Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Song of the Day 1/5/10

Every day, our Top 666 Songs of Alltime countdown gets one step closer #1. Tuesday’s song is #205:

Kelli Rae Powell – Don’t Look Back Zachary

The road trip that for a minute looked like an escape from hell turns quickly to hell. But she can’t go back. The oldtimey siren’s minutely jewelled, gracefully haunted memoir with ukelele. From her 2009 album New Words for Old Lullabies.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – God’s Favorite Band

Things like this happen with bands who’ve been around awhile and have the good sense to record themselves in fortuitous circumstances. Back in 2006, the Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s smartest, most deliriously fun oldtimey Americana band – recorded some live performances at the Saxon Pub in their hometown of Austin. Among the songs were several traditional gospel tunes along with a handful of originals that wouldn’t be drastically out of place, musically at least, in a straight-up gospel set. It isn’t implausible to imagine the band hanging around the dressing room one night after a show after someone put these songs on a boombox, while a  joint made its way around the room. Suddenly percussionist/singer Wammo has an epiphany and turns in amazement to multi-instrumentalist/siren Christina Marrs: “Holy shit, we have a gospel album here!”

As improbable as it might seem at first thought for the Spankers to be doing a gospel album, it actually makes perfect sense when you consider how deep their knowledge of American roots music is. As sacriligeous as the band is, Marrs has an amazing set of pipes and pulls out all the stops here. Likewise, the band’s vocal harmonies are tight and inventive when they’re not being tight and absolutely period-perfect, as with their minstrel-esque version of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

An ancient-sounding  instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson blues Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground opens the cd and sets a rustic tone. The standards Each Day, Down by the Riverside, By and By and Wade in the Water each get a fervent, ecstatic treatment which rather than being camp reaffirms the band’s seemingly innate feel for these songs as universal expression of the human spirit that transcend any doctrinaire limitations. Then they do the same thing with a contemporary Christian song (yes, that’s what it is), the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano’s Jesus Walking on the Water.

But as expected it’s the originals that bring down the house. Wammo’s somewhat snide Right and Wrong has an ironclad Iraq War-era logic to go along with the stoner humor: “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, ’cause he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” And his other song here, Volkswagen Thing reclaims a Nazi-era relic as vehicle for the divine. In case you don’t remember it, the Thing during its brief revival in the 70s was  one of the most unsafe cars ever built, a car so rear-heavy that it could pop a wheelie despite being ridiculously underpowered. Satan, on the other hand, drives his Mercedes like the pig he is – and he’s got a Hummer, too. The band closes out this raucous collection with a defiant version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, a vivid reminder of where they’re really coming from for anyone who might not have been paying attention. Steampunks everywhere, not to mention fans of both traditional and secular gospel alike (the Lost Crusaders and Rev. Vince Anderson especially come to mind) will love this album. The Spankers made it to NYC a couple of times this year and they will doubtlessly be back (they recorded their sensational What? And Give Up Show Business? live cd here), watch this space for details.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Ticklin’ the Strings Presented by the Sweet Hollywaiians

This is arguably the funnest and most romantic album of the year. Japanese retro Hawaiian swing band the Sweet Hollywaiians have earned rave reviews, including one from Hollywood film director Terry Zwigoff, and the hype is deserved: they can flat-out play. With Tomotaka Matsui’s Hawaiian steel guitar, Nobumasa Takada‘s ukelele, Takashi Nakayama’s acoustic guitar and Kohichi Tsutsumishita on standup bass along with mandolin, violin and cameos from Robert Armstrong and Tony Marcus of R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders, they run through a 1930s jukebox worth of jaunty instrumentals and period-perfect vocal numbers. It’s a feast of spiky string textures, dazzling virtuosity and inspired musicianship, not to mention scholarship – along with the standards, they’ve unearthed some real gems. But more than anything else, this is great makeout music.

The title track and Wasting My Love on You are well-known, covered by New York Hawaiian swing institution the Moonlighters along with plenty of other bands; the Sweet Hollywaiians’ versions are impressively purist, hewing close to the originals, the former blissfully upbeat, the latter quite dark in the same vein as Brother Can You Spare a Dime. The Hawaiian Beach Combers’ My Girl from the South Sea Isles and the Dallas String Band’s Chasin’ Rainbows totally nail the originals’ ambience right down to the vocals, whether Tin Pan Alley or hillbilly swing. The tango La Rosita works its major-to-minor mood shift with a marvelous ominousness; perhaps the prettiest melody of all the tunes here is Giovanni Vicari’s Nostalgia, a beautifully wistful, gypsy-inflected waltz featuring steel guitar and violin from Armstrong and Marcus. The band’s latin-inflected original Oh! Caroline is gorgously dark and spiky – one wishes they’d included more of their own stuff here. There’s also plenty of more lighthearted material here including the novelty songs Ten Tiny Toes and Singin’ in the Bathtub (a 1930s precursor to the Lyres’ garage rock hit Soapy!). Steampunks of every stripe will go crazy over this album once they find out about it. Maybe if we’re lucky here in the US we can get a Moonlighters/Sweet Hollywaiians tour!

October 30, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Wiyos – Broken Land Bell

Their best album. It’s amazing how much energy the Wiyos get out of a couple of acoustic guitars, harmonica and upright bass – and to their further credit, the quality of the songs and the playing here transcends the presence of a human beatbox. Cross-pollination is usually a good thing, but this time it is not, and happily the hip-hop effects are mostly buried in the mix on all but a couple of the songs. Which represent the Wiyos’ inimitable blend of rousing 1920s-style hokum blues, ragtime, guitar swing and oldtimey hillbilly songs – everything here sound live, which is especially fortuitous since their concerts are reliably high-intensity affairs. This one kicks off with a rustic traveling song, followed by another equally jaunty number, then a starkly minor-key banjo tune. There are also a couple of hobo songs here, one a cautionary tale to stay one step ahead of the law, the other a soaring tribute to the excitement of riding the rails. Singer/guitarist Parrish Ellis’ Angeline has a Hank Williams-gone-cajun feel; guitarist Teddy Weber’s Green Bottle #6 is jazzy and swinging with a sweet lapsteel solo. By contrast, Drum, by frontman/harmonica player Michael Farkas is a dark and aptly aphoristic antiwar number with train-whistle steel guitar. The album wraps up with a deliriously fun country drinking song, a ballad that starts out hypnotic with an early Grateful Dead feel before picking up steam, and the vividly lyrical, wary Valentina, a thoughtful evocation of a girl stuck in a city that once made a great place to hide but has now swallowed her whole. “The kings can’t grow up to be kings,” Farkas muses – it’s an anthem of sorts for the new depression. Steampunks everywhere will be salivating for this. The Wiyos got their start here and make frequent return trips – these guys live on the road, watch this space for future NYC dates.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Moonlighters Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/14/08

This band may be something of a New York institution, but if you haven’t seen the Moonlighters lately you definitely should. There’s been considerable turnover: of the original quartet, only bandleader/ukulele player Bliss Blood remains. This latest incarnation harks back to the original unit: they’ve reverted to the quieter, more overtly romantic style they mined so well on their first album. Their latest steel guitarist Mark Deffenbaugh plays Blood’s absolutely authentic-sounding 20s and 30s style torch songs, blues and Hawaiian swing with taste and sensitivity, the new bass player’s impressive jazz chops are on par with those of their original 4-string guy Andrew Hall, and guitarist/harmony singer Cindy Ball (who handled a lot of the lead vocals tonight) not only has a soaringly beautiful, jazz-inflected delivery, but also great retro fashion sense. Though Blood was considerably under the weather (“Never go to a 1-year-old’s birthday party,” she cautioned the packed house), it was impossible to tell from how she sang, her vocals perfectly clear, warm and cheery as always.

The set also looked back to the band’s turn-of-the-century sound: the surprisingly cheerful, bouncy hobo anthem Ballad of a Gink; the lushly beautiful Dreamland (the title track from their first album, taking its name from the legendary Coney Island amusement park), a couple of similarly swoony new songs, and the minor-key Blue and Black-Eyed, an account of the sad demise of one of the prostitutes who would throw themselves from the fire escape at the notorious late-1800s Bowery saloon McGuirk’s Suicide Hall (the building that housed it was razed a couple of years ago to make space for highrise plastic-and-sheetrock luxury condos). This version of the band played it with less overt intensity than previous incarnations did, making it more of a seamless fit with the rest of the material.

Bliss Blood’s songwriting is undiminished. It’s hard to think of anyone else who can so effortlessly evoke the playfully literate, sometimes innuendo-laden wit of 1920s and 1930s pop as well as she does, and to her credit she’s once again assembled a crew who can do justice to it. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of couples in the audience: this was clearly date night, and everybody seemed happy with the outcome. At least while the band was playing. The Moonlighters are back at Barbes at 10 in the 19th.

March 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musette Explosion Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/13/08

Just for the record, this is not the same band formerly known as the Jon Spencer Musette Explosion. Instead, it’s accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri (half of Munisteri’s superb vocal jazz outfit Brock Mumford), along with some kind of rhythm, usually tuba player Marcus Rojas, but tonight they had a killer upright bassist instead, playing all kinds of gorgeous broken chords, slides and even mimicking a Munisteri solo at one point.

Musette Explosion and the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, each play a style of indigenous accordion music which was revolutionized when blended with the American pop music of its era. In the case of Chicha Libre, the essential liquor was Peruvian cumbia (pronounced KOOM-bee-a, not kumbaya) dance music, mixed with 60s American surf and psychedelia and played on electronic instruments. Musette Explosion play blue-collar French and Belgian barroom music from the 30s and 40s; its catalyzing element was swing jazz. It’s richly melodic, intensely emotional music, requiring not only great chops but also an intense emotional sensibility to play it as it was meant to be done. The trio onstage tonight alternated between two types of musette: bouncy, upbeat dance numbers and wrenchingly beautiful laments in waltz time. Not to flog a dead horse, but it never ceases to amaze how good the shows are in the tiny back room at this club – and though there’s always a good turnout, it’s not hard to fill the space. There should have been a line around the block for this one, it was that spectacular, especially considering how popular gypsy music has become.

Holshouser got the enviable job of playing the lead instrument on a mix of vintage tunes by accordionists Gus Viseur, Jo Privat and Tony Murena, in addition to at least one original, with the tongue-in-cheek title Chanson Pop. “We have no idea why it has that title,” he deadpanned, echoing a joke which had been bouncing around between the band all night long – this band makes no secret of how much fun they have playing this stuff. It began like a gentle janglerock song from the early 90s – echoes of Lloyd Cole, perhaps? – with a warm series of major-key hooks, before branching out into an unexpected series of permutations, and then time shifts, toward the end.

Munisteri is the rare guitarist with an instantly recognizable, signature sound. He’s something of a contradiction, a traditionalist whose playing is far more imaginative than any tradition could possibly contain. Blending styles ranging from pretty trad Wes Montgomery octaves, Django Reinhardt percussiveness, soulful, swaying country lines and macabre gypsy runs, he parked his usual understated wit off to the side and went straight for the jugular. The best solo of the night was played on neither accordion, bass, nor guitar: it was Munisteri wailing on his banjo on the Jo Privat composition La Sorciere (The Witch). This particular witch is a seductress, a fair beckoning one who spins around the room, mesmerizing every unlucky suitor with her deadly gaze. Munisteri brought out every ounce of macabre in the song, his fret hand a blur, tremolo-picking wildly as if playing a balalaika, then slamming out the rapid series of chords that wind up the turnaround at the end of the verse.

In another gorgeously lyrical number toward the end of the set, he surprised everyone with a fetching, bent-note, somewhat Chet Atkins country melody. Holshouser whirled and fired off notes at lightning speed, frequently using a rapidfire, machine-gun staccato on a single key. While playing, he’ll often fix an ominous, almost John Lydon-style thousand-yard stare on the back wall of the room, but tonight there was no glare, only the trace of a smile. He let the music tell the rest of the story, and the band did the same.

Holshouser is off to Europe for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, when not playing big, fancy jazz joints, Munisteri rejoins his Brock Mumford cohort, trumpeter Jon Kellso for their weekly 7:30 PM Sunday session at the Ear Inn. He’s also doing the next couple of Mondays solo at Banjo Jim’s at around 7 PM.

March 14, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marni Rice, Bliss Blood and Dreamboat Live at Laila Lounge, Brooklyn NY 2/20/08

This is the kind of place where music is only an occasional thing, as evidenced by the chalkboard outside on the sidewalk which simply said “open mic.” As at innumerable other bars, the musicians who play here apparently also do all the promotion. Either the night was running ahead of schedule, or there had been a switchup after the email announcing the event was sent out, because by quarter after ten, accordionist Marni Rice was wrapping up her solo set. She’s excellent, a player who’s equally influenced by French chanson and American garage rock. Singing in a smooth, confident alto, her last two songs were both excellent originals, the last a new one perhaps titled Red Light, a scuffling, klezmer-inflected broadside about the New York subway system’s inability to treat their customers with even a minimum of respect. She’s playing another solo set at Hank’s this Saturday at about 9:30, opening for some garage-rock friends. Musically, it might not be the smoothest segue, but energy-wise it ought to be perfect: Rice has considerably more edge and originality than your typical accordion-playing chanteuse.

Bliss Blood is a one-woman time machine, a brilliant songwriter with breathtaking command of pretty much every oldtime blues, ragtime and swing style ever found on shellac or celluloid. Unsurprisingly, she’s a major force in the New York music scene, as leader of the wildly popular, lushly romantic Moonlighters, the sizzling barrelhouse blues act Delta Dreambox, macabre “crime jazz” trio Nightcall and swing dance band Cantonement (that seems to be all for the moment). A Bliss Blood solo show is so rare that it’s a can’t-miss event: even thought she got her start here in town playing solo, she virtually never gets a chance to do that anymore. In the Moonlighters, she favors lush, complicated, harmony-laden arrangements, so hearing her songs pared down to just vocals and chordal rhythm was a treat worth braving the cold and this somewhat suspect, frequently trendoid-infested venue. Accompanying herself tonight with just her trusty ukulele, Blood reaffirmed her status as one of the smartest, most captivating performers around. As a singer, she alternates between seduction and indictment. Her serenades were sweet and clear, but she put her fangs in for the sad, rueful ballads and politically-charged anthems. In the bar’s intimate confines, she transcended the dodgy sound and put on a riveting show, opening with a brief cover of the Goldfinger theme, then the explosively powerful Nightcall song Blackwater, a corrosive, spot-on critique of the mercenary company killing innocent civilians in Iraq.

Introducing the breezy, seemingly carefree hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, she explained that “gink” is Depression-era slang for someone who’s lost or homeless. Broken Doll, a stark narrative about a battered woman, was just as evocative as the version on the Moonlighters’ latest album Surrender. Blood also did a handful of covers of songs by her idol, Bessie Smith, and also debuted a touching new one entited Winter in My Heart (“and snow in my eyes,” she sang wistfully). It was hard to remain dry-eyed after that one.

Before launching into a tersely intense version of the Moonlighters classic Blue and Black-Eyed, she told the audience it evoked a different New York, one a little more dangerous, in this case the Bowery at the turn of the 20th century when prostitutes would drink carbolic acid and throw themselves off the fire escape of the recently demolished tenement that once housed the notorious bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. She wrapped up the set with a request, the charming Hello Heartstring and then her fiery, minor-key, tango-inflected maquiladora ballad Dirt Road Life, told through the eyes of a Mexican sweatshop slave.

Dreamboat, the headliners (no relation to Bliss Blood’s similarly-titled band) were terrific, the best new act we’ve encountered since unexpectedly discovering James Apollo back in December. This new trio features excellent acoustic guitarist/singer Craig Chesler, upright bassist Tony Masselli and a frontwoman who jokingly told the audience that she was Kelly Ripa. Iowa expat Kelli Rae Powell, alternating between a wink, a smirk and an occasional shit-eating grin, showed off a spectacular, vastly entertaining and delightfully witty ability to absolutely nail a range of styles from Bessie Smith subtle, to Shirley Bassey over-the-top, and seemingly everywhere in between. If this band stays together, they’ll be huge. Like the Moonlighters, there’s a fondness for harmonies and an unabashed romanticism in most of what they do, but playing for laughs is also part of it. Powell’s onstage persona is as devious as it is virtuosic. Their best song, appropriate for tonight’s chill, was a very pretty, soaringly optimistic ballad called When My Winter Turns to Spring. They’re playing the Jalopy Café on March 8 with the Moonlighters, well worth the B61 bus ride to Red Hook and back home again.

February 21, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lenny Molotov Live at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 2/16/08

Lenny Molotov is the greatest guitar-god songwriter you’ve never heard of. Actually, you probably have: he plays lead guitar in Randi Russo’s band. But his own work is just as good. Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison: technically, Molotov is equally breathtaking, although long extended solo flights are not his thing. Perhaps even more than Thompson, Molotov seems to want to make every single note count for something, to make the music work perfectly in the context of the song. While Thompson’s fallback place is traditional British folk, Molotov draws most deeply from the murky well of oldtime delta blues, although he’s fluent in country and rock and, to at least some extent, jazz.

Tonight he reaffirmed why club owners like blues acts so much: for some reason, everybody drinks as long as the band is playing, if they’re not drinking already. Although Molotov and band didn’t hit the stage here til after one on the morning, they kept the crowd of Jersey tourists in the house throughout their long, almost two-hour set. Playing a mix of about 50/50 covers and originals, they impressed with the quality of their musicianship and Molotov’s clever, witty, lyrically-driven songs.

They opened with an eerie, minor-key blues chronicling the last few hours of a kid from the projects in Brooklyn who goes out to buy some weed, ends up being entrapped by an undercover cop, panics and shoots the cop and ends up killing himself in the wee hours after running out of options. One by one, Molotov enumerated the obstacles that tripped up the poor guy: “It’s too hard to be an outlaw anymore,” he lamented. Another equally chilling Molotov original, Faded Label Blues traced the decline of blues/jazz legend Hoagy Carmichael’s career. Molotov has a remarkable political awareness which made itself apparent in these two songs as well as a bouncy, uncharacteristically sunny, major-key tune titled the Devil’s Empire (as in “I saw the devil’s empire coming down”).

Their covers were just as good. Molotov’s version of St. James Infirmary Blues ostensibly stays true to the original, fast and driving. Backing Molotov were an upright bassist as well as violinist Karl Meyer and harmonica wizard Jake Engel. Meyer’s soaring, fluid country fiddle made an interesting contrast with Engel’s heavy artillery: the guy was channeling Big Walter Horton half the night, blowing eerie chromatics like he wanted to shatter the big plate glass window that serves as the front wall here. They finally wrapped it up at about 3 AM, the club owner still sitting on his perch at the sound board above the stage, carefully tweaking the sound throughout the show to make sure everything was crystal-clear. It’s hard to think of anybody else who cares so passionately about the sound in the room or who is as good at it as this guy is. We’re going to pay close attention to the Rockwood schedule from now on: if someone you like is playing here, don’t pass up the opportunity.

February 18, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Rachelle Garniez CD Release Show at Joe’s Pub, NYC 12/22/07

Rachelle Garniez’ dark vision never came to life so powerfully, and directly, as it did tonight. If you’ve been following this space for the last few months, you’ll notice that we’ve given her more space than we have just about anybody else. The reason is clear: the new album she was debuting tonight is fantastic, something you definitely should own, but her live shows are reliably riveting. Her previous cd release in this space was a deliriously lush, passionate affair with all kinds of orchestration and special guests. Tonight’s show was understated, driven by a very dark undercurrent: with the exception of one song, the encore, everything she played tonight was from the new album. She was accompanied on most of the songs by only guitarist Matt Munisteri and bassist Dave Hofstra (who doubled on tuba, and served as an effective reminder that if your low-end guy is good enough, you don’t need drums).

Munisteri absolutely owned the set’s first and last songs. His glimmering, jewel-like guitar arpeggios drove the opener, Mama’s Got a Brand New Baby and the charming 6/8 underdog anthem Tourmaline with an understated power. Red Red Nose, the final song on the set list, turned out not to be the love song that the album version appears to be, but a tribute to a street person who had once accosted Garniez one evening during her days busking at the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue and presented her with a cross. Munisteri played acoustic twelve-string on that one, adding a lush, gorgeous bed of melody beneath it. He also played biting, incisive banjo on the apocalyptic, hypnotic blues Shoemaker’s Children.

Garniez likes to jam out the intros to her songs, inventing new lyrics to preface them. She didn’t do that much tonight, but she did jam out the outro to the brief time capsule Back in the Day:

That song was about the east side
And this one is about the west side
It used to be lots of fun everywhere
You could drive like a maniac and no one cared
You could knock down police barricades
At four in the morning with a giant Chevrolet
Back in the day
The glamorous and the homeless held hands together and danced all night
And everything was quite all right
Back in those days on the west side

Before everyone had a camera
You could get away with all kinds of stuff

And then she launched into After the Afterparty, which she played on piano. Tonight’s version had an unbridled anger, driven by a percussively chordal insistence missing from the version on the new cd. It’s a song about being let down and Garniez, who otherwise sang in the person of a whole grab bag of strangely compelling characters all night long, let her hair down for this one and the effect was subtle yet brutally intense. People Like You, which appears on the album as a blithely subtle swipe at the sons and daughters of suburban wealth who’ve turned much of New York into their personal VIP room, was delivered with a snarl. “I get down on my knees and thank you for letting me talk to you,” Garniez sneered. The crowd was a polyglot mix reminiscent of who you’d see in this neighborhood before any Dark Tower loomed over the Cube at Astor Place, and they loved it.

The only cameos tonight were brief but effective: clarinetist Doug Wieselman, blues harpist Wade Schuman (of Hazmat Modine fame) and trumpet/flugelhorn player Pam Fleming, the human crescendo, all added colors ranging from sweet pastel shades to spicy New Orleans red. Garniez encored with Swimming Pool Blue, ostensibly the first song she ever wrote: as she told it tonight, some old bandmates of hers asked her to write a Christmas song. What she came up with instead was a sultry, Marilyn Monroe-ish saloon blues number. “Until my dreams come true,” she sang at the end. “A thousand miles away,” she added off-mic, a comment that didn’t go unnoticed. And then, appropriately, the room went dark.

December 23, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years

Melusine translates from the French as water nymph or naiad (Rachelle Garniez is a Pisces, which may explain a few things). Nothing very watery about this album, though, unless you count the picture on the cd’s lyric booklet showing Garniez lounging on the Staten Island Ferry. To say that this is her best album to date may not seem like the staggering achievement that it is, until you realize that her last one, Luckyday remains one of the best albums of the decade. To surpass it was a Herculean feat, and Garniez has pulled it off, seemingly effortlessly. Simply put, there is no better singer, no better songwriter, no better keyboard player and – especially – no better live performer in all of rock than Rachelle Garniez. If you can call what she does rock.

Luckyday was a lush, ornately orchestrated blend of retro styles, and this one, while drawing from the same corners of vintage Americana, is somewhat more intimate. Garniez sings and dazzles on accordion, piano, bells and plays a little nylon-stringed guitar, accompanied by brilliant lead guitarist Matt Munisteri and low-frequencies expert Dave Hofstra, who plays upright bass and also tuba on one song. Garniez’ songs are timeless yet immutably rooted in the here-and-now. Most of what’s here has a blackly humorous, apocalyptic undercurrent: this is a loosely thematic concept album about fiddling while Rome burns.

It kicks off with After the Afterparty, an understatedly bitter midtempo piano ballad with an absolutely killer chorus gently illuminated by some expert Munisteri electric guitar fills. Garniez loves to vary her vocal delivery from a whisper to a roar – she sings in character, and she has a whole stable of them. But her voice here is plainspoken and sad, and it’s nothing short of riveting. This is a story of rejection. In the spirit of perhaps her best song (Quality Star, from Luckyday), it ends on a subtly vengeful note:

After the afterparty
You hailed me a taxi
And I buckled up for safety
Maybe I’ll live to be an old lady
With lots of big hats and jewelry

And an inscrutable air of mystery
And when questioned about my history
I’ll smile oh so sweetly
And whisper oh so discreetly
I can’t remember a thing

The following track, the bouncy, old-timey, accordion-driven Tourmaline brings the low-end gemstone to life in 6/8 time:

We all know you came in through the kitchen
Cause the floor sorta sticks to your feet
When you go better you use the back door
He’ll be waiting for you on the street
Oh he closes his eyes when he kicks you
For a cat cannot look at a queen
Realize when his memory tricks you
Oh he’s nothing but snow on your screen

After the amusingly brief Back in the Day (“When the saints came marching in/Nobody paid no mind so they marched right back out again”) and a sweetly soaring country song, Garniez reverts to her fondness for the underdog with Shoemaker’s Children, a Munisteri showcase. It has the feel of a Charley Patton classic, a haunting, rustic open-tuned blues for banjo and guitar, and it’s one of the more overtly ominous numbers on the cd:

‘Bout an hour before the flood
There’s nary a rat to be seen
And the people swarm the city to grab one last glimmer of green
Make way for the shoemaker’s children
Here they come marching down your street
Ten million strong they limp along on their twisted and broken feet

The next cut, Bed of Cherries is deliberately inscrutable: other than a possible reference to a cover album by the Church, this strange but beautifully played and sung catalog of unrelated objects seems to be more of a secret message than something written for the world. Then Garniez overdubs layers and layers of her own vocals to create an entire gospel choir on the rousing fragment Mama’s Got a Brand New Baby (which she uses as an intro for Tourmaline at live shows).

Lyrically, the album’s high point is the following track, People Like You. The sarcasm is brutal: over a blithe, finger-popping beat, Garniez does her best Rickie Lee Jones imitation. It’s arguably the most scathing, spot-on critique of the trendoids who have taken over New York that anyone’s written to date:

If you came here to make it big, well I wish you the best of luck
You can always head back out west if you ever get stuck
But if you came here to jerk my chain, I wish you the very worst
I don’t mean to be a pain but baby I got here first
And it’s people like you
Who don’t know pride from shame
And it’s people like you…
Who will never place a face before a name

Garniez toys with the “people like you” hook on the chorus, first accenting the “you,” then the “like.” The reason for the effect becomes clear at the end of the song when she starts going on about how everyone likes the newcomers: in fact, she ends up unable to resist them too. Yeah, and pigs can fly.

The cd continues with the macabrely amusing Pre-Post Apocalypse, something of a punk rock oompah song, followed by The Best Revenge, a sardonic yet stoically mournful account of living it up while temperatures rise, the poles melt and unspoiled children face a tough road ahead. As Garniez tells it, they rise to meet it, an unexpectedly hopeful end to an otherwise completely pessimistic song.

Like its predecessor, Melusine Years falls into a category that transcends any “best album of the year” designation [although it did make it to #1 on Lucid Culture’s Best Albums of 2007 list – Ed.] If the human race exists a hundred years from now, this album will be as revered a cautionary tale as George Orwell’s 1984. If not, it’s a fitting epitaph. In the case of the former, it ensures Garniez a permanent place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. Rachelle Garniez plays the cd release for Melusine Years at Joe’s Pub on December 22 at 9:30 PM.

December 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments