Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – God’s Favorite Band

Things like this happen with bands who’ve been around awhile and have the good sense to record themselves in fortuitous circumstances. Back in 2006, the Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s smartest, most deliriously fun oldtimey Americana band – recorded some live performances at the Saxon Pub in their hometown of Austin. Among the songs were several traditional gospel tunes along with a handful of originals that wouldn’t be drastically out of place, musically at least, in a straight-up gospel set. It isn’t implausible to imagine the band hanging around the dressing room one night after a show after someone put these songs on a boombox, while a  joint made its way around the room. Suddenly percussionist/singer Wammo has an epiphany and turns in amazement to multi-instrumentalist/siren Christina Marrs: “Holy shit, we have a gospel album here!”

As improbable as it might seem at first thought for the Spankers to be doing a gospel album, it actually makes perfect sense when you consider how deep their knowledge of American roots music is. As sacriligeous as the band is, Marrs has an amazing set of pipes and pulls out all the stops here. Likewise, the band’s vocal harmonies are tight and inventive when they’re not being tight and absolutely period-perfect, as with their minstrel-esque version of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

An ancient-sounding  instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson blues Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground opens the cd and sets a rustic tone. The standards Each Day, Down by the Riverside, By and By and Wade in the Water each get a fervent, ecstatic treatment which rather than being camp reaffirms the band’s seemingly innate feel for these songs as universal expression of the human spirit that transcend any doctrinaire limitations. Then they do the same thing with a contemporary Christian song (yes, that’s what it is), the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano’s Jesus Walking on the Water.

But as expected it’s the originals that bring down the house. Wammo’s somewhat snide Right and Wrong has an ironclad Iraq War-era logic to go along with the stoner humor: “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, ’cause he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” And his other song here, Volkswagen Thing reclaims a Nazi-era relic as vehicle for the divine. In case you don’t remember it, the Thing during its brief revival in the 70s was  one of the most unsafe cars ever built, a car so rear-heavy that it could pop a wheelie despite being ridiculously underpowered. Satan, on the other hand, drives his Mercedes like the pig he is – and he’s got a Hummer, too. The band closes out this raucous collection with a defiant version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, a vivid reminder of where they’re really coming from for anyone who might not have been paying attention. Steampunks everywhere, not to mention fans of both traditional and secular gospel alike (the Lost Crusaders and Rev. Vince Anderson especially come to mind) will love this album. The Spankers made it to NYC a couple of times this year and they will doubtlessly be back (they recorded their sensational What? And Give Up Show Business? live cd here), watch this space for details.

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November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album

A folk-pop masterpiece. If you consider that statement an oxymoron, give a listen to the Sweet Bitters‘ full-length debut. The cd features the absolutely unique and individual voices and songwriting of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (formerly one of the sirens in Aimee Van Dyne’s harmony-driven band). Goldman, who’s got three first-class albums of her own out, is one of those rare talents who could write a catchy, fun pop song seemingly in a split second. Like her songwriting, her vocals are almost breathtakingly warm and direct, delicately nuanced but completely unaffected. Schmir is more complex and oblique, both vocally and writing-wise, with just a tinge of smoke in the voice, blending a contemporary urban folk vibe (think Dar Williams) with oldschool Brill Building charm. Both are poignant, very bright and can be very funny – humor is a function of intellect anyway. Over a terse, impeccably tasteful, un-autotuned and drum machine-free mix of acoustic and electric guitar, rhythm section and Schmir’s incisive piano, the two blend voices and offer up an indelibly New York-flavored mix of struggle, despair and triumphant joy.

For the most part, Schmir’s songs are the darkest here. The cd’s opening cut Vegas is a knowing Harder They Come update for the end of the decade: “It’s all going nowhere fast.” From the opening lines of Last Time This Way, as the narrator grabs a cookie and some wine and runs out to meet her boyfriend, you just know that this is not going to work out well. Tom Thumb (on Brighton Beach), a quintessentially urban tale, is visceral with regret and longing. But then there’s the playfully metaphorical Little Aliens, driving out the demons with a lullaby.

Goldman’s Secret Scar is a great, crescendoing rock anthem disguised as pretty acoustic pop – one can only wonder what the BoDeans (or Ninth House, for that matter) could do with it. Falling Into Place is another catchy urban tale, perhaps the only song ever to immortalize Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “If I believed in god I would close my eyes and pray,” she sings in the imagistic, regret-laden acoustic Firefly. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upbeat Susie Sunshine, with its delicious layers of harmonies and lyrics, is less gloating schadenfreude than surprise that maybe things haven’t been so bad after all, in the years since Susie was in her prime (that was in college, Goldman wants you to know). But the centerpiece of the album, and one of the best songs released this decade, is Clocks Fall Back. If anyone is alive fifty years from now and wants to understand what New York was like at the end of the decade, let them listen to this, a towering, majestic harmony-driven anthem, vividly and unforgettably juxtaposing images of clueless excess and grinding poverty over a bittersweet, swaying 6/8 melody slightly evocative of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. The cd closes, something akin to sweet after bitter, with a love song: the guy can watch all the bad action movies he wants, but the girl’s not going to let him finish that pint of ice cream without giving her a bite!

The Sweet Bitters play the cd release for this one at Kenny’s Castaways on May 30 at 7.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on CD Review: The Sweet Bitters’ Debut Album