Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues

It’s hard to imagine a better Americana album released this year. This visionary, genre-transcending cd gives the rest of the world a chance to find out what New York audiences have known for years, that Lenny Molotov is one of the smartest, wittiest, most perceptive guitarists and songwriters of our time. As an electric guitarist, bassist and lapsteel player, he was indie rock siren Randi Russo’s not-so-secret weapon, both live and in the studio, throughout most of the past decade. Here, the setting is much more rustic, incorporating elements of delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, oldtime hillbilly songwriting and early jazz. Producer Joe Bendik (who also adds accordion) blends the textures of Molotov’s acoustic guitar and dobro, Jake Engel’s blues harp, Karl Meyer’s violin and a terse, subtle rhythm section of JD Wood on upright bass and Angela Webster (of Rhett Miller’s band) on drums into a lushly spiky, evocative web of sound. Yet the songs defy retro characterization. Molotov’s lyrics are richly metaphorical and set in the here-and-now, yet steeped in history and its lessons. Molotov knows all too well where we’ve been, and where we’re going if we keep making the same mistakes. If the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might sound something like this.

That which isn’t political here is vividly personal. Wilderness Bound chronicles one gritty image after another from a symbolically-charged pilgrimage its narrator never wanted to make in the first place. Book of Splendor is a New York roman a clef if there ever was one, an entreaty to a loved one to keep her head above water in the midst of a never-ending series of tribulations. The Woody Guthrie-esque Glorious is gorgeously dreamlike, accordion enhancing its awestruck optimism. Faded Label Blues, the most magnificently anthemic of the songs here is a corrosive, first-person account of the life and times of jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton: “I used to stand so tall and tempting like a fancy bottle of booze/Now I’m empty, discarded, with the faded label blues,” Meyer’s slinky tarantella violin adding considerable poignancy. Ill Moon is a characteristically wry, hypnotically surreal look at insomnia. And the bucolic waltz New Every Morning leaves no doubt where Molotov stands musically: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”

But the best songs here are the political ones. On face value, David Reddin’s Blues is a classic 1930s style outlaw ballad about a kid from the New York projects whose attempt to outrun the law ended tragically. But it’s also a vivid portrayal of life in a surveillance state: everywhere the guy turns, he’s being watched or tracked, from the spycam outside his girlfriend’s public housing complex to the DNA flowing from his wounds. Then, with the album’s finest track, Freedom Tower, Molotov tackles the spectre of a fascist America head-on. Over a steady, swaying, fingerpicked Piedmont-style blues melody, he again offers a potently metaphorical look at what a Freedom Tower (a name floated widely for a future replacement for New York’s World Trade Center) might actually be. In this case, you can’t get too close or security will accost you, you’d better keep your windows closed if you’re in the hotel across the way, and there are helicopter gunships stationed on the roof. And that’s not even the half of it. The cd closes with the self-explanatory Devil’s Empire, a cautionary tale that doubles as a nasty slap upside the head of the scam artists on the receiving end of the latest rounds of corporate bailouts. And with characteristic wit, Molotov makes a couple of Howlin Wolf and Robert Johnson quotes work back-to-back in a way neither icon ever would have imagined – or maybe they would have. Blues is always about subtext and innuendo anyway. This is a strong contender for best album of 2009; watch this space for upcoming NYC live dates.

Advertisements

December 15, 2009 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Matt Keating – Summer Tonight

Nashville gothic from one of the world’s foremost under-the-radar rockers. Typical NYC story: big in Europe, gets rave reviews (usually something akin to “if Elvis Costello still rocked, he’d be Matt Keating“) but in the US he’s still a cult artist with a small if devoted fan base. This album should change that. Well-conceived, well-executed and particularly well-timed, this could be the stealth weapon that puts him all over NPR and gets some big Hollywood movie placements. It’s a hard turn right into Americana, done with good taste and a genuine appreciation for Carter Family meets the Velvet Underground but there’s way more A.P. and Mother Maybelle in here than there is Lou and crew. Crisp fingerstyle acoustic guitar, banjo, upright bass, pedal steel and harmonica serve as the instrumentation. Aptly titled, it’s an album of nocturnes, the perfect backdrop to a murder conspiracy worked out at dusk in midsummer over half-warm bloody marys on a picnic table just off the highway somewhere on the way to Milledgeville.

Curiously, while menace has been Keating’s stock in trade throughout his career, there’s less of it here than on his other albums. The album’s opening track, Who Knew, and then its title track, both feature Keating’s wife, the terrifically talented Emily Spray (who wrote Union Square for Laura Cantrell). Her honeyed, rockabilly-inflected vocals add warmth and depth to the surprisingly upbeat feel of these songs. Trouble returns in a hurry, though, with Waiting for Memories, an achingly bitter midtempo hit that longs for amnesia – or anything that will bring it on – to erase the pain of the past. The album’s high point, No Further South is arguably the best 9/11 eulogy written by any songwriter up to this point. Over a haunting, minor key acoustic guitar melody, Keating perfectly evokes the dread and the surreal feel of the days after the towers were detonated: “Wrote your name in the ashes on that uptown bus/In my nose and my lashes, God have mercy on us.”

Though replete with fire-and-brimstone Biblical imagery, the rest of the album is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful: Keating seems to have made an uneasy truce with the demons which rear their heads throughout his back catalog. The gorgeously rustic Down There, the straight-ahead country ballad Wish I Was Gold (which sounds like a Dolly Parton classic from 1970) and the resigned, contemplative Lord Jesus could all be Sirius radio hits in on their Americana, country and AAA channels (and would all have been big AM hits if this was 1976  – and that’s a compliment). There’s also a bonus cut featuring a duet with Patty Griffin which is the best thing she’s done in years. Highly recommended for fans of Americana-inflected songwriters like Ron Sexsmith and Rhett Miller as wellas fans of potent lyricists like Graham Parker, Richard Thompson and the aforementioned Mr. Costello. And the Carter Family and maybe even the Velvets. Albums are available in stores, at shows and online. For those who might fear that Keating might have gone soft with this one, fear not: his next album will be a rock record and if the tracks he’s played live are any indication, it’ll be as dark as anything else he’s done.

April 29, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment