Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Ghost of Cesar Franck, Part Two

Monday night began with a stellar performance of Romantic music for cello and piano featuring a gorgeously permutating version of terminally underrated Belgian composer Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major. It was as if his ghost was in the room. After the show, it was time to head up to Small Beast at the Delancey, the weekly edgy music salon (now with free barbecue!)  that’s recently migrated from Thursdays to Mondays for at least the time being as the weather heats up (let’s face it, this respite we’ve been enjoying is about to end). Franck’s ghost came along for the ride, maybe bringing Chopin along (it’s unknown if the two composers knew each other – Chopin was at the height of his popularity just as Franck was graduating from the conservatory, but both were wallflowers so it’s unlikely). Seated at the Small Beast (the 88-key spinet piano) doing his own Romantic thing was Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch, who since he books Small Beast has received an enormous amount of ink here. Suffice it to say that his own individual blend of classical and gypsy influences, along with the rock and the honkytonk and the gospel, is something you ought to see if you like any of those styles. This time was characteristic: some new Botanica material (one a dead ringer for vintage Procol Harum), some noir cabaret and a soul song.

Marni Rice was next. The accordionist/chanteuse is a quintessentially New York artist, a throwback to a more dangerous, vastly more interesting, pre-condo era, around the time Bernie Madoff was president of  the NASDAQ exchange (presumably because his Ponzi scheme was so successful). She opened solo with one of Edith Piaf’s first recordings, Mon Pernod, a haphazard barroom narrative from 1926 that she’d transcribed from an old record. With a twilight feel on her accordion, Rice switched between a slightly menacing, noir cabaret delivery and a soulful alto, backed by former Pere Ubu bassist Michelle Temple (who also doubled on guitar) and Wallfisch on piano on one song. Another evocative narrative, Rice explained, she’d written after returning from Paris to her old stomping grounds near the old Second Ave. sidewalk sale, a reliable source of bargains run by a rotating cast of junkies and derelicts around 6th and 7th Sts. in the 80s and early 90s. “I’ll be all right…til winter comes,” one of them casually tells his sidewalk pal.

The duo also swung their way through the noir cabaret of Dripping with Blue, a spot-on rainy NYC street tableau and Priere, an original that gave Rice a chance to relate a hilarious anecdote about playing one of Louise Bourgeois’ salons, Bourgeois giving her an earful about how the stuff she grew up listening to in Paris was “so much more elevated” than the old barroom songs in Rice’s catalog…but did Rice know this one, and that one, and could she play it? They closed with Red Light, “about insomnia and spending too much time on the subway,” and a fuzz bass-driven punk rock song. When the luxury condos all turn into crackhouses and the old days come back, we’ll undoubtedly still have Marni Rice around to usher them in a second time.

Next on the bill: the Snow, rocker Pierre de Gaillande’s main band these days when he’s not doing his amazing Georges Brassens Translation Project, Melomane having gone on hiatus for the time being. This was a full-band show, drum kit down on the floor in front of the bar. Cesar Franck’s ghost was still in full effect, the Parisian vibe more evident than ever in Gaillande’s writing – in a lot of ways it makes sense that he’d be the one to introduce Brassens to English-speaking audiences because the two writers share a cleverness, a punk rock fearlessness but also a meticulous sense of craft. Frontwoman/keyboardist Hilary Downes, as usual, got to take center stage and keep the crowd entertained, but it was the songwriting that carried the night: the noir garage swing of Reptile, the subtly shifting, understatedly haunting Undertow, a swirling version of True Dirt (title track to the band’s excellent debut cd), a soul duet and the hilarious Russians, an aptly snide look at what happens when a corrupt communist regime goes even more corruptly capitalist.

Hindsight being 20/20, it would easily have been possible to stick around and see what Christof Widholm of Morex Optimo was doing with his latest project Pharmacy & Gardens. However, in the interest of staying on top of the scene to the extent that there is a scene and there’s a top to be found there, the game plan was to get over to Union Pool in time to see how Rev. Vince Anderson’s first night there was going. Answer: another mobscene, even more delirously populated than closing night at Black Betty a week ago. Union Pool is a lot bigger than Black Betty, and the crowd filled it, a swirl of bodies in refreshingly diverse shades swaying and bouncing to the pulse of the band. They were celebrating baritone sax player Moist Paula’s birthday, so there was a full horn section up with Anderson and the Moist One and the guitar and rhythm section and they were positively cooking, one of the jams going on for at least 25 minutes. While it’s a safe bet that most of the crowd had no concern about how late the party went – this was Williamsburg, after all – the house was still full well past two in the morning. And it was clear that Cesar had come along along for the ride – though you won’t hear any Franck in Anderson’s fiery electric piano cascades or Billy Preston-inflected organ, it’s safe to say that not only does Anderson know Franck’s work, but it’s quite possible he’s played it on a church organ at some point. At least the vibe was the same – Anderson’s gospel is the gospel of the heart, where emotion rules, where the rules are cast to the wind and the good guys always win. At least they did Monday night.

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June 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 1/19/09

Most people aren’t aware of this dirty little secret (maybe not even Kasey Kasem), but American Top Forty wasn’t ever really any kind of barometer of how popular a song was, how well it sold or how many times it was played (we’re using the past tense here since it’s been years since there’s been a good song on the top 40). Rather, it was a creature of the corporate record labels, whose PR machines and their payola determined who’d end up where. Since we only have a quarter of the energy and no payola money, here’s the Lucid Culture weekly top ten, which likewise has no bearing on popularity or sales or spins, it’s just another one of our fun lists, a way to help spread the word about what’s happening out there. All the links here except for #1 and #9 are links to the actual songs (#1 and #9 being unreleased at the moment – you’ll have to go to the show to find out how good they are).

 

1.  The Brooklyn What – Gentrification Rock

Get used to seeing the Brooklyn What at the top of the charts here for awhile – if this was back in the day when there were lps full of hit singles, their new cd The Brooklyn What For Borough President would have a whole bunch of them. This one isn’t from the album – it’s a big, fiery, sarcastic riff-rocker, unreleased as yet, and a staple of their live show (they have a lot more material than you think). They’re at Trash on 1/31 at midnight.

 

2.  The New Collisions – Caged Us Kids

These Boston new wave revivalists are the real deal, frontwoman Sarah Guild’s sly, absolutely indomitable vocals soaring over biting, edgy guitar and an equally indomitable rhythm section. If their myspace is any indication they should be great fun live. They’re at Arlenes on 2/12.

 

3.  Abby Travis – Now Was

Hired-gun bass player (she’s played with everybody from Beck to the Bangles) whose strongest suit is her songwriting, lush and pensive with an almost lurid noir cabaret style that sometimes takes on a nuevo-glam feel. And her voice, warm and compelling like a young Sally Norvell. She’s at the Delancey on 1/22 at 8:30.

 

4.  La Fleur Fatale – Gigantic Boredom

Killer retro 60s folk-rock with Farfisa organ and a nice Strawberry Alarm Clock style solo from these Swedish revivalists. It’s on their cd available for free download here.

 

5.  Coconami – Sheena Is a Punk Rocker

Two Japanese girls with ukeleles doing a Ramones cover. Totally deadpan, of course. Too funny. They’re at Joe’s Pub on 2/1 at 7.

 

6.  The Voxys – Dirty Protest

Gorgeously fiery, jangly 60s rock with a classic garage vibe from these high-energy Irish rockers. They’re back here in town on 1/22.

 

7.  Community Gun – Wasted

Sounds like vintage Uncle Tupelo (or, as New York fans might say, American Ambulance) – country gone hardcore with a good sense of humor. Thse guys also have a mean, bluesy Tom Waits streak. They’re at Spikehill on 2/3  

 

8.  Demolition String Band – Wisteria

Beautifully twangling, guitar-stoked Americana from one of New York’s finest, a tribute to the hardy plant that even grows “on the hills of Jersey City.” They’re doing one of their Americana Family Jamboree shows at Rodeo Bar on 1/25 at 3 PM which is a very sneaky way to get kids listening to good music so when they hear Miley Cyrus or Nickelback for the first time, they’ll know that it’s shit.

 

9.  The Snow – Undertow

With Melomane in limbo, this crew have become frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s main focus and they’re just as good. This one is singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes contribution, a typically smart, imaginatively tongue-in-cheek lyric with a shape-shifting melody and gorgeous vocals. Unreleased, but they play it live. They’re at Barbes on 1/22 at 8.  

 

10.  The Paul Carlon Octet – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Give a listen to this characteristically smart, tongue-in-cheek version and then try saying it doesn’t sound a whole lot like Let’s Go Get Stoned. This is the kind of fun this big Ellington-inspired latin jazz crew comes up with all the time. They’re at Drom on 2/6 at 9.

January 20, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quiet Drama: the Quavers and the Snow at Pete’s Candy Store 9/12/07

We had absolutely no intention to see the Quavers. After all, their name begins with a Q. Hurry, how many good bands whose names begin with Q can you name? Umm…Quicksilver Messenger Service did a great live album, and about half of a studio one…then there was that band Quarterflash that had a couple of catchy radio hits in the early 80s…and of course, there’s that band that did the song you hear at every sporting event. But they sucked.

 

Half of the Quavers’ stuff sounds exactly like Melomane and the other half sounds like Kings County Queens. Which are two very good things. Their orchestrated art-rock is tuneful, haunting and sometimes absolutely hypnotic; their country stuff features soft, gentle male/female harmonies singing pretty, swaying country melodies. Halfway through their weekly Wednesday residency here this month, they didn’t have much of a crowd in the house (residencies will kill your draw), but they will be very popular. You heard it here first.

 

The Quavers build their songs by laying down a succession of loops. It takes excellent musicianship to be able to pull this off: you have to have split-second timing and know your part exactly, because that’s what the loop will be playing back to you over and over again until you turn it off. There are just three people in this band, the male singer on guitar, the female singer on violin, accompanied by a multi-instrumentalist alternating between vibes, trumpet and lapsteel. With all the loops going, they sound like they have a whole orchestra behind them. A lot of their songs are sweepingly beautiful. They have a political awareness as well as a fixation with shipwrecks – or at least sunken artifacts. One of their best songs was called The Sea Won’t Take Long, a brooding, 6/8 epic. Their country stuff was more lighthearted, including a very funny tune about a one-night stand called Snack (as in “you were just a snack”). Their lyrics are well thought-out, and the melodies are catchy and come around again and again (you have to have a simple underlying pattern if you’re going to add layers and layers of loops on top of it). You should see this band sometime.

 

The Snow are a Melomane side project. Side projects usually suck: Gorillaz, anyone? How about those awesome Traveling Wilburys? It’s not clear why the Snow even exists at all, since they sound exactly like Melomane. Maybe frontman/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande can’t get his regular band together every time he wants to play, so he assembled this crew, who are every bit as good as his main project, blending smartly crafted, noir 60s inflected pop songs with soaring, majestic art-rock epics. They opened with an artsy pop song showcasing the talents of their clarinetist, along with a good upright bass solo. They also did a couple of slightly oldtimey songs Gaillande wrote for a documentary on Dr. Bronner’s Soap, as well as a surprisingly captivating number about a romance between an octopus and a starfish, “our only math-rock song,” as keyboardist/vocalist Hilary Downes (who provided acerbically funny commentary all night) told the crowd. Their best songs were a swinging, understatedly sultry jazz-inflected number written by Downes, and their eponymous signature song. With Melomane, Gaillande is in the midst of writing a “disaster song cycle,” as he put it recently, and the songs in it are the strongest he’s ever done. This strange, crescendoing tune about the blizzard to literally end all blizzards fits right in. Add the Snow to the shortlist of the half-dozen or so best bands in New York, even if they sound identical to one of the others. 

September 14, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Melomane – Glaciers

Their best album. New York art-rockers Melomane have made the quantum leap from being a good band to being one of the best bands around. Their sound is lush, orchestrated and somewhat Mediterranean-inflected with meticulously arranged layers of guitars, strings, horns and keyboards. If you wish the Shins had some substance, if you’re wistful for Pulp at their mid-90s peak – or Roxy Music circa Avalon – this is for you. And while it’s a truism that this era’s musicians stand in opposition to the Cheney/Halliburton regime, Melomane have never shied away from taking a stand, as they do here more passionately and courageously than just about anyone else out there.

The cd opens with the blackly amusing Hilarious, a breezy art-pop song that evokes Crowded House. Frontman/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande blithely comes on to a girl while the climate and the arms race heat up on all sides. The next cut Unfriendly Skies has to be the best anti-entertainment industrial complex song written since Elvis Costello did Radio Radio almost thirty years ago. It’s a driving song, set to an ominous, driving beat, a fiery shot across the bow of corporate radio:

From unfriendly skies comes a dull monotony
To conquer and divide, entertainmentopoly
We drive so fast, we get so lost

I’ll turn it off
The channel’s clear, it gives me no alternative
One day soon I know

We will break the stranglehold
Hack apart the snake and
Take back what they stole

The cd continues with the darkly romantic Open Invitation and then Nobody, which takes a turn into tropicalia with its bossa rhythm, trumpet and strings. The next track, The Little Man’s Castles – a big hit at live shows – opens with a gorgeous, Byrds-style lick into a propulsive, backbeat-driven verse with trumpet and keys. There’s a nice bridge right before the outro featuring an all-too-brief, tersely melodic bass solo from Daria Grace (who also plays in her husband Jack Grace’s country band, and leads a charming old-timey outfit called the Prewar Ponies). The following cut This Is Skyhorse starts out totally early 80s new wave, with an acoustic intro into something that sounds like Turning Japanese by the Vapors, then bass and percussion, then back to the lick with distorted, processed vocals. And then it morphs into a bluesy 70s rock song. It’s a weird series of permutations that would do the Skyhooks proud. Could the song title be a cleverly veiled reference?

The high point of the cd, and instant candidate for best song of the year, no contest, is The Ballot Is the Bullet, a quietly ferocious, 6/8 rallying cry to any one of us who might find the courage to stand up to the traitors and thugs who brought us Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act:

You’re fodder and you’re grist
I think you get my gist
And you know these people don’t like you
They walk without souls

They’re turning our green world into a black hole
They’re out of their minds
We’ve run out of time
In the occident and the orient

Please assassinate the precedent

“Precedent” is what the lyric sheet says, anyway. Major props to Melomane for articulating what most of us never dare to speak. Out of the second chorus, the song builds majestically with a starkly powerful minor-key climb from Gaillande’s guitar, then the organ kicks in with a desperate, furious crescendo. The song then takes a bitter, depressed climb down to the intro and ends on the somber note where it began. And while Gaillande makes it clear that “We’re in love with love/That’s why we’re singing this,” it’s clear that this song is not about turning the other cheek.

Welcome comic relief arrives eventually with the pun-laden, tongue-in-cheek, Pistolla di Colla (Italian for “glue gun”). It’s a clever postmorten for the end of a relationship, evoking nothing less than artsy 70s Dutch satirists Gruppo Sportivo:

Some Roman gallivanter gifted in soothing banter
He’s cooing his sticky catchphrases while life decays in phases
She washed her hands and toes beneath the Caesar’s frescoes
With who, God only knows

Then they segue into a theme which will remain nameless here: you have to hear it to fully appreciate the joke. The following cut Thin Ice is a ballad: mournful harmonies fly over the quiet, reflective verse:

Plumbing the depths of the sadness that springs from confusion
And skating on thin ice

The album’s last song is anticlimactic to the extreme, but they saved it til the end so you can just stop there if that’s your preference.

Throughout the cd, Gaillande’s writing is more direct and hits harder than ever, and his voice has deepened, revealing a welcome, newfound gravitas. This is a terrific headphone album, a great road album and a shot of adrenaline for any disheartened freedom fighter. Five bagels. With arugula, prosciutto di Parma and capers. [postscript – after a hiatus that took up much of 2008 and 2009 as Gaillande busied himself with other projects, namely the Snow and Bad Reputation, Melomane seem to be at least a part-time project again, a welcome development]

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