Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with this week being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized Monday night upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This evening was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.
The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.
Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.
Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.
And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t. Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.
Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.
Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.
by Serena Angelique Williams
I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.
I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.
This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.
The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.
Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.
In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.
The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview. We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.
Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.
As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.
And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.
The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission. Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. There is one last performance on Saturday, and it should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.
Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in “Chelsea Madchen” at the Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. South on Nov 19th at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10; reservations are highly recommended to (212) 255-5438.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #568:
Sally Norvell – Choking Victim
Recorded in an old church in Northhampton, Massachusetts, this 2002 noir classic pairs off cult heroine Norvell’s icy/sultry vocals with Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s plaintive, haunting, reverb-drenched piano. The pitch-black intensity never lets up, through the Marlene Dietrich-ish gothic waltz Blake in the Cake; the seductive Brecht/Weill-tinged One Gentle Thing; Big Louise, a sad ballad for an aging party animal; the blackly sardonic AIDS-era memoir November; the self-explanatory Goodbye Song; the gleefully opiated wee-hours madness of Murder, as well as a hypnotic setting of a Paul Bowles poem, Tom Waits’ Please Call Me, Baby done as noir cabaret, and the Appalachian gothic ballad Forgotten and Abandoned done as straight-up, creepy neoclassical. Surprisingly, it ends on a very funny note (alluded to by the album cover), complete with a deadpan, amusing cameo from Norvell’s old bandmate Kid Congo Powers, with whom she recorded more rock-oriented versions of some of these songs. This one’s very hard to find. The sharelockers have nothing; once in awhile copies will turn up in the used bins – check your local used record store, if one still exists.
Tuneful and trippy to the extreme, Brooklyn band Not Waving but Drowning’s new theatrical rock album Processional is in some ways a more adventurous take on the Dresden Dolls. It makes a good companion piece with Aunt Ange’s recent psychedelic masterpiece. Where that one’s downright menacing, this one’s more lightheartedly surreal, although not without its disquieting moments. Where Aunt Ange goes out on the gypsy rock tip, Not Waving but Drowning reach back to the sly surrealistic humor of 60s psychedelia. Like that era’s great psychedelic bands, they draw on a kitchen sink’s worth of influences: folk music from literally around the globe, vaudeville, cabaret and garage rock. What’s it all about, other than the shambling procession through an endless succession of surreal images that the title foreshadows? After hearing it several times, it’s hard to tell, although it gets more interesting every time around. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement.
The opening track, Sleep Before I Wake, is basically a mashup of the bluegrass standards Seven Bridges Road and Shady Grove, done Appalachian gothic style with psychedelic, reverb-toned lead guitar and guy/girl vocals, like a more surreal version of the Walkabouts circa 1990. The next track, November 3rd weaves a magical web of bass, banjo, guitar and violin and a lyric about a honeybee. If he’s made it to November 3, either he’s a very lucky guy, or a not so lucky one. Which isn’t clear. Is he running for office? A question worth asking. Tabor Island is a gleefully brisk shuffle over an Indian-flavored drone: “We shall all be made free again on Tabor Island.” A Jules Verne reference? Maybe.
Like a track from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Thanks a Lot Lancelot is a funny, sarcastic garage-pop song. “Sometimes love won’t do and you knew that from the start,” the singer reminds the poor knight. They follow that with a banjo tune, Windowsill, giving it a gentle evening ambience with trumpet and flute, and then pick up the pace with the scurrying, carnivalesque Station Light. A twisted casino scene of sorts, it’s the most theatrical number here. By the end, they’re not taking any bets – figure that one out.
The funniest song here is Sing to Me, a bumbling attempt at seduction that gets squashed fast, with a pretty hilarious quote from an awful 60s pop hit and an equally amusing outro. The Mission, with its 5/4 rhythm, offcenter violin and piano, is just plain inscrutable; they follow that with the album’s best song, Tiger Hunting, a creepy, slinky chromatic tune with an apocalyptic edge that hints at an old Talking Heads theme. Long Short Walk sounds like a cut from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, but with better vocals and more interesting rhythm;Willow Garden evokes Country Joe & the Fish at their most reflective and acoustic. The album winds up with the title track, a twisted, swaying waltz that builds to a crescendo of delirious harmonies – it seems to be sort of an acoustic version of what Pink Floyd was going for with Waiting for the Worms. A pleasantly uneasy note on which to end this very entertaining journey. Not Waving but Drowning are at le Poisson Rouge on May 24.
Canadian songwriter Clara Engel has a new ep out on Vox Humana, on vinyl, one of the best small-size collections to come over the transom here in recent months. You can also stream the tracks or download at their bandcamp site. The first cut, Blind Me begins with a moody stark minor-key guitar intro and becomes a darkly swaying folk pop anthem in 6/8 time, in a Marissa Nadler vein. Engel’s voice is sort of a cross between Penelope Houston and Patti Smith, with a pure, unaffected clarity that’s scary by itself, never mind the lyrics. The song gently picks up with smoldering, terse electric guitar and an ethereal choir. There’s a recurrent theme of “bloody echoes from the walls of this prison” – offhandedly lurid and compelling. The lurid factor picks up on the second track, Madagascar, seductive yet menacing, drummer Paul Kolinski building the ambience with some marvelous mallet work, Nicholas Buligan’s trumpet fluttering in occasionally as Engel’s guitar adds intensity. The third track, Accompanied by Dreams, from Engel’s album The Bethlehem Tapes, is just guitar, voice and Taylor Galassi’s cello, an imploring mini-epic that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of those great Penelope Houston albums from the early 90s. “Do I have to wait for another lifetime?” Engel asks plaintively. She’s also offering an excellent free download: Lick My Fins is noir cabaret with a stark, Creatures-style arrangement heavy on the drums, light on the shadowy orchestration. All of this is good stuff, reason to look forward to more in the future
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.
There are what seems like hundreds of flaming queens playing piano bars in New York and most of them are the cookie-cutter variety. Kim Smith is more the boxcutter type. He books a weekly, semi Weimar-styled show Monday nights at 10:30 PM at Vlada Bar on 51st Street that he calls Vauxhall, performing alongside what seems to be a solidly eclectic mix of performers. Last night, his icy slink and velvet delivery matched to a stiletto wit, he played the diva role to a hilt even when technical difficulties pulled the spotlight off him (he blamed his excellent, incisively forte pianist). And he’s a dynamite singer. Bang Bang and You Keep Me Hanging On were reinvented as completely over-the-top noir cabaret, while what sounded like a mashup of Marlene Dietrich and Kylie Minogue seemed like a perfectly natural segue, supported by his steady stream of snarky one-liners.
The second act, Daryl Glenn, opened with a long, hilarious number from a recent Fringe Festival musical memorializing the good old degenerate days of the 1970s. Much of it was told from the point of view of a kid whose grandfather leaves him and goes off with another guy to have tea – wait a minute, nobody goes to have tea in the men’s room! And a couple of Cat Stevens numbers from Harold and Maude which as much as they might evoke fond memories of that twisted flick, are best left to their minimal place within its score. Off to the side, his pianist Karen Dryer alternated smartly between artful flourishes and a hammering chordal attack.
Carol Lipnik didn’t have the reverb pedal she loves to use but she did have her longtime collaborator Dred Scott on piano, which is all New York’s foremost noir cabaret singer really needs. He was in particularly psychedelic mode (which makes sense, given his long-running Tuesday midnight jazz trio show at the Rockwood), and without her favorite gizmo, Lipnik joined the rest of the bill by doing her whole set unamplified. What a voice: some people don’t need a mic. Without the EFX, the phantasmagorical stuff like the surreal When I Was a Mermaid and the romping Freak House Blues let her show off just how powerful the top of her four-octave range really is. And the most surreal number of all of them, Two-Headed Calf took on an extra poignancy: he may be destined for the museum tomorrow, dead, but right now he’s looking at the stars. And he can see twice as many of them as we can. She wrapped up her set with the most mesmerizing moment of the night, Love Dogs, a Rumi poem set to a quietly torchy soul melody and it was there that she brought down the lights with a warmly comforting, maple sugar soprano, the last thing you would think you’d ever get out of Carol Lipnik. But it’s in her repertoire. Which comes as no surprise: she’s always got something up her sleeve. Watch this space for news about her upcoming residency at PS 122 with John Kelly.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Friday’s is #746:
Edith Piaf – 65 Titres Originaux
The prototypical noir cabaret singer, tiny but tough, brassy but brittle, Edith Piaf earned the right to sound world-weary by the time she’d hit her teens. Brought up in a whorehouse, she may or may not have been a child prostitute, might have hired the hitman who killed a guy who wanted to pimp her out, lived hard and died young when all the booze and drugs caught up with her. In between she became the voice of a people – and she did it her way, defying convention. As a singer, she never marketed herself as a sex object, and she wrote many of her own lyrics – the ring of authenticity in all those tales of street urchindom is no affectation. Among the thousands of Piaf collections out there, we picked this three-disc reissue from a few years ago because it has so many songs, and most of them date from her peak period in the mid-thirties through the fifties. La Vie en Rose is the one that everybody knows, and by comparison to her other stuff at least, it’s schlock. Instead, try the bitter Milord, the anguish of La Foule (The Crowd, which is shockingly not on this album), the brooding, suspenseful Padam Padam or the downright creepy L’Accordeoniste. The rest of the songs range from gypsy jazz (Les Momes de la Cloche/Kids in the Street), to lyrically rich, wistful ballads (Le Disque Use/Used Record); ragtime (Un Refrain Courait Dans la Rue/There’s a Rumor Going Around); lush orchestrated tours de force (Je M’en Fous Pas Mal/I Don’t Give a Fuck) and completely over-the-top stuff like Misericorde, which is totally goth, right down to the tolling bell and the choir of bass voices. 65 songs here: every time, the pain in her voice transcends any language barrier. Here’s a random torrent.
This one makes a good segue with today’s album by the Pretty Things: it’s a creepy masterpiece of current-day psychedelic rock. Incorporating elements of art-rock, gypsy punk and noir cabaret, Brooklyn band Aunt Ange’s new album Olga Walks Away is trippy, and strange, and memorably tuneful. It seems to be a chronicle of an acid trip, but it might be something else entirely: there’s obviously a lot of symbolism in the lyrics. Sometimes these are sharp and literate; other times they seem to be going for a more stereotypical mid-60s surrealism. Likewise, the music draws heavily on 60s psychedelia, with layers of reverb guitar, melodic basslines, sweeping keyboards, but also accordion, occasional horns, and a carnivalesque feel that at its most frenetic brings to mind World Inferno or Botanica.
With a blithely macabre sway, the opening track, Black Funeral Dress, sets the tone for what’s to come, bouncing along “like funeral drums.” After a clip-clop trip-hop dub version of the opening theme, they stick with the trip-hop with To the Sun and Die (try that one on for symbolism!). Loaded with dynamics, plinking along with Casio organ and electric harpsichord, it builds to a big, martial bridge – and then like many of the following tracks, it subsides. Pumpkins and Patches layers soaring slide guitar over an ominous chamber pop backdrop.
A couple of the tracks here have a more obviously contemporary feel: the Radiohead-inflected Monks and the big, crunchy powerpop stomp Crucify the Blackbird – which when least expected drops down to a long, quiet accordion vamp. At this point it makes sense to mention that at least on this album, the band has a food fixation, which comes to the forefront on the genuinely macabre 6/8 epic Lady by the Window: “26 birthdays, not one funeral, five star smoked salmon…down comes the rain from the aspartame cloud/Up grow sweet nothings from the cellophane ground.” Meanwhile, the backing vocals invoke a refrain of “cheesy cheese” in the background – which is anything but cheesy here.
After a sitar intro, the storm gathers with screaming reverb guitar on Down the Rabbit Hole: “One must travel through hell to get to heaven.” The most phantasmagorical song here, King of the Damned swirls with ominous layers of vocals, followed by the bizarrely haunting title track, Olga – a fleeting character throughout this journey – exhaustedly trying to resist the lure of “the one and lonely Charlie Tree,” a Hades character of sorts. It appears that Olga eventually does manage to walk away, but not unscathed: “Once you start you just can’t stop,” as the dynamically-charged epic Butternut Sunshine explains. The album winds up with Velvet Sidewalks, which starts out as a country ballad and winds up as a chilling circus song, an audience roaring for something – blood, maybe? – as it ends. Without any drugs, it’s a wild ride – we’ll leave that part to more adventurous listeners. Either way, it’s one of the best albums to come over the transom (or through the looking glass) here in a long time.
By all accounts, Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation cd is the first full-length album devoted to English-language versions of songs by legendary, obscene French songwriter Georges Brassens. Brassens was more punk than just about anybody: an atheist and a communist, his records were frequently banned by the authorities during his early years in the 1950s, which only fueled his popularity. His songs are irresistibly funny, driven by a snarling contempt for middle-class conformity and an unwavering populism. Why did Brassens never catch on here? De Gaillande sidestepped the question when we asked him last summer. It’s because Brassens’ arrangements are simple to the point of sometimes being threadbare. It’s obvious that Brassens saw himself as a poète maudit with guitar rather than a musician lyricist like Richard Thompson or Steve Kilbey. Here, de Gaillande (frontman and lead guitarist of two of this era’s finest art-rock bands, the Snow and Melomane) tersely and brilliantly fleshes out the arrangements with a frequently ominous blend of gypsy jazz and noir cabaret, featuring his Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass. The result is fearlessly iconoclastic, vicious and hilarious: in other words, it does justice to the originals. And musically, it’s actually an improvement: de Gaillande’s strong, clear baritone adds nuance in a way that the gruff Brassens never could. The songs themselves date from the 40s (the shuffling title track, Brassens’ signature song, defiantly asserting that only the blind wouldn’t join in gleefully to watch his execution) – to the 70s (a literally obscenely funny version of Don Juan).
Brassens didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he had could smell a hypocrite a mile away. Those qualities brought out the cynic in him, front and center here on Public Benches (Les Amoureux des bancs publics). While the masses may see them as fit “for only the impotent or the obese,” they’re actually quite romantic. The song goes on as a ringing and surprisingly uncynical endorsement of PDA – for awhile anyway, until it becomes clear that the point is to let the young lovers have their way since the sum total of their happiness together will pretty much be limited to their time sitting in the park. Likewise, To Die For Your Ideas (Mourir pour des idées) lampoons the limousine liberals who can’t tell the difference between an idea that’s worth sacrificing oneself for and one that’s not, despite all evidence including the “killing fields and mass graves.” That one’s done as a deadpan duet with eclectic chanteuse Keren Ann.
The best songs here are the most harshly funny ones, which resonate with innumerable levels of meaning. On one hand, Don Juan lauds the lothario who’d rescue a lonely woman from a sad, otherwise permanent virginal state, along with the nun who “defrosted the penis of the amputee.” On the other, it’s a sendup of any wannabe ladies man who’d count a night with an utterly undesirable woman as a notch on the belt. The Pornographer rather disingenuously tries to play off Brassens’ sexually explicit lyrics as a decision to relent and give the people what they want – and the images are so over-the-top ridiculous, and perfectly rendered in English, that this version is no less entertaining or explicit than the original. The dilemma is revisited even more entertainingly on Trumpets of Fortune and Fame (Les Trompettes de la renommeé), a snide look at celebrity: then as now, sex sells.
There are three other angry classics here. On one level, Ninety-Five Percent gives a shout-out to a woman who wants sex with love; on another, it’s a springboard for another spot-on, obscenity-laden Brassens spoof of a wannabe stud. The resolutely swinging anticonformist anthem Philistines quietly takes pride in the “unwanted progeny” that the unthinking masses assume will grow up to be cleanshaven accountants: instead, they’re all going to turn into shaggy poets. And the savage I Made Myself Small (Je me suis fait tout petit) drips with equal amounts of contempt for the jealous bitch who’ll spear a flower with her parasol lest her boyfriend think it more attractive than she is, and for the spineless wimp who’ll let her get away with it. The rest of the album includes the wry Princess and the Troubadour (La princesse et le croque-notes), a missed opportunity for statutory rape; Penelope, a cynical look at seducing a married woman, and the surprisingly upbeat, proletarian Song for the Countryman (Chanson pour l’auvergnat).
De Gaillande’s translations match Brassens’ original lyrics in both rhyme and meter, an impressive achievement by any standard, fortuitously enabled by Brassens’ habit of continuing a single, long phrase over the course of several bars. It’s even more impressive considering how well the double entendres and slang of the original have been rendered here. In a couple of instances, de Gaillande mutes the dirty words: for example, in Ninety-Five Percent, “s’emmerde” is translated as “bores her out of her mind” rather than “pisses her off.” But in the spirit of Brassens, he adds an emphatic “fuck” or two where there were none before. Several of the translations’ subtleties are genuinely exquisite: for example, in To Die for Your Ideas, de Gaillande alludes to a guillotine rather than the scaffold in the original lyric. And in Trumpets of Fortune and Fame, he chooses to translate “pederasty” literally rather than going with its usual connotation (“pédérastique” is a somewhat dated way of saying “gay”). Francophones will have a field day comparing all these side by side (one reason why this review has been in the works for such a long time – the album’s official release was this summer). Pierre de Gaillande plays this album with his band along with special guests Joel Favreau (Brassens’ lead guitarist) and Favreau’s longtime collaborator, keyboardist Jean-Jacques Franchin Friday, December 17 at 9 PM at the 92YTribeca on Hudson St.