New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: instrumental music

Christopher Tignor Puts on a Tuneful, Enveloping Bill at the Silent Barn

Friday night’s enticingly tuneful show at the Silent Barn, assembled by violinist and Slow Six founder Christopher Tignor, could be characterized as an exploration of new voices in postminimalism…or simply as good music. Moving in waves, each act followed a distinct trajectory, both in terms of dynamics and melody. The trio Sontag Shogun opened: you wouldn’t necessarily think that an ensemble whose music is as stately and slow as theirs generally is would be in constant motion onstage. Pianist Ian Temple played artful variations on warmly neoromantic, downwardly cascading figures while his bandmates, Jeremy Young and Jesse Perlstein built a lushly enveloping backdrop with a whirling vortex of loops, terse percussion and icy washes of vocals processed with huge amounts of reverb and delay.

One of the percussion effects was an electrified paintbrush, delivering gentle wavelets, a miniature pond licking the shoreline. How’s that for dedication to a sonic mot juste? Through an elegant waltz, fragmentary vintage 4AD-style pastiches and long, cinematically shapeshifting preludes, the three moved, sometimes frantically, between turntables, a reel-to-reel player, mixers and that paintbrush, Temple’s matter-of-factly rippling lines lingering above. Sontag Shogun are at the Can Factory, 232 3rd St. in Gowanus on Sept 28.

Hubble, a.k.a. guitarist Ben Greenberg made his relentlessly assaultive, similarly reverb- and delay-drenched volleys of broken chords, played solo on what appeared to be a vintage clear plastic Danelectro model, seem effortless. But his split-second precise double-handed tapping was actually anything but that. Perhaps as a way of not only releasing the tension of the music but also the tension of holding a single position on the guitar, he’d pull away with an aching bend at the end of a phrase before returning to his sonic mandala’s spiraling, Bach-like patterns. Echoes of both Indian ragas and Scottish bagpipe music spun through the mix. He slowed down his first piece, reducing it to lowest terms to end on an gently elegant note. He did just the opposite with his second, throwing dynamite on the fire with a sudden menacing pounce on a volume pedal, leaving a long, pealing roar going at the end as he stood his guitar upside down, bending the neck for every keening overtone he could coax out of it, finally detuning the strings for extra rasp and bite. It’s a trick that goes back as far as Les Paul, and it was irresistibly fun.

Tignor headlined, a one-man string orchestra playing slow, plaintive, methodically shifting compositions with echoes of Brian Eno, the baroque and indie rock, some of them deceptively and hypnotically working variations around a root note. Tignor’s lyrical songs without words were rich with irony, frequent sardonic, self-effacing self-awareness and plenty of raw angst. He ran his violin through a laptop and Moog pedals that added low bass and cello-like textures, and kept time with a steady, emphatic thump on a kick drum. His themes unwound slowly like shifting banks of clouds, hints of a storm and then the real thing floating through the ether and then offering a clearing amid the mist. One of the pieces had distant echoes of plainchant, another a somber canon. It was almost unsettling watching him casually pick out a melody on the strings with a tuning fork: with all the processing, there was hardly less resonance than when he played with a bow. Tignor’s next show is an especially enticing one, an indie classical/postrock string composer summit on November 21 at around 8:30 at Littlefield with cellist Julia Kent and cinematic guitarist Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller.

Getting Pickled with Vivian Li

It feels kind of weird to sit behind the drum kit, watching a concert – and not playing. But that was the only place left in a cozy recording studio packed with people who’d come to party, and it turned out to be the best seat in the house. It was hard to resist the urge to get at least a simple kick-and-hi-hat shuffle going to keep pace with the elegantly strolling bluegrass groove that Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers had launched into at GSI Studios, around the corner from FIT, Saturday night. But trying to play along would have been a mistake for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that Li loves odd meters, syncopation and unexpected, cinematic twists and turns. So much that it would have been impossible to keep up without one of the charts that the six band members were reading. That’s right, a bluegrass band reading charts.

Li has a flair for writing riffs and tunes so fresh and vibrant that they sound completely improvised. Adding to the spontaneous atmosphere the mandolinist and her inspired group – Zach Brock on violin, Ross Martin on guitar, Darren Ziller on flute, Nathan Koci on horn and accordion and Tom DiCarlo on bass – maintained throughout their roughly 45-minute set was that Li virtually never repeats herself. An endlessly lively torrent of catchy licks flew by in rapid succession: by the third song, the performance felt more like a suite, or a long, serpentine jam, than a series of individual songs. Outside of the root chords, no verse or chorus was ever remotely the same. And Li writes solos like she plays them, starting with an emphatic idea and ending with a sizzle. And she pairs off instruments: the mandolin and flute, or violin and horn, would banter and spar and intertwine, building toward a fullscale duel.

And as deeply as Li understands the idiom, her music isn’t idiomatic at all. Much as the idea of a bluegrass band with a flute and a horn might seem like a Dr. Seuss creation, she built a context where those unlikely voices sounded completely natural, with plenty of jazz and classical influence as well. Most of the material in the set was taken from the group’s debut album Growing in the Cracks (streaming at Bandcamp): Moth in a Dustpan, with its plaintive, imagistic intro and nebulous deep-space bridge; Trickster, with its stately baroque allusions; a kinetic, dancing number simply titled The Next Tune and the playfully wry closer, Lasagna Sky. They encored with a fiery blues, and the band was so amped from playing all of Li’s tunes that the one flat-out jam of the night was just as focused and purposeful as everything else on the bill. Much as Brock – who’s also a first-rate composer – is the obvious star of this band and got all the most electrifying solos, Li is generous with them: everyone in the band got plenty of time in the spotlight and made the most of it. Somewhere there’s a Hollywood film – a road movie, or a buddy movie, maybe – that’s screaming out for a score by Vivian Li.

And the opening solo set, acoustic bass guitarist Will Bollinger‘s first-ever New York show, was also fantastic. Although the music was completely different, frequently harsh and aggressive, he shares Li’s gift for writing themes that sound extemporaneous. His technique was spectacular, with pull-offs, harmonics, lots of rumbling chords and a little tapping, slapping his downtuned low string for a drone effect while fingerpicking the other three. Often he’d work a raga-like melody against a pedaled low note, or a simple low-register riff given extra resonance by having tuned both the low and high strings to the same note an octave apart. And as fast as he played, he didn’t waste notes, and he worked the dynamics all over the place, from the very bottom to the very top of the fretboard. There were times he’d come to a stop and leave a wash of overtones to linger, then return to the gritty attack, playing through a surprisingly small, trebly, overdriven amp. Anybody who plays bass needs to see this guy: you’ll walk away with all kinds of inspiration. Just for starters, try this tuning, D#-G#-C#-D#, with a tinge of distortion and the treble turned all the way up.

Bright, Catchy, Eclectic Newgrass Instrumentals from Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers

Mandolinist Vivian Li‘s newgrass band call themselves the Pickled Campers. They’ve got a delightfully springlike, intriguingly eclectic new instrumental album, Growing in the Cracks streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show on August 16 at 8:30 PM at GSI Studios, 150 W. 28th St. Does this band like to get pickled? And go camping? Maybe both at once? As it turns out, yes! Their sound is a lot tighter and more eclectic than that might suggest: imagine Nickel Creek with a chamber jazz edge, sans the indie affectations, and you’re on the right track. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist Zach Brock, a brilliant jazz bandleader in his own right, with a great new album of his own just out. Flutist Darren Ziller adds more unexpectedly acerbic textures alongside guitarist Ross Martin, horn player Chris Komer and bassist Todd Grunder.

Throughout the album, the playing is tasteful and elegant to the nth degree. The opening track sways along brightly through some uneasy changes, with edgy solos from violin and flute before Li’s mandolin takes it in a sunnier direction. Moses (Free) pairs exploratory mando against washes of violin and flute before the bass brings it together as a pensive waltz; it’s a shadowy, cinematic, intriguing newgrass/jazz hybrid. Brock and Li team up for some gently bouncy riffs to open Grit, then the guitar and flute take elegant solos before Brock turns up the heat.

Likewise, The Next Tune – that’s the title – coalesces into a waltz and then a stroll with more than a hint of Romany jazz, a thoughtful horn solo grounding Brock’s lithe, dancing lines. Lasagna Sky – a trippy sunset image, maybe? – leaps right into a graceful, blues-infused Stephane Grappelli-esque sway, with precise, articulate solos around the horn.

Moth in a Dustpan opens with a sardonic sense of abandonment channeled by a flute/horn duet before the bass and guitar kick off a brisk strut for Brock and Li to dance over; then the band indulge themselves with a droll improvisational interlude. Trickster juxtaposes a trickily kinetic jazz violin theme with indie classical harmonies, sprightly flute, terse horn and guitar, Li capping it off with a warmly incisive crescendo. The album ends up with the jauntily syncopated Golden Apple, the album’s most trad number. None of this music is particularly dark but it has plenty of wit and it’s absolutely unique: there’s no other band that sounds like Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers. Highly recommended for bluegrass and jazz and even classical people.

A Killer New Twang and Surf Rock Album from the Bakersfield Breakers

The Bakersfield Breakers are one of New York’s funnest and most intriguing bands. They play twangy surf and country-flavored instrumentals inspired by Buck Owens’ wickedly catchy, Telecaster-fueled early 60s sound. There are times when you can’t tell this band apart from their influences, whether they’re doing reverbtoned Ventures themes, rugged Merle Haggard-style C&W, elegantly moody countrypolitan, even a rampaging cover of the Dick Dale classic The Wedge. They’ve got an amazing new album out, In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers, streaming at Bandcamp and a whole slew of shows coming up. They’re at South St. Seaport today, July 22 at noon for all you folks in the Financial District, then at Otto’s at 9 tomorrow night, July 23, then a gig at Sidewalk on July 27 at 6 and on the Coney Island Boardwalk on August 16 at 2 PM with a bunch of other instrumental and surf bands.

This band is all about tunes and textures: a clang, a crash, biting staccato, lingering jangle and everything in between from Keith Yaun’s multitracked guitars, he does it all. Bassist John Hamilton and drummer John DiGiulio team up through shuffles, surfy stomp and more subtle, gentler grooves. All of Yaun’s wild spiraling on the opening track, BB Breakdown, makes you forget that the band is just playing simple blues changes. The aptly titled Longing blends a sad, spiky mix of honkytonk, incisive blues and Britfolk licks and moody ranchera rock.

Hawaiian War Chant is basically a mashup of Buck Owens’ Buckaroo and the Charles Mingus classic Haitian Fight Song. Gored by a Board has a sarcastic edge: Weird Al couldn’t have done a Dick Dale sendup any better than this. They follow that with a precise, twangy reinvention of the Tennessee Waltz and then the Owens-ish boogie Honcho.

Stingray has more of the Buckaroo allusions – and some cool fuzz bass leads from Hamilton. Summer Sunset builds a wistful, regretful mood: it’s the most Lynchian of all the tracks here. Yaun builds to a series of sizzling electrified bluegrass licks on STP, then alludes to George Harrison on Whispering Guitar, right down to the watery Abbey Road-era chorus-box sonics. And speaking of the Beatles, the trio very cleverly interpolate a Fab Four classic into their cover of the Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday.

New Paltz starts out sounding as if it’s going to be another series of variations on the Tennessee Waltz, but then goes a lot further afield. There are also two strolling takes of Just Holding Your Hand here, one instrumental and the other with a nuanced countrypolitan vocal by a mystery guest chanteuse. Is this the best rock instrumental album of 2014? The upcoming album by Big Lazy is the only foreseeable competition.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Try to Remember Make Music NY 2014

Good Cop: Before we get sidetracked, which is what we usually end up doing, let’s run down the artists we got to see at this year’s Saturday edition of the annual buskers’ celebration, Make Music NY. We both agreed that four-piece percussion group Ensemble Et Al were a lot of fun. I had never seen a gamelan orchestra other than on PBS, so I really liked Gamelan Kusuma Laras, who hit the spot especially for me considering that Bad Cop had insisted I drag myself out of bed early on a Saturday just to get up to the Upper West Side for an act so bad that I’m not going to even mention who he was.

Bad Cop: My bad.

Good Cop: Ain’t that the truth. I was really out of it, and I was really in a bad mood after you subjected me to a wanky bass player singing Christian rock. Now your logic was that somebody who’s willing to play a show at ten in the morning has to be totally punk rock, he probably stayed up all night the night before, right? Well, you didn’t do your due diligence. And besides, there are other people who would be willing to play at ten AM on a Saturday. They’re called morning people and they are evil.

Bad Cop: At least the gamelan put you in a good mood.

Good Cop: Why didn’t you at least google the guy? I sure could have used another hour of sleep.

Bad Cop: I did. Couldn’t find anything.

Good Cop: My point exactly. I think you did it to be sadistic. Anyway, we agreed that the other two acts we saw, Killer Killy Dwyer, who’s sort of a combination performance artist and comedy-rock songwriter, and then instrumental rock band No Grave Like the Sea were also worth running around Brooklyn to see.

Bad Cop: We would have seen more bands but there were a lot of no-shows.

Good Cop: I don’t want to get into that.

Bad Cop: It’s germane to the conversation.

Good Cop: OK. The boss at this blog had mapped out a plan that sent us all over town, with plenty of choices depending on how much time we needed to get from Point A to Point B and so on. I’m sure we were the only people in town who were doing anything that crazy!

Bad Cop: As expected, lots of people who were on the Make Music NY master calendar either didn’t get to where they were supposed to be on time, or completely blew off their sets.

Good Cop: The program made a point of saying that set times were approximate…

Bad Cop: Approximate doesn’t mean nonexistent. This happens every year. I blew this off last year but I went to the one the year before, at least tried to, and saw a grand total of two bands in about six or seven hours and most of that was on the subway since everywhere I went, there was nothing to indicate that anyone was going to play there. I might do this next year if Blog Boss asks, when it’s on a Sunday, but after next year, there’s no way in hell I’m blowing off work just so I can run all over town on the hottest day of the year.

Good Cop: This year the weather couldn’t have been better, and it cooled off even more at night.

Bad Cop: Temporary reprieve. Don’t count your chickens.

Good Cop: Good point. Anyway, let’s tell the people about who we saw, starting with Ensemble Et Al. How would you describe this band?

Bad Cop: I’d call them downtempo, trip-hop, chillout music, but with an indie classical thing on the side. They know who Philip Glass and Steve Reich are, that sort of thing.

Good Cop: I really liked them. They looked like they’re all good friends, they interacted a lot with each other. And then they played frisbee in the street afterward. Everybody in this band smiles a lot. Which makes sense because their music is hypnotic and intricate, and requires a lot of teamwork, and a lot of tradeoffs, and the four people in the band clearly like working with each other.

Bad Cop: Ron Tucker is the group leader. I didn’t catch the names of the other three. Everybody in the group switched off between instruments – marimba, vibes, glockenspiel, a little synth, a drum kit. They like loopy phrases that they run over and over again, then they shift tempos. Some of those were weird but others were more straight ahead. I thought it was cool that since the gamelan wasn’t set up yet, they started their set all over again. Even though we’d just seen them play those first two songs, I didn’t mind hearing them a second time.

Good Cop: Whoah, that’s high praise from this dude. Ensemble Et Al’s music is gentle and rippling but also dancing and energetic. It was on the quiet side, which I liked since I was short on sleep and in a bad mood. I wish I’d brought a mat.

Bad Cop: You would have passed out.

Good Cop: You’re probably right. Gamelan Kusuma Laras‘ music, at least at this show, was very dreamy and ethereal. As you’d say, it vamped along. They made a good segue with Ensemble Et Al. Some of their tempos were strange but others were more straightforward. Their performance was very tightly choreographed – various band members took turns leading the group – and they came across as being very well rehearsed. I guess you have to be if you have, what, 35 or so people in the group?

Bad Cop: Something like that. I agree, this really hit the spot.

Good Cop: The gamelan bells are tuned in some kind of approximation of the Asian scale. Lots of songs would start fast and then slow down, then really slow to a crawl at the end. I wasn’t expecting to hear as much singing as there was, and I don’t speak anything that would be spoken in Indonesia so I have no idea of what the lyrics were. But the contrast between the very sober, even somber, almost chanted vocals, and the high, airy, tinkling bell tones, struck a very beautiful balance.

Bad Cop: I wish they’d used that big gong more. It only got into one song, at least for as long as we stuck around, which was for the better part of an hour.

Good Cop: Then we went off looking for more gongs but couldn’t find them.

Bad Cop: Just the idea that more than one crazy person would lug a bunch of big heavy gongs into the middle of Central Park in the midday sun, in the age of global warming, on the longest day of the year, makes me laugh. This was ostensibly the New York Gong Ensemble – which according to Google, doesn’t exist, but somehow made it onto the Make Music NY calendar – and Blog Boss wanted us to check it out.

Good Cop: But it was on the way to the west side train and we had to get down to Chelsea anyway…

Bad Cop: Where there was another no-show…

Good Cop: And it looked like somebody was squatting in that band’s space…

Bad Cop: Which seemed to be happening a lot. And it wasn’t like bands were fighting over space, either.

Good Cop: As you might already know, what Make Music NY does is help secure permits for outdoor performances, all over town, all day long, every June 21. A great idea…

Bad Cop: Some backstory. The reason why Blog Boss didn’t cover this show personally is that Blog Boss is officially retired from covering Make Music NY, having written a scathing review a couple of years ago which among other things challenged the promoters to move it to a more realistic date, like in the fall when the heat isn’t so oppressive. Personally, I think the whole summer solstice connection is bullshit – remember, this whole thing got started by a bunch of French hippies.

Good Cop: So this is where the B team, a.k.a. us, goes into action. Our next stop was Grand Army Plaza where we expected to see a really good Balkan brass band, another no-show. Instead, there were a bunch of drum corps…

Bad Cop: …whose big extravaganza with banghra funk band Red Baraat we missed because by the time that got underway we had to get over to Branded Saloon a few blocks west to see Killy Dwyer. Now she was hot!

Good Cop: What she was wearing didn’t leave much to the imagination.

Bad Cop: Actually, when you think about it, it did.

Good Cop: I know where you’re going with that and you’re not going any further. Killy Dwyer used to front a parody band called Kill the Band. They put out a couple of albums and then broke up. This was recent. She was playing solo, with lots of digital loops: choir and orchestration and all kinds of stuff. What she does is funny songs interspersed with lots of improv, shock theatre set to music. And all the jokes have a political edge: she riffed on racism and gentrification and musicians getting priced out of the city and pretty much everything she did was funny. A lot of people who try to do political humor end up sounding really strident and she had both of us laughing out loud, which wasn’t easy to do considering that I was running on fumes and Bad Cop was really stoned.

Bad Cop: Let’s tell some of her jokes.

Good Cop: No, that would be a spoiler.

Bad Cop: But I wanna tell the one about the clitoris….

Good Cop: OK. She’s obviously got a theatrical background, knows how to work a crowd. So she asked everybody, does anyone here know what a clitoris is? And one guy sheepishly raised his hand. See, she said, that proves my point. There’s definitely a need for a song that explains what the clit is all about.

Bad Cop: And for awhile it looked like she was going to lie down in the street, right there in broad daylight for everyone to see, and rub one out.

Good Cop: And then she stopped because a bunch of kids on bikes went by and she blamed them for ruining her orgasm. Which was a setup for another joke which I’m not going to tell.

Bad Cop: It was kind of a throwback to the kind of edgy performance art you’d see during the punk era, except with up-to-date references, you know, idiots on Facebook and that sort of thing. Along with the jokes, she did a fake gospel song, some hip-hop and a creepy garage rock song that she played on guitar. I recommend that you see her sometime: she’s funny to listen to on the web but that’s no substitute for what she’s like in person. She’s at Sidewalk on July 31 at 11.

Good Cop: From there we actually were able to catch a G train to Bushwick for No Grave Like the Sea

Bad Cop: Who were epic. An amazing band, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Cinematic without being cheesy. Postrock instrumentals with big swells and dips and genuine menace. And fronted by the bass player. Usually a bass solo is the last thing I want to hear, but when it’s Tony Maimone playing them, I want to hear one in every song. And the reality is that he really didn’t play any solos at all, just variations on riffs. Big, fat ones. Damn, this guy is inspiring to watch.

Good Cop: I was surprised there weren’t more people in the park to see them. They really have presence. It was like being at Madison Square Garden – their themes really envelope you. [to Bad Cop] I think you liked them more than I did – I think it’s a guy thing. Swaying, thunderous rhythms and anguished screams from the guitar and that ominous, booming bass. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of their songs were used as video game themes. Navy Seals Kuwait Inferno Challenge! That sort of thing…

Bad Cop: But with the anthemic drive of a rock band, like Pink Floyd or the Church playing instrumentals, or Mogwai. Maimone played with a slide on the first song – when’s the last time you saw a bassist do that? He owns Studio G in Williamsburg so he brought a super state-of-the-art rig and a pedalboard. They did a song with a reggae beat, then one that was more trip-hop…

Good Cop: …but loud!

Bad Cop: Yeah, there was a truck depot across the street from the park but you couldn’t hear the trucks backing in. That’s how loud, and how good this band was. It made my night. The guitarist stayed within himself even though he was playing all these screaming, wailing lines, the keyboardist played all these weird washes of sound, and used lots of pedals, one with a backward masking effect. Some of it was like watching Savage Republic with a keyboard, but without the Middle Eastern influences, I guess you could say.

Good Cop: I wanted to try to catch some of the Dum Dum Girls show at Prospect Park afterward, but there were problems on the L train so I went home.

Bad Cop: You should have taken the G instead…

Good Cop: I wasn’t going to push my luck. We already got lucky with the G once on the way over and I didn’t want to risk it a second time. Getting stuck in the middle of Bed-Stuy after dark with no other trains, no bus, no choice but to walk, no fun.

Bad Cop: You probably wonder why this blog has waited til now to publish this…

Good Cop: If you’re new to this blog, or new to us, we appear here about once a month, to offer a fresh perspective…

Bad Cop: We’re the B team. When Blog Boss doesn’t want to go out in the heat, or run around in the rain, or runs out of things to say about a particular artist, we get the call. Up and down like a yo-yo between here and the minor leagues, just to entertain you…

Good Cop: Anyway, the reason why this hasn’t appeared til now is that Blog Boss wanted to publish a bunch of stuff about upcoming shows first. As I understand it, that’s what people who follow this blog have asked for. We aim to please!

Bad Cop: And ostensibly there’s a historical aspect to what we do, which I think is debatable. But I agree with Blog Boss that on the web, the idea of getting the scoop on a particular event – a concept that goes back to the print-and-paper era – is dead. The first people on any scene will be tittering away on Twitter and Instagram and 99% of that turns out to be bullshit anyhow. It always takes awhile for the facts to shake out, whether you’re dealing with a newspaper, a blog, some loser’s Facebook page, the works. The more things change, you know the drill. Look for more snarky stuff from us here in a few days

Another Moody Violin Masterpiece from Hannah Thiem

Hannah Thiem‘s new album Brym – streaming at Soundcloud – finds the intense, haunting Copal violinist in typically eclectic mode. This time out, she’s traded her usual Middle Eastern-tinged sound for a more Nordic and classically-influenced one. As with Copal, her songs here manage to be terse yet soaringly majestic at the same time. Otherwise, the main difference between this and Copal is that the rhythm here is mechanical, and there are light electronic flourishes to flesh out the string melodies. But Thiem keeps those to a minimum, mostly just a simple synth bassline and some delicate atmospherics. Otherwise, it’s her violin, soaring and wailing and dancing with a lithe, wary majesty, dark and pensive and absolutely gorgeous.

The opening track, Skaldic Roulette sets the stage, washes of sound against murky distant lows introducing a trip-hop groove with Thiem’s signature windswept, plaintive melody. It reminds of Kristin Hoffmann at her most intense. Phavet is an example of how interesting you can make what’s essentially a one-chord jam if you vary your dynamics enough, in this case from an echoing, dancing, hypnotically bracing theme to a thicket of overdubs where Thiem becomes a one-woman string sextet.

The title track works variations on a traditional Norwegian theme. like an Alan Parsons Project instrumental from the 80s but more techy. This particular tune is more rustic, with a vivid sense of longing and absence in the midst of all its lush layers. The Finding mingles hints of dub, the Mediterranean, swooping vocalese and goth-tinged piano along with Thiem’s dynamically rich string multitracks. The album ends with Sweetest Invitation, which is bittersweet at best, a terse, goth-tinged ballad that’s the most classically-oriented piece here. Copal’s album Into the Shadow Garden is one of the best of the past decade: as far as short albums go, there hasn’t been anything released in 2014 that can touch this. If art-rock is your thing, grab this before it disappears.

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: ‘Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

Majestic, Sweepingly Cinematic Instrumentals from Arms of Tripoli

Los Angeles instrumentalists Arms of Tripoli play exuberant, anthemic, frequently cinematic postrock, a swirling, pouncing, enveloping, propulsively percussive mix of guitars, bass, drums and keys. No verse or chorus is ever exactly the same. The music takes on majesty and grandeur as it goes on, with unexpected dynamic shifts that peak out and then hit quieter interludes. Guitarists Jaime Galvez, Michael Bouvet and Robert Bauwens, keyboardist K.C. Maloney, bassist Vic Lazar and drummer George Tseng don’t waste your time with lyrics, they just hit you with the hooks, one after another. More bands should be doing this. Their latest album Dream in Tongues is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

The opening track, Miniature Habitats, opens with an insistent guitar figure over resonant chords, shifts tempos back and forth as the drums kick in and then out, echoing Aussie art-rock legends the Church but with the faux-vintage keyboard voicings that are all the rage in indie circles. Then hits a long, hypnotic vamp and pretty much stays there. All this in just six minutes and thirty seconds: it gives you a good idea of what’s coming.

Velcro Thunder Fuck balances variations on a countryish guitar lick with layers of tinkling keys over a galloping rhythm as the bass shifs around, tremolopicked Mogwai-ish guitar giving way to a more echoey, dreampop-tinged chorus, then back up to the galloping theme. Scraping Skies shifts through even trickier tempos, anthemic guitar countermelodies rising over a midtempo sway, adding layer after layer of guitars and twinkling keys in the background.

Escalator Jazz turns out to be really cool. You think from the circular hook that opens it that it’s going to be a dorky mathrock song, but it comes together mightily on the chorus and from there it’s a big, majestic, atmospheric 6/8 anthem. The band works that same trick a little later with 10th Graders Forever, the most dreampop-flavored track here, and Canna, which eventually winds down to an unselfconsciously pretty art-rock lullaby of sorts.

Snowed In, with its allusions to surf music and spacious chords over nonchalantly galloping drums, is the most ominous of the tracks. Addendum begins with a country guitar lick and then builds to a spacerock theme with layers of distorted, ringing and echoing guitars – while it’s the most metal-ish and dynamically charged track here, it’s far from buffoonish. The final track is one of the simplest and most memorable melodies, a big ELO-ish anthem blended into an opaque, dreampop/postrock background, lush ambience contrasting with guitar snarl and bite.

A Haunting Exploration of the WWII Underground Resistance from Barbez

Brooklyn instrumentalists Barbez are one of the world’s great art-rock bands. Guitarist/frontman Dan Kaufman blends reeds, strings, vibraphone and theremin into his frequently haunting, sometimes austere, sometimes frenetic, historically-informed, Old World European-influenced songs. Their previous album, Force of Light, set death-obsessed poems by Romanian-Jewish Holocaust poet Paul Celan to music. They’ve got a new album, Bella Ciao, inspired by the unique sounds of Roman Jewish music and the bravery of the Italian underground against the Nazis in World War II. They’ve also got a show coming up on May 22 at around 10 at Trans-Pecos (the old Silent Barn space), 915 Wykoff Ave. in Ridgewood, L train to Halsey St.; cover is $10.

The new album – recorded and mixed by dark rock maven Martin Bisi – is a suite, a brooding, wounded, cinematic theme and variations. It opens and quickly builds to a propulsive, trickily rhythmic, darkly bustling overture over Peter Lettre’s tightly looping bass and the tumbling drums of Sway Machinery’s John Bollinger (whose echoey, terse clusters throughout this album drive the menace factor through the roof). The second track juxtaposes Peter Hess’ insistent clarinet and Danny Tunick’s vibraphone within a wistful waltz that builds to a gallop and then back.

Kaufman’s creepy tremolo guitar fuels the third track, morphing out of dub-inflected noir ambience to a lushly marching sway that evokes Big Lazy with orchestration. On the following cut, Fiona Templeton narrates an English translation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini poem The Resistance and Its Light over a soaring backdrop to illustrate an angst-ridden hope-against-hope theme. Then she does the same with Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, on Mizmor Leasaf, the eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir piece that’s the high point of the album.

After a brief, austere vocal interlude, Kaufman deftly builds a Twin Peaksian theme out of Lettre’s ominous introductory chromatics on Keter Ittenu, then does the same, building to a frantic punk pulse and then pulling back, on Kamti Beashmoret. The title track, a new arrangement of the famous Italian WWII resistance anthem – sung by Templeton in its original Italian – sets a trickly rhythmic verse up against soaringly waltzing choruses fueled by Catherine McRae’s violin and Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin, then a hypnotically psychedelic interlude. The narrative reaches a peak with Umevi Goel, rising from a brooding violin/clarinet passage to an understated danse macabre, Bollinger’s ominous rumble fueling its many dynamic shifts. -The album ends with a sad, rainy-day violin-and-piano duet, a vivid after-battle scenario. This plaintive, evocative masterpiece might well be the high point of the band’s career; watching them evolve since their begininngs in the late 90s mining a stylized Tom Waits vibe has been a lot of fun. And they’re just as good live as they are on album.

Dana Lyn Plays an Ocean of Melody at the Firehouse Space

[republished from New York Music Daily's older and more sophisticated sister blog Lucid Culture]

Violinist Dana Lyn is as adept at Bach and Celtic dances as she is at searchingly acerbic string music. There’s a lot of the the latter on her latest album Aqualude. The night of 4/20 at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, she and her shapeshifting band from that album – Clara Kennedy on cello, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – aired out some of the spiraling, entrancing pieces on it as well as a number of even more intriguing new compositions. One of those Lyn had just finished earlier in the day, but the group approached it with relish, Kennedy’s stark solo intro giving way to a lively balletesque theme that worked back and forth through all kinds of permutations, Goldberger hinting at skronk against an uneasy wash of strings.

Another began with an elegant eight-note clarinet hook that Lyn and Goldberger used as a springboard for lilting, dancing harmonies. One of Lyn’s main tropes is to loop a phrase and then use that to anchor an intricate interweave of voices. and the band did that often throughout an expansive set that went well over an hour. Lyn also has a fascination with the ocean and its creatures, carefully and wryly explaining how those often very strange beings influence her music. The guardedly explosive centerpiece of the Aqualude album, she said, was inspired by the hairy crabs who frequent the volcanic vents on the seabed. Another piece drew on the plight of the octopus, whose male and female basically go insane and die after they mate (does that remind you of another species?).

Kennedy opened the show with a stark intro that grew into a metrically tricky loop in tandem with the guitar, McGinnis adding counterrythmic staccato accents as Lyn’s violin wafted overhead. Sperrazza – who felt the room’s sonics instantly, keeping his masterfully counterintuitive accents and colors low-key with his brushes and sometimes just his hands – kicked off the next one as loudly as he’d go, with an almost baroque counterpoint from the clarinet and strings.

Along with the web of melodies, there’s a lot of contrast in Lyn’s music, and the band worked those dynamics with a comfortable chemistry: hazy atmospherics versus a kinetic drive, loud/soft and calm/agitated dichotomies, Goldberger hitting his pedals for an unexpected roar or McGinnis leaping from the murk of the bass clarinet to the top of his register. Lyn also counters the pensiveness and gravitas of her music with a surreal sense of humor. It was her birthday, so she supplied paper and pens so that everyone in the crowd could draw a cadavre exquis. Some of the audience came up with intriguing or amusing stuff; from an artistically-challenged point of view, it was impossible to concentrate on drawing for very long because it was such a distraction – and a lot more fun – to watch Lyn’s magical sonic tableaux unfold.

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