Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

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November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/8/11

Our exhaustive July-August NYC live music calendar is finally, finally 99% complete…at least as complete as it ever gets, considering that we update it every day.  More new stuff coming soon! Also, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #571:

Penelope Houston – Pale Green Girl

Best known as the leader of late 70s punk rockers the Avengers – who were sort of the American Sex Pistols – Penelope Houston subsequently forged out a brilliant career as a much quieter, mostly acoustic tunesmith. She’s literally never made a bad album. Among the many cult classics in her catalog, this 2004 release gets the nod, if only for its consistency all the way through. Aside from the Avengers, it’s her hardest-rocking effort to date, with a late 60s psychedelic pop vibe fueled by gorgeous twelve-string guitar. As you would expect, it’s eclectic, ranging from the hopeful, jangly Take My Hand, to the sad, ghostly Aviatrix, the disarmingly poppy, metaphorically-charged Flight 609, and the quietly savage outsider anthem that serves as the title track. Bottom Line veers from dark reggae to jangly Byrdsiness; Privilege & Gold, Walnut and Snow are bitterly vivid, lyrical Britfolk-inflected laments; the album ends with Soul Redeemer, the searing account of a rape survivor, and a lushly beautiful cover of John Cale’s Buffalo Ballet. This one hasn’t made it to the sharelockers, surprisingly, but the whole thing is streaming at myspace (don’t forget to reload the page after each song or else you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad) and it’s still available from Houston’s site.

July 8, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clara Engel’s Madagascar EP Is Dark and Intense

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

May 9, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 9/7/09

We do this every Tuesday except for when we don’t – for all you Tuesday peeps, we’ll try to get back on schedule next week. As always, you’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here except #1 and #3, which are unreleased, will take you to each individual song.

1. Liza & the WonderWheels – Cold Wind

Haunting, shapeshifting, Penelope Houston-esque anthem from the NYC new wave/psychedelic crew. Brand new and unreleased – you’ll have to go see this live.

2. Woman – When the Wheel’s Red

Noiserock from their delicious new cd.

3. Mark Sinnis – Gloomy Sunday

The Ninth House frontman has revived the original version of the “Hungarian suicide song,” deleting the fake last verse added to the Billie Holiday cover and substituted  a macabre one of his own. From his upcoming third solo cd due out next year.

4. Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes – Anything Can Happen

The former Madder Rose frontwoman and pianist sounds better than ever.

5. Air Waves – Knock Out

Slightly off-key, lo-fi janglepop, fetching and catchy.

6. Emily Wells – Symphony 6: Fair Thee Well and the Requeim Mix

Cool, trippy string-driven triphop anthem.

7. Clare & the Reasons – Ooh You Hurt Me So

Catchy Motown-inflected pop. They’re at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 10/27.

8. The Red Channels – Waltz

Weird kinda creepy lo-fi synth stuff like a more melodic version of the Residents. Is this cool or complete BS? You decide.

9. The Zac Brown Band – Toes

A total Magaritaville ripoff, from the opposite point of view. Is this a soundtrack for assholism or just alcoholism?

10. The French Exit – Your God

We’re just going to keep hitting you over the head about how good this ferocious female-fronted NYC noir band is until they’re huge. They’re at Local 269 on 9/17 at 8.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Songs of the Day 8/14-15/09

Rushing out of town for a whirlwind trip, back in a couple of days with more good stuff. In the meantime here are the songs for today and Saturday as we count down our top 666 songs of alltime all the way to #1.

#348: Linton Kwesi Johnson – Story

This is a song about facades, the great Jamaican/British dub poet matter-of-factly chronicling their usefulness and how problematic they can be while his great band, and his violinist in particular, provide a haunting roots reggae backdrop. From the Tings and Times cd, 1991.

#347: The Avengers – The End of the World

When Penelope Houston first revived her legendary punk band, it was as the Scavengers (hopes of reuniting all four original members were still high at the time). This classic apocalypse anthem was first released – some 20 years after Houston wrote it – on the Avengers Died for Your Sins compilation, 1999. The link above is to the last.fm stream; here’s a cool live take.

August 14, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 8/13/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #349:

The Avengers – Second to None

Classic San Francisco punk rock from 1979. Considered by many to be the American Sex Pistols (an apt comparison, considering that this song was produced by the Pistols’ Steve Jones), frontwoman Penelope Houston fortuituously resurrected the band in 2005 and has done frequent transcendentally good shows with them since. This is one of their most ferocious, defiant numbers, and Houston sings it even better now than she did thirty years ago.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 5/28/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Thursday’s song is #426:

Penelope Houston – Voices

Slow, haunting, 6/8 ballad from the Avengers’ frontwoman’s excellent 1986 acoustic solo debut album Birdboys (still available on cd and high quality cassette!). It’s an ominous meditation on getting old – which Houston seems incapable of becoming.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 11/29/08

The top 666 songs of alltime countdown continues, one day at a time all the way to #1. Saturday’s is #605:

Penelope Houston – Living Dolls

The Avengers’ frontwoman has also enjoyed a spectacular good if vastly underrated career as an acoustic songwriter. This is one of her best early solo songs, a darkly imagistic, minor-key tableau, figures hiding in the shadows in some nameless terror state. Even more relevant today than when originally released in 1985. From the cd Birdboys (also still available on high-quality cassette!).

November 29, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Top 20 New York Area Concerts of 2007

We’ve done the top 100 songs of 2007, and the top 20 albums of the year, and now it’s time for what we like best, the live stuff. Since any attempt to rank these shows by sheer exhilaration factor would an exercise in futility, they’re listed chronologically. If the show you saw, or the show you played isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it was bad, that just means that in all likelihood we didn’t see it. There are more live gigs in New York in one evening than we saw all year long, and we were trying hard to go out as much as possible and to see the most diverse range of stuff we could, for the benefit of all you readers. Also keep in mind that a pandora’s box of factors that have nothing to do with a band or artists’s performance come into play here, from the sound system to the general comfort level of the venue to how well a club treats the musicians onstage. As with our other year-end lists, take this with a grain of salt: consider it a sounding of sorts, a general indication of what was happening last year in one small demimonde.

Mary Lee’s Corvette at Rodeo Bar, 1/17/07
Two sets of old rarities and current classics from the greatest rock singer of our generation, and a scorching four-guitar edition of her band.

The Avengers at Bowery Ballrooom, 2/3/07
Classic punk done by the most crucial half of the original band (frontwoman Penelope Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham), less of a nostalgia show than a clinic in good fun.

Justin Bischof at the organ at St. Thomas Church, 3/11/07
The scheduled organist cancelled at the last minute, so the former St. Thomas assistant organist did improvisations, including a symphony that he made up on the spot. Nothing short of phenomenal.

Big Lazy at Luna, 5/20/07
The cd release show for their latest album Postcards from X saw the band thrashing through the instrumentals on their most diverse album to date with predictably fiery, macabre results.

Melomane at Hank’s, 6/7/07
The art-rock band at their majestic, epic best, sounding crystal-clear through the excellent PA at this Brooklyn country music bar

LJ Murphy at the Knitting Factory, 6/12/07
The rock world’s reigning lyrical genius played a typically passionate, fiery show backed by a great Rickenbacker guitarist and rhythm section.

System Noise at Broadway and West 3rd St., 6/21/07
The high point of the first-ever Make Music New York citywide outdoor music festival – that we were able to see before the rain started – was these scorching female-fronted art/noise/punk rockers.

The Mingus Big Band and Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 8/26/07
The grand finale of the year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival was the single best show we saw all year, no contest. A dark, stormy, virtuosic and breathtaking performance by a crowd of great players who realize that Mingus might be the greatest American composer ever.

Amanda Thorpe, Randi Russo and Ninth House at Hank’s, 8/26/07
The haunting Britfolk chanteuse followed by the equally haunting, chromatically inclined indie rock siren, and then the Nashville gothic rockers who at that point had just discovered improvisation, and were having a great time with it.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/29/07
A wild, danceable, completely psychedelic performance of brilliant obscurities from the Peruvian Amazon circa 1972, as well as some originals that sounded completely authentic

Moisturizer at Black Betty, 10/10/07
Two sweaty, bacchanalian sets by the funnest instrumental band on the planet.

Mark Steiner at Otto’s, 10/16/07
He may have played his one New York show of the entire year with a pickup band, but the chemistry of the group was adrenalizingly contagious to the point where the club’s dodgy sound became a moot point.

Golem and Rasputina at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Halloween
Deliriously danceable, oldtime orthodox Jewish dance music followed by a riveting show by the ever-darker, apocalyptically-minded chamber-rock trio.

Dina Dean at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/8/07
She’s always been an A-list tunesmith, but having a band behind her to passionately deliver her beautifully soulful songs is one of the best developments we’ve seen lately.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays Rimsky-Korsakov, Bruch, Lam and Richard Strauss at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 11/18/07
A sweeping, majestic, virtuosic show by a world-class orchestra bringing out all the earthy danceability of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture, the longing and anguish of Bruch’s Kol Nidre, and the fascinating timbres of a world premiere by Angel Lam. And then they pulled out all the stops for Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. And made it indelibly their own.

Paula Carino, Tom Warnick & World’s Fair and Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at the Parkside, 11/28/07
The brilliantly lyrical-minded, very funny Carino, the even funnier and inspiring Warnick and the ever-more-captivating, jazz-minded Smith played what was probably the best triple bill anywhere in New York last year.

The Inbreeds at Banjo Jim’s, 12/9/07
In a hilarious, somewhat stagy show that really ought to be brought to Broadway, the world’s funniest country parody band made fun of every conceivable style of country music.

John Scott Plays The Birth of Our Lord by Messiaen at St. Thomas Church, 12/20/07
Attuned to every emotion in this complex, absolutely haunting suite, Scott brought each and every one of them to life with verve and passion.

James Apollo at Banjo Jim’s, 12/20/07
The southwestern gothic songwriter impressed with a dusty, hypnotic set of one good song after another, not a single clunker. That doesn’t happen often.

Rachelle Garniez at Joe’s Pub, 12/22/07
The cd release for her new one, Melusine Years was a dark, terse yet devastatingly funny and entertaining affair. Just like the album

January 14, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment