Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

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January 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mattson 2 Invent a New Genre: Their Own

If you like 80s music, jazz, and/or watery guitar with the occasional touch of twang and reverb, this is for you. The Mattson 2’s latest album Feeling Hands blends elements of 80s Britpop, classic jazz guitar and surf music into a coolly energetic instrumental rock style that’s uniquely their own. Guitarist/bassist Jared Mattson sometimes evokes the frenetic, jazzy virtuosity of Paul Cavanagh, of 80s cult heros The Room; drummer Jonathan Mattson shifts effortlessly from surf rumble to 80s bounce to more intricate, cerebral patterns.

The album opens with Pleasure Point, a twangy sci-fi instrumental that adds an 80s edge to classic Shadows-style surf. With its simple, catchy chorus-box guitar hooks, Black Rain wouldn’t be out of place on a New Order album circa 1985. Ode to Lou (Lou Donaldson, maybe?) matches blithe Wes Montgomery-ish guitar to David Boyce’s fluttery but balmy tenor sax. They take a spacious, almost rubato Bill Frisell style noir Americana theme and follow it with a clangy variation that goes in a jazzy mid-80s Britpop direction… with a 70s soul string chart!

Mexican Synth is not particularly Mexican: it’s more like George Benson goes to Manchester. Guest Ray Barbee delivers a long, absolutely sensational, casually savage guitar solo on Chi Nine, Jared Mattson’s furious righthand attack shadowing him. When the strings come in, it’s something of a relief from all the wild intensity. Give Inski’s (what’s up with these titles, huh?) vamps on the opening chords of the Police’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: essentially, it’s a funk tune done in straight-up 4/4. There’s also the surf jazz number Obvious Crutch, judicious verse alternating with intense chorus, and Man from Anamnensis, opening with a minimalist, early 80s style new wave hook and builds from there, like the Mighty Lemon Drops gone to the Newport Festival. Fans of all the aforementioned artists ought to check this out. It’s out now from Galaxia.

July 29, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radio Birdman’s Live in Texas Goes Out on a High Note

Albums like this just warm your heart…and make it beat a lot faster. Most of the guys in this particular edition of iconic Australian garage-punk band Radio Birdman were in their fifties when their Live in Texas album was recorded on their final tour in 2006, but they play with the rampaging intensity of musicians half their age. This isn’t the original band – this regrouped version has frontman Rob Younger plus guitarists Deniz Tek and Chris Masuak, with Jim Dickson of the New Christs burning through Warwick Gilbert’s melodic basslines (and adding a furious, propulsive edge of his own), and Russell Hopkinson – who played on the band’s final studio album, Zeno Beach – doing an only slightly more restrained take on Ron Keeley’s machine-gun work behind the drum kit. This sounds like a soundboard recording – there’s plenty of room for quibbling about the balance of the instruments, but who cares. It’s a good thing somebody had the sense to make a decent-quality live recording from this often transcendent tour (the band’s NYC debut at Irving Plaza on September 8 of that year was beyond amazing: do a little youtube surfing and see for youself). This one’s streaming in its entirety at Spotify, and it’s available from the kick-ass Australian Citadel label via mailorder.

The tracks are full of surprises. Our predecessor e-zine picked Radio Birdman’s final studio album, Zeno Beach, as the best album of 2006, and several of those tracks are represented here. The triumphantly menacing We’ve Come So Far to Be Here Today is a little faster than the album version, and it’s interesting to hear Masuak tackle the brief solo breaks with an off-kilter Ron Asheton bluesmetal attack. Likewise, Locked Up – the last song before the encores – is the only cut here with any kind of extended ending, and it’s very rewarding. Die Like April sets Masuak’s phased washes and ornate McCartneyesque lead lines against Tek’s sputtering distored chords and chordlets, Hopkinsons’s unhinged volleys completing the picture. The riff-rockers You Just Make It Worse and Subterfuge are surprisingly stripped down, arguably mellower than the studio versions, the latter holding its own despite the absence of Pip Hoyle’s catchy piano leads.

But it’s the old classics here that resonate the most. Murder City Nights, with bandleader Tek’s blistering, chromatic solo; the similar Anglo Girl Desire, with Masuak and Tek taking the solo together until Tek goes off bending notes and searing his way through the passing tones; and tantalizing, supersonic versions of the catchy punk-pop hits Burned My Eye and What Gives. The single best track here might be Smith & Wesson Blues, Dickson nailing that killer bassline against the twin guitar assault, Tek soloing out into the ionosphere by the second verse, Hopkinson murdering his snare. Or it could be I-94, one of the most savagely catchy songs ever written, Younger comparing late 70s American beer brands in an Australian accent. The six-minute, dynamically charged version of Hand of Law, a platform for some of Tek’s wildest playing here, is pretty exhilarating too.

There are also some unexpected covers. The version of Circles by the Who improves on the original; Til the End of the Day, which the Kinks absolutely ripped to shreds on their last couple of tours, gets a similarly punked-out fury; and the band do a spot-on impersonation of Blue Oyster Cult on Hot Rails to Hell, right down to the backing vocals. The album was released last fall – do we count this as one of our “best of 2011” when we put up that page at the end of this year? Stay tuned.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Tsunami of Sound Hits Manhattan

Saturday night was Unsteady Freddie’s monthly surf music show at Otto’s. Surf rock isn’t as oldschool as a lot of people think it is since it’s more popular now than it was fifty years ago when groups like the Ventures and the Bel-Airs were just getting off the ground. But Unsteady Freddie’s night is. If you wish New York was the place it was before there was a plastic-and-sheetrock “luxury” condo project sprouting on every ghetto block, if you want to get away from the doucheoisie, Otto’s is the place the first Saturday of every month. This month’s show opened with four-piece instrumental band Tsunami of Sound. In their too-brief 45 minutes onstage, they jangled and clanged through a tight mix of originals and covers. Surf music is fun but the best stuff can also be totally noir, and this band proved they’re not afraid of the dark side. The most interesting song of the night shifted uneasily between major and minor chords over the swaying, distant rumble of Rick Sanger’s drums: he didn’t look like he was working that hard, but the noise from the kit said otherwise. Strat player Dave Esposito has a classic surf sound, nonchalantly firing off one reverb-drenched riff after another, taking one bridge to a crazed crescendo with a flurry of furious tremolo-picking. Bob Damiano, who played both Strat and keys – sometimes both in the same song – has a more biting, bluesy lead guitar style. If Esposito is the stalker in the band, Damiano is the slasher. Bassist Jamie Huggins played simple, propulsive lines, sometimes sailing way up the scale to drive a chorus home.

Another cool thing about this band is that they put their own spin on the cover songs. Was that a janglerock version of Spudnik? If so, it was a long way from the primitive space-rock of the original and it was also a lot more interesting. Their version of Pipeline was matter-of-fact, midtempo and full of neat original riffs. Other bands like to rip through Diamond Head even faster than the Ventures did it, but these guys slowed it down and let the ominousness of the rising wave at the end of the verse build to a genuine menace. From there they segued into a burning, sunbaked version of Lee Hazlewood’s Baja before returning to the originals. Let’s hope the maestro of unsteadiness brings them back.

There were other good bands scheduled for later, as usual – the Tarantinos NYC, who never cease to amaze with how eclectic they are, were on at 11 – but we’ve covered them before, and they manage to get themselves on a gazillion good bills all over town.

May 8, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 4/20/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #650:

Link Wray – Rumble! The Best of Link Wray

One of the guidelines we’ve been following here is no greatest hits albums unless the artist dates from the pre-album era. Link Wray claimed to have invented rock music, since he was playing his primeval, stomping instrumental blend of country and R&B in the late 1940s. We think that argument’s as good as any. This 1993 compilation mixes stuff from the late 50s through the mid-60s, many of the songs iconic in surf music circles. For lo-fi menace, nothing beats The Rumble, from 1958; Jack the Ripper, from 1961; the twisted Heartbreak Hotel theme Big City After Dark; Switchblade, with its tortuous slow pickslide intro; and The Shadow Knows, which is sort of his Harlem Nocturne. On the slightly lighter side, this one also has Run Chicken Run, Rawhide, the galloping Deuces Wild and Ace of Spaces. The Cramps, or for that matter Hasil Adkins, would never have existed without this guy. Here’s a random torrent.

April 20, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Horror Surf Slaughter at Spike Hill

Ever find yourself in the position of really wanting to go to the bar for a drink, but unable to pull yourself away from the band onstage because they’re so good? That’s what kind of show Boston surf rockers Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion put on at Spike Hill last night. They’re as amazing live as their name is…um…long. With two ep’s and a single out, they come across as something of the missing link between Los Straitjackets and New York macabre surf legends the Coffin Daggers.

Not knowing the band, it wasn’t possible to tell who was playing the Strat and who was playing the Fender Jaguar, Vince Vance Delambre or Professor Coyote Science. Snakeboy Henry played his Fender Jazz bass with pick, wailing hard and tunefully, a couple of times trading riffs with the guitars, as Glotch the drummer gave the house kit a Mel Taylor-on-steroids workout it’s probably never had before. What sets them apart from the typical horror-surf and ghoulabilly crowd is that their songs aren’t cheesy. In their too-brief half-hour onstage – which they had timed down to the second, it seems – they played just about every style of surf music ever invented: a riff-rocking hotrod number, creepy minor-key spiderwalks, relentlessly stomping Dick Dale style attacks and suspensefully jangly noir themes that would hint at a grisly ending but wouldn’t usually go that far over the top. They’re more Blue Velvet than Friday the 13th.

The two-guitar attack was intense to the extreme. Both guitarists can tremolo-pick like crazy and blast through a solo when the moment is right. The Strat player took most of the leads for the first half of the show, turning them over to the guy with the Jaguar who proved just as fast and slashing, particularly on one tune that sounded like Dick Dale doing Journey to the Stars (surf music fans will get the reference). One of their songs gave a Ventures-style swing to a brooding spaghetti western melody; another, a mini-suite of sorts, saw the guitarists dueling atonally way up the fretboard, then pouncing on the melody again in a split second. Shifting from major to minor, up and down the chromatic scale, fast to halfspeed and back again, they managed to energize the lethargic bar crowd and get everyone clapping along, no small feat for an out-of-town band on a lazy Sunday in the bowels of trust-funded trendoidland. Watch this space for future NYC dates; Boston fans can catch them upstairs at the Middle East on 4/14.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 3/5/11

More stuff in the pipeline here than you can imagine: Carol Lipnik’s great new album, solo electric rock on the Lower East and in Williamsburg, some amazing art at the Frying Pan way over on the west side, just to name a few things. In the meantime, every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #696:

The Ventures – Live in Japan ’65

The holy grail of surf music. What Never Mind the Bollocks is to punk, what Kind of Blue is to classic jazz, this album is to instrumental rock. The Ventures weren’t the first surf band, but they were the most successful, at least during their 60s heyday. This has virtually all of the best versions of their best songs, recorded in front of a hilariously polite audience in a country where they’re still more popular than the Beatles. It’s got kick-ass rockers like Penetration and Diamond Head; darker, eerie stuff like a skittish Besame Mucho Twist, Pipeline and the irresistible yet wary medley of Walk Don’t Run, Lullaby of the Leaves and Perfidia; Beatlesque jangle including When You Walk in the Room and the Fab Four’s I Feel Fine; sci-fi themes like Telstar, Out of Limits and a pummeling Journey to the Stars; and the crashing encore of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, with the late Mel Taylor’s long, iconic drum solo. The cd reissue is poorly mastered and on the tinny side, but the original mono vinyl album is strictly a collector’s item. Here’s a random torrent via dreamexpress.

March 5, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

La Femme Reaches the Beach, Sans Culottes

The more you find out about French rockers La Femme, the more you like them. Their bandcamp page – where their strangely stylish, noir surf/garage rock ep Podium #1 is selling for four bucks – is tagged “80 french lo-fi surf tropical wave Paris.” The cd cover – a nude woman on her back, flashing the camera – is blacked out “because it got censured.” And they sound like an updated teens edition of Plastic Bertrand through a pitchblende prism. In places, it’s hard to tell whether one particular twangy riff or reverberating chord is a guitar running through a reverb tank, or some impossibly weird patch on some long out-of-production analog synthesizer from the 70s. And everything here is ridiculously psychedelic: although the band has been described as lo-fi, the opposite is true: they make a good segue with similarly swirling, trippily cinematic projects like Thunderball or Comic Wow.

The first song motors along with an eerie minor key blues progression done garage rock style: a woman sings. The second cut is basically a hypnotic, ominous two-chord vamp titled Telegraphe, kicking off with just synth and drum machine and turning creepy real fast, all the way to a suspenseful snakecharmer flute interlude. La Femme Ressort plays minimal noir bass against a darkly repeating guitar figure and builds sarcastically to a tradeoff between swoopy upper-register synth and what sounds like an electric harpsichord. If this reminds you of Manfred Hubler’s immortal Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack, you’re on the right track. The ep winds up with Francoise, somewhat evocative of the more menacing, goth-tinged stuff that Blonde Redhead did back in the 90s: off-center, wobbly pitch-bending intro, muffled bass carrying the melody, a Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds-ish bridge that turns cruelly silly and sarcastic. Lyrics mostly in French: a deliciously ominous way to get the new year started.

January 15, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/12/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s is #748:

The Bobby Fuller Four – Never To Be Forgotten: The Best of the Mustang Years

The two most popular “best albums” lists on the web both include something by Buddy Holly, and that’s cool – if you play rock guitar, he’s worth knowing. For us, it’s hard to shake the association with boomer nostalgia, not to mention that interminable Don McLean monstrosity that pops up during your trip to the grocery store and is still going when you leave. So in lieu of Buddy Holly we give you a vastly underrated early rocker from Texas, heavily influenced by Holly, who also died before his time. In the case of Bobby Fuller, it was a murder that was never solved, one that was particularly suspicious since the investigating cops in Los Angeles, 1966, appear to have withheld evidence. Which is tragic, because in his 24 years Fuller not only took rockabilly to the next level, he was also adept at surf music. And was a particularly good singer: he didn’t do the cliched hiccupping vocal thing like so many of his contemporaries. This massive 44-track box set approaches overkill – the last of the three cds include innumerable outtakes and even a shoe commercial – but it’s nothing if not exhaustive. The song everybody knows is I Fought the Law, immortalized (and taken to the next level) by the Clash, along with the similarly catchy Let Her Dance, Julie, A New Shade of Blue, Another Sad and Lonely Night and Love’s Made a Fool of You. The surf stuff – an irresistible version of Our Favorite Martian, and Thunder Reef, for example – hint that he could have had a whole other career in instrumental rock, or maybe even in psychedelia, if he’d lived. Here’s a random torrent.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/16/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #775:

Jim Campilongo – Heaven Is Creepy

Let’s stick with the dark instrumental rock for a bit, ok? Campilongo is a virtuoso guitarist, a favorite of the Guitar World crowd, equally at home with jazz, spaghetti western, surf music, western swing, skronky funk and straight-up rock. He gets a lot of work as a lead player with artists as diverse as Norah Jones, Jo Williamson, Marika Hughes and Teddy Thompson. The obvious comparison is to Bill Frisell, but Campilongo’s more terse and song-oriented, and unlike Frisell he doesn’t rely on loops, or for that matter much of any kind of electronic effects: it’s amazing what this guy can can do with just an amp. His signature trick is a subtly eerie tremolo effect that he achieves by bending the neck of his Telecaster ever so slightly. And every album he’s ever done is worth owning. Why this one? It’s probably his darkest, notably for the title track and the self-explanatory, film noir-ish, Big Lazy-esque Menace. The Prettiest Girl In New York reaches for more of a bittersweet vibe; Mr. & Mrs. Mouse is a feast of clever dynamics and tricks like mimicking the sound of backward masking; Monkey in a Movie cinematically blends surf, funk, skronk and trip-hop. His version of Cry Me a River rivals Erica Smith’s for brooding angst. Despite its popularity, this one doesn’t seem to have made it to the usual share sites, although copies are available from Campilongo’s homepage.

December 16, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment