Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Yet Another Terrific Album from Sharon Goldman

This is an album for jellybean thieves and those who love them. Not only is Sharon Goldman one of this era’s most brilliant tunesmiths, she also has a sweet tooth. If her lyrics are to be taken at face value, she also steals ice cream – or appropriates other peoples’, anyway. Behind her bright, shiny, catchy classic pop melodies and her symbolically charged imagery, there’s a devious streak. Sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes both at once. Perfect example: Short Brown Hair, the opening cut on her new album Sleepless Lullaby. It’s a classic Snow White/Rose Red dichotomy: the narrator’s cute blonde little sister gets all the attention, but this pensive, brooding brunette has something up her sleeve (actually in her pocket). By the end of the song, she emerges resolute and unchastened. That sense of triumph and indomitability has always been a backdrop on her previous albums, especially the 1999 cult classic Semi-Broken Heart, and it comes to the forefront here.

What’s new here is Goldman’s turn toward an Americana sound, backed tersely and soulfully by guitarist/mandolinist Thad Debrock, bassist Mark Dann and drummer Cheryl Prashker. Dann’s production is remarkably purist: the album has rich, practically analog vinyl feel, vocals up front, drums tastefully in the back, no cheesy autotune or computerized instrumentation anywhere.

The rest of the songs paint vivid pictures, especially the fingerpicked ballad Winter’s Come Around Again, a woman traipsing around in the snow looking for any possible sign of warmth. The title track, a slow, 6/8 country ballad is a knockout. Goldman has always been a good singer – on this album she has become a brilliant one, unselfconsciously plaintive and wounded. “I lie awake with my big mistake” comes across as understatement rather than overkill, enhanced by some soulful slide guitar work by Pat Wictor. House of Stone, a Rich Deans cover, is a country blues tune: with its succession of bitter imagery, it stands up alongside Goldman’s originals here. And the Americana-tinged Letters, a kiss-off ballad that starts out characteristically subtle and gets as vicious as she’s ever allowed herself to be, is righteously wrathful. Goldman then flips the script with Weekend Afternoon, a blithely upbeat country/pop hit.

The 6/8 jazz-pop song Time Is an Airplane is one of her most musically sophisticated numbers – and it namechecks the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island, which makes it even harder to resist. Goldman wraps up the album by reinventing the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut Hazy Shade of Winter as piano-based art-rock, discovering a wintriness missing from the psych-pop arrangement of the original. It’s yet another display of smartly tuneful, captivating songcraft from one of the best songwriters you may have never heard of. Goldman’s next gig is at Brewed Awakening in Metuchen, NJ on Dec 16; watch this space for New York dates.

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

Elizabeth and the Catapult Make Smart Popular Again

In case you need even further evidence that there’s a mass audience for pop music that’s not stupid, the response to this album is proof. Elizabeth and the Catapult’s new album The Other Side of Zero didn’t just happen to make the itunes singer/songwriter chart last week: it debuted at #1. But don’t let the category fool you – frontwoman/keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman’s defiantly lyrical, artsy chamber-pop songs haven’t the faintest resemblance to the dentist-office pop of, say, James Blunt or Taylor Swift. Aimee Mann is the most strikingly obvious influence here, right down to the George Harrison-esque major/minor chord changes, the uneasy lyricism and cynical worldview. There’s also a quirky counterintuitivity in the same vein as Greta Gertler, and a purist pop sensibility that evokes Sharon Goldman – both somewhat lesser-known but equally formidable writers. Which is no surprise. Just as we predicted, the playing field is shifting. Watching bands like Elizabeth and the Catapult take over centerstage is as heartwarming as it is sweet revenge: we’ve got a renaissance on our hands, folks. If you’re a corporate A&R guy and you still think that Taylor Swift has lasting power, you might want to think about changing careers right about now.

The group’s previous album Taller Children was more lyrically-oriented; this one is musically stronger, and more diverse. As with Aimee Mann’s work, the production on all but one of the songs here is purist and often surprisingly imaginative, Ziman’s piano and occasional electronic keyboards out in front of a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars and frequently rich orchestration, no autotune or drum machine in sight. The opening track sets the tone, swaying and distantly Beatlesque: “Take us to a wishing well, throw us in and sink us down,” Ziman suggest with characteristic brooding intensity. The next track is Aimee Mann-inflected powerpop with staccato strings; after that, they go in a more psychedelic 1960s pop direction with the insistent Julian, Darling. The understatedly snarling, orchestrated Thank You for Nothing is a study in dichotomies, a bitterly triumphant kiss-off song: “Thank you for laughing out loud even when you don’t mean it…they say hurting is growing if you believe when you say it…” It’s a typical moment on this album: Ziman won’t be defeated even in the darkest hours.

One of the strongest tracks here, The Horse and the Missing Cart is a fervent 6/8 ballad, words of wisdom to a generation who’ve turned yuppie and conservative before their time. Open Book is part plaintive art-rock ballad, part sultry come-on; the wary, sardonic, oldtimey-flavored torch ballad Worn Out Tune builds to a soaring, orchestrated Aimee Mann-style chorus, ominous minor key reverb guitar trading off with a blippy melodic bassline: “All the saddest songs we sing are the ones we can’t get enough of.” The title cut, another big 6/8 ballad features Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings on harmony vocals, taking on a pensive countrypolitan feel with pedal steel after the first chorus. The album winds up with an electric piano-driven indie pop song in the same vein as Mattison or the Secret History, banjo and mandolin adding some unexpectedly sweet textures, and the gospel-inflected, intensely crescendoing Do Not Hang Your Head. The only miss here sounds like an outtake from some other band’s demo session gone horribly wrong, a completely misguided, dated detour into 90s-style trip-hop. Elizabeth & the Catapult are on national tour through the end of the month, teaming up with Tift Merritt on a series of west coast dates; check their tour calendar for cities and details.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Kirsten Williams at Bar on A, NYC 11/15/07

Kirsten Williams doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a singer-songwriter, a woman with a pretty voice and an acoustic guitar. She doesn’t need to. She makes it seem effortless, with her sweet, absolutely unaffected, slightly Kentucky-accented vocals and fluent, understatedly melodic fretwork. Country radio should seek her out: she’s got the tunes, the voice and – as horribly shallow as this is to admit, it’s inarguably true – the looks. She could be the next Kelly Willis. Which is a good thing. Her songs are terse, catchy and generally driven by disarmingly simple metaphors. Unsurprising, considering that she springs from the same fertile songwriting circle that springboarded the careers of Aimee Van Dyne, Ari Scott and Sharon Goldman, among others. It’s hard to imagine her sounding better than she did tonight.

Tonight onstage it was just her and bass player Andy Mattina, one of the busiest players in town, and for good reason: he’s one of the best players around, and he reaffirmed that. He gives this project a swing and a groove to the point where adding a drummer would be an afterthought. Mattina is well known for having great touch, lending an unexpected range of dynamics to Williams’ generally midtempo, somewhat Americana-inflected major-key pop songs. They opened with a bright, cheery country-pop number possibly called Burn Bright, Mattina taking off and embellishing the end of the tune. They followed with Happy Anyway, with its vivid East Village scenes and an impressively pro-graffiti stance. After that, they played the cleverly metaphorical To Catch a Thief: as the narrator’s cat “lulls itself to sleep with steady, heavy purrs,” she wonders who the thief is, and what’s been stolen from somebody’s heart.

The next song metaphorically examined the end of a relationship from the point of view of a prisoner searching for a way out. The following number was quite a contrast, a catchy, bouncy, 1-4-5 hit called Blue Sky. Other standout tracks Williams and Mattina delivered included the battlescarred Yesterday’s Waves, a metaphorical view of survival in rough emotional waters; the triumphant, upbeat New Lease on Life, and their best song of the night, the richly melodic, anthemic, crescendoing Down to the Road. At the end of the set, the crowd – an interesting mix of neighborhood folk and A-list New York rockers – pleaded for more. But the duo hadn’t played together in awhile and had run out of material.

Afterward we ended up at Banjo Jim’s where the high-energy Austin band the Shotgun Party were playing an upbeat Pete’s Candy Store-style blend of pop and bluegrass. The frontwoman is a cheerleader type who did the cheerleader dance throughout their set and sang cutesy, babyish lyrics in a cutesy, babyish voice, but the trio has a good upright bass player and their violinist Katy Cox was amazing. What she played could be called gypsy bluegrass. Her literally breathtaking solos were jampacked with lightning-fast sixteenth-note runs, bracing double-stops and spiraling swoops to the uppermost registers. As one member of the audience aptly put it, no matter how you felt about the band as a whole, she made them an impossible act to follow. Unsurprisingly, much of the crowd cleared out for Amy Speace, who played afterward.

In an impressive new development, Speace has taken on a strong antiwar and anti-Bush stance. A true democrat would say that having an antiwar and anti-Bush stance is a prerequisite to calling oneself a human being, and that may be true, but we need all the troops we can get, revolutionaries on the front lines no less than a rear guard quietly doing what they can to contribute to the cause. Unthinkable as it might seem at first thought, it’s people like Speace who could exert a lot more influence on the upcoming election than, say, Neil Young.

Now before you throw up and click “home” on your browser, consider that Shakey is pretty much preaching to the converted (other than the contingent of boomers who grew up to him on 70s rock radio and still get a nostalgia fix irrrespective of whatever his politics happen to be at the moment). Speace, on the other hand, doesn’t preach to anyone: it doesn’t seem that her audience is likely to lean very far one way or another, or, for that matter, to have much if any interest in voting at all. She’s just there in the background at that Starbucks in Weekawken, NJ where some bedraggled mortgage broker just might stumble in for his or her sixth HyperVigilLatte of the evening and hear Speace’s sad, plainspoken song about a woman who buries her soldier brother after his body comes home from Iraq. Maybe Speace’s otherwise completely innocuous song might encourage that bedraggled broker, or a couple of them, to actually vote, and make their vote count. And that doesn’t mean voting for Hillary. Neil Young – or Jello Biafra, or whatever Zach de la Rocha’s latest project is – probably won’t bring any upper middleclass, fortysomething Jersey housewives into the fold. But Speace can and probably will. Let’s not be ungrateful for that.

November 17, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Sharon Goldman – Shake the Stars

Sharon Goldman’s second full-length effort is a triumph of catchy melody, witty lyricism and subtle humor. It will shatter any preconceptions you might have about singer-songwriters being a bunch of self-absorbed whiners who can barely sing or play guitar yet think the whole world wants to hear about every minuscule facet of their miserable, lovelorn lives.

Goldman grew into a songwriter the right way. Joined a competitive bunch of other writers who pushed each other to new heights. When it was time to record, she didn’t hire a bunch of studio hacks: by then, she’d connected with a close-knit group of talented musicians who play for the sheer joy of it, who know that ultimately, the song dictates what needs to be done. All you have to do is listen. Goldman is really more of a rock/pop type than a folkie, a master at blending major and minor chords, dynamics and writing catchy hooks that linger in your mind for days.

She’s also an uncommonly good singer. There are legions of songbirds with nice voices out there, but Goldman’s strength is that she knows how to use hers. Honest, unaffected, completely unafraid, and fun in an effortless, conversational way. Ultimately, the reason why Goldman’s albums sound as good as they do is that she’s a purist. She doesn’t go for cheesy synthesizers, dated trip-hop production or sing in that awful, affected white “r&b”-inflected style that Sarah McLachlan made so popular and her legions of followers sadly adopted. Instead, on this album you get that great voice, tasteful layers of acoustic guitars, strings and occasional percussion, tastefully arranged and produced.

The album opens with The Subway Song, a hilarious, picture-perfect tale of the train ride from hell:

“There was this smelly guy standing next to me
He wore dirty jeans and a t-shirt saying ‘This way to Williamsburg’
….the train was creeping the whole way
How could this happen when you were waiting for me?”

Thinking that she’s boarded a N train to Brooklyn, she discovers that she’s on the way to Astoria. So she transfers to the G train. Oh, shit! There you have it: an indelible New York moment. This is one of those songs that was waiting to be written for decades (I guess the New York Dolls did it, but not nearly this well). Believe it or not, it has a happy ending.

Other tracks include the surreal, amusing Bad Day and the country-blues tinged title track:

“Do you double dare me to open up my eyes
And look at where we’re going instead of asking why?”

The high point of the album is Suburban Sunshine, Goldman’s greatest shining moment so far, a snide dismissal of outer-borough conformity. A genuine classic: this smoldering, minor-key broadside ranks with Pretty for the Parlor by LJ Murphy and Amy Allison’s version of the Smiths’ Every Day Is Sunday in the pantheon of exquisite musical autopsies of a horrid time and place. It’ll resonate vividly with anyone who spent far too many years with bated breath, waiting for their first chance to get out for good. Because as Goldman so accurately puts it, suburban sunshine “feels heavier than rain.” And if she stays where she is, she knows that she’ll eventually disappear.

Fans of Aimee Mann, Erica Smith and Mary Lee’s Corvette will find plenty to feast on here. Fine album. Four bagels. Fresh from the oven at Essa Bagel with melted butter…mmmm…..delicious. Cd’s are available online and at shows. .

May 15, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments