Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Sick Free Jazz Guys Cover the White Light/White Heat Album

This is better than the original – although that’s really not saying much. It’s way funnier too, like what Rawles Balls might have done with it if they were a horn band. Lou Reed used up all his best songs on the Velvets’ first album; White Light/White Heat is basically just a crappy garage band taking a stab at psychedelia. The members of Puttin’ on the Ritz, whose song-for-song if not exactly note-for-note cover of White Light/White Heat is just out on Hot Cup Records, seem to share that view. The group is BJ Rubin on vocals, Moppa Elliott on bass and Kevin Shea on drums (half of irrepressible, iconoclastic free jazz crew Mostly Other People Do the Killing), Nate Wooley on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on saxes, Sam Kulik on trombones and Talibam’s Matt Mottel on “Turkish organ” on Sister Ray.

Rubin is not much of a singer, although he enunciates well enough so you can understand the lyrics – which is half the fun. They’re awful. Lady Godiva’s Operation? He does both the lead and the overdubs in one take. Bastardizing its inner artsy pop song might have felt revolutionary for Lou and crew in 1967; these guys expose it as amateurish and overdone.

Likewise, on The Gift, Rubin’s deadpan, nasal delivery is an improvement on John Cale’s half-buried mumble, although the sad tale of Waldo Jeffers mailing himself to his beloved Marsha has not aged well either. I Heard Her Call My Name, as it goes completely over the top, Gossip-style, reveals the original to be a parody of soul music. Sister Ray, all seventeen minutes and sixteen seconds of it, sounds like a bad jam Lou came up with on the spot when Verve’s people realized he was out of material. It’s there that Rubin’s enunciation really kicks in: counting how many times the word “ding-dong” appears in the song would make a great drinking game. The band – a formidable mix of A-list talent – basically slum it, playing the changes pretty straight with a minimum of the kind of mayhem they’re capable of. Which seems intentional.

If you like this one, you should check out Bryan and the Haggards’ equally sick album of Merle Haggard covers, Pretend It’s the End of the World. The likelihood of this crew putting out another album isn’t all that good, but here are some other overrated albums that definitely deserve this kind of treatment: Bitches Brew (guys, you would have the time of your life with this); Harvest, by Neil Young (super easy changes!); Evol, by Sonic Youth. Think about it.

Advertisements

July 21, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Rawles Balls at Otto’s, NYC 10/1/08

By showtime, 9 PM, Rawles Balls were already into their set. You can’t say that this band doesn’t love to  be onstage. From time to time, they actually sounded pretty good.

 

That’s a problem.

 

Rawles Balls’ shtick is that they’re the cover band from hell, taking great relish in butchering both pop hits and obscurities from across the decades. If their sound isn’t quite punk, their spirit is, snotty, sarcastic and often devastatingly funny, as they mock the so-called stars the big corporations have given us over the years. Their repertoire is jaw-droppingly extensive, even if they only know how to play a small fraction of the material all the way through, and with the right changes. Rawles Balls may also own the alltime record for number of cds released (over fifty at last count). Trouble is, if your goal is to be a human jukebox and play shows constantly, something happens to you.

 

 

You get good.

 

 

That right there eliminates part of what has made Rawles Balls’ shows so funny in the five or six years they’ve been playing: their complete ineptitude. Frontman Nigel Rawles (who was the drummer in the late, lamented Scout) has always been a far better guitarist than he lets on in this group, but Wednesday night he took a couple of solos and not only nailed them but managed to make them terse and intelligent. Which goes completely against the grain of what this band has been doing up to now. If this show is any indication, you can tell which songs the band likes from the ones they don’t by how well they play them. The Cramps’ Human Fly was actually inspired and pretty spot-on, drummer Monica Castellanos (who’s been by far the best musician of this crew until recently) actually doing a better job than Nick Knox did on the original. But the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979 was a trainwreck, Rawles calling it quits mid-song when it became apparent that his bandmates weren’t up to the task (who would be? The song is awful). Ditto the Dolls’ Personality Crisis and Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, wherein bassist Patrick Glynn seemed to be feigning ignorance of the hook that every single male bassist keeps close at hand, waiting for the opportunity to slip it in somewhere.

 

 

Their version of 20 Flight Rock was actually serviceable, although their new lead player (who didn’t seem to have been given the chance to rehearse) sang it off-mic. Here Comes Your Man by the Pixies is pretty simple, and the band managed to get their fingers around that one pretty much, too. Then they did Creedence’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain, the lead player finally figuring out the song’s big hook too late as Rawles segued into another song with the same chord progression (he’s encyclopedic like that), and then into Down on the Corner, which he quickly gave up on in disgust. “Let’s do something that sounds good,” he told the band. High point of the night was, as usual, the Shangri-La’s Great Big Kiss, featuring a great big MWAH on the chorus from Rawles and his dead-serious backup singer Michelle, who unlike the rest of the band actually knows the words to the songs.

 

When they came to the song’s bridge, Michelle had a question for Rawles: “How does she make love?”

 

“Like the way Patrick plays bass. Loud and sloppy.”

 

Meanwhile, Rawles’ ex-bandmate A.K. Healey, whose long-awaited solo debut cd is finally close to completion, wandered around the room making video clips. Wherever their always-expanding repertoire and newfound chops may take them, Rawles Balls do it star style: there’s an official Rawles Balls fan club, and a new Rawles Balls fanzine in the works as well. Who knows, maybe you’ll see them on Comedy Central someday. Check the Lucid Culture concert calendar for updates on upcoming Rawles Balls’ shows.

October 5, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Ward White – Pulling Out

His finest hour. Pulling Out is not just one of the best albums of 2008, it’s one of the best albums of the decade. What Revolver was to Rubber Soul, what Armed Forces was to This Year’s Model, what Oops I Did It Again was to Baby One More Time (just kidding about those last two), Pulling Out is to Ward White’s previous album, Maybe but Probably Not. White is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, although he’s not exactly under the radar: he’s been featured on NPR and always has his choice of A-list musicians to record with. His soaring voice has more than a few echoes of Jeff Buckley; his lyrics have a wickedly literate sensibility, loaded with puns and double entendres in the same manner as the artist he most closely resembles, Elvis Costello at his late 70s/early 80s peak. This is a brutally subtle, quietly ferocious album, as funny as it is furious.

The cd cover is nothing if not truth in advertising: it’s a visual joke, and it’s a good one, but it’s also savagely dismissive. White writes in character, so the matter of which numbers here are autobiographical and which aren’t is purely speculative. This is a loosely thematic collection of breakup songs, many of them seething with rage, alternately mystified and bemused at being surrounded by clueless idiots who just don’t get it. White’s a tremendously good electric guitarist, flavoring the songs with innumerable warm, jangly, twangy licks. The rhythm section of Catherine Popper on bass and Mark Stepro on drums pulses and grooves, and keyboardist Joe McGinty turns in his finest, most deviously textural work since his days with the Psychedelic Furs.

The cd’s opening track Beautiful Reward sets the tone. The title is a double entendre, a sardonic riff on the posthumous nature of fame. Over a tasty bed of slightly spiky, jangly guitar and lush keyboard textures, White’s narrator chronicles the easy lives of some unlikely characters from years past who marry painters or write “a book of lies, and everybody bought it.” The title track, which follows, is a gem:

Tanya has a tattoo of a dove
She said she did it out of love
That’s why it’s right over her heart
Sometimes it’s better not to start

And then the taunting begins, all sexual tension, very evocative of Costello’s fieriest stuff on This Year’s Model.

Building over a fast new wave beat to a killer chorus, Design for Living looks at relationships from a villain’s point of view: “In hell Jackson Pollock is smiling…he says I should stick to little girls with their little limbs.” The snide, vengeful Getting Along Is Easy chronicles a high-profile breakup: “Everything we do from now on will be on tv and I for one don’t like it.” Let It All Go is subtly hilarious, its melody gently mocking its sanctimonious, completely disingenuous narrator, who finally admits that “Elliot’s bar mitzvah was not the place” to address the matter of his mother-in-law’s drinking.

Me and the Girls continues in a tongue-in-cheek vein: everything was perfectly fine until some interloper guy came along and screwed everything up. Miserable, perhaps the finest track on the cd, tracks the telltale signs of an affair that was doomed from the start, that even without hindsight were obvious. Yet the couple succumb to temptation, or just a respite from loneliness: “It’s been long enough,” White wails on the chorus.

This album also happens to be something of a roman a clef: careful listeners familiar with the New York underground rock scene will discover some faces that look strikingly familiar, especially on the next track, The Ballad of Rawles Balls, a homage to the legendary, satirical cover band from hell. After that, Movie’s Over reverts to the bleak, jaundiced feel of the cd’s earlier material, its protagonist trying to find something to be grateful for even while the world is crumbling around him: “We’ve got a job to do and it’s ugly/I got a job to do so I’m lucky,” White recounts wistfully while strings play beautifully and sadly behind him. The cd wraps up with the Big Star-esque Turn It Up Captain (it helps if you know who the Captain is) and the rivetingly depressive Wrong Again, featuring Stepro on Rhodes:

Please let me go
I don’t belong
Here in this song again…
You think it’s all about you
You think it’s all about answers
You think it’s all that I can do
But you’re wrong

Fans of the pantheon of great songwriters: Costello, Aimee Mann, Steve Kilbey of the Church, LJ Murphy, Jenifer Jackson et al. will love this album. If there is anyone alive a hundred years from now, Ward White will be a star. And in the meantime, in an impressive stroke of generosity, you can visit White’s website and listen to not just this album in its entirety but also several of the other excellent cds he’s put out over the last few years.

July 17, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Champagne Francis – I Start to Daydream

Champagne Francis’ debut full-length cd came out last year and it’s stood the test of time: in fact, it’s one of the best albums of the decade, a gorgeous blend of catchy, jangly guitar, bass and drums. There’s literally not a bad song on this record. It’s ostensibly indie rock, but guitarist/frontman Brian Silverman’s playing is light-years ahead of most of his contemporaries. Armed with an ironclad sense of melody and a total inability to waste a single note, the songs here are finely crafted gems that will rattle around your mind when you least expect them. Imagine Guided by Voices at their most melodic, or the Lemonheads if they’d paid attention in college and actually learned something instead of posing for paparazzi.

The album opens auspiciously with Old Vampires, its supremely memorable break bursting out of the verse. The next track Waterskis is killer, with its inscrutable lyric about somebody who “can’t get out of the water.” This is the only song here where Silverman shows off his phenomenally fast guitar chops, and the result is a hilarious parody of a Steve Vai-style shredding solo.

Done So Secretly follows, with its percussive, fast 8th note new wave-ish bassline: Silverman adds a layer of distorted guitar after the second chorus. The title track continues in the same vein, building to another great chorus. The best cut on the cd is Burned to the Ground. Silverman’s deviously opaque lyrics are effective both in setting a mood and leaving you guessing and this is a prime example, told from the point of view of somebody watching the remains of a party from across the street:

Pissing in the bushes, passed out on the lawn
Cops showed up and busted anyone they could see
Burned to the ground, drunk and hanging round
Turned into stone, end of the day

There are layers and layers of textured overdubs on the break rather than an actual guitar solo: it’s one of the most memorable, hooky melodies of recent years.

Of the other tracks, Prize is more indie rock than anything else on the album, with lots of open chords which are usually the curse of the genre. But the vocal melody carries it here – and is that the solo from Two Tickets to Paradise?!? Photos of You picks up the pace with its sweet bent note intro. Once Only is fast and growly with insistent drums like early Versus. High Comedy is the loudest tune here, layers of distorted Fender guitars, wickedly catchy verse crescendoing into a chorus that’s just as good. Walter doesn’t get going til the chorus but then it’s brilliant, like the great lost pop song by the Church. Our Parents Had Money is a gently scathing tale of trendoids and the soft fate that awaits them:

Shopped in used clothes stores, favorite one’s the Salvation Army
We were the best dressed kids on our block down on Bedford St.[sic]
Everyone got this cause our parents had money

After they get sick of Williamsburg, they take their lame act out to the suburbs. This has to be one of the funniest and most apt New York songs in recent memory.

The rhythm section of Connie on bass and backing vocals and Nigel Rawles (of Scout and Rawles Balls fame) on drums is supertight and rolls this thing along like a motorcycle weaving effortlessly between rows of cars stalled on the interstate at rush hour. Silverman is a pro who teaches guitar and gets paid for playing, i.e. musicals and such, so this project has been pretty much on hiatus for awhile: we’ll keep you posted on any live shows, which are predictably terrific.

July 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nightcall and Rawles Balls Live in NYC 6/10/07

Nightcall is the most exciting new band in New York. It’s retro revivalist Bliss Blood’s latest project, alongside the delightful, old-timey Moonlighters, Polynesian psychedelic unit Voodoo Suite and the acoustic blues band Delta Dreambox. “We’ve invented a new genre: snuff torch songs,” she told the audience, and the result was absolutely riveting. Playing her trusty ukelele, accompanied by upright bassist Peter Maness and electric guitarist Stu Spasm, who used a tiny amp with tons of reverb, she and her accomplices played a mix of covers and originals: all with a crime theme. “In all our songs, the criminal has to win,” she explained. They did sweetly ominous, noir versions of the theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, a Leonard Bernstein composition called Big Stuff (“Not from West Side Story,” Blood told the crowd), and Tom Waits’ Black Market Baby. But their best numbers were all originals, including a haunting Moonlighters tune, Broken Doll. They also played their “signature song,” the lurid tale of an intruder aptly titled Nightcall, and Blackwater, which was far and away the high point of the night. “This is for Halliburton…and the mercenaries in Iraq,” Blood mused aloud. The song began with an ominous minor-key theme, the bass carrying the melody:

Don’t look too closely or you’ll find
He has a mercenary mind
He’ll be your man if you can pay
And when the gold is in his hands
He’ll acquiesce to your demands
Play any game you want to play

After a macabre, chromatic chorus, the bass player scurried up and down the scale like a twisted old man on the way to a Carlyle Group meeting.

In many ways Blood epitomizes what the Bush regime fears the most. She’s a charming, wickedly intelligent, completely innocent-looking Texan who never misses a chance to call truth to power, and does so in a blithely amusing way that doesn’t alienate audiences. Today was Puerto Rican day in Manhattan: “I’m from Vieques,” she joked. “You have to excuse me, I’m all messed up from the stuff they drop there,” referring to all the depleted uranium that’s covered the island over more than a decade of Air Force bomb testing.

“What’s an A minor?” Rawles Balls frontman Nigel Rawles – the former Scout drummer – asked his keyboardist, whom he’d just sent away from the stage.

“A-C-E,” came the reply.

“Can we write on the keys?” Rawles asked the soundman. The answer was no.

Rawles had for some inexplicable reason brought a guitar that was “broken,” he said. Nonetheless, he was determined to get through the show, seated at the piano, an instrument he doesn’t know how to play. Rawles Balls is the cover band from hell, capable of butchering pretty much any song from any era and tonight was a fullscale massacre. Doing his best to hammer out a bassline with two fingers, Rawles must have played At the Hop – or tried to, anyway – at least four times. When they’re on their game, Rawles Balls perfectly embody the true spirit of punk rock, having a gleeful time poking fun at every conceivable aspect of what they play. Taking the concept to the logical extreme, they never rehearse and the band is in a constant state of flux, with practically a new lineup every week: tonight Rawles dragged the estimable Ward White (who played bass in the band for a time) up to the stage. White fed Rawles lyrics as he struggled through the Bowie classic Five Years. “This is the last song we’ll ever play,” Rawles facetiously told the audience, managing to botch even the reference (that’s what Bowie says before Rock n Roll Suicide, dude).

At this point it looks like Rawles may have depleted the talent pool, such as it exists for a band like this. His backing unit tonight, such that it was, included a woman who sang harmonies on a few songs, a friend who knew a few piano chords and another who came up to the stage, tried to get through Fur Elise as Rawles whistled along but gave up in disgust after about fifteen seconds. And the Ward White cameo. And of course they recorded this show, since Rawles Balls has in the past three years released over 50 (fifty) albums, which has to be a record. All but two of those are live concert recordings.

In a sick way, it took a tremendous amount of nerve for Rawles to get up onstage and try to fake his way through an hourlong set, completely unrehearsed, playing an unfamiliar instrument. However, there were indications that he might not have been as completely lost as he seemed: there were clever segues between songs that shared the exact same chord changes, and he did exhibit an ability to at least figure out the bassline to maybe half of what he attempted to play. Then there was the issue of the “broken” guitar. When the Rawles Balls act is working, it’s unimaginably funny. Tonight was a new low: by the time the sound guy gave Rawles the two-minute warning, it was simply a reprieve. Which in itself was pretty amusing.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Sasha Dobson and Van Hayride at Banjo Jim’s 5/6/07

Sasha Dobson, a jazz/pop singer who’s now playing guitar as well, has become one of the few NYC artists to get any press in the NY Times, and she’s earned it: she’s what Norah Jones should aspire to be in a couple of years. Dobson has paid her dues playing small clubs over the past several years and sings in a lower register than Jones, but still invites the inevitable Norah comparisons since she’s moved away from jazz toward a more pop style. Her stage persona is more confident, more world-weary and decidedly more mature, perhaps appropriately so. She has a fondness for minor keys and rhythms like bossa nova and tango which are well suited to her sultry delivery. Now if only she could stick to doing her own, surprisingly compelling original material instead of covering the likes of hacks like Richard Julian (who duetted with her on one of his songs and added absolutely nothing: to paraphrase Billy Preston, nothing plus nothing makes nothing).

Van Hayride, the headline act, shares a rhythm section with Dobson, the only conceivable reason (other than careless booking) for them to have followed on the bill: But segue or no segue, they were tremendous, and had the audience in hysterics throughout their completely over-the-top set. Van Hayride features the hardest working man in country music, Jack Grace as frontman plus the piano player from his country band along with guitarist Steve Antonakos (what NYC band is this guy NOT in???), doing country covers of Van Halen songs. These guys are smart: they know that 99% of heavy metal is comedy, and that Van Halen were its finest Borscht Belt practitioners. Grace does a spot-on David Lee Roth parody: during one song, he lay on the floor, the mic just out of his reach, as if so wasted that he lacked the eye/hand coordination to reach out and grab it. “Where’s my mic tech,” he growled. On another song, he slumped backwards against the drum kit, his head up against the kick drum. He put the mic everywhere but where it should be, and made his bandmates laugh to the point where they were screwing up. Which is all part of the act. Van Hayride is a thorough reminder of A) how moronic Van Halen’s lyrics were, B) how even stupider Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was and C) how absolutely necessary Van Hayride is. And it’s a good thing it’s these guys doing it. Grace is the consummate showman, whether fronting this unit or his own far more serious yet still gutbustingly funny band, and he’s never lacked for excellent players behind him. Antonakos plays Eddie Van Halen’s lines pretty much note for note, albeit without the fuzzy distortion or garish flourishes. Van Hayride are in a four-way tie for funniest New York band, along with Tammy Faye Starlite in all her many incarnations; cover band hellions Rawles Balls, whose most recent shows have turned into bacchanalian karaoke sessions; and Cocktail Angst, the Spinal Tap of lounge bands.

To fully appreciate Van Hayride, it helps to know the source material (Doug Henwood, I know you’re out there): there’s a certain target audience here, specifically those who were subjected to the stuff on FM radio in the early 80s (Van Hayride proudly declares that they’re a “David Lee Roth only” Van Halen cover band). But judging from the response of the crowd in the club – a broad cross-section of ages and locales – you don’t have to be a Van Halen fan (or hater) to get a kick out of this. Next time they play, you might as well jump (”So that’s what the song’s about?” Grace asked quizzically as they reached the end). Van Hayride plays every Sunday in May at 10 at Banjo Jim’s.

May 8, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments