Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Kasey Anderson’s Heart of a Dog Has Lyrical Bite

Kasey Anderson’s most recent album, Nowhere Nights was one of the best of 2010. The “nowhere nights” theme continues on his new one Heart of a Dog, except with the guitars turned all the way up, pretty much all the way through. Steve Earle is still the obvious comparison – if you’ve ever heard Earle play Nirvana, that comes closer to describing what this sounds like. It’s lyrical rock: Anderson still scours the fringes with a merciless eye for detail and an ear for a catchy, purist guitar hook. His monster band the Honkies includes Andrew KcKeag on lead guitar plus Eric Corson (of the Long Winters) on bass and former Posie Mike Musburger on some of the most effectively loud rock drums in recent memory.

These songs are dark. The album gets off to a great start with The Wrong Light, a big crunchy bluesmetal number that works a Born Under a Bad Sign vibe, thematically if not tunewise. “I got a handful of powder and a wicked grin, open your eyes and let the wrong light in,” Anderson entices in a leering stage whisper. It’s the first of several launching pads for some searing, bluesy lead work by McKeag, who delivers a mean late 70s Ron Wood impression with a slide on the cynical, Stonesy rocker Mercy. Building from an ominous piano intro to a big anthem, Exit Ghost is a grim, completely unromanticized girlfriend-lost-to-drugs story. Your Side of Town might be the predecessor to that one, a bitter kiss-off anthem:

You kept my pockets empty, I was keeping my eyes wide
You were dealing pride and envy, I got my other fix on the side

Another big, fast Stonesy tune, Sirens & Thunder is cynical, but with an unrepentant smirk: the time with that girl may have been crazy and ultimately it might have been hell, but some of the craziest parts were a lot of fun. Kasey Anderson’s Dream offers a considerably louder apocalyptic garage rock update on Bob Dylan’s Honest with You, namechecking Sharon Jones and staring straight into the future: “You want a brave new world, well that can be arranged – the ship’s still sinking but the captain’s changed.” The rest of the tracks include more doomed Dylanesque imagery in Revisionist History Blues; the crushing lucidity of a hangover unfolding in the slow, brooding For Anyone; some delicious organ and accordion work in another regretful ballad, My Blues, My Love; the fast, Springsteenish My Baby’s a Wrecking Ball, and a blazing backbeat cover of the 1983 English Beat frathouse anthem Save It for Later that blows away the original. Pop a Mickey’s Big Mouth and crank this.

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March 11, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – The Great Escape

This album is a triumph on all possible levels. Tom Warnick is a great tunesmith, equally informed by classic 60s soul and gospel as he is by clever Elvis Costello-style songcraft, with a frequently disquieting, carnivalesque sensibility. He’s also a first-class lyricist, his genuinely Joycean stream-of-consciousness wit coupled to a blackly humorous streak. Which makes sense – four years ago, it wasn’t clear that Warnick was going to be around to make another album. A stroke following surgery for a brain tumor had put his guitar skills on the shelf, but Warnick wouldn’t be deterred: he moved to keyboards instead. Here he’s joined by guitarist to the stars of the underground Ross Bonadonna along with Dave Dorbin on bass and Peter Monica on drums. Warnick’s never sung better – there’s a gleeful defiance in his voice, as you might expect from a bon vivant joyously and somewhat unexpectedly returned to the land of the living.

“I’m gonna bust this ice cream headache,” he remarks nonchalantly on the catchy opening cut, Absorbing Man. The boxing parable Gravity Always Wins establishes what will be a recurrent theme here, beating the odds (or trying to, anyway). An indomitable pop gem, A Couple of Wrecks paints a pricelessly surreal post-sunup drunken scenario: “They stepped outside this morning and saw the setting sun.” And that was just the beginning. The Great Calamity kicks off with funeral-parlor organ, a grim but tongue-in-cheek look at disaster, Warnick sticking to his guns despite all odds: “We’re going to give just as good as we get.” A vintage soul vibe runs through several of the songs: the understatedly defiant We Win (Again), the ballad She’s Shining, and Bad Old World, where a Doomsday Book’s worth of apocalyptic omens all prove false.

The best song here is the lurid, creepy No Longer Gage, recounting the tale of Vermont railroad foreman Phineas Gage, who took an iron tamping rod from a blasting site through the head but survived, albeit with a completely different personality style (he turned surly and mean – who could blame him?). The album wraps up with a couple of psychedelically bluesy, Doorsy tracks, the title cut and then Keep Me Movin’, featuring an ecstatic gospel choir of Paula Carino, Neil Danziger, Lucy Foley, Dan Kilian, John Sharples and Erica Smith. Warnick and his band play the cd release show for this album – one of the best of 2010 – on June 26 at 10 PM at the Parkside, preceded at 9  by the excellent, new wave and ska-inspired Fumes.

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

Song of the Day 3/26/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #125:

Elvis Costello – Pills and Soap

Savagely astute commentary on the distinctions that the haves make between themselves and the have-nots, and the logically deadly consequences, over Steve Nieve’s minimalist faux-martial piano. From Punch the Clock, 1983.

March 26, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Concert Review: LJ Murphy and Band at the Knitting Factory, NYC 12/11/07

Ironic that some of New York’s best rock songwriters – Jerome O’Brien of the Dog Show, Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette, and now LJ Murphy – basically play with what amounts to a pickup band whenever they do a live show here in town. Although it’s not all that common in rock, jazz players have been doing this since the beginning. And it works more often than not, undoubtedly because musicians who are good enough to follow the changes and hit the stage without much rehearsal usually bring a lot of imagination and their own signature style. This show was a vivid reminder of how good things can get when you put together a bunch of good players who’ve never played with each other before. Tonight the dapper New York noir songwriter was backed by the hard-hitting drummer from the sadly disbanded garage rockers the Dark Marbles, along with the bass player from Erica Smith’s band the 99 Cent Dreams.  Playing lead was the guitarist from System Noise, who revealed himself to be a terrific blues player, channeling a lot of Hendrix into Murphy’s Stax/Volt-inflected melodies. But it wasn’t Star Spangled Banner Hendri; instead, the audience was treated to a lot of thoughtful, introspective, licks and tersely unwinding solos evocative of the Little Wing/Castles Made of Sand side of Jimi.

Perhaps because the band didn’t get a lot of time to rehearse, Murphy bookended the show with a couple of solo acoustic songs, the tongue-in-cheek Man Impossible and a somewhat drastic reworking of his haunting domestic-abuse saga, Don’t You Look Pretty When You Cry. In between, the band careened through a mix of newer material and songs from Murphy’s latest cd Mad Within Reason. It was a cold night, and Murphy’s guitar had gone out of tune by the time he finished his first song and brought the band to the stage. The crowd was impatient as Murphy retuned: “He’s a musician,” the bass player said sarcastically: shades of Stiv Bators sticking up for Cheetah Chrome on Night of the Living Dead Boys? You never know. This is New York, after all.

Like Marcellus Hall, (recently reviewed here), Murphy sets intelligent, witty lyrics to somewhat retro melodies. While Hall draws on 60s country and folk-rock, Murphy is a disciple of blues and jazz, Ray Charles in particular. At the end of a rousing take of the snide, somewhat caustic Imperfect Strangers, Murphy led the band on an obviously improvised, extended outro as he jammed out the vocals. Later in the set they did a boisterous version of the sharply literate, cabaret-ish minor key blues which serves as the title track to the cd, in addition to a soulful take of the gently swaying, mournful 6/8 ballad that’s perhaps improbably Murphy’s biggest audience hit, Saturday’s Down, a chronicle of how the week goes by so slowly but the weekend is gone in a nanosecond. The band turned their last song, Barbwire Playpen into a blazing rocker, Murphy roaring through his chronicle of a Wall Street tycoon whose “ugly little secret turns up again and again in the barbwire playpen,” where some dominatrix has him by the short and curlies and isn’t about to let him get up anytime soon. Despite a rainy, gloomy evening outside and an unusually sparse turnout – Murphy packed the place the last couple of times he played here – the man was his usual charismatic self and the band was clearly feeding off his energy.

December 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Al Duvall and Matt Keating in Concert 7/21/07

Al Duvall opened, playing a solo set to a small but enthusiastic crowd at a downtown tourist trashpit that shall remain nameless, and stole the show. He plays the banjo chordally, like a guitar, and writes authentic-sounding ragtime songs with thinly and not-so-thinly disguised dirty lyrics. Like the Roulette Sisters (with whom he sometimes performs), he’s an absolute master of innuendo. His biggest crowd-pleaser tonight was called Reconstruction, about a Civil War-era sex change operation. It’s funnier, and more grisly, than you could possibly imagine. Like the early 20th century songwriters he so clearly admires, he has a New York fixation, and a lot of the most evocative material he played tonight was set during that period here, including Steeplechase Bound, about a kid from Greenpoint going out to Coney Island for some R&R at the racetrack, and the predictably amusing Welfare Island (which is what Roosevelt Island used to be called).

Keating followed with an acoustic set, playing guitar and occasional piano, accompanied by upright bassist Jason Mercer (from Ron Sexsmith’s band). Keating’s most recent material has been on the Americana tip, and judging from the mostly unreleased stuff he played tonight, he isn’t finished with that genre yet. This may have been an acoustic set, but Keating made sure his guitar was good and loud in the mix, and wailed, leaving no one guessing how much of a rocker he really is. Of the new material, the most memorable tracks were Saint Cloud, his latest Bukowskiesque set piece, all loaded imagery; Before My Wife Gets Home, possibly the most ribald thing he’s done to date, an oldschool honkytonk cheating song that he played on piano; and the closing song of the set, the vivid Louisiana, inspired by a stop in New Orleans after the hurricane and Brownie’s masterful management of the disaster. He also played the intense, climactic Lonely Blue, which builds from a slow, deliberate series of screechy chords on the verse to one of his typically anthemic, major-key choruses and this went over especially well with the crowd. If the show was any indication, his next album will be as good as his last one, which was as good as the one before that, ad infinitum: living here in New York, we so often take for granted performers that people around the country wait for impatiently for months to see.

The reliably delightful Moonlighters headlined, but we had places to go and things to do; however, you can read a review of an excellent show they did at Barbes last month.

July 22, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Ward White – Maybe but Probably Not

I don’t know what happened to this guy. He just snapped. Maybe it was the bad dayjob – that happens to a lot of people. Whatever the cause, the result was the first instant classic to come out last year, the high point so far in the career of the American Richard Thompson. Ward White is a virtual anomaly among US rock songwriters, a brutally cynical, dazzling wordsmith with equally spectacularly guitar chops and a straight-up rock sensibility. No solipsistic folkie whining here. No cheesy synthesizers or dated 90s trip-hop production. This album ROCKS….quietly. White’s tasteful, minimalist production sets his Bowie-inflected vocals soaring over tersely arranged acoustic and electric guitars and a string quartet. Chamber rock has never been so exhilarating. White’s back catalog, notably his previous release, Lovely Invalids demonstrates a sardonic wit and a wickedly playful, literate lyricism. He never met a pun he could resist (unless the boss asked for one) and employs devices including personification, metonymy and meta in ways that few English-language writers have done outside the covers of a book. Here, he succeeds at being clever without being too clever by half: the substance of this album matches its style, milligram for milligram. I believe that is how bile is measured.

The album opens with the psychopathological Things Kept Falling: “I’m not alone in this,” White taunts. As Mary Lee Kortes has noted, bad relationships are the gift that keeps on giving: and either this guy has had a spectacular streak of bad luck, or he’s a particularly gifted observer. Maybe both. On the album’s title track, he gleefully recounts to an ex how he “mined your broken heart for an album cut.” But no one escapes White’s minesweeper approach to hypocrisy. In the equally gleeful New York supremacist anthem L.A. Is Not the Answer, he takes a swipe at the trendoid lit crowd: “Tell Joe Henry to call me/I haven’t heard from Bill Vollmann in so long…” In Can You Lie?, he mines the irony of duplicitous actor types trying on roles for size for all it’s worth: “I want to know if you can lie convincingly to me/If you break character I’ll see/I will!”

Undertow, with its haunting minor-key chorus is pure symbolism, the booze ebbing back, yet all the while taunting the boozer that sooner or later he’ll fall off the wagon because “you were paralyzed and I set you free.” In the album’s concluding track, So Long, yet another ex will “Call me up, tell me about the weather, how everybody is so thin out there.” White’s terse response is, “I think I’ll extend my visa,” presumably in some distant foreign land.

The album’s centerpiece – and arguably the best song of the year – is Hole In the Head, a particularly timely take on deadend dayjob drudgery. It works equally well as Barbara Ehrenreich-style journalism, mise-en-scene piece and rock tune:

I can’t believe what you say
You’re a liar
Please don’t look so shocked
Hell, you could retire on all you stole
And I’m not gonna look anymore
Unless I’m buying
Tell you the truth, I’m tired of not trying to care in any way
I need this job like a hole in the head
I need a hole in my head to do this job
I need a head for some reason that escapes me now
There’s no escaping you

White’s two guitars and bass (he plays all the instruments) maintain the song’s claustrophobic intensity all the way though to its final ominous, ringing minor chord. Yet there’s more than just spleen here. White knows that banality of evil can sometimes be very funny, if in a blackly humorous way, and there are as many laugh-out-loud jokes on this album as there are instantly recognizable moments for anyone who’s ever been screwed in a relationship or struggled to refrain from decking an obnoxious boss.

Maybe But Probably Not ranks with Armed Forces by Elvis Costello, Mirror Blue by Richard Thompson and Mad Within Reason by LJ Murphy as one of the alltime great pissed-off lyrical rock records. It’s also a trenchant warning not to ever, ever mess with a songwriter. They always get even in the end. By the way, as an interesting bit of trivia, former Scout drummer Nigel Rawles overdubbed drums on many of the songs. For those of you who may be unaware, in modern recording it is customary to record drums before the rest of the band, which is logical enough since the band needs a beat to follow. It’s a credit to White that his timing was good enough for a drummer to follow without stumbling, and it’s a credit to both musicians that they could pull this off and make it sound like a seamless whole.

May 3, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments