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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Mark Growden – Saint Judas

File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.

Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.

They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.

This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Oxygen Ponies – Harmony Handgrenade

Call the Oxygen Ponies’ second album Love in a Time of Choler. Recorded during the last months of the Bush regime, it’s an attempt to reconcile the search for some sort of transcendence with the need to overthrow an enemy occupation. It’s also a strong contender for best album of 2009 (stay tuned!). Savagely lyrical, swirling and psychedelic, the obvious comparison is to the great Australian rockers the Church, although sonically and texturally a lot of it is gentler and sometimes more overtly 60s-influenced. Lots of dynamics here, organ and piano floating in and out, backing vocals sometimes adding a gospel choir flavor: it’s a triumph for producer Don Piper. Many of the tracks feature indie rock siren Randi Russo’s velvet vocals adding subtlety and menace. Frontman Paul Megna has always been a formidable lyricist, but here he vaults into the uppermost echelon. The cd’s opening track Love Yr Way begins skeletal, almost Leonard Cohen-esque, before leaping to an ecstatic crescendo at the end:

 

They broke my itchy trigger finger

Scratched an X upon my door

When they hang this message bringer

Blood will rain down through the floor

 

The insistent, midtempo Fevered Cyclones pans to a less-than-idyllic outer-borough hell:

 

We live like clones in our suburban homes

Substituting plastic to get by

You got the best, you want the rest

And you don’t think you’re living a lie

 

The War Is Over, a percussive garage rock stomp, throws another elbow at someone a little too perfect to believe:

 

The war is over, the bastards won

Don’t leave home without your lungs

They’ll shoot your mouth off without a pause

Every body has its flaws

But not you…

The war is over

The heroes lost

Cauterize the permafrost

 

The title track somewhat woozily chronicles two curiously named, possibly fictional, possibly pseudonymous women, Harmony Handgrenade and Melody Marzipan and the nasty repercussions their nonconformity brings them. Yet, it ends on a hopeful note. Grab Yr Gun begins slow and pensive, building to a catchy garage-pop chorus and then goes gospel, and satirically so: “Let your gun be your guide.” A big, scorching rocker, Finger Trigger evokes the loudest stuff on the Church’s Priest = Aura album, desperately flailing for some kind of hope, “Anything to dissipate the grey skies falling.” But it’s too late:

 

You and I and everyone waiting for a brighter sun to shine

We’re wasting time…

I can feel the terrorist inside of me

Choking on the apple of your eye

Hurry up, don’t be late, they’re gonna kill you where you sleep

Shut your mouth, shut your eyes and count the bombs in your heartbeat

 

The most indelibly Bush-era cut is the pensive, hypnotic, yet absolutely defiant, Steve Kilbey-esque Villains:

 

All you mystic gurus

Liars thieves and whores

A plague upon your houses

And all your holy wars

All you self defeatists

I call you all to arms

If we stop medicating

Then who will buy the farm

The fuckers in the White House

Hate your family…

We’ve got a long drive home

 

Defiance reaches a peak on the swinging, macabre ragtime tune Smile, shades of the late, great Douce Gimlet. The cd winds up on a somewhat subdued, sardonic note with A Bottle Marked the Enemy: “They’re gonna come for you, when they comfort you.” Like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins or the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist, this album perfectly captures a time and place, if one that 5.9 billion people would rather forget. There’s undoubtedly a post-Bush era indie film out there that could match up with this much like Garden State did with the Shins. Maybe more than anything else, this is a cautionary tale, a vivid reminder of where complacency got us the last time around.

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 4/10/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #474:

Leonard Cohen – Who By Fire

Early Cohen at his most deathly: this is the literary person’s People Who Died, predating the Jim Carroll song by a couple of years. One of Cohen’s most haunting numbers, even if his voice hadn’t yet reached foggy bottom and the production is stereotypical late 60s faux-Dylan. From the New Skin for the Old Ceremony album, 1974. Mp3s are everywhere. 

April 10, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – A Southern Tale

The baritone Ninth House frontman’s second sparsely produced, mostly acoustic solo cd is much like his first, but more fully realized and thematic. As with last year’s Into an Unhidden Future, the production is straight out of late-period, Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash, minimalist fingerpicked acoustic guitar choicely and often beautifully embellished with piano, strings and Lenny Molotov’s characteristically incisive lapsteel work. Sinnis’ songwriting, and his choice of covers, is more diverse than ever. The latest edition of Ninth House harks back to the band’s haunting, ornate, classically-inflected early zeros sound, so it’s no surprise that Sinnis would mine a more overtly Romantic vein here as well (there’s even a ballad that makes use of the theme from Beethoven’s Pathetique). 

 

 

 

The cd begins and ends on the same somber, death-obsessed note, the opening cut It’s The End, But There’s No Heaven as sepulchral as humanly possible with Molotov and violinist Susan Mitchell trading off ghostly trails of sound. As with Sinnis’ first cd, there are some remakes of old Ninth House songs here as well. Down Beneath, from 2000’s Swim in the Silence, is a dead ringer for the Cure; here, it’s transformed into a swaying country lullaby with rustic violin and terse piano from Matthew Dundas. Mind Melt, from the 2004 Aerosol collection of outtakes and live cuts likewise gets a warmly nocturnal treatment, as does the brand-new ballad Turn Another Page.

 

Freed (temporarily) from the confines of having to belt over a furious electric band, Sinnis has never sung with more casual menace – or casual soulfulness – than he does here. Covering I Still Miss Someone could all too easily go in the direction of parody or pointlessness, but Sinnis keeps it simple and acquits himself well. There’s also a low-key Broadway song (Lerner and Lowe’s Follow Me), a gothic rewrite of a Xmas carol, a couple of straight-up romantic ballads and the offhandedly scary existentialist lament There’s No Rhyme or Reason that winds up the cd. Fans of all the dark haunting guys: Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Ian Curtis and Johnny Cash as well ought to get to know Mark Sinnis. You’ll see this one on our Top 50 CDs of 2009 list at the end of the year. Ninth House’s next show is at Hank’s on Feb 28 at 11.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Darren Gaines and the Key Party – My Blacks Don’t Match

First-rate noir rock by probably the first-ever good band to be frontpaged at the CMJ site. On My Blacks Don’t Match, Gaines’ second cd, the musicianship is terrific, the songs are inspired and tuneful, the arrangements are purist and even the production is first-class.  If you can get past the vocals with this – indie rock types won’t notice or care, but purists will have a hard time with some of them – you’re in for a real treat. The weak link here is Gaines himself, who sang perfectly fine on his previous cd Hit or Miss but now seems to be flailing all over the place for an identity – he can’t decide whether he wants to be Nick Cave or Tom Waits, when who he really ought to be is himself. Drop the pose, drop the persona, guy, you’ll be glad you did someday.

 

Much of this cd will remind New York fans of the weary, 4 AM gutter jazz poetry of Blasco Ballroom spiced with anthemic Nick Cave Romanticism, Leonard Cohen gloom, boozy Waits saloon jazz and even the ominous nocturnalia of Botanica. The cd kicks off with Nightshade, a fast noir blues with a gypsy tinge a la Firewater before they went all South Asian. Track two, She Says She Does is sardonic, minimalist and dismissive, somewhere between Steve Wynn and vintage Iggy with acoustic guitar and a vintage soul horn chart. “The hits get harder/The kisses get shorter/Find me a porter/I can’t carry these bags anymore,” Gaines complains.

 

The snide anti-nostalgia anthem Good Old Days (Wash Away) builds to a fast, scurrying chorus with more horns soaring over dirty guitars: “What’s so good about the good old days?” Snowdrift is a dead ringer for Nick Cave in stark ballad mode, guitar feedback ringing eerily in the distance for extra ambience. The low-key noir vibe continues with the laid-back Tripped Down Memory and its tasty bed of watery flanged guitars.

 

Hey Napoleon, with its Peter Gunn bassline, Keystone Kops horns and careening guitar reverts to a vintage Firewater feel; Midnight, which follows, brings it down again with its strung-out wee-hours atmospherics: “I see no reason why I should be sincere.” The Litterati is an imaginative, pretty spot-on spoof of an unlikely target; Hallelujahville is a smartly sarcastic, swaying country ballad that screams out for a deadpan, unaffected lead vocal. The cd winds up with the Lou Reed-inflected Very Different Times and and the actually somewhat anguished Speechless: “I broke my fingers keeping them crossed for you/And the cross I bear is broken too.” Give this band credit, they really know their noir. This is one of those albums that sounds better the later the hour and the smaller the crowd – and foreshadows even better things for the band as they evolve. Darren Gaines and the Key Party play the cd release show for this one at 8 PM on March 14 at the Gershwin Hotel.

February 19, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Debut Album by the Oxygen Ponies

The great lost Luna album – at least most of it. Darkly glimmering second-generation Velvets rock hasn’t been done so well since Dean Wareham and crew, about 15 years ago. “Get me out!” is the theme that recurs again and again here. The Oxygen Ponies’ debut release is a not a happy album, and it doesn’t end well. It’s a concept record about a breakup and its aftermath, a pungee trap that’s left a thousand songwriters impaled on the sharp bamboo sticks of self-pity and bloated ego. Credit frontman/songwriter Paul Megna for getting through this one with just a few scratches, his morbid sense of humor and withering cynicism solidly intact.

It begins quiet and acoustic with the downcast It’s Yr Life, a theme that will recur later. The next cut, Devotion begins with a 6/8 nice piano intro that comes back in at the end (themes both lyrical and musical abound on this album). “God I hate asking for favors, just get me out of this mess,” complains Megna as dirty, dirgy wall of guitar like Luna or the Jesus & Mary Chain circa their late 80s peak kicks in. After that, Brooklyn Bridge sets the stage for what’s to follow:

Heard you been talking shit my friend
Well you can talk talk all you want
If she gets fuckin’ hit again
It’s the asphalt you will haunt
‘Cause I have known a lot of girls
In that swimming pool called romance
Where simple oysters crush the pearls
With a steel toe’s swift advance
Washington, Washington, god I miss the Brooklyn Bridge
Get me out of Washington, take me where she lives

The next track The Truest Thing begins with tasty, reverberating Wurlitzer electric piano and what sounds like standup bass:

I get up 6 AM
Coffee, paper, back to bed again
Cause the news is never good
I only read the parts I think I should
Think I should write the perfect song
But everything is wanting since you’re gone
I’m up again, 12:15
My body yearns for more caffeine
The coffee burned to the pot
I thought I turned it off
But I forgot

It’s one of the most evocative portrayals of clinical depression ever set to music. It’s followed by Chainsmoking, the big breakup song, with more Wurly and nice layers of guitar on the chorus, evoking the Church at their most atmospheric. There’s a delicious lapsteel solo straight out of the Jon Brion/Aimee Mann school of arranging.

The second side of the album (the cd is divided into two sections, pre-and post-breakup) starts out with the slowly, sadly swinging, slightly jazzy Umbrellas in the Rain with its buoyant, muted horns:

She thinks I’m having a party
She thinks I’m baking a cake
She thinks I’m celebrating
Great

Then the guitars – all jangle, clang and feedback – kick in on Have You Forgotten. Here’s where the Luna/J&MC comparisons are most apt. It’s even more apparent on the next cut I Don’t Know Why, with its insistent rhythm underneath a soaring steel guitar melody. The accusatory Happy Where U R follows, a dead ringer for the J&MC tune Happy When It Rains. If this is intentional, the irony is very clever; if not, it’s a fortuitous coincidence because it works so well.

The slow woozy waves of depression return with Get Over Yrself, turning to mania on Starshine, a glimmering, growling hit waiting to happen. The album winds up with the epic The Quickest Way to Happiness – which leads you straight to hell. “I’ll survive,” intones Megna as the song builds to a majestic, orchestral chorus, but one has to wonder how much he means it.

Don Piper’s pristine production deserves major props for making this cd sound like a vinyl record, drums back in the mix where they should be, vocals slightly out front, guitars always cutting through. Fans of the gutter-poet school of songwriting: Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Shane MacGowan et al. will love this just as much as the guitar aficionados who will revel in the album’s textures. One of the better efforts we’ve heard this year.

June 28, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Ninth House – Realize and It’s Gone

The fourth and possibly final cd from this long-running New York “cemetery and western” unit. This isn’t a country album by any means: it’s a dark, desperate, angry rock record. Aside from some of the songwriting (frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis continues in this promising direction in his solo work), the only concession to Nashville is that the vocals are mixed noticeably louder than the instrumentation, in the style of country records from the 1930s and 40s. Ninth House bridge the gap between Joy Division and Johnny Cash. The production values are strictly punk/new wave: layers of distorted and watery electric guitars, ominous string synthesizer and organ, and melodic bass, usually set to a fast 2/4 beat. The cd opens with a roar, on the magnificently ferocious chorus of the single Long Stray Whim (a deliriously good live take of this song was previously issued on the band’s sadly out-of-print Aerosol album). It’s a transcendentally powerful escape anthem:

This morning I stopped
It’s boring, I strayed
I’m on a long stray whim
It started
For a moment I fought it
I couldn’t persuade me
I’m on a long stray whim

In a dark, passionate baritone, Sinnis – one of the greatest male singers in all of rock – builds his case for getting away from it all. It’s ELO’s Eldorado for a new generation. The band follows this with the wickedly anthemic Burn, about a cremation. Ninth House frequently get pegged as a goth band, and while they’re much more diverse, this song makes it easy to see how they got that label. The next two tracks, Stretch Marks and Quiet Change could easily have fit onto a mid-80s Cure album like Head on the Door, although they crunch rather than jangle. After that, the slow What Are You Waiting For builds to a soaring crescendo of vocals and guitars.

The following cut Mistaken for Love is one of two straight-up country songs on the album, although the band – particularly guitarist Bernard San Juan, who has since left – gives it a rock treatment. It’s a savage look back at a failed marriage: Sinnis’ cold ending will send chills down your spine. Similarly, the next track Skeletons has country swing but an 80s rock sound. The tempo picks up even more on the relentless, minor-key Out of Reach, a concert favorite. Then it’s back to Nashville gothic with When the Sun Bows to the Moon, a gorgeous, catchy country anthem, a broadside fired at point-blank range at somebody who can’t get over herself:

You live in your own atmosphere
You create your own demise
Breathe your own tainted air

It’s taken on a particularly poignant significance in the wake of 9/11. The next song Cause You Want To is a slow, crescendoing, death-obsessed number that belies its catchy, major-key melody. The album closes with a blistering rock version of perhaps the original Nashville gothic song, Ghost Riders in the Sky and then the epic title track, which builds from a catchy, thorny major-key first section into a hypnotically dark, crashing, descending progression. And then it’s over.

Sinnis’ lyrics are terse and crystallized, the band is tight and the overall intensity of the album never lets up. This is serious stuff, a good album to blast at top volume after a rough day at work or school. Definitely one of the best half-dozen albums of the year to date, as consistently good as Ninth House’s two previous studio records. Five shots of bourbon, no chaser. Albums are available online, in better independent record stores and at shows. Ninth House plays the cd release show on July 7 at Galapagos at midnight.

June 17, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The Bedsit Poets, Don Piper and the Oxygen Ponies at Luna Lounge, Brooklyn NY 6/3/07

The show probably would have sold out if not for the elements: torrential rain, umbrellas blown inside out, everyone in the house soaked to the bone. The marvelous Bedsit Poets opened. Their sound is totally late 60s/early 70s, windswept pastoral beauty in places, otherwise super catchy harmony-driven Britpop, the Kinks circa Arthur hanging out with the Fairport Convention crowd. Frontman Ed Rogers and rhythm guitarist/singer Amanda Thorpe blend voices beautifully. Both British expats, he has a classic pop delivery which pairs well with Thorpe’s soaring, passionate Britfolk style.

Thorpe was celebrating her birthday, and she held the audience in the palm of her hand, particularly on the sweeping, anthemic Reach for the Sky, from their well-received album The Summer That Changed (as in “changed our lives”). On the quiet, ethereal Chemical Day, Thorpe played a small keyboard that for a minute sounded as if it was producing some quiet, strategically placed layers of feedback. They closed their rousing 50-minute set with the title track from the album, a supremely catchy pop tune punctuated by lead guitarist Mac Randall’s swinging country licks. Rogers and Thorpe sang a round with each other at the end of the song: he launched into Mungo Jerry and she countered with Gershwin, the result being a typical Bedsit moment. They’re a very playful band. The audience wanted an encore but didn’t get one.

Singer/guitarist Don Piper and his band – including many of the people who would play later in the evening – followed with a painless set of slow-to-midtempo jangle and clang. At one point, guest guitarist Drew Glackin (who also plays with the Jack Grace Band and the Silos) took a slowly growling climb up the scale, turned around and came back down the way he went up. Against the steady wash of the two guitars behind him, it was almost as if it was 1984 and True West was onstage. But they never hit that peak again: Piper seems to be more interested in mood and atmosphere than saying anything specific. He doesn’t have the voice for rock – it’s a keening, high tenor – but to his credit he tackled a Curtis Mayfield number and absolutely nailed it. He has a real future as a soul singer if he wants it.

The Oxygen Ponies are basically songwriter Paul Megna and whoever he can rustle up for a show. Tonight he brought a whole herd, 11 musicians including a trio of backup singers, two guitarists in addition to Megna himself, lapsteel, rhythm section and two horn players. Megna comes from the gutter-poet school of songwriting, all bedraggled, depressed and chain-smoking. His melodies are contagiously catchy (think a less skeletal Leonard Cohen, or a more pop-oriented Nick Cave) and he can write a hell of a lyric, with a sometimes savagely cynical edge. And the band pushed him to project and sing, keeping his vocals at a safe distance from the dreaded cesspool of grunge. The band’s ability to hit a crescendo out of nowhere was literally breathtaking, especially on the final track from their new cd, The Quickest Way to Happiness.

What was perhaps most striking about their performance was that everyone onstage was clearly having a great time, and this carried over to the audience. What could have been dirges became anthems. The lead guitarist didn’t play much, but when he did, his slashing pyrotechnics never failed to ignite. The horns played in perfect unison with each other and the backup singers delivered joyous, heartfelt harmonies. Megna’s songs tend to go on for at least five minutes, sometimes much more, but they never dragged. And the sound system was crystal clear all night long. What fun.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments