Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

17 Pygmies’ Follow-up to Their Classic Celestina Album Defies the Odds

Trying to follow up a classic is inevitably a thankless task. What do you do after you’ve recorded your Dark Side of the Moon, written your Foundation trilogy or painted your Starry Night? Conventional wisdom is that it’s time to move on, completely shift gears, flip the script and defy comparisons with your masterpiece, even if it might need a concluding chapter. Veteran California art-rock band 17 Pygmies have taken the hard road with their new album CII: Second Son, a sequel to their 2008 tour de force Celestina. That album, based on a short story about love and betrayal in outer space by guitarist/bandleader Jackson Del Rey, is a lavish, majestic, cruelly beautiful song cycle (we picked it as one of the 1000 best albums of all time). This one is similar, right down to the elegant silver packaging, but it’s more of an instrumental suite, sort of like Twin Peaks in outer space. Again, it’s based on a Del Rey short story, a twisted, Rod Serling-style cliffhanger included in the cd booklet. If the plot is to be taken on face value, heaven is autotuned: which makes it…what? You figure it out.

The opening instrumental sets the stage. It’s a retro 50s noir pop theme done as lushly orchestrated space rock, Angelo Badalamenti meets ELO at their eeriest circa 1980. With layers of guitar synthesizer, electric piano and string synth, it’s a lush, hypnotic wash of sound. They follow it with the first of only two vocal numbers, a 6/8 ballad sung with quietly menacing relish by keyboardist Meg Maryatt (who thankfully is not autotuned) which illustrates the story, that she’s landed in a place that’s too good to be true. Richly interwoven themes and textures follow: creepy music box electric piano, an ominous March of the Robots, backward masking, mellotron, pulsing waves of sound and a mantra of “shut down this process” that repeats again and again.

A variation on the ballad emerges from a long, hypnotic vamp: “There’s a hole in the sky,” Maryatt intones, spellbound, and then the strings go totally Hitchcock, fluttering with horror. “The sky, cold to the sight…” White noise echoes; an offcenter piano waltz, disjointedly disquieting synthy interlude and something of an operatic crescendo with a spooky choir give way to distant, starlit piano that morphs unexpectedly into a methodical, slightly funky Atomheart Mother-style art-rock vamp with distorted guitar and organ. They leave it there on an unfinished note. On one level, it’s a pity all this grandeur and suspense has such a hard act to follow. On the other hand, as lush, unselfconsciously beautiful psychedelia, it stands on its own. And as Del Rey has made pretty clear, this story isn’t over yet: if this is Foundation and Empire, we have what will hopefully be his Second Foundation to look forward to at some future time. It’s out now on Trakwerx.

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February 25, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Album of the Day 8/24/10

We’re officially on vacation, so this week’s additions to the 1000 best albums of all time are ones previously featured in our three years’ existence. Over that time, we’ve found out that discovering a classic album is 10% being able to spot it for what it is, and 90% simply the dumb luck of knowing that it exists at all. Tuesday’s album is a prime example:

889. 17 PygmiesCelestina

In their practically thirty-year existence, 17 Pygmies have played quirky new wave, postpunk, ambient soundscapes and artsy, Fairport Convention style folk-rock. This is their masterpiece, an eleven-part symphonic rock suite about love and betrayal in space based on a short story written by bandleader/guitarist Jackson Del Rey. A theme and variations, its rich, icy layers of guitars and synthesized orchestration fade in and out of the mix, alternately hypnotic and jarring, with echoes of Pink Floyd, the Church, the Cocteau Twins, and echoing in the distance, Del Rey’s pioneering noise-instrumental band Savage Republic. Its centerpiece is a menacing, droning twelve-minute feedback instrumental punctuated by bassist Meg Maryatt’s gorgeously melodic, ruthless riffage. A major rediscovery waiting to happen: released on Trakwerx in 2008, it’s still available.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Smoldering Ashes – Songs in the Key of Mountain Birds Blue

Ridiculously catchy, often haunting, sometimes dreamy and psychedelic, Smoldering Ashes’ new album blends a vintage 80s new wave feel with a little goth and an occasional off-center folk feel for considerably more diversity beyond the wary, watery sound the quartet of Veronica Ashe, Jeff Brenneman, Dirk Doucette and Tory Troutman mined on their previous album Nervous Constellations.

The album starts out auspiciously with a casually torchy noir cabaret tune done southwestern gothic style, followed by a catchy midtempo new wave hit like Blondie at their most off-kilter and interesting. The third track could be a standout cut on Siouxsie’s Kaleidoscope album, building from pounding, ominous minimalism to a stomping crescendo with growly bass chords and aggressive wah guitar solo. Nick Charles Crossing the Alps (an inside joke, maybe?) is similarly dark and chromatic, like a stripped-down second part with eerie twelve-string guitar.

Track five, Eye of the Phobia has Ashe sounding like a more pitchwise Debbie Harry singing a mid-80s janglerock hit by the Church, maybe something off the Seance album. Give Yourself a Push blends Siouxie-esque menace with gorgeously catchy art-pop, taking the volume up a notch at the end even as it drops down to just vocals and roaring distorted guitar. 9,000 Year Old Man sets a distant otherworldly choir against simple psychedelic folk, T Rex as done by Steve Kilbey; Shake an Etch-a-Sketch nicks the Joy Division classic No Love Lost, right down to the skittish drums and the way the bass swoops up at the end of a phrase. The funniest cut on the album is a cover of the old Harold Arlen vaudeville song Lydia the Tattooed Lady, ironically a thousand times more apropos now than when it was written. Ashe affects a deadpan British accent as the band whoops and hollers behind her –  Lydia, as it turns out, has festooned herself with the Battle of Waterloo,Washington Crossing the Delaware…and Alcatraz! The album winds up with a brief, off-kilter new wave fragment, the psychedelically shapeshifting Le Locataire Diabolique (a collaboration with keyboardist Hyesoo Joen) and a trippy, atmospheric number. We’re considerably late in picking up on this one – it may have come out last year (on Trakwerx) but you just might see this on our best albums of the year list this December. Who’s counting, anyway?

April 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Gyan Riley and Chicha Libre at the New York Guitar Festival 2/4/10

Last night’s theme was film scores. The New York Guitar Festival is more avant garde than rock (WNYC’s John Schaefer emceed) – this particular Merkin Hall bill started out intensely and virtuosically with a rare artist who’s every bit as good as his famous father (Gyan Riley is the son of avant titan Terry Riley), then got more mainstream with an emotionally rich, frequently very amusing pair of Chaplin soundtracks just completed by Chicha Libre.

Composers have been doing new scores for old silent films for decades (some of the most intriguing recent ones include Phillip Johnston’s improvisations for Page of Madness, and the Trakwerx soundtracks for Tarzan and a delicious DVD of Melies shorts). Riley chose to add sound to a series of brief paint-on-celluloid creations by Harry Smith (yup, the anthology guy), which came across as primitive if technically innovative stoner psychedelia. Ostensibly Smith’s soundtrack of choice had been Dizzie Gillespie; later, his wife suggested the Beatles. Playing solo, Riley opened with his best piece of the night, an unabashedly anguished, reverb-drenched tableau built on vivid Steve Ulrich-esque chromatics. From there, Riley impressed with a diverse mix of ambient Frippertronic-style sonics along with some searing bluesy rock crescendos evoking both Jeff Beck aggression and towering David Gilmour angst. Most of the time, Riley would be looping his licks with split-second precision so they’d echo somewhere in the background while he’d be adding yet another texture or harmony, often bending notes Jim Campilongo style with his fretboard rather than with his fingers or a whammy bar.

With their psychedelic Peruvian cumbias, Chicha Libre might seem the least likely fit for a Chaplin film. But like its closest relative, surf music, chicha (the intoxicating early 70s Peruvian blend of latin, surf and 60s American psychedelia) can be silly one moment, poignant and even haunting the next. Olivier Conan, the band’s frontman and cuatro player remarked pointedly before the show how much Chaplin’s populism echoed in their music, a point that resonated powerfully throughout the two fascinating suites they’d written for Payday (1922) and The Idle Class (1921). The Payday score was the more diverse of the two, a series of reverberating, infectiously catchy miniatures in the same vein as Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack as well as the woozily careening Electric Prunes classic Mass in F Minor. While Chicha Libre’s lead instrument is Josh Camp’s eerie, vintage Hohner Electrovox organ, as befits a guitar festival, Telecaster player Vincent Douglas got several extended solo passages to show off his command of just about every twangy noir guitar style ever invented, from spaghetti western to New York soundtrack noir to southwestern gothic. When the time came, Camp was there with his typical swirling attack, often using a wah pedal for even more of a psychedelic effect. The band followed the film to a split-second with the occasional crash from the percussionists, right through the triumphant conclusion where Chaplin manages to sidestep his suspicious wife with her ever-present rolling pin and escape with at least a little of what he’d earned on a hilariously slapstick construction site.

The Idle Class, a similarly redemptive film, was given two alternating themes, the first being the most traditionally cinematic of the night, the second eerily bouncing from minor to major and back again with echoes of the Simpsons theme (which the show’s producers just hired Chicha Libre to record last month for the cartoon’s 25th anniversary episode). Chaplin plays the roles of both the rich guy (happy movie theme) and the tramp (spooky minor) in the film, and since there’s less bouncing from set to set in this one the band got the chance to vamp out and judiciously add or subtract an idea or texture or two for a few minutes at a clip and the result was mesmerizing. It was also very funny when it had to be. Bits and pieces of vaguely familiar tunes flashed across the screen: a schlocky pop song from the 80s; a classical theme (Ravel?); finally, an earlier Chicha Libre original (a reworking of a Vivaldi theme, actually), Primavera en la Selva. They built it up triumphantly at the end to wind up in a blaze of shimmering, clanging psychedelic glory where Chaplin’s tramp finally gets to give the rich guy’s sinisterly hulking father a swift kick in the pants. The crowd of what seemed older, jaded new-music types roared their approval: the buzz was still in the air as they exited. Chicha may be dance music (and stoner music), but Chicha Libre definitely have a future in film scores if they want it.

February 5, 2010 Posted by | concert, Film, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: 17 Pygmies – The Outlaw J.D. Ray

A cynical New Yorker might call this 17 Pygmies’ Pete’s Candy Store album (after the little Brooklyn bar that’s spawned a million quiet oldtime and roots bands since the mid-90s). 17 Pygmies date from the 80s, so they get cred for being both new wave and indie when actually what they’ve evolved into is a majestic art-rock band. And the grass isn’t growing under their feet. Hot on the heels of their lush, richly atmospheric, utterly macabre Celestina from last year (Lucid Culture ranked it one of the three best albums of 2008) comes this similarly quiet, spooky, mostly acoustic suite with even more of a minimalist feel. Built around simple, elliptically ominous lyrical riffs along with a main theme and variations, it’s sort of an acoustic Celestina. But by contrast with that album’s vengeful angst, this is a meditation on separation, longing and death.

It begins on a defiant note with Ain’t Gonna Work, a slow, swaying, pre-Civil war waltz with lush layers of acoustic guitar from founding member Jackson Del Rey along with bandmates Jeff Brenneman and Meg Maryatt (who also contributes accordion, mandolin, banjo and vocals). The waltz theme continues, hypnotically as a sense of dread quietly grows: by the fourth track, where the electric guitar finally tremolos its way in, it’s clear that this romance is doomed. A minor key is introduced, stately with slide guitar and mandolin trading sweet/harsh textures. Let It Rain the Blues, a gentle duet juxtaposes Del Rey’s resignation with Maryatt’s fetching, consoling tone – there’s a little Lisa Lost (of the late, great NYC noir rockers DollHouse) in the unaffected warmth of her phrasing.

Denouement arrives on the wings of a brisk bluegrass tune, but she’s not ready to give up on the guy, even if this means the next place she sees him is heaven. We never get to see if this actually happens or not, through a slow, elegiac return to the initial waltz theme, a banjo tune that sounds as if it’s sung from the point of view of the girl’s mother and then a swaying Mexican border ballad with some juicy Spanish guitar and mandolin phrasing. As you can imagine, this story doesn’t end well. Who would have thought that 17 Pygmies would have had a great Americana album in them? It’s just out on Trakwerx.

November 27, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment