Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 2/1/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Didn’t think we’d get to this one today, did you! Tuesday’s album is #728:

The Moonlighters – Live in Baden-Baden

This one was a hard call. Everything the well-loved harmony-driven, Hawaiian-flavored, oldtime New York swing band has released, from their swoony 2000 debut Dreamland, through the bristling charm of 2009’s Enchanted, is worth owning. We picked this 2004 release because it so vividly illustrates how effortlessly tight their arrangements and tricky layers of vocals are in a live setting. Effervescent yet edgy frontwoman/uke player Bliss Blood (who as a teenager played in S&M punk legends the Pain Teens) is best known for writing songs that sound like classics from the 1920s, and this album is full of them. It’s got her best one, Blue and Black-Eyed, an eerie account of a desperate prostitute leaping from the fire escape at the notorious Bowery dive McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. The hypnotic Chaining up the Moonlight matches that one’s brooding ambience; most of the other tracks, like the jaunty hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, the casually seductive Desperado and a scurrying cover of My Blackbirds Are Bluebirds Now are considerably more upbeat. Trombonist/crooner Michael Arenella adds sly hokum blues vocals on a cover of When I Take My Sugar to Tea; the rest of the album includes an unselfconsciously romantic Hawaiian medley, a biting version of There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears and the hilariously risque Mr. Mitchell. A little sleuthing didn’t turn up any torrents, but the album is still available via cdbaby and itunes.

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February 1, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico’s Otherworldly Voices Defy Death in the Heart of Manhattan

Stile Antico’s concert Saturday night at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown was a vivid illustration of the kind of entertainment found inside the velvet rope in 1550 – or in the death chamber of a composer’s dreams, in 1474. In the earlier case, Guillaume Dufay couldn’t hold out long enough for a choir to be assembled to sing him the dizzying counterpoint of his Ave Regina Caelorum, which he’d written for the hour when he lay dying: the work made its world premiere at his funeral instead. It was a vivid echo of the night’s theme: the world’s most popular early music choir had brought along a series of Renaissance compositions associated with death, in a program optimistically entitled In Paradisum. As much as Stile Antico’s recordings are otherworldly and gripping, this concert was paradise for the ears. And as tenor Andrew Griffiths had explained over the phone a couple of weeks prior, it was hardly all gloom. In medieval Europe, death may have been a far more constant presence than it is now, yet the music the group had assembled was a celebration, albeit one made in the midst of despair. So good to be alive while the whole world is dying.

Stile Antico are conductorless, like a string quartet: members of the ensemble take turns setting the wheels in motion and directing the occasional change. Such an arrangement no doubt not only explains the group’s striking chemistry and collaborative spirit: it makes those qualities prerequisites. William Byrd’s Retire My Soul was the opening piece, one of his final works. The group creatively assembled themselves to allow the call-and-response of its harmonies to pan around the semicircle, creating a stereo effect similar to his well-known organ compositions. Dufay’s requiem for himself was one of three pieces where the ensemble stashed members of the group out of sight to further enhance the sonic spectrum. The most extraordinary portion of the night was the roughly twenty-three minutes of John Sheppard’s Media Vita (centerpiece and title of the group’s album from last spring), a titanically lush, majestic wash of six-part harmony punctuated by disarming, ominous cadenzas whose subtle dissonances added a wary edge that bordered on the terrifying. Soprano Rebecca Hickey led the ensemble from the center of the stage with a seemingly effortless, potently resonant, crystalline clarity. Sheppard, composer at the Queen’s Chapel, wrote it about a year before died in 1558: even today, its ethereal harmonic sophistication is stunning. In the middle of the piece, Sheppard inserted a somber plainchant, perhaps to give his choir a breather, or to enhance the immensity of the finale. After that marathon, an intermission was the only option.

The rest of the program could have been anticlimatic but it wasn’t, as the group explored more diverse emotional terrain. Josquin des Prez’ O Bone et Dulcissime, written to placate a warlord, had a gentler feel, almost a lullaby in places, basses Oliver Hunt and Will Dawes taking on a more prominent role and exhibiting impressive range alongside the tenors and altos. Alto Carris Jones used a similarly striking upper register introducing the fifteenth century Alonso Lobo’s Versa Est in Luctum, somber but with soaring highs, one of many places where soprano Helen Ashby’s diamond-cutter voice carried the crescendos to new summits. While the spirit of the group seems to be a clearly democratic one, if there’s one star here, it’s her – her two sisters in the group, soprano Kate and alto Emma, would probably not dispute that. The concert wound up with the fugal, funereal In Paradisum, a seventeenth century piece by Heinrich Schutz, and the outright anguish of sixteenth century Orlande de Lassus’ Vide Homo, the words of Christ on the cross, pierced equally by the pain of the nails and his followers’ lack of appreciation for what he endured. After three standing ovations, the group rewarded the sold-out pews with a richly warm, comparatively brief Byrd antiphon from their brand-new advent-and-Christmas cd Puer Natus Est. On one level, it was impossible to watch the concert without feeling somewhat vicarious: after all, when these compositions were current, many of those who heard them live were probably also singing them. On the other hand, it was a stunning reminder of how colossally much musicians of the era did with so little, and especially with so little time.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Æ at the Delancey, NYC 3/8/10

Aurelia Shrenker had just graduated NYU earlier in the day; her musical cohort Eva Salina Primack looks about the same age. But their voices are the voices of old souls, wary, a little battlescarred, passionate with the knowledge that lack of passion equals death. Opening this week’s Small Beast gathering at the Delancey, the two women of Æ (pronounced “ash,” after the Saxon rune meaning “exactly two”) turned in a riveting, otherworldly performance of both Americana and exotic, bucolic songs from considerably further east of Appalachia. The two are like sisters – their camaraderie and shared intuition for tempos, harmonies and dynamics are as uncanny as the music they sing, strikingly evident from the first few slow swoops up the scale on the old Appalachian folk song Fly Away. Their voices are much the same as well – although the sound system tonight exaggerated the treble in Shrenker’s timbre while bringing out more of the lows in Primack’s register. Primack played accordion on a plaintive minor-key Balkan number from the band’s new album (recently reviewed here, enthusiastically); Shrenker strummed through the tricky changes on a handful of Georgian tunes – a genre she specializes in – on her panduri. She explained how she’d learned Across the Blue Mountains in the White River Junction, Vermont Greyhound bus station (for those who haven’t been there, it’s a place that quietly screams out for escape, just like the song). Primack did an intense a-capella version of a Yiddish ballad and swung it dramatically, even as she added all kinds of subtly luminous microtonal shades. They also steered their way through their trademark labyrinthine interpolations of Appalachian and Eastern European or Georgian folk tunes, an especially neat discovery since the two styles mingle far better harmonically than you might think.

Primack offered the insight that American singers who do as much foreign-language material as she does always look forward to the vocalese, because it’s there where a performer can express herself or himself most individually. Shrenker mused about living to see the day when one of their stark, rustic, obscure songs is one that everyone in New York knows. That’s a hope whose genuine audacity deserves to come true. Æ will be on Pacific Northwest tour for the rest of the month beginning on 3/15 at 8 PM at Cafe Solstice, 4116 University Way Northeast in Seattle, returning to NYC in April,watch this space for show dates.

March 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meet the Sweet Bitters!

The astonishingly good, catchy, wickedly smart debut from the Sweet Bitters, two of New York’s most unique songwriting talents. When she’s at the top of her game, Sharon Goldman is one of the world’s foremost pop tunesmiths, alongside Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello. Her full-length debut (released under her former name Sharon Edry) is one of the best artsy pop albums ever made, a feast of luscious guitar and keyboard textures. Nina Schmir first made a mark in the New York scene as one of the superb harmony singers in Aimee Van Dyne’s band. Since that group broke up, she’s been plying her solo work, acoustic songs imbued equally with devious wit and haunting intensity. She’s also a tremendously good singer (as one would imagine from someone who worked closely with Van Dyne), with a velvety high soprano rich with subtlety and emotion. Goldman is just as subtle, with a slightly lower register and a casual, completely unaffected, almost conversational style. The duo’s layers of harmonies on this album are often wrenchingly beautiful. Each songwriter contributes two songs to this effort.

The first, Clocks Fall Back is a total 60s throwback, an instant classic with its lush bed of chiming acoustic guitars and soaring harmonies, an unforgettable melody that lingers like Hazy Shade of Winter or California Dreaming. Goldman’s evocative lyrics paint a vivid yet characteristically nuanced, somewhat melancholy picture of twilight New York, 2008.

Falling Into Place, another Sharon Goldman number is perhaps the Sweet Bitters’ Perfect Day, the song’s narrator breezing along Seventh Avenue (in Brooklyn, naturally) hoping to see her main squeeze: “Only gravity keeps me from flying,” she smiles. It’s another indelible New York (or make that Brooklyn!) moment.

Nina Schmir’s Last Time This Way bounces along on a classic piano pop melody, with tasteful strings in places. ““Don’t say silly things that make your ears ring,” she cautions. The album’s final track is the somewhat jazz-inflected, pensive, intriguingly titled Monterey SPBG. The Monterey in the song is actually a town in the Berkshires (although it’s not named here); SPBG stands for Suckling Pigs and Baby Goats, which was a silly working title Schmir came up with in characteristic fashion while playing the song for a friend in a park in Chinatown. A truck passed by, the phrase emblazoned on its side, and suddenly the tune had a name. For a little while, at least.

The album is available online and at shows. The Sweet Bitters play Saturday, March 22 at 9 PM at the Perch Café, 365 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.

March 23, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Moonlighters Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/14/08

This band may be something of a New York institution, but if you haven’t seen the Moonlighters lately you definitely should. There’s been considerable turnover: of the original quartet, only bandleader/ukulele player Bliss Blood remains. This latest incarnation harks back to the original unit: they’ve reverted to the quieter, more overtly romantic style they mined so well on their first album. Their latest steel guitarist Mark Deffenbaugh plays Blood’s absolutely authentic-sounding 20s and 30s style torch songs, blues and Hawaiian swing with taste and sensitivity, the new bass player’s impressive jazz chops are on par with those of their original 4-string guy Andrew Hall, and guitarist/harmony singer Cindy Ball (who handled a lot of the lead vocals tonight) not only has a soaringly beautiful, jazz-inflected delivery, but also great retro fashion sense. Though Blood was considerably under the weather (“Never go to a 1-year-old’s birthday party,” she cautioned the packed house), it was impossible to tell from how she sang, her vocals perfectly clear, warm and cheery as always.

The set also looked back to the band’s turn-of-the-century sound: the surprisingly cheerful, bouncy hobo anthem Ballad of a Gink; the lushly beautiful Dreamland (the title track from their first album, taking its name from the legendary Coney Island amusement park), a couple of similarly swoony new songs, and the minor-key Blue and Black-Eyed, an account of the sad demise of one of the prostitutes who would throw themselves from the fire escape at the notorious late-1800s Bowery saloon McGuirk’s Suicide Hall (the building that housed it was razed a couple of years ago to make space for highrise plastic-and-sheetrock luxury condos). This version of the band played it with less overt intensity than previous incarnations did, making it more of a seamless fit with the rest of the material.

Bliss Blood’s songwriting is undiminished. It’s hard to think of anyone else who can so effortlessly evoke the playfully literate, sometimes innuendo-laden wit of 1920s and 1930s pop as well as she does, and to her credit she’s once again assembled a crew who can do justice to it. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of couples in the audience: this was clearly date night, and everybody seemed happy with the outcome. At least while the band was playing. The Moonlighters are back at Barbes at 10 in the 19th.

March 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment