Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 8/4/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1.Wednesday’s album is #909:

Nina Nastasia – The Blackened Air

This album was recorded before 9/11, but released shortly thereafter, it made a potent soundtrack for a city, and an era, reeling from the impact and braced for the worst. Conventional wisdom is that Nastasia’s classic album is her 2000 debut, Dogs, and while its songs are wrenchingly vivid, this one’s the counterintuitive choice. Nastasia’s lyrics on Dogs were like a Weegee lens, sardonic portraits of dissolution, disillusion and sometimes despair, perfectly suited to her matter-of-factly plaintive, sometimes biting vocals. Here they tend to observe from a few hundred feet, often achieving a towering angst equal to Pink Floyd or the other great art-rockers. Backed by a brilliant band including Bowie collaborator Gerry Leonard on guitar, Dylan Willemsa on viola, Stephen Day on cello, Joshua Carlebach on accordion and Jay Bellerose on drums, Nastasia alternates between starkly bucolic minimalism, eerie miniatures and hypnotic pitchblende atmospherics. She’s never made a bad record: her other albums Run to Ruin and You Follow Me (a 2007 collaboration with Jim White of the Dirty Three) are closer to the vibe of Dogs and very much worth getting to know – ideally with the lights out.

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August 3, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Linda Draper – Bridge and Tunnel

Quietly and methodically, New York songwriter Linda Draper has climbed into the ranks of the elite: to rank her with Aimee Mann, Richard Thompson or Neko Case would not be an overstatement. To put that statement in perspective, consider that this new cd is her sixth consecutive consistently excellent album, a rare achievement. Bridge and Tunnel harkens back to the strikingly direct, tersely catchy acoustic pop feel of her 2001 debut, Ricochet, without compromising her utterly unique, brilliantly literate, characteristically dark lyrical voice. Brad Albetta‘s production here is beautifully minimalist, with terse bass, live drums and occasional organ looming behind Draper’s alternately soaring and hushed vocals and dexterously fingerpicked guitar. Staring from the shadows, haunted but resolute and defiant, she sounds something akin to Nina Nastasia with a broader sonic palette.

The album title is a New York reference: the phrase”bridge and tunnel” is a slur meaning suburban and unsophisticated. The song itself, a bitter, bluesy, minor-key number is, like pretty much everything else here, spiked with sharp lyrical gems. Refusing to budge, the narrator holds her ground, knowing she’ll have to struggle to stay where she is, whether that place is literal or metaphorical:

There’s no tunnel without a light

Still my vision is failing me now

Little girl what you gonna do

When the day comes and there’s no one left to run to,

You could stand, you could stall

Play dead in the middle of it all…

There’s no way I’d rather feel tonight

Though tomorrow I will pay the price…

The cd’s catchy opening track alludes to madness and confinement:

Through the bars of my window I see many lives…

Black turns into blue as the day turns into night

How low will you go?

But it turns warmer with Sharks and Royalty, a quietly confident anthem for nonconformists everywhere:

Among the sharks and the royalty

There must be room for you and me

Oh my dear have no fear of what you can’t see

Oh my dear have no fear for me

I’ll tell you just what happened here

We all begin and end and tears

The moral of the story’s in your dreams

Sometimes things are the way they seem

Among the rotten ones we’ll run free…

With its swinging backbeat, Time Will Tell offers a vivid autopsy for a doomed relationship: the narrator misses the guy, but only when she’s “not quite at my best. You are the shipwreck, I am the sea, you’re sinking right through me,” she charges, matter-of-factly. After that, the cleverly titled Pushing up the Days offers a similarly jaundiced view of how relationships inevitably decay:

Instead of clutching I will fold

The daylight lives in the hearts of those

Who give without expecting a gift to be given in return

You can smell as long as you want to smell those roses

But keep in mind they’re from another time

When you’re pushing up the days, pushing up the daisies

Close Enough, with its insistent, percusssive fingerpicking is a throwback to the hypnotic feel of much of her most recent work: “If your love is not enough to bring home tonight, I suggest you take your pulse to make sure you’re still alive,” Draper taunts. Then it’s back to the defiant feel with the bouncy, Rhode piano-driven Broken Eggshell:

Every corner I meet there’s two more empty streets

I’ve been walking down

And every step that I take there’s an eggshell to break

It’s the perfect sound

The cd wraps up with a playful, tongue-in-cheek Stones cover and the country-inflected outsider anthem Last One Standing: “Some will lead, most will follow, then there are the lucky few who find better things to do.” So many levels of meaning, so many nuances in Draper’s voice and a wealth of beautifully minute detail in the music as well. You can bet this will be high on our best albums of 2009 list at the end of the year; watch this space for upcoming September live shows.

August 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Make Music NY Review 6/21/08

What a beautiful summer day. There are plenty of beautiful days in New York, just hardly ever from June to late September. Saturday was what New York was supposedly like in the summer in the 70s, temperatures around 80 but with a nice breeze and hardly any humidity, a very auspicious way to start the second annual Make Music NY, the local version of the international outdoor street music festival la Fete de la Musique. In keeping with the Lucid Culture tradition of trying to cover as many performances in as many diverse styles as possible, a decision was reached. The all-day punk show on Governors Island was tempting, but didn’t make the cut (and as it turned out, this Sunday’s NY Times covered it, in which case a report here would have been at least somewhat redundant). Since this is an outdoor festival, with most of the bands shlepping their own primitive PA systems and portable generators, performances tend to run behind schedule, with the inevitable snafus. The game plan: start in Williamsburg, where there were several intriguing shows scheduled within a short radius; then, to minimize travel time, to the East Village; then back to the Burg for a final show. A single indulgence would be allowed, one favorite band who’ve been profiled here before. Otherwise, everything would have to be either a new discovery or at least someone who hasn’t been reviewed here yet. The best-laid plans, ad infinitum…

Saturday’s tour began in the belly of the beast, beneath the scaffolding at one of those shoddy new luxury condo firetraps that seem to spring up overnight, this one on North Tenth. A handful of kids passed by, the pile of amps and band gear drawing lots of looks, but nobody stopped. Then a couple arrived, both looking somewhat puzzled. “You wanna buy a condo, talk to Patrice inside,” a worker on the catwalk told them, looking just as puzzled as they were. “We DON’T want to buy a condo,” the guy replied, practically shuddering at the thought – apparently he was looking for a friend in one of the bands who were scheduled to play there. A little after one, the punkish Bronx group Diabolique started playing: just two of the band members, a guy on lead guitar and a woman on drums who later switched to rhythm guitar while stomping on a tambourine. A work in progress: they started out with a decently growling cover of the Rumble, which was a good sign (Link Wray covers are almost always a sign of good chops and good taste). The band has several intriguing mp3s (available for free download) on their website, one of which they played, not as punk as the snarling broadside online. The woman is the better of the two musicians; maybe it was the early hour or lack of rehearsal, but for whatever reason, the guy needs practice. But the two had good energy and enough of a sense of what they were doing to make them worth checking back with in a couple of months.

Next stop was McCarren Park, where a gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara were scheduled for 2 PM. You’d think that it would be pretty impossible to hide a gamelan orchestra in this park, but they were nowhere to be found. An hour into the festival, and Plan B was already in full effect, which meant that the next stop was 780 Lorimer St., where the marvelous oldtime French chanson revivalists les Chauds Lapins were supposed to play. As it turned out, the address is the entrance to McCarren Pool (one wonders how many more of the band’s fans would have showed up had the band, or Time Out, who were in charge of the festival schedule, made this known). But no matter: the group’s frontman and woman, Kurt Hoffman and Meg Reichardt stood resolutely in the hot sun and played a characteristically delightful set. As they serenaded the crowd gathered beneath the trees, a fenderbender between a couple of SUV’s was narrowly averted. A Mr. Softee truck circled the block: in an absolutely unexpected act of politeness, the driver turned off his jingle as he passed the second time. Hoffman sang and played banjo ukulele; Reichardt also began on banjo uke and then switched to lead guitar. What was most apparent was how much their repertoire has grown in the months since they were last reviewed here, and what a fine jazz guitarist Reichardt is becoming. She’s always been a smartly incisive, original blues player, so this new direction she’s taking makes perfect sense. French speakers will find their songs a lyrical feast, loaded with innuendo and clever wordplay; the somewhat stagy charm of the melodies has plenty of appeal for English speakers as well.

When they’d finished, the greenmarket a short walk away beckoned: fresh cilantro, mmmm! And across the way from the stalls with all that delicious greenery was Gamelan Dharma Swara! “New York’s own gamelan,” or at least this edition of it is a community group with what seems to be a revolving membership based on who’s available to play. With a total of 17 members at this show, most of them playing traditional Balinese gamelan bells with bright yellow hammers, augmented by a boisterous bongo drummer who seemed to function as the group’s conductor, a trio of dancers and two magnificent gongs lurking behind the group (nobody took the opportunity to ring them, at least during the orchestra’s last half-hour). The music is both brightly tingling and hypnotically psychedelic. Pretty much anybody who watches PBS has probably at least caught a glimpse of a gamelan orchestra at some point, but live and up close, this kind of music reveals itself as soothing as it is fascinating, its ebbs and swells incorporating the most minute rhythmic and melodic intricacies between the performers. One of the Lucid Culture crew, nursing a pulled wing muscle, had taken a certain narcotic preferred by a certain terminally obese extreme-rightwing AM radio host, and the orchestra had her on her back and somewhere way off in dreamland within five minutes of arriving.

Gamelan Dharma Swara’s music dates back to an age where the dividing line between audience and performer was nebulous at best, before the point in history where music became a commodity, when pretty much everyone could beat on a drum or sing along or even lead the band with a lyre or a fiddle or a flute. The woman who served as the group’s spokesman informed the crowd that the public is invited to participate in rehearsals, and from the likes of it, this is a crew that is strictly in it for fun: the guy who serves as what might be called the lead bell player looks to be all of 14. Yet the orchestra came across as completely professional, assured and far beyond mere competence, even more impressive when their spokeswoman finally told the crowd that they hadn’t really rehearsed for this performance and that they were now just basically going to jam. This is the kind of group that Dave Matthews or (is Phish still together?) ought to take on the road with them if they had any brain cells left.

After that, it was back to the original agenda, to the day’s one scheduled indulgence, Linda Draper at Like the Spice Gallery on the south side. Lucid Culture’s resident part-time pillhead, back from her hippie heroin coma, had left her sore subscapularis in dreamland and, reinvigorated, went off in search of pizza. The crew’s temporarily more sober member took the long way through the park to Roebling Street, passing a bunch of trendoids playing little more than random squalls of feedback, a laughably bad Bad Company imitation yowling away where les Chauds Lapins had been an hour before, and an equally silly Interpol wannabe band out in front of the tattoo store on Roebling. As expected, everything was running behind schedule at this point. At Like the Spice, a guy/girl trendoid duo called the Dead Batteries were preening, posing and making stilted, declamatory attempts at vocals while accompanying themselves on drums and a screechy old analog synth from the 70s. Draper asked the two if she could borrow the PA their parents’ money had gotten them, but they couldn’t be bothered, so she decided to do her set old-school, completely without amplification, even though she was playing with a bleeding finger – “That’s punk rock, right?” she laughed. Meanwhile, the neighborhood Jesus freak was blasting his weekly Spanish-language Saturday sermon, with musical accompaniment, on the next block. The gallery owner, a pretty brunette named Marisa, made several attempts to get him to shut up (he’s been a nightmare for her and several other neighborhood businesses), and finally succeeded, while a crowd of skateboarders passed by, screaming and hollering at a slow-moving car competing for with them for space on the street. And then the fire department showed up. But then they left.

Distractions finally out of the way, Draper finally pulled up a chair and sang to a crowd that had obviously come from all over to hear her. Like Nina Nastasia, Draper expertly plucks her guitar more than she picks it, singing with the quiet, full, round tone of the ex-chorister she is. She did a lot of new material including songs from her soon-to-be-released sixth album, and they were uniformly excellent. From this show it was clear that Draper has grown into one of the world’s elite songwriters, finally managing to weld her rich, utterly surreal lyricism to the catchy, equally incisive tunefulness that characterized her earliest work. Frustration and sometimes raw rage frequently factor into her tersely crafted lyrics. Double entendres and an often laugh-out-loud stream-of-consciousness humor abound. Her best songs were both new numbers, one with a sharp, minor-key garage rock melody called Bridge and Tunnel which turned out to be not a slap at tourists but at just assholes in general. The other was an equally catchy, slowly burning 6/8 broadside. She asked if anyone had any requests, and someone did, the opening cut on her first album, a terrific pop tune set to a circular four-chord melody. But halfway through, she forgot the words. So she made up some new ones on the spot:

My finger has finally stopped bleeding
My hair smells like barbecue
From the restaurant down the street
Which is really good if you’re not a vegetarian…
I’m not
I always had a fast metabolism

Draper also unearthed a cover by obscure 70s songwriter Kath Bloom, a plaintive number which meshed well with all the originals. Indulgences done with, the cilantro still looked fresh, but it was time to put it in the fridge, so it was over the bridge and then over to the park at First St. and Houston where the Main Squeeze Orchestra were playing. The full orchestra is seventeen women all playing accordion, making for a sound potentially even more psychedelic and captivating than the gamelan orchestra in the park. For the first time today, the pungent smell of ganja was noticeable, wafting across the park from the benches, a crowd of derelicts relaxing to what they could hear while leaning against the fence since the the ten group members (including conductor Walter Kuhr) who’d come out today were doing the show completely without amplification. A five foot one guy in an Iggy t-shirt stopping briefly as the haunting sound fluttered in and out. Because the breeze had picked up, the womens’ sheet music was fluttering as well, creating some long pauses between songs. One of the women sat behind the front line of accordions, playing oompah basslines on a big, beautiful, oversize keyboard. She also contributed vocals on a singalong of the Kinks’ cabaret-inflected Demon Alcohol. The group alternated between haunting, classical sounding material and the amusingly orchestrated pop covers that have become their trademark: among them, a strangely straightforward Beach Boys tune, a gypsyish St. James Infirmary and Mack the Knife, and a completely over-the-top version of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean.

Perhaps frustrated by the windy conditions, the whole band took a lengthy smoke break – they all look like a bunch of party animals. So it was up to 14th St and the L, back to Williamsburg where melodic rock trio Violet Hour were supposed to play outside a bar. They had their equipment on the street, and after some lengthy soundchecking, it was apparent that they were waiting for the bar to start to fill up before playing their set. But that’s ok: Make Music NY is first and foremost for musicians. It wouldn’t make sense to fault them for not playing to a pretty much empty street where they could catch the beginning of the Saturday night bar turnout if they started an hour late. Or perhaps Time Out got their set time wrong, which would hardly be surprising. So perhaps at some point in the future Lucid Culture will cover one of their live shows. Til then, there are some good youtube clips of the band live at Trash Bar that you can listen to on their myspace.

June 22, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Linda Draper and Randi Russo Live at Cake Shop, NYC 3/7/08

Backed by excellent drummer Anders Griffen, Linda Draper flat-out rocked. Wait a minute: this is the same Linda Draper who did Snow White Trash Girl and One Two Three Four and all those other albums with the wildly imaginative, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics set to slow, hypnotic, trance-inducing guitar? Yup, that Linda Draper. Lately she’s reinvented herself as the catchy rock songwriter she seemed to want to be on her first album, with richly rewarding results. And what a terrific guitarist she’s become! The obvious comparison her most recent work draws is Nina Nastasia. Both songwriters share a terse, frequently slashing lyrical sensibility, a seemingly effortless fingerpicking style and a zero tolerance for bullshit. The material Draper played tonight, virtually all new songs destined to be recorded shortly on her sixth (!) album is more chordally driven than her earlier work, and melodically she’s made a quantum leap. She always had an ear for a tune but now she has the chops to play whatever she wants, which is pretty much anything: your average picker can’t just walk in and launch into a Linda Draper song without knowing it thoroughly. Though Draper’s vocals live off subtlety and nuance, the sound engineer had her voice perfectly up in the mix so that Griffen’s equally subtle, nuanced playing – the guy sounded like Jim White tonight – didn’t drown them out.

The next act’s frontman apparently did some time in a retro-80s disco band that had something of a following with the New Jersey/Long Island tourist crowd. He now seems to want to mine an early 90s retro-glamrock vein. But this was a band show only in the sense that he had a group behind him: it was all about him, jumping and preening and affecting an English accent even when he wasn’t singing. Too bad, because some of the songs had some nice, unexpected major-to-minor chord changes, and the band seemed inspired, when they could be heard. But that wasn’t often: despite the sound guy’s attempts to find a balance between the instruments, he kept turning up his guitar and drowning everybody out.

Randi Russo and band careened through a typically fiery, inspiring set. Russo is an amazingly inventive guitarist, fond of odd tunings, and being lefthanded she plays upside down a la Hendrix, resulting in a wash of delicious overtones from her Gibson SG. The band is a somewhat incongruously assembled lot, a hard-hitting drummer with roots in thrash metal, the great Lenny Molotov – something of an American Richard Thompson – alternating between virtuosic lead guitar and lapsteel work – and a bass player with roots in surf music, who’d probably turn everything into Misirlou or Pipeline if given half a chance. Their common bond is inspiration, which isn’t hard to fathom once you hear the material.

Russo’s stock in trade is outsider anthems; she’s the antithesis of your typical conformist indie rock bandleader. Alternately snide, sarcastic and anguished, the characters who populate her songs exhaust themselves at lousy dayjobs, rail against lazy, overpaid bosses who do none of the work and get all of the profits, and infidel lovers who renege on their promises. But a close listen reveals plenty of subtle humor beneath the rage and fury. The high point of the night was an untitled suite with the recurrent chorus “keep your head high while you lie low.” Right before the long, Middle Eastern-inflected outro, Russo brought the song down to just the guitars, slamming out an ominous series of chords while Molotov provided eerie sheets of feedback. They also did another new one, Invisible, a catchy backbeat-driven hit. The rhythm section were joking about how the intro is pretty much identical to the way the Joy Division classic Atrocity Exhibition begins, so the drummer launched into the groove and hung with it, joined quickly by the bassist, and finally the rest of the band. Considering how dark most of their music is, this band sure has a lot of fun. All indications were that the rest of the night was garage rock, which looked promising, but we had places to go and drunk people to look after.

March 10, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Secretary Feat. Big Boss/Nina Nastasia & Jim White at Mercury Lounge, NYC 10/3/07

Secretary is Moisturizer frontwoman and baritone sax player Paula Henderson’s Hollywood soundtrack side project. Or at least that’s what it sounded like tonight, like Angelo Badalamenti covering Moisturizer. Hollywood would do well to seek her out. As she made a point of reminding the audience, everything she writes is a true story. The resulting compositions, whether the utterly unique dance-rock that she plays with Moisturizer or the quieter, more atmospheric works she played tonight, all have a narrative feel, and it’s often very compelling. Or very funny. Or both simultaneously.

 

Although for Secretary gigs she hides behind a pair of spectacles and a vintage secretary suit, Henderson didn’t bother trying to shed the slightly coy, deviously witty Moist Paula persona that she assumes at Moisturizer shows. Maybe that’s just who she really is. Big Boss is a new addition, a sharp-dressed man busily multitasking on a laptop and mixer, occasionally contributing trombone, keyboards and even turntable scratching on one song. Although Moisturizer is defined by playfulness and fun, and that sensibility isn’t lost here, the quieter, more downtempo tunes Henderson does in this project afford her a chance to explore more thoughtful, pensive terrain. Tonight she played lead lines on her bari sax as Big Boss ran the tracks, most of which are on the excellent debut Secretary album. They opened with a sultry, jazzy, unreleased number perhaps titled 37 Again, Henderson’s achingly torchy, jazzy melody playing against a dense mix of textures created by playing sax through a bunch of garageband patches and then mixing everything. Later she did the balmy, ambient South Carolina Holiday, the long, playful Mouse (which is actually about chasing a mouse around the apartment), the catchy Latin dance tune Mofongo Raincheck and a somewhat classically-inflected fanfare, live sax playing call-and-response with harmonies using several different textures. Toward the end of the set, she did a lively new number called Mushrooms with Strangers that wouldn’t be out of place at a Moisturizer show. The evening’s most amusing moment was another new one called The Perfect Boss. Henderson played repetitive, staccato riffs while the computer run a shrieking, metallic wash of noise that sounded like Suicide or something from Metal Machine Music. If that’s the perfect boss, one can only wonder what the boss from hell sounds like.

 

Nina Nastasia sold out the room. It had been ten years since she’d played here, she said, “When I was…18.”

 

“Not,” she said under her breath, barely audible. She may wield an acoustic guitar but she hardly fits the singer-songwriter mold. You’ll never hear a Nina Nastasia song in a credit card commercial. Tonight she played mostly new material from her album with Dirty Three bandleader/drummer Jim White, her only backing musician. He was amazing: no wonder everyone wants to work with him. Using a flurry of rimshots, cymbal splashes and boomy tom-tom cascades, he orchestrated her often grimly minimalistic songs with both precision and abandon. Often he’d leave Nastasia to hold the rhythm as he’d accelerate or slow down, or play deftly off the beat. There are only a few drummers in rock who are in his league, perhaps Dave Campbell of Love Camp 7/Erica Smith renown or Linda Pitmon from Smack Dab and Steve Wynn’s band.

 

In the years since she first played here, Nastasia has developed a seemingly effortless fingerpicking style on the guitar. Hearing the new songs stripped down to just the guitar and drums was a revelation: it was instantly clear where the melodies for all the layers of strings and keyboards on her albums come from. I found myself playing orchestrator, imagining violin, viola and cello parts. One of the great keyboardists of our time was in the audience and was overheard raving about how good the piano on the new album is.

 

Nastasia has also become an excellent singer. That creepy little voice she had when she put out her landmark 1999 debut, Dogs (whose title track she played tonight, to much applause) is still there when it needs to be, but in the intervening years she’s learned how to belt. And project, with an anguished wail that serves her songs, particularly the new ones, spectacularly well. Her earlier material was typically noir urban tableaux; now, she’s taking on more abstract, universal emotional territory, though her vision remains the same, as bleak, angst-driven, desperate and sometimes exasperated as it’s always been. The dark glimmer has become a gleam. If this show is any indication, the new album is a must-own.

 

The only problem tonight (one hopes uncharacteristically) was the sound. The sound guy was playing annoying, effeminate computer-disco over the PA before Secretary went on, and predictably mixed the backing tracks from the laptop louder than Henderson’s sax. Bad mistake. Then Nastasia’s guitar started to generate a lot of low feedback, perhaps because it needed to be amped high in the mix and she didn’t have one of those little rubber thingys that fits into the sound hole. Where was Freddie Katz when we needed him.

October 8, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments