Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Botanica – americanundone

Their wildest album. What the Stones were to the 60s, what Pink Floyd was to the 70s, what the Church were to the 80s, what – good grief, who? maybe Pulp? were to the 90s – Botanica has been to this decade, simply the definitive rock band of our era. In their uncompromisingly lyrical, fiery, gypsy-flavored anthems, there’s a defiance against fascism, a raised middle finger at mindless conformity and the same unextinguishable passion shared by all the aforementioned bands. And as good as their studio albums are (look for more than one on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), nothing beats a Botanica live show. Finally, here’s one you can take with you. Last and final comparison: as live albums go, this ranks with the best of them, right up there with Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Night of the Living Dead Boys, and Metallic KO by the Stooges.

Frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s supporting cast this time out includes the equally powerful, melodic bassist Dana Schechter (of Bee and Flower), reverb guitar monster John Andrews, Mark Stepro on drums and Anne deWolff on violin. Unsurprisingly, this is Botanica’s loudest, most guitar-oriented album, Andrews in particularly savage mode from start to finish: even on the quieter numbers, he’s a threat to cut loose. The songs are a well-chosen mix of stomping crowd-pleasers and stately, ornate art-rock anthems. They’re off and running from the start with a particularly bruising version of Billboard Jesus, from their 2004 post-9/11 masterpiece Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Concrete Shoes, anguished and stalking on the Berlin Hi-Fi cd, is transformed into a nightmare vision in a reverb tunnel. La Valse Magnetique, title track to the band’s most recent studio effort (currently unreleased in the US) sets gentle violin and organ over a rhythm section that carries it away into scurrying, swinging gypsy punk straight out of the Gogol Bordello songbook. Wallfisch takes a glimmering cascade of Wurlitzer piano down to pregnant pause, a slow interlude and a startling cold ending. “Il nous reste que la fierte.” Pas de question.

Shira and Sofia is noir cabaret swing with a brutallly dismissive vocal cameo by Schechter and an evil slide guitar solo. The caustic Sex Offender takes the band to the edge of metal, daring to question the age of consent: “As long as she’s the girl next door and I’m the guy in college reading Schopenhauer. Sweet sixteen? She’s a sex offender. Hallelujah!” Wallfisch croons at the end in tribute to the flock who do such a good job saving us from ourselves.

The best tracks here are a study in contrasts, and they’re both from Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. Swimming in the Ocean at Night is more evocatively, gleefully macabre than ever, shimmering with organ and reverb guitar, toy piano just enough out of tune to bring the menace to redline. The Truth Fish, Wallfisch’s ballistic response to the powers that be who let Ground Zero smolder for months on end, pulls out all the stops, building from noir bluesy stomp to whirling, apocalyptic gypsy dance ending with a wall of guitar feedback and then the outro that’s still pure redemption for anyone who lived and breathed through those  horrible days: “Fires. No. One. Cares. To. Put. Out [pregnant pause] OOOOOOUT! ” The show ends on an equally relevant note with How, another fast gypsy rock number sarcastically contemplating the reasons why some people simply refuse to get it, complete with wild, swirling violin, a long Middle Eastern interlude and a violent, crashing conclusion. Don’t take our word for it: in a remarkable stroke of generosity, the album is streaming at Botanica’s site. Physical copies only seem to be available at shows, but all the tracks are up on itunes. Watch this space for live dates: in addition, Wallfisch plays at around 9 every week at his ongoing Small Beast salon/performance at the Delancey.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ward White – Pulling Out

His finest hour. Pulling Out is not just one of the best albums of 2008, it’s one of the best albums of the decade. What Revolver was to Rubber Soul, what Armed Forces was to This Year’s Model, what Oops I Did It Again was to Baby One More Time (just kidding about those last two), Pulling Out is to Ward White’s previous album, Maybe but Probably Not. White is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, although he’s not exactly under the radar: he’s been featured on NPR and always has his choice of A-list musicians to record with. His soaring voice has more than a few echoes of Jeff Buckley; his lyrics have a wickedly literate sensibility, loaded with puns and double entendres in the same manner as the artist he most closely resembles, Elvis Costello at his late 70s/early 80s peak. This is a brutally subtle, quietly ferocious album, as funny as it is furious.

The cd cover is nothing if not truth in advertising: it’s a visual joke, and it’s a good one, but it’s also savagely dismissive. White writes in character, so the matter of which numbers here are autobiographical and which aren’t is purely speculative. This is a loosely thematic collection of breakup songs, many of them seething with rage, alternately mystified and bemused at being surrounded by clueless idiots who just don’t get it. White’s a tremendously good electric guitarist, flavoring the songs with innumerable warm, jangly, twangy licks. The rhythm section of Catherine Popper on bass and Mark Stepro on drums pulses and grooves, and keyboardist Joe McGinty turns in his finest, most deviously textural work since his days with the Psychedelic Furs.

The cd’s opening track Beautiful Reward sets the tone. The title is a double entendre, a sardonic riff on the posthumous nature of fame. Over a tasty bed of slightly spiky, jangly guitar and lush keyboard textures, White’s narrator chronicles the easy lives of some unlikely characters from years past who marry painters or write “a book of lies, and everybody bought it.” The title track, which follows, is a gem:

Tanya has a tattoo of a dove
She said she did it out of love
That’s why it’s right over her heart
Sometimes it’s better not to start

And then the taunting begins, all sexual tension, very evocative of Costello’s fieriest stuff on This Year’s Model.

Building over a fast new wave beat to a killer chorus, Design for Living looks at relationships from a villain’s point of view: “In hell Jackson Pollock is smiling…he says I should stick to little girls with their little limbs.” The snide, vengeful Getting Along Is Easy chronicles a high-profile breakup: “Everything we do from now on will be on tv and I for one don’t like it.” Let It All Go is subtly hilarious, its melody gently mocking its sanctimonious, completely disingenuous narrator, who finally admits that “Elliot’s bar mitzvah was not the place” to address the matter of his mother-in-law’s drinking.

Me and the Girls continues in a tongue-in-cheek vein: everything was perfectly fine until some interloper guy came along and screwed everything up. Miserable, perhaps the finest track on the cd, tracks the telltale signs of an affair that was doomed from the start, that even without hindsight were obvious. Yet the couple succumb to temptation, or just a respite from loneliness: “It’s been long enough,” White wails on the chorus.

This album also happens to be something of a roman a clef: careful listeners familiar with the New York underground rock scene will discover some faces that look strikingly familiar, especially on the next track, The Ballad of Rawles Balls, a homage to the legendary, satirical cover band from hell. After that, Movie’s Over reverts to the bleak, jaundiced feel of the cd’s earlier material, its protagonist trying to find something to be grateful for even while the world is crumbling around him: “We’ve got a job to do and it’s ugly/I got a job to do so I’m lucky,” White recounts wistfully while strings play beautifully and sadly behind him. The cd wraps up with the Big Star-esque Turn It Up Captain (it helps if you know who the Captain is) and the rivetingly depressive Wrong Again, featuring Stepro on Rhodes:

Please let me go
I don’t belong
Here in this song again…
You think it’s all about you
You think it’s all about answers
You think it’s all that I can do
But you’re wrong

Fans of the pantheon of great songwriters: Costello, Aimee Mann, Steve Kilbey of the Church, LJ Murphy, Jenifer Jackson et al. will love this album. If there is anyone alive a hundred years from now, Ward White will be a star. And in the meantime, in an impressive stroke of generosity, you can visit White’s website and listen to not just this album in its entirety but also several of the other excellent cds he’s put out over the last few years.

July 17, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment