Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Whispering Tree Waits in the Shadows

Plaintive, moody and often downright haunting, the Whispering Tree’s new cd Go Call the Captain is a strong contender for best debut album of the year. Pianist/frontwoman Eleanor Kleiner’s wary, pensive, unadorned voice makes a potent vehicle for their gothic Americana songs. Many of them are in stately 6/8 time, spaciously and tersely arranged with keyboards, guitar and frequent orchestral flourishes. The title track starts out as a plaintive Applachian ballad but quickly grows to a towering art-rock anthem:

False prophets, liars and thieves rule the world…
Pull the veil down over our eyes
While we frantically follow behind
I’d rather be lost than led by the blind

And unlike a lot of the songs here, it ends on an upbeat note. “We can rule the world,” Kleiner asserts, if we overthrow these monsters. Claustrophobia pervades much of what’s here, both metaphorical and literal, on the fast, oldtimey swing shuffle So Many Things – which Kleiner would gladly toss out the window, to watch them smash on the street and destroy all the memories attached to them – and The Tallest, which laments being surrounded by “rooftops stretching as far as the eye can see.” The bitter ballad Las Vegas has Yoed Nir’s cello combining with Thad Debrock’s pedal steel and Elie Brangbour’s incisive guitar for a bracing, uneasy undercurrent, and maybe the most haunting honkytonk piano solo ever. “Those colored lights they hypnotize,” Kleiner warns.

The late-summer ominousness of Something Might Happen is visceral, crescendoing with a biting guitar solo. The angst reaches breaking point on Soon, the darkest and most intense track here, Kleiner going as high and distressed as she can, the band taking it down and then back up again with a searing, psychedelic interlude. There’s also a pensive, slow number spiced with Beth Meyers’ plaintive violin, a surprisingly jaunty mandolin tune and the apocalyptic closing track, Washed Ashore. Fans of the Handsome Family, Nick Cave, Liz Tormes and Mark Sinnis owe it to themselves to get to know the Whispering Tree.

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August 4, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Liz Tormes at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 5/3/10

Gently and methodically, Liz Tormes brought the lights down. She didn’t actually reach over to the wall and kill the switch, but she might as well have. Strumming her acoustic guitar with one hypnotic downstroke after another, she played a set that was as unaffectedly catchy and tuneful as it was disquieting. Keyboardist Glenn Patscha (of Ollabelle) provided a rich variety of textures, from echoey, spacy, upper-register synthesizer, to stark Supertramp-style electric art-rock piano, to matter-of-factly chordal acoustic piano work. The drummer mixed crafty jazz flourishes into his artful shuffles, at one point dampening the snare and one of the toms with towels to enhance a distantly ominous, boomy effect which worked perfectly with the songs’ frequent neo-Velvets vibe. The most affecting thing about Tormes’ voice is how casual it is: this show was as if she was humming to herself at your funeral – or somebody’s funeral, anyway. It’s a strikingly warm, atmospheric instrument, and while she’s capable of cutting loose if she feels like it, for her less is more and she works that like a charm, letting the songs and the lyrics go and find their mark, which they inevitably do. Like a lot of inevitable things.

Tormes hardly shies away from the darkness; on the contrary, she seems to embody it, whether in the back-to-back songs about death in the middle of the set – the second one dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut, a writer whose identity she’d encouraged the crowd to guess, but nobody could – or in the creepy little waltz based on a sinister tritone melody that she fingerpicked with grace and understatement. Most of the songs were unfamiliar. Tormes’ latest album Limelight is as good a contender for best-of-recent-months as any that’s come over the transom here, but she’s about to embark on a new one and if the concert was any indication it’ll be just as compelling. One featured a duet with Patscha; on several others, Tormes was joined by Fiona McBain (also of Ollabelle), who provided characteristically soaring high harmonies – the two have a sometime project called Fizz that specializes in murder ballads, “Because they’re beautiful,” Tormes deadpanned. The night’s most memorable number coldly immortalized Tormes’ old place on Second Ave. and Fourth St., a quietly caustic depiction of the parade of freaks who turn the neighborhood into fratboy hell after dark. She may have come here from Nashville, but Tormes spoke for an entire zip code with that one.

Afterward it was time to head over to Small Beast, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly salon/show/hangout, which we’ve been AWOL from for the last few weeks. Russian expat pianist/singer Mila Levine, backed by the extraordinary, ubiquitous and extraordinarily ubiquitous Susan Mitchell on viola, ran through a mix of noir-ish pop and rock tunes in both English and her native tongue. One had once appeared (radically rearranged, she took care to explain) in the Eurovision music contest and was actually not an embarrassment. Afterward, the reliably haunting and hypnotic Appalachian/Balkan vocal duo Æ (Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker) delivered a set of otherworldly old songs from Georgia, Greece, the Carolinas and the Jewish diaspora, an alternately ecstatic and wrenchingly sad end to a night full of affecting voices.

And while we’re on the subject of Small Beast, don’t forget what might be the year’s best rock or-rock-oriented concert, the Big Beast at the Angel Orensanz Center on May 21 with Botanica, Bee and Flower, Barbez, Little AnnieBlack Sea Hotel, and free microbrew beer for an hour before the show.

May 4, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rap music, review, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Liz Tormes – Limelight

Long admired by New York’s songwriting elite, Liz Tormes has a new album, Limelight, that should help the rest of the world get to know what the Lower East Side has known for years. Intense, brooding, sultry and frequently wrathful, the power in Tormes’ casually wary voice resides in ellipses, the spaces between notes, the unsaid and conspicuous absences – she doesn’t raise it much, so when she does the effect packs a wallop, especially when she adds just the hint of a snarl at the end of a line. Her tersely crystallized lyrics are much the same: she says a lot with a little. Behind her, a tightly fiery Nashville gothic band swings, sways, clangs and roars its way through a mix of midtempo and slow, tuneful Americana rock. The arrangements are hypnotic, often psychedelic: if Aimee Mann had done with guitars what she did with keyboards on Fucking Smilers, it would have sounded a lot like this.

The album opens auspiciously with Read My Mind, a searing tale of disillusion and abandonment with a ferocious Jason Crigler slide guitar solo out, ending in a cloud of dust. It’s a classic of its kind. Without Truth has a hypnotic feel and characteristic understatement:

I know you can’t relate
But what I really want for you
Is to fly right and fly straight

With its echoey layers of guitar, the title track, a 6/8 ballad, sounds like Mazzy Star with balls. Maybe You Won’t follows, swaying trip-hop rhythm over simple muted guitar strums, backing vocals by Teddy Thompson – and no stupid drum machine. “Is it ever coming, have I been forsaken?” Tormes insists on an answer. She introduces a muse who provides bitter, metaphorically loaded solace on the matter-of-factly shuffling Don’t Love Back:

Take the wind and stay on track
Stop loving things that don’t love back
You can’t control the outcome all the time

And the garage-rock kiss-off ballad Sorry has the ring of sarcasm: “Paper posies and shiny things don’t make the earth rotate,” Tormes reminds, gloating not a little: “I’ll stay and play in the sunshine and vanish in the shadows.” There’s also a southwestern gothic, Steve Wynn-style number with Crigler’s layers of guitar blending ominously with echoey electric piano, a similarly guitar-fueled noir blues and a backbeat country hit whose upbeat melody make a sharp contrast with Tormes’ angst: “If I have better days let them come.”

With Bob Packwood’s insistent staccato piano bouncing off a wall of guitars, Fade Away closes the album on a driving yet vividly wounded note. This one’s been out since last year, so we’re a little late on the uptake which means that you’ll see it somewhere around the top of our best albums of 2010 list at the end of December. In the meantime Tormes promises a followup to this album sometime in the relatively near future.

March 18, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at the Delancey, NYC 6/4/09

An intimate gathering of cognoscenti were treated to a transcendent trifecta to wind up this season’s Thursday Small Beast shows at the Delancey (the series continues, switching to Mondays on June 22 at 8:30 PM with Paul Wallfisch, the Snow and Marni Rice). Wallfisch was gassed from some obviously rewarding mixing sessions for the latest cd by his darkly intense art-rock band Botanica, opening the set as he always does, solo at the Beast (the 88-key spinet whose nickname spawned this weekly series). This time out the great noir keyboardist (and Little Annie partner-in-crime) aired out a more Americana-inflected bag of tricks, whether the rapidfire cabaret of the Little Annie tune Because You’re Gone, the Botanica number Asia Minor (which is actually an oldschool 60s soul song at heart), the warmly vivid Three Women and then venturing north of the border for a sly, sexy take of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man.

A stripped-down trio version of Darren Gaines & the Key Party were next and while Wallfisch is a hard act to follow, they were anything but anticlimactic. With his hollowbody guitar providing a delicious, distorted blast of sound, Gaines led the two bandmates he’d brought along – violinist/singer Sara Syms (also of excellent country/roots band Dirty Water) and “lead trombonist” Rick Parker – through a mix of darkly witty, literate songs, mostly from the band’s latest, excellent album My Blacks Don’t Match. The band may play in a very stylized genre  – think every noir style ever invented, from Tom Waits to Lou Reed – yet so much of their material is out-of-the-box imaginative. What was most striking right off the bat were Gaines’ casual, unaffected intensity and offhandedly wry sense of humor. Like Wallfisch, he’s something of a raconteur, musing on some nasty song ideas that came to mind while stuck behind a quartet of sidewalk slowpokes on the way down to the bar from 23rd St. They opened with a roaring version of the caustic The Litterati, a snarling putdown of pretension, following with a worn-down, heartfelt, Steve Wynn-inflected take of She Says She Does, also from the new album. Syms – who sadly didn’t get to contribute piano as she does on the album – matched soaring vocals with terse, edgy violin lines while Parker added a tasteful, even minimalist oldtime saloon blues feel. They wrapped up the set with a handful of bitter “significant other songs,” as Gaines called them, ending with Monday Morning, a long, depressive countryish anthem from his first album Hit Or Miss. As good as this was, one can only imagine how intense the songs would sound with a full band.

Several women have headlined Small Beast this year and have been transcendent – Carol Lipnik, Larkin Grimm, Ingrid Olava in particular. Add Alice Texas to the list. The noir siren has the same kind of petite porcelain beauty as actress Pamela Karp and comes across as something akin to a darker, East Coast Exene: on key, more direct, less free-associative. She’s a reliably good performer but this time out she was extraordinary – maybe her protracted absence from the New York stage had something to do with it. Playing acoustic guitar, she was backed by bassist Kai Eric and Peter Mavrogeorgis, frontman of the excellent Bellmer Dolls – whose show opening for Nick Cave under Madison Square Garden last fall was crazy good –  as well as Wallfisch contributing honkytonk piano on a song, and backing vocals from Liz Tormes – another first-class songwriter – on a couple of numbers including an utterly psychedelic take of Blondie’s Fade Away and Radiate. Mavrogeorgis – one part Don Wilson of the Ventures, one part Daniel Ash from Bauhaus, one part John Andrews of Botanica – simply has never played better, ornamenting the songs with graceful slides, eerie reverberating overtones and the occasional terse, fiery lead. They opened with a couple of Nashville gothic numbers, the second more percussive, featuring a scorchingly gorgeous, melodic guitar solo. Then a couple of Velvets-ish tunes and the highlight of the set, which came toward the end, an insistent anthem titled Oh, My Beautiful, haunting and sweeping with more eerie tremolo-bar guitar.

Small Beast – New York’s edgiest, most exciting weekly musical event, in case you don’t already know it – continues Monday, June 22 at the Delancey, upstairs at around 8:30 PM with Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow, free admission plus a free barbeque on the roof.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment