Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mary Lee Kortes’ Songs of Beulah Rowley Strike a Nerve

The frontwoman of New York band Mary Lee’s Corvette, songwriter Mary Lee Kortes first gained prominence as a singer – she’s done vocal tracks for everybody from Billy Joel to Placido Domingo, and now leads the UN Voices choir. With a crystalline wail that resonates to the spectacular upper reaches of her range, that voice has made her arguably the most individually compelling rock stylist of our era. But it was her turn-of-the-century album True Lovers of Adventure that put her front and center among this era’s greatest tunesmiths: it ranks with Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement and Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space as one of the most brilliant lyrical rock records ever made. While over the years that followed, she’s put out a succession of good albums – including a full-length live version of Blood on the Tracks that’s even better than Dylan’s original – this is her best original recording in over a decade. Not bad for a five-song ep.

The name “Beulah Rowley” came to Kortes in a dream. Kortes has since fleshed Rowley out into an obscure but stunningly eclectic Midwestern songwriter from the previous century, and created a musical which includes songs from throughout her career. Compared with Kortes’ previous work, the songs here are a little more rustic, which makes them contemporaneous with Rowley’s life, but like everything she’s ever done, they’re timeless. Escape is a constant theme; puns and double meanings are everywhere, and more than anything, these songs are dark. Pound for pound, it’s the most intense collection she’s ever put together. The first song is Born a Happy Girl, a spare noir cabaret tune with accordion, bass and drums, the chilling tale of a mother who might have killed her daughter if the child hadn’t escaped. “I put my happy ending here, hallelujah,” the narrator sings, allusively: that happy ending, if it’s to be taken on face value, wasn’t planned.

Well By the Water also works a simple, repetitive, practically hypnotic verse and chorus, chillingly. The sarcasm of “we did well by the water” is crushing. “Hide the heart and cut the thread, all the dreaded secrets dead,” Kortes sings with a quiet, stoic intensity, assessing the cruel aftermath of the hidden, twisted side of smalltown Midwestern (or New England) life. The pace picks up with the jaunty, Moonlighters-esque swing tune Big Things, a defiant escape anthem that clatters along with piano and an evocatively mechanical percussion track. Finally, as the chorus rises, Kortes sails up and hits one of her signature statospheric notes – and then takes it even higher. It’s viscerally breathtaking.

Will Anybody Know That I Was Here is a September song as poignant as any jazz standard ever written. Backed gracefully and tersely by just a piano trio, Kortes traces a day in the life of a woman quietly and anxiously pondering what posterity might hold in store: “When my face is long gone from the mirror, will my voice echo clear?” She ends the song solo, with just a brittle, sustained vibrato. It’s another chilling moment. The ep ends with Someplace We Can’t See, the most rock-oriented song here. It’s sort of a more understated take on the towering intensity Kortes nailed so vividly on her signature ballad 1000 Promises Later, the centerpiece of True Lovers of Adventure. Here, over watery chorus-box guitar, she traces the somewhat embittered, tortuous trail of a couple’s unfulfilled life. Balancing optimism and emotional depletion, it ends ambiguously. It’s the perfect place to continue this haunting and powerfully resonant story: as it is, count it among the elite handful of albums at the top of this year’s already impressive crop.

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May 3, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 6/23/10

Every day, for a little more than a month, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s song is #36:

Bob Dylan – Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts

Symbolically charged nine-minute epic, a murder mystery that ends on a bitter, cynical note like much of the rest of Blood on the Tracks. Reputedly Dylan played it live once and then gave up on it; New York rockers Mary Lee’s Corvette (whose live version of the complete Blood on the Tracks album is better than the original) managed to pull this one off several times: who knows when they might again.

June 23, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mary Lee’s Corvette at Lakeside, NYC 4/2/10

Good things happening in the Lakeside family: Eric “Roscoe” Ambel’s old band the Del Lords are back together (and recording!), while his wife Mary Lee Kortes’ old if considerably more recent band Mary Lee’s Corvette are back together again as well. The ‘Vette may have been more of rotating cast of characters, but it seems to have hinged on the availability of fiery guitarist Andy York. To say that York’s re-emergence has re-energized the group is an understatement. And York can play anything which is a good thing because Kortes can write anything. Her songs run the length of the emotional spectrum, and a lot of them are very dark, but the band’s sheer joy playing together again translated viscerally from the stage. This was a bassless version of the band, Kortes on acoustic guitar and percussion plus Joe Ciofalo on accordion and Konrad Meissner of the Silos on drums, but the absence of low frequencies didn’t matter.

Kortes’ work is defined by intensity, and this was a set list for fans who enjoy that intensity the most. They opened with the rustic Americana of The Nothing Song (as in “all I want is to want nothing from you”), York’s surgically precise minor-key blues licks underlining the dismissive lyric. They took it up with the casual garage rock snarl of Out from Under It and then brought it down again with Love in Another Language, York’s wide open, wobbly tremolo enhancing the hypnotic, psychedelic ambience. The hits kept coming: “This is about someone who really pissed me off,” Kortes informed the audience as they launched into a ferocious version of another dismissive kiss-off anthem, The Needy.

Why Don’t You Leave Him, the haunting, allusive tale of an abused woman (off the band’s classic True Lovers of Adventure cd from around ten years ago) was quietly riveting. When they reached the last chorus, they took it down to just Meissner’s ominous tom-tom and Kortes voice as she reached the line “he said he’d kill me, and I believed him.” The big show-stopping ballad 1000 Promises Later, also from that album juxtaposed intricately crafted vocal nuance with anguished drama – it was the big hit of the night with the crowd. But the most fascinating moments were two new versions of Beulah Rowley songs (more about her here later – watch this space). The first was a swinging, bluesy min0r-key number with a slightly noir cabaret early-1940s feel: “I was born a happy girl in an unhappy world,” its protagonist announces, and then proceeds to layer on one level of meaning after another. A swing tune, Big Things mined the same territory of the Moonlighters‘ Big Times but more darkly – this is an escape anthem more than an optimistic one. We’re overdue for a Beulah Rowley revival.

“A true story,” Kortes told the crowd, when they reached the encore. “You can’t come up with a name like that.” While the song they played is actually a compassionate look at a girl who can’t come out as a lesbian to her family, by the time the band reached the outro, everybody was laughing and singing along: “What’s the status with Gladys?”

Mary Lee Kortes’ next show is a songwriter summit of sorts with the April Blossoms, a trio with her NYC colleagues Amanda Thorpe and Serena Jost at 7ish on April 21, also at Lakeside.

April 3, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Carolann Solebello – Glass of Desire

Carolann Solebello is one of the three women in well-loved Americana-folk band Red Molly. One of the reasons for Red Molly’s popularity may be the way they skirt cliches – their unselfconscious, refreshingly down-to-earth sensibility is all too seldom seen in the ostensibly “poetic” world of folk music and singer-songwriters. As with her main band, Solebello relies on comfortable, familiar chords and changes on this cd (her first solo effort in nine years), but with a potent, metaphorically loaded lyrical style and that soaring voice that frequently evokes another extraordinary Americana singer, Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette. The production is rustic and oldschool, a tastily melodic mesh of acoustic and electric guitar textures.

All That I’ve Done Right is a perfect example of how Solebello works. It’s a straight-up country song, a mother addressing her daughter. But it’s not mawkish or sentimental, in fact in its own characteristically understated way it’s kind of harrowing, a “faded chorus girl” looking for a grain of hope in her kid and coming up with it – sort of. Likewise, Michigan, a nimbly fingerpicked tale of a would-be New York expatriate who’s “sick of living underground, sick of being tightly wound.” It has a trick ending, one that’s as sadly universal as it is funny. Another first-class track here is Behind the Door, images tumbling in a vivid evocation of how to walk away from the past – or is it possible to do that at all, Solebello ponders?

The rest of the album mixes shades of light and dark. The opening track, Home, is a memorably uneasy traveling song:

Said goodnight to my soul
Jesus went in that great big hole
Throwing rocks but still I roll

Shibboleth is a teeth-gnashing anthem, Steve Kirkman’s reverb-drenched lapsteel sheets matching Solebello’s angst note for note. The pensive Dance with Me features producer Fred Gillen Jr. sitting in on mandolin. And on Michael, an old lover tries to reconnect with her – while she may be “clinging to an oar in a sea of memories” she wisely decides against it as Kirkman’s deliciously evocative electric guitar ending seals the deal. The album winds up with the Gillian Welch-inflected Ties That Bind and a subdued ballad, Long Time Gone. The whole album is as smart as it is accessible – just like Solebello’s other project. And it’s a clinic in how to write a good folk-pop song: other songwriters should get their hands on this to see how it’s done.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The 666 Best Songs of Alltime Continues All The Way Through the End of the Zeros

As regular readers remember, for over a year we counted down the 666 best songs of all time, one a day, until the end of this past September when Lucid Culture went halfspeed. As we get into December, we’re still at halfspeed but we’ll be back with new stuff on a daily basis here in just a couple of weeks. Which gives us plenty of time to say good riddance to the decade of the Zeros and welcome in the Teens – til then, here are the songs on the list which will take us up to the first of the new year. Enjoy!

237. Randi Russo – So It Must Be True

Careening, otherworldly, somewhat flamenco-inflected epic from this era’s greatest writer of outsider anthems. The studio version on the classic 2001 Solar Bipolar album is great, but it can’t quite match the out-of-control intensity of the live version from Russo’s 2000 Live at CB’s Gallery cd.

236. Erica Smith – Pine Box

The multistylistic New York rock goddess has been off on a sultry jazz tangent lately, but five years ago she was writing lusciously jangly Americana rock and this is a prime example, ecstatically crescedoing yet dark and brooding as the title would imply. Recorded and leaked on a few bootlegs, but officially unreleased as of now.

235. The Electric Light Orchestra – From the Sun to the World

You can hear echoes of this clattering, frenetic suite in a lot of obscure art-rock and indie rock from the last thirty years. Jeff Lynne’s scary, out-of-focus apocalypse anthem kicks off with a Grieg-like morning theme, followed by a warped boogie and then an unhinged noise-rock outro that falls apart once it’s clear that it’s unsalvageable. From ELO II, 1972; mp3s are everywhere.

234. X – Nausea

The combination of Ray Manzarek’s organ swirling dizzyingly under Billy Zoom’s growling guitar and Exene’s thisclose-to-passing-out vocals is nothing if not evocative. From Los Angeles, 1980; mp3s are everywhere.

233. Stiff Little Fingers – Piccadilly Circus

Big punk rock epic about an Irish guy who gets the stuffing knocked out of him by a bunch of knuckleheads on his first night in London. From Go For It, 1981; there are also a million live versions out there, official releases and bootlegs and most of them are pretty awesome too.

232. The Wallflowers – Sixth Avenue Heartache

Elegiac slide guitar and organ carry this surprise 1996 top 40 hit’s magnificent eight-bar hook, the best song the band ever did and the only standout track on their disappointing sophomore effort Bringing Down the Horse. Mp3s are everywhere.

231. Bruce Springsteen – The Promised Land

This backbeat anthem makes a killer (literally) opening track on the Boss’ 1977 Darkness on the Edge of Town lp, perfectly capturing the anomie and despair of smalltown American life. In the end, the song’s protagonist speeds away into the path of a tornado. A million versions out there, most of them live, but it’s actually the album track that’s the best.

230. The Moody Blues – Driftwood

Towering powerpop anthem from the band’s 1977 “comeback” lp Octave, opening with a big whooosh of cymbals and lush layers of acoustic guitar. And Justin Hayward’s long electric guitar solo out, over the atmospheric wash of the strings, is a delicious study in contrasts. Many different versions out there, some of them live, and they’re all good (the link above is the studio track).

229. David Bowie – Diamond Dogs

Surreal, Stonesy apocalyptic anthem from the Thin White Duke’s vastly underrated 1974 lp. Did you know that’s Bowie on all the guitars – and the saxes too?

228. Mary Lee’s Corvette – 1000 Promises Later

Centerpiece of the NYC Americana rockers’ classic True Lovers of Adventure album, 1999-ish, this was a live showstopper for frontwoman Mary Lee Kortes and her steely, soaring, multiple-octave voice for several years afterward. It’s a rueful breakup anthem sung with typical counterintuitive verve from the villain’s point of view.

227. New Model Army – Luhrstaap

Written right as the Berlin Wall came down, this ominous, bass-driven, Middle Eastern-inflected art-rock anthem accurately foretold what would happen once East Germany tasted western capitalism: “You can buy a crown, it doesn’t make you king/Beware the trinkets that we bring.” From Impurity, 1989; the live version on 1992’s double live Raw Melody Men cd is even better (the link above is the studio version).

226. David Bowie – Life on Mars

Soaring epic grandeur for anyone who’s ever felt like an alien, from Hunky Dory, 1971. Ward  White’s live Losers Lounge version (click on the link and scroll down) is equally intense.

225. Telephone – Ce Soir Est Ce Soir

Absolutely creepy, methodical epic nocturne that wraps up the legendary French rockers’ 1982 Dure Limite lp on a particularly angst-ridden note. “Ce soir est ce soir/J’ai besoin d’espoir [Tonight’s the night/I need some hope].”

224. Al Stewart – Bedsitter Images

The live acoustic track in the link above only hints at the lush, orchestrated original, a big radio hit for the British songwriter in 1969, Rick Wakeman doing his best Scarlatti impression on piano. It’s a masterpiece of angsted existentialist songwriting, the song’s narrator slowly and surreally losing it, all by himself in his little flat.

223. LJ Murphy – Pretty for the Parlor

Our precedessor e-zine’s pick for best song of 2005, this blithely jangly yet absolutely sinister murder anthem perfectly captures the twistedness lurking beneath suburban complacency. Unreleased, but still a staple of the New York noir rock legend’s live show.

222. Wall of Voodoo – Lost Weekend

Creepy, hauntingly ambient new wave string synthesizer ballad from the band’s best album, 1982’s Call of the West, a couple gone completely off the wheels yet still on the road to somewhere. In the years afterward, frontman Stan Ridgway has soldiered on as an occasionally compelling if sometimes annoyingly dorky LA noir songwriter.

221. Randi Russo – House on the Hill

One of the New York noir rocker’s most hauntingly opaque lyrics – is she alive or dead? In the house or homeless? – set to an absolutely gorgeous, uncharacteristically bright janglerock melody. Frequently bootlegged, but the version on her 2005 Live at Sin-e cd remains the best out there.

220. The Wirebirds – This Green Hell

Our predecessor e-zine’s pick for best song of 2003 is this towering janglerock anthem, sort of a global warming nightmare epic as the Church might have done it but with amazing harmonies by songwriter Will Dial and the band’s frontwoman, Amanda Thorpe.

219. The Psychedelic Furs – House

“This day is not my life,” Richard Butler insists on this pounding, insistent, anguished anthem from the band’s best album, 2000’s Book of Days, the only post Joy Division album to effectively replicate that band’s unleashed, horrified existentialist angst. Mp3s are out there, as are copies of the vinyl album; check the bargain bins for a cheap treat.

218. X – See How We Are

The link above is the mediocre original album version; the best version of this offhandedly savage anti-yuppie, anti-complacency diatribe is the semi-acoustic take on the live Unclogged cd from 1995.

217. The Sex Pistols – EMI

Gleefully defiant anti-record label diatribe from back in the day when all the majors lined up at Malcolm McLaren’s knee. How times have changed. “Unlimited supply,” ha!

216. Amy Allison – No Frills Friend

As chilling as this casually swaying midtempo country ballad might seem, it’s actually not about a woman who’s so alienated that she’s willing to put up with someone who won’t even talk to her. It just seems that way – Allison is actually being optimistic here. Which is just part of the beauty of her songwriting – you never know exactly where she’s coming from. Title track from the excellent 2002 cd.

215. X – Johny Hit & Run Paulene

One of the greatest punkabilly songs ever, nightmare sex criminal out on a drug-fueled, Burroughs-esque bender that won’t stop. From Los Angeles, 1980; mp3s, both live and studio, are out there.

214. The Sex Pistols – Belsen Was a Gas

Arguably the most tasteless song ever written – it’s absolutely fearless. The lp version from the 1978 Great Rock N Roll Swindle soundtrack lp features its writer, Sid Vicious along with British train robber Ronnie Biggs. There are also numerous live versions out there and most of them are choice. Here’s one from Texas and one from San Francisco.

213. Randi Russo – Battle on the Periphery

Russo is the absolute master of the outsider anthem, and this might be her best, defiant and ominous over a slinky minor-key funk melody anchored by Lenny Molotov’s macabre, Middle Eastern guitar. From Shout Like a Lady, 2006.  

212. The Dead Kennedys – Holiday in Cambodia

True story: Pepsi wanted to license this song for a commercial despite its savage anti-imperialist message. Jello Biafra said no way – which might have planted the seed that spawned his bandmates’ ultimately successful if dubiously lawful suit against him. So sad – when these guys were on top of their game they were the best American band ever. From Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, 1980.

211. X – Los Angeles

One of the great punk rock hooks of all time, title track to the 1980 album, a perfect backdrop for Exene’s snide anti-El Lay diatribe. Ice-T and Body Count would sneak it into their notorious Cop Killer twelve years later.

210. The Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the UK

Yeah, you know this one, but our list wouldn’t be complete without it. As lame as the rhyme in the song’s first two lines is (Johnny Rotten has pretty much disowned them), this might be the most influential song of all time. If not, it definitely had the most beneficial effect. Go download Never Mind the Bollocks if you haven’t already: the band isn’t getting any royalties.

December 2, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Zevon-athon at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 11/12/09

by Richard Wallace

Warren Zevon was an American songwriter whose vocabulary, both written and musical, earned him acclaim from the music press, his peers and his loyal following throughout a 30 year-plus career that ended too soon when he died after a short battle with cancer in 2003.  It may have been his Russian heritage that fueled many of his songs with an unforgettably rebellious, muscular, Cossack spirit.  

It must have been that same spirit that drove Nate Schweber to lead the cavalry into Banjo Jim’s on Thursday night for the very first Warren Zevon-athon. Schweber, frontman of the New Heathens, pulled together a band of stellar downtown Americana talent to perform a robust double barrel set of Zevon’s material. The audience that packed into Banjo Jim’s shared the small club’s confined, standing-room-only space with the dozens of musicians on the bill, and they reveled all night long, celebrating in the work of an indelible artist.

For this show, Schweber was joined by J.D. Hughes on drums, Alison Jones on bass, Rich Hinman (of the Madison Square Gardeners, among others) on guitar and Andy Mullen on piano, and together they were able to do an outstanding job of recreating the stylish west coast feel of Zevon’s early recordings.

Among the standup performances were Jesse Bates (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), Mr. Somebody (“I Was in the House when the House Burned Down”),  Mr. Somebodyelse (“Mr. Bad Example”) and Andy Mullen (“The French Inhaler”).  Schweber and his bandmates added “Frank and Jesse James”, “Mohammed’s Radio”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and of course the irrepressible “Werewolves of London.” In addition, Steve Welnter delivered “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” and Steve Strunsky performed “Mr. Bad Example”. 

But the highlights of the evening may have been the contributions of the female vocalists in the house:  Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette (“Desperados Under the Eaves”)  Charlene McPherson of Spanking Charlene (“Hasten Down the Wind”), Eleanor Whitmore (“Carmelita”), Monica Passin and Drina Seay (“Keep Me in Your Heart”).  Each one of these striking performances were done with a remarkable forthrightness and amazing compassion for the material. 

Leave it to Zevon. The Excitable One’s foot-stomping numbers are models of boyish swagger. A notorious womanizer, Zevon may have been dead for six years now, yet he can still charm his way through to all the female hearts in a room with his poignantly candid lyrics. 

And then Serena Jean Southam (of the Whisky Trippers) belted out “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and the night was allowed to proceed to its fitful conclusion.   Leave it to Schweber, who’d courageously orchestrated the night, and yes, “His hair was perfect.”

November 19, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Mary Lee Kortes and Andy York at Lakeside Lounge, NYC 10/15/09

Back at Lakeside two nights in a row and this time had its moments of pure unadulterated transcendence. Mary Lee Kortes is best known as the frontwoman of Americana rockers Mary Lee’s Corvette; Andy York played in that band for a few years back in the late 90s and early zeros, all the while serving as John Mellencamp’s lead guitarist. Together again after a hiatus, the two seemed blissfully happy about sharing a stage once more. Reinforcing that presumption was the tightness of their set – with timing like theirs, who needs a rhythm section? – and the craftsmanship of the songs. Kortes gets props for her voice, an extraordinarily powerful instrument capable of effortless leaps of an octave or more that she typically cuts loose with vastly greater nuance than most other artists gifted with such potent pipes. And while she did take several of those spine-tingling jumps, it was the jewel-like terseness of her songwriting that impressed the most, whether the almost minimalist pop of a couple of her early numbers, Lonely World (from the film Happy Hour) and I Had Your Heart in Mind, to the flinty, counterintuitive, darkly tinged Americana of The Nothing Song, to the defiant, minor-key garage rock exhilaration of Out from Under It. York, true to form, didn’t play anything more than a song asked for, making everything count: a dusky, hypnotic intro on Nothing Song, some ominously incisive blues on the clever, chromatically charged retro 60s pop of Learn from What I Dream and an understatedly scorching solo on the big psychedelic crowd-pleaser One More Sun that drew a spontaneous round of applause from a rapt crowd of dedicated fans and rock luminaries (Ian Hunter and James Mastro among them) who’d proved themselves something better than “weather wimps,” as Kortes grinningly identified those who’d let the wind and rain keep them away.

The highlight of the night was a riveting, sometimes almost skeletal version of the big ballad Portland, Michigan, a revealingly lyrical look beneath the seemingly blissful obliviousness of Midwestern life. It would have been nice to have been able to stick around for the encores, but there were places to get to, late.

Kortes’ relative absence from the NYC stage (with her band, she used to play around town several times a month) can be attributed to her time recently spent writing a musical based on the life of Beulah Rowley (sp?), a long-forgotten but apparently brilliant, multistylistic songwriter from earlier in the past century (don’t bother googling) who is overdue for a career retrospective – watch this space for info and upcoming show dates.

October 20, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapt, Wrenching Beauty: Jenifer Jackson at Joe’s Pub, NYC 3/28/08

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s been a recent crop of songwriters who seem to have decided to write in every single worthwhile style of pop music ever invented – with great success. For one reason or another, maybe having to do with vocals, most of these songwriters are women: Neko Case, Rachelle Garniez and Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette, to name a few. New York expat Jenifer Jackson is another.

“Now I know how to get people to come to my shows,” she knowingly told the crowd at Joe’s Pub Friday night. “Leave New York. I’ve figured it out!” Jackson wasn’t exactly a little fish in the pond here, either. Respected by her peers and revered by a fan base for whom she seemingly can do no wrong (if she made an album of Monkees covers, they’d probably buy it), she nonetheless ran into the same brick wall affecting seemingly every New York artist, no matter how well-regarded they might be. Building a following here is tough, with literally scores of live shows competing against each other every night, a hometown media that’s essentially oblivious to hometown acts, and an ongoing process of suburbanization where artistically-inclined New Yorkers are being priced out of their neighborhoods and being replaced by corporate executives and their children from the suburbs. In other words, not exactly the kind of crowd you’d expect to come out to see anything more sophisticated than, say, Justin Timberlake. So Jackson packed up and moved to Austin.

Even more than her show at the Rockwood late last year, this was the emotional homecoming she eventually had to make, and she gave the standing-room-only crowd what they wanted. Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by just violinist Roland Satterwhite, she ran through a mix of mostly more recent material, including several songs from her most recent (and best) cd The Outskirts of a Giant Town. She also debuted three excellent new songs: a hopeful, midtempo country tune, Spring, that wouldn’t have been out of place on her 2001 album Birds; a pensively catchy, upbeat number possibly titled Tired; and the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, sad country waltz called The Beauty of the Emptying, with one of Jackson’s signature imagistic lyrics. Jackson gets accolades for her songwriting, but tonight was a vivid reminder of what a brilliant song stylist she is, alternating between a nuanced lower register and the soaring, airy delivery that has been her trademark throughout her career. There’s great passion and intensity in her songs and in her voice, but it’s generally very subtle, tonight’s stripped-down arrangements giving her vocals the perfect opportunity to cut through.

“This is a song that earned me two thousand dollars,” she told the crowd with considerable irony before launching into a boisterous version of one of her earliest songs, Mercury, the Sun and Moon, a somewhat eerie tribute to the joys and pleasure of being a bon vivant. When she and Satterwhite reached the bridge, she slammed out the song’s tango rhythm as he went into a frenzied gypsy-inflected solo. They encored with a fetching duet on the standard Every Time We Say Goodbye, Satterwhite switching to guitar. He’s an excellent singer, with a smooth, Chet Baker style delivery, making a good foil for Jackson’s warm, wistful vocals. She ended the song with gentle vocalese, going down the scale with a jazzy seventh chord. More than anything, tonight’s show was a reminder of everything we stand to lose if this city continues the decline that the Bloomberg administration and its developer cronies are dead set on bringing to its logical conclusion.

March 31, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Serena Jost Live at Joe’s Pub, NYC 3/3/08

The adrenaline was flowing. Walking up Fourth Avenue at about half past ten, it was impossible not to be moving with a defiant bounce, humming Our Town, the stomping Iris DeMent cover that Serena Jost and band had just played to close their set at Joe’s Pub. And it wasn’t even all that good, mostly drums and hardly anything else in the mix. Not that the band played it badly, and drummer Colin Brooks was just doing his job. This was strictly a sound issue: Jost’s music is all about dynamics, tension and resolution, and this was their big crescendo of the night. It just must have caught the sound guy off-guard.

Between everybody who contributes here, we see scores if not hundreds of concerts, openings and movies every year. Serena Jost has been a fixture on the Lower East Side music scene for awhile. She’s been featured here before, and her new album Closer Than Far has been in heavy rotation here in Lucid Cultureland. Familiarity usually brings with it a certain comfort and ultimately a ho-hum factor, but not tonight. It was impossible not to be moved, tickled and sometimes even left spellbound by this show.

They opened with the absolutely, ridiculously catchy, bouncy Vertical World, an artsy pop song that serves as something of a centerpiece within the new album. It’s something that could become iconic if someone with good ears working on an indie film has the brains to run the whole song over the closing credits. The band followed that with another pretty, upbeat new one, In Time, which made a good segue. Jost moved around the stage a lot, beginning the set on keyboards, then switching to acoustic guitar, then cello, then back to keys. Her onstage persona is deliberately inscrutable. She often sings with a full, ripe, somewhat heartbroken tone, but she’s actually most mysterious when she’s having fun. The high point of the night as far as the audience was concerned was Jump, a playful straight-up 70s disco number driven by Brad Albetta’s stone-cold authentic, tongue-in-cheek bassline. But the melody gives the listener pause: it’s actually pretty dark. And why jump, anyway? This wasn’t exactly Van Halen. But the audience reveled in it. Jost and crew – once-and-future Mary Lee’s Corvette bassist Albetta holding pushing the rhythm along with Brooks, Julian Maile on electric guitar, and also guests Rob Jost (no relation) on French horn and Greta Gertler, contributing ethereal high harmonies on one song – were having the time of their lives. There was a lot of baton-tossing – Maile would fire off a solo, pass it along to the horn, then to the cello and so on – along with tricky time changes and clever wordplay. They encored with a song solo on cello, plumbing big, dark chords from the depths of the instrument: “her first love,” she reminded everyone. This is the kind of band, and the kind of show that would resonate especially with the latest yearly crop of 16-year-olds who have just discovered Pink Floyd: the passion, wit, melody and sheer intelligence that Jost and crew put into their music makes a good match.

March 4, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Amanda Thorpe – Union Square

This could be the ultimate autumnal New York album, perfect for grey days with a chill in the air, winter’s hand tugging impatiently on the curtains. The songs on Union Square are gorgeously wistful and intensely poignant. What Linda Thompson was to the 70s and early 80s, Amanda Thorpe is to this era, another British expat steeped in traditional English folk, possessed of one of the most beautifully haunting voices you will ever hear. Thorpe is somewhat more diverse, however: she will give you eerie austerity and resigned melancholy, but she also has a seductive, torchy side with great nuance. This is the first solo release for Thorpe – who also fronts the supremely catchy Bedsit Poets – since her first album, Mass, in 2002, and it was well worth the wait.

By contrast to Mass, a lushly produced, smokily atmospheric effort, this one is remarkably terse and direct. Every note on this album counts. Thorpe is accompanied here by a choice crew of New York luminaries – co-producer Brad Albetta (also of Mary Lee’s Corvette) on bass, Bill Frisell sideman Tony Scherr on guitar and upright bass, Bob Perry on lapsteel and ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on keys. The album kicks off with the sarcastic Life Is Great, a lament directed at a pillhead: “Life is great with a hole inside.” Perry adds layers of bluesy lapsteel over Thorpe’s understatedly frustrated vocals. Track two, Won’t You Let Me (a co-write with Phillip Shelley) is pure seduction set to a sweetly soaring Albetta bassline. The next track, River Song is arguably Thorpe’s finest hour as a songwriter, a vivid account of rejection and despair, here recast with something of a Madder Rose-style 90s trip-hop feel. After that, Next to Me makes a good segue, Thorpe holding up a red flag – albeit from a distance – to a would-be suitor.

Burn This House Down, spiced with juicy blues piano from McGinty, has Thorpe bringing the intensity up to redline as she pulls out all the stops and belts:

Though I still love you
The romance is dead
As you burn this house down

Then Scherr launches into a truly nasty slide guitar solo.

Other standout tracks on this album include the marvelously catchy You and Me in a Doorway (also a co-write with Shelley) with its lush bed of guitars and lapsteel; the hypnotic, pastoral Over the Sea (a Wirebirds soundalike); the beautifully melancholy title track, and the absolutely brilliant Show Me a Place. Thorpe’s voice longs for something transcending the ordinariness that she’s held on to with such a steely grip, until now. “As long as there were cigarettes and another glass of wine,” everything was ok. But now she sees “my own black silhouette reflect against the sky:” high time for a change. Perry’s layers of lapsteel punch at the melody like a string quartet. Few other singers in Thorpe’s league ever get to sing material this good; still fewer songwriters in Thorpe’s league can deliver it with as much passion, intensity and subtlety as she does. This ought to appeal to a very wide listenership encompassing the purist Richard & Linda Thompson contingent as well as fans of the current group of A-list chanteuses (Feist, Erica Smith, Rachelle Garniez et al.) and maybe even some of the less adventurous for whom Norah Jones is simply the greatest thing out there.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments