Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

Advertisements

May 8, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 7/21/10

Our daily best 666 songs of alltime countdown is working its way through the top ten: just a little more than a week to the greatest song ever. Here’s #8:

Richard & Linda Thompson – The Wall of Death

A bitter yet unapologetic, metaphorically charged tribute to living with intensity and passion no matter what the consequences. Which as the title indicates could be severe, to the extreme. But would you want it any other way? The link above is a characteristically amped-up version done by Richard without Linda (youtube didn’t exist when those two were playing). It’s the closing track on the awesome Shoot out the Lights album from 1982 – torrents for that one are everywhere.

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

Song of the Day 6/17/10

Every day, for the next six weeks anyway, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #42:

Elvis Costello – Withered & Died

This Richard Thompson song was originally sung by Linda Thompson on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in 1974. Solo acoustic, Costello is even more haunting: his version is the “secret” bonus track on the 1990s Rhino reissue of the underrated 1985 Goodbye Cruel World album.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Tift Merritt at Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, NYC 7/1/09

You heard it here first: Tift Merritt is the future of American pop music. What she sings isn’t particularly edgy, but it’s not stupid. Last night the North Carolina-bred songwriter made fun of the promoters who’d moved her scheduled show at Rockefeller Park indoors even as the sky was clearing. She was spooked by the prospect of playing in a high school: “Not a good time,” she recalled, practically shuddering. Which made sense. As catchy and warmly accessible as her songs are, there’s a welcome intelligence in her writing, and her voice is a dead giveaway. Her songs come across as something of the missing link between Sheryl Crow and Aimee Mann (Merritt loves those major/minor changes that Mann works so masterfully). Vocally, Linda Thompson is the obvious comparison. Merritt’s recorded work plays up her stoic resignation and haunting sense of nuance, her voice sometimes dropping off the table for dramatic effect much in the style of  the legendary Britfolk chanteuse; last night she also showed off a grit and a liveliness that doesn’t always cut through in the studio.

Playing solo, alternating between acoustic guitar and electric piano (and electric guitar on one song), she won over a tough crowd with casual charm and one memorable tune after the next. As Roscoe Ambel famously said, if a song sounds good at its barest, stripped down to just guitar and voice, it’ll sound great with a band. Much of what she played could have been ecstatically fun with a good crew behind her – you know how much musicians love a smart, intuitive tune. Using just your typical building-block major and minor chords, she introduced three new songs along with several from her most recent studio cd Another Country. Of the new ones, the best was a fast yet pensive backbeat-driven number exploring the theme of finally figuring out to what to do once you’ve gotten what you want after years of searching high and low. Of the less brand-new songs, Broken, a vivid, bitterly soaring anthem evoking the struggles of her early days in music, packed a punch as did Keep You Happy, with its crescendoing chorus and realization that tying your happiness to another person’s is bound to drag you down there with them. Merritt also impressed with her gospel-tinged piano work on a handful of ballads as well as a bouncy yet somewhat eerie soul-inflected number. She even went up the scale to end one of them with a fun Floyd Cramer flourish. 

In a level playing field without the now-flatlining major labels, Merritt’s success gives hope to a new generation of writers creating accessible yet intelligent pop music, Ward White, Kirsten Williams, Nicholas Howard and Sharon Goldman among legions of others. Merritt is based in New York now, so we ought to see more of her in the months to come which promises to be a treat considering what a songwriting roll she’s on right now.

July 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Little Pink – Gladly Would We Anchor

Washington, DC band Little Pink’s third and best album effectively blends both British and American folk-rock traditions while managing to sound completely original. Richard & Linda Thompson is the influence that jumps out at you, blended with the resigned yet raging sensibility of Rosanne Cash’s recent work. Frontwoman Mary Battiata sings in a troubled, world-weary, haunting voice, appropriate for someone who covered the war in Bosnia as a journalist in the 1990s. Her lyrics remind of Sandy Denny, replete with images from nature and pastoral scenes, often painting a starkly evocative picture. Her melodies are terse, catchy and lend themselves to all sorts of commercial purposes: Lifetime TV dramas, NPR themes and – gasp – commercial radio. If this album had been released in 1976, Fleetwood Mac would have found themselves on a dead run to catch up. That’s a compliment. It is mind-boggling that this band is not huge right now.

With fifteen tracks, this is a long and richly rewarding album. “We took half our lives to find ourselves here,” Battiata relates casually in the opening track, the simple, ridiculously catchy country/folk song Like a Wheel. Charm Offensive, a bouncy blues, is spiced with baritone sax; Battiata does a nice, recurrent vocal jump on the chorus. With Battiata’s gently lilting chorus, Trance is Fleetwood Mac gone to Nashville. Ten Feet High, with its slowly stomping beat and layers of screaming guitar from lead player Philip Stevenson, is an obvious homage to the Richard & Linda Thompson classic Shoot Out the Lights. There’s more backbeat-driven folk-rock on China Sea, sounding like one of the good cuts on Sunnyvista. Stars Burn Out is a big crunchy guitar-driven rocker that could be a solid track from Mary Lee’s Corvette’s last album. Wind and Water is a quietly haunting, very Sandy Denny-ish traditionally styled number, seemingly about refugees adrift on the ocean.

The Britfolk continues with the fast, minor-key English reel Orange Moon and then the wickedly catchy John the Cat, with an absolutely killer chorus and more impressive vocal leaps and bounds from Battiata. Beggar’s Bowl is a slowly swinging political parable that crescendos gently into Battiata’s excellent acoustic guitar solo. The Brokenhearted is an accusation, building with amazing subtlety, the drums creeping up to the chorus marvelously as the song’s central hook kicks in: “You’re not brokenhearted.” The album ends on a riveting note with Battiata’s best song, the offhandedly creepy Magic Years, which sounds like a sentimental look back at an idyllic childhood, until you listen closely:

We carved our names
Up all the trees
We counted stars
Til we believed
On the edge of our beds, holding hands
Holding our breath

Absolutely brilliant. If Americana, British folk or just plain good, lyrically-driven songwriting is your thing, get this album.

January 31, 2008 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments