Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Night to Remember with Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein

Earlier generations might not be able to handle the concept of of juxtaposing Appalachian and classical music on the same stage. But songwriter/bandleader Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein have their fingers on the pulse of the future. Thursday night at their sold-out duo performance at Merkin Concert Hall, they held the crowd riveted with an intense, intimate performance that put each musician’s strengths under the microscope as they made unexpected connections between traditions from throughout the ages on both sides of the pond, Dinnerstein’s fiery baroque and Romantic interludes juxtaposed against Merritt’s elegantly plaintive chamber pop. Most of the material was drawn from the two’s nocturnal song suite, Night, just released (and reviewed at Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily).

The stage set foreshadowed what the concert would be: a pair of comfortable padded chairs at either side of the stage in low light from a couple of floor lamps. Merritt teased the crowd – “We’re not going to talk to you …we’re still not going to talk to you” – as the two made their way from Schumann, through a solo acoustic version of Merritt’s  plaintive Only in Songs, then glimmering themes by Schubert and Purcell. Dinnerstein’s gravitas and flinty irony balances Merritt’s biting wit and mercurial persona: they are very different peas in the same pod and obviously good friends. Merritt has established herself as a southern intellectual in the tradition of Faulkner and Welty; Dinnerstein represents for the old guard. Of the many eye-opening moments at this concert, the most impressive were when the two ventured into jazz, with a take of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain that was so sensual it was lurid, and a bit later an expansive, commissioned work from Brad Mehldau, I Shall Weep. Swing is a rare quality in a classical musician, but Dinnerstein has it: both she and Merritt have futures in jazz if they feel like it.

But it’s more likely that they’ll continue to cross-pollinate. Dinnerstein revealed a fondness for George Crumb and played resonant dulcimer lines inside the piano behind Merritt’s finely nuanced, wary mezzo-soprano. Merritt told how Dinnerstein had introduced her to an operatic rendition of the English folk ballad I Will Give My Love an Apple that Merritt instantly recognized from its slightly less antique American folk version – and then they played it as moody, lingering  art-rock. The biggest hit of the night was Dinnerstein’s rapidfire romp through the Allemande and Courante (make that tres courante) from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Although Merritt admitted to being shy about playing the piano in front of her bandmate, she impressed with her own tersely brooding, gospel-fueled take of Small Talk Relations.

Dinnerstein’s subtle dynamic shifts followed a trajectory from bittersweetly neoromantic to bracingly modern throughout Daniel Felsenfeld’s Cohen Variations, a suite based on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. After Merritt sang a rapt, quiet version of Patty Griffin’s Night, the concert reached its peak with the poignant, crescendoing, saturnine anthem Feel of the World, which Merritt had written for her well-traveled grandmother. The duo encored with a very clever mashup of Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve with La Vie en Rose, which Merritt sang in flawless French. The two are soon off on US tour; the schedule is here. Dinnerstein is also at the Greene Space for an on-air performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on March 28 at noon; the performance is free but tickets are required.

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March 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The New Collisions – Their Debut EP

That a five-song ep (four-song if you count the brief instrumental that segues between the third and fifth tracks) could rank among the best albums of 2009 so far speaks for itself. Boston band the New Collisions have been blowing up lately and this helps explain why. Their shtick is taking a classic 80s new wave pop sound and adding an indelibly original, contemporary bite. This may be the most intelligent, edgy dance music out there right now. Sarah Guild’s vocals are often chirpy in the same vein as Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, early Cindy Lauper or Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons, but she’s no one-trick pony. Scott Guild’s guitar cuts and burns while keyboardist Casey Gruttadauria adds layer after layer of playfully oscillating vintage new wave synth over Alex Stern’s fiery, crescendoing, snappy bass. And the lyrics pack a punch, apprehensive and all too aware of the here-and-now.

The first track is No Free Ride, nicking the opening lick from the Vapors’ hit Turning Japanese. “There’s no free ride for being pretty on the inside,” Sarah Guild wails – although she has a platinum-tressed look that could easily make her a fashion icon, it’s clear that substance is what she and this band are all about. “Get. Me. Out!” she insists defiantly at the end. The best cut here is The Beautiful and Numb, opening with a staccato riff evocative of the Easybeats classic Friday on My Mind. It’s a savage slap at Gen Y complacency. “We’re in denial, but we’ve got style/We’re in denial, but I’m overcome/The world’s on fire, uh oh/Not our problem,” Sarah Guild rails.

The big hit is Parachutes on the Dance Floor, stark and minimal with a head-bopping beat into a ridiculously catchy chorus, evocatively catching the dead-end desperation of what it means to be young and broke in the early days of a depression, “caught between amusement and despair.” After an atmospheric instrumental, Sarah Guild gets to air out her powerful pipes with the towering, Kate Bush-inflected ballad Fireflies, surprisingly ornate, majestically beautiful and ultimately optimistic. It reminds very much of the more epic side of the late, great New York band DollHouse. If this ep is any indication, the band is going to be huge. Having just reviewed another accessible yet very intelligent act, Tift Merritt here, it becomes clearer and clearer that the future of American pop music rests in the hands of talented legions who’ve bailed out of major label dreams, parachutes on the dance floor, bringing everybody out to join the celebration. The New Collisions’ next gig is on July 16 at the Midnight Madness Festival in Bennington, Vermont on followed eventually by a show at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on September 5. They’re here in New York on August 22 at 11 at the Bitter End.

July 2, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Tift Merritt at Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, NYC 7/1/09

You heard it here first: Tift Merritt is the future of American pop music. What she sings isn’t particularly edgy, but it’s not stupid. Last night the North Carolina-bred songwriter made fun of the promoters who’d moved her scheduled show at Rockefeller Park indoors even as the sky was clearing. She was spooked by the prospect of playing in a high school: “Not a good time,” she recalled, practically shuddering. Which made sense. As catchy and warmly accessible as her songs are, there’s a welcome intelligence in her writing, and her voice is a dead giveaway. Her songs come across as something of the missing link between Sheryl Crow and Aimee Mann (Merritt loves those major/minor changes that Mann works so masterfully). Vocally, Linda Thompson is the obvious comparison. Merritt’s recorded work plays up her stoic resignation and haunting sense of nuance, her voice sometimes dropping off the table for dramatic effect much in the style of  the legendary Britfolk chanteuse; last night she also showed off a grit and a liveliness that doesn’t always cut through in the studio.

Playing solo, alternating between acoustic guitar and electric piano (and electric guitar on one song), she won over a tough crowd with casual charm and one memorable tune after the next. As Roscoe Ambel famously said, if a song sounds good at its barest, stripped down to just guitar and voice, it’ll sound great with a band. Much of what she played could have been ecstatically fun with a good crew behind her – you know how much musicians love a smart, intuitive tune. Using just your typical building-block major and minor chords, she introduced three new songs along with several from her most recent studio cd Another Country. Of the new ones, the best was a fast yet pensive backbeat-driven number exploring the theme of finally figuring out to what to do once you’ve gotten what you want after years of searching high and low. Of the less brand-new songs, Broken, a vivid, bitterly soaring anthem evoking the struggles of her early days in music, packed a punch as did Keep You Happy, with its crescendoing chorus and realization that tying your happiness to another person’s is bound to drag you down there with them. Merritt also impressed with her gospel-tinged piano work on a handful of ballads as well as a bouncy yet somewhat eerie soul-inflected number. She even went up the scale to end one of them with a fun Floyd Cramer flourish. 

In a level playing field without the now-flatlining major labels, Merritt’s success gives hope to a new generation of writers creating accessible yet intelligent pop music, Ward White, Kirsten Williams, Nicholas Howard and Sharon Goldman among legions of others. Merritt is based in New York now, so we ought to see more of her in the months to come which promises to be a treat considering what a songwriting roll she’s on right now.

July 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments