Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Mark Steiner – Fallen Birds

A gorgeous collection of dark, quietly impassioned piano and guitar-based songs. Mark Steiner made a name for himself in New York as the leader of the popular art-rock bands Piker Ryan’s Folly (the “Folly” eventually fell by the wayside) and Kundera. Best known for his voice – Steiner’s casually ominous baritone is instantly recognizable, and has earned him well-deserved acclaim – he’s quietly built himself a cult following in Europe after having relocated to Norway a few years ago. Our loss is their gain.

Nisj, the opening track, harkens back to Steiner’s earlier, Nick Cave-influenced period, all shadow and tortured romance with its recurrent theme of “All I want, all I need is you.” The album’s second cut Unbearable, with its torchy, eerie intro is a dead ringer for legendary Pacific Northwest expats the Walkabouts, right down to the faux Carla Torgerson vocals that come in on the second verse. It’s a fast, relentless number that crescendos out of a tense, rapid verse to one of the catchiest refrains of the year. Wallspotting, driven by percussive piano, returns to the sexy desperation of the album’s opening cut. One can only wonder what a noir chanteuse like Little Annie or Neko Case could do with this one.

(Now She’s) Gone is a big audience favorite. Absolutely no one writes a haunting 6/8 ballad better than Steiner, and this is one of his best. Here, we finally get to hear his trademark reverb-laden, David Lynch-esque, tremolo-bar guitar, complemented brilliantly by Susan Mitchell’s sepulchral viola work. Drunk is another popular concert staple and also one of Steiner’s best songs, something akin to what Shane MacGowan might sound like had he grown up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Like most everything else on this album, the chorus is killer. The cd concludes with the “crooner version” of perhaps Steiner’s biggest hit to date, Cigarettes, another of his signature 6/8 ballads. As the title implies, this recording is more expansive and jazzier than the original, which makes it interesting, albeit not better than the absolutely riveting version Steiner plays live. To paraphrase B.B. King, sometimes a major or minor is all you need: this was probably a lot of fun to record, but it’s also kind of overkill. Still, as a whole this is an absolutely tremendous album, the finest work Steiner has done to date and based on his show here last month, his new material is just as good. A classic of its kind. Five bagels. Rye, which is probably pretty much all you can get in Norway. CDs are available in better European record stores and online. And like an increasing number of underground artists, Steiner has also released this on 180 gram vinyl. Given the cd’s tasteful production, one can only wonder how delectable the sonics on the record must be!

November 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Mark Steiner at Otto’s Shrunken Head, NYC 10/16/07

An exhilarating, powerful show. New York expat and former Kundera and Piker Ryan’s Folly frontman Mark Steiner had a great band behind him: brothers Peter and Christopher Mele on bass and drums, respectively, the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin and a couple of excellent female backing vocalists joining him from time to time.

The band was loud, but as one A-list New York rocker, incognito in a maroon Midwestern windbreaker was heard to say, “I like the rock Steiner.” Both his former bands here were artsy, orchestrated units: tonight, they delivered a mix of big audience hits and new material with a roaring, passionate fury, as if this was CBGB, 1979. The sound mix was far from what it could have been: at one point, the aforementioned A-list rocker, disgusted, calmly walked to the stage and moved both vocal mics next to each other so that Steiner’s ominous baritone could be more audible than it was early in the show. In a world where good male singers are an increasingly rare commodity, Steiner is one of the absolute best, and he reaffirmed that tonight…when he could be heard. This place has a monthly surf music show in the corner back room here, and that sounds great, but bands with vocals are obviously an afterthought. The bass was too loud and the guitar went out of tune frequently (Steiner’s heavy use of the whammy bar requires that he retune after practically every song). Yet it didn’t matter. The songs were so good, the intensity of the performance so relentless and unselfconscious that they could have been playing in somebody’s garage and it would have been no less fun.

Steiner’s signature style is dark and menacing. He plays with a ton of reverb, frequently using his tremolo bar for an eerie, twangy bent-note effect. His melodies blend classical motifs with retro 50s chord changes, occasionally venturing into Irish ballad territory. The obvious influence is Nick Cave, but Steiner doesn’t play the balladeer, or affect any persona. His compositions echo an earlier era, around the time The Mercy Seat came out. Tonight’s only incongruity was between songs, as Steiner casually laughed and joked with the audience. It was a cd release show for his new album Fallen Birds, which he’s also released on 180 gram vinyl. “180 grams,” he mused. “Of what?” There was nervous laughter throughout the room: nobody was oblivious to what he was alluding to.

Early in the show, before they brought up the vocals, Steiner delivered one of his most powerful numbers, a slow, 6/8 tale of abandonment (he loves 6/8 time). Soon afterward Steiner turned up his amp to the point of distorting, and they followed with a supremely catchy, upbeat, staccato-driven tune that sounded like the great lost early Bauhaus track. After that, they played the haunting, 6/8 audience hit Now She’s Gone, then a very long cover of The Fever: “You never know how much I hate you, baby,” Steiner sneered as they launched into the song. A pretty young woman named Trisha came out of the audience to join the band, delivering a long, obviously desperate lyric that she read from a cheat sheet while the band pounded behind her like the Cramps. Given the sonics in the club, it was hard to figure out what she was singing, but eventually she was moved to the point of tears.

Then Bellmer Dolls lead guitarist Peter Mavrogeorgis joined the band for their last few songs. He’s a master of reverb-laden, dismissive, angry staccato wails, which interspersed within Mitchell’s lightning-fast, eerie gypsy runs and flourishes became the perfect complement to Steiner’s brooding, bitter melodies. Steiner warned the audience more than once that he wasn’t going to play an encore, but they still wouldn’t let him leave the stage so finally he indulged them with one of his most popular songs, Cigarettes, another trademark 6/8 number driven by reverb and tremolo chords.

This was the kind of show that you walk out of absolutely flying. It was like seeing the Clash, or the Church, or LJ Murphy for the first time. You feel bulletproof, able to ingest whole bottles of whiskey in a single gulp, stand up to any representative of the fascist machine no matter how outgunned you may be. Pure sonic adrenaline, and a reassuring reminder that music this powerful and invigorating is far, far from dead. Steiner doesn’t play a lot of US dates anymore – which undoubtedly explains why he was playing this one-off date at Otto’s instead of, say, Bowery Ballroom – watch this space for future NYC appearances.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ninth House – Realize and It’s Gone

The fourth and possibly final cd from this long-running New York “cemetery and western” unit. This isn’t a country album by any means: it’s a dark, desperate, angry rock record. Aside from some of the songwriting (frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis continues in this promising direction in his solo work), the only concession to Nashville is that the vocals are mixed noticeably louder than the instrumentation, in the style of country records from the 1930s and 40s. Ninth House bridge the gap between Joy Division and Johnny Cash. The production values are strictly punk/new wave: layers of distorted and watery electric guitars, ominous string synthesizer and organ, and melodic bass, usually set to a fast 2/4 beat. The cd opens with a roar, on the magnificently ferocious chorus of the single Long Stray Whim (a deliriously good live take of this song was previously issued on the band’s sadly out-of-print Aerosol album). It’s a transcendentally powerful escape anthem:

This morning I stopped
It’s boring, I strayed
I’m on a long stray whim
It started
For a moment I fought it
I couldn’t persuade me
I’m on a long stray whim

In a dark, passionate baritone, Sinnis – one of the greatest male singers in all of rock – builds his case for getting away from it all. It’s ELO’s Eldorado for a new generation. The band follows this with the wickedly anthemic Burn, about a cremation. Ninth House frequently get pegged as a goth band, and while they’re much more diverse, this song makes it easy to see how they got that label. The next two tracks, Stretch Marks and Quiet Change could easily have fit onto a mid-80s Cure album like Head on the Door, although they crunch rather than jangle. After that, the slow What Are You Waiting For builds to a soaring crescendo of vocals and guitars.

The following cut Mistaken for Love is one of two straight-up country songs on the album, although the band – particularly guitarist Bernard San Juan, who has since left – gives it a rock treatment. It’s a savage look back at a failed marriage: Sinnis’ cold ending will send chills down your spine. Similarly, the next track Skeletons has country swing but an 80s rock sound. The tempo picks up even more on the relentless, minor-key Out of Reach, a concert favorite. Then it’s back to Nashville gothic with When the Sun Bows to the Moon, a gorgeous, catchy country anthem, a broadside fired at point-blank range at somebody who can’t get over herself:

You live in your own atmosphere
You create your own demise
Breathe your own tainted air

It’s taken on a particularly poignant significance in the wake of 9/11. The next song Cause You Want To is a slow, crescendoing, death-obsessed number that belies its catchy, major-key melody. The album closes with a blistering rock version of perhaps the original Nashville gothic song, Ghost Riders in the Sky and then the epic title track, which builds from a catchy, thorny major-key first section into a hypnotically dark, crashing, descending progression. And then it’s over.

Sinnis’ lyrics are terse and crystallized, the band is tight and the overall intensity of the album never lets up. This is serious stuff, a good album to blast at top volume after a rough day at work or school. Definitely one of the best half-dozen albums of the year to date, as consistently good as Ninth House’s two previous studio records. Five shots of bourbon, no chaser. Albums are available online, in better independent record stores and at shows. Ninth House plays the cd release show on July 7 at Galapagos at midnight.

June 17, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Botanica – Berlin Hi-Fi

What do you do when your last album was arguably the best single-disc cd of the decade so far? Maybe you flip the script. Maybe you do something radically different, that no one can compare to your most recent effort. Maybe, you make a pop album – or part of one, anyway. That’s what Botanica has done with their latest masterpiece (their trademark epic grandeur and snarling ferocity roars back and takes over on the rest of the songs). It’s an unabashedly romantic (and Romantic) achievement, lush and orchestrated, eerie yet sexy as hell. Put this on the night table beside the Al Green and the Moonlighters: it’s bedroom music for cold starless nights.

Botanica’s trademark sound welds their towering, passionate, keyboard-driven melodicism to a dark, savage reverb guitar attack, blending elements of gypsy punk, classical music and goth into a powerful, potently cerebral cocktail. On this one, they don’t even start a song in 4/4 until the album’s fourth song. The album opens with the stately Eleganza and Wines, a beautiful, rueful lament for a time and place lost forever, played in slinky 7/8 meter. As is so typical with Botanica’s songs, it builds to a towering crescendo and then fades to its central hook. (And Then) Palermo maintains the feeling of regret, a gorgeously romantic pop song in 6/8. The cd’s following cut, its title track is the most overtly 90’s style indie rock song they’ve done to date, a little out of character, but it works: a joyous shout-out to Berlin, where they’ve built up a substantial following, and it’s obvious that the appreciation is mutual. Remember the last time you left the country, how good you felt, how absolutely liberated? If so, this is your anthem. Next song: Concrete Shoes. Classic Botanica, haunting and desperate. “Save me now/Tie the rope around my neck and pull me up.” The footfalls of Christian Bongers’ bass quickly creep along as the guitar and organ roar, building inexorable momentum. On the following cut, I’m Lifting, the tension recedes to the background, but just a little bit: the rest of the band plays over and around frontman/keyboardist Paul Wallfisch’s central, haunting electric piano arpeggio.

Next up is A Freestyle Kiss to Hedy Lamarr (whose image graces the cover of the album), laden with sadness, melodies pouring in and overflowing the carafe, staining the tablecloth shiraz red. Then we get the frenetic concert favorite Someone Else Again, with its ascending bassline and Hollywood noir feel: David Lynch could use this for his next movie if it’s anything like Mulholland Drive.

The scorching antiwar song Waking Up clocks in at barely a minute and a half, a throwback to the furious politically charged power of Botanica’s career-defining previous album, Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. The album’s next tune, I Desire perfectly encapsulizes where Botanica is now. John Andrews’ scary reverb guitar plays the song’s central arpeggio as Wallfisch’s funereal electric piano tones reverberate against it and build to a firestorm of emotion.

The album’s most likely radio hit – and there are many to choose from – is its next track, Not a Bear: “more ambitious than your average bear,” as the lyric goes. “Why sleep when you could be wide awake?” It’s a curious question, with Andrews’ menacing guitar and Wallfisch’s organ lurking in the background, and it might be rhetorical. The alternative could be fatal.

More political gypsy punk (and a wildly frenetic, deliciously climactic violin solo) with How, which the band frequently uses as an aptly furious concert encore. Then the sarcastic, Nick Cave-inflected Fame, a savage blast back at the entertainment-industrial complex and all the rockstar wannabes who buy into it.

Then a return to the same reflective tone the album began on, with This Perfect Spot. The cd’s secret track is Eleganza and Wines rearranged for string quartet and it’s absolutely beautiful, a spot-on way to close this gorgeous, meticulously arranged and fearlessly intense album. This is not your neighbor’s whiny, tuneless indie rock. It’s not your father’s bloated, bombastic prog rock. It’s the soundtrack to your life at top speed, full volume, every synapse at full power. Why sleep when you could be wide awake. Albums are available in better record stores, at shows and online.

Frontman Paul Wallfisch is on tour right now with the “coalmine canary,” noir chanteuse Little Annie but we should expect at least one NYC area show this summer after they return.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments