The best New York show of 2014 happened last week at Trans-Pecos. There’s no way anybody’s going to top the quadruplebill of art-rock cellist-singer Meaner Pencil, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag, the starkly entrancing duo of guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone and the darkly psychedelic Christy & Emily. After the show had finally ended, the challenge of getting home from Ridgewood at half past midnight seemed pretty much beside the point. Nights like this are why we live here instead of in New Jersey.
Meaner Pencil takes her stage name from the online anagram generator. Her music is plaintive and poignant but also occasionally reveals the kind of quirky humor that you would expect from someone who would do that. Or, from someone who honed her chops and her ability to hold a crowd by playing in the subway. This crowd responded raptly – you could have heard a pin drop as she sang in the arrestingly bell-like, soaring voice of a chorister, playing solo on her cello with a elegant, minimalistic blend of gentle plucking and bowing. Her second song, with its sadly tolling, funereal chords and hypnotically drifting sense of resignation, was a quiet knockout. Longing, alienation and abandonment were recurrent themes, set to slow tempos with the occasional hint of renaissance plainchant, pansori stateliness, and maybe Stereolab. And there was a riff-based art-rock piece that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Serena Jost catalog.
Ember Schrag’s albums have a similar kind of low-key, lustrous elegance, but with a more distinct Americana flavor. Onstage, she leads a fiery, virtuosic art-rock band who are unrivalled in all of New York. Drummer Gary Foster established an ominous tone with rolling toms and deep-fog cymbals in tandem with bassist Debby Schwartz as their hypnotically rumbling first number, The Real Penelope got underway. Schrag varied her vocals depending on the lyrics, from austere on this particular one, to torchy, gritty and often downright haunting, playing nimble rhythm on a beautiful vintage Gibson hollowbody guitar while lead guitarist Bob Bannister aired out a deep vault of eclectic licks. In this case, he started out with wry wah-wah and ended up ankle-deep in murky surf.
They followed with the bittersweet, trickily rhythmic, distantly Beatlesque Sandhill/Seaside: “Is it worse to kill a god or kill a child?” Schrag challenged. Tell Me a Nightmare blended sardonic ba-ba harmonies into its lushly theatrical sonics, the band joined by a string trio featuring both Pavone and Lenna M. Pierce (an anagram of Meaner Pencil) as well as violinist Sana Nagano, playing an arrangement by June Bender.
From there Schrag led the band into a wickedly catchy, waltzing Celtic-tinged anthem, The Plant & the Seed and then the menacingly sensual, carnivalesque 60s psychedelia of As Birds Do. Schrag dedicated William for the Witches – not the first Macbeth-inspired song she’s written – to “all the Republicans back home,” ramping up the menace several notches with her litany of spells as Bannister veered from monster surf, to ominous jangle, to a little skronk. They went back to Nashville gothic with Sycamore Moon, lowlit by Bannister’s blue-flame slide work and closed with a sardonic art-pop anthem, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe that would have fit well in the Hannah Fairchild songbook. There is no more interesting, intelligent rock songwriter than Ember Schrag anywhere in the world right now. To put that in context: Steve Wynn, Richard Thompson, Paul Wallfisch and Neko Case, scooch over and make some room for your sister.
Flipping the scirpt and putting Halvorson and Pavone next on the bill was a smart piece of programming: it kept the intensity at redline even as the idiom completely changed. They’re two of the world’s foremost improvisers, yet what they played seemed pretty much composed. An alternately lively and broodingly conversational repartee between Pavone’s meticulous, elegant washes and biting, austere motives, and Halvorson’s similarly precise, pointillistically rhythmic tangents took shape immediately and kept going. Like the night’s opening act, a feeling of unease pervaded the duo’s short, two-to-three-minute pieces, both instrumentals and moody vocal numbers, yet there was subtle, sardonic humor that bubbled up from time to time as the melodies and voices intertwined. A distantly Balkan-tinged instrumental, Halvorson bobbing and weaving through the flames shooting from Pavone’s viola, was the high point of the set.
Guitar/keyboard duo Christy & Emily opened with a droning, pitchblende organ dirge that was a dead ringer for the Black Angels, but with better vocals, enhanced by a harmony singer who contributed to several songs. Christy stabbed against Emily’s neo John Cale drone, All Tomorrow’s Parties without the drums, so to speak. At one point Emily played nimble broken chords in her lefthand on the organ while hitting a boomy tom-tom – crosshanded, without missing a beat. Cheery, clear vocals contrasted with the enveloping ultraviolet sonics as the show went on, Emily’s sometimes minimalisticaly echoing, sometimes ornately neoromantic phrases counterbalanced by Christy’s off-the-rails attack on the frets. They wound up the show with a Lynchian Nashville gothic ballad and then a more lighthearted, bouncy singalong. Schrag has another full-band show coming up in Greenpoint next month while Pavone can be found next with Clara Latham’s Same Size at Radio Bushwick a couple of days from now, on Oct 16. Halvorson is at the Firehouse Space on Nov 6 with Dan Blake and Sam Pluta.