Tuneful and trippy to the extreme, Brooklyn band Not Waving but Drowning’s new theatrical rock album Processional is in some ways a more adventurous take on the Dresden Dolls. It makes a good companion piece with Aunt Ange’s recent psychedelic masterpiece. Where that one’s downright menacing, this one’s more lightheartedly surreal, although not without its disquieting moments. Where Aunt Ange goes out on the gypsy rock tip, Not Waving but Drowning reach back to the sly surrealistic humor of 60s psychedelia. Like that era’s great psychedelic bands, they draw on a kitchen sink’s worth of influences: folk music from literally around the globe, vaudeville, cabaret and garage rock. What’s it all about, other than the shambling procession through an endless succession of surreal images that the title foreshadows? After hearing it several times, it’s hard to tell, although it gets more interesting every time around. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement.
The opening track, Sleep Before I Wake, is basically a mashup of the bluegrass standards Seven Bridges Road and Shady Grove, done Appalachian gothic style with psychedelic, reverb-toned lead guitar and guy/girl vocals, like a more surreal version of the Walkabouts circa 1990. The next track, November 3rd weaves a magical web of bass, banjo, guitar and violin and a lyric about a honeybee. If he’s made it to November 3, either he’s a very lucky guy, or a not so lucky one. Which isn’t clear. Is he running for office? A question worth asking. Tabor Island is a gleefully brisk shuffle over an Indian-flavored drone: “We shall all be made free again on Tabor Island.” A Jules Verne reference? Maybe.
Like a track from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Thanks a Lot Lancelot is a funny, sarcastic garage-pop song. “Sometimes love won’t do and you knew that from the start,” the singer reminds the poor knight. They follow that with a banjo tune, Windowsill, giving it a gentle evening ambience with trumpet and flute, and then pick up the pace with the scurrying, carnivalesque Station Light. A twisted casino scene of sorts, it’s the most theatrical number here. By the end, they’re not taking any bets – figure that one out.
The funniest song here is Sing to Me, a bumbling attempt at seduction that gets squashed fast, with a pretty hilarious quote from an awful 60s pop hit and an equally amusing outro. The Mission, with its 5/4 rhythm, offcenter violin and piano, is just plain inscrutable; they follow that with the album’s best song, Tiger Hunting, a creepy, slinky chromatic tune with an apocalyptic edge that hints at an old Talking Heads theme. Long Short Walk sounds like a cut from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, but with better vocals and more interesting rhythm;Willow Garden evokes Country Joe & the Fish at their most reflective and acoustic. The album winds up with the title track, a twisted, swaying waltz that builds to a crescendo of delirious harmonies – it seems to be sort of an acoustic version of what Pink Floyd was going for with Waiting for the Worms. A pleasantly uneasy note on which to end this very entertaining journey. Not Waving but Drowning are at le Poisson Rouge on May 24.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #840:
The Roulette Sisters – Nerve Medicine
Arguably the finest band to spring from the Blu Lounge scene in Williamsburg, the Roulette Sisters first combined the fearless talents and soaring oldtime harmonies of resonator guitarist Mamie Minch, electric lead player Meg Reichardt (also of les Chauds Lapins) and washboard player Megan Burleyson. Their lone album to date, from 2005, is a slinky retro feast of delta blues, hokum and sultry country swing. Innuendo has always been their drawing card, and this has plenty of it, whether Bessie Smith’s Sugar in My Bowl, the hilariously Freudian Keep on Churnin’ (“Keep on churnin’ til the butter flows/Wipe off the paddle and churn some more”) and I’m Waiting, sung with characteristically rustic, austere charm by Burleyson. There’s also the defiant, revenge-fueled Black Eye Blues and Black Dog Blues, the irresistibly charming Coney Island Washboard, a similarly antique take of Bei Mi Bist du Schoen and Reichardt’s wistful, bucolic No Particular Thing. The band brought in viola player/composer Karen Waltuch before breaking up in 2007. Happily reunited recently, they’re playing their annual Halloween show on Oct 30 at 10 at Barbes.
Knoxville, Tennessee’s Christabel and the Jons ran through one slinky, swaying swing shuffle at Banjo Jim’s last night. “I can feel the electricity in the air,” frontwoman/guitarist Christa DeCicco observed. She didn’t mean the dancers twirling on what passes for a dance floor in front of the stage – she meant the cool autumn night. “I can tell some broken hearts are about to be mending.” Potent observations from someone whose songs celebrate romance in all its difficult, exasperating forms. Consider: in the summer, your brain is so fried it’s impossible to make the right choices. Fall, on the other hand, is snuggle weather: that, and a whole lot more. Not that there’s anything wrong with a fling: “Give me a room full of men like you, and I’ll get closer to you,” she sang on one particularly seductive track from the band’s most recent studio album Custom Made for You. But there’s a depth, and a bittersweetness to her songs that resonates just much as her sultry vocals.
The band was tight beyond belief, drummer Jon Whitlock switching between brushes and sticks when the pace picked up, locked in with the swinging rhythm of the upright bass and DeCicco’s acoustic guitar, multi-instrumentalist Seth Hopper moving expertly from violin, to trumpet, to mandolin and back again, sometimes in the same song. DeCicco announced that for the first time in her life, she’d successfully haggled with a street vendor. “It was a crack pipe,” cracked Whitlock. The audience riffed back and forth with the band: whatever she’d scored (probably something to wear) had cost her ten bucks.
A couple of songs pulsed along on a bossa beat, including a vivid bon vivant’s lament punctuated by a soaring trumpet solo. Back to Tennesee featured the band on deadpan, jump blues-style call-and-response vocals – what were they looking forward to when they get back from their 12-hour drive? “Black cherry ice cream.” DeCicco told the crowd that their forthcoming album was going to be all brooding ballads, resulting from a “dark night of the soul.” But a couple of cuts, one of them titled You’re Gonna Miss Me, Baby were as jaunty and irrepressible as the rest of the set. Even the somewhat sarcastic Boy Crazy, with its minor-key gypsy-jazz vibe, wouldn’t concede an inch. DeCicco’s voice has a tinge of smoke and a casual allure that goes straight back to Billie Holiday, but she’s got a somewhat defiant optimism that’s uniquely her own: this band isn’t one of those Snorah Jones wannabe projects. For those who can’t wait for the new studio cd, the band has an online-only live album available at their site.
Catherine Russell’s latest cd Inside This Heart of Mine is the great album the Moonlighters didn’t release this year. A purist, inspired mix of swing blues and shuffles from the 1920s to the present day, it cements Russell’s reputation as a connoisseur of brilliant obscurities, and a reinventer of some which aren’t so obscure. Her band is phenomenal: Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Brian Grice on drums, with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dan Block on tenor sax and clarinet and John Allred on trombone, among others. The oldtime sound here reminds just how edgy, and fun, and actually ahead of its time much of the material here was: the band play it with joyous intensity and bite. This isn’t exactly safe, easy listening.
The title track, a Fats Waller tune, is recast as a slow, darkly torchy swing blues, trumpet and trombone consoling each other. All the Cats Join In transforms Peggy Lee’s seemingly innocuous 1946 jaunt to the ice cream parlor to something far more adventurous, taking it back in time another twenty years to when the place was probably a speakeasy. Block’s sax is so psyched to be there that he misses his exit and stays all the way through the the turnaround. Another Waller tune, We the People, gets a celebratory dixieland-inflected treatment.
The ruefully swinging Troubled Waters, based on the 1934 Ellington recording with Ivie Anderson in front of the band, is a suicide song, but Russell only alludes to it: she doesn’t go over the top, leaving the real mournfulness to Kellso’s muted trumpet. By contrast, Maxine Sullivan’s As Long As I Live is jaunty and understatedly sultry, with genial piano from Shane. The apprehensive ballad November, by producer Paul Kahn, is characteristically dark and understated, pacing along slowly on the beat of Munisteri’s guitar, with lowlit ambience from Rachelle Garniez’ accordion and Sara Caswell’s violin.
Just Because You Can, written by Garniez – one of this era’s most individual songwriters- is a pacifist anthem. Russell gives it surprising snarl and bite, if not the kind of disquieting ambiguity that Garniez would undoubtedly bring to it, Caswell’s violin handing off to Munisteri’s devilish banjo. The rest of the album includes a lazy, innuendo-laden Long, Strong and Consecutive (another Ellington band number); a vividly wary version of Arthur Prysock’s Close Your Eyes; a hilarious take of Wynonie Harris’ 1954 drinking song Quiet Whiskey; a strikingly rustical, even bitter banjo-and-tuba cover of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful; and a couple of upbeat, 1920s style numbers to close it. The fun the band has playing all of this stuff translates viscerally to the listener. Simply one of the best albums of 2010. It’s out now on World Village Music.
Bobtown’s debut album is a blast from the past yet completely original – they really know their roots, but they put an irresistibly unique spin on them. This is dark, vivid, sometimes lurid southern Americana, not the G-rated, sanitized version you hear in folkie clubs in the Yankee states. Their sound revolves around their three terrific lead singers, each of whom contribute songs as well as alternately lush and stark layers of harmonies to the album. Multi-instrumentalist Katherine Etzel holds down the midrange, taking the lead on the rustic Take Me Down, a 19th century-style chain gang song redone as stark suicide anthem with her voice sailing warily over Gary Keenan’s dobro. She also handles lead vocals on the gorgeous banjo-driven country gospel tune When Shall I Go and another swaying chain gang-style number, Boomer’s Blues, alongside guest Paul Pettit’s creepy funeral organ.
Jen McDearman handles the highest registers and excels at quirky, charmingly creepy songs. Black Dog could be cute and chirpy if it wasn’t about the monster in everybody’s dreams. The sad country waltz Don’t Wake It Up, a cautionary tale, warns that some sleeping dogs (metaphorical, this time) should be left alone. And her bouncy country gospel song My Soul is a showcase for the band’s rich four-part harmonies. Guitarist Karen Dahlstrom harmonizes with a finely nuanced alto voice that’s sultry yet plaintive on the old folk song Short Life of Trouble, then soars defiant and bluesy on her kiss-off anthem Hell and Gone. The best song on the album, by bassist Fred Stesney, is We Will Bury You, a genuine Nashville gothic classic that reaches a stirring but disquieting crescendo with all those beautiful harmonies going full blast. He also contributes the bluegrass hellraising anthem Little Bit of Living Before I Die and the cheery traveler’s tale Shadow of the Mountain, which has a tongue-in-cheek video up on the band’s site. Whether on dobro, mandolin or banjo, Keenan plays with a tersely tuneful fire. There literally isn’t a bad song on the album – without question, this is one of the year’s best. Bobtown are just as good live as they are in the studio – they’re at Union Hall at 9:30 on Oct 18.
By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.
“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.
Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.
The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.
A fixture of the New York music scene, Daria Grace got her start playing bass in recently resuscitated art-rockers Melomane, and was one of the original Moonlighters – fans of that band took to calling her replacement “the new Daria.” But with a voice like hers – a warm, clear, billowy soprano with just the slightest hint of grit that tails off sometimes with a subtle vibrato – there can be only one Daria Grace. While holding down the bass spot in her husband Jack’s terrific country band, she found her way back to oldtime steampunk swing with the Pre-War Ponies. They should be far better-known than they are – this beautifully sunny cd is completely and unselfconsciously romantic and one of the best albums of the year so far. Grace shies away from standards – she’s far more at home with obscure sheet music rescued from junk shops, a reliable source for much of her material. She plays baritone ukelele in this band just as she used to do in the Moonlighters along with rambunctious trombonist J. Walter Hawkes, former Cocktail Angst pianist Jon Dryden and Doug Largent on bass, with fellow New York retro chanteuse Sasha Dobson providing harmonies on one track.
Grace follows the Connee Boswell version of All I Do Is Dream of You, Dryden adding jaunty barrelhouse piano beneath Hawkes’ wry muted trombone accents. It’s something of a shock that at least until now, the swaying, breezy Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn never became the borough’s official theme (once Marty Markowitz leaves office, the band can approach the new Borough President). Hawkes joins Grace here on uke to up the vintage ambience. Got the South in My Soul – a concert favorite and a Lee Wiley hit from 1932 – features a period-perfect, balmy trombone solo. Two Sleepy People (a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938) absolutely nails the cozy, endorphin-stoked ambience for two lovers who’ve been out all night and are out of thing to say but not to do with each other.
The band recasts Heart and Soul, the lone standard here, as a brisk 1920s style proto-swing strut. The darkly tender Under the Russian Moon, floating on the waves of Dryden’s accordion, is the most delightful obscurity of the whole bunch. The album winds up tantalizingly with The Gentleman Just Wouldn’t Say Goodnight, another junk shop find that Grace credits as “one of the most beautiful songs that nobody has ever heard of.” Grace weaves through its tasty major/minor changes with a wistful, late-night feel that is pure soul. With the Jack Grace Band’s killer new cd hot off the press, that group has been gigging up a storm lately; the Pre-War Ponies’ next scheduled gig is at Rodeo Bar on July 26.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #89:
Rachelle Garniez – After the Afterparty
Elegantly vengeful kiss-off balad set to one of the multistylistic steampunk goddess’ catchiest, most gracefully anthemic piano melodies. From her classic 2007 cd Melusine Years, our pick for best album that year.
File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.
Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.
They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.
This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.
Craig Chesler’s main gig is rhythm guitarist in Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, one of the best roots-rock bands anywhere. He’s also been a fixture on the New York oldtimey scene for awhile. This cd gives him the chance to show off not only his clever, often tongue-in-cheek grasp of several Americana styles along with several richly evocative takes on 1960s British psychedelic pop: fans of second-generation bands like XTC, Love Camp 7 and Brian Jonestown Massacre ought to get the references. It reminds somewhat of a recent album by another A-list NYC sideman, Homeboy Steve Antonakis’ solo effort. In a way, this is sort of an audition reel that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that this guy knows a whole bunch of different genres inside out and plays them with taste and a good sense of humor.
The best song on the album is the brisk Nothing Out of Something, sounding like an early 70s Ray Davies country song. Likewise, the wistful This Should Be My Summertime wouldn’t have been out of place on the Kinks’ Village Green. The one cover here is an aptly rapt version of Beautiful Night by Amy Allison. The rest of the cd includes – are you ready? – a shuffle like Wilco in an especially poppy mood; an oldtimey crooner song with ukelele and a string section; a similar one with more of a hillbilly feel; some shuffling 60s Britpop like the early Move; a stagy glampop song that could have been a radio hit for Queen; a bizarre, swinging piano pop song with a long break for solo ukelele; more proto-glampop; more oldtimey crooner stuff;and the rueful ballad with harmonies straight out of ELO that closes the album on a lushly pretty note.
Chesler plays the cd release show for this one at Banjo Jim’s on Jan 23 with Amy Allison opening the show at 8; seemingly half of the good musicians in town are on the bill with Chesler afterward. Memo to the musician re: the album title – dude, what were you thinking?