Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Barbez Brings Paul Celan to Life in Midtown

Stark, often haunting, eclectic Brooklyn band Barbez have explored several different styles: Tom Waits-ish cabaret, Big Lazy-style noir soundtracks and most recently gypsy rock. The incarnation that played the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown Thursday night is the most interesting yet. Along with the encores, the show brought to life the band’s the most recent Tzadik album Force of Light, a musical companion to a series of poems by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. Celan wrote in German – his original language – and met with considerable criticism for it. His earlier work is graceful, meticulously constructed and haunted; his later poems are considerably gnomic. He asserted that language was a sanctuary of sorts for him, the only way to make sense of the horrors he’d witnessed, including the murder of his parents in a death camp. Celan committed suicide in 1970. This version of the band – leader Dan Kaufman on guitar and lapsteel, Peter Hess on clarinet and bass clarinet, Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba, Peter Lettre on bass, John Bollinger on drums, the Quavers‘ Catherine McRae on violin – played in mostly minor keys alongside Cassie Tunick’s matter-of-fact narration.

The first song, Shibboleth set the stage for what was to follow, a succinct, distantly klezmer-tinged, fingerpicked acoustic guitar theme that expanded with subtle variations: it made an apt soundtrack for the accompanying poem, an imagistic cautionary tale. Kaufman switched to Strat for the album’s title track – the accompanying poem is cynical, Sysyphian and death-obsessed, the instrumental slow, swaying and austere with a violin lead track in place of Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin on the studio version, Tunick’s vibes signaling a desperate stampede down to a troubled, repetitive outro. Aspen Trees, based on Celan’s dedication to his mother, was an understated dirge driven by clarinet and another strikingly terse, melodic central hook by Kaufman. Based on two late poems, Corner of Time maintained the plaintive atmosphere with a stately sway, everyone in the band adding off-kilter accents in turn.

Count the Almonds, an allusion to a popular ghetto snack, was the most overtly klezmer-inflected composition of the night, utilizing intricately tremoloing vibraphone passages to build crescendos to one final swell with the drums going full tilt, then down and out with surprising gentleness. Their take on The Black Forest was funky and enlivened with all kinds of dynamic shifts; Conversation in the Mountains – based on Celan’s only known prose piece, was a long, doomed cruise to nowhere. The last of the Celan pieces, Sky Beetle gave Hess a long runway to launch a gliding, hypnotic bass clarinet passage evocative of hypnotic avant-chamber ensemble Redhooker. They encored with a brightly apprehensive chase scene of sorts based on an ancient Roman Jewish melody, and a surfy, creepily phantasmagorical take on an Alfred Schnittke piece. The polyglot crowd in the auditorium wanted more despite the fact that after about an hour and a half onstage, the band had literally heated up the room.

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May 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Arborea – House of Sticks

From the Maine woods comes this beguiling, hypnotic, rustic album of dark, minimalist, ambient Americana. Arborea’s self-titled debut made a splash last year and drew accolades from NPR and the BBC, and has since sold out (it’s still available on itunes).  Their verdant, bracingly earthy follow-up album takes the listener even deeper into the forest. Singer/banjo player Shanti Curran has an ethereal, frequently otherworldly voice that reminds of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, but with considerably more gravitas and soul. As an instrumentalist, she makes every note count: her plaintive, thoughtfully spaced plucking fits well with her voice alongside her husband Buck Curran’s acoustic and electric guitar shading. Iron and Wine is an obvious comparison, although Arborea can be considerably darker, and have a broader sonic palette: this is not a band where you could say that after awhile, all their songs pretty much sound the same. And it’s not freak-folk, although fans of that genre will undoubtedly be taken with their sound as well.

The album’s opening track, River and Rapids blends dreampop and oldtime folk, banjo playing  a sparse, circular melody beneath somewhat disembodied vocals. The way the guitar gradually builds and then interpolates within the hypnotic banjo melody of Beirut is gorgeously intricate. On Alligator, insistent banjo functions as a bassline beneath Shanti Curran’s soul-inflected vocals and dreamlike layers of acoustic and slide guitar. With its guy/girl vocals, the long, pensive Dance, Sing, Fight echoes the Cure back when they were a goth band, concluding with a particularly apt Midnight Oil lyrical quote. Then it segues into the haunting Look Down Fair Moon, banjo playing a Middle Eastern-style oud taqsim line, but in the minor scale.

The gentle, Indian-inflected drone of the title track brings back the contemplative vibe of the first part of the album, its meticulously layered arrangement evocative of Brooklyn “porch techno” art-rockers the Quavers. Then the cd wraps up with the minimalist, reflective Onto the Shore, segueing into the final cut, In the Tall Grass, a warm, inviting lullaby with harmonium loops that grow to include the subtlest of slide guitar accents and vocalese after a long intro. It’s chillout music for smart people and it’s a clinic in how to say more with less. Arborea next play the Solidarity Center, 20 Ivers Street in Brewer, Maine on January 8 at 7 PM and then they’re off on European tour (check the link above for dates).

December 24, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quiet Drama: the Quavers and the Snow at Pete’s Candy Store 9/12/07

We had absolutely no intention to see the Quavers. After all, their name begins with a Q. Hurry, how many good bands whose names begin with Q can you name? Umm…Quicksilver Messenger Service did a great live album, and about half of a studio one…then there was that band Quarterflash that had a couple of catchy radio hits in the early 80s…and of course, there’s that band that did the song you hear at every sporting event. But they sucked.

 

Half of the Quavers’ stuff sounds exactly like Melomane and the other half sounds like Kings County Queens. Which are two very good things. Their orchestrated art-rock is tuneful, haunting and sometimes absolutely hypnotic; their country stuff features soft, gentle male/female harmonies singing pretty, swaying country melodies. Halfway through their weekly Wednesday residency here this month, they didn’t have much of a crowd in the house (residencies will kill your draw), but they will be very popular. You heard it here first.

 

The Quavers build their songs by laying down a succession of loops. It takes excellent musicianship to be able to pull this off: you have to have split-second timing and know your part exactly, because that’s what the loop will be playing back to you over and over again until you turn it off. There are just three people in this band, the male singer on guitar, the female singer on violin, accompanied by a multi-instrumentalist alternating between vibes, trumpet and lapsteel. With all the loops going, they sound like they have a whole orchestra behind them. A lot of their songs are sweepingly beautiful. They have a political awareness as well as a fixation with shipwrecks – or at least sunken artifacts. One of their best songs was called The Sea Won’t Take Long, a brooding, 6/8 epic. Their country stuff was more lighthearted, including a very funny tune about a one-night stand called Snack (as in “you were just a snack”). Their lyrics are well thought-out, and the melodies are catchy and come around again and again (you have to have a simple underlying pattern if you’re going to add layers and layers of loops on top of it). You should see this band sometime.

 

The Snow are a Melomane side project. Side projects usually suck: Gorillaz, anyone? How about those awesome Traveling Wilburys? It’s not clear why the Snow even exists at all, since they sound exactly like Melomane. Maybe frontman/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande can’t get his regular band together every time he wants to play, so he assembled this crew, who are every bit as good as his main project, blending smartly crafted, noir 60s inflected pop songs with soaring, majestic art-rock epics. They opened with an artsy pop song showcasing the talents of their clarinetist, along with a good upright bass solo. They also did a couple of slightly oldtimey songs Gaillande wrote for a documentary on Dr. Bronner’s Soap, as well as a surprisingly captivating number about a romance between an octopus and a starfish, “our only math-rock song,” as keyboardist/vocalist Hilary Downes (who provided acerbically funny commentary all night) told the crowd. Their best songs were a swinging, understatedly sultry jazz-inflected number written by Downes, and their eponymous signature song. With Melomane, Gaillande is in the midst of writing a “disaster song cycle,” as he put it recently, and the songs in it are the strongest he’s ever done. This strange, crescendoing tune about the blizzard to literally end all blizzards fits right in. Add the Snow to the shortlist of the half-dozen or so best bands in New York, even if they sound identical to one of the others. 

September 14, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment