Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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