Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Laurie Anderson played a requiem for New York, possibly titled Delirium. The nocturnal atmosphere settled in from the first few notes of Rob Burger’s accordion, the highly processed quality of the music giving it an air-conditioned chill. Throughout the suite, which went on for over an hour, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing, Anderson’s trio or a machine, but that was the point. All these machines we rely on so much distance us from a reality we can’t bring ourselves to face. This piece was all about denial – denial of reality, denial of impending doom, and in that doom, the death of a beloved city, by gentrification, by greed, and especially by denial. “This is the real New York,” was the mantra early on, spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, giving away nothing, Anderson letting her narrative’s fragmentary images speak for themselves against the lushly icy backdrop. She got it all – global warming (a recurrent allusion); mindless “if you see something, say something” paranoia; Fukushima; Wall Street swindlers getting rich on worthless paper (and then shredding it) while the rest of the world riots. Familiar city sights – fire escapes in midsummer; the San Gennaro Festival and its “onions marinara;” Madison Square Garden, a three-way oxymoron; crowds swiping their way into the subway on the way home from work – grounded the piece in an indelible New York milieu. Behind the narrative, sheets of strings, real and synthesized, rose and fell, sometimes with mechanical electronic percussion behind them, often with astringent, vividly wary lines by violinist Eyvind Kang and Anderson herself while Burger shifted from accordion, to simple piano lines, to more nebulous atmospherics. Creepy, occasionally sleepy, it reached with an elegant menace toward a fever dream, especially when a police siren wailed for close to a minute a block further west, slowly making its way uptown.
“‘Hard times,’ says the maid, as she begins her lawsuit against the next President of France, now known worldwide as a chimpanzee in rutting mode, his DNA in her spit on the carpet,” Anderson deadpanned. In this netherworld, technology nerds produce nothing more than speeches full of hot air and time-wasting gadgets; hotel rooms are indistinguishable from offices open 24/7; and, in one blackly funny vignette set to faux boudoir sonics, advertising makes us miss places we’ve never been. And while Anderson never said it directly, this is what our world has come to. How do we deal with it? Midway through, Anderson alluded to suicide, once. She didn’t go near it again.
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The funniest moment of many was when Anderson mocked the pseudo-sophistication of the usual Lincoln Center crowd driving down from Westchester, by reciting a litany of google map directions, straight to the parking garage on 62nd St. Clearly, Anderson is still downtown. She closed the suite by returning to a theme that had arisen earlier, that we tend to reinvent people we’ve lost by cutting them down to size, right or wrong, because once we’ve shed that emotional baggage, we can “travel lite.” By implication, this is how a generation of New Yorkers, maybe more than a generation, deal with the loss of the city where thirty years ago an opportunity existed for Anderson to springboard avant-garde ideas into a successful global career. An entire city park felt that, and was transfixed. The show ended with a coda where Anderson brought out her husband, Lou Reed to play fluidly atonal, biting yet graceful noiserock guitar as the overture swelled and then gently faded down.
Ex-Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds opened the show, first entertaining the crowd by building the animated title track to his new album Outerborough all by himself with a series of loops, from a simple beat to heated, virtuosic lead lines. He was joined a bit later by Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey – playing percussion on innumerable found objects – and a string section including Caleb Burhans, Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris, Yuki Numata, Courtney Orlando, and Ben Russell. Together they made their way gently and hypnotically through a warmly thoughtful, somewhat minimalist Philip Glass-inflected piece by a composer friend from Michigan, as well as a couple of rousing songs straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog that were equal parts Balkan and blues. But where Anderson used the chill of technology to make a point, any point that Reynolds might have made with it was lost, especially when he brought out a “human beatboxer.” For decades, real hip-hop has pilfered rhythms from every other style of music ever invented, from jazz to funk to classical, so as to sidestep the mechanical monotony of a drum machine. The cold, unwavering beat managed only to sabotage the liveliness and goodnatured energy of Reynolds and his fellow musicians.
Aram Bajakian plays lead guitar in Lou Reed’s band (here’s a clip of him playing Waves of Fear - it’s hard to imagine a better showcase for his chops). Bajakian’s own project Kef has just put out a fascinatingly eclectic, completely original, often hauntingly beautiful album of guitar/violin/bass instrumentals, many of which imaginatively reinvent traditional Armenian melodies. There’s a raw, spontaneous feel here – for the most part, Bajakian doesn’t go for extensive multi-tracking. The album makes a good segue with cutting-edge Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored bands like Ansambl Mastika or A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Here Bajakian joins forces with Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass.
They open with a warmly fingerpicked acoustic vignette and then launch into some pyrotechnics: over a circular bass motif, Bajakian’s Neil Young-ish psychedelic sunspots give way to gritty no wave funk and some understatedly searing tremolo-picking. It’s the high point of the album, volume-wise. Laz Bar is a gypsy dance on the waves of the Mediterranean until the guitar gets funkier and bites down hard with a Ribot-ish blues solo as the violin swirls in and envelopes everything. The felicitously titled Sumlinian (Hubert Sumlin being one of the godfathers of funk) again works a circular melody, first carried by pizzicato violin before being turned over to the bass, guitar and then violin slashing their way through a Chicago southside of the mind.
Wroclaw, a Balkan-flavored rock tune comes together stately and wary out of a tricky intro, and eventually they swing it with a nice, matter-of-factly crescendoing violin solo, Bajakian following with some sweet Balkan blues – it’s the best song on the album. An upbeat Greek-flavored dance gets followed by a more pensive one, Swafford wailing over a brooding minor-key progression, Bajakian adding some teeth-gnashing yet terse Jeff Beck-style fills. From there they segue to some variations on the theme that eventually go absolutely haywire, back into a chorus that they hammer again and again, 80s no wave style. The album closes with a pensive, flamenco-tinted acoustic taqsim, a bass-and-guitar duet that sounds like a jam that worked out well enough to throw on the album, a wonderfully minimalist, mournful dirge and an equally captivating psychedelic piece that contrasts watery and spiky textures for a creepy vibe similar to the darkest stuff on Country Joe & the Fish’s first album. It’s out today on Tzadik.
The Oxygen Ponies’ 2009 album Harmony Handgrenade was a ferocious, lyrical art-rock masterpiece, one of the best releases of recent years: you can find it on our Best Albums of All Time list. Written during the waning days of the Bush regime, it’s a chronicle of love under an occupation. On the band’s new album Exit Wounds, frontman Paul Megna revisits similarly tortured terrain, this time more personal than political. For the most part, this is an album of snarling kiss-off songs, with psychedelic, anguished epic grandeur juxtaposed against stark Leonard Cohen-esque passages. The band this most closely resembles is Australian art-rock legends the Church, both in terms of the stunningly catchy simplicity of Megna’s melodies, the hypnotic sweep of the production and the clever, literate savagery of his lyrics.
“The velvet rope around your neck pulled you away,” he intones in his signature rasp in the opening track, Hollywood, as the band pulses with a trancey post-Velvets sway behind him. “Did you sell your face so you could buy the farm out at Maggie’s place?” he asks. But this isn’t merely an indictment of a starstruck, clueless girl: it indicts an entire generation. As Megna reaffirms later on with the amusing I Don’t Want Yr Love: after a pretty hilarious Lou Reed quote, he makes it clear that he doesn’t “want to be anywhere you are ’cause all the people there are blinded by the stars.” The outgoing mantra of “nobody loves you anymore” is just plain brutal: it makes a great outgoing message for anyone in need of some post-breakup vengeance. And the cello-driven This Disaster offers a more expansive view of the wreckage leading up to the big dramatic rift, Megna musing that “If all we have left is one technicolor kiss, I’d rather be the standin than the star.”
Hope and Pray is pure schadenfreude – it could be the great missing track from the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands, but with better production values. “Hope the further down you go, the higher is the climb,” Megna snarls. He follows that with the bitter lament Good Thing, crescendoing out of spare, plaintive folk-pop with a cynical fury:
This is a call to everyone
Wake your daughters, rouse your sons
Take your aim and shoot to kill
So your friends don’t hurt you
‘Cause others will
Hornet, a dead ringer for a Steve Kilbey song, offers a backhanded compliment to a femme fatale, “Dancing around like a flame in the fire/As hot as it gets you don’t have to perspire.” They revert to Jesus & Mary Chain mode for Wild Animals, a more subtle putdown: “You think you’re smart, that each work of art ended up a failure,” Megna taunts. The indomitable Drink Myself Alive packs a punch, its undeterred narrator only willing to change his wicked ways if the girl who’s bedeviled him will do the same. With a distantly Beatlesque swing, Land That Time Forgot wouldn’t be out of place in the Spottiswoode catalog: it works both as a tribute to an individualist and a nasty slap at trendy conformists: “You’re walking around ahead of the crowd, such happiness is never allowed,” Megna sneers. He reprises that theme on the sparse, more gentle Jellybean with its torrents of lyrics:
Everyone around me is just sharing the same brain…
I guess they find it’s easier to be part of the whole
Searching for a reason why they buy the shit they’re sold.
The album ends on a completely unexpected note with the pretty, backbeat pop hit Christmas Every Morning. The album is out now on insurgent Brooklyn label Hidden Target Records, the same folks who put out Randi Russo’s brilliant new Fragile Animal a couple months ago. This one’s in the same league: it’s hard to imagine a better album than this coming out any time this year. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.
Swiss-based lo-fi Americana trio the Jesus Taco’s debut album takes its cue from field recordings: it’s as if they decided to record everything in their collective songbooks. Along with the fully realized creations, there are the fragments, the unfinished numbers and sonic japes that fly by and are gone almost before you realize it. Perhaps to maintain a flow, pretty much every track here segues into the next. Frontman/guitarist Brett Davidson is a strong singer with some Gram Parsons inflections, accompanied by Sascha Greuter on acoustic and electric guitars along with respected luthier Tyko Runesson on mandolin, guitars and blues harp. Darkness alternates with good humor and some hijinks that sometimes seem more fun to the band than to an outsider along with others that are more accessible, and hard to resist. The longer songs and instrumentals are separated by a series of miniatures: simple fingerpicked melodies, astringent washes of feedback, a couple of brief, tuneful ragtime piano interludes, some folk-funk and what seems to be a woman laughing her way through either quoting or impersonating some ditz from reality tv.
The best song here is The Meek, a jangly, symbolically charged folk-rock gem:
When they found me on South Main
There were bruises on my brain
So they put me on ice
The charity wards were swollen with sorrow
But the nurses were nice…
Said I wanted to kill
So they put me on pills for a week…
Wretched are the ways of the weak
And the ways we pray for a winning streak …
The casual ominousness of Ten O’Clock evokes Lou Reed’s Sunday Morning, down to the glockenspiel. A simple litany of wanting more, and more, and more, wastes no time in making its point. One of the later numbers blends sci-fi imagery with an eerie rural milieu; there’s also the aptly titled, cantabile acoustic guitar instrumental So Calm, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the later works of John Fahey, a brief New Orleans/punk rock interlude that evokes the Dead Milkmen, and a gently fingerpicked acoustic ballad in Swedish. It’s another welcome surprise from upstart Swiss label Weak Records.
Legendary photographer Mick Rock has a new book out, Mick Rock Exposed: The Faces of Rock n Roll and accompanying exhibit up at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in the old CB’s Gallery space just south of Bowery and Bleecker. It’s a must-see: the book is out just in time for the holidays and ought to do just as well if not better than his previous Bowie and glam-themed collections. As he explained before the show’s celebrity-packed opening Tuesday night, this is an eclectic book: he’s never been swayed by popular trends. Although Rock will forever be associated with iconic images like the covers of Lou Reed’s Transformer and the Stooges’ Raw Power, his portraiture over the last forty-plus years is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from Japanese kabuki theatre stars, to a somewhat notorious, self-referencing show featuring Kate Moss in all kinds of provocative poses, to bands as dissimilar as German proto-punks Can, current-day blues belter Shemekia Copeland and gypsy punk stars Gogol Bordello.
As much as Rock has an eye for drama, he often goes for understatement. The best of the most recent images here are an absolutely hilarious Snoop Dogg, looking old yet ganjifically defiant in a George Clinton kind of way (Rock and Snoop seem to have a great mutual appreciation), and a considerably clever spin on an otherwise cliched PR shot of Lady Gag “passed out” in a dirty, trashed bathtub. That shirtless guy standing over her, face out of view? That’s Jack White.
Fans of Rock’s legendary glam-era photography won’t come away disappointed. A Ziggy-era David Bowie is captured in black-and white, pensive and shirtless in an empty room; on the train to Aberdeen with guitarist Mick Ronson; onstage performing “guitar fellatio” as Ronson solos, and in an absolutely brilliant if worrisome 1972 shot where he joins Lou Reed (hiding behind his shades) to support a completely trashed Iggy Pop, who has a pack of Lucky Strikes stuffed in his mouth.
Iggy and the Stooges also figure prominently. A black-and-white shot from 1972 captures the band looking particularly young and vulnerable, a skinny Ron Asheton taking a stab at trying to appear menacing behind his innocuous wireframe glasses (this was before he discovered aviators). The most wrenching of all the photos here is a color headshot of Iggy onstage in 1977, dripping with angst and longing: it’s the visual equivalent of Gimme Danger. There are also a couple of vividly sad Syd Barrett black-and-whites, one where he strikes a karate-like pose in an empty room – he alone knows what it means, if anything – and another with him reclined haggardly on the hood of a battered old Buick convertible (look closely – it’s parked in front of a sparkling new MGB-GT coupe) somewhere in England. By contrast, Rock had the presence of mind to capture Madonna in black-and-white in 1980 (wearing a 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates World Champions tee, licking her shoulder lasciviously – she already knows she’s a star). Everything here that isn’t sold out already is on sale at depression-era prices (a limited edition Transformer print signed jointly by Rock and Reed is three grand). The Morrison Hotel Gallery is open Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 7 PM: shows here turn over fast, go now if you’re thinking about it.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #870:
Lou Reed – The Blue Mask
Today we salute Lou for refusing to allow Susan Boyle to butcher A Perfect Day on some stupid reality tv show. This is his big comeback, from 1982, after a couple of real duds in the late 70s. Here he teams up with the late Robert Quine for an unhinged, double-barreled assault on the fretboard, a stripped-down, blistering return to something of a Velvets feel. Part of this is the most intense janglerock ever made; the rest is like a more tuneful, musically proficient White Light/White Heat. Or a more proficient Voidoids with better lyrics (remember, Quine was their guitarist). What’s coolest is that both guitarists run straight through their amps without any effects: it’s amazing how good you can get a Strat and a Fender Twin to sound just by adding a little (or a lot) of distortion. The high points are the viscerally intense Waves of Fear and the blistering noiserock of the title cut. There’s also the death-obsessed My House, a Delmore Schwartz tribute; the evocative, DT-inspired Underneath the Bottle; the ominous plaintiveness of The Gun; the understated requiem The Day John Kennedy Died and the surprisingly funny, tongue-in-cheek Average Guy. After all this, we can forgive him for the mawkish, maudlin love song at the end. Also worth hearing is the Live in Italy double album from 1983 with this same crew, who turn in phenomenally good, revitalized versions of Kill Your Sons, Satellite of Love and Walk on the Wild Side among others. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #891:
Nico – Chelsea Girl
Bet you thought you’d see the Marble Index here instead, huh? Nope. That one’s the definitive teutonic druggie dirge album, something you should definitely check out if you haven’t already, if that’s your thing. This one’s maybe the ultimate prototypical chamber pop album, ahead of the Pretty Things’ Emotions. Which is ironic to the extreme because Nico hated the string arrangements that were overdubbed onto this afterward. You could even call this the best Jackson Browne album ever: did he ever do another album with three good songs on it? Probably not. Nico could never sing worth a damn, we all know that – but what an atmosphere she and everybody else created here despite themselves. Browne’s The Fairest of the Seasons sets the stage for the understated high drama of the rest of the album. Despite all the flat notes, she gives a genuine angst to another Browne ballad These Days, and the brooding, languid strings help; and she takes Somewhere There’s a Feather from folkie naivete to Marlene Dietrich world-weariness. The best song here is the poignant, organ-infused ballad Little Sister (an obvious Velvets outtake). The stark Weimar blues echoes in John Cale’s Winter Song still resonate today in a million noir cabaret bands from the Dresden Dolls to World Inferno. There’s also the iconic title track, a version of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine that in its own fractured way rivals Sandy Denny’s version with Fairport Convention, and the gently epic, 9/4 Velvets outtake Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. Here’s a random torrent.
Arguably his best album. As the title suggests, this is something of a calm after the storm for Fred Gillen Jr. Most musicians waited out the Bush regime uneasily; many, like Gillen, railed against the occupation, notably on his landmark 2008 collaboration with Matt Turk, Backs Against the Wall. Battered but optimistic, Gillen’s latest, Match Against a New Moon is his most memorably tuneful album. Ironically, the spot-on social commentary he’s best known for (this is a guy who appropriated Woody Guthrie’s “This guitar kills fascists” for his own six-string) is largely absent here. This cd goes more for a universal, philosophical outlook. At this point in his career, the songwriter Gillen most closely resembles is the Wallflowers‘ Jakob Dylan: he’s got a laserlike feel for a catchy janglerock hook, a killer chorus, a striking image and a clever double entendre.
The expansive, smartly assembled janglerock anthem that opens the album, Come and See Me, wouldn’t be out of place in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog. It sets the tone for the rest of the cd:
When all your relations are in prison or the grave
And you can’t remember what they took, only what you gave
And you are grateful that they’re gone ’cause they can’t hurt you anymore
Come and see me
With its big, anthemic chorus, The Devil’s Last Word takes the point of view of a guy whose favorite hangout spot is the train tracks: he likes living on the edge. The catchiest track here, a monster hit in an alternate universe where commercial radio plays good songs, is the Wallflowers-ish Don’t Give up the Ghost. It ponders a way out of the shadows of a difficult past, a quest for “some kind of answers or at least some questions finally worth asking.” An image-drenched carpe diem anthem for a troubled girl, Flicker gently points a way out: “We only get a moment to flicker in the night, a match against a new moon.”
The metaphorically-charged Americana rock shuffle Land of Hope could a Matt Keating song. Lay Me Down has the raw feel of a lo-fi acoustic demo that probably wasn’t meant to be on the album, but it made the cut because of the magic it captures, exhausted yet immutably optimistic. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has been done to death by scores of inferior singers, but Gillen’s strikingly understated, conversational version is nothing short of souful. He follows it with a couple of dark rock narratives: the crescendoing junkie anthem Light of Nothing, which sounds like a sober mid-70s Lou Reed – if that makes any sense – and the vivid slum narrative Primitive Angels, which could be vintage, i.e. Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen. The album closes on an upbeat note with the hopeful You May Be Down. Gillen, who plays most of the instruments here, doesn’t waste a note, whether on guitars, bass, harmonica or even drums; Paul Silverman’s organ and Eric Puente’s drums contribute with similar terseness and intelligence, along with vocals from Catherine Miles and Laurie MacAllister, and Abbie Gardner contributing lapsteel and harmonies on Hallelujah. Gillen still plays frequent NYC area shows; watch this space.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #97:
The Boomtown Rats – Someone’s Looking At You
Walk on the Wild Side-inflected new wave anthem, a nasty summertime police state scenario from The Fine Art of Surfacing, 1979 that only gets more prophetic and apropos as the years go by:
There’s a spy in the sky
There’s noise on the wire
There’s a tap on the line for every paranoid’s desire
The link above is the album version; here’s a nice live take.
Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Monday’s song is #366:
The Velvet Underground – Run Run Run
A NYC classic, best song on the Velvets’ first album. This careening, hypnotic sprint through a junkie 1965 East Village of the mind harkens back to when there was no telling what a person could find at Union Square, no Whole Foods, no Trader Joe’s and no undercover cops either.