Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Best Triplebill of the Year

We move from the year’s best doublebill to the best triplebill of 2011 so far: Caithlin De Marrais, the Oxygen Ponies and Randi Russo at the Mercury on Sunday night, where Russo was playing the cd release show for her new one Fragile Animal (our pick for best of the year, maybe not so coincidentally). Each act was different, and yet the same (other than the fact that each one was playing with two drummers, Ray Rizzo and Konrad Meissner, whose interlocking, earthy groove was an unexpected treat). Tuneful, intense rock doesn’t get any better than this.

Caithlin De Marrais’ 2008 album My Magic City had a gorgeous rainy-day atmosphere: this was her fun set, material from an auspicious forthcoming album now being mixed. The former Rainer Maria bass player chose her spots and made her riffs count: few bassists get so much mileage out of such simple ideas. Often the bass carried the melody above Josh Kaufman’s ringing, jangly guitar. A few times, De Marrais would run a riff for a bar or two before launching into the next song: “You’ve got to watch, they catch up with you,” she grinned, “Not that you have watch your back in this town anymore.” As someone who was here before there was a “luxury” condo project on every ghetto block, she knows what she’s talking about. Kaufman made his ideas count for just as much, firing off suspenseful volleys of reverb-infused Sputnik staccato, or throwing shards of jangly chords into the mix. De Marrais is best known for plaintiveness and poignancy, and with characteristic nuance she added a more upbeat tinge to her vocals. Half the bands in Bushwick rip off New Order, but what De Marrais does with simple, catchy 80s hooks takes the idea to the next level. One of the new ones, maybe titled Cocoon, had a moody bounce; another new one, Rose Wallpaper, added carefree ba-ba-ba pop flourishes; still another paired off a bass riff straight out of Joy Division’s Ceremony with Kaufman’s pointillistic punch. The end of the set gave De Marrais the chance to cut loose and belt with impressive power, particularly a stomping, garage rock-tinged number with some ferocious guitar chord-chopping at the end, and a dead ringer for Scout that fell and then rose, apprehensive yet hopeful. “Just a dreamer after all…but let’s try,” De Marrais cajoled.

Where her vocals were all unselfconscious beauty, the Oxygen Ponies’ frontman Paul Megna doesn’t shy away from ugliness, or outright rage. And yet, when his vocals were up high enough in the mix, he was also all about nuance, adding more than the hint of a snarl to drive a particularly corrosive lyric home. This particular version of the OxPos (a revolving cast of characters) featured the drummers along with Don Piper on lead guitar, Devin Greenwood on keys and Chris Buckridge on bass. Their first song kept the New Order vibe going, followed by the cruelly sarcastic psychedelic pop of Fevered Cyclones, from their 2009 Harmony Handgrenade album. A hypnotic dirge from their highly anticipated forthcoming one sounded like the Church, with eerie, echoey guitar from Piper, building to a soaring anthem. The brooding, bitter Get Over Yrself gave Piper the chance to add his own corrosive noiserock edge; a more hopeful new anthem rose to a big swell fueled by Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet. They wrapped up the set with a gleefully ferocious, bouncy version of the Bush-era The War Is Over, followed by a pensive, Velvets-flavored anthem and then another new one that brought the garage-psych intensity all the way up with the two drummers going full steam.

Russo got the two drummers, JD Wood on bass, plus Piper, plus Megna on keyboards, plus Lenny Molotov on lead guitar and lapsteel. Resolute and velvety, she sang over the mini-orchestra behind her with a visceral sense of triumph. The album took longer to finish than anyone anticipated, but it was worth it and Russo drove that point home, opening with an especially amped version of Invisible. Speaking for every alienated individualist in the room, she grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat: “I am, I am invisible/I feel, I feel invincible.” With the three guitars going, The Invitation was exuberantly Beatlesque; the self-explanatory Alienation was another launching pad for some volcanic noiserock from Piper. Molotov’s falcon swoops on lapsteel added a menacing edge to the gorgeous, somewhat wistful Get Me Over, while Megna’s swirling keys gave the blistering kiss-off song Venus on Saturn a hypnotic ambience. Piper switched to harmonium for a fast, unusually short version of the Doorsy Restless Raga, Molotov’s solar flares bursting out of the murky mantra pulse. After a couple more hypnotically pounding numbers, she closed the show with the defiant Head High – Patti Smith as backed by Led Zep, maybe – and a counterintuitive choice, Swallow, a study in survival in the midst of being hit from all sides. It took some nerve to close on a down note with that one, and it worked.

And a shout out to Sergio Paterno, who earlier in the evening was playing gypsy and flamenco-flavored instrumentals on his guitar by tapping on the frets, using a lot of piano voicings, on the L train platform at 14th Street. It would have been fun to have heard more of what he was doing before the Mercury show.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Randi Russo Releases the Best Album of 2011, So Far

For over a decade Randi Russo has lurked amongst the elite of New York’s rock underground. Her 2001 album Solar Bipolar, a cauldron of screaming, whirling guitars and anthemic lyrical intensity, achieved cult status among devotees of noise-rock. Since that time, her prolific catalog has grown to include skeletal, sepulchral folk-rock, janglerock, punk and most recently, psychedelia. Her latest album Fragile Animal is logical extension of the psychedelic direction she first began gravitating toward in the mid-zeros before breaking up her band and then slowly regrouping. This packs as much of a wallop as anything she’s done before, yet sometimes that wallop is a playful one. The one aspect of Russo’s songwriting that hasn’t always come through as clearly as her defiant, resolute individualism is her sense of humor, but it does here. Co-produced by Russo and the Oxygen Ponies’ Paul Megna and released on the insurgent Hidden Target label, this is a lush, swirling mix of guitar and keyboard textures, Russo’s velvet voice steady above the maelstrom. While it’s never wise to assume that an album released so early in the year will beat out everything else that appears between now and December, it’s going to take a miracle to surpass this one. Welcome to the best album of 2011, so far.

The first track is Get Me Over, setting the stage for what’s to come, Russo’s quiet desperation and need to escape muted by the whirling sonics, backward masking and unselfconscious backbeat beauty of the melody. Venus on Saturn is hypnotic, insistent post-Velvets rock, a scathingly funny slap upside the head of a drama queen: “Without it she’d be boring, and no one would care to listen; now, she’s just annoying – yet she’s getting all the attention.” With guitarist Don Piper’s crazed leads fueling its stampeding Helter Skelter stomp, Alienation is a study in paradoxes, the push and pull of the need to connect versus the fear of scaring people off by confronting them with reality.

Invisible is her September Gurls – hidden beneath its ethereal layers of vocals and multiple-tracked guitars is a classic pop song. In a way, it’s the ultimate outsider anthem: she may be invisible, but she’s also bulletproof. “No one can touch me now, no one can bring me down,” Russo asserts with a gentle steeliness. It contrasts with the hypnotic, Steve Kilbey-esque mood piece I Am Real, anchored by Piper’s harmonium, which contrasts in turn with the wryly cheery Beatlisms of Invitation, which follows.

Russo’s voice finally cuts loose on Swallow, a soaring, crescendoing portrait that will resonate with anyone who’s had to swallow their dreams as they run to catch the train to some dead-end destination or dayjob. With its mechanical drums balanced by simmering layers of guitar feedback and a mammoth crescendo out that’s part Led Zep and part Egyptian funeral procession, Head High offers a more optimistic outlook for would-be killer bees stuck in a deathly routine. True to its title, the dreamy Hurt Me Now is more sad lament than kiss-off anthem, lit up by Lenny Molotov’s vivid lapsteel leads. The album winds up with the haunting, relentless epic Restless Raga, twisting a Grateful Dead reference into an escape which could be completely liberating…or it could be death:

Heart’s all empty and I don’t care
‘Cause I can steal yours with my stare
And I’m gonna ride that final wave
Of excitement to my grave

The album is available exclusively for a week starting today at Russo’s bandcamp site (which is preferable to the other usual sites, where it will be in about a week, since bandcamp’s downloads are more artist-friendly, not to mention sonically superior). Randi Russo plays the cd release show for Fragile Animal on April 17 at 9 PM at the Mercury Lounge with another first-rate, lyrical Hidden Target band, the Oxygen Ponies.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: The John Kerry Fundraiser at Sin-e, 8/26/04

[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]

Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.

Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.

Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.

Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.

Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment