New York Music Daily

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Intensely Fun Summer Concerts by Nicole Atkins and the Universal Thump

Nicole Atkins and her “band of Daves,’ as she put it – on lead guitar, electric piano and organ, bass and drums – played a soaringly eclectic, richly tuneful set to kick off this year’s outdoor concert series at Madison Square Park. What was most striking about the concert was the welcome absence of the cheesy keyboard textures that gunk up some otherwise excellent songs on Atkins’ latest album, Slow Phaser. Aside from a diversion into that on a swaying, funky tune early in the set, her keyboardist stuck to fluid organ fills and elegantly glimmering electric piano.

They opened with the new album’s first song, Who Killed the Moonlight, putting more emphasis on lingering, uneasy atmospherics than the disco bounce of the studio version. The bassist gave it a slinky groove as the lead player added terse, red-neon, noirish fills and bends. Atkins’ wounded outsider presence on the sardonic Cool People provided an edge that transcended all the purloined Beatles and Lou Reed licks. Atkins reaffirmed why she has such a devoted fan base, showing off a spectacular vocal range that she varied from low and apprehensive to some spine-tingling flights to the upper registers, adding subtle blues and soul tinges and then some grit at the end as her voice began to go ragged after all that exertion.

She and the band maintained the intensity with the organ-fueled ba-bump noir cabaret tune Gasoline Bride and its creepy slowdown at the end, then the slow, angst-fueled Vera Beren-esque 6/8 ballad The Way It Is, part darkly Orbisonesque Americana, part gothic art-rock. Atkins took that to a peak with the wickedly catchy Maybe Tonight, an anguished blue-eyed Motown hit as towering as anything Gary Usher wrote for Gary Puckett back in the 60s.

Girl You Look Amazing, another tune that’s pretty straight-up disco on the new album, took on extra bite with a more straight-ahead beat underneath Atkins’ sarcastic dig at a would-be pickup artist. Interestingly, they gave We Wait Too Long a swooshy, misterioso groove, in contrast to the album’s more direct, regret-laden version.

After the hypnotically loping, darkly bluesy Vultures, with its creepily twinkling electric piano, they tiptoed and swayed through the longing and bitterness of Red Ropes, the most luridly noir song on the new album.

Atkins’ cynical sense of humor came front and center on It’s Only Chemistry, a sardonic battle-of-the-sexes narrative, and then an aching take of The Worst Hangover, whose narrator is so miserable (and possibly still so drunk) that she ends up calling an ambulance. It was too bad that the lead player missed his chance to take The Tower – the crushing, potentially explosive anthem that’s sort of Atkins’ signature song – to a logically pyrotechnic peak, instead drifting unexpectedly into nebulously metal territory. After everything that had come before, it would have been the perfect way to end the show. It took a siren echoing across the park from further north to add just the right touch of horror as the song wound out. The Madison Square Park series of free concerts continues on July 16 at 7 PM with French jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson and his group.

And it was good to be able to catch about half an hour of a show that promised to be even better beforehand several blocks north at Bryant Park, where keyboardist/songwriter Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band the Universal Thump aired out some of the soaring, often epic songs from their massive triple-cd debut album along with some tantalizing new tunes. Gertler’s elegantly intricate electric piano mingled with the otherworldly vocal harmonies of Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Emily Hurst and Allyssa Lamb over the terse pulse of drummer Adam D. Gold and bassist Byron Isaacs. Guitarist Oren Bloedow – the noir mastermind behind art-rockers Elysian Fields, and a longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator – kept a low-key, blue-flame intensity going, finally rising to a savagely insistent attack as the show hit a peak right about at the midway point. And then it was time to head south.

A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part Two

Funny how this blog started out covering live music almost exclusively, then within weeks the torrents of albums began and never stopped. Remember when everyone was saying that the album was a thing of the past? Now you can record an album with your phone, and everybody’s doing it. There’s a pile – or a virtual pile – of more than fifty of them patiently waiting their turn here. And they’ll have to wait another day because today is part two of catching up on all the shows from the past couple of weeks or so.

Lorraine Leckie is as comfortable with elegant, brooding chamber pop as she is at unhinged noir Americana rock. Her most recent show at the big room at the Rockwood last month featured the former. Then headlining Sunday Salon 26 at Zirzamin this past week, Leckie and her band the Demons were at the absolute peak of their game, slashing and burning through a mix of retro glamrock, surreal downtown NYC narratives and an unhinged version of Ontario, her sideways Canadian gothic salute to her birthplace. At the Rockwood, pianist Matt Kanelos added a nonchalant menace to several of Leckie’s collaborations with Anthony Haden-Guest (from the duo’s recent, excellent collaboration, Rudely Interrupted), especially on Bliss, a cruelly sarcastic portrait of a marriage gone irreparably wrong. At Zirzamin, guitarist Hugh Pool fired off machinegunning riffage that evoked Hendrix without being slavishly derivative or drowning out the vocals. Harmony vocalist Banjo Lisa amped up the songs’ allusive menace, blending bewitchingly with Leckie’s ever-increasingly full-throated wail.

The following Saturday night, Kanelos was at Littlefield playing in his duo project, Ghosts in the Ocean with Coney Island noir siren Carol Lipnik, who continues to move further toward the avant garde. One perceptive musician in the crowd likened their hypnotically minimalist performance to a cross between early Jane Siberry and Philip Glass, and she was right on the money, other than that Lipnik has a four-octave range and uses every inch of it. The two reinvented Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy Wife as Radiohead-inflected art-rock, then Lipnik employed a magical theremin-like vibrato on a mesmerizing version of Harry Nilsson’s Lifeline. They brought out every ounce of menace in Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat, turned Nick Drake’s Black Dog Blues into an even more haunting, skeletal sketch – that dog is a lethal predator – and moved through Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio with a bell-like, funereal pulse, Lipnik going down into the sinister depths of her low register. But it was the originals – the catchy, anthemic Sonadora Dreaming, the defiantly insistent Crows and the disarmingly sarcastic Oh the Tyranny – that were the most memorable. They’re at Zirzamin after the Sunday Salon this coming June 16 at 7 PM

Pete Galub followed them, playing the album release show for his fantastic new one, Candy Tears. Galub brings world-class, dangerous guitar chops to classic powerpop, with an often frenetic, menacingly noisy edge – the Steve Wynn influence has made itself more and more clear in his music in recent years. Appropriately, he had Wynn’s guitar sparring partner Jason Victor as a guest on the album’s next-to-last track (they played the whole thing through, in order). And counterintuitively, after he and Galub had reduced the song to a toxic, molten mess of overtones and raging reverb, Victor led the band back in with gentle washes of major chords. Before that, the songs ranged from what sounded like Yo La Tengo doing XTC, Roscoe Ambel doing the Beatles, Guided by Voices doing Syd Barrett, and on a suspensefully skeletal version of the album’s gorgeous title track, Wire doing Big Star. In over an hour onstage, Galub made his notes count, choosing his spots – space is just as important in his music as the actual notes. Guest Karen Mantler played plaintive art-rock piano on the bittersweetly psychedelic 300 Days in July; Greta Gertler lent her soaring multi-octave voice to one of the later numbers. Drummer Chris Moore swung the backbeats while bassist Tom Gavin varied his attack from growly and slinky to a deep, anchoring pocket that held the center while Galub plotted where he was going to go next. Galub is at Zirzamin after the Sunday Salon on May 19 at 7.

More of the Sunday Salon and Such

In a lot of ways, New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is a misnomer. It’s a sophisticated scene, but it’s not exactly sedate. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. A lot of the time there’s something during the parade of performers leading up to the 7 PM featured set that upstages the headliner. Drina Seay covering LJ Murphy’s Waiting by the Lamppost for You was one of them. On one hand, watching her sing “I’m hungover and showing my years” was just plain funny (she looks about grad-school age: if you were a bartender, you’d card her). But that didn’t matter: she can wail when she wants, but she hung back and gave it a poignancy and dignity that you wouldn’t expect in a portrait of sheer dejection and despair.

Then there was Charming Disaster  – Kotorino’s Jeff Morris with Elia Bisker – doing a jaunty yet absolutely creepy four-handed ragtime piano piece and managing not to claw each other, Bisker’s moonscape resonance over Morris’ deadpan romp. They headlined Salon number 22 with a menacingly charming duo set with Morris mostly on guitar and Bisker on ukulele. She’s got the distant femme fatale persona down, dead cold, the perfect foil for Morris’ brooding gypsy and swing-spiked bounces and waltzes. They did not one but two songs about murder conspiracies gone wrong, a similarly failed twin grifters’ tale as well as moody, nocturnal material from each others’ catalogs. They make a good team, and they play a lot of shows: watch this space.

Lorraine Leckie followed them on a rare doublebill. This time out she had Calum Ingram on cello playing ominous low register ambience, with Banjo Lisa adding her stark, scary-beautiful otherworldly vocal harmonies. You would think that Leckie would have used this configuration to air out the darkest side – which is very, very dark – of her recent chamber pop songs, but instead she flipped the script and took a lot of her more upbeat rock catalog down into the abyss. What once had a T-Rex feel in this configuration sounded a lot more like Ziggy-era Bowie but with better vocals. She’s at the big room at the Rockwood on April 22 at 8.

To backtrack a little, Serena Jost headlined Salon 19 a couple of weeks previously . The multi-instrumentalist bandleader/chanteuse had a Joe’s Pub show to warm up for, and counterintuitively, instead of bringing the band and doing what would have been an open rehearsal, she went to a similarly stripped-down configuration featuring the eclectically brilliant Amanda Thorpe on slide guitar, keys, wood flute and also stark, scary-beautiful harmonies. Jost gets props for her cello work, but she’s also a brilliant singer – hanging out with Thorpe all these years has rubbed off. Through lithely jangling chamber pop, stark cello-and-voice tableaux, a stately 6/8 art-rock anthem, she radiated a lowlit allure with her precise, measured vocals, ripe to the point of drawing everyone in without falling off the vine. Then at Joe’s Pub, she and her full band – Julian Maile on guitar, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, a keyboardist, and Thorpe and Greta Gertler on harmonies – soared and occasionally roared through most of the songs on her sensationally good new album A Bird Will Sing. The high point of the show – and maybe the past month, in terms of sheer sonic bliss – was the trio of high harmonies on an irresistibly pulsing, crescendoing version of Sweet Mystery, a song that could not have been more aptly titled.

The star of Salon 20 was Seay, who brought a full band featuring Eric Seftel on drums, Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo playing bass as if she’d been doing it her whole life (she had about a week’s worth of practice, it turned out – who knew). “Is there a better guitarist in New York than Steve Antonakos?” one audience member wondered aloud as Seay’s lead player fired off keening pedal steel-style lines, cooly menacing Nashville gothic riffs and soulfully intricate jazz leads. Sassy, sophisticated country songs like the catchy shuffle Whatcha Gonna Do and the soul-infused, stop-time bounce Can’t Fight Falling in Love paired off against the absolutely gorgeous, minor-key Waking Up Crying, an absolutely evil, slide guitar-driven, oldtime swing-flavored All For You and the torchy, Julia Haltigan-esque Where Is the Moon Tonight. The high point of the set was when Seay segued from a slow, slinky, absolutely lurid take of one of her best ballads, Chase My Blues Away to Francoise Hardy’s Le Temps de L’Amour and gave that one a New York noir edge, singing in perfect French. A week later, Antonakos  would be the headliner at Salon 20 with his own tuneful, sardononically humorous songs, joined by Seay who this time added harmonies as she did so memorably back in the day at Banjo Jim’s before she started her own band.

The regular cast has had more memorable moments than can be counted. The Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman’s Cat Power-ish narratives edge closer and closer to noir, shadowy blues. LJ Murphy kicked off Seay’s set with a ferocious, bluesy intensity, hot on the heels of his careening trio performance at Hank’s Saloon the previous Saturday with Professor Jim Porter guesting and adding a whole other level of creepy surrealism on washboard. And this past week, Amelia Belle-Isle graced the stage with her ridiculously tuneful oldtime swing-flavored songs and subtle, alluring voice.

There have been plenty of other great shows happening around town, literally too many to chronicle here. The last week of the past month, the Wu-tang Clan’s Raekwon delivered a nonchalant, impressively tight, seemingly endless medley of his 90s hits at the swanky new Stage 48 way over past 12th Ave. on 48th Street. The place was packed with a mix of older people who knew every word and practicallly drowned out the vocals (the sound here seems to be a work in progress), and kids getting their first look at one of the icons of 90s East Coast hardcore. The Chef began with Cash Rules Everything Around Me and just got hotter from there.

Violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky’s performance of Luciano Berio sequenzas at the Miller Theatre last month deserves a mention. These pieces are like wartime: frenzied, anxious, cruelly frantic cadenzas that suddenly give way to still, suspenseful ambience, and while neither musician made it look easy – that would have been impossible – just getting through them without breaking strings would have been a triumph. That they were able to mine those weird juxtapositions for genuine emotion made the concert all the more worthwhile. That, and all the free beer the theatre was giving away.

The night of the Drina Seay show at the Salon, New York Junk played one of those oldschool New York punk bills at Bowery Electric. On one hand, their tunefully growling, glammy early 70s style isn’t covering any new ground, but just like the Dolls and Lou Reed, they’re catchy and they have the sound, and the wry, black humor-driven, black leather-clad doom and angst down cold. The bassist – formerly of 80s punk legends the B-Girls – bopped and pushed the songs along with catchy riffage underneath the Stonesy roar of the two guitarists.

This past week had a trifecta of good shows. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair played their usual gallows humor-driven mix of blue-eyed soul, horror surf, Doorsy jamrock and New England noir at Freddy’s Saturday night. Jerome O’Brien, late of the great Dog Show played a mix of his endlessly entertaining, literate rock tunes solo on twelve-string guitar at…where else…Zirzamin. And Maynard & the Musties brought their mix of wry oldschool country and dark highway rock to Cowgirl Seahorse down in South Street Seaport, Naa Koshie Mills’ violin/viola lines soaring over Dikko Faust’s trombone and Mo Botton’s richly twangy guitar. Frontman Joe Maynard writes some of the most nonchalantly poignant, richly tuneful songs around: it was a treat to hear him and the crew swing their way through the dark-sky, Neil  Young-ish expanse of Lightly Honest and the gorgeous yet utterly twisted Elvis Museum.

Serena Jost Takes Flight with a Brilliant New Album

Multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s songs are so direct and easy to sing along to that they seem to be perfectly clear, but they’re anything but. They draw you in with their calm allure and then hit you upside the head when you least expect it. Jost’s third album, A Bird Will Sing is due out on April 9; the former Rasputina cellist will feature a parade of her fellow New York elite players onstage in celebration of the album’s release at 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Tickets are still available as of today; if art-rock is your thing, this is a must-see event. The whole album is streaming at Jost’s Bandcamp page.

On this one, Jost limits herself to cello and vocals, not such a bad idea considering the quality and diversity of the band: Julian Maile on guitars, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, Thomas Bartlett on organ, backing vocals from Greta Gertler, Amanda Thorpe and Ursa Minor’s Michelle Casillas as well as producer Anton Fier making a cameo on bells. While Jost’s songs draw deeply on innumerable styles – 70s art-rock and Britfolk, classical, gospel, soul and even funk – she has a unique voice. Her vocals echo the deceptive translucence of her songwriting: clear, steady and minutely nuanced, they shine into the corners rather than the center. Likewise, her lyrics throw a succession of images at you, letting the listener connect the dots. It’s a mysterious and fun ride.

Jost makes a strong opening statement with the first track, Stay: that just cello and vocals would be enough to maintain interest pretty much speaks for what this album is all about. And despite the austerity of the tune, it’s optimistic: “All at once, right on top, winking is such fun,” she intones. It’s a prime example of the kind of lyrical hide-and-seek that will take place from here out.

Sweet Mystery sets deftly orchestrated powerpop over an irresistible Motown groove enhanced by the sepulchrally soaring beauty of Thorpe and Gertler on vocal harmonies. Maile’s shifting guitars – from powerpop crunch, to to a ringing 12-string bridge, to swirly psychedelics – are pure textural ear candy. By contrast, Blue Flowers takes a seductive pastoral theme and adds shadowy intensity, rising to a majestic, roaring chorus fueled by Maile’s slide guitar. Then the band takes it up jauntily with Fly, a jazz-tinged celebration of the joy of escape. But this particular escape isn’t the usual cathartic, angst-driven kind – Jost makes you feel the wind in your hair.

The title track is a balmy backbeat country song, sort of Patsy Cline gone to the conservatory, Jost’s low, subtle come-hither vocals and metaphorically-charged water imagery hitting some soaring highs as it winds out. Kiss the Wind, with its wryly muted exhilaration, echoes both Francoise Hardy’s psychedelic folk-pop, or Gruppo Sportivo in a rare bittersweet moment – or Lianne Smith. This carnival ride follows an upward arc fueled equally by excitement and dread.

Song without End sets sensual atmospherics and more water imagery over a terse, stately pulse, with a gorgeously intertwining, psychedelic outro. Nearly Beautiful, with its elegant, elegaic, baroque-tinged countermelodies, might be the album’s best song – it’s the most intense, and the subtext kills. “It’s nearly beautiful, I’m almost overjoyed,” Jost muses, letting the crushing sarcasm speak for itself.

The album’s lone cover is a terse, almost skeletal, absolutely accusatory version of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass. Jost follows that with In the Garden, which evokes early ELO (or a late-period song by the Move), stark verse contrasting with lush chorus, riffs shifting artfully between instruments. The final track, Great Conclusions makes for a beautifully majestic coda, taking the album full circle with a restless unease and an ornate, snarling, guitar-fueled chorus that stops just this short of grand guignol. All the way through, the joy the band is having with these songs is visceral: a strong contender for best album of 2013.

Another Brilliant, Disconcerting Album from Lee Feldman

Now that the world has made its way out of post-Saturnalia mode, this is as good a time as any to catch up on some of the albums that should have been covered here last year but weren’t. Case in point: Lee Feldman’s absolutely brilliant, chilling Album No. 4: Trying To Put The Things Together That Never Been Together Before. Feldman is a terrifically eclectic pianist, equally at home with Bach or jazz as with the elegant art-rock songs he’s been writing since the 90s. His animated musical Starboy is a classic, a charmingly witty piece of vintage 80s style performance art. His late-2011 collaboration with cellist Noah Hoffeld, Sacred Time, was a richly tuneful detour into traditional Jewish instrumental themes that the duo transformed into what could be termed indie classical music (or something that John Zorn would put out on Tzadik). This is a return to original songcraft, and it stands with the best Feldman has ever done, which is saying a lot. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page along with several of his other albums, going all the way back to 1996’s Living It All Wrong.

This one’s a continuation of the themes Feldman explored on his 2007 album I’ve Forgotten Everything, an understatedly haunting portrait of alienation and disorientation brought on perhaps by age, perhaps by other factors, possibly in combination. Here as well as there, Feldman writes in the voice of a naif, echoed in his clear, bright, deceptively simple vocals and melodic hooks. Where I’ve Forgotten Everything mined an austere art-rock vibe, this one’s a much more ornate, stylistically diverse chamber-pop effort with terse horn charts and a string section.

The album peaks immediately with a surreal, Middle Eastern tinged art-rock waltz spiced with Carol Lipnik’s creepy, swooping vocals. Whoooah, this ride is going way too fast, gotta stop the machine and get off! The abruptness with which the narrator puts an end to some pretty spectacular fireworks is telling, and sets the stage for the rest of the story. It is not a happy one, and in a Faulknerian sense, this tale told by an idiot capsulizes our own present danger.

The second track is a red herring and a throwaway. Feldman picks up where he left off with That’s The Way the World Used to Work, an allusive ontogeny-recapitulates-philogeny theme set to lush, woodwind-enhanced chamber pop. River, a latin-tinged bounce, downplays the lyrics’ loaded symbolism. The hippie eco-pop of Trees Are People Too could be a children’s song, a vibe that flips 180 degrees on The Magician, a wistful ballad: Pete Galub’s distantly majestic lead guitar lowlights the mantra “I’m an outsider.”

I Remember The Night captures a family meeting at a particularly serious moment, in the Twilight Zone. An elegant piano waltz, Do You Want to Dance mingles gospel piano with a lyric that descends from carefree to absolutely miserable in seconds flat. The most psychedelic of all the tracks is the ninth one (the title is absurdly long, for a reason), a blend of trip-hop, Terry Riley and Beat Crazy-era Joe Jackson that seems to chronicle fragments from what’s essentially been a wasted life.

On the lullaby that follows, the narrator explains to the infant that “when you are ready to run, it’s me you’ll be running from.” The album’s creepiest track is Empty Room, the drums (guessing that’s the Universal Thump’s Adam D Gold behind the kit) shifting around its echoey, arrythmic ambience, a portrait of isolation and defeat.  In typical Feldman fashion, that reaches a peak with the blithe madness of Hamfest: over a casually comfortable Rhodes piano groove, the narrator (lapsing in and out of outer-borough accent) announces how “I play the trumpet just like Emperor Hirohito/I try to play the books I read but I never play repeato.” The Party’s Over has the same kind of disconcerting, disassociative blitheness: “The ship is sinking and the fish are friendly, and I’ve been thinking that I don’t like fish,” the protagonist reflects. The album ends with Thanks and its characteristically simple yet crushing sadness. In just a few words and a few major chords, Feldman delivers a wallop. The star-studded band behind Feldman, besides Lipnik, Galub and Gold, includes Hoffeld on cello, Nadia Sirota on viola, Doug Wieselman on reeds, keyboardists Greta Gertler, Dan Bryk and Glenn Patscha, trombonist Clark Gayton, bassist Byron Isaacs and singer Amy Allison among others.

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.

Intriguing Vintage Sounds from Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes

Pianist/chanteuse Mary Lorson has a new album, Burn Baby Burn, with her band the Soubrettes. It’s an unassumingly charming, deceptively upbeat, pensively lyrical blend of oldtime-flavored Americana, sultry torch songs and jaunty purist pop. Lorson first rose to prominence back in the 90s as the frontwoman of Madder Rose, whose raw, moody blend of trip-hop and downtempo with rock instrumentation made them a cooler alternative to bands like Tortoise. She was a decent singer in that band, and later in Saint Low; she’s an extraordinary one now. Her voice is clear, unadorned, usually gentle and matter-of-fact, a quietly powerful vehicle for her allusively brooding songs, which reveal themselves slowly, with repeated listening: don’t go into this expecting to be able to make sense of it the first time through. On this album Lorson plays piano and guitar alongside banjoist/guitarist Leah Houghtaling and bassist Amelia Sauter, with contributions from Michael Stark on piano, Joe Novelli on lapsteel and AJ Strauss on horn on a couple of tracks.

The opening track, Busboy, sets the stage for what’s to come, Stark’s hypnotically pointillistic piano mingling with the banjo for a bell-like backdrop that mutes the grimly surreal, apocalyptic lyrics, delivered by Lorson with a deadpan coyness. That contrast between starry melody and bitter resignation recurs a little later on with Only One Number Two and its offhand Satie allusions. The album’s second track, Mancub, puts an oldtimey spin on an indie rock tune, with a blithe “bump bump badump bump” chorus over Kathy Ziegler’s swirling organ and a lyric about a guy who may not realize just how bizarre his life was on his way up. The lush, soul-infused ballad Lately wouldn’t be out of place in the Aimee Mann songbook; Houghtaling does a memorable job mimicking a violin’s pizzicato with her muted touch on the banjo.

The rustic, swirly nocturne River, with its lush blend of acoustic guitar, banjo, bass and organ downplays Lorson’s downcast vibe, while the catchy, matter-of-fact pop tune Bubble of Pretend evokes Greta Gertler in an especially theatrical moment. The hypnotic title track, its resonant lapsteel contrasting with boomy bass, creates a bucolically atmospheric milieu that reminds of Hem. By contrast, the upbeat country song Crystal Ball nicks a Jenifer Jackson lick: “Are you looking at me, I’m the only one in here,” Lorson asks enigmatically.

These Police, a ballad contrasting upper-register piano with Lorson’s finely nuanced, torchily wounded vocals, looks at the consequences of exhausting yourself to please others who probably couldn’t care less. The inscrutably seductive, pulsing, cabaret-flavored Let ‘Em Eat Little Debbie Cakes asserts that “Marie Antoinette never made that crack about the poor and their petits fours for breakfast.” The album winds up with its only cover song, I Don’t Care, brassy tune punctuated by big ghostly flurries of guitar, brass and backing vocals. This was the signature song for Eva Tanguay, proto-flapper feminist, vaudeville star and contemporary of Sophie Tucker and Mae West. But rather than channeling the lyrics’ impunity, Lorson delivers it wistfully, as if she really does care and has taken a beating for that. It’s an apt way to close this thoughtful and thought-provoking album.

Virgin with Eight Kids – For Free

Greta Getler and her clever all-star art-rock band the Universal Thump celebrate the komodo dragon who gave birth to 8 little komodo dragons via parthogenesis in a new free download, titled Flora. The backstory is that Gertler was enlisted to write this lushly orchestrated, coyly soaring art/disco/pop number for an Australian superstar who shall remain nameless. The song was rejected so Gertler decided to put it out herself, backed by Adam D Gold on drums, Jonathan Maron on bass, Pete Galub (who’s got a great new album himself coming out soon) on guitar, Barney McAll on organ, and an amazing horn section of J. Walter Hawkes, Sean Sonderegger and the Jazz Passengers’ Roy Nathanson. From the Universal Thump’s forthcoming double album; get it free here. You can also check out the video.

Back to the Sad Stuff

Smart, literate, socially aware songwriter Emily Jane White has an album coming out next month and this free download, Requiem Waltz, is on it: stately, ornate, breathily angst-ridden chamber pop like Greta Gertler in an especially direct and brooding mood. If you like that one, you might also want to grab Black Silk, which sounds more like Marissa Nadler or St. Vincent. Enjoy!

The Best NYC Concerts of 2011

Of all the year-end lists here at New York Music Daily, this one is the most fun to put together since it’s the most unique. Everybody has a different one: this is an attempt to be REALLY different and stay as faraway as possible from duplicating the other blogs. That’s why Sharon Jones, or the Brooklyn What, or Gogol Bordello aren’t on this list. Everybody else went to those shows – and had a good time, and more power to you if you were one of those people.

Considering how many incredible live performers play around town, and pass through over the span of a year, choosing the year’s best New York concert is usually like shooting fish in a barrel. But in 2011, there was one show that stood out over all the others, and that was one by a familiar presence, someone who’s been a force in the downtown scene for a long time, who gets more and more vital as the years go by. Laurie Anderson’s concert at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 11 brought an air-conditioned highrise chill, a calmly matter-of-fact indictment of post-9/11 paranoia and gentrifier cluelessness, laced with deadpan wit and set to hypnotic, pensive, icily ambient atmospherics. Though much of the concert was a requiem for an edgy New York that’s been bulldozed out of existence, it offered some hope that new version can rise again from the ashes of the old one.

In any other year, Marc Ribot’s April 3 performance of classic noir film music along with his own equally dark matter at the New School would be a no-brainer for best concert of the year; the same could be said for Either/Orchestra’s November 9 marathon two and a half-hour concert there featuring bandleader Russ Gershon’s new suite of moody Ethopian jazz as well as new arrangements of rare Ethiopiques, never before performed outside Ethiopia and probably not since the 1960s.

As far as the rest of the year is concerned, that it was impossible to whittle this list down to any fewer than 26 shows speaks for itself:

Sanda Weigl, Razia and Very Be Careful at the 92YTribeca, January 8 – Shoko Nagai was the star of this one, playing creepy, surreal, crashingly and virtuosically intense piano and accordion in the gypsy singer’s band. The Malagasy chanteuse and LA cumbia party band who followed weren’t bad either.

The Dixie Bee-Liners at the Jalopy, February 13 – since relocating from New York to the hills of Virginia, Buddy Woodward and Brandi Hart’s cutting-edge bluegrass band have made a living on the road with their Bible Belt noir. Pretty impressive in these hard times.

Miramar at Barbes, March 5 – new and classic Puerto Rican boleros, haunting and psychedelic, fueled by Marlysse Simmons’ creepy funeral organ.

Svetlana Berezhnaya at St. Thomas Church (5th Ave.), March 27 – the Russian organist played her own even more macabre arrangement of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Caithlin De Marrais, the Oxygen Ponies and Randi Russo at the Mercury, April 17 – the former Rainer Maria chanteuse/bassist followed by two of New York’s darkest, most literate rock bands, those two groups both using two drummers.

Ward White at Bowery Electric, April 19 – the literate rock tunesmith was under the weather but still delivered a soaring, understatedly snarling cd release show for his latest one, Done with the Talking Cure , backed by keyboard maven Joe McGinty and a killer band.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans tribute at the Jazz Standard, April 22 – the composer/arranger is a major Evans scholar, and assembled an A-list big band to recreate the legendary 1961 Out of the Cool album plus a couple of surprises.

Dark & Stormy at the Tank, April 28 – the duo of Adrian Morejon and Rebekah Heller played pretty much the entire known repertoire for two bassoons, as lively and entertaining as it was sonically luscious.

Barbez at the Austrian Cultural Center, May 12 – playing mostly material from their most recent album Force of Light, a Paul Celan homage, they mixed brooding, klezmer-fueled instrumentals with spoken-word passages featuring work by the late Holocaust poet.

The JD Allen Trio at le Poisson Rouge, May 18 – the tenor saxophonist and his longtime collaborators, bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston, hit dark and forcefully again and again, airing out three-minute “jukebox jazz” songs from their darkly triumphant new album, VICTORY!

Those Darlins and Black Joe Lewis at Madison Square Park, June 12 – swirling jangly psychedelia with a little country from the 3/4 female rockers, followed by a marathon performance by the charismatic punk/funk guitarslinger and his purist, bluesy band.

Brooklyn Rider at Pace University, July 12 – a characteristically eclectic set by one of the world’s most adventurous string quartets, with works by Philip Glass and Kojiro Umezaki along with a bluegrass romp by Colin Jacobsen and several scorching gypsy tunes.

Pierre de Gaillande at Barbes, July 14 – the Snow’s frontman played a bunch of brand-new English translations of classic,smutty, wickedly literate Georges Brassens songs.

The Universal Thump at Barbes, July 16 – keyboardist Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band brought along a string quartet for this exhilarating, majestic show featuring new songs from their brand-new First Spout album.

The New York Arabic Orchestra at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, August 5 – a rich mix of Egyptian and Lebanese classics as well as intriguing, cinematic works by bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba

Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and Thomas Simon at Small Beast at the Delancey, August 15 – the weekly dark rock event, which has been running on fumes lately, had a rare good night since charismatic chanteuse Beren – who booked the bands this time around – brought along both the equally charismatic and even more inscrutable Garniez as well as swirling soundtrack crafter Simon.

The Chiara String Quartet at Trinity Church, September 8 – the ensemble revisited Robert Sirota’s anguished, chilling 9/11-themed Triptych where they’d premiered it less than a year later after the attacks. Seconds after they finished, sirens echoed outside just a couple of blocks away: eerie coincidence!

And the Wiremen and the Reid Paley Trio at Small Beast at the Delancey, September 19 – this time out Lynn Wright of southwestern gothic mavens And the Wiremen booked the night, bringing along charismatic retro rocker Paley, who was not amused by the chatty bar crowd and delivered what might have been the most deliciously assaultive show of the year

Chicha Libre at Barbes, October 3 – the surfy, psychedelic cumbia band plays pretty much every Monday here on their home turf – this time they went deep, deep into dub with a swirling, deliriously fun mix of classics and a lot of new original material.

Amour Obscur and Copal at R Bar, October 5 – blazing gypsy punk and noir cabaret, followed by gorgeously slinky violin-and-cello dance grooves from Hannah Thiem, Isabel Castellvi and their hypnotic rhythm section.

Drina Seay at Lakeside, October 7 – she came out of nowhere – a year ago she was singing backup vocals with a bunch of country bands – to lead one of New York’s most versatile, smartest Americana groups. Watching her soaring through a mix of torchy, intense ballads and more upbeat songs reminded a lot of seeing Neko Case right before she got popular.

The American Composers Orchestra at the World Financial Center, October 22 – closing night of this year’s SONIC Festival featured intense, majestic new works by Paul Yeon Lee, Ruby Fulton, Ryan Gallagher, Suzanne FarrinAndrew Norman, and an unexpectedly thoughtful, pensive one by the National’s Bryce Dessner.

Walter Ego at Otto’s, November 19 – switching from guitar to piano and back again, the literate rock tunesmith was at the top of his wryly amusing game.

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