Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Fascinators Put New Fun in Oldtime Swing at Sidewalk

One of the most individualistic and stylistically diverse bands on the New York oldtime swing scene, the Fascinators call their music “old jazz for the New Depression.” What distinguishes them from the legions of lickety-split shufflers out there is their originals, bandleader/guitarist Lenny Molotov’s wryly amusing, corrosively clever lyrics, and their distinctive blend of purist, bluesy Ellingtonian style and jaunty, Django-inspired Romany sounds. They’re bringing all this to Sidewalk at 8 PM on February 5.

This blog caught them most recently back in October. Beyond Molotov and his longtime collaborator, bassist JD Wood, the band has a shifting cast of characters. This time out, in place of another similar deep blues purist, Queen Esther on vocals, they had the torchy, dramatic Carrie Jean Sooter. Jazz drummer Art Lillard propelled the unit, which also included a second guitarist who added several edgy blues-infused leads. They opened with a swaying, unexpectedly desolate, practically Lynchian take of Stardust, then Lillard pushed them into sunnier territory with his playful cymbal splashes throughout a pulsing take of Pennies from Heaven. Then they took their time behind Sooter’s brassy resilience in When the Sun Comes Out. But all that was just a warmup.

Molotov’s period-perfect 1940 vernacular matched Sooter’s saucy delivery in their new version of the Ink Spots’ Java Jive, which was a lot funnier than the original, at the expense of the French and others (including Molotov himself, who doesn’t drink coffee). Then they built a broodingly dusky Old Depression ambience with another Molotov original, Chicago Special. Sooter brought the energy up again as Lillard tumbled and spun through an unexpectedly brisk, fun Blues in the Night, then the drummer gave a wry latin spin to the band’s version of the old New Orleans standard Junco Partner (which the Clash famously covered as a reggae tune).

From there, Sooter brought the lights down with a chilling, doomed, slowly shuffling mashup of Memphis soul and Jimmy Reed blues. They scampered their way out from there, hitting a peak by putting an irresistibly funny political spin on Count Basie’s Topsy, punctuated by a tapdance solo by Sooter. It’s hard to imagine any other swing band in town with as many flavors as these guys and girls have – and you can dance to all of them.

By the way, if you’re wondering what a fascinator it, it’s one of those over-the-top Prohibition-era flapper hats with some kind of garish centerpiece.

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January 26, 2016 Posted by | blues music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/10/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #569:

Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues

A virtuoso guitarist equally adept at delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, early jazz and rock, Lenny Molotov is also an acerbic, brutally perceptive songwriter and lyricist. This is his latest album, from 2010, an eclectic mix of all of those styles: if the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might have sounded something like this. Here he’s backed by a rustic, inspired string band including bass, drums, fiddle and blues harp. The early Dylanesque Wilderness Bound chronicles a symbolically-charged journey its narrator never wanted to make; Book of Splendor and the eerily hypnotic Ill Moon hark back to the delta, while Glorious evokes Woody Guthrie. The classic here is Freedom Tower, dating from the early days of the Bush regime, a witheringly sarcastic sendup of fascist architectural iconography (he says it much more simply and poetically than that). David Reddin’s Blues follows a similar tangent, a sardonic modern-day outlaw ballad, its killer on the run caught in an Orwellian snare. There’s also the swinging Faded Label Blues, a wryly bitter Jelly Roll Morton homage; the quietly defiant Devil’s Empire, and the bucolic waltz New Every Morning, which leaves no doubt where Molotov stands: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues, and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” This one’s real hard to find, but still available at shows – or check the blues bin at your local used record store, if you have one.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | blues music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Nashville Gothic Intensity from Mark Sinnis

Dark, prolific rock songwriter Mark Sinnis’ long-running band Ninth House may be on life support at this point, but his solo career is thriving – he sold out the House of Blues in New Orleans the last time he played there. The powerful baritone singer’s fourth and latest solo album, The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror, is arguably his deepest and darkest. A loosely thematic collection of songs with a cautionary “carpe diem” message, it’s a mix of Johnny Cash-influenced Nashville gothic along with artsy, atmospheric rock, including a handful of Ninth House songs radically reinvented as hypnotic, brooding ballads. The quavery wail of Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel seeps from many of them like blood from a corpse; other than Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals, that’s the album’s signature sound. Zach Ingram provides deft, low-key keyboard orchestration on several of the songs, along with Ninth House drummer Francis Xavier, and Matthew Dundas’ incisive, gospel-tinged piano on three tracks.

The title track is a talking blues of sorts, a metaphorically-charged race with a hearse that wryly nicks the melody from Sympathy for the Devil, Molotov weaving back and forth across the yellow line in a duel with former Ninth House guitarist Bernard SanJuan. The angst-ridden Injury Home plays down the bluesiness of the Ninth House original in favor of atmospherics and a nonchalantly slashing Dundas piano solo. Peep Hole in the Wall was a standout track on Ninth House’s 2000 breakout album, Swim in the Silence; the version here is even creepier. Likewise, Cause You Want To takes an balmy wave pop song and makes a dirge out of it, courtesy of Susan Mitchell’s lush string arrangement. The most death-obsessed tracks here are the straight-up country numbers: 100 Years from Now, a voice from beyond the grave, and Sunday Morning Train, which looks grimly at the marble orchard as it passes by (the metaphors don’t stop coming here). Yet the closest thing to Johnny Cash here, a solo acoustic track, is also the most upbeat and optimistic.

With Xavier’s distantly echoey drums and mariachi trumpet, their version of Ghost Riders in the Sky imaginatively recasts it as an apprehensive border ballad. They also redo Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons as a revenge anthem, with lyrics updated for the new Great Depression, a theme they revisit with the bitter, tango-flavored Hills of Decline. The two most visceral tracks here both feature Randi Russo on vocals: a majestically orchestrated, vertigo-inducing version of Death Song (another Ninth House number) that chillingly pairs off her haunting stoicism against Sinnis’ morbid croon, and the David Lynch-style noir pop duet To Join the Departed in Their Dream. On her new album Fragile Animal, Russo sings with tremendous nuance; her vocals here are nothing short of exquisite.

The album ends with an uncharacteristically lighthearted singalong (lighthearted by comparison to everything else here, anyway), I’ll Have Another Drink of Whiskey, ‘Cause Death Is No So Far Away. A shout-out to Shane MacGowan, it’s a bittersweet enticement to seize the moment while it’s still here, even if that’s only to drink to forget how soon that moment will be gone. It’s also the funniest song Sinnis has ever written: if you can get through the turnaround into the chorus without at least cracking a smile, either you have no sense of humor, or you don’t like to drink. Count this among the increasingly crowded field at the top of our picks for best album of 2011.

June 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Best Triplebill of the Year

We move from the year’s best doublebill to the best triplebill of 2011 so far: Caithlin De Marrais, the Oxygen Ponies and Randi Russo at the Mercury on Sunday night, where Russo was playing the cd release show for her new one Fragile Animal (our pick for best of the year, maybe not so coincidentally). Each act was different, and yet the same (other than the fact that each one was playing with two drummers, Ray Rizzo and Konrad Meissner, whose interlocking, earthy groove was an unexpected treat). Tuneful, intense rock doesn’t get any better than this.

Caithlin De Marrais’ 2008 album My Magic City had a gorgeous rainy-day atmosphere: this was her fun set, material from an auspicious forthcoming album now being mixed. The former Rainer Maria bass player chose her spots and made her riffs count: few bassists get so much mileage out of such simple ideas. Often the bass carried the melody above Josh Kaufman’s ringing, jangly guitar. A few times, De Marrais would run a riff for a bar or two before launching into the next song: “You’ve got to watch, they catch up with you,” she grinned, “Not that you have watch your back in this town anymore.” As someone who was here before there was a “luxury” condo project on every ghetto block, she knows what she’s talking about. Kaufman made his ideas count for just as much, firing off suspenseful volleys of reverb-infused Sputnik staccato, or throwing shards of jangly chords into the mix. De Marrais is best known for plaintiveness and poignancy, and with characteristic nuance she added a more upbeat tinge to her vocals. Half the bands in Bushwick rip off New Order, but what De Marrais does with simple, catchy 80s hooks takes the idea to the next level. One of the new ones, maybe titled Cocoon, had a moody bounce; another new one, Rose Wallpaper, added carefree ba-ba-ba pop flourishes; still another paired off a bass riff straight out of Joy Division’s Ceremony with Kaufman’s pointillistic punch. The end of the set gave De Marrais the chance to cut loose and belt with impressive power, particularly a stomping, garage rock-tinged number with some ferocious guitar chord-chopping at the end, and a dead ringer for Scout that fell and then rose, apprehensive yet hopeful. “Just a dreamer after all…but let’s try,” De Marrais cajoled.

Where her vocals were all unselfconscious beauty, the Oxygen Ponies’ frontman Paul Megna doesn’t shy away from ugliness, or outright rage. And yet, when his vocals were up high enough in the mix, he was also all about nuance, adding more than the hint of a snarl to drive a particularly corrosive lyric home. This particular version of the OxPos (a revolving cast of characters) featured the drummers along with Don Piper on lead guitar, Devin Greenwood on keys and Chris Buckridge on bass. Their first song kept the New Order vibe going, followed by the cruelly sarcastic psychedelic pop of Fevered Cyclones, from their 2009 Harmony Handgrenade album. A hypnotic dirge from their highly anticipated forthcoming one sounded like the Church, with eerie, echoey guitar from Piper, building to a soaring anthem. The brooding, bitter Get Over Yrself gave Piper the chance to add his own corrosive noiserock edge; a more hopeful new anthem rose to a big swell fueled by Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet. They wrapped up the set with a gleefully ferocious, bouncy version of the Bush-era The War Is Over, followed by a pensive, Velvets-flavored anthem and then another new one that brought the garage-psych intensity all the way up with the two drummers going full steam.

Russo got the two drummers, JD Wood on bass, plus Piper, plus Megna on keyboards, plus Lenny Molotov on lead guitar and lapsteel. Resolute and velvety, she sang over the mini-orchestra behind her with a visceral sense of triumph. The album took longer to finish than anyone anticipated, but it was worth it and Russo drove that point home, opening with an especially amped version of Invisible. Speaking for every alienated individualist in the room, she grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat: “I am, I am invisible/I feel, I feel invincible.” With the three guitars going, The Invitation was exuberantly Beatlesque; the self-explanatory Alienation was another launching pad for some volcanic noiserock from Piper. Molotov’s falcon swoops on lapsteel added a menacing edge to the gorgeous, somewhat wistful Get Me Over, while Megna’s swirling keys gave the blistering kiss-off song Venus on Saturn a hypnotic ambience. Piper switched to harmonium for a fast, unusually short version of the Doorsy Restless Raga, Molotov’s solar flares bursting out of the murky mantra pulse. After a couple more hypnotically pounding numbers, she closed the show with the defiant Head High – Patti Smith as backed by Led Zep, maybe – and a counterintuitive choice, Swallow, a study in survival in the midst of being hit from all sides. It took some nerve to close on a down note with that one, and it worked.

And a shout out to Sergio Paterno, who earlier in the evening was playing gypsy and flamenco-flavored instrumentals on his guitar by tapping on the frets, using a lot of piano voicings, on the L train platform at 14th Street. It would have been fun to have heard more of what he was doing before the Mercury show.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dina Rudeen’s Common Splendor is Uncommonly Splendid

Dina Rudeen is the missing link between Neko Case and Eartha Kitt. The way she slides up to a high note and then nails it triumphantly will give you shivers. Her songs draw you in, make you listen: they aren’t wordy or packed with innumerable chord changes, but they pack a wallop. With just a short verse and a catchy tune, Rudeen will paint a picture and then embellish it while the initial impact is still sinking in. Musically, she reaches back to the magical moment in the late 60s and early 70s when soul music collided with psychedelic rock; lyrically, she uses the metaphorically loaded, witty vernacular of the blues as a foundation for her own terse, literate style. Some of the songs on her new album The Common Splendor sound like what Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks could have been if he’d had a good band behind him; the rest runs the gamut from lush, nocturnal oldschool soul ballads, to jaunty, upbeat, Americana rock. Behind Rudeen’s nuanced vocals, Gary Langol plays keyboards and stringed instruments along with Tim Bright on electric guitars, Tim Luntzel on bass, Konrad Meissner on drums, Jordan MacLean on trumpet, the ubiquitously good Doug Wieselman on baritone sax and clarinet, Lawrence Zoernig on cello, bells and bowls, Smoota’s Dave Smith on trombone, Lars Jacobsen on tenor sax and Jake Engel of Lenny Molotov’s band on blues harp. The arrangements are exquisite, with tersely interwoven guitar and keyboard lines, and horn charts that punch in and then disappear, only to jump back in on a crescendo. This also happens to be the best-produced album of the year: it sounds like a vinyl record.

The opening track, Hittin’ the Town is a sly, ultimately triumphant tune about conquering inner demons, driven by a defiant horn chart over a vintage 50s Howlin Wolf shuffle beat:

I hit a dry spell
I hit a low note
I hit the deck
But missed the boat
I hit the top, cracked the jewel in my crown
When it hit me like a ton of bricks that’s when I hit the ground
But now I’m just hitting the town

The second cut, Steady the Plow slinks along on a low key gospel/blues shuffle, Rudeen’s sultry contralto contrasting with layers of reverberating lapsteel, piano and dobro moving through the mix – psychedelic Americana, 2011 style. Safe with Me, a southern soul tune, wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bettye Swann songbook circa 1967. The lush, gorgeously bittersweet, Rachelle Garniez-esque Yvette eulogizes a teenage party pal who died before her time, maybe because she pushed herself a little too hard (Rudeen doesn’t say, an example of how the ellipses here speak as loudly as the words). Hold Up the Night succinctly captures the “beautiful, unfolding sight” of a gritty wee hours street scene; Blue Bird, a bucolic tribute to the original songbird – or one of them – has more of Langol’s sweet steel work. And Prodigal One, another requiem, vividly memorializes a crazy neighborhood character who finally got on the Night Train and took it express all the way to the end.

Not everything here is quiet and pensive. There’s also some upbeat retro rock here, including the sultry Cadillac of Love and a couple of rockabilly numbers: Repeat Offender, with its Sun Records noir vibe, and Gray Pompadour, a tribute to an old guy who just won’t quit. There’s also the unselfconsciously joyous closing singalong, On My Way Back Home, namechecking a characteristically eclectic list of influences: Bowie, Elvis, the Grateful Dead, among others. Count this among one of the best releases of 2011 in any style of music. Watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

April 6, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Randi Russo Releases the Best Album of 2011, So Far

For over a decade Randi Russo has lurked amongst the elite of New York’s rock underground. Her 2001 album Solar Bipolar, a cauldron of screaming, whirling guitars and anthemic lyrical intensity, achieved cult status among devotees of noise-rock. Since that time, her prolific catalog has grown to include skeletal, sepulchral folk-rock, janglerock, punk and most recently, psychedelia. Her latest album Fragile Animal is logical extension of the psychedelic direction she first began gravitating toward in the mid-zeros before breaking up her band and then slowly regrouping. This packs as much of a wallop as anything she’s done before, yet sometimes that wallop is a playful one. The one aspect of Russo’s songwriting that hasn’t always come through as clearly as her defiant, resolute individualism is her sense of humor, but it does here. Co-produced by Russo and the Oxygen Ponies’ Paul Megna and released on the insurgent Hidden Target label, this is a lush, swirling mix of guitar and keyboard textures, Russo’s velvet voice steady above the maelstrom. While it’s never wise to assume that an album released so early in the year will beat out everything else that appears between now and December, it’s going to take a miracle to surpass this one. Welcome to the best album of 2011, so far.

The first track is Get Me Over, setting the stage for what’s to come, Russo’s quiet desperation and need to escape muted by the whirling sonics, backward masking and unselfconscious backbeat beauty of the melody. Venus on Saturn is hypnotic, insistent post-Velvets rock, a scathingly funny slap upside the head of a drama queen: “Without it she’d be boring, and no one would care to listen; now, she’s just annoying – yet she’s getting all the attention.” With guitarist Don Piper’s crazed leads fueling its stampeding Helter Skelter stomp, Alienation is a study in paradoxes, the push and pull of the need to connect versus the fear of scaring people off by confronting them with reality.

Invisible is her September Gurls – hidden beneath its ethereal layers of vocals and multiple-tracked guitars is a classic pop song. In a way, it’s the ultimate outsider anthem: she may be invisible, but she’s also bulletproof. “No one can touch me now, no one can bring me down,” Russo asserts with a gentle steeliness. It contrasts with the hypnotic, Steve Kilbey-esque mood piece I Am Real, anchored by Piper’s harmonium, which contrasts in turn with the wryly cheery Beatlisms of Invitation, which follows.

Russo’s voice finally cuts loose on Swallow, a soaring, crescendoing portrait that will resonate with anyone who’s had to swallow their dreams as they run to catch the train to some dead-end destination or dayjob. With its mechanical drums balanced by simmering layers of guitar feedback and a mammoth crescendo out that’s part Led Zep and part Egyptian funeral procession, Head High offers a more optimistic outlook for would-be killer bees stuck in a deathly routine. True to its title, the dreamy Hurt Me Now is more sad lament than kiss-off anthem, lit up by Lenny Molotov’s vivid lapsteel leads. The album winds up with the haunting, relentless epic Restless Raga, twisting a Grateful Dead reference into an escape which could be completely liberating…or it could be death:

Heart’s all empty and I don’t care
‘Cause I can steal yours with my stare
And I’m gonna ride that final wave
Of excitement to my grave

The album is available exclusively for a week starting today at Russo’s bandcamp site (which is preferable to the other usual sites, where it will be in about a week, since bandcamp’s downloads are more artist-friendly, not to mention sonically superior). Randi Russo plays the cd release show for Fragile Animal on April 17 at 9 PM at the Mercury Lounge with another first-rate, lyrical Hidden Target band, the Oxygen Ponies.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerpop Trifecta at Bowery Electric

Wednesday night at Bowery Electric, Don Piper and his group opened the evening with a richly melodic, often hypnotic set. Piper’s primary gig these days is producing great albums – the Oxygen Ponies’ lushly layered, darkly psychedelic classic Harmony Handgrenade is one of his credits – but he’s also a bandleader. This time out he alternated between slowly swirling, atmospheric, artsy rock and a vintage Memphis soul sound, backed by a large, spirited crew including keyboards, a two-piece horn section (with Ray Sapirstein from Lenny Molotov’s band on cornet), bass and the Silos’ Konrad Meissner on drums (doing double duty tonight, as would many of the other musicians). Midway through the set Briana Winter took over centerstage and held the crowd silent with her wary, austerely intense, Linda Thompson-esque voice on a couple of midtempo ballads. They closed with a long, 1960s style soul number, Piper and Winter joining in a big crescendo as the band slowly circled behind them.

Edward Rogers followed, backed by much of the same band including Piper, Meissner, Claudia Chopek on violin and Ward White playing bass. A British expat, Rogers’ wry, lyrical songs draw on pretty much every good British pop style through the mid-70s. The most modern-sounding song, a pounding, insistent number, evoked the Psychedelic Furs, White throwing in some Ventures-style tremolo-picking on his bass at a point where nobody seemed to be looking. Whatever You’ve Been Told, from Rogers’ latest album Sparkle Lane, held an impassioned, uneasy ambience that brought to mind early David Bowie. A pensive, midtempo backbeat tune with a refrain about the “seventh string on your guitar, the one you never use” reminded of the Move (like Roy Wood, Rogers hails from Birmingham), as did a bracingly dark new one, Porcelain, highlighted by some striking, acidic violin from Chopek. And a pair of Beatles homages wouldn’t have been out of place on the Rutles albums – or George’s later work with Jeff Lynne. But the best songs were the most original ones. The most stunning moment of the night came on the understatedly bitter Passing the Sunshine, a Moody Blues-inflected requiem for an edgy downtown New York destroyed by greedy developers, gentrifiers and the permanent-tourist class: “This’ll be the last time you steal with your lies,” Rogers insisted, over and over again. In its gentle, resolute way, it was as powerful as punk. They wound up the show with a surprisingly bouncy psychedelic pop tune and then the new album’s droll, swaying title track.

Seeing headliner Maura Kennedy onstage with a bright red Les Paul slung from her shoulder was a surprise, as it was to see her guitar genius husband Pete Kennedy in the back with the drums, leaving most of the solos to his wife. But as fans of their acoustic project the Kennedys know, she’s an excellent player – and also one of the most unselfconsciously soulful voices in rock, or folk, if you want to call them that. This was her powerpop set, many of the songs adding a subtly Beatlesque or Americana edge to fast new wave guitar pop. The best songs were the darker ones, including the bitterly pulsing 1960s style psych/pop hit Just the Rain. Sun Burns Gold swayed hauntingly and plaintively, leaving just a crack for the light to get in; another minor-key number, Chains was absolutely gorgeous in a jangly Dancing Barefoot garage-pop vein, and she used that as a springboard for one of several sharply staccato, chordally charged solos. “I wrap myself in melancholy comfort of the waiting game,” she sang on a brooding ballad that evoked Richard and Linda Thompson. But there were just as many upbeat moments. White, who was doing double duty despite being under the weather, took an unexpected and welcome bass solo on a funkily hypnotic number toward the end of the set; they wound it up with the first song she’d written, she said, the country-pop ballad Summer Coulda Lasted Forever. The rest of the musicians joined them for an amazingly tight, completely deadpan cover of A Day in the Life, Maura leading her little orchestra with split-second precision all the way through the two long, interminable crescendos, a wry vocal from her husband on Paul’s verse, and then up and up and up some more and then finally out. It was an apt way to end a night of similarly expert craftsmanship.

December 10, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 7/20/10

Our best 666 songs of alltime countdown has finally reached the top ten: just a little more than a week to the greatest song ever. Is the suspense killing you? Here’s #9:

Randi Russo – Prey

A bitter, majestically epic anthem for any nonconformist surrounded by a hostile mob, literally or figuratively, the twin guitars of Russo and lead player Lenny Molotov swirling with eerie, Middle Eastern-inflected overtones. The version on the 2005 Live at Sin-E album is a tad fast; there are also bootlegs kicking around the web, look around.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow

On the cover of his third solo album, Mark Sinnis, frontman of dark rockers Ninth House stands with his back to the camera, staring into a glaring New York sunset from a rooftop somewhere in Queens. The picture captures the subtext here far less subtly than Sinnis’ songs do: this is a requiem for lost time, lost hopes and by implication a lost time and place. It is a classic of gothic Americana. Richly and masterfully produced, electric guitars, strings, keyboards, lapsteel and accordion weave their way tersely into and out of the mix behind Sinnis’ remarkably nuanced baritone. Sinnis has been a good singer for a long time – he is an extraordinary one here, going down low for Leonard Cohen murk or reaching for Johnny Cash irony. If Ian Curtis had been an American, and he’d lived, he might sound like Sinnis does on this album.

The title track sets the tone for what’s to come, a slow, swaying, sad requiem, Sara Landeau’s sparse tremolo guitar mingling with Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel and Annette Kudrak’s plaintive accordion. It’s utterly hypnotic. The centerpiece of the album, or one of them anyway, is 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, classic country done chamber goth style:

Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate
And I’m a thousand miles from home
From New York City

The one that dragged me into a hole
I’m in my own purgatory
Where I pay for my sins each day
And I pay dearly
While my youth slowly slips away

He picks it up a little on the second verse. It’s gently and masterfully orchestrated.

Originally released on Ninth House’s 2000 album Swim in the Silence, the version of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me [#290 on our 666 Best Songs of Alltime list – Ed.] recasts the song as slow, Leonard Cohen-esque country sway, Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals quite a change from his usual roar when Ninth House plays it live. Fallible Friend, a catalog of failure and deceit, goes for a dusky southwestern feel capped by Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten’s perfecly minimalist fills. An understatedly desperate account of a drunk driver just trying to get home in one piece, Follow the Line takes on a hallucinatory, wee hours feel with Kudrak’s swirling accordion front and center – when Sinnis finally cuts loose and belts on the second verse, she’s there to calm him down. The Fever (not the Peggy Lee standard) could be a John Lennon song, a bitter metaphorically charged tale of alienation and rebellion.

Of the other originals here, wobbling funeral parlor organ makes the perfect final touch on the brooding Skeletons. Scars is gospel as the Velvet Underground might have done it, Out of Reach transformed from its original electric menace to haunting death-chamber pop with Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas’ piano and stark cello from star New York string multistylist Susan Mitchell. There’s also the ghoulish country shuffle In Harmony, the uncharacteristically sunny Quiet Change, and the album’s last song, a death-fixated, quite possibly sarcastic gospel clapalong. The covers are also terrifically inventive: Nine While Nine captures the song’s grim grey tube train platform ambience far better than Sisters of Mercy ever did, Otten perfectly nailing the menace of the song’s simple hook; St. James Infirmary rips the deathmask off the song’s inner goth, lapsteel pairing off warily against tense piano; and Gloomy Sunday gets a new final verse from Sinnis, who leaves not the slightest doubt as to what that one’s about.

Sinnis’ first solo album Into an Unhidden Future was a treat for Ninth House fans, a diverse, often radically rearranged acoustic mix of hits and rarities. His second, A Southern Tale was more country-oriented and surprisingly more upbeat. This is the best of them, in fact arguably the best thing that Sinnis has ever recorded. Mark Sinnis plays Otto’s on May 16 at 11, with a date at Small Beast at the Delancey coming up in July.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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