New York Music Daily

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Tag: best bands nyc

The Snow’s Disaster Is Your Mistress: An Art-Rock Classic

While it might seem a little extreme to proclaim the Snow‘s latest album Disaster Is Your Mistress to be a classic, somebody has to do it: four or five times a year, albums this good make their way over the transom here. Full disclosure: this actually came out in 2012. A file was sent; the link didn’t work; the ball was dropped on this end and finally retrieved close to a year later. Things like that happen around here more often than you will ever know.

In the age where indie rock is usually recorded by cutting and pasting a simple verse and chorus so that the band (or, possibly, the producer) doesn’t have to play either more than once, the Snow still make songs that sound that seem like they were a joy rather than a chore to create. The Brooklyn art-rock band distinguish themselves for having not one but two brilliant songwriters in singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes and guitarist/singer/trumpeter Pierre de Gaillande. Downes’ songs tend to be torchier, crafted to fit her crystalline, Anita O’Day-esque jazz voice. Her co-bandleader’s songs tend to rock harder, sometimes with the dark garage-rock edge that his first New York band, Melomane (who are in dry dock now but once in awhile make an appearance onstage) were known for. Each songwriter’s lyrics have edge, and bite, and clever wordplay imbued with black humor.

The Snow’s arrangements and production on their previous two albums had a chamber pop elegance, but the new album is a throwback to the days of peak-era Pink Floyd – each song has an intricately arranged, symphonic sweep. No verse or chorus is ever exactly the same: guitar and keyboard voicings and effects change, depending on the lyrics, rising and falling with a sometimes epic grandeur. Most albums can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but there are so many interesting things going on in this one that it takes awhile to get to know, and it takes some time explaining, and it’s all worth it.

It opens with a brief, staccato, dancing string intro fueled by Sara Stalnaker’s cello and Karl Meyer’s violin. The first song is Downes’ Paper Raincoats, alternating between a stately, marching art-rock theme and a funkier groove:

Feed your disequilibrium
Until the planted seed is born
We’re wearing paper raincoats
In a season of storm
Are you on your way home?

she asks anxiously. De Gaillande’s simmering minor-key bolero Little Girl is hilarious, and vicious, and poignant as a portait of an annoyingly irresponsible Edie Sedgwick type. It starts out sympathetically and then gets brutal, with fuzztone guitar and some LMFAO snide vocoder. The album’s title track layers swirling, ELO-flavored psychedelics into a swaying, 6/8 anthem, Christian Bongers’ bass rising tensely as the chorus kicks in. It works on multiple levels: as a metaphor for simply leaving a bad situation behind, or for a nation at the edge of disaster.

Pomegranate is one of de Gaillande’s playful, droll, catchy numbers, evolution as a metaphor for guy hooking up with girl. “I guess we lose a lot of fluids when we finally make the climb,” he grins, drummer Jeff Schaefer pushing it with a purposeful new wave beat and then taking it down halfspeed to a quiet interlude lowlit by Downes’ coy vocalese. If the radio played songs this smart, this would be the album’s hit single.

Downes’ pensive chamber pop ballad Glass Door has a gentle, Moody Blues-ish woodwind chart – David Spinley on clarinet and Quentin Jennings on flute – and one of the album’s best lyrics:

Here you are a fugitive
On the chamber you depend
A little peace, a little shelter
And safety from buffetting winds
But smoke gets in, inside this sphere
And in this haze we live my dear
One warden’s custody you plead
For another form of slavery
Where are the rooms inside of you? 

Good Morning Cambodia takes a savage look at how the west looked the other way during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, de Gaillande’s banjo eerily mimicking a koto as the verse scampers to the faux-cheery turnaround. It builds to an apprehensive backbeat Romany rock anthem fueled by Meyer’s sailing violin, and then a series of cruelly funny false endings.

Black and Blue builds from funky trip-hop spiced with Ken Thomson’s baritone sax and Downes’ come-on vocals and then winds down to a gorgeous art-rock chorus. Dirty Diamond is a subdued wee-hours duet, part countrypolitan, part noir cabaret, solace for anyone stuck on the corporate treadmill:

There’s a cruel character
And its cunning opposite
And they follow you around
As they watchy you step in shit
It’s a drag to run this race
With these strivers and their baggage 
You never seem to keep the pace
As they rip and run you ragged 

With its Cure references, the brief, brisk duet Reaching Back is the closest thing to Bushwick blog-rock here, soberingly weighing the pros and cons of keeping a tradition alive, be it familial or artistic.  The album ends with Stay Awake, a slowly swaying apprehensive folk-rock anthem a la the Strawbs, imploring a nameless, dissolute figure to clean up his or her act:

Push on the verge of the surging ocean
Missing the days of the sweet commotion past
You felt your way to the creeping notion
It’s a lie that will make devotion last
And the bosses lost their minds
And you might not have the line
And the dotted line that you signed
When you were flying was a lie

And you resigned

While de Gaillande has made his frequently hilarious, richly tuneful English-language Georges Brassens cover band his main focus lately, the Snow is still active. Here’s the itunes link.

Epic Art-Rock Brilliance from the Universal Thump

The Universal Thump’s debut album is finally out: it’s taken the Brooklyn art-rock band two years and three installments, culminating in this lavish, magnificently orchestrated double-cd set. If this album had been released in, say, 1975 – which it could have been, considering its ornately symphonic arrangements and trippy, epic sweep – it would be regarded as a classic today. That designation may have to wait awhile, but for now you can enjoy all eighteen inscrutably beautiful songs on one of the most herculean efforts from any band in recent memory.

One of the things that differentiates the Universal Thump from, say, Pete Gabriel-era Genesis, is the vocals. Frontwoman Greta Gertler reminds of a more serioso Kate Bush and has command of a whole slew of keyboard styles: poignantly artsy Paul Wallfisch-esque rock piano, slinky sly soul, and swirly, quirky 80s synth-pop. The band’s other core member is drummer Adam D Gold, who comes across here as a more terse, nimble Nick Mason (he also plays with intriguing postminimalist instrumentalists Build, and composed a number of instrumental interludes here). Guitarists Tony Scherr and Pete Galub both contribute sweeping, anthemic, David Gilmour-influenced lines, while the bass is handled by either Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron or Ollabelle’s Byron Isaacs. There are also choirs, a midsize orchestra, and cameos by a long parade of artists from accordionist par excellence Rachelle Garniez to the Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly.

Swimming sets the stage. It’s a bouncy pop epic with a bassoon trading licks with the string section, and a long, murky psychedelic break midway through. A characteristically towering ballad, Grasshoppers juxtaposes apprehension with majestically carefree piano. After an austere, atmospheric tone poem, they bring up the energy for the sweeping Honey Beat, which wouldn’t be out of place on REM’s Reveal album from 1999, that band’s lone and very successful venture into art-rock.

To the Border (Wild Raspberries) evokes the Snow with its balmy atmospherics lit up by twinkly woodwinds,  then shifting to solemnly stately chamber pop. Opening Night is the most dramatic yet maybe the most accessible song here, a carnivalesque take on late-period ELO with a mammoth backup choir, a tuba intro and even a sly baritone guitar solo from Galub: guess that’s just the way things are meant to be with that one. Another real knockout here is Linear Messages, gorgeous and pensive with elegant orchestral swells and a dark Balkan-tinged carnival interlude fueled by Garniez’ accordion. After another brief intermezzo (contributed by John Ellis on bass clarinet), they end the first disc with The Last Time, a distantly sad, slow ballad that sounds like a young, inspired Kate Bush taking a stab at Procol Harum.

The second disc wastes no time in setting an epic tone with Darkened Sky, driven at first by Gertler’s alternately austere and searching piano, then by Scherr’s guitar, which kicks off a long, hypnotically nebulous Rick Wright-style interlude that looms in and pushes the piano and vocals to the edge of the picture. Ban Melisma starts out funny and then gets dark fast, with more ominously sustained cumulo-nimbus guitar from Scherr. They blend Pink Floyd and trip-hop with Dwell, capped off by a tersely Gilmouresque Scherr solo, then switch to a lushly bubbly, period-perfect, artsy mid-70s disco vibe for Flora, an inspiring, true story of a komodo dragon who gave birth via parthogenesis.

Likewise, Teacher takes the not-so-easy life of a conservatory student and makes a parable out of it: Galub and Gold follow each other with an irresistibly cool series of guitar cameos, with a powerfully soaring lead vocal from guest Lucy Woodward. Snowbird, the most pensively direct number here, evokes Jenifer Jackson, Maron adding an understatedly soaring bass solo before the long, ominously psychedelic trail out begins. The album closes with Only an Ocean, a throwback to the jaunty ragtime-flavored songs that Gertler had so much fun with on her previous solo album Edible Restaurant, Garniez and violinist Zach Brock adding a jaunty vaudevillian edge. Those are just two of the literally hundreds of clever twists, turns, jokes and knife’s-edge moments throughout this luscious slab of vintage art-rock with a fresh flavor. The band encourages listeners to enjoy a slice of cake with ice cream between its four “chapters,” a suggestion worth considering. Like a lot of the A-list of New York bands, the Universal Thump have a wider global following than they do here (Gertler originally hails from Australia). They’re currently on US tour; the full schedule is here. You can also catch the band playing a delightful live set streaming on demand from WFMU.

Ulrich Ziegler: Album of the Year

Stephen Ulrich is arguably the preeminent noir guitarist of our time. With his signature reverberating blend of twang, skronk and occasional savagery, his playing is darker and more intensely focused than Marc Ribot, more urban than Bill Frisell. For several years Ulrich led the chilling noir instrumental trio Big Lazy; these days he writes big-budget soundtracks for film and tv. He also has a new project, simply called Ulrich Ziegler, with fellow reverb guitarslinger Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise. Their self-titled debut album is the noir album of the year, maybe the decade – a menacing mix of echoey guitars, slinky beats and haunting cinematic themes. About half the tracks are streaming at the band’s Reverbnation site.

The two guitarists play with such a singlemindedly commitment to maintaining the mood that it’s hard to distinguish between the two: those who’ve seen them live might be able to differentiate between Ziegler’s terse, clenched-teeth precision and Ulrich’s lapses into more slashing, unhinged phrasing. And as absolutely macabre as much as this music is, it’s also playful, imbued with plenty of gallows humor and lively jousting between the musicians. Ulrich’s old Big Lazy pal, Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat seems to be the guy rumbling behind the drums on most of the faster numbers, while Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow holds down the backbeat on the midtempo ones; Wave Sleep Wave’s Yuval Lion is in there somewhere too. Peter Hess, also of Balkan Beat Box, plays a small arsenal of reeds along with Philip Glass collaborator Mick Rossi on keyboards.

The bucolic, Frisell-ish opening track, Since Cincinnati offers very little hint of the menace that’s coming down the pike. A slowly shuffling blue-sky theme, Ulrich’s lapsteel soars and sways, Rossi’s organ swirls as a southwestern gothic theme begins to appear on the distance. Likewise, Twice Town is Lynchian to the core, a Jimmy Webb-style country-pop melody somewhat ironically pinned by undercurrent of unease. A little flailing on the guitar strings, more lapsteel far on the horizon and then a quietly menacing pulse takes it out: a mini-movie for the ears.

Swords and Sandals is where the album really starts to get creepy, a chromatically-spiked, apprehensively tiptoeing bolero that builds tension to the breaking point. A Cuban string quartet eventually joins them and adds lushness – although this album was recorded in bits and pieces around the world, you’d never know it.

Another real creeper is Hermanos Brothers, a funky lowrider serial killer theme. The guitars go from brutal and skronky to a wide-open, warm tremolo, Ulrich eventually opening up the chorus to a shimmery lunar eclipse sostenuto. Tickled To Death sounds like a doublespeed remake of the jaunty Big Lazy latin noir classic Curb Urchin, Ziegler’s outrageously nimble, lickety-split bass pushing Ulrich into dizzying frenzies of tremolo-picking. The layers of guitar grow to the point where it’s literally impossible to tell who’s playing what.

The two best, and darkest tracks here might be the waltzes. His Story is sort of a theme for the haunted room at the Plaza hotel where the ballet dancer went out on the ledge and never came back. A gleefully macabre marionette theme, it sets evil upper-register guitar clusters over pinpoint rhythm, Hess’ baritone sax moving it out of the shadows just enough to raise the horror factor a tinge. Ita Lia is more moody and morose, with hints of Belgian musette and Django Reinhardt and ghostly high organ flourishes that offer something approximating comic relief but never quite go there.

Pieces, a murky, morbid one-chord jam, builds to a shivery baritone sax solo that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (from Tom Waits’ band) bludgeons off the page. Pipe Dream, an opiated lullaby shifting in and out of rhythmic focus, sounds like the Beatles’ And I Love Her done as a jazz ballad. The most sardonic track here is the wryly bouncy Fornever, while Space Enthusiast, an outer space dirge of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Church album.

They go deep into spaghetti western shadows with Cross My Heart, Ulrich’s menace growing as the band follows him from hypnotic to lush, then down to a dead rodeo clown interlude of sorts (that’s just one possible image out of many that this music evokes: give it a listen and come up with your own). The album ends with a casually expert twin-guitar cover of Caravan as laid-back as the Ventures’ version was frantic, Ulrich’s fuzzbox attack building from Ziegler’s offhand cynicism. After a certain point, to try to rank one classic album over another becomes meaningless. Is Mingus Mingus Mingus better than Angelo Badalamenti’s first Twin Peaks soundtrack? Is Miles Davis’ score to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) better than this album? Not really. They’re all classic. One thing for certain is that if this blog is still lurking in the shadows when they get really dark at the end of the year, you will see this album somewhere around the top of the best albums of 2012 list.

Kotorino Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

At any given time, there are always about two dozen New York rock bands who could be the best in town, and Kotorino are definitely among the current crop. Friday night at Joe’s Pub, Kotorino reminded that out of all those bands, they’re by far the most original and probably the most interesting. They didn’t do their trademark switching off on instruments – the drummer emerging from behind the kit to take a turn on harmonium, for example – leaving only frontman Jeff Morris to alternate between guitar and piano. Debonair and intense in front of the band, he scooched from side to side as he sang with an unaffected but apprehensive delivery that frequently threatened to reach to the level of a scream but never quite went there. That pervasive angst matched to an equally vivid joie de vivre perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band, part gypsy rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. This was the eight-piece version of the group, with Morris backed by two violins, trumpet, multi-reeds (baritone and tenor sax plus bass clarinet), tuba and bass for extra slinky low-register fatness, and drums.

The most amazing moment of the night, and there were plenty of those, was when the two women in the band put down their violins and joined Morris at the piano, singing eerily swooping, microtonal close harmonies that added a surreal gypsy-tinged menace to the song’s bittersweet psychedelics. “It won’t get better than this,” Morris intoned, making it clear that he meant that in every possible sense. At the end, Jesse Selengut – who was a one-man crescendo army on trumpet, all night long – exchanged bars with Stefan Zeniuk’s bass clarinet until the whole band took the song up and out with an emphatic, ominous stomp. The band opened with what was essentially a dark garage rock number in 7/8 time that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Botanica catalog: “I never had a chance to work it out, never had a chance,” Morris lamented. They followed that Oh My God, a lush steampunk anthem about sailing away in a balloon from their most recent album Broken Land, equal parts exhilaration and dread as the band built to a brief, frantic doublespeed interlude and then reverted gracefully to a distantly majestic sway.

With the harmonies between Morris and violinist Molly White – whose torchy allure made a potent contrast with his pensive, contemplative style – many of the songs evoked fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow. False endings and sudden tempo changes abounded. A couple of the songs kicked off with a reggae beat and then built warily and methodically from there; the creepiest one of the night, at least musically, was a piano waltz with abrasive muted trumpet, a suspensefully atonal, swirlingly atmospheric interlude where Selengut got the chance to unleash his inner elephant and then a big, roaring outro.

It took nerve to close the set with a suicide song, Dangle Tango, but that’s what they did, lighting it up with uneasy clarinet trills and chillingly gleeful la-la harmonies as it built to a towering, manic-depressive sway that finally exploded at the end. As the audience did, seconds afterward, obviously stunned by this band’s unpredictable power. They screamed for an encore and got a rousing but uneasy singalong; they wanted another, but by now it was almost one in the morning and the club staff all looked ready for bed.

Lianne Smith’s Two Sides of a River – A Classic

Lianne Smith is an individualist. She does things her way – even if it means taking ten years or more to put out an album. Long considered to be one of New York’s most important songwriters, she personifies the definition of cult artist. She’ll play the occasional Bowery Ballroom gig and owns a rabid fan base who’ve followed her since her days as the Brooklyn dark Americana rock girl “most likely to get signed” in the late 90s. But that coincided with the sea change where the big record labels started to drop off the map – and the fact that Smith never courted fame in the first place. Since then, she’s teased her fan base with home recordings on the web; one suspects that there are many prized live shows of hers kicking around as well. That it would take her this long to make her debut album, Two Sides of a River, turns out to be worth it: it’s the best rock record of 2012 so far by a country mile.

Check her Bandcamp site - where the whole thing is streaming – and among the tags is “folk noir,” an apt way to describe her more low-key stuff. And while most artists find themselves at a loss for words to describe what they do, Smith pretty much nails what she’s about: “I write songs about standing in the middle of the road and wondering which way to go, about how others cheat us and how we cheat ourselves, about free-wheeling, bicycle riding, look-ma-no-hands exhilarations, and how it feels to say goodbye to summer.” The album is a mix of the expected – allusive, enigmatic, captivating folk-rock and some psychedelia – along with several lush, towering art-rock anthems, a style that turns out to suit her better than anyone would have thought. Good songwriters never have to look far for good musicians to play their songs, and Smith is no exception: the band here includes Paul Simon sideman Larry Saltzman and Tony Scherr on guitars and bass, Flutterbox’s Neill C. Furio also on bass, Anton Fier (who also produced) on drums, Doug Wieselman on saxophones, and Joe McGinty on keys on a couple of tracks, with lush, sometimes stormy string arrangements by Irwin Fisch.

Smith also happens to be one of this era’s great singers, somebody who deserves to be mentioned alongside people like Laura Cantrell and Neko Case (and Mary Lee Kortes, with whom she’s collaborated). Surprisingly, she doesn’t show off her upper register here, instead lingering on the lyrics with a nuanced phrasing that’s sometimes wry, sometimes sultry and often viscerally chilling. The first track here is The Magpie Hunter, a bitter, subdued, symbolically-loaded dark folk lament with an anthemic “one for the this, two for the that” chorus. That one sets the stage for the other quiet tracks, like the concluding cut, Snow, a pensive waltz told from the point of view of a girl lost in a storm (Smith hails from Minnesota originally – she knows her subject matter well). And as much detail as there is in Smith’s songs, what isn’t said carries just as much weight, epitomized in The Ballad of Sad Endings. That one has prosaic origins, simply a capsulization of the plotlines from a couple of books Smith was reading in the early zeros, which she turned into a Great Plains gothic epic. When she pulls up the phrase “madness descends,” the effect is as poignant as it is lurid – the strings adding a grand guignol horror as the song reaches a peak.

The real stunner here is Hit and Run. In the past, Smith has done it as retro 80s (think Wire or Joy Division): here it’s a massive art-rock anthem, a gruesome eyewitness account (and account of eyewitnesses) of a deadly crash. Over the layers of guitar and the soaring bassline, Smith coldbloodedly addresses the driver who left a victim twisted by the side of the road and might have made that move too soon.

But not everything here is quite that dark. The mysterious dreampop rock anthem Marianne Was Tired reminds of the Church, with a big, soaring guitar solo from Scherr and just a hint of an ominous ending, while The Thief, a backbeat country song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cantrell playbook, winds up its aphoristic cautionary tale with an irresistible singalong “I found out, yeah, I found out too late” chorus. The seductive, psychedelic Sugar and the blithely charming Bicycle have been concert favorites for years. There’s also the joyously expectant powerpop anthem Saturday (8 Million Reasons), lit up by C.J. Camerieri’s ecstatic trumpet, and the tensely artsy, ambiguous pop song Old Times Sake. One of the most stylistically diverse rock albums of recent years, it’s also one of the best – and tops the list this year so far.

The Sometime Boys Strike Again

The Sometime Boys started out as an infrequent acoustic side project from guitarist Kurt Leege and singer Sarah Mucho of art-rockers System Noise. When their main band went on hiatus, the Sometime Boys became their main focus: a year or so later, they’re suddenly one of New York’s best bands. Their debut album, Any Day Now was one of 2011’s best, and their gentle but intense and unselfconsciously beautiful new one Ice and Blood is a strong contender for best of 2012. It’s a mix of brisk bluegrass vamps, soulful acoustic funk, spiky blues, gospel, straight-up rock and a couple of classic covers that they completely reinvent. This time out the core of Leege and Mucho is abetted by Pete O’Connell on bass, Rebecca Weiner Tompkins on violin, Jay Cowitt on drums and Erik James on piano, accordion and keyboards. While the instrumentation tends to be rustic and the melodies steeped in traditional Americana, their sound is unique and eclectic to the extreme, with elements of 70s jamrock and funk intermingled with swing jazz, ragtime and oldtime country music.

The album begins with Winter Solstice and ends with its summery counterpart. The first holds out hope on the year’s darkest day, Mucho musing about “what fun we missed when leaves were left unturned” against jaunty ragtime piano and insistent violin. The second is a crescendoing, optimistic showcase for Mucho at her most soaring and spine-tingling, packed with neat polyrhythms, a slinky bass groove and a warmly Jerry Garcia-esque guitar solo that slowly and hypnotically winds out. They take Eden, an older song by Noxes Pond, the predecessor band to System Noise and jazz it up with dreamy Rhodes piano, Mucho at her most nuanced. “”I have no need for miracles, just ice and blood and all that’s real, I’ll heal myself,” she asserts with a quiet intensity. She sings of an icy clarity, but her voice is the furthest thing from icy: a star in the cabaret world, where she’s won multiple MAC awards (the cabaret equivalent of a Grammy), she’s one of New York’s most gripping vocalists in any style of music. She blends a raw torchiness with a commanding jazz sophistication on a syncopated piano swing version of Brother Can You Spare a Dime, bringing the anthem alive for a new generation of the down-and-out. By contrast, she transforms the Beatles’ Mother Nature’s Son into a wary gospel number over Cowitt’s perfect Ringo evocation.

Unsurprisingly, the best songs here are originals. The absolutely gorgeous organ-driven anthem Drop by Drop might be the single best song of the year so far: it’s a sad, elegaic country waltz that builds to an angst-fueled grandeur. Slowly, its forlorn narrator comes to grips with the fact that the person “who’s supposed to love me most” is turning into a ghost before her eyes, underscored by Leege’s tersely biting, bittersweet acoustic guitar.  The Good People of Brooklyn, with its ragtime piano and stark violin, pensively yet ecstatically pays tribute to Mucho’s adopted “city of trees,” an unselfconsciously heartwarming message of hope for the 99% struggling through “another day, another turning of the screw.” Igloo, a broodingly atmospheric mix of fingerpicked guitar and accordion, builds a haunting ambience that could be the apocalypse, or just a portrait of clinical depression, where someone can “Curl under this blanket/It’s peaceful in our early graves.” There are also a couple of duets, one a folk-pop tune, the other an acoustic goth rock song, and also a bouncily shuffling pop song that sounds like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. The whole album is streaming at Soundcloud; the Sometime Boys play the album release show for this one on May 31 at 9 PM at the Parkside.

More Fun with the Debutante Hour

The Debutante Hour are an irrepressibly fun, irreverent, occasionally satirical hyper-literate harmony trio from Brooklyn with a theatrical stage show and a love of costumes. Their brand-new third studio album, An Awkward Time with the Debutante Hour is streaming at their Bandcamp site; they’re doing the album release show this Thursday March 15th at Littlefield at around 9:30, with the amazing Choban Elektrik and their psychedelic Balkan music opening the night at 7:30, followed by Schwervon.

Some of the Debutante Hour’s songs are satirical, but they can also be disarmingly serious. Sometimes quirky, sometimes coy, sometimes unexpectedly poignant, there’s no other band on the planet that remotely resembles them. Susan Hwang is typically the drummer in the group, but she also plays keyboards, as does Maria Sonevytsky, who also contributes baritone ukulele and drums. Cellist Mia Pixley usually plays the basslines but also gets to add the occasional austere string part or take a plaintive solo. Everybody in the band writes, takes a turn on lead vocals and contributes to the charming three-part harmonies which have become the band’s signature sound. If you have to hang a name on what the Debutante Hour does – which isn’t really fair, given the diversity of the styles they explore – you could call it new wave. They’re better musicians than, say, the Slits or the Raincoats, but they have a similar blend of edgy humor and bouncy melodies.

In case you’re wondering, the new album is too much fun to be awkward. The quirkiest song is the opening track, Doo Wop Girl, a catchy, surreal girlgroup soul tune with producer Peter Hess (who is sort of the fifth Beatle here) flavoring the mix with roto organ and a wry baritone sax bassline. Parking finds the noir cabaret lurking in the adventure that every urban driver knows by heart (c’mon peeps, give it up and take the train!). With its scampering Celtic accordion, Milestone is an inscrutable story told from the point of view of a country girl who can’t wait to get out: “The light that shines on the horizon is just another pair of headlights coming on strong,” she grouses.

The funniest song here is Sexy Sister, one of the more theatrical numbers. “She was quiet and melancholic and awkward when she was small…but magic things can happen thanks to puberty!” The ending is too spot-on to give away. Another track that’s almost as funny is Everybody Thinks I’m a Spy (But I’m Not), a creepy hypnotic ukulele trip-hop soul song – this band’s fearlessness about mixing up musical styles is one of the coolest things about them. “There is no camera taping you from my hat, I just like this hat and it’s cold, that’s what hats are made for,” the girl in the song explains emphatically: after all, she’s just an innocuous musicology student. Or not.

Illusions (Madame Bovary’s) is the most cynical song here, messing with the fourth wall: “I’ve got illusions, I’ve gotta lose them, that’s what they’re there for,” the doomed woman insists. There’s another song about her right afterward, a lush piano ballad that explores how she’s “never been good at being happy.” The album ends on an unexpectedly bitter note with another cabaret-flavored tune, A Book You’ll Never Read, whose author took seven years to finish it just as Michaelangelo, “possessed by either God or greed took seven years to paint the Sistine Chapel.” The rest of the songs include a torchy, dreamy country ballad and a tango [a Chabuca Granda cover?] with a whirlwind of cool contrapuntal vocals.

Kelli Rae Powell Records a Killer Live Album at the Jalopy

“Welcome to the Jalopy, the best venue in the world,” Kelli Rae Powell announced to the crowd gathered in the old church pews under the low lights to watch her make a live album there Friday night. Let’s hope that makes it onto the record, because the venue deserves it. Powell writes and sings in a million deviously lyrical oldtime idioms as well as ones she’s invented, notably the drinkaby, a hybrid lullaby/drinking song. While, as usual, she got into character and locked into the songs, cutting loose with a wail or a whisper that blended a coy whiskey glow with sharp bluesy edges, in between she let her guard down, and at that point the characters and the persona fell away and she was just Kelli Powell, Brooklyn music therapist, hell-bent on getting a good record out of the night and visibly tense about it. That’s a side she doesn’t show very often – and she made it work.

When the songs started, she was on her game – this will be a good record. The band – Jim McNamara on upright bass, Joe Brent alternating between mandolin and fiddle and M Shanghai String Band’s Shaky Dave Pollack on harmonica – got into a groove and stayed there, and producer Terry Radigan had brought a crew of engineers who managed to keep everything in place without being obtrusive. The songs were an unexpected mix of biting and sweet. The first drinkaby of the night was the irresistibly hazy Sweet Dorina, Powell’s “love song to the Jalopy.” “It takes me twelve hours by bus and by train, still I come again and again and again,” its blissed-out barfly narrator explains, just wanting to be near her favorite bartendress and hear all her stories.

The ballad Suddenly It’s Summertime had a similar and unexpectedly blissed-out vibe, from both the point of view of the audience and and the woman in the song who finds herself swept off her feet: it’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cole Porter songbook. A love song whose eureka moment came true at the corner of Orchard and Rivington echoed that feeling, along with a warmly and soberly elegaic number about a woman who loved her Camels just as much as Jesus. But it was the “snarky” stuff, as Powell put it, that the crowd went wild for. She switched from her trusty ukulele to guitar for a venomously dramatic, Irish-flavored duet with singer Matthew Brookshire that reached toward the same lurching booze-fueled desperation as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. She pulled out all the stops on a lurid, torchy version of The Cowboy Song, a wise, knowing anthem for hedonistic women everywhere, pulsing along on McNamara’s snakily uncoiling basslines.

As the night wore on, Powell would clench her fist in a triumphant stick-shifting “YESSSS” after pretty much every song, and the band was with her: they knew they were nailing them, one by one. They saved the best songs for last, reveling in the Southern Comfort glimmer of Midnight Sleeper Train (the drinkaby to end all drinkabys), then an inspired, extemporaneous, haggardly triumphant version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, a bitter chronicle of an endless summer tour that was more of an excuse to be away from a spirit-crushing home life than any kind of forward-looking career move. They encored with a triumphant audience singalong, the vengeful Some Bridges Are Good To Burn, the final track on Powell’s wickedly good New Words for Old Lullabies album from a couple of years ago, the most deliciously biting moment out of many. It’s a kiss-off song, and Powell took it to its logical extreme by changing narrators, giving the punchline to Brookshire to sing instead. “Maybe at my death,” he crooned, meaning the point where the song’s estranged couple might be able to be friends. By this point, both Pollack and Brent, who’d both been playing with a hushed, suspenseful nuance, finally got to cut loose and made the most of it. Outside the bar, the rain was coming down hard, and although midnight was approaching nobody seemed to be in a hurry to leave.

Two New Bands to Keep Your Eye On

As many bands as there are here in New York, you’d think that finding good new ones would be like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s not – but isn’t it fun when you do? Two new acts who’re already good and seem like they’ll get even more interesting are Lucy Foley and Llama. Foley is a newcomer from Ireland, a confident, dynamic and often dramatic singer who’s equally at home with retro new wave pop and stagy noir cabaret. At a gig a couple of weeks ago at the Parkside opening for the perennially brilliant, inscrutably charismatic Tom Warnick, she was backed by a great band: her new husband Ross Bonnadona on guitar, Tom Pope on drums, Andy Mattina on bass and a guy who doubled on synth and tenor sax. Anytime a musician can get a supporting cast of that caliber, it’s an auspicious sign. Fans of Blondie and the Dresden Dolls should check her out; she’s at Fat Baby on March 22.

Llama isn’t a reference to the foul-tempered ruminant: the band name is Spanish for “call.” The nine-piece group plays what they call psychedelic salsa, with electric guitar and electric piano instead of a brass section. There have been plenty of other bands who’ve played punked-out electric salsa – Los Santos, who played the Coney Island boardwalk on Sundays for what seems like decades, were one of the best. But what makes this band unique is their dub arrangements: one of the women in the band adds layer after layer of oscillating, trippy sonic layers on a synth that she runs through a labyrinth of digital effects. The result is slinky and danceable and when the band is at the top of their game, it’s completely brain-warping. They’re still figuring out the sonics of their live show. But because they’re all excellent players, especially the killer three-piece percussion section – timbales, bongos and congas – they have the potential to be one of the most interesting bands in town. And they don’t just play straight-up classic salsa – there’s a little cumbia and some funk and maybe even some reggae in the mix too. Right now Barbes seems to be their home base.

Today’s Batch of Goodies

Can you name a better NYC band than Spanglish Fly? There are a bunch of others who are just as fun: Chicha Libre, Rev. Vince Anderson and his funk band, the Roulette Sisters, LJ Murphy in his many incarnations, but is there anybody better? Check out their latest summery single and see for yourself. Spanglish Fly play bugalu, a wicked mix of Puerto Rican grooves and oldschool soul music that originated in the 60s when the Puerto Rican kids in Spanish Harlem started listening to soul music. Meanwhile, the black kids uptown were listening to Puerto Rican music – it was one of those gorgeous melting-pot moments that could have only happened here. They’re playing the release show for their new single on Feb 16 at Zebulon starting at around 9. The A-side, Me Gusta Mi Bicliceta has frontwoman Erica Ramos wailing like never before. The B-side, The Po-Po is absolutely killer, a sarcastic plena soul groove that explores a universal NYC phenomenon: kids getting busted for open containers by cops desperate to make their “quality of life” arrest quotas. Check out that cool baritone sax! Both songs are streaming here; the vinyl – this stuff is pure analog! – will be out on Electric Cowbell Records.

Wave Sleep Wave – the latest project from the Blam’s Jerry Adler – has a new free download, Hey What – hypnotic, jangly reverby Britrock that wouldn’t be out of place on Wire’s 154 record. A full album is scheduled for next month.

Another free download worth checking out is the Feeling Anxious PR Valentine compilation. Not everything here is worth uploading, but the good stuff is choice: Tatiana Kochkareva’s bouncy retro psychedelic pop, Hannah vs. the Many’s assaultive, hyper-literate noir cabaret and Bryan Dunn’s super-sly country drinking song, Flowers, an anti-Valentine song if there ever was one.

And in case you missed Either/Orchestra’s transcendent three-hour marathon show of mostly brand-new Ethiopian-flavored jazz at the New School last November, it’ll be airing on WGBO’s Jazz Set program on Feb 19 at 6 PM and then on Feb 22 at 6:30. Listening back to a recording of the show, it’s amazing: an eclectic new suite by bandleader Russ Gershon plus several Ethiopian pieces never played outside Ethiopia, performed for probably the first time since the 60s or early 70s.

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