Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Mark Growden – Saint Judas

File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.

Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.

They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.

This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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March 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years

Melusine translates from the French as water nymph or naiad (Rachelle Garniez is a Pisces, which may explain a few things). Nothing very watery about this album, though, unless you count the picture on the cd’s lyric booklet showing Garniez lounging on the Staten Island Ferry. To say that this is her best album to date may not seem like the staggering achievement that it is, until you realize that her last one, Luckyday remains one of the best albums of the decade. To surpass it was a Herculean feat, and Garniez has pulled it off, seemingly effortlessly. Simply put, there is no better singer, no better songwriter, no better keyboard player and – especially – no better live performer in all of rock than Rachelle Garniez. If you can call what she does rock.

Luckyday was a lush, ornately orchestrated blend of retro styles, and this one, while drawing from the same corners of vintage Americana, is somewhat more intimate. Garniez sings and dazzles on accordion, piano, bells and plays a little nylon-stringed guitar, accompanied by brilliant lead guitarist Matt Munisteri and low-frequencies expert Dave Hofstra, who plays upright bass and also tuba on one song. Garniez’ songs are timeless yet immutably rooted in the here-and-now. Most of what’s here has a blackly humorous, apocalyptic undercurrent: this is a loosely thematic concept album about fiddling while Rome burns.

It kicks off with After the Afterparty, an understatedly bitter midtempo piano ballad with an absolutely killer chorus gently illuminated by some expert Munisteri electric guitar fills. Garniez loves to vary her vocal delivery from a whisper to a roar – she sings in character, and she has a whole stable of them. But her voice here is plainspoken and sad, and it’s nothing short of riveting. This is a story of rejection. In the spirit of perhaps her best song (Quality Star, from Luckyday), it ends on a subtly vengeful note:

After the afterparty
You hailed me a taxi
And I buckled up for safety
Maybe I’ll live to be an old lady
With lots of big hats and jewelry

And an inscrutable air of mystery
And when questioned about my history
I’ll smile oh so sweetly
And whisper oh so discreetly
I can’t remember a thing

The following track, the bouncy, old-timey, accordion-driven Tourmaline brings the low-end gemstone to life in 6/8 time:

We all know you came in through the kitchen
Cause the floor sorta sticks to your feet
When you go better you use the back door
He’ll be waiting for you on the street
Oh he closes his eyes when he kicks you
For a cat cannot look at a queen
Realize when his memory tricks you
Oh he’s nothing but snow on your screen

After the amusingly brief Back in the Day (“When the saints came marching in/Nobody paid no mind so they marched right back out again”) and a sweetly soaring country song, Garniez reverts to her fondness for the underdog with Shoemaker’s Children, a Munisteri showcase. It has the feel of a Charley Patton classic, a haunting, rustic open-tuned blues for banjo and guitar, and it’s one of the more overtly ominous numbers on the cd:

‘Bout an hour before the flood
There’s nary a rat to be seen
And the people swarm the city to grab one last glimmer of green
Make way for the shoemaker’s children
Here they come marching down your street
Ten million strong they limp along on their twisted and broken feet

The next cut, Bed of Cherries is deliberately inscrutable: other than a possible reference to a cover album by the Church, this strange but beautifully played and sung catalog of unrelated objects seems to be more of a secret message than something written for the world. Then Garniez overdubs layers and layers of her own vocals to create an entire gospel choir on the rousing fragment Mama’s Got a Brand New Baby (which she uses as an intro for Tourmaline at live shows).

Lyrically, the album’s high point is the following track, People Like You. The sarcasm is brutal: over a blithe, finger-popping beat, Garniez does her best Rickie Lee Jones imitation. It’s arguably the most scathing, spot-on critique of the trendoids who have taken over New York that anyone’s written to date:

If you came here to make it big, well I wish you the best of luck
You can always head back out west if you ever get stuck
But if you came here to jerk my chain, I wish you the very worst
I don’t mean to be a pain but baby I got here first
And it’s people like you
Who don’t know pride from shame
And it’s people like you…
Who will never place a face before a name

Garniez toys with the “people like you” hook on the chorus, first accenting the “you,” then the “like.” The reason for the effect becomes clear at the end of the song when she starts going on about how everyone likes the newcomers: in fact, she ends up unable to resist them too. Yeah, and pigs can fly.

The cd continues with the macabrely amusing Pre-Post Apocalypse, something of a punk rock oompah song, followed by The Best Revenge, a sardonic yet stoically mournful account of living it up while temperatures rise, the poles melt and unspoiled children face a tough road ahead. As Garniez tells it, they rise to meet it, an unexpectedly hopeful end to an otherwise completely pessimistic song.

Like its predecessor, Melusine Years falls into a category that transcends any “best album of the year” designation [although it did make it to #1 on Lucid Culture’s Best Albums of 2007 list – Ed.] If the human race exists a hundred years from now, this album will be as revered a cautionary tale as George Orwell’s 1984. If not, it’s a fitting epitaph. In the case of the former, it ensures Garniez a permanent place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. Rachelle Garniez plays the cd release for Melusine Years at Joe’s Pub on December 22 at 9:30 PM.

December 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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

Concert Review: The Bedsit Poets, Don Piper and the Oxygen Ponies at Luna Lounge, Brooklyn NY 6/3/07

The show probably would have sold out if not for the elements: torrential rain, umbrellas blown inside out, everyone in the house soaked to the bone. The marvelous Bedsit Poets opened. Their sound is totally late 60s/early 70s, windswept pastoral beauty in places, otherwise super catchy harmony-driven Britpop, the Kinks circa Arthur hanging out with the Fairport Convention crowd. Frontman Ed Rogers and rhythm guitarist/singer Amanda Thorpe blend voices beautifully. Both British expats, he has a classic pop delivery which pairs well with Thorpe’s soaring, passionate Britfolk style.

Thorpe was celebrating her birthday, and she held the audience in the palm of her hand, particularly on the sweeping, anthemic Reach for the Sky, from their well-received album The Summer That Changed (as in “changed our lives”). On the quiet, ethereal Chemical Day, Thorpe played a small keyboard that for a minute sounded as if it was producing some quiet, strategically placed layers of feedback. They closed their rousing 50-minute set with the title track from the album, a supremely catchy pop tune punctuated by lead guitarist Mac Randall’s swinging country licks. Rogers and Thorpe sang a round with each other at the end of the song: he launched into Mungo Jerry and she countered with Gershwin, the result being a typical Bedsit moment. They’re a very playful band. The audience wanted an encore but didn’t get one.

Singer/guitarist Don Piper and his band – including many of the people who would play later in the evening – followed with a painless set of slow-to-midtempo jangle and clang. At one point, guest guitarist Drew Glackin (who also plays with the Jack Grace Band and the Silos) took a slowly growling climb up the scale, turned around and came back down the way he went up. Against the steady wash of the two guitars behind him, it was almost as if it was 1984 and True West was onstage. But they never hit that peak again: Piper seems to be more interested in mood and atmosphere than saying anything specific. He doesn’t have the voice for rock – it’s a keening, high tenor – but to his credit he tackled a Curtis Mayfield number and absolutely nailed it. He has a real future as a soul singer if he wants it.

The Oxygen Ponies are basically songwriter Paul Megna and whoever he can rustle up for a show. Tonight he brought a whole herd, 11 musicians including a trio of backup singers, two guitarists in addition to Megna himself, lapsteel, rhythm section and two horn players. Megna comes from the gutter-poet school of songwriting, all bedraggled, depressed and chain-smoking. His melodies are contagiously catchy (think a less skeletal Leonard Cohen, or a more pop-oriented Nick Cave) and he can write a hell of a lyric, with a sometimes savagely cynical edge. And the band pushed him to project and sing, keeping his vocals at a safe distance from the dreaded cesspool of grunge. The band’s ability to hit a crescendo out of nowhere was literally breathtaking, especially on the final track from their new cd, The Quickest Way to Happiness.

What was perhaps most striking about their performance was that everyone onstage was clearly having a great time, and this carried over to the audience. What could have been dirges became anthems. The lead guitarist didn’t play much, but when he did, his slashing pyrotechnics never failed to ignite. The horns played in perfect unison with each other and the backup singers delivered joyous, heartfelt harmonies. Megna’s songs tend to go on for at least five minutes, sometimes much more, but they never dragged. And the sound system was crystal clear all night long. What fun.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments