Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

More Nashville Gothic Intensity from Mark Sinnis

Dark, prolific rock songwriter Mark Sinnis’ long-running band Ninth House may be on life support at this point, but his solo career is thriving – he sold out the House of Blues in New Orleans the last time he played there. The powerful baritone singer’s fourth and latest solo album, The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror, is arguably his deepest and darkest. A loosely thematic collection of songs with a cautionary “carpe diem” message, it’s a mix of Johnny Cash-influenced Nashville gothic along with artsy, atmospheric rock, including a handful of Ninth House songs radically reinvented as hypnotic, brooding ballads. The quavery wail of Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel seeps from many of them like blood from a corpse; other than Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals, that’s the album’s signature sound. Zach Ingram provides deft, low-key keyboard orchestration on several of the songs, along with Ninth House drummer Francis Xavier, and Matthew Dundas’ incisive, gospel-tinged piano on three tracks.

The title track is a talking blues of sorts, a metaphorically-charged race with a hearse that wryly nicks the melody from Sympathy for the Devil, Molotov weaving back and forth across the yellow line in a duel with former Ninth House guitarist Bernard SanJuan. The angst-ridden Injury Home plays down the bluesiness of the Ninth House original in favor of atmospherics and a nonchalantly slashing Dundas piano solo. Peep Hole in the Wall was a standout track on Ninth House’s 2000 breakout album, Swim in the Silence; the version here is even creepier. Likewise, Cause You Want To takes an balmy wave pop song and makes a dirge out of it, courtesy of Susan Mitchell’s lush string arrangement. The most death-obsessed tracks here are the straight-up country numbers: 100 Years from Now, a voice from beyond the grave, and Sunday Morning Train, which looks grimly at the marble orchard as it passes by (the metaphors don’t stop coming here). Yet the closest thing to Johnny Cash here, a solo acoustic track, is also the most upbeat and optimistic.

With Xavier’s distantly echoey drums and mariachi trumpet, their version of Ghost Riders in the Sky imaginatively recasts it as an apprehensive border ballad. They also redo Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons as a revenge anthem, with lyrics updated for the new Great Depression, a theme they revisit with the bitter, tango-flavored Hills of Decline. The two most visceral tracks here both feature Randi Russo on vocals: a majestically orchestrated, vertigo-inducing version of Death Song (another Ninth House number) that chillingly pairs off her haunting stoicism against Sinnis’ morbid croon, and the David Lynch-style noir pop duet To Join the Departed in Their Dream. On her new album Fragile Animal, Russo sings with tremendous nuance; her vocals here are nothing short of exquisite.

The album ends with an uncharacteristically lighthearted singalong (lighthearted by comparison to everything else here, anyway), I’ll Have Another Drink of Whiskey, ‘Cause Death Is No So Far Away. A shout-out to Shane MacGowan, it’s a bittersweet enticement to seize the moment while it’s still here, even if that’s only to drink to forget how soon that moment will be gone. It’s also the funniest song Sinnis has ever written: if you can get through the turnaround into the chorus without at least cracking a smile, either you have no sense of humor, or you don’t like to drink. Count this among the increasingly crowded field at the top of our picks for best album of 2011.

June 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Minor Adventure Upstate: Great Band, Great Show, Nobody Listens

In urban artistic communities, there’s a common perception that outside the city gates, there’s nothing but a vast wasteland of cultural indifference, conservatism and conformity. A more optimistic view is that the cultural innovators who, twenty years ago, would have flocked to the cities, have long since been priced out of the market. Therefore, they stay put, creating vital micro-scenes in all kinds of unexpected places all over the country. Those two theories were put to the test at dark New York rock band Ninth House’s show upstate at a carnival in Putnam Valley on Saturday evening.

Twenty years ago, a black-clad Nashville gothic band attempting to entertain crowds of families and toddlers in broad daylight in a more-or-less rural area would have been serious culture shock. Fast forward to 2011 – twenty years, maybe more, since the Psychedelic Furs and Social Distortion, two of the bands Ninth House often resembles, hit the peak of their popularity. Most of the kids who were listening to those bands back in the 80s are parents now. Would any of those people be in the crowd, reliving their lost youth as fans of what was then called “alternative rock?” Apparently not.

Which was sad. Pretty much any streetcorner busker with any charisma at all can attract a gaggle of people, but the crowd was absolutely oblivious. Which was no fault of the organizers: the sound wasn’t pristine, but it was loud. What about the kids, the next generation of nonconformists? Would any of them drift over to see what the band was up to? Nope. Was frontman Mark Sinnis’ baritone too ominous? Under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn’t seem so: there’s an awful lot of Johnny Cash fans out there. Was guitarist Keith Otten too abrasive? Hardly. Firing off ornately savage minor-key riffs or snarling rockabilly phases, he bridged the gap from Luther Perkins to Bernard Albrecht with effortless intensity alongside keyboardist Zach’s nonchalant piano and organ and drummer Francis Xavier’s steady shuffles.

Was the songs’ subject matter too disturbing? “I’ll have another drink of whiskey, because death is not so faraway,” Sinnis intoned cynically – a C&W philosophy that’s a hundred years old or more. They wailed methodically through two long sets of songs that have resonated with New York audiences since their first incarnation in the late 90s – the apprehensively swaying Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, the savagely cynical Fallible Friend, and more – but nobody paid any attention save for a small posse of friends who’d gathered by the stage, drinking hard liquor from a thermos so as not to get busted.

Validation of theory #1? Just a random bad crowd? Or were all those Furs and Social Distortion fans the last wave of cool kids to escape to the city, waiting patiently at home for the band to get back to Manhattan?

May 2, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment