Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/10/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #538:

Bobby Vacant and the Weary – Tear Back the Night

We picked this as one of the best albums of 2009. It’s as much a masterpiece of simple, potently imagistic wordsmithing as it is musically, multi-instrumentalist George Reisch a.k.a. The Weary giving these haunted, alienated songs the gravitas they deserve with some stunningly eclectic arrangements. Stand in Time gets an elegaic, vintage Moody Blues chamber pop treatment, while the surprisingly witty Waveflowers paints a portrait of slipping away in the night against a vividly nocturnal mid-period Pink Floyd style backdrop. Bobby Vacant opens the album by cautioning everybody to stay away; by the end, he’s willing to open the door a crack. In between, he chronicles acid casualties, sold-out ex-idealists and the down-and-out on the Arthur Lee-esque Clark Street and the snide country-rock romp Dylan’s Dead. The death obsession goes front and center on the dirge Some Walk; the most powerful songs here are the title track, a creepy post-party scenario, and Never Looking Back, a bitter, morbid escape anthem set to a triumphant janglerock tune that will resonate with anyone who ever felt surrounded and threatened by people who just don’t get it. Too obscure to make it to the sharelockers, it’s still available from the excellent Chicago label Luxotone, where you can hear the whole thing. Bobby Vacant continues as a solo artist while running another excellent upstart label, Switzerland’s Weak Records.

August 10, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Tom Derungs of New Indie Label Weak Records

Unlike the other music blogs, Lucid Culture pretty much steers clear of showbiz news. After all, it’s the music that listeners are interested in, not who’s pushing it. Did you ever go into your local record store, if it still exists, and ask the bewildered clerk, “Do you have anything new from Universal?”

And in the indie rock world, vanity labels come and go as fast as the label owners’ parents can write a check – or stop payment on one. But once in awhile we get a news release that grabs our attention – like the relaunch of Ardent Records, Alex Chilton’s original label, or in this case the launch of a new Swiss indie label, Weak Records. Founded by songwriter Tom Derungs – who records under the name of Bobby Vacant and released a haunting, auspicious album last year on Luxotone titled Tear Back the Night, Weak Records isn’t your ordinary record label, as we found out quickly:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Isn’t starting a record label in 2010 something akin to opening a blacksmith shop in 1920? Or a typewriter store in 1990? Can I ask a fundamental question: why?

Tom Derungs of Weak Records: Or a vinyl shop in 2010. Every artist needs a hook, a signifier to be signified to. Call it a desirous and symbiotic crucifixion. Most artists just need help. We at Weak come from the book business. Long ago we recognized the need for an outside source to support the little guy. Most bands or writers can’t afford it on their own. They are hopelessly inept at marketing and self-promotion. We started this to help them. It’s a non-profit label and a platform to get people’s work recognized. Nothing more. And a labor of love in a world of dead blacksmiths.

LCC: “Weak Records” sounds pretty sarcastic to me. Why that name? Is there any underlying philosophy behind the concept of the label?

TD: Again, the little guy. All the shy, trembling waifs writing songs and poems in their dirty bedrooms. We want to deconstruct the word “weak” and spit it out again with new energy and meaning. Empower it. Ennoble it. There are four physical forces in the universe and one is the weak force. The sun is fueled by it. Decay is a part of it. Our bodies are fused by it. We are all decaying. Every big bad-assed, bully one of us. You can watch it at the subatomic level. And as the biggest bully of them all once wrote: the meek shall inherit.

LCC: These days most musicians are making a go of it on their own without a label. Other than the positive association that comes with your name, what does Weak Records have to offer artists?

TD: We’ve got really cool badges. And free household objects for personal ritual use that come free with each one of our fanzines in zip locked bags. But seriously, we also support our artists with hard cash. It’s not a huge amount, but they can then decide themselves if they want to use it for quality mixing, production, mastering or packaging costs. Or just keep it outright. Our contracts are simple. Artists own copyright flat out and can move to a larger label at anytime and take their content with them. Weak is there to help. Not to make money.

LCC: Will you be producing physical product as well as distributing via the web?

TD: Yes. Both.

LCC: Where are you located? Will you be distributing where you are or worldwide, or are you going to license to other labels/distributors for various markets?

TD: We are located in Switzerland and will be working with distributors mainly in the US and Europe. As we know the indie shops are sadly having a tough time. Be they bookshops or record shops. We can also supply direct, but the logistics of working with a distributor is easier. Licensing with another label would be great, too.

LCC: In addition to your own album coming out next year, you’re also releasing albums by Riders of the Worm, a punk act; the Black Iron Brothers, whom I believe are a spinoff of Captain Ludd, an acoustic/Americana band; Police Bulimia, who from what I can tell sound kind of like Snakefinger; and the Jesus Taco, whom I only know as a takeout Mexican restaurant in Spanish Harlem here in New York. What can you tell us about these bands? Is there a common link between them, a specific reason why you chose to launch the label with this stable of acts?

TD: We’ve always been torn between folk and punk, blues and rock & roll. Like a Frank Black song that goes from light to heavy within just a few measures. But poetry is a huge part of it. Poetry is the main link among these bands. Whether it be a juvenile punk band from Reno Nevada like Police Bulimia or a hopelessly melancholic singer-songwriter like Bobby Vacant. There has to be rage and expression, depth and meaning, sadness and elation, textual substance. Angst. Weakness and vulnerability. We’ve got a large folk, post-punk and blues feel to our acts but poetry threads them all. Riders of the Worm is just plain wild, like the Minutemen meet Negativeland, and the Black Iron Brothers is pure blues, slide-guitar, ambient experimentation much like Califone.

LCC: You’ll also be launching a zine, Savage Laundry. What can you tell us about that, will you have a dead tree edition or just an online presence with that?

TD: Well, you won’t be able to download THIS! We’ll be hanging it up with clothespins at venues. Copy, paste, and print. The theme of Issue #1 is neo-hoboism. Traveling hobos had a code of ethics. Rule number one: “Decide your own life and don’t let another person rule or run it for you,” and also, “Don’t take advantage of another person who is in a vulnerable situation.” It’s all very beat-ific. Woody Guthrie. Kerouac. The homeless. We’ll also have lots of poetry in it. Rants. Reviews. The official “Squat to Pee” column. There might be a free PDF download but you need the real issue to get the free mystery object in the baggie. We have some graphic novel artists to contribute drawings as well.

LCC: If I can be completely harsh and cynical here, we get dozens of news releases a day from fledgling record labels. What makes you different?

TD: Poetry. We are perhaps the only indie label (I think) recording both music and poetry. We want to merge the two genres wherever possible. We will be issuing poetry EPs, full-length poetry albums, both on CD and on the web. Currently we are working on a Weak Poetry sampler with poetry/music combinations such as “Cancerland” which is a guitar-based and Patti Smith inspired poem/song and hugely critical indictment of motorway-exit ugliness and industrial, cancerous consumerism. There will also be cross-over with bookshops. Bobby Vacant has done a number of gigs in independent bookshops and we plan to distribute there as well.

LCC: Can I ask what your association with Luxotone, the marvelous little Chicago label that put out your previous album, will be?

TD: Luxotone is a fantastic indie label and we will be supporting them one hundred percent. The production on Tear Back the Night cannot be beat. There will be another collaboration down the road sometime, hopefully. Luxotone have done great things but haven´t got the recognition yet.

LCC: As Lucid Culture readers know very well by now, your 2009 album Tear Back the Night is very highly regarded here: it made the top ten on our Best Albums of 2009 list; it was  number one on my personal list, so I’m naturally interested in what we have to look forward to on your next one. Who will you be working with, is there a theme, whatever you feel like telling us about it. Unless you’re going to keep it a complete mystery until release date…

TD: Thank you for your support. The next Bobby Vacant album is tentatively called Pull Down the Clocks. It will still have the acoustic singer-songwriter whispery feel to it but with more of an edge. Less production. Some faster, punkier songs with just a little bit more distortion. The songs are written and ready to record. There will be extra vocals and some session musician work as well. The songwriting is more solid and only the best songs will make the cut, even if it´s only 10 songs. No fillers. Only the best songs. There’s about 20 songs ready to go. It’s all about the quality of the songwriting.

LCC: What will the initial release on Weak Records be and when is it coming out?

TD: The Black Iron Brothers are currently recording and the album should be released by this summer or in the autumn at the latest. Again, we are looking for the best quality here. Their first album Deliver was recorded in Zürich at a really good studio with really good session musicians, and we want to make the new one just as good. They still haven’t decided on the title yet. We would also like to do a Weak sampler but refuse at giving it any official FAC-style number but are hugely inspired by Factory Records, their graphics and packaging. Sandpaper sleeves are our favorite at the moment.

LCC: Ouch. I once had an album by the Feederz, an obscure punk rock band from the 80s who did a really funny cover of the Olivia Newton-John lite FM hit HaveYou Never Been Mellow. And that came in a sandpaper sleeve. I ended up getting rid of it, which I probably shouldn’t have. Can you send mp3s instead?

March 23, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 2/6/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #173:

Bowdoin Rocks – Waiting for the Breakdown

While students at Bowdoin College, bassist/singer Wendi Mitchell and keyboardist Alan Walker (later of the Brilliant Mistakes) recorded a lo-fi demo of this haunting, artsy pop gem. Years later, Walker’s ex-bandmate George Reisch of Luxotone Records would add some badly needed guitar and suddenly an underground classic was born. The link in the title above is the stream at radio luxotone.

February 6, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 1/9/10

So much for New Year’s resolutions – our attempt to bring back a daily post here at the site, at least as we count down our Top 666 Songs of Alltime list one step closer #1, took a nosedive when our internet connnection went out yesterday. So here’s today’s song, #201:

Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Never Looking Back

Our pick for best song of 2009, it’s tersely metaphorical, bitter yet defiant to the end, the high point of the expat American songwriter’s darkly intense album Tear Back the Night. And the lyric at the end sounds unmistakably like, “Went from my home, went from my friends, went from the land where the polygraph spins.” The link above is the stream at Radio Luxotone.

If you really want to know what yesterday’s song was supposed to be, click on the Top 666 list link above and find out. And by the way, in case you’re a newcomer here, we do a lot more than just have fun with a bunch of lists of good songs. Reviews of psychedelic rock in the West Village, latin music of all strange and wonderful sorts in Tribeca coming up along with a bunch of great rock, soul, jazz and indescribable vocal music cds coming up in the next week. If we can get online. Stay tuned.

January 9, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man

This album is a reason why we wait til the eleventh hour – in this case, the eleventh hour of the decade – before we finalize our 50 Best Albums of the Year list. Robin O’Brien might be the best singer you’ve never heard: her recordings have been prized in the cassette underground for years. Like her previous album Eye and Storm, this new cd has been masterfully assembled layering some of those legendary vocal tracks over new arrangements with guitar, bass, some keys and percussion that manage to be lush yet austere, played by Luxotone Records’ George Reisch (AKA The Weary of Bobby Vacant and the Weary, another artist with an album high on the 2009 list here). While The Apple in Man is as dazzlingly multistylistic as her most recent effort, what may be most astonishing about it is how many other styles she tackles here that she didn’t the last time around. Is there anything this woman can’t sing? Dreampop, check. Haunting 70s-style Britfolk, got it. American psychedelic pop in the style of the decade before that, check again. Trance, you bet. The Laura Nyro-on-steroids gospel flavor that made Eye and Storm so gripping isn’t much in evidence here, but that doesn’t matter. Front and center is Hangman, an a-capella showstopper built out of layers and layers of O’Brien’s trademark vocal harmonies. Folk music fans may recognize the song as Gallows Pole, but the closest comparison might be the Bulgarian Womens’ Vocal Choir doing Bjork. With its righteous rage channeled through some of the eeriest harmonies on the album, there’s no reference to Odetta and even less to Led Zep.

The rest album veers from subtle and witty to absolutely haunted and back again. The titular Apple, a fresh and often hypnotic interpretation of the Eden myth, looms in with a disquieting feel, but it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom and liberation, its ethereal harmonies soaring over an almost minimalist rhythm section with swooping organ accents. With its sudden, playful tempo shifts, Bobby My Memory deviously memorializes O’Brien’s friendship with Bob Kinkel of Trans-Siberian Orchestra during their days as Berklee classmates back in the 80s. Julie, spiced up with just the hint of flamenco, is a bright psychedelic folk number that would have been perfectly at home on Chelsea Girl (except that O’Brien hits the notes that Nico never would have). And Reisch’s distorted guitar makes a perfect match for O’Brien’s effortless and strangely hypnotic exuberance on the following track, Gold Chain.

But the strongest songs here are, unsurprisingly, the darkest. October (click the link for the video) soars, but with a distinctly somber feel brought out with understated menace of Reisch’s orchestration. The single best one might be the even eerier Hand in the Window, O’Brien’s lower register blending ominously with Reisch’s steadily deliberate walk down on the guitar into pitch blackness. O’Brien’s intensity on the stately 12-string guitar ballad Traveller is nothing short of visceral: “Darling don’t go to sleep, there’s a way out and it’s way down,”  she intones with a Nyro-esque anguish, layers of vocals and guitar building to a creepy unresolved ending. But all is not despair: bouncing along on a nifty trip-hop groove, Mama is something akin to chamber pop meets early 80s Cure (think Faith, maybe). The cd ends on the hypnotic note where it began. This album leaves you somewhat breathless but also mystified why O’Brien never became famous. Then again, as cliche-free as this cd is, maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t. You can hear the whole thing (and buy it too) at Luxtone.fm.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment