Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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 Moonlighters – Enchanted

Fifth time’s a charm. The Moonlighters were among the first and remain the best of the oldtimey bands who started popping up around New York around the turn of the century. The last century, that is, although their sound has more in common with the one before that. Frontwoman/ukelele player and main songwriter Bliss Blood is the sole holdover from the band’s original 1999 incarnation, a torch singer par excellence and onetime college semiotics major who perhaps better than any other current-day writer captures the droll effervescence and innuendo-laden wit of classic ragtime, early 1920s swing and hokum blues. The clear, soaring beauty of her voice blends with the harmonies of another period-perfect singer, guitarist Cindy Ball, backed by the fluid bass of Peter Maness and Mark Deffenbaugh on fiery, incisive steel guitar. As consistently excellent as their first four releases – including the ecstatically good Live in Baden-Baden cd – have been, this looks like the album that’s going to put them over the top. This time out the band blends their irresistible Hawaiian-inflected makeout music with vintage-style ragtime, swing, a bouncy hobo song and even some vintage European film songs. It’s playful, sexy, often poignant and sometimes very subtly funny.

The cd’s opening cut sets the tone with Blood and Ball’s (Blood and Balls – now that’s a side project waiting to happen!) fetching harmonies, a winsome Hawaiian swing tale about breaking a hex and finding love at last. By contrast, Winter in My Heart is gorgeously plaintive yet ultimately optimistic. A couple of cuts, Blood’s Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love and Ball’s Don’t Baby Me channel a 1920s flapper vibe – those women reveled in their emancipation, and they weren’t about to take any grief from guys! The best single track on the album might be Night Smoke, written by Ball, a vivid Henry Mancini-esque salute to the pleasures of the wee hours. The cover are good too. They take the old Benny Goodman/Rosemarie Clooney standard It’s Bad For Me and reinvent it as a sassy Rat Pack-era come-on, jump into silent-film character for Fooling with the Other Woman’s Man and take their time, deliciously and tongue-in-cheek, with Al Duvall‘s Freudian innuendo-fest Sheet Music Man. The album closes with a medley of Marlene Dietrich songs, doubtlessly inspired by the Moonlighters’ success touring Germany over the past few years. Look for this on our best albums of 2009 list toward the end of December. The Moonlighters play the cd release show tonight, August 7 at Barbes at 10.

The Moonlighters’ new label, WorldSound has also brought Blood’s teenage S&M industrial punk band the Pain Teens‘ catalog back into print, a welcome development for people who were into Ministry and that stuff back in the early 90s. In case you’re wondering, they didn’t sound anything like the Moonlighters. But they could also be very funny.

August 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 5/1/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #453:

The Moonlighters – Blue and Black-Eyed

From the longest-lived and arguably the best of the crop of oldtimey bands that sprang up throughout New York during the late 90s, this is an absolutely haunting, period-perfect,  original late 19th century-style ragtime song by bandleader Bliss Blood (formerly of teenage S&M hardcore band the Pain Teens). It’s the sad tale of a prostitute who hurls herself to her death from the fire escape at the notorious dive bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall at 295 Bowery (now a complex of shoddy, hastily thrown up plastic-and-sheetrock “luxury” condos) when she discovers she’s pregnant. Henry Bogdan’s steel guitar solo will give you chills. From the Dreamland cd, 2000.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment