Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 4/6/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #664:

Serena Jost – Closer Than Far

If we survive this year, you’ll see a lot more like this one on this list: not a single substandard song among the eleven tracks here, and for us, that’s what defines a great album. Alternately lush and austere, often mysterious yet richly tuneful, the former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist’s 2008 solo debut is a deliciously eclectic mix of chamber pop, early 70s-style art-rock, and Americana with unexpected, playful detours into funk and even surf music. It opens with a plaintive, gorgeous version of Iris DeMent’s Our Town, followed by the somewhat stark Halfway There and then the ridiculously catchy, cleverly lyrical pop gem Vertical World. Julian Maile’s twangy Ventures guitar lights up the mini-suite I Wait, followed by the shapeshifting Almost Nothing and Reasons and Lies. Jump (not the Van Halen song) contrasts a brooding melody with a tongue-in-cheek disco beat. The most classically-influenced number here is In Time; the album closes with the poignant yet hopeful Stowaway. A search of the sharelockers didn’t turn up anything, but the whole thing is streaming at myspace, and it’s still up at cdbaby.

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April 6, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Serena Jost and Jennifer O’Connor at the Delancey, NYC 3/5/09

A clinic in good songwriting from two of the best. Serena Jost has gotten a lot of ink here since Lucid Culture’s inception, and deservedly so. A virtuoso cellist who did time in Rasputina, her artsy, classically-inflected songs are often imbued with an old-world stateliness that takes on an even greater poignancy when she sings, in a cautious, wary, highly nuanced delivery. Yet she’s just as likely to break the mold and launch into a playful pop song that suddenly and unexpectedly morphs into something else – think rustic, early ELO-era Jeff Lynne. Both styles were in abundance last night. Starting out on guitar and accompanied by her longtime lead guitarist Julian Maile, the two ran through a swirling, catchy janglepop song and then the noirish, 6/8 ballad Falling Down. Switching to cello, she tackled another 6/8 ballad, the brand-new Blue Flowers with its surprise-laden Moonlight Sonata-ish broken chords. Almost Nothing, from her excellent, most recent cd Closer Than Far featured some eerily dexterous tremolo-picking from Maile, more Daniel Ash than Dick Dale. They closed with the ridiculously catchy, multi-part Reasons and Lies, Maile’s trebly twang interpolated beautifully amidst Jost’s stark cello textures.

 

Believe everything good you’ve ever heard about Jennifer O’Connor. Though signed to Matador, there’s nothing remotely indie about her. Setting brooding, gemlike, angst-ridden lyrics to tersely melodic, occasionally Americana-inflected rock tunes, she delivered a seemingly effortless, forty-minute set backed by just an excellent bassist and a woman singing harmonies (and playing soulful harmonica on one song), validating pretty much any claim that’s been made about her. From a listener’s point of view, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what it would be like to see O’Connor leading a good electric band, with her on lead guitar.

 

This being the Delancey’s weekly Thursday Small Beast extravaganza, there was the usual A-list of New York musicians in the house. When asked whose music she thought O’Connor’s resembles, one of the great songwriters of our time weighed the question. “Barbara Brousal,” she replied, which makes sense if you subtract the Brooklyn chanteuse’s tropicalia fixation: Brousal can really rock out when she’s in the mood, as does O’Connor. Someone else mentioned Steve Wynn, a particularly apt comparison during the best parts of the show where O’Connor resolutely swung her way through two deliriously catchy, darkly garage-inflected songs. There’s a striking, offhand strength and intensity to both her playing and her vocals, her big, often counterintuitive chords rich and sustained as she reflected on relationships gone wrong or hopelessly doomed. She’s spent a lot of time on the road lately, and the night’s best song (one of the Steve Wynn-esque numbers) seemed to echo that: “When I close my eyes, I see the highway/When I go, I go to sleep.”

 

The next song maintained a sense of longing despite the hopeful tone of the lyrics: “It will be easy for me,” she sang uneasily, wailing up and down on her acoustic to end the song on a fiery note. Another number saw her projecting in a powerful contralto for an entire verse before sailing to the upper ranges for the second, immediately bringing the intensity to redline. By contrast, the title track to her new cd Here with Me revealed itself as a surprisingly gentle, optimistic song with a catchy 60s pop feel. She closed the set returning to plaintive, haunting mode with a midtempo tune that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Matt Keating songbook: “I have a hard time of hiding everything,” she lamented.

 

Jennifer O’Connor’s next New York gig is April 3 at Cake Shop; Serena Jost and her full band play an auspiciously long 90-minute set at Barbes on Mar 12 at 8.

March 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Serena Jost Live at Joe’s Pub, NYC 3/3/08

The adrenaline was flowing. Walking up Fourth Avenue at about half past ten, it was impossible not to be moving with a defiant bounce, humming Our Town, the stomping Iris DeMent cover that Serena Jost and band had just played to close their set at Joe’s Pub. And it wasn’t even all that good, mostly drums and hardly anything else in the mix. Not that the band played it badly, and drummer Colin Brooks was just doing his job. This was strictly a sound issue: Jost’s music is all about dynamics, tension and resolution, and this was their big crescendo of the night. It just must have caught the sound guy off-guard.

Between everybody who contributes here, we see scores if not hundreds of concerts, openings and movies every year. Serena Jost has been a fixture on the Lower East Side music scene for awhile. She’s been featured here before, and her new album Closer Than Far has been in heavy rotation here in Lucid Cultureland. Familiarity usually brings with it a certain comfort and ultimately a ho-hum factor, but not tonight. It was impossible not to be moved, tickled and sometimes even left spellbound by this show.

They opened with the absolutely, ridiculously catchy, bouncy Vertical World, an artsy pop song that serves as something of a centerpiece within the new album. It’s something that could become iconic if someone with good ears working on an indie film has the brains to run the whole song over the closing credits. The band followed that with another pretty, upbeat new one, In Time, which made a good segue. Jost moved around the stage a lot, beginning the set on keyboards, then switching to acoustic guitar, then cello, then back to keys. Her onstage persona is deliberately inscrutable. She often sings with a full, ripe, somewhat heartbroken tone, but she’s actually most mysterious when she’s having fun. The high point of the night as far as the audience was concerned was Jump, a playful straight-up 70s disco number driven by Brad Albetta’s stone-cold authentic, tongue-in-cheek bassline. But the melody gives the listener pause: it’s actually pretty dark. And why jump, anyway? This wasn’t exactly Van Halen. But the audience reveled in it. Jost and crew – once-and-future Mary Lee’s Corvette bassist Albetta holding pushing the rhythm along with Brooks, Julian Maile on electric guitar, and also guests Rob Jost (no relation) on French horn and Greta Gertler, contributing ethereal high harmonies on one song – were having the time of their lives. There was a lot of baton-tossing – Maile would fire off a solo, pass it along to the horn, then to the cello and so on – along with tricky time changes and clever wordplay. They encored with a song solo on cello, plumbing big, dark chords from the depths of the instrument: “her first love,” she reminded everyone. This is the kind of band, and the kind of show that would resonate especially with the latest yearly crop of 16-year-olds who have just discovered Pink Floyd: the passion, wit, melody and sheer intelligence that Jost and crew put into their music makes a good match.

March 4, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Serena Jost – Closer Than Far

A richly melodic, stylistically diverse masterpiece. Serena Jost (pronounced Yost) is a multi-instrumentalist who for quite a while played cello in Rasputina. On this album, her second, she also plays acoustic guitar and keyboards and sings in a truly beautiful, carefully modulated voice. What she does here falls under the nebulous umbrella of art-rock, although her tunes are uncommonly catchy, adding both classical and jazz influences. Jost’s lyrics are deliberately opaque, and like her music, they can be very playful: she clearly delights in paradoxes and contradictions, making her listeners think. This is a terrific ipod album. Here she’s backed by her band including Julian Maile on electric guitar, Brad Albetta (who also produced) on bass and keys, and Colin Brooks and Matt Johnson on drums along with strings and horns in places.

It opens, counterintuitively, with a cover, a stomping yet heartfelt take of Iris DeMent’s sad requiem Our Town: could this be a metaphor for New York? The next cut, Halfway There is a beautifully catchy, artsy pop song whose keys surprisingly end up in the hands of guest banjo player Jim Brunberg about halfway through, who drives it home with very rewarding results. The following cut Vertical World ought to be the hit single, opening all dramatic and coy with a faux-gospel intro:

No I’m not from Georgia, but you are on my mind
I swear I am from Georgia, ‘cause I like it when you take your time

From there it morphs into ridiculously catchy piano pop, on one level seemingly a view of New York through the eyes of an ingénue. But as in the rest of the songs here there are possibly several shades of meaning: taken as sarcasm, it’s a slap in the face of anyone in the permanent-tourist class with their 24/7 party lifestyle and fondness for chainstores like Krispy Kreme. After that, we get the inscrutable I Wait, with a long intro that eventually builds to a cello solo that Jost turns over to Maile, who responds by building something that could be Dick Dale in an unusually pensive moment. The next track, Almost Nothing, a lament, begins with stark classical guitar and features some nice background vocals from Alice Bierhorst and Greta Gertler. Speaking of the unexpected, Maile throws in a completely bombastic, Robin Trower-esque fuzztone guitar solo.

The following song Reasons and Lies reverts to a catchy art-pop feel, with a cello solo from Jost doubletracked with eerily reverberating vocalese. Jost likes to take the same kind of liberties with tempos that she pulls with melody and lyrics, and the next cut Awake in My Dreams gently jolts and prods the listener with echoey vocals and sudden tempo shifts. The next cut Jump is as eerie as it is playful: the production is pure 70s disco, utilizing cheesy period keyboard settings, but the darkness of the melody gives it away: “Down is not so far away,” intones Jost without divulging anything more. With its layers of fluttery acoustic guitars and cello, Falling Down reverts to a chiming pop feel. The album wraps up with In Time, featuring more tricky time changes, and then Stowaway, which perfectly sums up what Jost is all about:

I’m hoping for a shore I can seek
Where dusk and dawn always meet

Challenging, captivating, thought-provoking and very pretty. Time may judge this a classic. Serena Jost and band play the cd release show for Closer Than Far at Joe’s Pub on March 3 at 9:30 PM.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nightcrawling 8/17/07

The evening started at Barbes. If you’re thinking of hitting this cozy little Park Slope, Brooklyn backroom, take heed of the warning that reliably pops up on the weekly music calendar page here wherever there’s a Barbes listing: you simply have to get here way early. This Francophilic little joint is far too small for the acts they book, a sad testament to the state of the New York music scene: so many excellent acts pack this place week after week because they have enough of a following to sell out little Barbes but not enough to take it to the next level. A violinist was onstage when we arrived, and what was quietly wafting from behind the curtain sounded intriguing. But it was literally impossible to get inside.

Afterward, some of the crowd cleared out and former Rasputina multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost took the stage. Alternating between acoustic guitar, cello and piano, she and her inspired backing trio played a delightfully captivating set of hook-driven art-rock. The fun these players have onstage is contagious: drummer Rob DiPietro got his ride cymbal to make a big WHOOOSH with his brushes while guitarist Julian Maile punctuated the melodies with incisive, punchy, reverby fills from his Gibson SG. Upright bassist Rob Jost came close to stealing the show with his melodic, fluid playing, using a bow for some haunting cello-like tones when he wasn’t pushing the songs along with sinuous riffs and climbs. Although he and the frontwoman share the same last name – what’s the likelihood? – they pronounce it differently, she like the Milwaukee Brewers manager, he with a hard “j” as in journey.

Serena Jost writes cerebral, counterintuitive, incredibly catchy songs. Her vocals have a melancholy, sometimes dreamy feel, but the music is pure fun. She likes syncopation, bridges that appear seemingly out of nowhere and the occasional odd time signature. She’s been compared to Jeff Lynne here, and that’s accurate in the sense that she seamlessly merges classical and pop melodies. One of tonight’s best songs, Vertical World began with a slow, gospel crescendo at the beginning, just this side of sarcastic, morphing into a ridiculously catchy, bouncy piano-driven hit. I Wait, which came toward the end of the set also built slowly on the intro to a slinky snakecharmer melody, Maile taking a long, thoughtful solo, part surf and part skronk, like what Marc Ribot might sound like if he didn’t overintellectualize everything. Throughout the night, subtle interplay between the musicians abounded.

Serena Jost joked about people seeing her on the street with her cello case and calling her Yo-Yo Ma, or, “Pablo Casals for all you old school people.” It was that kind of crowd: most of her audience seems to be her peers, A-list New York rockers, by nature a pretty tough and critical bunch, and tonight she held them in the palm of her hand.

“You know what Pablo Casals said when he broke his hand mountain climbing?” Rob Jost asked the crowd. “Good. That means I don’t have to practice anymore.”

The East Village was our next stop, so it made sense to kill some time at Lakeside. Nice to be able to get a seat there on a Friday night (imagine doing that five years ago: impossible), but it was disheartening to see such a sparse crowd, even if it was mostly suburban tourists from the adjoining states. Goes to show that most real New Yorkers have given up on going out on the weekends anymore. The surf band Mr. Action and the Boss Guitars were playing, a whole lot tighter than they were last time we caught them here. According to the Northeast Surf Music Alliance, there are about sixty surf bands just in the Northeast alone: add the Eastern Seaboard, Florida and California and suddenly it becomes clear that twangy, mariachi- and Middle Eastern-inflected instrumental rock is probably bigger now than it was in the 60s. This band is the former Supertones rhythm section (Mr. Action is the drummer, “Long Island’s answer to Mel Taylor,” as the bassist called him) plus those two boss guitars. They all wear matching uniforms and if they have their act together, they probably make a fortune playing weddings and corporate year-end functions. But they’re also self-aware: “Continuing in the 1967 bar mitzvah vein,” the bassist joked as they launched into yet another instro version of a 60s pop hit. They did that for the first half of the show, and just as the early Beach Boys and Beatles tunes and stuff like It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To were starting to get old, they did a spot-on version of the obscure Ventures classic Ginza Lights, which was at one time the alltime bestselling single in Japan. Surf music fans are a notoriously obsessive bunch, and the crowd was clearly gassed: the Ventures virtually never play that song live, and until the days of file sharing it was extremely hard to find.

Then the band played Pipeline, and even if their version didn’t have the beautiful electric piano of the Chantays’ original, or the menace of the Agent Orange version or the evil cocaine intensity of the Heartbreakers’ cover (did I say something about how people become completely obsessed with this stuff?), it’s such a great song that pretty much anybody can play it and it still sounds good. They also did the requisite Wipeout, and I found myself wishing I’d picked up that live Surfaris album I saw in my favorite used record store a couple of months ago.

Then it was over to Banjo Jim’s to see Susan Mitchell play violin with Mark Sinnis’ trio. Sinnis is the frontman in Ninth House, who’ve received a lot of ink here lately. Although that band has gone further in the Nashville gothic direction that characterizes Sinnis’ solo work, they still have a 80s Joy Division/Cure/Psychedelic Furs feel. This unit, by contrast, plays what are basically country songs with a darkly bluesy feel. Mitchell, formerly with Kundera and currently playing in a number of good projects, is one of the most gripping soloists in New York: when she gets her swooping, sliding gypsy sound going, she is incredible. Tonight’s show, by contrast, was about interplay between her smooth legato lines and the biting, bluesy ferocity of Sinnis’ new guitarist the Anti-Dave (who also plays in Vulgaras). Sinnis gave the songs a heavy chassis with his ominous baritone voice and acoustic guitar, and his two soloists fleshed out the body, like an old black Cadillac filled with moonshine barreling down a back road somewhere near the Canadian border, its running boards whipping against the weeds and grass alongside the road. The best songs of the night were Sinnis’ original Mistaken for Love, with its brutal lyric and surprise cold ending; a new, slow shuffle with a 50s rockabilly feel, the drunk driving anthem Follow the Line with its fiery electric guitar, and the closer, a stark, surprisingly effective cover of the Sisters of Mercy song Nine While Nine that ended on an incredibly intense, haunting note as the electric guitar played half of the song’s eerie, reverberating central hook. After that, we closed down a couple of bars, watching crowds of tourists slowly stumble back to their stretch limos while we made sure the most inebriated among us didn’t lose their stuff. The sun came up as I made my way down Avenue A, the surprising chill of the early-morning air a final treat to cap off the kind of great night that only a few years ago could happen pretty much randomly at any time, but these days, all too seldom.

Maybe once oil really starts to run out and the peasants start to swarm back to the cities, just like in China, there’ll be a real urban contingent in the East Village again. A dangerous one, quite likely. Maybe then the tourists will stay in their parents’ McMansions – if they haven’t collapsed around them by then – instead of turning this city into a facsimile of New Jersey/Long Island/Los Angeles stripmall hell.

August 18, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments