Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Elizabeth and the Catapult Make Smart Popular Again

In case you need even further evidence that there’s a mass audience for pop music that’s not stupid, the response to this album is proof. Elizabeth and the Catapult’s new album The Other Side of Zero didn’t just happen to make the itunes singer/songwriter chart last week: it debuted at #1. But don’t let the category fool you – frontwoman/keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman’s defiantly lyrical, artsy chamber-pop songs haven’t the faintest resemblance to the dentist-office pop of, say, James Blunt or Taylor Swift. Aimee Mann is the most strikingly obvious influence here, right down to the George Harrison-esque major/minor chord changes, the uneasy lyricism and cynical worldview. There’s also a quirky counterintuitivity in the same vein as Greta Gertler, and a purist pop sensibility that evokes Sharon Goldman – both somewhat lesser-known but equally formidable writers. Which is no surprise. Just as we predicted, the playing field is shifting. Watching bands like Elizabeth and the Catapult take over centerstage is as heartwarming as it is sweet revenge: we’ve got a renaissance on our hands, folks. If you’re a corporate A&R guy and you still think that Taylor Swift has lasting power, you might want to think about changing careers right about now.

The group’s previous album Taller Children was more lyrically-oriented; this one is musically stronger, and more diverse. As with Aimee Mann’s work, the production on all but one of the songs here is purist and often surprisingly imaginative, Ziman’s piano and occasional electronic keyboards out in front of a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars and frequently rich orchestration, no autotune or drum machine in sight. The opening track sets the tone, swaying and distantly Beatlesque: “Take us to a wishing well, throw us in and sink us down,” Ziman suggest with characteristic brooding intensity. The next track is Aimee Mann-inflected powerpop with staccato strings; after that, they go in a more psychedelic 1960s pop direction with the insistent Julian, Darling. The understatedly snarling, orchestrated Thank You for Nothing is a study in dichotomies, a bitterly triumphant kiss-off song: “Thank you for laughing out loud even when you don’t mean it…they say hurting is growing if you believe when you say it…” It’s a typical moment on this album: Ziman won’t be defeated even in the darkest hours.

One of the strongest tracks here, The Horse and the Missing Cart is a fervent 6/8 ballad, words of wisdom to a generation who’ve turned yuppie and conservative before their time. Open Book is part plaintive art-rock ballad, part sultry come-on; the wary, sardonic, oldtimey-flavored torch ballad Worn Out Tune builds to a soaring, orchestrated Aimee Mann-style chorus, ominous minor key reverb guitar trading off with a blippy melodic bassline: “All the saddest songs we sing are the ones we can’t get enough of.” The title cut, another big 6/8 ballad features Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings on harmony vocals, taking on a pensive countrypolitan feel with pedal steel after the first chorus. The album winds up with an electric piano-driven indie pop song in the same vein as Mattison or the Secret History, banjo and mandolin adding some unexpectedly sweet textures, and the gospel-inflected, intensely crescendoing Do Not Hang Your Head. The only miss here sounds like an outtake from some other band’s demo session gone horribly wrong, a completely misguided, dated detour into 90s-style trip-hop. Elizabeth & the Catapult are on national tour through the end of the month, teaming up with Tift Merritt on a series of west coast dates; check their tour calendar for cities and details.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Krista Detor’s Chocolate Paper Suites Are Dark and Delicious

Krista Detor’s album Chocolate Paper Suites has been out for awhile this year – but who’s counting. It’s a dark lyrical feast. Images and symbols rain down in a phantasmagorical torrent and then reappear when least expected – and the pictures they paint pack a wallop. This is first and foremost a headphone album: casual listening will get you nowhere with her. Detor’s carefully modulated alto vocals land somewhere between Aimee Mann and Paula Carino over a bed of tastefully artsy piano-based midtempo rock/pop that downplays the lyrics’ frequent offhand menace. While Detor sings in character, a bitterness and a weariness connects the dots between the album’s five three-song suites. Allusion is everything; most of the action is off-camera and every image that makes it into the picture is loaded. Not exactly bland adult contemporary fare.

The first suite is Oranges Fall Like Rain. The opening track swirls hypnotic and Beatlesque, essentially a one-chord backbeat vamp in the same vein as the Church. Detor’s heavy symbolism sets the stage: a green umbrella, the rich guy in the title pulling out a knife to cut the orange, a desire for a “white car driving up to the sun.” Its second part, Lorca in Barcelona mingles surreal, death-fixated imagery with a dark, tango-tinged chorus. Its conclusion is savage, a rail against not only the dying of the light but any death of intelligence:

Poetry is dead, Delilah said,
Maybe in a pocket somewhere in Prague
That’s all that’s left of it
Are you a good dog?

The Night Light triptych puts a relationship’s last painful days on the autopsy table. Its first segment, Night Light – Dazzling is an Aimee Mann ripoff but a very good one, its slowly swinging acoustic guitar shuffle painting an offhandedly scathing portrait, a snide party scene where the entitled antagonist acts out to the point where the fire department comes. What they’re doing there, of course, is never stated. Night Light – All to Do with the Moon is a stargazer’s lament, all loaded imagery: “It’s the synchronous orbit that blinds my view.” It ends with the slow, embittered, oldtimey shades of Teeter-Totter on a Star, Mama Cass as done by Lianne Smith, maybe. The Madness of Love trio aims for a sultry acoustic funk vibe, with mixed results. Its high point is the concluding segment, gospel as seen though a minimalistic lens, the narrator regretting her caustic I-told-you-so to her heartbroken pal, even though she knows she’s right.

By Any Other Name opens with a pensive reflection on time forever lost, Joni Mitchell meets noir 60s folk-pop; set to a plaintive violin-and-piano arrangement, its second segment is another killer mystery track, a couple out on a romantic two-seater bicycle ride with some unexpected distractions. The final suite was written as part of the Darwin Songhouse, a series of songs on themes related to Charles Darwin: a very funny if somewhat macabre-tinged oldtimey swing number told from the point of view of an unreconstructed creationist; a live concert version of a long Irish-flavored ballad that quietly and matter-of-factly casts the idea of divine predestination as diabolical hell, and a lullaby. New Yorkers can experience Detor’s unique craftsmanship and understatedly beautiful voice live at City Winery on October 18.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Universal Thump Makes a Big Splash

Pianist/composer Greta Gertler’s new band the Universal Thump play art-rock at its most richly, lushly beautiful. She’s no stranger to the style: her 2005 album Nervous Breakthroughs is a genuine classic of the genre. Their new album First Spout, available exclusively at the band’s bandcamp site, is a triumphant return to a warmly familiar sonic milieu following her unexpected but rousingly successful detour into an oldtimey/ragtime vein on her previous album Edible Restaurant. This is also work in progress, the first of three eps scheduled for release throughout 2010 and 2011 – where bands used to release singles one at a time, the Universal Thump are generously offering big slices of what looks right now to have the makings of an iconic full-length effort.

The opening track (available as a free download) is an absolute tour de force, an artsy pop epic with bouncy, staccato piano and horns, a baroque-inflected rondo between the string section and bassoon on the second verse, and a long, murky, absolutely psychedelic break midway through. The big 6/8 ballad Grasshoppers manages to be wary yet sultry, Gretler’s festive piano glissandos throwing the windows wide for the strings to sweep through, slowly and gracefully winding down and eventually fading out. Gertler has never sung better – as much as she still likes to go to the top of her practically supersonic range, Kate Bush style, she’s using her lower register more, a delightful new development.

They follow it with an austere, atmospheric, horizontally-inclined tone poem for strings. The two additional tracks mine a classic pop vein: a Jeff Lynne-style cover of the iconic new wave hit Reckless, by the Australian Crawl, complete with a devious portamento synth solo which actually manages not to be cheesy, which is quite an achievement. They wind it up with a new, bassoon-propelled, stripped down version of the bouncy, Elvis Costello-tinged pop hit Martin’s Big Night Out, from Nervous Breakthroughs. Although completely self-produced, it’s packed with the kind of subtle and playful symphonic touches more typically found on big-room productions from the 70s. Count this among the best albums of 2010, as is – not bad for a work that’s a long way from completion.

August 9, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Universal Thump at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 7/16/10

Keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s new band the Universal Thump were something beyond amazing Friday night. The orchestrated rock bands of the 70s may have gone the way of the dinosaurs (except for the Moody Blues) but this was like being in the front row at an ELO or Procol Harum show at the Royal Albert Hall. Except with better vocals. Gertler’s sometimes stratospheric high soprano fits this band well: she went up so far that there was no competing sonically with the lush, rich atmospherics of the Thumpettes, a.k.a. the Osso String Quartet, whose presence made all the difference. With Adam D. Gold terse yet sometimes surprising behind the drum kit, equally terse bass from Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron, fiery powerpop guitar god Pete Galub on lead and Gertler at the piano, they segued seamlessly from one richly melodic, Romantically-tinged, counterintuitively structured song to the next.

Gertler’s been writing songs like that since she was in her teens: one Aimee Mann-inflected number in stately 6/8 time dated from 1993. Otherwise, the set was mostly all new material from the Universal Thump’s ongoing album (now an ep, with a kickstarter campaign in case you have money to burn). The opening number worked a wistful post-baroque melody down to a piano cascade where Gertler rumbled around in the low registers for awhile, then the strings took it up again. The wistful vibe kept going, an uneasy, brooding lyric soaring over an austere minor-key melody, with a terse viola solo out. Damien, from Gertler’s now-classic 2004 album The Baby That Brought Bad Weather was all understated longing, cached in the mighty swells of the strings.

Galub used the next song’s Penny Lane bounce as the launching pad for an unabashedly vicious, percussively crescendoing guitar solo, something he’d repeat a couple more times – even by his standards, he was especially energized. The best song of the evening, possible titled Closing Night began with a matter-of-factly dramatic series of piano chords, worked its way into a lush backbeat anthem with another one of those Galub slasher solos, and gracefully faded out. Gertler explained that her closing number had been appropriated (and turned into a sizeable hit) by an unnamed Australian band, who’d transformed it into a song about playing the lottery. As it rose to a ridiculously catchy chorus out of just vocals and strings, its hitworthiness struck home, hard. The audience wouldn’t let them go: the band encored with a majestically fluid version of Everybody Wants to Adore You, another smash of a pop song from The Baby That Brought Bad Weather. We do our own individual list of the best New York concerts of the year in December, and you can bet that this one will be on it. This was it for the Universal Thump’s shows this summer – adding yet another reason to look forward to fall, which at this point couldn’t come too soon.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 5/22/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #68:

Phil Ochs – My Life

The blitheness of the song’s ragtime-pop melody contrasts savagely with Ochs’ lyric about being harrassed by the Nixon gestapo: “Take your tap from my phone, and leave my life alone.” That’s Lincoln Mayorga on piano – his 2010 album of Gershwin would raise the bar for anyone wishing to play An American in Paris. From Rehearsals for Retirement, 1968.

May 22, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 5/1/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #89:

Rachelle Garniez – After the Afterparty

Elegantly vengeful kiss-off balad set to one of the multistylistic steampunk goddess’ catchiest, most gracefully anthemic piano melodies. From her classic 2007 cd Melusine Years, our pick for best album that year.

May 1, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Tris McCall at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 3/30/10

Tris McCall was psyched to be playing the Rockwood, not only because of the great sound but because performers at the Rockwood don’t have to go through a metal detector. That’s what musicians and audience alike have to do at the Hudson County (NJ) Courthouse, where he’s played several times. McCall wears his New Jersey affiliation proudly on his sleeve; like most every other artist from there, his feelings for his home state are mixed. “I’m going to play a lot of wordy songs,” he warned the audience, but he held them rapt. McCall is just as good solo on piano as he is with a band, maybe even better, since his lyrics have more of a chance to cut through. And they cut and slashed with a wit and a poignancy on par with the one artist McCall covered, Elvis Costello (he snuck in a casually brilliant cover of All the Rage toward the end of the set).

As much as New Jersey is notoriously weird, dark, haunted and corrupt, McCall invariably sympathizes with his downtrodden characters, none of whom ever seem to be able to get out – his songs have a Ray Davies-class populism. The Ballad of Frank Vinieri recounted the sad end of a would-be housing preservationist’s political career, brought down in a witch hunt by greedy developers. An earlier song, We Don’t Talk About Teddy was a hauntingly allusive look at a convict abandoned in the prison-industrial complex, told from the point of view of his hopelessly scarred parents. “Ten different channels of cop shows to choose from, I’m gonna lock it up!” the father finally rages – meaning the tv.

The centerpiece of the show was the centerpiece of McCall’s new album Let the Night Fall (best album we’ve reviewed this year so far, by the way), the epic First World, Third Rate, a casually harrowing narrative of depersonalized stripmall hell. But McCall ended it on a passionately upbeat note: the mallrat at the center of the song isn’t about to go down with everything around him. By contrast, a ballad giving a glorious shout-out to “Hudson County by the sea” was not nearly that optimistic, its protagonist having “bartered away” his life in his own darkness on the edge of town.

Not everything in the set was that bleak. Musically, McCall mixed it up from his usual big, dramatic block-chord arrangements with a sarcastic state-of-the-economy minor-key blues, the joyous sixties soul of Baltimore (sort of an alternative to the Randy Newman song) and a vividly jazzy number about a housing inspector. And the song he soundchecked with, a deadpan, vaudevillian tribute to (or parody of) the New Jersey Department of Public Works made it impossible not to smile. McCall’s next gig is at Bruar Falls on April 1 – no joke – with his indie powerpop supergroup of sorts, Overlord.

In a welcome return to New York, Irish songwriter Andy White followed with a boisterous, tuneful set featuring some lushly processed twelve-string guitar work and White’s characteristically smart social awareness, best exemplified by his global-warning cautionary tale Last Long Night on the Planet.

March 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 3/26/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #125:

Elvis Costello – Pills and Soap

Savagely astute commentary on the distinctions that the haves make between themselves and the have-nots, and the logically deadly consequences, over Steve Nieve’s minimalist faux-martial piano. From Punch the Clock, 1983.

March 26, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: Miss Elixir at Rubulad, NYC 6/15/03

[Editor’s note: more new stuff tomorrow. Til then, here’s another oldie but a goodie]

The keyboardist/songwriter now known as Miss Elixir advised her fan base that she’d be performing around midnight: miracle of miracles, a shockingly quick L train made the trip from Williamsburg to the west side in 15 minutes. This time around the venue for this long-running traveling party was the Altman Building in Chelsea, three floors of fire twirlers, circus performers and random vendors selling everything from sweets to what was purportedly absinthe (it was green). It took forever to get inside and negotiate the labyrinthine space, finally finding the stuffy, unventilated, scorchingly hot side room where the performance would take place. Drink tickets for everyone; the singer nonchalantly addressed the audience holding a deuce deuce of Colt .45. There was an ice machine in the back of the room, and one of the clowns (the real kind, like you’d find at a carnival) who was apparently part of the show began throwing ice cubes at everyone, then sprinkling the crowd with ice water. It didn’t take long before everyone joined the fun. Finally, Miss Elixir – the only one who wasn’t drenched at this point – went back behind her electric piano and delivered a brief but frequently riveting show, accompanied by a talented multi-instrumentalist alternating between violin, guitar, accordion and a mini-glockenspiel built into his carrying case. The two played well, making the frequently jarring, horror-movie cascades in several of Miss Elixir’s artsy, pensive, somewhat Siouxsie Sioux-esque songs seem effortless, her vocals unaffectedly calm in stark contrast with the drama and intensity of much of the music. She closed with a pretty pop song that went over especially well with the audience, who persuaded her to do an encore. So she played it again.

[postscript: Miss Elixir still plays the occasional show in and around the New York area]

June 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Lee Feldman – I’ve Forgotten Everything

Lee Feldman is a keyboard player who excels at seemingly all styles of pop music, from ragtime to slightly Steely Dan-inflected jazz-rock. He’s perhaps best known for his musical Starboy, the rare adult entertainment which is actually suitable for children of all ages. It’s a marvelously lo-fi, heart-tugging yet completely schlock-free production about an alien who lives in the ocean and has all sorts of adventures, set to astonishingly imaginative piano-pop. As a vocalist, Feldman often takes on the character of a naïf, a plainspoken persona which on this cd allows him to be disarming, yet also gives him a truly sinister edge. If Jonathan Richman took his shtick to the logical extreme, he’d be Lee Feldman. This somewhat fragmentary concept album about the life of a man teetering on the edge of sanity, told in the first person, is very disquieting. At first listen, it’s awfully pretty, but the vocals and particularly the lyrics reveal something else entirely. It’s packed with allusions, defined more by what isn’t here than what is, ultimately revealing itself as a very subtle but extremely potent satire of American conformist culture.

The title track has the optimism of an amnesiac, piano and rhythm section until a nice organ flourish and strings on the outro: “We’ve got a lot of dreaming to do.” The following cut, My Sad Life pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the album, a not-so-fond look back at the protagonist’s early years, set to a deceptively bouncy melody punctuated by ba-ba-ba backup vocals and horn flourishes:

I’ve got a car and I’ve got a wife
She likes to be alone
So after dark I go for a drive

He’s stuck out in suburbia with just his wife, so he ends up smoking a lot of weed. We later learn on the upbeat, bracing blues Morning Train that the ride makes him feel optimistic, or so he says, “But I’m no magic when the evening comes.” Joel Frahm’s tenor sax takes a breezy solo, then Feldman comes in with some slightly eerie upper register piano at the end. The next song, titled Lee Feldman, takes an unexpectedly dark detour, the narrator reciting two Social Security numbers – both of which he claims are his – over piano that comes just thisclose to macabre but doesn’t completely go there.

On the next cut, Mrs. Green, it turns out he’s her limo driver. As we discover in the final verse, he has a very specific destination in mind and it’s clearly not somewhere she’s planning on going. Pete Galub supplies appropriately buoyant, supple, incisive lead guitar. After that, on the slow, pretty ballad Of All the Things, the guy applauds a woman who for some reason didn’t see the sign that everyone else saw up above. As usual, Feldman doesn’t say what it was. After the troubling piano/bass/drums instrumental Bowling Accident in Lane 3, there’s a slow 6/8 number, Give Me My Money with nice textures from Brock Mumford accordionist Will Holshouser and backing vocals from Greta Gertler. “You don’t need to worry, the baby is sleeping,” Feldman sings in his completely affect-free voice: suddenly the guy is old and misses his footsteps. “It’s not just athletes who hate to come last.”

On Big Woman on the Shelves, Holshouser and Feldman play together on a sweet Gallic run down the scale that punctuates the chorus. The proprietor of a store with big women on the shelf is trying to kick the guy out. In Paris. He ends up taking one of the women with him. Feldman finally gets to take a piano solo and really makes this one count. He follows with the self-explanatory instrumental Waltz for a Sad Girl and then the slinky, jazz-inflected organ-driven Diagonal S’s at the Motel 6. It turns out that the protagonist’s daughter is waiting there for some guy to pump her for information. And then it really gets disturbing:

Magic Shop is open
But everything inside is broken
How did we get so clumsy?
Clumsy with our fingers
I took a little piece of my own action
And let myself evaporate
In your swimming pool

Then the scene jumps to Little While, a sad solo piano number that seems to be when his Sara leaves him:

I would be walking into the snow
Watching the penguins play

Next we’re told that something bad happened in the basement of the Hippy Store and that’s why the guy’s afraid of it. Of course, the song doesn’t say what, maybe because he could spend his life with the people who did whatever they did there. At the end of the song, Feldman and band mimic the sound of a vinyl record slowing down. Then the lights go down, and then out completely on Cave, where he lights fires with his glasses and drinks from the falls:

Now that you’re living in a corporate nightmare
You look so sad
But you don’t have to feel bad

Feldman reminds, having reverted to mankind’s original, natural state. The horns go crazy for a long time at the end, falling away one by one until only Steven Bernstein’s slide trumpet is left. The next track, Mr. Feldman, has the protagonist talking to himself in a nuthouse. The cd comes to a close with See You Again, “in the shadows of time. Again.” Impeccably and tersely produced, this album has cult classic written all over it. Shame on us for taking so long to review it. Five bagels. With whitefish. Because it’s full of mercury and makes you forget everything.

January 24, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment