Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

Advertisements

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – The Apple in Man

This album is a reason why we wait til the eleventh hour – in this case, the eleventh hour of the decade – before we finalize our 50 Best Albums of the Year list. Robin O’Brien might be the best singer you’ve never heard: her recordings have been prized in the cassette underground for years. Like her previous album Eye and Storm, this new cd has been masterfully assembled layering some of those legendary vocal tracks over new arrangements with guitar, bass, some keys and percussion that manage to be lush yet austere, played by Luxotone Records’ George Reisch (AKA The Weary of Bobby Vacant and the Weary, another artist with an album high on the 2009 list here). While The Apple in Man is as dazzlingly multistylistic as her most recent effort, what may be most astonishing about it is how many other styles she tackles here that she didn’t the last time around. Is there anything this woman can’t sing? Dreampop, check. Haunting 70s-style Britfolk, got it. American psychedelic pop in the style of the decade before that, check again. Trance, you bet. The Laura Nyro-on-steroids gospel flavor that made Eye and Storm so gripping isn’t much in evidence here, but that doesn’t matter. Front and center is Hangman, an a-capella showstopper built out of layers and layers of O’Brien’s trademark vocal harmonies. Folk music fans may recognize the song as Gallows Pole, but the closest comparison might be the Bulgarian Womens’ Vocal Choir doing Bjork. With its righteous rage channeled through some of the eeriest harmonies on the album, there’s no reference to Odetta and even less to Led Zep.

The rest album veers from subtle and witty to absolutely haunted and back again. The titular Apple, a fresh and often hypnotic interpretation of the Eden myth, looms in with a disquieting feel, but it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom and liberation, its ethereal harmonies soaring over an almost minimalist rhythm section with swooping organ accents. With its sudden, playful tempo shifts, Bobby My Memory deviously memorializes O’Brien’s friendship with Bob Kinkel of Trans-Siberian Orchestra during their days as Berklee classmates back in the 80s. Julie, spiced up with just the hint of flamenco, is a bright psychedelic folk number that would have been perfectly at home on Chelsea Girl (except that O’Brien hits the notes that Nico never would have). And Reisch’s distorted guitar makes a perfect match for O’Brien’s effortless and strangely hypnotic exuberance on the following track, Gold Chain.

But the strongest songs here are, unsurprisingly, the darkest. October (click the link for the video) soars, but with a distinctly somber feel brought out with understated menace of Reisch’s orchestration. The single best one might be the even eerier Hand in the Window, O’Brien’s lower register blending ominously with Reisch’s steadily deliberate walk down on the guitar into pitch blackness. O’Brien’s intensity on the stately 12-string guitar ballad Traveller is nothing short of visceral: “Darling don’t go to sleep, there’s a way out and it’s way down,”  she intones with a Nyro-esque anguish, layers of vocals and guitar building to a creepy unresolved ending. But all is not despair: bouncing along on a nifty trip-hop groove, Mama is something akin to chamber pop meets early 80s Cure (think Faith, maybe). The cd ends on the hypnotic note where it began. This album leaves you somewhat breathless but also mystified why O’Brien never became famous. Then again, as cliche-free as this cd is, maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t. You can hear the whole thing (and buy it too) at Luxtone.fm.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Maia Macdonald – Islands Are Born

Singer-songwriter Maia Macdonald quotes Rachel Carson on the page for her new cd Islands Are Born: “It is one of the paradoxes in the way of earth and sea that a process seemingly so destructive, so catastrophic in nature, can result in an act of creation.” Aptly put. This is a pensive, evocative, resonant meditation on distance and absence. What’s strongest here are Macdonald’s casually soulful voice and her thoughtful, direct lyrics, set to sparsely fingerpicked guitar. Boston is where it all begins, where the narrator finds the guy. Not everything here is dark and wary, as when, completely out of the blue, Macdonald says “testing.” Of course, it’s a loaded statement. “Nice is not open,” is the mantra that recurs tellingly at the end. By the way, why does Boston figure so frequently and so poignantly in breakups? Mary-kate O’Neil’s Green Street, Steve Wynn’s Boston, now this?

The title track is the initial breakup – or the separation, since there’s far less rancor here than simple wistfulness and longing: “Islands are born as you disengage.” The next cut, Some Success is spiced with bass, percussion and plaintively echoey electric guitar accents: “You’re out in the midwest you confess, hiding with some success. And the isolation”coats me with too much whiskey, wine.” The City Is Sea foreshadows  resolution, and it’s not optimistic: “There’s a reason I’m staying here, it’s the simple life I fear.” A storm hits, she runs to the kitchen: “You asked me where I went, I said where I have wings…sometime in the summertime, you’ll find a box of tapes we wrote.” All of a sudden there’s a new level of meaning here: a band breakup, ouch.

Set to a charmingly sad, spiky guitar arrangement, It’s Cold and I’m Cold sees her putting him on a plane to Cali. And then she wants to follow him. “You took my hand. Goddamn!” More curse than exclamation. In Hungry As You Were, she’s back in Somerville, he’s way across the country in Potrero Hill – maybe. “Ever since the war began I’ve been living as comfortably as I can…still haven’t gone south to get my hands dirty,” campaigning for Kerry maybe? The cd closes with Steps: “Do you see Coney island in winter we do not speak.” But he sees her on the train, calls her name and she moves away. “Pick up those pieces of your heart, throw away what you don’t need anymore, plant those seeds in a big big garden…these weekends feel like The End.” What’s nicest about this cd is its refreshing individuality. Macdonald gets umpteen opportunities to lapse into cliche and misses every one. This is a really good quiet rainy day ipod album, for times like when you want to go out to the deli but it’s too wet and nasty and you’re too depressed to move much anyway. A good companion piece to Robin O’Brien’s more wrenchingly sad Eye and Storm. Maia Macdonald plays Sidewalk on June 12 at 10 PM.

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – Eye and Storm

“It’s nice when people say a song of mine makes them cry, but I’d much rather it make them vomit their feelings,” Robin O’Brien once told Interview Magazine. However much the chanteuse might want to induce such a visceral reaction, the most she’s going to evince from of anyone with this album, her second on Chicago label Luxotone Records, is tears – buckets of them. Both O’Brien’s lyrics and her musical sensibility are remarkably terse and crystallized, often imbued with a white-knuckle intensity, but it’s her voice that elevates her above most other singers out there. It’s a powerful, soaring vehicle, equally honed to gospel elation, fiery Siouxsie-esque accusatory tones and a soulful belt that vividly echoes Laura Nyro. This is a thematic cd, a requiem for something. Taken at face value, it could be a breakup album, but it’s obviously much more than that – there’s a subtext here, a longing in the face of loss, less the lament of a lover than of a dreamer.

 

The hypnotic, almost tribal opening track, Waiting for Daniel (One) sets the tone, the narrator sharing a Chelsea memory with considerable anguish:

 

Inside the room where all my music dies

Where all my tears can’t make it come alive

 

By contrast, the second song, Mobile, with its layers of vocals is pure joie de vivre, an update on Joni Mitchell’s Clouds-period style: “We got an energy and a will to last forever!” The fierce, accusatory Monday comes as close to having a modern commercial feel as there ever is here, producer George Reisch coloring it with characteristically tasteful, warmly sparse electric guitar. O’Brien most closely evokes Laura Nyro on the blue-eyed soul standout Body Run Down, then her anxious anticipation turning to the horror of abandonment on the hypnotic, ragaesque When You’re Talking.

 

Looking for Daniel (Two) picks up the pace, feeling like a great lost track from the Velvets’ third album. The next track, L.O.V.E. Love is the album’s anguished centerpiece, the narrator realizing she’s reached a dead end, meticulously arranged layers of vocals swirling around: “This part is over/Party’s over.” From there, it’s a return to the cd’s earlier, hypnotic feel, and then Maysong, a showcase for O’Brien to air out her voice, backed only by acoustic guitar. Accented with a stark string arrangement, Walking Through You aches for a hope that will never be realized; then, on 10th Avenue, O’Brien shows off her powerful gospel pipes for all they’re worth. From there, the lights darken quickly, from the angst-driven lost-love ballad So Good, the jazzy Joni-isms of If You and the rivetingly resigned, Linda Thompson-inflected Britfolk feel of the cd’s concluding cut, I Can’t Make You. It would not be an overstatement to rank Eye and Storm on the same level as Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or with a lament by Mary Lee’s Corvette or Neko Case. Anyone with the strength – or the need – for the purity and intensity O’Brien offers on this album will find layers and layers of it here.

April 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment