Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jay Vilnai’s Shakespeare Songs: Dark Otherworldly Intensity

Jay Vilnai may be best known as an eclectic, intense guitarist and connoisseur of gypsy music. He’s also a formidable composer, most recently reaffirmed by his new collection, Shakespeare Songs, a setting of six Shakespeare texts sung with counterintuitive relish by soprano Gelsey Bell over the often downright creepy strings of the Mivos String Trio. Much of this is sort of a missing link between Rasputina and Bernard Herrmann.

The Mourning Song from Cymbeline matches an austerely aching string melody to soulfully apprehensive vocals. Set to a stately, insistent rhythm, it’s a brooding reflection on mortality, with just enough bracing atonality to give the dirge a genuinely creepy otherworldliness. The second cut, To Dream Again is a vignette anchored by stark lo/hi contrast between cello and violin. Sigh No More (from Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 2), a slow waltz fueled by pizzicato cello, has Bell adding a strikingly melismatic, soul-inflected quality: she gets the max out of her occasional flights as it builds with understated counterpoint and hints at vaudeville. Rather than “converting all your sounds of woe,” as the Bard suggests, the song plays up the pain of the past, with a deliciously creepy outro.

There’s also a wry humor here, particularly in Behind the Door (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1), its clever mimicry, ghostly ambience and ethereal overtones making a marvelously nocturnal backdrop for the ghoulish lyric:

Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide

It it grows to a march with clever counterpoint and a deadpan horror-movie conclusion. Likewise, I Have Drunk and Seen the Spider, from The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene 1 – a Melora Creager-esque spoken-word piece – playfully looks at the power of suggestion. The final track is an operatic take on the old folk song Hey Ho the Wind and the Rain, its shifting astringencies making a marvelously menacing contrast with the blitheness of the melody. The musicianship is understated, with nuanced dynamics by the entire ensemble: Joshua Modney on violin, Victor Lowrie on viola and Isabel Castellvi (also of exhilirating worldbeat string band Copal) on cello. Throughout the songs, Vilnai’s arrangements are strikingly terse and economical, not to mention memorable – indie classical doesn’t get any better than this.

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January 14, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/27/11

As we usually do every day – but didn’t do over the previous very, very lost weekend – our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album was #461:

Rasputina – Oh Perilous World

The original cello rockers, Rasputina have been putting out great albums for almost 20 years, frontwoman Melora Creager backed by an increasingly shifting cast of characters. This is her finest hour, from 2007: she’s always been a great lyricist as well as a composer, but she really took it to the next level with these torrentially metaphorical songs that deliver a very subtle but absolutely brutal critique of the Bush regime’s reign of terror and the paranoia they spread in the wake of 9/11. All this takes place against a backdrop of global warming (1816 the Year Without a Summer), basic human rights taking a beating (Choose Me for a Champion), and anthrax scares engineered from inside the government (Incident in a Medical Clinic). Only in Draconian Crackdown does she let down her guard and blast the traitors of 9/11 for their cowardice. Otherwise, the journey from Child Soldier Rebellion to Bring Back the Egg Unbroken to Old Yellowcake (weapons of mass destruction – get it?) is a treacherous and grotesquely graphic one, and Creager leaves no stone unturned. A courageous and mighty blow for democracy whose time may not have come yet. Here’s a random torrent.

November 3, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem: Important and Compelling

Among the many important works inspired by the 9/11 disaster, Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem – recently released on Innova – is one of the most gripping. It’s a Christian mass performed by the Trinity Youth Chorus, augmented in the lower registers by members of the Trinity Choir, conducted by Robert Ridgell. Which is a choice of performers as fitting as it is musically successful; New York’s Trinity Church was the house of worship closest to Ground Zero, its organ destroyed by the avalanche of soot and debris from a couple of blocks away. Here the choir performs with Alexander Hermann at the organ, Jennifer Hoult on harp, and a cello section of Aminda Asher, Veronica Parrales, Sara Wolfe, and Miho Zaitsu. Most of this is very quiet as befits an atmosphere where grief has depleted most all energy, although not all the music is dark: Moran allows some hope for a possible future, particularly on the warm if plaintive theme in the final movement, In Paradisum. The melodies move slowly, gently, often very poignantly: the arrangements themselves change much more than the actual tunes, in the style of Rennaisance choral music but with more of a willingness to embrace the unresolved, a style perfectly capsulized in the Introit, which begins with the suite’s one big organ swell and ends unsettled and somewhat menacing. Somewhat similarly, the spacious, echoey Kyrie gingerly moves away from and then back to a central tone. A calming hymn, a gentle processional that gives way to a baroque waltz (with vivid echoes of the Pachelbel Canon), a distant, somewhat minimalist funeral march and eventually a turn into quiet, otherworldly, mutedly soaring upper-register ambience mark the passage from stunned disbelief to sheer anguish to a slow determination to begin anew. To call it methodical wouldn’t be accurate – coping with death is never like that – but it’s a potently perceptive portrayal of how many of those who survived the disaster, or lost loved ones in it, would respond. When approached to write this, Moran was initially dismayed by the idea of writing a requiem sung mostly by children, but it’s a good thing he didn’t back away from it. This achievement makes a powerful, considerably quieter counterpart to Melora Creager’s angry, betrayed 9/11 suite, and Robert Sirota’s haunting, nightmarish Triptych.

There are three other works on this album, and they make good segues. Seven Sounds Unseen, a John Cage homage performed by choral ensemble Musica Sacra, is considerably more lively but similarly full of intriguingly subtle tonal and timbral shifts, particularly the low, solitary drone that emerges toward the end of the first movement to counterbalance the highs as they reach for a hypnotically celebratory feel. The second is a long, hypnotic round with a surprise interruption, the third a mutedly triumphant outro.

Notturno in Weiss, a subtly apprehensive, slow fugue between the voices of The Esoterics and harpists Alexis Odell and Melissa Walsh is a setting of a Christian Morgenstern poem which contrasts the whiteness of a lily and a tombstone, each keeping its own vigil. The final track is titled Requiem for a Requiem, a seamless Moran “greatest hits” medley assembled by soundsculptor Phillip Blackburn including an excerpt from a more vigorous work as well as long passages that play up the harp versus the choir’s atmospherics.

October 26, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/13/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #566:

Rasputina – A Radical Recital

Since the 90s, cellist/songwriter Melora Creager has created an eerily surreal, twistedly lyrical, frequently hilarious, visionary body of work that ranks with any other songwriter or composer’s output during that time. Literally everything she’s ever made is worth owning. This particular edition of Rasputina, from 2005, features three cellos and drums (the drum guy sings a silly English folk song, When I Was a Young Girl, for comic relief from the relentless, dark intensity) plus Creager on vocals doing essentially a greatest hits-live set. It’s a strong if incomplete representation, with the searing chromatics of Saline the Salt Lake Queen; the ferociously sarcastic Howard Hughes; the ethereally sad Sign of the Zodiac and Watch TV; a blistering cover of the old swing tune If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love; the amusing Mama Was an Opium Smoker; the entertainingly vicious anti-Rudy Guiliani broadside The Mayor; the pensive suicide anthem A Quitter, plus tongue-in-cheek chamber rock versions of Led Zep’s Rock & Roll and Barracuda by Heart. The cd is still available at the band’s site; here’s a random torrent.

July 14, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: The John Kerry Fundraiser at Sin-e, 8/26/04

[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]

Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.

Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.

Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.

Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.

Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rasputina at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY 10/31/07

Legend is that back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, bands like this would sell out football and soccer stadiums around the world. Every year, a new generation of schoolkids would discover them, leaving their song lyrics on their desks as graffiti for their friends to respond to in kind. All of these bands became impossibly rich and famous, with many of their songs becoming part of the cultural landscape. While that era may be gone forever, it is safe to say for every year that the world manages to survive, a new generation will discover Rasputina. The ultimate Halloween band reminded yet again what an incredible live act they are, with a deep back catalog of songs to match. Tonight they treated an unusually diverse crowd – a mix of goth kids and nondescript couples in their twenties and thirties, with not a trendoid to be seen anywhere – to a riveting set of mostly more recent material.

They opened with an apt, deapan cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties, following that with the tongue-in-cheek, slightly Bollywood-inflected Thimble Island and a stomping, completely rearranged version of their early audience hit Transylvanian Concubine. Frontwoman/cellist Melora Creager introduced the song with a joke about Hitler telling his shrink that he ejaculates during his strident speeches. The punchline that the shrink ostensibly responded with wasn’t audible: while the sound here is much improved since the former Northsix space was taken over by the folks who own Bowery Ballroom and the Mercury, it wasn’t always easy to make out what Creager was saying, and that’s too bad, because she’s one of the funniest people in rock. And this show rocked. They followed that with a new one, possibly titled Antique High-Heeled Red-Soled Shoes, and the uncharacteristically pretty pop song Fox in the Snow, the hungry animal personifying someone looking to get laid. For the last couple of years, Creager has streamlined the band’s live lineup down to just herself, another cellist who dazzled with her screechy monster-movie fills, soaring flights up the scale and spot-on harmony vocals, and a drummer who also dazzled with his imagination, musicality and ability to turn on a dime and follow Creager when she’d stop a lyric cold to say something funny to the audience.

Rasputina’s longest-running joke is that they were formed sometime in the 1800s. Creager has long had a fascination with bizarre historical events, and tonight they treated the crowd to the characteristically haunting global warming cautionary tale 1816 the Year Without a Summer, from the band’s latest and best album, Oh Perilous World, along with another, quieter, creepier cut, Oh Bring Back the Egg Unbroken. But these songs, in addition to the 9/11 trilogy from the new album that they ended their set with, carry a lot more weight than their earlier, more playful material. Creager is still a master of the clever double entendre and the off-the-wall cultural or historical reference, but the new material packs a potent, politically charged wallop. The audience roared their approval when Creager told them that the trilogy was written based on the conclusion that the Bush regime engineered 9/11. “But that’s old news,” she sighed after the applause had finally subsided.

They closed the show with some older concert staples: the ridiculously catchy, almost heavy metal, completely off-the-wall Saline the Salt Lake Queen; a scorching, distortion-laden version of the riff-rocking Trenchmouth, from their second album, and the sly, innuendo-filled old 1930s pop/swing hit If Your Kisses Won’t Hold the Man You Love. With all the great symphonic rock bands from the pleistocene era now either fossilized or playing exclusively to the hedge fund set for hundreds of dollars a ticket, it’s reassuring to see Rasputina pick up the torch, sounding better than ever. Who knew: a dozen years ago, when they first started, conventional wisdom was that they were a novelty act, three cello-weilding women dressed in Victorian underwear. Some novelty, seven great albums and five ep’s later.

November 4, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments