Noir Rock Par Excellence from LJ Murphy and His Band
LJ Murphy and the Accomplices ripped the roof off Otto’s on Saturday night. The dark lyrical rocker has had an eclectic cast of musical conspirators backing him over the years, and these guys are among the best. Although their licks and the chops are purist vintage Stax/Volt, the energy is pure punk rock. The key to this particular show was that lead guitarist Tommy Hoscheid had his old Gibson SG instead of an acoustic, which brought the energy level through the roof and took everybody with him, so when Murphy put down his own guitar, it didn’t really matter. Grabbing the mic with both hands, he twitched and pounced like a man possessed – or like a young James Brown. Dressed to the nines in his usual black porkpie hat, black suit and a lurid purple tie, he alternated between an ominous baritone croon and a nonplussed, bluesy shout as he skewered the corporate elite, the clueless minions who buy into their evil system and assorted other hypocrites. He and the band are going into the studio in a couple of weeks, an auspicious development because this kind of power deserves to be bottled.
They opened the set with a careening, unexpectedly upbeat version of Mad Within Reason. The title track to Murphy’s most recent album, it’s a Weimar blues on record, transformed live into a raw, swaying anthem replete with typically surreal Murphy imagery: “They saddled the mistress and lowered her down…crosses and pistols are slung from our hips…the industry captain, a smile on his face, so proud of the changes he’s made to this place…” Bassist Nils Sorensen’s tasty hammer-ons drove a soul-rock version of the cruelly sarcastic Imperfect Strangers, pianist Patrick McLennan ripping down the scale with a jarring series of chords when it came to the punchline. By contrast, This Is Nothing Like Bliss lurched apprehensively, a big, ornate soul ballad with a tantalizing handful of wailing accents from Hoscheid. McLennan took centerstage on the enigmatic, bitter Another Lesson I Never Learned, building from slashing staccato triplets into a mean chromatic run down the scale: “Like the manuscript that refused to burn, here’s another lesson I never learned,” Murphy intoned, defiant til the end.
Nowhere Now mixed a surf rock intro, Chuck Berry, a crazed Mike Bloomfield-style solo from Hoscheid and an offhandedly snide, inscrutable lyric that might be an elegy for 200 years of American democracy, or something else entirely. The highest point of the night might have been Same Trick, an irresistibly funky Stax/Volt shuffle propelled by drummer Marcus Ulrich, the crowd in the lyrics longing for the messiah but eventually settling for a CEO. Or, it might have been the encore, Happy Hour, a savage rip at the one percent and those who enable them, set in the Wall Street bar from hell: “Down in the wicked industries that are so celebrated now…where they tie you up with invisible string, and the karaoke player sounds just like the real thing.” For that matter, it also could have been the slowly burning soul ballad Bovine Brothers, a warning to anyone paying attention:
The calm has finally settled and the air is sickly sweet
The ashes of the moviehouse are scattered in the street
The uncles and the nephews drink to victory in the bars
And a sermon blares out all night from the roof of a radio car
As they launched into that lyric, they brought it way down, McLennan bringing it back up at the end with a twistedly glimmering, mini-Moonlight Sonata. They also burned through a characteristically amusing, sneering version of Barbed Wire Playpen – another sendup of a CEO, this one who can’t resist the lure of the dungeon – with the audience spontaneously bursting into Donna Susan’s sassy backing vocal line on the chorus. Through the burnt-out Rust Belt imagery of Buffalo Red, the barely restrained eroticism of Blue Silence and the sardonic post doo-wop of Man Impossible, these guys reaffirmed that they might be the best rock band in New York right now. “She’s polishing her reputation/Can’t believe all that you hear/What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her/So she doesn’t have very much to fear,” Murphy sang with a cold nonchalance. These days, with the center having completely collapsed, the New York music scene completely balkanized, shows like this beg the question: how many others like LJ Murphy are steaming up places like Otto’s on a Saturday night when where they really should be is Madison Square Garden?