Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Roulette Sisters’ New Album Is a Winner

Oldtimey harmony hellraisers the Roulette Sisters burst on the New York scene in the mid-zeros. They were one of the first groups to have a Saturday night residency at Barbes, put out a wickedly fun debut album, Nerve Medicine (which made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list), and then went their separate ways for awhile. Resonator guitarist Mamie Minch made a career for herself as a solo artist, releasing her defiant solo debut, Razorburn Blues in 2008. Meanwhile, electric guitarist/banjo uke player Meg Reichardt joined forces with Kurt Hoffman in charming French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins, washboard player Megan Burleyson kept busy in New York’s “hottest washboard swing ensemble,” the 4th St. Nite Owls, and violist Karen Waltuch maintained a career as a player and composer encompassing everything from klezmer, to country, to the avant garde. They reunited last year, and they’ve got a new album out, Introducing the Roulette Sisters, whose title makes sense in that this is Waltuch’s first full-length recording with the group

They open and close the album with lushly beautiful harmony-driven songs; a viscerally plaintive cover of A. P. Carter’s The Birds Were Singing of You, with a poignant guitar solo from Reichardt and lead vocal from Minch, and at the end a winsome version of Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart by Papa Charlie Jackson. Likewise, they take It Could’ve Been Sweet, by Leon Chase – of hilarious cowpunk band Uncle Leon & the Alibis – rearranging it into a shuffle that becomes a sad waltz on the chorus: “I’m not looking for a twenty year loan, just a little something extra to get me home.” The rest of the album is the innuendo-laden fun stuff that they’re best known for.

Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me, the Bo Carter novelty song, gets a female perspective. A Reichardt original, In the Shade of the Magnolia Tree, is an outdoor boudoir tune in a balmy Carolina setting. Burleyson does a pitch-perfect hot 20s bluesmama evocation on Hattie Hart’s I Let My Daddy Do That – as in getting her ashes hauled, i.e. opening the door to the coal chute. As funny as the vocals are, it’s one of the most musically rich moments here, a lush interweave of acoustic and electric guitars and viola – Waltuch’s pizzicato solo, like a koto playing the blues, is as much a showstopper as it is in concert.

Their version of Do Da Lee Do takes an old western swing standard and adds lyrics out of Reichardt’s collection of bawdy songs from over the years: “Roses are red and ready for plucking, I’m sixteen and ready for high school,” for example. Scuddling, by Frankie Half Pint Jaxon, is a “dance” you can do by yourself – which you could also do with someone else if they were willing – but definitely not in public. And Al Duvall’s Jake Leg Blues explores the legacy of Jamaica ginger, a Prohibition-era concoction whose side effects produced a whole lot of Eves without Adams: “In the garden I hang my head, I’m grabbing for apples now the snake is dead,” Minch snorts authoritatively. The album comes in a charming, old-fashioned sleeve handmade on an antique letterpress. There are hundreds of bands who mine the treasures of oldtime blues and Americana, few with the fearlessness and sass of the Roulette Sisters. As fun as it is to see them in small clubs in Brooklyn, where they really deserve to be is Lincoln Center, doing their vastly more entertaining version of a great American songbook.

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January 19, 2011 Posted by | blues music, country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Uncle Leon and the Alibis Raise the Roof at Rodeo Bar

“I love you, Leon!” a girl hollered from the back of the bar. Uncle Leon, frontman of Uncle Leon and the Alibis is not your typical babe magnet – he could be Joba Chamberlain’s wiser, older brother (they have a similar midwestern blue-collar look). But he pulls demographics that your average bunch of Strokes wannabes would kill for. Back in the early-to-mid zeros these guys put on some of the funnest, funniest shows in town…and then they broke up. It didn’t really matter that they weren’t particularly tight, because Leon’s David Allan Coe-style songs were so funny. The first thing that hits you is what a good band this new version of the group is – they don’t need to be funny all the time to be interesting. Lead guitarist Charlie Aceto plays the stuff Leon can’t, and has a good handle on Bakersfield guitar – and he can do Social Distortion roots-punk and blues too. Maria on the drums is missed – she was always at least half of why the original band was so irresistible – but the guy who replaced her is solid and and can really swing, teaming up with bassist Neil Magnuson.

The thing that separates these guys from the rest of the funny country bands out there is that their jokes are usually pretty smart and edgy: they don’t just rely on cornball cornpone humor. Leon’s specialty is the battle of the sexes: the good guys always lose, badly. That’s how he comes across – that, and his resonant baritone probably explain the presence of all the women at his shows. Sure, he’s having fun up there, but the guy can flat-out sing. That this particular set was successful without either of his big hits, I Hate My Job or Drugstore Roses (or his cover of Baby Got Back), speaks for how good the rest of the material was. They opened with a blackly funny faux murder ballad based on a real-life encounter between Leon and a bounty hunter in a Dairy Queen parking lot somewhere in Kansas. My Love Is Like a Monster Truck was what you’d think it was: monster trucks use up a lot of rubber (that might not have actually been one of the lyrics, but it could have been). A slowly swaying, mournful ballad turned into a kiss-off anthem: “When you said ‘I love you,’ I thought that meant just me,” Leon explained. They blasted through a truck-driving number, Blue Sky and Asphalt and then a boisterous version of Hot Rod Mamas, where he skewered “catalog girls” with their perfect everything and their selfcenteredness – he likes a girl with a little junk in the trunk but with brains too.

They did three covers: an understatedly vicious version of Hank Williams’ My Love For You Has Turned to Hate, the Merle Haggard classic Swingin’ Doors and a practically halfspeed, swinging, straight-up country take of the Stones’ Dead Flowers – that song’s retirement date may have come and gone a long time ago, but damned if these guys didn’t make it sound fresh. They wrapped up their first set with a cowpunk number – Good Time Woman? Two Time Woman? Two Ton Woman? It could have been any of them, maybe more than one.

Uncle Leon is not only a singer, he’s a co-founder of Brooklyn Country, who maintain an excellent site dedicated to country and roots music in New York, with a concert calendar, interviews and the occasional album review. Kind of like us, but more specialized. Uncle Leon and the Alibis’ next gig is at midnight on 9/11 at Southpaw as part of the excellent three-day Brooklyn Country Music Festival.

July 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Bryan and the Haggards – Pretend It’s the End of the World

Bryan and the Haggards play twisted, jazz-tinged instrumental covers of Merle Haggard songs. Which if you know something about either style of music shouldn’t exactly come as a shock (Willie Nelson, anybody?). But this being New York, the indie stench wafts across the river from Williamsburg when there isn’t much of a breeze. Is this album yet another case of a bunch of spoiled brats thumbing their snotty noses at music they associate with the working classes? Happily, no. Bryan and the Haggards are actually a jazz group, Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord, a take-no-prisoners combo equally adept at melody and squall. This album might have been jumpstarted when Big Five Chord recorded a satirical cover of the Louvin Bros.’ The Christian Life for their previous album Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Accomplish Jazz (very favorably reviewed here last year). Considering the name of this project, it would seem that tenor sax player Bryan Murray is the ringleader this time around, his accomplices being guitarist Lundbom, high-profile alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Matthew “Moppa” Elliott and drummer Danny Fischer. What does it sound like? At its most coherent, like Uncle Tupelo on mushrooms. Occasionally, it takes on an exuberant New Orleans second line vibe. Beyond that, coherence ceases to be an issue. This may be jazz, but the underlying esthetic is pure punk rock. Which is nothing new for these players – this crew will basically rip anything to shreds, especially their own compositions, so the question of whether or not they have any affinity, or distaste, for Haggard, or for country music in general, is really beside the point. For their shenanigans, any source is sufficient. It’s how they do it that makes it so much fun.

Silver Wings sways stiff and heavyhanded, Fischer pulling away from anything approximating a groove. Eventually, the saxes fall apart and for literally a second so does the rhythm section, and everything is chaos but then they’re back together again like nothing ever happened. A spitball? Me? What spitball? So when they follow that with an actually quite pretty instrumental of Swinging Doors, it’s strictly a diversion: a minute into Workingman’s Blues and Murray is quoting liberally from his fakebook while Elliott runs scales and eventually settles into one of his typical confrontational low-register rumbles, Lundbom eventually lumberjacking his way through some spot-on Sister Ray-style chord-chopping.

The original version of Miss the Mississippi and You has a countrypolitan vibe, so it makes sense that this crew would be able to turn it into as lovely a ballad as they do until the saxes start making little faces at each other, followed by a very, very good joke about intra-band communication. Lonesome Fugitive is a launching pad for some loud, lazy and eventually very funny commentary from Lundbom; All of Me Belongs to You is just plain sick, in a Ween kind of way. The last cut, Trouble in Mind is ironically the most traditional of all the cuts here, a New Orleans style raveup anchored by distorted guitar, sax overtones whistling overhead with the glee of a mosquito who’s figured out how to evade the swatter.

Who is the audience for this album? Stoners, most definitely; also fans of the Ween country album, Uncle Leon & the Alibis, David Allan Coe and the like. Jazz fans ought to like this although most of them won’t. Country fans probably won’t like this much either on account of it being iconoclastic. So, could this maybe be a bunch of working-class musicians making fun of alt-country, a style they associate with the ruling classes? Hmmm…peep the cheesy-beyond-belief, perfectly retro 70s cd cover design and decide for yourself.

June 19, 2010 Posted by | country music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment