: it’s never certain whether he’s just goofing around or whether he really means it, and he clearly gets a charge out of messing with his bandmates just as much as he messes with the audience. His best song was a very funny chronicle about playing a gig later on a Monday night at a club where the promoter expected him and the band to bring at least forty people. He closed the song with a brief quote from the Mission Impossible theme.

He and band also ran through the fast, noir City of Women, which dates back to his days as a guitarist, along with a gut-bustingly funny, twisted travelogue through the south and back: “You always hit the bullseye when I go in the donkey tank,” he mused. Since it was Randy Newman’s birthday – “If it wasn’t for Randy Newman I wouldn’t have written a lot of these songs – it’s true,” Warnick told the crowd – they did one of his songs, a 6/8 number where the narrator gets “some whiskey from a barman, some cocaine from a friend” and sinks into something approaching wry despondency.

After Carino and Warnick, the Erica Smith Jazz Odyssey (as Carino playfully called them) should have been anticlimactic to the extreme. But Smith, radiant in a shimmery black dress, grabbed the crowd and they latched on for the ride. She and the band may play mostly rock, but jazz and soul is where her heart and especially her voice are at, and the band gamely played along while she delivered a goosebump-inducing Cry Me a River along with sultry versions of The Very Thought of You, Ain’t Misbehaving and One for My Baby. They also ran through several of her originals, ranging from the bossa nova soul of the soon-to-be-released Tonight, the backbeat-driven 31st Avenue and a practically heavy metal cover of the obscure Judy Henske classic Snowblind (the title of the band’s forthcoming album).

The evening closed with John Sharples, who as he told the audience is “the anti-songwriter” since he doesn’t write his own stuff, opting to cover his friends’ songs. Good taste is his trademark, as he and the band (with Smith playing rhythm guitar and singing harmonies) launched into the excellent, tongue-in-cheek Blow This Nightclub hit When Amy Says, along with a surprisingly good, bluesy, minor-key Dan Killian song and eventually something that sounded like Minor Threat at halfspeed which Smith sat out (just as well, considering how much louder Sharples was than any of the other bands: he’s pretty punk rock). They closed with Smith bringing down the house as usual with a blazing, passionate cover of the old Beatles tune I’ve Got a Feeling. What a treat for everyone who filled the back room here on a weeknight: four headline-quality acts for the price of a beer, arguably the best lineup in any club this year all year.

November 30, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, philosophy, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Concert Review: Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 7/9/07

The blonde bombshell – sort of New York’s answer to Neko Case, a master of every retro style she’s ever touched – has really come into her own as a frontwoman and bandleader. Tonight Erica Smith owned this place, every square inch (it’s cozy), blazing through a largely upbeat set of mostly unreleased material. They opened with the beautifully evocative, windswept cityscape 31st Avenue (the opening track on her last album Friend or Foe), lead guitarist Dann Baker taking a gorgeous bent-note solo like the one in Blindspot by That Petrol Emotion (does anyone remember That Petrol Emotion? Dollars to donuts Baker does). They followed that with the unreleased Easy Now, a tasty upbeat Merseybeat melody set to a swinging country groove. The next song, a funk number propelled by a fast, growling bass hook stolen straight out of the Duck Dunn catalog, showed Smith at the peak of her powers as white soul sister, circa 1966 maybe. At the end, the band went into a wild noise jam as drummer Dave Campbell (who,with Baker, propels psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7) went looking for the second stone from the sun, but it was clearly Smith’s soaring soprano that left the crowd silent for several seconds after the song was over.

The next tune was also a new one, an impossibly catchy, bouncy 60s-style Britpop hit possibly titled Firefly, guitars and bass weaving and bobbing, alternating between punchy staccato and smooth legato lines. Smith and band like obscure covers, and tonight they mined the 80s LA new wave scene for Where and When by Blow This Nightclub (who were fronted by filmmaker Dan Sallitt), opening the song with pounding chords and a bassline nicked from the Cure’s Killing an Arab. Then they brought it down with a sultry bossa nova song, picked up the pace again with the scorching, unreleased Neil Young-inflected rocker Jesus’ Clown, kept it up with a practically heavy metal cover of Judy Henske’s Snowblind (with a strikingly quiet, artful solo from Campbell), took it back down with the obscure Livia Hoffman gem Valentine (completely redone as a smoldering torch song, something Smith does extraodinarily well) and closed with the old Sinatra standard One For My Baby. Not as good as the Iggy Pop version, but not bad either.

Cangelosi Cards (the Cangelosi Cards? a reference to the diminutive former Mets outfielder, maybe?) followed, an aptly chosen oldtimey quartet: vocals, guitar, harmonica and upright bass, playing blues and pop hits from the 20s and 30s. The musicians have the songs down cold and the petite, retro-garbed singer showed off a spectacular, girlish upper register that seems to owe a lot to Blossom Dearie. “It’s easy to like this band,” remarked one of the musicians who had just played, and he was right.

July 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment