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 10/16/11

As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #472:

Jenifer Jackson – Slowly Bright

This 1999 release was Jackson’s quantum leap: it established her as one of the world’s most astonishingly diverse, intelligent songwriters. Her vocals here are memorably hushed and gentle: since then, she’s diversified as a singer as well. The songwriting blends Beatlesque psychedelia with bossa nova, with the occasional hint of trip-hop or ambient music. Every track here is solid; the real stunner that resonates after all these years is When You Looked At Me, with its understated Ticket to Ride beat, swirling atmospherics and crescendoing chorus where Jackson goes way, way up to the top of her range. The title track, Anything Can Happen and the vividly imagistic Yesterday My Heart Was Free have a psychedelic tropicalia feel; Whole Wide World, Burned Down Summer and I’ll Be Back Soon are gorgeous janglerock hits; So Hard to Believe balances tenderness against dread. The catchiest track here may be the unexpectedly optimistic, soul-infused Look Down; the album closes with the lush, hypnotic, blithely swaying Dream. And believe it or not, this classic is nowhere to be found in the blogosphere or the other usual sources for music, although it’s still available from cdbaby. Her forthcoming one, The Day Happiness Found Me is every bit as good, maybe better; it comes out in December.

October 19, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/13/11

As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album was #475:

The Peanut Butter Conspiracy Is Spreading

The 1967 debut by this vastly underrated, eclectic psychedelic pop band combines the surreal folk-pop of early Jefferson Airplane with snarling garage rock and ornate chamber pop. Frontwoman Sandi Robinson’s vox are sort of a cross between Judy Collins and Grace Slick; the song arrangements are complex and sometimes haunting. The big innuendo-driven stoner-pop hits are Why Did I Get So High and You Took Too Much, both ostensibly love songs – back then, you couldn’t get on the radio if you sang about getting high on anything other than booze. There’s also the gorgeous chamber-rock of Then Came Love; the acid folk hit It’s a Happening Thing; the fuzztone-driven Twice Is Life; the punchy You Can’t Be Found, with its Leslie speaker guitar; and the intense, scampering Dark on You Now among the eleven tracks here. Here’s a random torrent via Hippy DJ Kit. The album was reissued in the early zeros as a twofer with the band’s second, more erratic one The Great Conspiracy, which you can get via Acid at Home.

October 16, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/13/11

Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #504:

Crowded House – Together Alone

Their best album, an alternately lush, jangly, and sensual Beatlesque psychedelic pop gem from 1993. The opening track, Kare Kare offers swirling atmospherics, followed by the catchy pop tune In My Command, and the album’s best track, the absolutely gorgeous, crescendoing Nails in My Feet. Neil Finn, as good a guitarist as he is a tunesmith, gets dark and edgy on the biting mood piece Fingers of Love; Pineapple Head and Private Universe are gently romantic, while Black and White Boy and Locked Out are scorching, guitar-fueled riff-pop. A janglerock masterpiece, Distant Sun has one of the alltime great choruses; there’s also the jagged Skin Feeling along with the slightly trippy Catherine Wheels and the title track. The suicide of excellent drummer Paul Hester made the prospect of a reunion unlikely, but Finn’s put the group back together with a new one, and they’re reputedly as entertaining and tuneful as ever. Here’s a random torrent via Neurotico y Romantico.

September 13, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/11/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #537:

Mama Cass Elliot – Dream a Little Dream

What a voice.What soul, and longing, and sensuality. Some of the tunes on the 60s cult heroine’s torchy 1968 debut release, like Burn Your Hatred and Rubber Band, are a little dated, but those vocals are timeless. And it’s too bad she isn’t with us anymore (the story about choking on a sandwich is cruelly untrue – it was bad dope that did her in). As you would expect from the hippie milieu she inhabited at that point, a lot of usual suspects stepped up to help out. Steven Stills’ guitar spices up the surprisingly plaintive Talking To Your Toothbrush; the Band’s Richard Manuel contributes Blues for Breakfast; John Sebastian throws in the pensive chamber-pop Room Nobody Lives In; and Leonard Cohen – who knows something about sexy allure – gives her You Know Who I Am (and she reciprocates mightily). There’s also the heavily reworked title track, a Bessie Smith hit forty years previously; California Earthquake, a psychedelic pop period piece that still resonates;  the big ballads What Was I Thinking Of and Long Time Loving You; the blue-eyed soul of Sweet Believer, and the jokey but actually very spot-on Jane the Insane Dog Lady. Here’s a random torrent via Jensen Brazil.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, 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

Album of the Day 7/3/11

The core crew here are back but still on vacation, needing one after a near-miss at the Toronto airport and then another one a couple of hours later in Newark. More new stuff coming soon: congratulations, Alicia and Tom! In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #576:

The Larch – Larix Americana

The Brooklyn psychedelic Britpop band’s best and most recent album, from 2010, blends Richard Lloyd-style guitar sizzle, frontman Ian Roure’s clever Elvis Costelloish wordplay and wickedly catchy guitar-and-keys hooks. Sub-Orbital Getaway is paisley underground disguised as new wave, with a characteristically paradoxical double entendre for a theme: it’s a trip, but where to? With Love from Region One is a bittersweet tribute to all good things American; Tracking Tina, a caustic look at cluelessly hypervigilant yuppie parents. The offhandedly charming Strawberry Coast has an ominous undercurrent: behind the chalet, the holiday’s complete. “Smile cause you’re on cctv as you’re walking home.” In the Name Of…, a slam at religious zealots, has a Moods for Moderns vibe; Inside Hugh chronicles a dayjob from hell. Queues Likely is equally caustic, imagining no respite from a wait “from bumper to brakelight.” Space Vacation updates the faux reggae of the Boomtown Rats’ House on Fire; The Long Tail closes it, an aptly sardonic sendup of corporate groupthink. This one hasn’t made it to the sharelockers yet but it’s still available from cdbaby.

July 3, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Not Waving but Drowning’s New Album Is a Trip

Tuneful and trippy to the extreme, Brooklyn band Not Waving but Drowning’s new theatrical rock album Processional is in some ways a more adventurous take on the Dresden Dolls. It makes a good companion piece with Aunt Ange’s recent psychedelic masterpiece. Where that one’s downright menacing, this one’s more lightheartedly surreal, although not without its disquieting moments. Where Aunt Ange goes out on the gypsy rock tip, Not Waving but Drowning reach back to the sly surrealistic humor of 60s psychedelia. Like that era’s great psychedelic bands, they draw on a kitchen sink’s worth of influences: folk music from literally around the globe, vaudeville, cabaret and garage rock. What’s it all about, other than the shambling procession through an endless succession of surreal images that the title foreshadows? After hearing it several times, it’s hard to tell, although it gets more interesting every time around. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement.

The opening track, Sleep Before I Wake, is basically a mashup of the bluegrass standards Seven Bridges Road and Shady Grove, done Appalachian gothic style with psychedelic, reverb-toned lead guitar and guy/girl vocals, like a more surreal version of the Walkabouts circa 1990. The next track, November 3rd weaves a magical web of bass, banjo, guitar and violin and a lyric about a honeybee. If he’s made it to November 3, either he’s a very lucky guy, or a not so lucky one. Which isn’t clear. Is he running for office? A question worth asking. Tabor Island is a gleefully brisk shuffle over an Indian-flavored drone: “We shall all be made free again on Tabor Island.” A Jules Verne reference? Maybe.

Like a track from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Thanks a Lot Lancelot is a funny, sarcastic garage-pop song. “Sometimes love won’t do and you knew that from the start,” the singer reminds the poor knight. They follow that with a banjo tune, Windowsill, giving it a gentle evening ambience with trumpet and flute, and then pick up the pace with the scurrying, carnivalesque Station Light. A twisted casino scene of sorts, it’s the most theatrical number here. By the end, they’re not taking any bets – figure that one out.

The funniest song here is Sing to Me, a bumbling attempt at seduction that gets squashed fast, with a pretty hilarious quote from an awful 60s pop hit and an equally amusing outro. The Mission, with its 5/4 rhythm, offcenter violin and piano, is just plain inscrutable; they follow that with the album’s best song, Tiger Hunting, a creepy, slinky chromatic tune with an apocalyptic edge that hints at an old Talking Heads theme. Long Short Walk sounds like a cut from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, but with better vocals and more interesting rhythm;Willow Garden evokes Country Joe & the Fish at their most reflective and acoustic. The album winds up with the title track, a twisted, swaying waltz that builds to a crescendo of delirious harmonies – it seems to be sort of an acoustic version of what Pink Floyd was going for with Waiting for the Worms. A pleasantly uneasy note on which to end this very entertaining journey. Not Waving but Drowning are at le Poisson Rouge on May 24.

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

Ward White’s Done with the Talking Cure Is Classic

Since the mid-zeros, Brooklyn songwriter Ward White has quietly and methodically been putting out brilliantly lyrical rock albums. An incisive lead guitarist and nimbly melodic bass player, he’s made some waves lately, touring with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby and getting some long-overdue NPR exposure. His new album Done with the Talking Cure is brutally hilarious, and may be his best one yet. It’s definitely his most diverse: although it’s got his hardest-rocking songs – he’s never played better, handling all the guitars and the bass here – it’s also his most surreal and mysterious. Claudia Chopek’s string arrangements are pure genius: they’re lush yet completely unpredictable, a perfect fit with the songs’ devious twists and turns. And yet, this is White’s most direct album, most of the songs here clocking in at less than three minutes. White handles all the vocals as well, with lots of harmonies, airing out his Jeff Buckley-esque upper register. Behind him, Joe McGinty (with whom he made a terrific psychedelic pop album in 2009) plays keys, along with Chopek’s violin and viola, Julia Kent’s cello and Eddie Zwieback’s drums.

The understatedly uneasy title track kicks off with a fluid Taxman bass riff, its narrator eager to jump back into the fray since his “arms were Gregor Samsa’d to insect feelers overnight.” The first of several sweepingly orchestrated numbers, Change Your Clothes paints a surreal wee-hours scenario: its sarcasm barely held in check, it may be the most genteel song ever written about wanting to crawl out a window in the middle of the night. Radio Silence is an absolutely spot-on sendup of WASP uptightness set to a delicious backbeat pop tune: “It’s really not a compromise til everybody’s miserable/But zero’s not divisible,” White laments. “It’s a tragic disease, the kind that keeps you well and never sick.”

The strings sweep in again on We Can’t Go on Like This, a richly allusive, barely restrained exasperation anthem with Jimmy Webb touches. Then White brings back the backbeat with Accomplice, something akin to Luke Haines with a Connecticut accent, complete with a creepy circus bridge straight out of Black Box Recorder. White has been called a “musical John Cheever,” a comparison that strikes home in the cruelly sardonic, string-driven Be Like Me (as in “Disgusted with the way things are, embarrassed by how they were and frightened about how they’ll be”). He drops the allusions and goes straight for the jugular with the irresistibly funny/harsh Pretty/Ugly Town, a kiss-off to a trendy girl who will do anything to “succeed.” Then he brings them back in full force with 1964, an equally amusing anti-trendoid broadside disguised as a sweet bouncy pop song utilizing every vintage keyboard in the Joe McGinty museum.

Who’s Sorry Now perfectly captures a morose, drugged-out ambience, White’s voice drowning in watery Leslie speaker waves: “I always drink to forget, I wish I could forget to drink more often…got all this time to kill before I take my pill, and the medicine has all the fun.” The album closes with Family Dog, sort of the anti-Weezy as dog metaphors go, and The Matchbox Sign, pulsing along on a Wilson Pickett bassline anchoring another of those detail-packed mystery stories he writes so well. What else is there to say: the songs speak for themselves. Another masterpiece from a songwriter who will someday – if there is a someday – be pantheonic. You’ll see this high on our list of the best albums of the year when we finally get around to putting it up. Ward White plays the cd release show for this one on April 19 at Bowery Electric at about 9:30 on an excellent bill with Jim Allen’s country band starting the night at 7:30, followed by the Joe McGinty Seven at 8:30.

April 15, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Damian Quinones’ Happy Accidents – Purist Rock Fun

For over a decade Damian Quinones has been simmering just under the radar writing tuneful, fun, smart psychedelic rock songs in somewhat of the same vein as the Zombies. His new ep Happy Accidents explores his edgier, harder-rocking side, sort of like a lo-fi version of Love Camp 7. This album took shape as Quinones began demoing songs in his home studio and then must have realized that what he had – with some welcome contributions from a brass section – was perfectly fine for public consumption. Here he plays guitars, bass, percussion and keys, along with Greg Richardson on bass, Brian Baker and Geoffrey Hull on trumpets, Eric Fraser on bansuri flute and Patrick McIntyre and Seth Johnson on drums.

The opening cut, Arecibo, is a catchy backbeat pop song with bracing doubletracked lead guitar. Tesla’s Love Machine is deliciously arranged mid-70s-style rock with psychedelic touches. Quinones is tremendously good at arrangements and fun, imaginative riffs: blippy white noise oscillating into and out of the mix and sunbaked sustained lead guitar lines that get switched out for bright slide guitar on the last verse.

Annabelle, a casually shuffling, thoughtfully psychedelic folk-pop tune with balmy, period-perfect 1960s horn fills, picks up with a sway at the end. Life in the Dog House paints a picture of a guy who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, in fact much of anything. “My last payday they say we’re moving the plant to the south of Japan,” he announces; later on he’s “dodging swings from a rolling pin” swung by his wife, but he doesn’t give up. Daddy Legs, a full band track, slinks along on a hypnotic latin groove with tasty horns and electric piano, Gregorio Hernandez’ trombone prowling around suspensefully. Five songs, five bucks at Quinones’ site, worth every penny for fans of catchy, purist rock songwriting. Watch this space for upcoming NYC shows.

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