Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Elvis’ First Albums After the Army Get a New Look

The brand-new reissue of Elvis Is Back – a twofer with Presley’s subsequent 1960 album Something for Everybody, plus a whole slew of singles, some of them iconic, some mostly forgotten – is just out from Sony. The argument’s been made that Elvis Is Back was his best album, and that’s not true: he did his best work for Sun, and then in the 70s when he was on autopilot, but with an amazing band behind him ( and the ’68 comeback isn’t bad either). But this period piece – an essential collectors item for the Elvis cult – still oozes energy. Let’s not forget that only two years earlier, his career had been put on hold by racists who were terrified that the era’s best-loved pop culture figure was converting young white people to black music faster than any racist could stop him. So whatever his experiences were in the Army, there’s no doubt that Elvis was glad to be back – and the musicians behind him obviously agreed.

Interestingly, Elvis Is Back is mostly an album of ballads: that they stand up as well as they do fifty years later testifies to how much care and anticipation went into this. The shuffling David Lynchian vibe of Girl Next Door Went a-Walking is still irresistible, and the blues numbers, Reconsider Baby and It Feels So Right foreshadow what would sustain him so effectively throughout the ’68 special. Done with only bass and percussion, his cover of The Fever falls somewhere between the Peggy Lee hit and the Cramps. And Such a Night reminds how much more sophisticated a singer he’d become since he’d first recorded the old Drifters hit in 1954: it’s Elvis and band doing the Rat Pack, right down to the nonchalant exuberance of the drum outro.

That Elvis and the band could have recorded all but one of the dozen tracks on Something for Everybody in one night – or have been subjected to that by the label, considering his artistic status, never mind his value to them – is pretty remarkable. Then again, that was how albums were made in those days. Elvis sounds no worse for the marathon, and the band rises to the occasion as well. The real stunner here is the perfectly Orbisonesque noir pop ballad There’s Always Me, capped off by an unexpectedly explosive outro. Did a teenage Van Dyke Parks play along to the creepy music box piano of It’s a Sin? Did a young Roger McGuinn do the same with the proto folk-pop of Gently? Did the Searchers use the boisterous uptempo guitar blues of Put the Blame on Me as the prototype for an entire career? It would seem so.

To sweeten the pot, there are also a dozen singles included. In hindsight, Fame and Fortune (which Arthur Kent ripped off for Skeeter Davis’ The End of the World) stands out as a dismissal of celebrity that might be far less ironic than it seems. As a blueprint for Mark Sinnis’ Mistaken for Love, Are You Lonesome Tonight takes on a new intensity. And the completely over-the-top tango Surrender, with its James Bond ambience, is impossible to hear without smiling. The rest of the stuff either burned out long ago on oldies radio or never made it that far to begin with. All together, this trip back to a time before autotune is an awful lot of fun.

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March 7, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jay Banerjee’s New Album Slashes and Clangs

Cynical janglerock heaven. Jay Banerjee may be best known at the moment as the creator of Hipster Demolition Night, arguably New York’s best monthly rock event, but he’s also a great tunesmith. On his new album “Ban-er-jee,” Just Like It’s Spelled, he plays all the instruments, Elliott Smith style (aside from a couple of a couple of harmonica and keyboard cameos, anyway). Drawing deeply on the Byrds, the Beatles, the first British invasion and 60s soul music, Banerjee offers a slightly more pop, more straightfoward take on what Elvis Costello has done so well for so long, crafting a series of three-minute gems with a biting lyrical edge. The obvious influence, both guitar- and song-wise, is the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn – like McGuinn, Banerjee plays a Rickenbacker. The tunes here are brisk, with an impatient, scurrying pulse like the Dave Clark Five, with layers of guitar that ring, jangle and chime, throwing off fluorescent washes of magically glimmering overtones as only a Rickenbacker can do.

Lyrically, Banerjee goes for the jugular, sometimes with tongue in cheek but generally not. These are songs for guys. Banerjee’s characters, if they are in fact characters, have no stomach for drama, no patience for indecisive girls holding out for men they’ll never be able to measure up to. And these women don’t get off easy. The funniest and most spot-on cut here is Long Way Home: what the Stooges’ Rich Bitch was to Detroit, 1976, this one is to Brooklyn, 2010, a brutal dismissal of a “dress up doll with a goofy drawl” who finds that she’s no match for New York heartlessness. By contrast, Just Another Day (not the McCartney hit, in case you’re wondering) is equally vicious but far more subtle. Banerjee lets the gentrifier girl’s aimless daily routine slowly unwind: finally awake by noon, “She tells herself if life’s a game, it isn’t hard to play/’Cause all you lose is just another day.”

A handful of the other tracks have obviously pseudonymous womens’ names. Dear Donna, the opening cut, sarcastically rejoices in pissing off the girl’s mother – via suicide note. Kate is rewarded for having “too many feelings” with a memorable Byrds/Beatles amalgam. Lindsay won’t be swayed by any overtures, and her shallow friends may be partially at fault: “They said you pray that I just find someone desperate/Lindsay, all that they say, already I could have guessed it.” Another cut manages to weld the artsy jangle of the Church to a Chuck Berry boogie, with surprisingly effective results. There’s also the early 60s, Roy Orbison-inflected noir pop of Leave Me Alone; See Her Face, the Byrdsiest moment here; and the clanging 60s soul/rock of No Way Girl. Fans of both classic pop and edgy, wounded rock songwriters like Stiv Bators have plenty to sink their teeth into here.

With his band the Heartthrobs, Banerjee rocks a lot harder than he does here: your next chance to see them is the next Hipster Demolition Night at Public Assembly on December 9, starting at 8 with the garage rocking Demands, then Banerjee at 9 followed at 10 by psychedelic rockers Whooping Crane and then oldschool soul stylists the Solid Set. Cover is seven bucks which comes out to less than $2 per act: did we just say that this might be New York’s best monthly rock night, or what?

By the way, for anyone lucky enough to own a turntable, the album’s also available on vinyl.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers – Coney Island Cowboy

Hard honkytonk doesn’t get any better than this. The band may be new jack but Sean Kershaw is definitely oldschool. One of the prime movers of the vibrant New York country/Americana scene, Kershaw led a fiery rockabilly band, the Blind Pharaohs back in the 90s and early zeros; this project grew out of an off-the-cuff jam session between some of the best players on the scene. Since they were always busy with gigs during the week, they could only get together on an off-day. But word spread and suddenly Sundays at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was the place to be (free barbecue didn’t hurt). This is the band that sprang out of that jam, and it’s a damn good one: while Kershaw, true to form, performs live with a rotating cast of characters (he’s got a deep rolodex), this cd features the multistylistic Bob Hoffnar on pedal steel, the ubiquitous Homeboy Steve Antonakos on lead guitar plus a no-nonsense rhythm section of Jason Hogue on upright bass and Andrew Borger (of Norah Jones’ band) on drums. Recorded by the band’s longtime friend Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, most of this has a similar guitar-fueled burn, not to mention a sense of humor: some of these songs are hilarious, in a vintage 70s Moe Bandy way. Kershaw delivers them with a wink and a grin in a knowing, Johnny Cash-style baritone.

The funniest song on the album is The Trucker & the Tranny, ostensibly a true story – “Are you gonna tell him?” chuckles a friend at the bar as the two cavort. Or maybe it’s Bigshot of the Honkytonk, a downright vicious portrait of a bartender who’s a big fish in a little pond: “The jukebox plays his favorite song 25 times a night.” Crackerjack Delight echoes Orbison but with a surreal, contemporary edge, while Already Cheatin’ is a catchy shuffle: “There ain’t no fish scales underneath my fingernails, it must be the smell of cheating going on.” The Carl Perkins-inflected Moonlight Eyes -the Blind Pharaohs’ signature song – is redone here as a fetching duet between Kershaw and the golden-voiced Drina Seay. There’s also the eerie, completely noir, LJ Murphy-style Woke Up Dead, driven by a searing pedal steel solo; a western swing shuffle where Kershaw tries his hand at scatting, and actually pulls it off; a bizarre Split Lip Rayfield style number about doing battle with Satan; a SCOTS-style barn-burner with Miller guesting on guitar; and a remake of the folk song Old Hollow Tree, this one abruptly uprooted and transplanted to Brooklyn.

The title track is inadvertently sad, a vivid summertime oceanside scene populated with freaks and characters, complete with sound samples of the Cyclone rollercoaster. It’s a time capsule, and unfortunately the bumper cars aren’t bumpin’ to that crazy hip-hop beat anymore. The Astroland amusement park is gone, soon to be replaced by a parking lot since Mayor Bloomberg’s dream of driving out the blacks and Hispanics with casinos and “luxury” condos for rich white tourists doesn’t stand much of a chance these days – unless he funds it himself. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has pulled together and has been fighting it – unsurprisingly, when the band isn’t on the road they’ve been involved with the Save Coney Island movement, which deserves your support as well.

February 19, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Song of the Day 9/18/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #313:

Michael Caine – It’s Over

The Roy Orbison original may be a classic, but it’s the version by Michael Caine in the 1998 film Little Voice that’s the best. Caine’s character is a villain, a drunken clubowner singing this song onstage with his house band in a moment of particular unease, and his acting is amazing. Caine is actually a decent singer impersonating someone who can’t hit a note to save his life, imbuing a pretty despicable character with some actual humanity. Here’s a torrent of the whole movie.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jang Sa-Ik at the Grand Hyatt Ballroom, NYC 2/25/09

Through an interpreter (his excellent acoustic guitarist), South Korean star Jang Sa-ik explained that due to jet lag (thirty hours, door to door from another time zone), he was only singing at thirty percent.

 

If what he delivered was less than a third of what he’s capable of, a full-strength show would defy the laws of physics. You heard it here first – Jang Sa-ik is the next world music star. Playing to a crowd of mostly music industry insiders and journalists, he held the audience riveted throughout a stark, intense trio set, backed only by acoustic guitar and drums instead of the chamber ensemble and choir who typically accompany him on his home turf. As a vocalist, Jang projects powerfully but without any of the campy kabuki theatricality that typifies so many popular Asian performers. Throughout the show, it always seemed that he had something in reserve, even on the biggest crescendos. In his delivery were hints of both Roy Orbison and Bobby Bland, especially when he’d add a tinge of grit at the end of a phrase, or let it trail off with a slight vibrato. Essentially, Jang is a soul singer, a fact that translated viscerally to the at least fifty percent American crowd, despite the fact that he sang only in Korean.

 

Vocals aside, Jang’s greatest strength is his songwriting, revealing itself as influenced by late 50s/early 60s American pop and blues as much, maybe if not more, than any traditional sound. He opened the set with a spiritual, a funeral march whose title translates as The Way to Heaven, intoning ominously like Howlin’ Wolf as the slow, haunting anthem got underway. Like something from the Harry Smith anthology, it sounded half slave hymn, half minimalist delta blues, except with lyrics in Korean and a big, dramatic conclusion where the narrator can finally see his golden reward.

 

The second song of the set was Jang’s biggest Korean hit, Wild Rose, a dark and eerie pop song with a noir 60s feel – wait til David Lynch finds out about this guy. Its theme is bittersweetness, although it felt much darker. Daejeon Blues – a swinging, ominous minor-key blues song – maintained the edgy intensity, a sad narrative told from the point of view of an intinerant worker having to leave his girlfriend behind because now he has to take a different, low-budget train to a different, low-budget city. Another 60s-inflected pop song, Spring Rain brought back the noir vibe, with vocalese on the outro that screamed out quietly for a singalong. He closed the set with what he said was the “Korean national anthem,” Airirang, a sardonically metaphorical folk song whose narrator cautions the woman who’s leaving him that she won’t get far before her feet get sore. Jang earned great acclaim (and considerable notoriety, on the north side anyway) for singing this before a soccer match between the South and North Korean national teams.

 

Jang is also something of a feel-good story (it’s a made-for-tv movie waiting to happen). Born in 1949, the son of an amateur oboeist, he only began playing his father’s instrument in adulthood. Well into his forties, after years of itinerant work, one dead-end job after another, he finally made his debut as a singer. In 1993, he embarked on a fulltime career in music and has never looked back. Now, at 59, he’s looking to conquer the west. It’s bound to happen, the only question is when – his New York City debut, at City Center in 2007, was a sellout. Discover him now for the sake of cachet…and for the haunting intensity of his voice and his songs. 

February 27, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Mark Sinnis – Into an Unhidden Future

The debut solo album from ominous Ninth House singer/bassist Mark Sinnis is a remarkably stark, terse collection of mostly acoustic songs including a small handful he’s played with the band. Sinnis proves he’s one of this era’s great Americana song stylists: he can croon with anyone. Vocally, this is an unabashedly romantic album, even given the bitter intensity of many of the songs. Most of them are simply Sinnis’ acoustic guitar and vocals, sometimes sparsely embellished with simple, eerily reverberating electric guitar lines from Brunch of the Living Dead’s Sara Landeau as well as gospel-tinged piano by Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas, violin from Susan Mitchell and lapsteel by Lenny Molotov. This is a kinder, gentler Mark Sinnis, a worthy substitute for anyone who misses Nick Cave since he went off to do his hard rock thing with Grinderman.

Sinnis’ dark, rich baritone is a potent instrument, whether roaring over the tumult of Ninth House or delivering with considerably more subtlety as he does here. Johnny Cash is the obvious influence, but there are also tinges of Roy Orbison on the understatedly bitter That’s Why I Won’t Love You, and even Elvis Presley circa His Hand in Mine on the austere ballad The Choice I Found in Fate. Sinnis’ lyrics are crystalline and polished: he doesn’t waste words; his melodies are deceptively simple and run through your head when you least expect them. Some highlights from the nineteen (!) songs on the cd: the haunting Five Days, a bitter look at how the hours are wasted on dayjob drudgery; the Carl Perkins-inflected It Takes Me Home, a long, slow, death-obsessed ride; the rousing Passing Time, a warning to anyone not aware that they should seize the day while it lasts; the Nashville gothic The Room Filled Beyond Your Door, featuring some impressively countrystyle guitar from Ninth House lead player Anti Dave; and a stripped-down version of the anguished Ninth House classic, Put a Stake Right Through It featuring some truly scary playing by Molotov. The production is beautifully uncluttered, obviously influenced by Cash’s Rick Rubin albums. This cd works on so many levels: as singer-songwriter album, as sultry country crooner album (get this for your girlfriend, or someone you would like to be your girlfriend), as well as a fascinating look at an unexpected side of one of today’s finest songwriters. CDs are available in better records stores, online and at shows. Mark Sinnis plays the cd release show for this album at the Slipper Room on March 16 at 10 PM.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment