Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

May 31, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Angela Hewitt Playfully and Insightfully Resurrects Beethoven Piano Obscurities

“The fourth pedal on my Fazioli, which raises the action and cuts the hammer strike by half, helped enormously here,” pianist Angela Hewitt explains in the liner notes to her new Beethoven Variations album, which hasn’t the web yet. She’s discussing her approach to the faster, more staccato passages in a relatively early work, the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.

And yet, she brings a heartfelt neoromantic tinge to the quieter passages. As she explains in the album’s very detailed booklet, Beethoven basically wrote this and abandoned it. Still, it’s a colorful and not always predictable piece of music, and it gives Hewitt, who’s revered for playing Bach on the piano, a chance to explore dynamics that are less present in baroque music. As usual, she takes a painterly approach to this along with some other lesser-known Beethoven works.

The 6 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major are more relaxed and playful, the subtle humor echoing Haydn, whose shadow the composer had not yet escaped. Hewitt has a particularly good, emphatic time with the stern proto-Chopin march midway through, a far cry from the casual feel of most of what surrounds it.

Hewitt takes a very straightforward, calmly dancing, occasionally puckish approach early in the 15 Variations and a Fugue, best known as Beethoven’s early study for the Finale of his Eroica Symphony. That hardly signals how regal this music will eventually grow and how much more joyously pouncing her attack becomes.

The rest of the material here is much more obscure, and understandably so. There are two series of variations on themes by Guiseppe Paisiello, a popular late 18th century opera composer. The first is a lightweight love song, the second a folksy little tune. Neither sounds anything like Beethoven.

The final two cuts remind how little life has changed for musicians over the past couple of centuries: sometimes you have to take whatever work is available. In this case, Beethoven sat down at the piano in 1803 and fulfilled the terms of a commission from a fan in Scotland who’d asked him to come up with variations on God Save the King and Rule Brittania. Spin this at your New Years Eve party and see if anybody in the crowd gets the joke.

December 29, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

December 24, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Playful, Timely Jazz Reinvention of a Brooding Schubert Suite

One of the most surrealistically enjoyable releases of recent months is a highly improvised instrumental version of Schubert’s Winterreise, an allusively political protest suite disguised as a collection of lovelorn ballads. Artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Phil Kline have drawn inspiration from the composer’s brooding early Romanticism, but it’s hard to remember if there’s ever been a jazz interpretation of the whole thing. The collective Madre Vaca are responsible for this crazy stunt, streaming at Bandcamp. The group’s drummer, Benjamin Shorstein gets credit for this fearless, inspired, latin-tinged arrangement.

The opening number, Goodnight, is a marching blend of Cab Calloway hi-de-ho, the Beatles’ For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and a little of the original courtesy of Jonah Pierre’s piano.

Likewise, the group play up the phantasmagoria in a strutting, waltzing take of The Weathervane, then they loosen, with the horns – Juan Rollan’s sax, Steve Strawley’s trumpet and Lance Reed’s trombone – getting nebulous until the rest of the band pull them back on track.

Shorstein and bassist Mike Perez rise from a klezmer-tinged shuffle as Frozen grows from an ambered gravitas to a postbop jazz crush with high-voltage solos from sax and piano. They reinvent Loneliness as a moodily energetic bossa, guitarist Jarrett Carter’s sage, spacious solo at the center.

Pierre and Carter converse broodingly in The Grey Head, with a chromatically-charged bristle and a more muted tropical tinge. Percussionist Milan Algood fuels the qawwali-ish groove of The Crow: once again, there are hints of klezmer, hard-charging sax and McCoy Tyner-inspired piano, and bubbly guitar solos.

The group make Monk-ish clave jazz out of Last Hope; even with the new syncopation, the underlying angst cuts through, especially when the carnivalesque atmosphere grows insistent. The version of The Stormy Morning here is a cha-cha, Reed’s chuffing trombone setting up a big coda from Strawley. Pierre’s Schubertian salsa piano is one of the funniest moments on the album.

Pierre and an uncredited vocalist do a serviceable, straight-up classical take of The Sun Dogs and close with a deviously Balkan-inflected take of The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Schubert’s disconsolate portrait of the suite’s protagonist all alone on the ice with only a homeless drunk for company.

The Winterreise has special relevance for our time as well. It wasn’t written under a lockdown, but during a serious crackdown on civil liberties under another repressive regime. Schubert changed the order of the Wilhelm Muller poems he used as text in order to fool the censors.

July 27, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moppa Elliott Brings His Twisted, Hilarious Parodies to Gowanus

Is Moppa Elliott this era’s Frank Zappa? Elliott is funnier, and his jokes are musical rather than lyrical, but there are similarities. Each began his career playing parodies – Zappa with the Mothers of Invention and Elliott with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their bodies of work are distinguished by an equally broad and spot-on sense of humor, with a cruel streak. With Mostly Other People Do the Killing – the world’s funniest jazz group – seemingly in mothballs at the moment, Elliott has gone out and made a lavish triple album with three separate, closely related ensembles. The world’s funniest jazz bassist is playing a tripleheader, with sets by each of them tomorrow, Feb 15 at Shapeshifter Lab starting at 7 PM with the jazz octet Advancing on a Wild Pitch, following at 8 with quasi-soul band Acceleration Due to Gravity and then at 9 with instrumental 80s rock act Unspeakable Garbage. Cover is $10.

Where MOPDtK savaged Ornette Coleman imitators, fusion jazz and hot 20s swing, among many other styles, the new record Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band gives the bozack to New Orleans shuffles, Kansas City swing and retro 60s soul music, and attempts to do the same to 80s rock. It hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, although there are three tracks up at Soundcloud. Throughout the record, Elliott is more chill than ever, letting his twisted compositions speak for themselves.

It’s redemptive to hear how deliciously Elliott and the “dance band” mock the hordes of white kids aping 60s funk and soul music. This sounds like the Dap-Kings on a cruel overdose of liquid acid, trying desperately to hold it together. Without giving away all the jokes, let’s say that drummer Mike Pride’s rhythm is a persistent punchline. And yet, as relentless as the satire here is, there are genuinely – dare we say – beautiful moments here, notably guitarist Ava Mendoza’s savage roar and tuneful erudition: she really knows her source material.

The horns – trumpeter Nate Wooley, trombonist Dave Taylor, saxophonists Matt Nelson and Bryan Murray – squall when they’re not getting completely self-indulgent, Mendoza serving as good cop. Guitarist Kyle Saulnier and pianist George Burton fall somewhere in the middle along with Elliott. As an imitation of an imitation, several generations removed from James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Louis Jordan, this is hilarious stuff. The arguably most vicious payoff of all is when they swing that unctuous King Crimson tune by the tail until it breaks: it’s about time somebody did that.

Advancing on a Wild Pitch – with trombonist Sam Kulik, baritone saxophonist Charles Evans, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman – is the jazz group here, akin to a less ridiculous MOPDtK. As with that band, quotes and rhythmic japes factor heavily into the sarcasm, but you have to listen more closely than Elliott’s music usually demands to pick up on the snarky pokes. This is also his chance to remind the world that if he really wanted to write slightly above-average, derivative postbop jazz without much in the way of humor to score a record deal, he could do it in his sleep. But this is so much more fun!

Again, without giving away any punchlines, the length of the pieces and also the solos weighs in heavily. Oh baby, do they ever. They savage second-line shuffles, the Basie band, early Ellington, 30s swing and doofy gospel-inspired balladry, among other things. If you really want a laugh and can only listen to one tune here, try St. Marys: the most irresistible bit is about midway through. Even so, there are long, unselfconsciously engaging solos by Fox and Kulik in the two final numbers, Ship and Slab, which don’t seem like parodies at all. If Elliott has a dozen more of these kicking around, he could blend right in at Jazz at Lincoln Center – and maybe sneak in some of the really fun stuff too.

Unspeakable Garbage’s honking instrumental approach to cheesy 80s radio rock is too close to its endless litany of sources to really count as parody. With blaring guitar, a leaden beat and trebly synth, they devise mashups from a list including but not limited to Huey Lewis, Van Halen, Pat Benatar and Grover Washington Jr. This predictable shtick gets old fast: Spinal Tap it’s not. You’d do better with Murray and his band Bryan & the Haggards, who have put out three surprisingly amusing albums of instrumental Merle Haggard covers.

February 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

December 25, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

October 7, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mostly Other People Do the Killing Are At It Again

Humor is supposely based on cruelty 90% of the time, right? If that’s the case, New York supergroup Mostly Other People Do the Killing are the world’s cruelest jazz band. Since the early zeros they’ve skewered just about every jazz trope: they’re sort of the Spinal Tap of the genre. Ostensibly, their new album Slippery Rock, out on their Hot Cup label on Jan 22,  is a parody of 70s and 80s elevator jazz. There are places where the satire is obvious but just as many when it’s not, which is partly because the band stick to their acoustic sax/trumpet/bass/drums format rather than employing synthesizers and drum machines, and partly since there are interludes where the band find themselves shuffling along with an amiable, brightly second-line-tinged flavor, unselfconsciously attractive despite themselves. When the jokes are most vivid, it’s most often when Peter Evans’ trumpet and Jon Irabagon’s alto sax join together for a simpering, cloying hook, fall away from it, turn back on it and then take swipes or rip it to shreds. Bassist Moppa Elliott and drummer Kevin Shea’s satire here is more subtle – no grooves, especially the smooth ones, are safe from parody. The dumber and simpler they are, the dumber and simpler they make them.

The operative question is how many other jokes are here – probably a lot – and who is going to get them. For better or worse, this album is kind of like making fun of wallpaper. People who make it and sell it (and maybe who rip it off the walls and trash it) might get the jokes, but who else? These guys have obviously done their homework, but ask yourself, would someone who claims to like Kenny G actually be able to name song titles, let alone hum you a tune or two?

Be that what it may, there’s still a lot of fun here. The opening track spoofs funk-jazz grooves and romantic slow-jam ambience with a quote that’s too funny to give away. Can’t Tell Shipp from Shohola (a reference to Elliott’s beloved  native Pennsylvania) works familiar MOPDtK territory, hinting at an easygoing triplet vamp that nobody’s willing to officially admit exists. Sayre (another Keystone State shout-out) layers bop over a ridiculous bump-BUMP rhythm that hints at reggae, the horns eventually finding it too hard to resist hamming it up.

Irabagon pillories cluelessly ostentatious sax breaks on President Polk; Evans’ nervously rapidfire cameo on Yo, Yeo, Yeough and its altered disco beat is just as funny. Dexter, Wayne and Mobley, a parody of homages, is pretty priceless, its pastiche making no sense whatsoever. Jazzy tv themes get their due on the mealymouthed, chattering Jersey Shore, while Paul’s Journey to Opp reverts to the generalized messing it up of the band’s prior catalog, having fun with dissecting a too-bright-to-be-true vamp. The album closes with Is Granny Spry?, Irabagon and Evans quoting from both the classics and tv over a groove that’s so absurdly artless that it’s impossible not to laugh.

To fully appreciate how entertainingly vicious this band can be, get their 2009 album This Is Our Moosic – although ageless jazz critic Leonardo Featherweight’s liner notes on this one are especially LMFAO, enough to justify the price of a cd. The band are on European tour in February, with a return to New York on Feb 28 at the Cornelia St. Cafe.

January 18, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/21/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. In honor of the doomsday that never was, we celebrate with a funny album. Saturday’s is #619:

Richard Cheese – Lounge Against the Machine

What Weird Al was to the 80s, Richard Cheese was around the turn of the century – and he’s still going strong, making fun of the suckiest songs you’ve ever heard. And he’s more than just a one-trick pony – his parodies make fun of lounge music just as much as they skewer the lamest corporate rock songs of the last 20 years. Caveat: if you weren’t tortured by a younger sibling (or, even worse, an older sibling) with bad taste in music back in the 90s, you may not know a lot of these songs. Ironically, the most popular track on his 2000 debut is the best one, the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia, which when you think about it is even more punk than the original. Creep, by Radiohead, another good song, is also better – and creepier – than the original. Otherwise, the satire is  brutal: with his cover of Guerrilla Radio, the lounge lizard exposes Rage Against the Machine for the limousine liberals they were. He gets gleefully cruel with the fratboy standards Closer (“I wanna fuck you like an animal”) by Nine Inch Nails, the Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up and the ultimate frathouse atrocity, the Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right to Party. Anybody remember Papa Roach? They get turned into noir cabaret here. And Fatboy Slim – remember him? – is transformed into more of a spoof of lounge music than of whatever he was (if you missed him, you don’t want to know). Here’s a random torrent.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Debutante Hour Cover Up For Once

Musicians know that if you really want to keep an audience’s attention with a cover song, you have to find a way to make it different from the original. Usually the more you change it, the funnier it gets. The Debutante Hour’s new album Follow Me is all cover songs: hip-hop, new wave pop, bluegrass, Phil Spector and indie rock done oldtimey style with accordion, cello and percussion. Is the band being silly? Sarcastic? Serious? With the Debutante Hour, you never know. Accordionist Maria Sonevytsky, cellist Mia Pixley and multi-instrumentalist Susan Hwang’s stagewear may not leave much to the imagination, but their songs do the opposite: their deadpan surrealism isn’t always easy to figure out. Which is what makes them so appealing – aside from their perfectly charming three-part harmonies. And the outfits of course. They definitely were serious about putting the album together, with crystalline production from World Inferno’s Franz Nicolay.

The first song is No Scrubs, originally done by TLC, recast here as a ukelele shuffle. The original was mildly funny and this is funnier (live, it’s absolutely hilarious). When it comes time for the bridge, Baltimore hip-hop diva TK Wonder reminds that girl in the song isn’t a gold digger, she’s just sick of getting hit on by scuzzy guys – beeyatch!

Just What I Needed by the Cars is a horrible song, one cliche after another, absolutely unredeemable unless maybe as death metal or industrial. Here it’s reinvented as a tongue-in-cheek accordion tune, as the Main Squeeze Orchestra might have done it. When Nicolay comes in with his banjo, that’s when it gets really funny.

The third track is an acoustic hip-hop hit by popular Ukrainian duo 5’Nizza (whose name is a Russian pun, meaning “Friday”). It seems to be a come-on (the hook seems to mean something along the lines of “I’m not like that”). To a non-Ukrainian speaker, it comes across as catchy, innocuous trip-hop. The first serious song here is an unselfconsciously beautiful version of the Stanley Bros.’ If That’s the Way You Feel, evocative of the Roulette Sisters. Another serious one is Be My Baby, where they take the generic white doo-wop hit burned out by oldies radio decades ago and make it downright sultry. They close with the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize. If you missed the original, it’s Brian Jonestown Massacre-style nouveau psychedelia, in this case a third-rate John Lennon imitation with really awful (and kind of morbid) lyrics. The Debutante Hour’s version plays down the death fixation and plays up the pretty tune. They’re at Joe’s Pub on 3/25 at 7 PM.

Since now we know that the Debutante Hour’s covers are as fun and interesting as their originals, here’s some other cover ideas: John Sheppard or Thomas Tallis’ death-fixated sixteenth-century plainchant with intricate harmonies that scream out gothically for a reinterpretation by the Debutante Hour! How about Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, which is so idiotic that it wouldn’t be hard to have a little fun with – maybe bring back TK Wonder for that one? Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple, which pretty much everybody knows, and could use some harmonies? Camay by Ghostface Killah? The Girl’s Guide to the Modern Diva by Black Box Recorder? Vladimir Vysotksky’s acoustic gypsy-punk revolutionary anthem Okhata Na Volkov (The Wolf Hunt)? Just brainstorming here…

March 13, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment