Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jessi Robertson’s Small Town Girls Want Out

Why is there so much madness in small towns? Because that’s where dreams get ground down into the dirt? Because anyone who can get out does, and those who stay behind are hell to be around? Jessi Robertson explores themes like these on her intense new album Small Town Girls. The women here want one thing and and one thing only: to escape. In a breathy, occasionally gritty contralto, over smartly arranged Americana rock, Robertson chronicles how they do it, or what they substitute for the real thing. More often than not, it’s impossible to turn away from. If you like the idea of Lucinda Williams but don’t like all the cliches she falls back on, Jessi Robertson is for you.

The album gets off to a sort of a false start and then comes together fast. The slowly raging title track explores how “small town girls learn to tell big lies,” and deal with the nosy townfolk who don’t have a clue what an interior life is. There’s a bitter triumph here, something that doesn’t always happen in the other songs. A big rock tune, Half Moon’s title refers to the marks left by a girl’s fingernails on her palms as she clenches her firsts, hypnotic verse giving way to catchy chorus: “I tried to laugh, I screamed instead,” she wails, with an angst that is nothing if not genuine. The madness comes front and center on the quietly electric 6/8 ballad Don’t Come In Here:

I never wore a cap and gown
They said I’d never get out of this town
But I defied everyone…
I know how to hide
I don’t run

Robertson maintains the raging, tormented ambience with You Don’t Want to Taste My Heart, chronicling the rituals of a girl who cuts herself because she “likes the center of the storm.”

The hopelessness lifts for the resolute, deftly fingerpicked Sunstorm and then The Travelers, dreaming of a better life on the road playing music. The most vivid track here out of many is Broken Rosary, a child’s-eye view of her dysfunctional family: “We poured water on her head til the ambulance came, and I watched through the car window as they rushed her away,” she relates with a chilling matter-of-factness. The album closes with something of a honkytonk piano ballad, Whiskey and Cigarettes, whose defiant, inscrutable bad-girl protagonist has no regrets until the room is spinning. What happens after that Robertson doesn’t address. Robertson is a very prolific writer with a substantial back catalog, but here she’s taken her art to the next level – always nice to see a good songwriter realize their potential. Jessi Robertson plays the cd release show for this one at Bar 4 in Brooklyn at 10 PM on Feb 26 with another first-rate, intense songwriter, Kelli Rae Powell, opening the night at 8.

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February 20, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Robin Hoffman: Artist to the Stars of the Brooklyn Underground

Robin Hoffman describes herself as “Brooklyn artist, mom, former ballet soloist and hanger-out at Jalopy.” With her second coffee-table book, Ukulele Chicken Sketchbook: Jalopy Bands, she continues the series of portraits begun in last year’s Live From the Audience: A Year of Drawing at the Jalopy. Perhaps inadvertently, she’s created a niche for herself as the documentarian of one of New York’s most vital music scenes, capturing the essentials of innumerable Americana roots artists in the span of a few lines and angles. Picture after picture, Hoffman gets it: the growling gravitas of the Little Brothers; the sprawl of the M Shanghai String Band; the Ukuladies with their Mona Lisa smiles; the Sweetback Sisters’ effortless competence and charm; the scruffy Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues; the unselfconscious joy of the Calamity Janes, and Balkan brass band Veveritse’s spring-loaded swirl. With her band the Hot Mess, Jessy Carolina is portrayed as a flapper. Kelli Rae Powell looks like Liza Minelli (she’d love that, no doubt), and especially tiny next to her rugged bassist husband. And Hoffman absolutely nails Maybelles frontwoman Jan Bell’s plaintive soul with just a few decisive strokes. Hoffman celebrates the release of the book with a party on February 11 at 6 PM at – where else – the Jalopy, 315 Columbia St. in Red Hook, very easy to get to via the F to Carroll St. She recently took some time out of an obviously busy schedule to answer some questions:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: When did you discover the Jalopy?

Robin Hoffman: I live in the neighborhood, and I found Jalopy in the summer of 2008. My husband and I began going out late in the evening to stroll our baby to sleep, and we discovered that Columbia Street had a whole night life going on that hadn’t been there before we had the baby. Then I found out that Doug Skinner was teaching ukulele there, and that was that.

LCC: How do you find the time to spend so much time there? Frankly, I’m jealous…

RH: It’s my dumb good luck to live relatively close by. The show usually begins at 9, and my son usually goes to sleep around 8:30. My husband, Ben, likes that time to write, so I grab my sketchbook and head over.

LCC: When did you start drawing there?

RH: The first show I attended and drew was September 25, 2008. The audience was very sparse, and the late Bob Guida was on stage. Here was this huge man, playing a huge electric guitar and singing like a great big fat angel. He was just wonderful. The second show I went to, Ernie Vega was playing. And he was great, and again the house was inexplicably sparse. Ben and I looked at each other and said, is it always like this? Jalopy is quite a welcoming, friendly place, so I soon felt fine about going there alone.

LCC: Does this relate to a career in commercial art for you?

RH: I studied Illustration and Cartooning at School of Visual Arts here in New York. I like illustrating performing arts particularly, because of my long background in dance. I’ve done a small amount of editorial illustrating, and I do a little other commercial illustration. Mostly, I seem to sell my pictures and reproductions to individual customers.

LCC: Why do you do this? It’s not like this is ever going to get any space at brooklynvegan or stereogum…

RH: For me it’s an active interaction with the music, like I am still dancing. I think that’s probably the hit! I love the way bodies arrange themselves in order to make music. I love to enjoy good music. The Jalopy Theatre itself is a muse for me – I’m fascinated with the way it works as an experience for performer and audience. There’s a proscenium, and enough separation, but also a close proximity. It’s kind of a perfect blend of formality and intimacy.

LCC: At what point did you realize that you had something here, that this was a scene that really deserved to be documented?

RH: By the time I’d filled the first sketchbook, I knew I was witnessing a special moment in a special place. Seats were filling up; talented, dedicated people were in the audience and on the stage, also hanging out and having dialogue, musical and otherwise. The Jalopy is really a pillar of my neighborhood and has a fantastic energy. It’s fun to be there. I’ve filled up some sixteen sketchbooks now almost entirely at Jalopy.

LCC: Action shots are tough. What Bob Gruen and Mick Rock and all those photographers from the 70s did is great, capturing the stars of the era and of the underground, but when you look at them, half of the people in the photos are passed out in the CBGB bathroom. That’s not a hard shot to take. You, on the other hand, draw what appear to be exclusively live action portraits – even your sketch of the Jalopy’s owners, Geoff and Lynette Wiley, shows her behind the bar, and him checking the sound on a crowded weekend night, from the looks of it. There’s so much activity in these portraits – and what appears to be very quick pencil strokes on your part. Are you one of those super fast artists? Is it a matter of catching what’s in the frame before it fades?

RH: At first I considered taking photos for reference, but I abandoned that idea pretty quickly. I’m not capturing a literal instant in time. I’ve learned to have the patience to wait for a gesture to happen again, and to invest in what might seem to be mundane details. Those details can ironically be what draws your eye through the picture. As I practiced patience I developed speed.

LCC: These portraits are incredibly kinetic – to what degree, if at all, does your dance background inform your art?

RH: My dance background definitely informs the way I observe. In that first sketch of Bob Guida, for instance: he was sitting quite still but he had this inner spark going on that was very, very active. Then, look at a band such as the M. Shanghai String Band, which sometimes has twelve or thirteen players moving in a complex dance around one another and the mics. That dance has a rhythm that I depend upon to decide where to place everyone in the picture. As a former performer of a very physical art I understand these things and they interest me, and then I have to credit my illustration training with helping me understand how to put it on paper.

LCC: You play ukulele also – are you in a band? Performing these days?

RH: I love playing ukulele and I play every day, but I’m only just getting confident enough to join in jams. Learning to play music has been another rich part of this adventure.

LCC: Who’s the guy in the lower left corner in a lot of these?

RH: That is a wonderfully campy bust of Thomas Jefferson that is always stationed downstage right – on the the audience’s left – on the Jalopy stage, appearing to be looking at the performers. He is part of the decor – I love putting him in the picture. I believe Geoff said he got it at a garage sale.

February 2, 2011 Posted by | Art, blues music, country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Debutante Hour and Kelli Rae Powell at the Jalopy, Brooklyn NY 6/15/10

The trip to Red Hook to see if the Debutante Hour could duplicate the harmonically-charged excellence of their new album was worth it. Live, the trio’s roots in 1920s/1930s ragtime and pop really show themselves, in an irresistibly sassy, lyrical Nellie McKay kind of way. The group’s two frontwomen Maria Sonevytsky and Susan Hwang passed an accordion back and forth when they weren’t plunking on a baritone uke or teasing a cocktail drum with brushes, while cellist Mia Pixley held everything together, a casual but compellingly forceful presence whether coloring the songs with plaintive washes of sound or plucking out catchy, bouncy basslines. As expected, their live show brings out their theatrical side, the clever charm of their lyrics and their spot-on three-part harmonies. “You try hard not to be an asshole like the one that’s in your head,” they sang on the tongue-in-cheek, logistically challenged but philosophically apt Organizing My Planner for Next Week. Be Yourself – which encourages listeners to seek out their inner Jennifer Jason Leigh rather than Alyssa Milano – was delivered with split-second choreography from the trio in their matching outfits and hats. Best song of the night, no surprise, was the Nashville gothic ballad Galax, unsettling on album and downright creepy live. A deadpan, oldtimey style cover of TLC’s 1999 top 40 hit No Scrubs had the crowd laughing all the way through to the final “beeyotch,” while the bizarre Sunday in the Trailer got a lot of smiles as the women contemplated who might be an alien: Kate Bush? Maybe? Bjork? No question.

That Kelli Rae Powell’s performance wasn’t anticlimactic is an understatement. At this point in history, stardom as it existed ten years ago may be dead, and if it isn’t, it’s no longer desirable. But from the point of view of someone who saw Neko Case on the way up in 1997, and Amanda Palmer three years later, Powell has that kind of star power, white-knuckle intensity and raw charisma that you only see once every ten years or so. She joked with the crowd, glad to be back at the Jalopy, a trip back to a different time and place, “But with the good beer,” she took care to note. But when she stepped up to the mic she took on a larger-than-life presence. Her vocals have crystallized: she can still do a killer Blossom Dearie or Bessie Smith, but she sang mostly in an insistent yet brittle vibrato that’s as eerie as it is coy, Betty Boop with a Ph. D., but in fullscale needle park panic mode. That voice alone is arresting: what she sings with it makes her so impossible to turn away from. Toward the end of the set, she put down her ukelele, and backed by upright bassist Jim McNamara and blues harpist Dave Pollack at their most torchily bluesy, she went into full-bore sultry mode, contemplating a seduction just as much as she pondered the unlikely possibility of not being alone for once in her life. Like Case, Powell cultivates a raw, wild, inconsolably distant persona, bruised and embittered yet hot to try for a simple connection one more time – at who knows what price. And somehow she ends up laughing at pretty much everything.

Her opening track, The Craggy Shuffle most perfectly captured that:

She could settle for more
He couldn’t ask for less
Under a setting sun
Driving a Pontiac hearse
There’s nothing bad that can’t get worse

Powell hails from Iowa, and did a couple of wistful numbers dedicated to that state, the first a poignant floodwater requiem, the second a request to be buried there since such a bittersweet girl deserves a final resting place in the land of fireflies and tornadoes. The “drinkaby” (combination drinking song and lullaby – a Powell invention) Midnight Sleeper Train came across as far more of a lament than the opiated version on her phenomenal 2009 album New Words for Old Lullabies, while the tour-from-hell narrative Don’t Look Back, Zachary played up the song’s surreal humor in the midst of what must have been one awful road trip, a Midwest late summer tour in a station wagon with no air conditioning.

And when it came to the innuendo-stuffed A Man What Takes His Time (originally written for Mae West), she pulled out every lascivious stop she could find, as her bandmates did. After both McNamara and Pollack had brought the temperature up a couple dozen degrees, she reached to say something for a second, then held back, finally flashing a triumphant grin and a double thumbs up for the band. The audience roared in agreement. Kelli Rae Powell plays Banjo Jim’s on June 27 at 9 PM with another first-class singer, Jo Williamson opening at 8. The Debutante Hour return to New York with a show at Union Pool at 9 on June 30.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: The Debutante Hour – The Birth and Death of Meaning

The Debutante Hour play oldtimey-flavored existentialist pop music. Clever and quirky but with an understated angst that sometimes goes straight down into the abyss, their soaring, soulful three-part harmonies deliver deadpan humor that’s sometimes completely black, other times totally absurdist and often hilarious. Their torchier songs remind a lot of Nellie McKay; their darker, more rustic stuff evokes the Dresden Dolls (whose drummer, Brian Viglione, guests here) as well as New York oldtimey stars Bobtown; World Inferno’s Franz Nicolay produced the album, squeezing every ounce of plaintiveness out of the songs. Pianist/accordionist Maria Sonevytsky and cellist Mia Pixley previously played together in indie harmony-pop band the Baby Pool, joined here by songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Susan Hwang. The trio romp, shuffle and sometimes tiptoe through an impressively diverse collection of styles.

There’s a couple of accordion oompah tunes, one a gentle kiss-off to somebody who takes himself a little too seriously, the other titled Watching Carrie Eat. The blackly funny Miracle Birth pokes fun at an impressive display of “origin stories” from around the globe, like the Roulette Sisters with an accordion, and a neat cello solo that leads nicely into guest Jonathan Vincent’s barrelhouse piano. Galax is an ominously chirpy oldtimey Nashville gothic swing tune about a couple on a doomed camping trip – and is that a theremin at the end? Sunday in the Trailer follows in the same vein, but even more creepy and more stream-of-consciousness:

As you pressed my shoulders
I thought of the claws of my feet.
I tried to hide them, but you found them eventually

What’s up with that?

Croak Hiss and Sputter, a swirling New Orleans reel, recounts a surreal road trip:

Wax dripped off the cylinders, frogs chirped like birds
The archive dust got windexed off by archive nerds

A tango, Organizing My Planner For Next Week transcends the mundane with the philosophical:

Can you plan surprises, like hope or skirting inevitable dread
The dread that killed your father, and all your mother’s regrets
That you swore would never get to you because you’re different from them

Other songs here tackle the zen of zombies as well as subatomic theory, along with a country waltz as Kurt Vonnegut might have done it; Scheherezade, which recasts the storytelling girl as a real schmoozer; and the chirpily sardonic Be Yourself:

So even if they assume you’re an Alyssa Milano
And you know you’re more like Jennifer Jason Leigh
Don’t let it affect what you do tomorrow

As much fun as this album is, it’s a likely bet that the band is just as fun live. The Debutante Hour play the Jalopy on June 15 at 8:45 PM, sandwiched between two other first-rate acts, ferocious New Orleans art-rock pianist Lady Baby Miss who kicks off the night at 8 and then irresistibly charismatic, deviously lyrical oldtimey siren Kelli Rae Powell at 9:30.

June 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 1/5/10

Every day, our Top 666 Songs of Alltime countdown gets one step closer #1. Tuesday’s song is #205:

Kelli Rae Powell – Don’t Look Back Zachary

The road trip that for a minute looked like an escape from hell turns quickly to hell. But she can’t go back. The oldtimey siren’s minutely jewelled, gracefully haunted memoir with ukelele. From her 2009 album New Words for Old Lullabies.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies

This is an album of nocturnes, and it’s one of the year’s best. Haunting, often hilarious, wickedly lyrical and soaked in alcohol – Kelli Rae Powell is credited with inventing the drinkaby, a combination drinking song and lullaby – it’s only fitting that the only cover song on her new album would have originally been written for Mae West. On that lusciously innuendo-laden number, A Man What Takes His Time, Powell does her best Bessie Smith imitation, although she has many other voices up her sleeve, not all of them here. Powell sings in character: while her style evokes Smith as well as Blossom Dearie, she sounds like she could do pretty much any belter or chanteuse from across the decades – or be just herself. With Powell’s voice and her ukelele over a slinky acoustic groove colored with electric guitar in places, this isn’t your typical uke record: the production puts the instrument front and center with a full, round sound instead of the usual plink-plink.

“Some bridges are just better burning,” emphasizes the caption on the inside of the cd cover, Powell shooting a smoldering look from the corner of her raccoon eye. That’s the crux of one of the album’s best songs, a slow waltz that leaves no doubt that the wounds are still fresh:

Some lessons can’t hurt you

If you leave them unlearned…

Maybe in the end

We’ll grow to be friends

Maybe at my death

I won’t be holding my breath

That intensity comes up even further on Don’t Slow Down, Zachary. Even here, Powell’s characteristic understatement and irrepressible humor are overshadowed by the subtle, diabolical details of a road trip that quickly went straight to hell:

Remember how she touched your hand

Remember solemn passing bands

Of old men smoking Parliaments

Chicago was a challenge

Louisville nearly kills them – but she’s hell-bent on not going home because what’s waiting for her there is even worse.

The rest of the album is a lot funnier, and steamier. Lullaby for Bad Girls goes the anthemic route; The Cowboy Song susses out hot-to-trot guys for the clueless creatures they are. There’s a warm, hypnotic lullaby that segues into the devious barroom seduction scene Old Tom, and then the paradigmatic Drinkaby which is even funnier. Powell is joined by a whistle-stop choir of the Ukuladies and Jo Williamson on the swing-flavored Midnight Sleeper Train, maintaining the woozy after-hours ambience while taking it up a notch, then bringing it back down with the understatedly cynical, Amy Rigby-esque Even Trade. Powell’s an amazing lyricist: like LJ Murphy and Bliss Blood, she’s as adept at the vernacular of earlier eras as she is in her own. A fearless and charismatic performer, her ceiling is awfully high: if she could find some way to take her act on the road, find a Zachary who really won’t slow down to take her gig to gig while she slumbers in the back seat, she could connect with a nationwide audience who recognize her for the star she probably knows  she is. Kelli Rae Powell plays the cd release show for this one on October 30 at the Jalopy.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 50 Best Albums of 2009

You’ll notice that aside from the #1 spot here, these aren’t ranked in any kind of order: the difference, quality-wise between #1 and #50 is so slight as to make the idea of trying to sort out which might be “better” an exercise in futility. If you’re interested, here’s our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list.

1. The Brooklyn What – The Brooklyn What for Borough President

Like London Calling, it’s a diverse yet consistently ferocious, sometimes hilarious mix of styles imbued with punk energy and an edgy, quintessentially New York intensity. Time will probably judge this a classic.

2. Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear – The Ghost of Rock n Roll

The former Hangdogs frontman’s finest, funniest, most spot-on moment as a fearless, politically aware Americana rocker.

3. The Oxygen Ponies – Harmony Handgrenade

Dating from the waning days of the Bush regime, this is a murderously angry album about living under an enemy occupation: love in a time of choler?

4. The Beefstock Recipes anthology

A rich double album of some of New York’s best bands, with standout tracks from the Secrets, Paula Carino, Erica Smith, Skelter, Rebecca Turner and many more.

5. Dan Bryk – Pop Psychology

Arguably the most insightful – and most brutally funny – album ever written about the music industry. The tunes are great too.

6. Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs

The sprawling Brooklyn band go deep into 60s noir with this brilliantly morbid, phantasmagorical ep.

7. Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Tear Back the Night

In the spirit of Dark Side of the  Moon and Closer, this is a masterpiece of artsy existentialist rock. You’ll find several tracks on our Best Songs of 2009 list, including our #1 pick, Never Looking Back.

8. Botanica – americanundone

All the fearless fury and rage of a Botanica live show successfully captured at a show in Germany late last year.

9. Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies

The amazingly lyrical oldtimey chanteuse alternates between sultry, devious romantic stylings and sheer unhinged anger.

10. McGinty & White Sing Selections from the McGinty & White Songbook

Ward White and Joe McGinty’s wickedly lyrical collaboration puts a fresh spin on retro 60s psychedelic pop.

11. The Church – Untitled #23

The Australian art-rock legends’ latest is yet another triumph of swirling atmospherics and intense lyricism.

12. Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets

Her best album – the New York song stylist has never been funnier or more acerbic. Includes a charming duet with Elvis Costello.

13. Steve Wynn and the Dragon Bridge Orchestra – Live in Brussels

A lush, majestic effort recorded with the stellar crew who played on his most recent studio album Crossing Dragon Bridge.

14. Elisa Flynn – Songs About Birds & Ghosts

Haunting and poignant but also cleverly amusing, the New York rocker has never written better or sung more affectingly.

15. The Jazz Funeral – s/t – free download

The best band ever to come out of Staten Island, New York, these janglerockers write excellent lyrics and have some very catchy Americana-inflected tunes.

16. Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize – free download

The last album the great Americana songwriter ever recorded, a harrowing chronicle of dissolution and despair.

17. Marty Willson-Piper – Nightjar

The Church’s iconic twelve-string guitarist’s finest work ever, a sweeping, majestic, multistylistic masterpiece.

18. Black Sea Hotel – s/t

New York’s own Bulgarian vocal choir’s debut is otherworldly, gorgeous and strikingly innovative.

19. Rupa & the April Fishes – Este Mundo

Latin meets noir cabaret meets acoustic gypsy punk on the Bay Area band’s sensational second album.

20. The JD Allen Trio – Shine!

The tenor saxophonist/composer goes straight for wherever the melody is, usually in four minutes or less, with one of the world’s great rhythm sections, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Time may also judge this a classic.

21. The New Collisions – s/t

All the fun and edgy intensity of vintage 80s new wave reinvented for the next decade by platinum-haired frontwoman Sarah Guild and her killer backing band.

22. Ten Pound Heads – s/t

The great long lost Blue Oyster Cult album: relentlessly dark, edgy, occasionally noir art-rock songs with layers of great guitar.

23. Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

A hilariously woozy, fun romp through the songs from Sergeant Pepper, by the allstar NYC reggae crew who brought us Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread.

24. Jeff Zentner – The Dying Days of Summer

Intense, memorable Nashville gothic songwriting from one of its finest practitioners.

25. Chris Eminizer – Twice the Animal

Cleverly lyrical art-rock songwriting with tinges of vintage Peter Gabriel from this first-rate New York rocker.

26. Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions

The Tuareg rockers’ most diverse, accessible album, as memorable as it is hypnotic.

27. Monika Jalili – Elan

Classic songs from Iran from the 60s and 70s, fondly and hauntingly delivered by the Iranian-American siren and her amazing backup band.

28. Ivo Papasov – Dance of the Falcon

The iconic Bulgarian clarinetist delivers maybe his most adrenalizing, intense album of gypsy music ever.

29. The Stagger Back Brass Band – s/t

The Spinal Tap of brass bands are as virtuosic and melodic as they are funny – which is a lot.

30. Eric Vloeimans‘ Fugimundi – Live at Yoshi’s

The Dutch trumpeter leads a trio through a particularly poignant, affecting mix of classically-tinged jazz.

31. The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?

Recorded at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York last year, this is a boisterous, furious mix of hilarious skits and songs by the Dead Kennedys of the oldtimey scene.

32. Salaam – s/t

Sister-and-brother Dena and Amir El Saffar’s richly memorable, haunting seventh album of Middle Eastern instrumentals and ballads.

33. Fishtank Ensemble – Samurai over Serbia

Their shtick is that they add an Asian tinge to gypsy music, giving it an especially wild edge. The singing saw work on the album is pretty amazing too.

34. Charles Evans/Neil Shah – Live at Saint Stephens

An eerily glimmering, suspensefully minimalist masterpiece by the baritone sax player and pianist, recorded in a sonically exquisite old church earlier this year.

35. The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map

Their first one without Yo-yo Ma is also their most adventurous mix of Asian and Middle Eastern-themed compositions (by Osvaldo Golijov, Angel Lam, Evan Ziporyn and others), played by an allstar cast including Kayhan Kalhor, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, pipa pioneer Wu Man and a cast of dozens.

36. Linda Draper – Bridge and Tunnel

The NYC songwriter’s most straightforward, catchy yet also maybe her most lyrically edgy album yet – and she has several.

37. Darren Gaines and the Key Party – My Blacks Don’t Match

Wry, Tom Waits-inflected noir songs by this excellent NYC crew.

38. Love Camp 7 – Union Garage

A deliciously jangly followup to their classic 2007 album Sometimes Always Never.

39. The Komeda Project – Requiem

The New York jazz crew’s second collection of works by the Roman Polanski collaborator who died tragically in the 1960s is brooding, morbid, cinematic and Mingus-esque.  

40. Si Para Usted Vol. 2 – The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba

Like the Roots of Chicha series, Waxing Deep’s second devious, danceable collection of genre-hopping obscure Latin funk from 1970s Cuba onward is packed with obscure gems.

41. Huun Huur Tu and Carmen Rizzo – Eternal

Ominous, windswept, atmospheric North Asian ambience produced with stately, understated power.

42. The Moonlighters – Enchanted

Another great album: gorgeous harmonies from Bliss Blood and Cindy Ball, charming retro 20s songwriting and incisive steel guitar from NYC’s best oldtimey band.

43. Minamo – Kuroi Kawa/Black River

Pianist Satoko Fujii and violinist Carla Kihlstedt share a telepathic chemistry in duo soundscapes ranging from clever and playful to downright macabre.

44. Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man

The multistylistic chanteuse, legendary in the cassette underground, gets her haunting, intense, otherworldly vocals set to smart, terse new arrangements from dreampop to 70s style Britfolk to trance.

45. Devi – Get Free

Ferociously smart pychedelic power trio rock with one of the most interesting lead guitarists out there right now.

46. Obits – I Blame You

Dark, catchy, propulsive retro 60s garage rock with echoes of the Stooges and early Pink Floyd by this inspired Brooklyn band.

47. HuDost – Trapeze

Sweeping, sometimes hypnotic, artsy songs that move from Americana to gypsy to goth, with frontwoman Moksha Sommer’s graceful vocals.

48. Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues

Hauntingly visionary, provocative, politically aware songs set to gorgeously rustic, late 1920s blues, swing and hillbilly arrangements by the great Americana guitarist.

49. Chang Jui-Chuan – Exodus: Retrospective and Prospective 1999-2009

Fearless conscious bilingual hip-hop (in Taiwanese and English) from this international star.

50. Les Triaboliques – rivermudtwilight

A trio of old British punks – Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds – combine to create a masterpiece of desert-inspired duskcore.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Marni Rice, Bliss Blood and Dreamboat Live at Laila Lounge, Brooklyn NY 2/20/08

This is the kind of place where music is only an occasional thing, as evidenced by the chalkboard outside on the sidewalk which simply said “open mic.” As at innumerable other bars, the musicians who play here apparently also do all the promotion. Either the night was running ahead of schedule, or there had been a switchup after the email announcing the event was sent out, because by quarter after ten, accordionist Marni Rice was wrapping up her solo set. She’s excellent, a player who’s equally influenced by French chanson and American garage rock. Singing in a smooth, confident alto, her last two songs were both excellent originals, the last a new one perhaps titled Red Light, a scuffling, klezmer-inflected broadside about the New York subway system’s inability to treat their customers with even a minimum of respect. She’s playing another solo set at Hank’s this Saturday at about 9:30, opening for some garage-rock friends. Musically, it might not be the smoothest segue, but energy-wise it ought to be perfect: Rice has considerably more edge and originality than your typical accordion-playing chanteuse.

Bliss Blood is a one-woman time machine, a brilliant songwriter with breathtaking command of pretty much every oldtime blues, ragtime and swing style ever found on shellac or celluloid. Unsurprisingly, she’s a major force in the New York music scene, as leader of the wildly popular, lushly romantic Moonlighters, the sizzling barrelhouse blues act Delta Dreambox, macabre “crime jazz” trio Nightcall and swing dance band Cantonement (that seems to be all for the moment). A Bliss Blood solo show is so rare that it’s a can’t-miss event: even thought she got her start here in town playing solo, she virtually never gets a chance to do that anymore. In the Moonlighters, she favors lush, complicated, harmony-laden arrangements, so hearing her songs pared down to just vocals and chordal rhythm was a treat worth braving the cold and this somewhat suspect, frequently trendoid-infested venue. Accompanying herself tonight with just her trusty ukulele, Blood reaffirmed her status as one of the smartest, most captivating performers around. As a singer, she alternates between seduction and indictment. Her serenades were sweet and clear, but she put her fangs in for the sad, rueful ballads and politically-charged anthems. In the bar’s intimate confines, she transcended the dodgy sound and put on a riveting show, opening with a brief cover of the Goldfinger theme, then the explosively powerful Nightcall song Blackwater, a corrosive, spot-on critique of the mercenary company killing innocent civilians in Iraq.

Introducing the breezy, seemingly carefree hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, she explained that “gink” is Depression-era slang for someone who’s lost or homeless. Broken Doll, a stark narrative about a battered woman, was just as evocative as the version on the Moonlighters’ latest album Surrender. Blood also did a handful of covers of songs by her idol, Bessie Smith, and also debuted a touching new one entited Winter in My Heart (“and snow in my eyes,” she sang wistfully). It was hard to remain dry-eyed after that one.

Before launching into a tersely intense version of the Moonlighters classic Blue and Black-Eyed, she told the audience it evoked a different New York, one a little more dangerous, in this case the Bowery at the turn of the 20th century when prostitutes would drink carbolic acid and throw themselves off the fire escape of the recently demolished tenement that once housed the notorious bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. She wrapped up the set with a request, the charming Hello Heartstring and then her fiery, minor-key, tango-inflected maquiladora ballad Dirt Road Life, told through the eyes of a Mexican sweatshop slave.

Dreamboat, the headliners (no relation to Bliss Blood’s similarly-titled band) were terrific, the best new act we’ve encountered since unexpectedly discovering James Apollo back in December. This new trio features excellent acoustic guitarist/singer Craig Chesler, upright bassist Tony Masselli and a frontwoman who jokingly told the audience that she was Kelly Ripa. Iowa expat Kelli Rae Powell, alternating between a wink, a smirk and an occasional shit-eating grin, showed off a spectacular, vastly entertaining and delightfully witty ability to absolutely nail a range of styles from Bessie Smith subtle, to Shirley Bassey over-the-top, and seemingly everywhere in between. If this band stays together, they’ll be huge. Like the Moonlighters, there’s a fondness for harmonies and an unabashed romanticism in most of what they do, but playing for laughs is also part of it. Powell’s onstage persona is as devious as it is virtuosic. Their best song, appropriate for tonight’s chill, was a very pretty, soaringly optimistic ballad called When My Winter Turns to Spring. They’re playing the Jalopy Café on March 8 with the Moonlighters, well worth the B61 bus ride to Red Hook and back home again.

February 21, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments