Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Piñataland Release Their Best Album This August 26

Over the years, Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Piñataland has staked out an elegantly manicured piece of turf as purveyors of an inimitable brand of historically aware, hyper-literate chamber pop. Their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night – streaming in its entirety online – is their hardest-rocking effort to date, their least opaque and by far their best. Their previous one Songs for a Forgotten Future, Vol. 2 contemplated a Manhattan without humans, and the still-smoldering ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, among other places. This one skips in a heartbeat from the American Revolution (a recurrent milieu) to various eras of New York, across the country and back again. The driving rhythm section of Ross Bonadonna on bass and Bill Gerstel on drums give the louder songs here a mighty majesty – there are plenty of warmly inviting string-driven pop bands out there, nobody who attacks those songs with as much verve as Piñataland. Violinist Deni Bonet is a one-woman orchestra, showing off sizzling Balkan, country and classical chops, frequently contrasting with Dave Wechsler’s pensive, rain-drenched piano and organ.

The title track, which opens the album, is exactly as advertised, a gospel prelude of sorts. From there they leap into Island of Godless Men, a bouncy fiddle-driven Irish rock tune a la Black 47 with a clever trick ending and then a delirious reel to finish it off. An American Man is like Mumford & Sons on steroids, a rousing homage to Thomas Paine delivered via a team of archeologists (or graverobbers?) gone out into the darkness to find his grave.

A violin-fueled anger drives The Death of Silas Deane, which commemorates the Continental Congress’ first ambassador to France, later brought down (and possibly murdered) in the wake of an embezzlement scandal of which he was quite possibly innocent (and was officially exonerated, forty years after his death). “Let my reputation crawl through the mud of this unforgiving land,” the onetime Revolutionary hero rails at the end. The real classic here is a country song, Oppie Struck a Match, which recasts the detonation of the first atom bomb as the creepy tale of a rainmaker in a small town fifty years previously. Gerald Menke’s dobro ripples blithely as singer Doug Stone recalls the dreadful moment where Robert Oppenheimer, the “master from the other side” gave the order: “Will he open a cage to a heavenly age or set the skies onfire?”

The rest of the album is more allusive. Robin Aigner, who lights up many of these songs with her harmonies, knocks one out of the park with her lead vocal on the lush countrypolitan shuffle Border Guard, and plays her cameos to the hilt against Menke’s big-sky pedal steel whine on Hiawatha, a surreal, theatrical cross-country radio dial epic. The most chilling song on the album, musically at least, is The Oldest Band in Town, a bitter, Balkan-flavored requiem set in a Lower Bowery of the mind. The album closes with the towering, bittersweet, death-fixated anthem Cemetery Mink. Pinataland play the album release for this one this Friday the 26th at Barbes at 11; another first-class tunesmith, Greta Gertler kicks things off at 10.

August 24, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just Another Random Awesome Night at Freddy’s

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning how much fun the quadruple bill – yup, four bands – at Freddy’s was on Saturday night. The music started at around 8 and ended some time in the wee hours – it was that kind of night, with tunes to match. The Roulette Sisters were first. These four badass players – resonator guitarist Mamie Minch, electric guitarist Meg Reichardt, washboard player Megan Burleyson and violist Karen Waltuch – have a great new album out (recently reviewed here) and as usual, had come to conquer. Their unusually early hour onstage was a warmup of sorts for a gig later at some costume ball (Meg already had her lion tamer costume ready to go). As usual, the set was a trip to a speakeasy of the mind circa 1930. Meg sang the cheery swing tune I’ll Take the South and the Cowboy Boogie, a funny mashup of oldtime blues and hillbilly music. When she got to the line “that cat was raised on local weed,” the whole band couldn’t help smiling. Megan sang the charming flapper anthem Coney Island Washboard and a nonchalantly innuendo-packed version of Bessie Smith’s Sugar in My Bowl. The whole crew sang an Al Duvall song which attempts to answer the question that if you’re shagging in the woods and nobody sees it, did you really get laid? Other songs included Your Biscuits Are Tall Enough for Me as well as a thinly veiled ode to masturbation and a lament told from the point of view of a woman whose man’s performance has been wiped out by Jamaica ginger (a deadly patent medicine that was sort of the 1920s equivalent of Prozac).

The Larch were next. The back room at the new Freddy’s isn’t as conducive to electric sounds as the old downstairs room was, but they managed. Lots of new songs in their set, which makes sense since they’ve got a new album coming out this year. With Liza Garelik Roure’s swooping, fluid organ lines anchoring her husband Ian’s razorwire guitar solos, they sounded like Squeeze circa 1980, when they were still Kool for Kats and rocking hard. Some of the songs – particularly one that might have been called Midweek Nebula – had a psychedelic edge, including one in tricky 9/4 time.

There were two more acts. Multi-instrumentalist Dave Wechsler is best known for his work with historically-infused chamber-rock band Pinataland, but his own solo work – which he plays and records as Tyranny of Dave – is just as interesting, and historically-inspired. Playing solo on acoustic guitar, with electrifying backing vocals a couple of numbers by oldtimey siren Robin Aigner, he ran through a set of mostly new material. Right about here, the memory gets fuzzy: moderate tempos, warmly melodic tunes, thoughtful lyrics and the occasional bright harmony dominated his hour onstage. The Magpie were next. This group is Dave Benjoya’s latest adventure in world music and they’re as good as they are eclectic, which is a lot. With guitars, accordion, bass and percussion, they swayed and bounced through a bracing mix of latin, gypsy and klezmer tunes, a couple of apprehensively charming Belgian barroom musettes and an English folk song. By the time they wrapped up their set, it was after midnight, but a crowd of A-list Brooklyn musicians stuck around and took it all in. Just a random night in a good Brooklyn bar – not something you typically find where the blight of gentrification has completely taken over, but reason to stay optimistic about music in this town.

May 19, 2011 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bush Years Remembered Vividly and Bitterly

Dave Wechsler is the founder and accordionist of the marvelously smart, lush Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Pinataland. As The Tyranny of Dave (a tongue-in-cheek comment by poet Genya Turovskaya that he ended up adopting for his solo projects), he released a marvelously brooding travelogue of an album, Vacations, in 2007. His new one The Decline of America, Part One: The Bush Years is a personal rather than a political statement, although the sardonic, occasionally bitter tone of these songs echoes that era’s sadness. Much of this is pretty morose, with a sort of Elliott Smith quality, characteristically melodic chamberpop with a few surprises that come as an unexpected and very welcome jolt of adrenaline. Here Wechsler is joined by his Chicago band – bassist Aaron Zemelko, Cameroonian guitarist Didi Afana, and drummer Ben Gray – along with cameos from cellist Serena Jost, chanteuses Robin Aigner and Anna Soltys and guitarist Ross Bonadonna. What’s best is that Wechsler is offering it as a free download at his bandcamp site.

Months after he wrote the pensive, dynamically shifting 6/8 chamber pop ballad America’s Oldest Home, which opens the album, Wechsler decided it was about 9/11: you decide whether or not he was one of those who knew what was coming before it happened. The second track, Greatest Generation has a blithe, Summerteeth-era Wilco swing – it’s a subtle examination of the personal as political in the wake of 9/11, with a lively choir featuring Codapendency’s Tara Shenoy and Athanasia Sawicz along with Carla Budesinsky, Brittany Petersen and Kate Nylander (ex-Wildcats Marching Band), and trumpeter Megan Beugger.

The 6/8 ballad Abraham Man slowly makes its way to a swirling, off-center cauldron of strings and keyboards; the bouncy Too Late offers a tongue-in-cheek yet resonant look at the consequences of the current depression. The similarly upbeat Chicago River Song, sort of an uncredited Pinataland number, features characteristically incisive, nebulously bluesy lead guitar work from Afana plus vivid violin by Claudia Chopek. Every Damn Light, a Hurricane Katrina narrative, ups the ante with more bluesy, echoey guitar and the ex-Wildcats horn section. The real shocker, and the best number here is When All the Stores are Closed, a swinging early 70s psychedelic blues-rock number unlike anything Wechsler’s ever done before, quite a contrast with the next cut, the ornate chamber pop of Fire Drill, which evokes the elegaic understatement of REM’s Find the River.

The fast, blippy keyboard pop of Raise a Glass camouflages its bitter, sardonic edge. Remember the Maine, an Iraq war parable, sways with minor-key bite and some gorgeously plaintive harmonies from Aigner: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Pierre de Gaillande catalog. The album winds up with the ghostly, organ-fueled Call of the Waters and the similarly regret-tinged oldtimey-flavored Americana ballad Wake Up in Brooklyn. Fans of lyrical, smartly melodic rock from Elvis Costello to the aforementioned Elliott Smith will find plenty to enjoy here: if this is any indication, Tyranny of Dave’s planned volume two is something to look forward to.

August 22, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin Aigner – Bandito

“I can sing a song about any damn thing,” boasts Robin Aigner on her new cd Bandito. The song also asserts that she cooks a good dinner. If she’s as good in the kitchen as she is on the mic, she ought to open a restaurant – it would be a four-star affair. This album, Aigner’s second solo effort, is well titled. Aigner is mysterious: she has a thing about mistresses and even more of a thing for innuendo. Like the artist she’s most likely to be compared to, Laura Cantrell, Aigner is known best for her voice: highly sought after as a singer on the oldtimey/Americana circuit, she toured with the Crooked Jades and seems at this point to be a charter member of Pinataland. Her knockout punch is nuance – she can wrench an album’s worth of intensity out of a split-second’s hesitation or a typically understated, seductive melisma to wrap up a phrase. Yet it’s her songwriting that takes centerstage on this album, her second, a feast of historically-imbued, out-of-the-box steampunk imagination. Aigner switches between acoustic guitar and banjo, judiciously accompanied by Flanks bassist Tom Mayer, Chicha Libre’s Josh Camp on spinet, Charles Burst on Rhodes and Dean Sharenow of Kill Henry Sugar on percussion.

The cd opens with the jaunty Pearl Polly Adler, a tribute to FDR’s [possible, unconfirmed, hee hee] mistress who “knows where he parks his car,” and makes sure to cover herself in case trouble ever comes her way. Delores from Florence tells the surreal tale of a globetrotting flapper who had to come up with an innovative solution to the problem of having “too many lovers.”And Annie and Irving imagines an anxious romance between Annie Moore (first immigrant to make it through customs on Ellis Island) and Irving Berlin, creeping around the shadows out in the Catskills.

The rest of the cd alternates hilarity with pensive intensity. A poignantly perplexed lament, See You Around features Aigner at her most haunting, over a sad tango melody. Mediocre Busker is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing Aigner was the one to do it: this guy turns out to be bad at everything else too. Aigner uses the equally tongue-in-cheek Found to do justice to both the crazy packrats and the lucky rest of us who have a thing for stuff others have left behind. Wrong Turn memorializes a couple of clueless northerners getting lost in the Bible Belt, while Get Me Home – a duet – amps up the seductive vibe with characteristic allusive charm. The album ends with Great Molasses Disaster, a vividly somber requiem for the day in January, 1919 when a giant industrial tank of molasses in Boston’s North End burst and unleashed a literal tsunami on the neighborhood, demolishing buildings, pitching a locomotive into Boston Harbor, leaving hundreds injured and 21 dead. Steampunks and Americana fans alike will be salivating over this (the album, not the molasses) for a long time. Aigner’s next gig is on Feb 26 at 7 PM at the cafe at the 92YTribeca with Brady Jenkins on piano.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tyranny of Dave – Vacations

Truth in advertising: the cd cover depicts David Wechsler, co-founder/accordionist of Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Pinataland seated at a backhoe in a graveyard. This is a good headphone album, all longing and restlessness and inventively melodic songwriting, perfect for a rainy night if you’ve chosen to spend it at home in lieu of stomping through the puddles in search of revelry. A lot of this album sounds like Hem, but with a male singer and plenty of gravitas. Fans of Matt Keating’s recent, Americana-inflected material will love this. The album begins dark and wistful with Travelin, a minimal yet catchy, midtempo fingerpicked bluegrass tune, guitar by Wechsler (who plays most of the instruments here, impressively). The next track, Churchill starts with a storm of shortwave radio squeals and whines into dark washes of strings and piano, its blithely swinging beat in sharp contrast with the narrator’s angst:

I’ve been having dreams of half- heard broadcasts
And fragments of your voice come to my ears

Call me when you finally get to Dunkirk
Tell me not to worry…
I’ll call you when I hit the beach at Normandy
And tell you not to worry

Roman Road follows, a doo-wop melody on piano with pretty strings and a full band behind Wechsler. There’s a big crescendo on the chorus and nice harmonies from Royal Pine frontwoman Robin Aigner, who lights up every song she touches: “I’ll meet you someday on the Roman Road.” The next track Just Because blends quietly reverberating electric guitar with organ and a deliciously fluid organ solo: it’s a gorgeously evocative nocturne. After that, What You Want to Hear, flavored with Bob Hoffnar’s sweetly soaring pedal steel, is sardonic with a quiet anger like something like Melomane would do:

So let’s invade a country, I hear that Portugal is nice this time of year…
And if we take the city we’ll have a cappucino there

Other standout tracks on the album include West Texas Cold Front, with more Hoffnar pedal steel, a gorgeous 6/8 country ballad that winds up on a predictably eerie note: “That West Texas cold front just blew me away.” Golden Age is a boisterous gypsy rock number that wouldn’t be out of place on a Firewater album, opening with Penny Penniston’s foghorn trumpet:

This is the golden age of obscurity where no one remembers your name…
This is the golden age of infirmity where everyone around you is lame

Hallelujah is a fast old timey country song solo on guitar til finally Wechsler picks up the accordion toward to the end, Aigner doing a ghostly angelic choir for a bit. The album ends on a surprisingly optimistic, ebullient note with We’ve Finally Come Home. The porch swing may be broken and the plaster cracked, but “the front porch is clean, the backyard is mowed” and there seems to be something hopeful glimmering at the end of this long tunnel. Excellent album, the best thing Wechsler’s done to date. Four bagels with whatever you manage to sneak through customs: linguica, a drizzle of Provencal oil, kippers maybe?

July 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Serena Jost, Brookland and Evan Schlansky at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn NY 5/31/07

Serena Jost is a multi-instrumentalist whose main axe is the cello, and who spent awhile in the haunting, (formerly) all-female cello trio Rasputina. Accompanied by brilliant keyboardist Greta Gertler (who mostly played bells and a strange electronic contraption that looked like an autoharp but sounded like the full orchestra patch on a Fairlight synth) and drummer Alice Bierhorst, she played mostly acoustic guitar and impressed with the fluidity of her playing. As one of the editors here is quick to insist, if you know one stringed instrument well enough you can always pick up the others. Outside the little music room here, the crowd was loud and so was the music playing over the PA at the bar, which was a little disconcerting considering that this was a quiet, mostly acoustic show. But Jost won over the crowd with her impressive vocal range, the literate wit of her lyrics and brilliantly composed art-pop songs.

It is impossible not to like Brookland. Matt Singer is the guitarist, banjo player and low harmony singer who holds the unit to the rails. He makes the perfect foil for ebullient, radiant frontwoman Robin Aigner. Tonight she played mostly ukelele, singing lead on most of the songs. Their old-timey stuff – a mix of covers and originals – is contagiously fun and hard to resist singing along to. To their credit, two of their covers came from the most unlikely sources imaginable. Their Strokes cover revealed the awkward junior-high poetry of the original, but also redeemed the melody by giving it a catchy bounce. They then did a song by terminally constipated songwriter-du-jour Elvis Perkins (Tony’s kid), transforming it into a gypsyish number. Brookland have a thing for gypsy music, tackling two gypsy tunes and playing them perfectly. In many ways, they’re the quintessential Pete’s Candy Store act, with their harmonies, good cheer and acoustic instrumentation. Yet there is a complete absence of artifice, pretension or the sarcasm that the trendoids mistake for irony. They’re just plain fun.

Evan Schlansky was a good choice to headline, even if this time around he happened to be a last-minute replacement since Whisky Rebellion frontman Alex Battles had fallen victim to a booking mistake by the club. Schlansky comes across as someone who wouldn’t be likely to wake and bake unless there was a 9 AM meeting at his dayjob. He may be phoning it in with the suit-and-tie crowd, but he’s firing on all cylinders when it comes to life. A lot of his songs deal with bullshit: Schlansky has obviously seen a lot of it, doesn’t like it and calls it even when it might be his own. There’s no bullshit in his vocals either: along with his impressively dexterous, bluesy playing, he displayed a casual, twangy voice, without any phony accent or grungy slurring. He took requests from the crowd that was still in the house when he hit the stage with his sidekick, an impressively fluid lefty acoustic lead guitarist. Two of the highlights of his tantalizingly brief set were upbeat, major key, Dylanesque tunes: the ridiculously catchy Crocodile Tears, and the equally memorable I Took Your Plane Down, a metaphor-driven song that took on an unexpected and completely unintentional new meaning after 9/11 He ended the set with a song ostensibly about pot: “Maybe we should medicate them all,” he mused. But as with his other material, the song also raised the question of what life would be like without “medication.” Or, if, with “medication,” there is life at all. The terse simplicity of Schlansky’s melodies sometimes mask his songs’ lyrical depth, and this was a prime example. Audience members came and went as the night went on, but there was a considerable payoff for those with the time or the energy to sit through all three acts.

June 4, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment