Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Dreamy, Otherworldly Soundscapes from Lesley Flanigan

Imagine you had a recording session but for some reason you ended up in the studio with just a microphone and some random speakers whose hums, crackles and occasional roars you could amplify. Could you make it interesting, something that would speak to anyone besides yourself? That’s what Lesley Flanigan did on her album Amplifications. Flanigan is a sculptor, and the compositions here are designed as sound sculptures. Using only her voice and a collection of speakers that she builds herself out of abandoned parts, she’s crafted an intriguing series of soundscapes that transcend any avant-garde cred she may have achieved by creating them. Some of her compositions are simple and stunningly direct, while others rely on dizzying layers of studio effects. Either way, they draw the listener in, and they’re vastly more accessible than they might seem. Flanigan’s vocals are mostly wordless, with a timbre that ranges from high and clear to take on a smoky tone on the album’s last number.

She begins with the aptly titled Retrobuild, harmonies methodically layered over and over again, almost an exponential expansion of a simple two-note phrase. She bends the notes and adds a tinge of longing before cutting off the piece abruptly. Following that is a vivid dreamscape, vocals alternating with oscillating, droning textures buzzing and swirling from the speakers, creating simple, sustained chords. Sleep comes down, is interrupted for a second, shifts to a distantly nightmarish interlude with uneasy, Middle Eastern inflected vocalese and ends on a calm, balmy note.

Snow pits the drones, buzzes and frequent shrieks of the speakers against the voice. As with the previous track, Flanigan carefully adjusts the frequencies to create a chordal drone, voice eventually emerging resolute and triumphant over the lo-fi squall as the melody from the first piece returns. Thinking Real Hard finally introduces lyrics and a cinematic theme: “Would you star in my picture?” the narrator asks, with a torchy longing. The album concludes with the pensively layered Pinkish White, shades of the Cocteau Twins, and the restless, all-vocalese nocturne Say You. It’s a marvelous late-night album.

October 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mercury Falls Looms Ominously in the Distance

The cover image of Mercury Falls’ new album Quadrangle is apt, a collage of ominous stormclouds. The album itself is sort of the calm before the storm: it’s beautifully moody, pensive rainy-day music, a suite of atmospheric soundscapes blending elements of jazz and minimalism with occasional light electronic touches and a tinge of dub. The band – saxophonist Patrick Cress (also of Telepathy), Ryan Francesconi on guitar, Eric Perney on bass and Tim Bulkley on drums – share a remarkable chemistry and intuition. As a whole, they allude to themes more than than stating them outright, skirting both the melody and the rhythm, an effective strategy for building considerable suspense. It’s basically a suite, variations on a series of motifs interspersed with minimalist, sometimes jagged, sometimes ghostly fragments that appear in the mist only to fade from view seconds later.

The opening track Spring Pools begins with a foghorn in the distance and builds around a noirish sax motif, somewhat evocative of Jimmy Scott’s Sycamore Trees. Speak Without Ears has the sax entering over a vaguely Kurt Cobain-ish acoustic guitar figure, methodically crescendoing to a funky baritone sax hook, down and then back again in a vein that reminds of New York noir instrumentalists Mojo Mancini. Eventually, it segues all the way into the fourth track, guitar emerging astringently from nebulous ambience.

The most striking composition here is the understatedly modal, ominously cinematic, sardonically titled Insurance Rep, contrasting a warmly anthemic 6/8 melody with eerily tense atmospherics, Bulkley raising the ante as he will even further on the following track, Solar Plexus. On that one, he prowls around as Francesconi and Cress finally take it all the way up to a blazing yet understated, terse crescendo, washes of distorted electric guitar beneath upper-register sax incisions. They segue out on an unexpectedly optimistic note, a pretty lullaby melody coming together slowly out of the clouds. It’s a great wind-down album, a great headphone album and a clinic in smart, decisive interplay. Bay area fans can catch Mercury Falls on September 16 at 10 PM at the Makeout Room, 3225 22nd St. in San Francisco.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam – Billy Cohen

One of New York’s most talented emerging musicians, guitarist and composer Billy Cohen died this past June 29 after a long battle with cancer. He was 23. A founding member of the charismatic rock band the Brooklyn What, Cohen was an integral part of their original three-guitar sonic cauldron, and also served as one of the group’s main songwriters. Both his guitar work and his compositions on the band’s landmark first album, The Brooklyn What for Borough President, offer a cruelly tantalizing glimpse of an already formidable talent that would have only grown, had he lived.

As a guitarist in the band, Cohen played with an edgy, brash intensity that both meshed and contrasted with John-Severin Napolillo’s purposeful powerpop sensibility and Evan O’Donnell’s slashing lead lines. Cohen was extremely adept at abrasive noise, yet was gifted with an uncanny sense of melody that he’d often employ when least expected, as demonstrated by his purist lead work on The In-Crowd and We Are the Only Ones. The shapeshifting, focus-warping song Soviet Guns illustrates another, more abstract side of his compositional skill. Cohen was also responsible for the delectably unhinged scream on the song Sunbeam Sunscream.

A musician’s musician, Cohen listened adventurously and widely throughout his life, immersing himself in styles ranging from garage rock to contemporary classical music, cinematic soundscapes and tongue-in-cheek mashups. At Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, Cohen played guitar in the jazz band as well as in the Brooklyn rock band Ellipsis; afterward, he attended the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he majored in Music Therapy and Music Composition. A song from his Ellipsis days as well as two atmospheric keyboard pieces, and a couple of clever, satirical mashup videos – including a direct and very funny one featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger – are all up on his myspace page.

Cohen’s uncompromising originality, creativity, absurdist humor, fondness for the Kinks (he picked out the band’s signature cover song, I’m Not Like Everybody Else) and devotion to his beloved New York Mets lifted the spirits of his bandmates and friends and left an indelible mark. The surviving members of the Brooklyn What are playing a memorial show for Cohen at Bowery Poetry Club on August 13.

July 21, 2010 Posted by | music, concert, New York City, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

CD Review: Thomas Simon – Moncao

Haunting and hypnotic, Thomas Simon’s new album is a suite of eerie, mostly instrumental soundscapes evoking both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd as well as Bauhaus and, when the ghostly melody begins to take a recognizable shape, Australian psychedelic legends the Church. Incorporating elements of minimalism, sci-fi and horror film scores as well as goth music and oldschool art-rock, it’s an ominous treat for the ears. Over a murky wash of drones, Thomas’ guitar rings, clangs and occasionally roars, moving in and through and then out of a swirling sonic whirlpool, frequently churning with both live and looped percussion. The reliably brilliant Dave Eggar adds layers of cello in the same vein: a flourish here and there and tantalizing snatches of melody that inevitably give way to dark atmospherics.

The title track is much like what Pink Floyd was going for on One of These Days – a staggered, swaying drumbeat, a series of low drones swooping and out of the mix and a forest of minimalist reverb guitar accents. Simon will pull off a hammer-on quickly, or add a silvery flash of vibrato a la David Gilmour – and then send the lick whirling over and over again into the abyss. The second movement, In the Middle of Nowhere, sets a distantly nightmarish scene – a tritone echoes in the background, fading up and back down as the guitar moves ominously and modally around the tonic – and then the cello leads the drums in, and the headless horsemen are off with a gallop. They bring it down to that macabre tritone hook, then bring it up, then back down again for over fifteen minutes.

The third movement works a simple descending hook over a trip-hop loop, sparse piano over washes of guitar noise. Up Against the Wall is a maze of backward masking and disembodied textures, sort of a synthesis of tracks one and three. They take it down and then out with stately yet raw guitar. The closest thing to a coherent song here, Altered Planet evokes the Church with its washes of cello and guitar: “Where we going, we need somewhere to hide” becomes “Where are you going, there’s nowhere to hide,” sirens appearing and then fading out before the guitar finally takes it up in a blaze of distortion. Somewhere there is an epic, dystopic film that needs this for its score. Maybe it hasn’t been made yet. Simon’s sonic palette is actually far more diverse than this album might indicate – his live shows can be very lively. Thomas Simon plays Small Beast upstairs at the Delancey on June 14 at around 9.

May 27, 2010 Posted by | experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Zade – One Night in Jordan: A Concert for Peace

How do you say sturm und drang in Arabic? Jordanian composer/pianist Zade likes a BIG sound, which takes on an even more dramatic effect given the striking setting for this outdoor evening concert recently rebroadcast on PBS: a Roman amphitheatre dating back two millennia. In fact, it seems that the massive choir joining with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Zade’s band may actually outnumber the audience. The subtext couldn’t scream any louder than the music: if we don’t get peace in the Middle East, this is just a small piece of what we stand to lose.

Zade’s lavishly orchestrated Middle Eastern-inflected, minor-key neo-romantic soundscapes have a lot more in common with the Alan Parsons Project – or Richard Wagner – than they do with pioneering Middle Eastern composers like the Iranian Abolhassan Sabeh, who, like Zade, would utilize the even tunings of the western scale. Ironically, it’s the little touches here that resonate the loudest: the brief yet viscerally haunting ney flute solo at the end of the tango that takes up the fifth track, or the wistful interplay between piano and acoustic guitar on the intro to the next one, Santiago’s Dream (inspired, Zade tells the crowd, by Paulo Coelho’s hit new-age novel from twenty years ago,The Alchemist). An electric violin solo trading off with the flute sounds like a particularly inspired mashup of ELO and Jethro Tull – and the crowd goes wild for it!

A playful, bouncy pop melody is dedicated to Jordan’s Princess Haya, an equestrian of some note and apparently a patron of Zade’s peace crusade, an encouraging revelation (peace of course being a relative term, especially in these parts). There’s also a plaintive breakup ballad sung by Jordanian chanteuse Jama; and the strongest composition, a particularly sweeping, percussive anthem titled Amman that perhaps appropriately has the most indelibly Arabic feel to it.

To say that the surroundings match the music for dramatic impact is quite the understatement: if what’s going on inside the amphitheatre is a little overwhelming, you can watch the headlights of the evening traffic peacefully going by outside at the top of the screen, completely oblivious – or maybe listening on Jordanian state radio, who knows. Casual fans may prefer the cd, since most DVD players don’t have the sonic capability to render the show in all its glorious exuberance (although the sonics of the DVD prove identical to those of the cd if run through good speakers). The cd also lacks the bonus features, including an interview with Zade, whose sincerity as an advocate for peace translates vividly in flawless English.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment