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Tag: rasputina

Cellist Maya Beiser Reinvents Art-Rock and Metal Classics

There’s a little cello metal on Maya Beiser‘s new album Uncovered (streaming online), but most of it is art-rock. Beiser has made a name for herself in the classical and avant garde worlds; this time out, she plays gorgeously reinvented, sometimes ethereal, often otherworldly covers of well-known FM radio rock and blues songs. The new arrangements by Band on a Can All-Stars clarinetist Evan Ziporyn are magical, enabling Beiser to become a one-woman orchestra via lushly layered multitracks, occasionally backed by simple, emphatic bass and drums. She’s playing the album release show at le Poisson Rouge on Sept 4 at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $15 and worth it.

Other than a coy vocal come-on early in the album’s opening track, Led Zep’s Black Dog, the rest of the album is all instrumental. With the other Zep cover, Kashmir, it’s ironic that since Beiser goes easy on the bombast and heavy on the poignancy, the moody faux Egyptian bridge doesn’t carry the impact it does on the original. And where Beiser swoops and dives through Black Dog, she follows a steadily rocketing trajectory through the album’s heaviest number, Back in Black, up to a crescendo that’s just as funny if completely different from the AC/DC version.

There are also a trio of blues tunes. Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ at Midnight gets a hypnotically atmospheric, darkly otherworldly treatment. A remake of Muddy Waters’ Louisiana Blues is much the same but more rhythmic. And Beiser does Summertime as a dirgey, atmospheric waltz, using the Janis Joplin version as a stepping-off point.

But the real gems here are the art-rock songs. Beiser plays the famous series of chords that open Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing with an unexpected, striking fluidity instead of the punchiness you might expect; later on, she fires off a solo that brings to mind ELO’s Hugh McDowell. The high point of the album is the King Crimson classic Epitaph, a vividly elegaic take featuring Ziporyn’s bass clarinet doing a marvelous mellotron impersonation, Beiser substituting a long, loopy, ominously ambient outro in lieu of Michael Giles’ symphonic drumming on the original. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here gets much the same treatment, but in reverse: atmospherics to open it, and then an artful cut-and-paste of the song’s central riffs in lieu of the slow segue into Shine on You Crazy Diamond. There’s also a Nirvana cover: Beiser and Ziporyn give it all they’ve got, but ultimately they’re stuck with a tune that never rises above peevishness. Beiser isn’t the first cellist to cover radio rock and metal: Rasputina did that on their covers album over a decade ago, and then there’s Apocalyptica, but this is even better.

People who like this album also ought to check out Sybarite5‘s similarly outside-the-box, playful album of Radiohead songs arranged for string quintet.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Haunting Great Plains Gothic Songs to Cake Shop

Ember Schrag writes what could be called Great Plains gothic songs. She’s a nimble guitarist, a gripping storyteller, clever lyricist and a strong, dynamic singer with a direct, clear, matter-of-fact voice. She originally hails from Nebraska and now makes New York her home. And while she’s far from unknown in the dark folk demimonde, her writing transcends that genre: she’s one of the most individualistic and interesting songwriters in any style of music. She and her excellent band are at Cake Shop on May 11 at 11 PM; cover is $8.

Her 2012 album The Sewing Room – streaming at Bandcamp – is a quiet, disarmingly intense masterpiece. Violence and death are everywhere, yet seldom seen: the way Schrag lets her images unwind, usually after the fact, makes them all the more haunting. The opening track, Jephthah’s Daughter, sets the stage, a cruelly allusive tale of frontier justice (or more accurately, an imitation of it), Schrag’s elegant fingerpicking mingling with Jonah Sirota’s viola. Sutherland is no less chilling, a murder ballad as nonchalantly disturbing as anything A.M. Homes or Joyce Carol Oates ever wrote, the viola again adding a plaintive edge.

Alex McManus’s ominously tremoloing guitar lines and Gary Foster’s misterioso brushes on the drums propel the surrealistically torchy, slowly swaying betrayal anthem My Brothers Men. La Maria works a skeletal acoustic riff up to a more country-tinged chorus fueled by Greg Talenfeld’s lapsteel, Schrag contemplating how troubled people so often draw you in, not only “Because their seeping problems overtake you like the ending of the day.”

Schrag goes back to a slow swing groove on the brooding, metaphorically loaded seaside tableau I Ain’t a Prophet: it reminds a lot of early-zeros Marissa Nadler. A mashup of Old Testament and pulp novel imagery set to a distantly menacing oldtime swing tune, In the Alley imagines Scripture not as an opiate but as something from the other side of the narcotic spectrum. Frauleh Jekketheka is as funny as it is redemptive, an escape anthem told not from the point of view of the escapee but by one of the rednecks she was running from, Amy Denio’s moody clarinet pairing off against Philip Gayle’s lithely dancing mandolin.

Schrag’s casually wounded vocals echo Rasputina‘s Melora Creager on the title track, possibly the only song ever written about being tortured by angels. Dark Lion Lover is the album’s most opaquely atmospheric, jazz-inflected number, Sirota’s acidic, resonant lines contrasting with Schrag’s distantly seductive delivery.

The austere, bitterly aphoristic Your Words begins as the most traditional song here and then picks up as Schrag and Talenfeld gnash their guitars a bit. P.G. Six’s piano and Jay Kreimer’s homemade instruments add ghostly ambience to Houston, a surreal portrait of alienation and estrangement. The album ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note with April Night, Schrag’s gently lilting vocals evoking Laura Cantrell as she snatches what could be victory from the jaws of defeat. This is one of the five or six best albums ever to appear on this page over the past thirty months or so – and the icing on the cake is that the rest of Schrag’s equally intriguing back catalog is also up at Bandcamp to sweep you off into a world that in its own strange way looks dangerously like this one.

Cello Rockers Rasputina At City Winery: Still Going Strong

If you haven’t seen Rasputina in twenty years – and that’s possible, since they’ve been around that long, in one incarnation or another – you should see them now. Early last week, in the parking lot out back of City Winery, the original cello rock band put on a boisterously entertaining show, defying the threat of early evening rain and revealing that frontwoman Melora Creager doesn’t have to wait to go outside until after the sun has set. This version of the band is a trio, no longer all-female, with a woman playing impeccably nuanced drums with her brushes and a guy on cello made up in drag so ridiculous that even he was laughing. And he turned out to be a great player, too, at one point ambushing his bandmates with a ferocious pickslide down the scale.

Notwithstanding the subtlety of the drums, this might be the hardest-rocking version of the band, an impression possibly underscored by the trebly, gritty sound of the two cellos blasting through distortion and reverb pedals. The set was a mix of familiar favorites and new material, including a “world premiere” where Creager coyly told the audience that she was using them as a focus group to see whether the agilely shapeshifting, distantly Velvets-tinged song would stand up to scrutiny. It did.

They opened with the catchy, distantly Bollywood-inflected Thimble Island. Creager switched to banjo on a couple of songs, including the harrowing Snow Hen of Austerlitz, a cruelly deadpan account of a feral child. “Leave the cage door open, we’ll see how far she gets,” Creager intoned bloodlessly. Inhumanity to the Indians was addressed on a similarly nonchalant mini-epic early on. A little later, Creager sent a shout out to forgotten female classical composers, and then led the band into a wildly applauded romp through Heart’s Barracuda.

Most of the recent material alternated between a slow gallop and a stately 6/8 sway. The big crowd-pleasers included a subdued and rather seductive take of Secret Message, a lingering Sweet Sister Temperance with its long, hypnotic, harmonically lustrous layers of vocals, and finally driving takes of the metal-tinged Rats, the acidic Saline the Salt Lake Queen and the amusingly surreal Mama Was an Opium Smoker. They wound up the set in just under an hour with an unexpectedly high-voltage take of Watch TV, much louder than the opiated chamber-pop version on the band’s first album. It would have been nice if Creager’s endless torrents of lyrics had been more audible: she’s just as clever a wordsmith as a tunesmith.

Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi Go Down the Rabbit Hole Into Art-Rock

Violinist Carla Kihlstedt, a founding member of Tin Hat, has built a career that spans the worlds of Eastern European and Russian folk music, film scores and the avant garde. Her new album with her Rabbit Rabbit Radio song-a-month duo project with her husband, percussionist Matthias Bossi, simply titled Volume 1, is an eerie collection of lushly but plaintively arranged art-rock. Kihlstedt’s unselfconsciously breathy, angst-fueled vocals echo Siouxsie Sioux in their most dramatic moments, as does the music in places. Otherwise, Kihlstedt’s writing here is as eclectic as you would imagine, a bracing and sometimes surreal juxtaposition of atmospherics, dancing folk themes, classical cadenzas and burning rock riffage. Her lyrics are terse and vivid, full of disquieting imagery. Bossi’s songs are even more surreal, considerably more lighthearted and more rock and pop-oriented. The duo are playing the album release show on Saturday, July 13 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, most likely with a parade of special guests; $15 tickets are still available as of today.

The album opens with the bristling, anthemic Curious One, Kihlstedt sort of a one-woman, upper-register Rasputina, adding layer upon layer of string textures over chromatically-charged minor key changes. The eerie After the Storm alterntes between tricky pizzicato and a big, soaring chorus, an elegantly brooding portait of a storm or shipwreck survivor – or widow, maybe – who’s lost it all.

Bossi’s first track here is Hero and a Saint, a trippy trip-hop number driven by echoey Rhodes piano. Me Gusto El Calor is dadaesque, catchy new wave pop, with layer after layer of synth riffs. The album’s final track, Merci Vielmal, whimsically mashes up a bunch of European languages. And Ballad For No One works a brooding  cabaret piano vein.

Khilstedt takes centerstage on the album’s most gripping, intense material. Newsreel builds from a series of mantras, “there was a…”., up to a menacing circus rock theme flavored with spiraling ELO-ish violin. In the Dead of the Night builds off murky low-register dobro, creating a creepy desert rock tableau. The longest and most Siouxsie-esque song here, Hush Hush rises from astringent violin and bells to a dark chromatic vamp: “The bones of this house heal things, we don’t dare say these peculiar thoughts,” Kihlstedt intones enigmatically. Over the spare electric guitar and percussion of Home Again, she evokes Rachelle Garniez in a distantly lurid moment: “I’ll take my time crawling back home to you; don’t rush me baby, I’m closer than you know.” And Paper Prison, with its moody, opaque, slowly crescendoing atmospherics and murky sound effects, sounds like the Cocteau Twins gone gothic. Even considering how brilliant Kihlstedt’s work with Tin Hat has been over the years, this is just as good, if completely different. It’s available as an album, or a subscription, a good reason to follow this project as it continues to evolve.

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.

Hungrytown Leaves You Wanting More

You’ve heard the joke: the greatest songwriter of all time is Anonymous. But songs like Long Black Veil and John Henry didn’t spontaneously appear around a campfire somewhere on the great plains or on an Appalachian mountain trail: somebody actually wrote them. The songs on Hungrytown’s latest album Any Forgotten Thing have that kind of resonance. The duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson have immersed themselves in classic American folk music to the point where they’ve been able to pick up where those regrettably uncredited songsters left off. This effort is rustic, yet in the moment: decades from now, if there’s anyone alive, Hall’s broodingly aphoristic songs will be remembered as the folk music of the early part of the 21st century. Her nonchalantly lilting yet minutely nuanced vocals pack a quiet wallop, as does her casually purist tunesmithing, while Anderson’s elegant mandolin, percussion and harmonies match the subtlety of the songwriting. This isn’t the kind of music you hear at Starbucks although some of it might someday be played in the ruins of one.

The album opens with Year without a Summer, a creepily blithe waltz that makes a great companion piece to the Rasputina classic. “I gave myself up at the age of 13,” Hall sings with a chilling matter-of-factness. We all know what happened to spring in 1816 – and the scariest part is that the rest of this song could easily be true. The next cut, Rolling Train explores a slightly less intense kind of unease: “You are a sleeping town in the middle of the night, and I am a whistle blowing in the morning light,” Hall sings with cheshire cat seriousness – it’s a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Laura Cantrell songbook. The potently metaphorical Never Realized, a gentle look back in anger and regret is another one that evokes Cantrell, while the title track, a bouncy folk-rock shuffle, makes a great follow-up to John Prine’s Hello In There. Here, Hall’s aging narrator doesn’t see fit to wind the clock on the mantle, although she is eager to replace the doorbell. Touches like that are typical here.

A couple of tracks here are studies in jealousy: Make It All Work Out, which walks the fine line between funny and suicidal, and Sally Lazy, which shares that song’s swirly, psychedelic keyboards but ends on a slightly more optimistic note. Banjo mingling hypnotically with echoey Fender Rhodes piano, Just Like a Song contemplates daily ironies, while Calliope, a phantasmagorical waltz, evokes Judy Henske’s most menacing, trippy late 60s work. As usual, Hall’s metaphors are on a time-delay fuse, whether in Falling Star, where she hopes the meteorite had a soft landing, or in the fatalistic Under a Broken Sun, which (maybe intentionally, maybe not) perfectly and poetically capsulizes life during the early global warming era. The album ends with the gorgeous folk-pop gem Like You Do and The Sweetest Flower, a perfectly lovely (and perfectly bitter) a-cappella duet that sounds straight out of the Appalachians circa 1860. Whether traditional Americana, recent Nashville gothic like the Handsome Family or Mark Sinnis, or the more psychedelic side of 60s folk-rock is your thing, this album is a treat.

Serena Jost Plays an Enchanting Set at Barbes

Thursday night at Barbes Serena Jost played a concert to get lost in. “Night time and shade were never the same,” she sang, carefully modulated, nuanced, allusively, early on. If there’s anybody who knows what the difference between night time and shade is, it’s Serena Jost. This time out she and her band brought both, along with some sun as well. Like most artists whose main axe is the cello, her background is classical music, and as you might expect, she adds a classic pop feel to that – her songs are always about the melody. Her sound is one that first gained traction in the early 70s, when Genesis was a theatrical psychedelic band, and ELO played raw, apocalyptic, amped-up orchestral suites. But Jost’s melodies, and her vocals, go for plaintivess and an occasionally allusive wit instead of theatricality or fullscale epic grandeur.

Much of the set was new material from her forthcoming album A Bird Will Sing; Jost played acoustic guitar on the majority of those songs. One early standout had a distantly Brazilian flavor, Strat player Julian Maile shadowing Jost ominously, bassist Rob Jost (no relation) rising to meet a crescendoing wave head-on, nimbly filling in the spaces with some playfully sliding riffs. Another new one with a long solo cello intro followed by a brief fanfare, and then a march, sounded like a less caustic Rasputina. Drummer Rob DiPietro gave Almost Nothing, a track from her most recent album Closer Than Far, some marvelously funereal drumming that matched perfectly with her soaring vocals, stopping just this short of anguish. She also brought up her recent tourmate Robin Aigner to sing defiantly brassy harmonies on several songs.

“What’s the first thing you think of when you think of a deli?” Somebody in the audience nailed it. “That’s right! The cat!” she grinned, approvingly, and launched into a song inspired by a deli trip (and the furry friend she found there) that sounded something like White Rabbit done as chamber pop. The rest of the show was deliciously all over the map. The forthcoming album’s title track, a countrypolitan ballad, had Maile doing a spot-on imitation of a pedal steel with some nuanced slide work. Another new one, a gorgeous art-pop tune, had him running a fat Steve Cropper-style Memphis lick against the song’s balmy melody. They reinvented Doris Fisher’s Whispering Grass as a slow, sinuous funk groove, and then went into late 60s ye-ye pop on the “one song that sounds like a cover but isn’t,” as the bandleader took care to note. And Great Conclusions, another new track, was genuinely majestic, its slowly galloping chorus kicking in with an apprehensive power that wouldn’t be out of place in the Grieg repertoire.

Another excellent band, the People’s Champs, were scheduled to follow, but it was time to go home and pack for the Great Evacuation on Saturday (just kidding about that – but no trip to Barbes is complete without a visit to the totally oldschool 24-hour donut shop up the block on 7th Ave.).

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