Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Powerpop Trifecta at Bowery Electric

Wednesday night at Bowery Electric, Don Piper and his group opened the evening with a richly melodic, often hypnotic set. Piper’s primary gig these days is producing great albums – the Oxygen Ponies’ lushly layered, darkly psychedelic classic Harmony Handgrenade is one of his credits – but he’s also a bandleader. This time out he alternated between slowly swirling, atmospheric, artsy rock and a vintage Memphis soul sound, backed by a large, spirited crew including keyboards, a two-piece horn section (with Ray Sapirstein from Lenny Molotov’s band on cornet), bass and the Silos’ Konrad Meissner on drums (doing double duty tonight, as would many of the other musicians). Midway through the set Briana Winter took over centerstage and held the crowd silent with her wary, austerely intense, Linda Thompson-esque voice on a couple of midtempo ballads. They closed with a long, 1960s style soul number, Piper and Winter joining in a big crescendo as the band slowly circled behind them.

Edward Rogers followed, backed by much of the same band including Piper, Meissner, Claudia Chopek on violin and Ward White playing bass. A British expat, Rogers’ wry, lyrical songs draw on pretty much every good British pop style through the mid-70s. The most modern-sounding song, a pounding, insistent number, evoked the Psychedelic Furs, White throwing in some Ventures-style tremolo-picking on his bass at a point where nobody seemed to be looking. Whatever You’ve Been Told, from Rogers’ latest album Sparkle Lane, held an impassioned, uneasy ambience that brought to mind early David Bowie. A pensive, midtempo backbeat tune with a refrain about the “seventh string on your guitar, the one you never use” reminded of the Move (like Roy Wood, Rogers hails from Birmingham), as did a bracingly dark new one, Porcelain, highlighted by some striking, acidic violin from Chopek. And a pair of Beatles homages wouldn’t have been out of place on the Rutles albums – or George’s later work with Jeff Lynne. But the best songs were the most original ones. The most stunning moment of the night came on the understatedly bitter Passing the Sunshine, a Moody Blues-inflected requiem for an edgy downtown New York destroyed by greedy developers, gentrifiers and the permanent-tourist class: “This’ll be the last time you steal with your lies,” Rogers insisted, over and over again. In its gentle, resolute way, it was as powerful as punk. They wound up the show with a surprisingly bouncy psychedelic pop tune and then the new album’s droll, swaying title track.

Seeing headliner Maura Kennedy onstage with a bright red Les Paul slung from her shoulder was a surprise, as it was to see her guitar genius husband Pete Kennedy in the back with the drums, leaving most of the solos to his wife. But as fans of their acoustic project the Kennedys know, she’s an excellent player – and also one of the most unselfconsciously soulful voices in rock, or folk, if you want to call them that. This was her powerpop set, many of the songs adding a subtly Beatlesque or Americana edge to fast new wave guitar pop. The best songs were the darker ones, including the bitterly pulsing 1960s style psych/pop hit Just the Rain. Sun Burns Gold swayed hauntingly and plaintively, leaving just a crack for the light to get in; another minor-key number, Chains was absolutely gorgeous in a jangly Dancing Barefoot garage-pop vein, and she used that as a springboard for one of several sharply staccato, chordally charged solos. “I wrap myself in melancholy comfort of the waiting game,” she sang on a brooding ballad that evoked Richard and Linda Thompson. But there were just as many upbeat moments. White, who was doing double duty despite being under the weather, took an unexpected and welcome bass solo on a funkily hypnotic number toward the end of the set; they wound it up with the first song she’d written, she said, the country-pop ballad Summer Coulda Lasted Forever. The rest of the musicians joined them for an amazingly tight, completely deadpan cover of A Day in the Life, Maura leading her little orchestra with split-second precision all the way through the two long, interminable crescendos, a wry vocal from her husband on Paul’s verse, and then up and up and up some more and then finally out. It was an apt way to end a night of similarly expert craftsmanship.

December 10, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 7/21/10

Our daily best 666 songs of alltime countdown is working its way through the top ten: just a little more than a week to the greatest song ever. Here’s #8:

Richard & Linda Thompson – The Wall of Death

A bitter yet unapologetic, metaphorically charged tribute to living with intensity and passion no matter what the consequences. Which as the title indicates could be severe, to the extreme. But would you want it any other way? The link above is a characteristically amped-up version done by Richard without Linda (youtube didn’t exist when those two were playing). It’s the closing track on the awesome Shoot out the Lights album from 1982 – torrents for that one are everywhere.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 6/17/10

Every day, for the next six weeks anyway, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #42:

Elvis Costello – Withered & Died

This Richard Thompson song was originally sung by Linda Thompson on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in 1974. Solo acoustic, Costello is even more haunting: his version is the “secret” bonus track on the 1990s Rhino reissue of the underrated 1985 Goodbye Cruel World album.

June 17, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Little Pink – Gladly Would We Anchor

Washington, DC band Little Pink’s third and best album effectively blends both British and American folk-rock traditions while managing to sound completely original. Richard & Linda Thompson is the influence that jumps out at you, blended with the resigned yet raging sensibility of Rosanne Cash’s recent work. Frontwoman Mary Battiata sings in a troubled, world-weary, haunting voice, appropriate for someone who covered the war in Bosnia as a journalist in the 1990s. Her lyrics remind of Sandy Denny, replete with images from nature and pastoral scenes, often painting a starkly evocative picture. Her melodies are terse, catchy and lend themselves to all sorts of commercial purposes: Lifetime TV dramas, NPR themes and – gasp – commercial radio. If this album had been released in 1976, Fleetwood Mac would have found themselves on a dead run to catch up. That’s a compliment. It is mind-boggling that this band is not huge right now.

With fifteen tracks, this is a long and richly rewarding album. “We took half our lives to find ourselves here,” Battiata relates casually in the opening track, the simple, ridiculously catchy country/folk song Like a Wheel. Charm Offensive, a bouncy blues, is spiced with baritone sax; Battiata does a nice, recurrent vocal jump on the chorus. With Battiata’s gently lilting chorus, Trance is Fleetwood Mac gone to Nashville. Ten Feet High, with its slowly stomping beat and layers of screaming guitar from lead player Philip Stevenson, is an obvious homage to the Richard & Linda Thompson classic Shoot Out the Lights. There’s more backbeat-driven folk-rock on China Sea, sounding like one of the good cuts on Sunnyvista. Stars Burn Out is a big crunchy guitar-driven rocker that could be a solid track from Mary Lee’s Corvette’s last album. Wind and Water is a quietly haunting, very Sandy Denny-ish traditionally styled number, seemingly about refugees adrift on the ocean.

The Britfolk continues with the fast, minor-key English reel Orange Moon and then the wickedly catchy John the Cat, with an absolutely killer chorus and more impressive vocal leaps and bounds from Battiata. Beggar’s Bowl is a slowly swinging political parable that crescendos gently into Battiata’s excellent acoustic guitar solo. The Brokenhearted is an accusation, building with amazing subtlety, the drums creeping up to the chorus marvelously as the song’s central hook kicks in: “You’re not brokenhearted.” The album ends on a riveting note with Battiata’s best song, the offhandedly creepy Magic Years, which sounds like a sentimental look back at an idyllic childhood, until you listen closely:

We carved our names
Up all the trees
We counted stars
Til we believed
On the edge of our beds, holding hands
Holding our breath

Absolutely brilliant. If Americana, British folk or just plain good, lyrically-driven songwriting is your thing, get this album.

January 31, 2008 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments