New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: September, 2011

A Hawk and a Hacksaw Go Wild at the Bell House

Last night at the Bell House, A Hawk and a Hacksaw were all business: smiling was left to the audience. Of all the acts chronicled in this month’s crazy adventure, this ferociously virtuosic gypsy band was the most intense, sort of a high-energy counterpart to New York’s Which Way East. Nonchalantly but powerfully, one by one, they aired out songs from their latest album Cervantine, a lock for one of the best of 2011. Their sense of humor only came to the forefront when they hit a trick ending, or a shift from slow to fast or back again, and there were dozens of those: every time they’d let one ring out, one person or another in what looked to a pretty full house would whoop or scream and then the band would dive back into the maelstrom of vampirish chromatics and apprehensive minor keys. Former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes was a whirlwind of accordion against Heather Trost’s alternately soaring and austere violin textures, alongside the two drummers – one on a couple of standup snares, the other on a big boomy tapan, plus a trumpeter who played blistering, staccato lead lines when wasn’t adding another rich, overtone-laden layer of accordion to the mix.

Everybody’s phone went up when Trost switched to a horn-violin, a cross between a trumpet and a fiddle with two sets of strings, one dangling from the instrument, which she pulled on for a creepy, creaky-door effect, and another that she fretted to change the pitch. None of that footage seems to have made it to youtube yet today but some of it is bound to: google and you’ll find it. The wry horror movie vibe of the song’s Addams Family march melody stopped just short of amusing: was the band going for laughs, or chills? Maybe both?

They started with a swirling vamp rich with raw gypsy riffs, then what was basically a one-chord jam in 9/4 with solos all around capped off by a precisely sprinting one from trumpet. Trost sang a slow, steady Turkish tune with a plaintiveness from much further east, then they picked up the pace with a stomping, shapeshifting dance that was all but impossible to keep up with, but it kept the crowd going. At the end of the show, Barnes pedaled a chord and built it to a murky river of sound that slowly flooded the entire sonic picture – and then Trost leaped in, and the stampede was on again.

Goth-tinged, keyboard-driven art-rock band Dark Dark Dark headlined, all methodical, mostly slow-to-midtempo High Romantic angst. They’re perfectly good at what they do – as the band is now, they’re a gateway drug to Marissa Nadler and Edison Woods. With piano, guitar, bass, drums and accordion, their musicianship was purist and tasteful, especially the drummer, who gave the songs a stately, understated grandeur. And in the wake of A Hawk and Hacksaw’s ecstatic intensity, there was no way it could have been anything but anticlimactic. It would have made more sense to have them open the show (not the fault of the venue – the three bands on the bill are touring as a package deal). The whole bill is at Drom tonight: if this lineup is any indication, A Hawk and a Hacksaw should hit the stage around 9.

32 Concerts in 32 Days: Day 21

It’s funny how the corporate media typically praises violinists for their “clear, pure tone,” or words to that effect. But consider: if you play the violin and you can’t hold a note for at least a few seconds, maybe you should switch to sax or drums. Last night at Barbes Jenny Scheinman played with a lovely tone, and one that sometimes wasn’t so lovely, depending on the emotion she wanted to evoke. She’s sort of the Chet Atkins of the violin, completely at home both in country music and jazz. She also plays klezmer and indie classical and bluegrass, and elements of those styles and others also poked their heads out throughout her characteristically imaginative, eclectic set of originals and a cover or two.

She started out solo. The audience kept the tempo, stomping their feet through one hypnotic but bracing one-chord romp, sounding like a traditional piece from right where Irish reels were morphing into Appalachian music. Was it a classic, an original or was she just jamming? Either way, it was a lot of fun, as were a couple of more pensive, rustic solo country pieces. Joined by an excellent, versatile guitarist along with Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet (who also played guitar later), she then swung through a Django Reinhardt tune, Wieselman adding his signature wit and giving it a bouncy bossa pulse. The guitarist kicked off the next tune with a spaciously reverberating, David Lynch-style noir intro straight out of the Bill Frisell songbook (Frisell being a frequent Scheinman collaborator, it could well have been a Frisell composition). Scheinman’s originals ranged from a song that actually managed to make compelling music out of a generic two-chord indie rock vamp, a couple of hypnotic yet bracing, springlike numbers that were equal parts North Carolina woods and Harlem, and a deliciously unpredictable piece whose fast, shifting chords echoed the Arthur Lee classic 7 and 7 Is.

Just getting into the back room to see her was something of an accomplishment. Scheinman typically sells out much larger venues, including the Village Vanguard, where she’ll be for a week starting December 6 with Frisell and Brian Blade, so if you want to see her here, you need to show up early.

Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – Best Album of 2011?

If there’s any album from this year that deserves your attention – or that will keep your attention from its first tense, staccato notes through its casually brutal ending – it’s Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister. A four-part suite for string orchestra performed with chilling precision by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Brad Lubman and released by Cantaloupe Music (the Bang on a Can folks), it’s arguably the most impactful album of 2011 in any style of music. It’s as noir, and as haunting, and as intense as anything Mingus, or Messiaen, or Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. Julia Wolfe has been an important and singular voice for a long time, but this may be her finest 29 minutes and 55 seconds.

The suite is a reinterpretation of the storyline from a grim medieval English folk ballad. Cruel Sister is jealous of Good Sister and her suitor, so she pushes Good Sister into the ocean. Two minstrels find what’s left of Good Sister and make a harp out of her hair and her breastbone. When Cruel Sister ends up marrying Good Sister’s guy, the minstrels play the wedding, using their brand-new homemade harp. The final line of the ballad is “And surely now her tears will flow.” While Wolfe follows the trajectory of the narrative, she does not employ any of the ballad’s musical motifs (Wolfe first came across the tale via the recording by 1970s folk-rockers the Pentangle).

The melody itself doesn’t move around much, save for a couple of instances where the ensemble goes up the scale for a literally murderous crescendo in the first movement. Aside from most of the watery, hypnotically polyrhythmic final movement, an ominous low note, whether a staccato pulse or a drone, anchors the music as an inescapable reminder of raw evil. The first movement begins almost imperceptibly, foreshadowing the murder with a series of creepy cadenzas and layers of tritones. The second movement is similarly cinematic, its vivid center point being where the minstrels find the corpse, the music’s stormy swells and ebbs contrasting with that ever-present low pulse that never quite disappears, and a crescendo that aches to find a resolution but never does. Funereal bell-like tones, accordionesque swells and suspenseful, false endings pair off against airily macabre variations on the opening theme as the work winds its way out, ending cold without any direct acknowledgement of whether Cruel Sister learned her lesson or not. Cruel as the music is, maybe that’s just her style: maybe the force of evil is truly immutable.

The second work, Fuel, opens with a similarly uneasy, suspensefully minimalist theme with apprehensively crescendoing, sometimes steady, sometimes jarring binary phrases, although it has a more anthemic feel – and an allusion to the Exorcist theme, maybe? Tense and occasionally frantic, it never lets up, nebulously blustery tritones interchanged with a morbid little fugue, creaking mechanical accents, a rush of what sounds like jet engine exhaust, a bracing little circular dance and an even creepier overture – or postlude. Is it meant to illustrate the psychic effect of living in the peak oil and post-peak oil era? Either way, all this packs a wallop.

Which Way East at the New York Gypsy Festival

It’s likely that most of the people who wrote the songs that Which Way East played last night at Drom died young and forgotten, along with their contemporaries, the only people who might have been able to maintain some record of composer credits. Adding their own improvisational, sometimes jazzy, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged edge, the New York-based Balkan group did justice to the depth and power of those old songs, as part of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival. This particular version of the band featured Jesse Kotansky on violin, Adam Good (of the Berlin-based Ljuti Hora) on several stringed instruments, Uri Sharlin on accordion and Eva Salina Primack on vocals.

Primack’s initials pretty much explain her approach to music. There are other singers who can learn perfect enunciation in Romanes, Macedonian and Turkish, as she demonstrated during the show, but she doesn’t simply have the mechanics down cold: she inhabits the songs. Death and despair were not always front and center during the set – in fact, just the opposite – but they were always lurking around the corner, and Primack’s wary, nuanced modulations were a constant reminder. She may be best known for power and drive – it’s something of an athletic feat to be able to sing over the blasting brass of a band like Slavic Soul Party – but this show was not about pyrotechnics, it was about soul. That she didn’t upstage the other musicians testifies to the equally subtle power they brought to the music. Kotansky typically served as the lead player, building crescendos to the breaking point, sliding, swooping and diving, adding swirls of otherworldly microtones to bring a crescendo to critical mass. Good began on guitar, with an agile, precise gypsy jazz attack, then switched to the clanky yet hypnotic tambura and then oud, the instrument that gave him the opportunity to induce the most goosebumps with a couple of slowly swelling, brooding solos. Sharlin held the rhythm steady, sometimes with a blippy staccato, sometimes with raw sheets of sustain: it would have been fun to have seen him cut loose more than he did because like his bandmates, he typically goes for plaintiveness over flash.

Together they made their way, judiciously but not particularly cautiously, through a Turkish wedding song, a couple of acidically rustic Macedonian tunes and the gypsy anthem Song of the Romanes.They finally let the clouds lift with a cover of the iconic gypsy pop tune Marushka, Primack going down into her low register for a sardonic come-hither vibe. They ended the set with a completely unexpected cover of Jolene. You might think that a Dolly Parton hit would make a bizarre segue with gypsy music, but this band made it work (Primack’s AE duo project with another A-list singer, Aurelia Shrenker, explores the Appalachian-Balkan connection even more deeply). Primack teased the crowd, waiting until the third chorus until she finally went all the way up the scale for “Jo-LEE-ee-een,” unable to resist a grin as she brought the song back down. And she made it absolutely clear how sad a song it was. It’s not a happy karaoke singalong: it’s a plea to a hot mama who can get whatever she wants to refrain from breaking up someone else’s home (although there should be a sequel where the protagonist gets to kick Jolene’s ass, then her man’s ass, and then run off with Jolene’s husband for good measure. Maybe Primack can write that one someday).

Which Way East play Oct 13 at the Jalopy at 9 with Veveritse Brass Band.

Pensive Stuff from the Moor and John Cale

The Moor come from “a place where autumn is a state of mind,”as the hypnotic retro-80s goth band’s frontwoman Erika Daking sings on their latest studio track, Warm Winter. It makes a good anthem for a hot day like this. Another track from their soundcloud site, You’ll See, has a similarly hypnotic ambience.

And speak of goth, John Cale has a new video out as well – obviously, he put his time with Siouxsie Sioux in the Creatures to good use.

A Rare Solo Show By Randi Russo

In order to pull off a solo acoustic performance, you either have to have very good tunes, or very good lyrics. Randi Russo has both. A relatively rare solo show at Sidewalk last night found her in characteristically intense mode, at least when she wasn’t gently bantering with the audience (when she plays with a band, the humorous side of her performances sometimes gets takes a backseat to the roar of the guitars). Over the last ten years, she’s slowly gravitated from otherworldly, noisily literate rock, to hypnotic acoustic sounds, to distantly Beatlesque psychedelia, a style she mines triumphantly on her latest album Fragile Animal. The constant through it all has been her gently defiant lyrics and her pillowy-yet-steely vocals. Case in point: the trance-inducing Shout Like a Lady (the title track from her excellent 2006 album), which she played late in the set. Over a minimalist, repetitive guitar figure, she offered an anthem for any woman, or for that matter any individual, who’s been denied a voice:

Shout like a lady
Make it all savory
Silence is gravy
To those who hate your youth

Comfort for anyone cast into that situation, and a sarcastic slap upside the head for those who create and perpetuate it. In Venus on Saturn, she commented on how “Freud and Picasso can hone in on your womanly being/And render you two-dimensional, in an essay or a canvas painting.” And followed with an irresistibly bouncy version of That Corpse, the song’s grisly imagery juxtaposed with the occasional, blithely chirpy “woo” – which poses the question of whether the song is the least bit serious, or if it’s even more twisted than it seems before the chorus kicks in.

Russo’s resolute “no one can touch me now” snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, as the catchy, crescendoing outro to Invisible – arguably the most potent track on the new album – wound out. It’s a frequent theme in her writing, transcending what might seem to be a hopeless situation and winding up newly empowered. She also did a couple of bittersweet, more recent tunes as well as Hurt Me Now (another Fragile Animal track), her calm, casual delivery underscoring its wounded, betrayed sensibility.

It was also good to catch the tail end of Russo’s former lead guitarist Lenny Molotov’s virtuosically bluesy set with harpist Jake Engel and bassist J.D. Wood, including a couple of sophisticated, jazz-tinged numbers about boxing (notably the brisk, shuffling Watch Out Bomber), an impressively low-key Robert Johnson number, and the quietly gorgeous Ill Moon, a wry, symbolically-charged commentary on insomnia.

Walter Ego in Williamsburg

As busking territory goes, real estate doesn’t get any more prime than the L train platform at Bedford Avenue: sometimes there’s more than one act playing there. You can tell who got there first by who’s playing closest to the Bedford Avenue exit. Last night, a little after 8, there was an enjoyably energetic blues duo – guitar and banjo – who never told the crowd who they were, but might call themselves Up We Go – playing boisterous versions of stuff like St. James Infirmary and Fool’s Paradise. They cut out at about half past the hour, right around when Walter Ego showed up.

Now there’s two kinds of buskers. Some of them are really good, because they’re always playing. The other kind – memorably chronicled by Robin Aigner in her classic The Mediocre Busker – simply won’t grow anymore, and probably shouldn’t be doing this.

Walter Ego is the the first kind. Some things he’ll tell you:

1) He wasn’t the first Walter Ego (the first was a ventriloquist’s dummy), but he is the first human one (there are several others, most recently a goth songwriter from New Brunswick with a Dostoyevsky fixation).

2) His club gigs are theatrical, with props and lots of audience participation, something that translates to his busking. Most recently, a handful of kids on the subway hired him to make up a song on the spot, using their lyrics: apparently it was a success.

3) He was a mainstay of the Banjo Jim’s scene; with that club tragically having bitten the dust, he and several others who called that place home have moved a little further west, to Otto’s Shrunken Head.

His songs are funny, and full of puns. It was nasty and muggy outside, and just as nasty down in the subway, but he fought off the heat, shifting around restlessly, projecting with more of an uneasy rasp than he typically would than if he didn’t have to sing and play his guitar over the trains’ rumble and squealing brakes. The catchiest and most tongue-in-cheek song he played was a bouncy, bluesy pop song called Don’t Take Advice from Me. Another darkly comedic one was a country song, The Magician, told from the point of view of a killjoy, “a magician who makes magic disappear.” The two darkest ones were I Am the Glass, and another possibly called Down the Hole, both instances where he took a metaphor and stretched it to its logical, cruel extreme. Some of his songs, like The Immorality Detection Machine, and Two Kinds of People, have a political edge, but in a general rather than specific way (you can picture your least favorite rightwing nut in either of these and they’ll make perfect sense). By half past nine, there were fewer trains and consequently fewer refreshing blasts of air from the Brooklyn-bound side, so it was time to call it a night. Walter Ego has some dates coming up at Otto’s; watch this space.

Patti Rothberg Entertains the West Village

If you watch old music videos, there’s usually eventually a point in the guitar solo where whoever’s playing it leans back, pelvis thrust out, scrunching up his or her face with a comically fake intensity. Last night at the Bitter End, Patti Rothberg didn’t do that. Instead, as she brought one fast, slithery solo over the top, she turned to bassist David Leatherwood and smiled. It wasn’t a smirk, just a cheery “are you having as much fun as I am up here” look. He grinned back, obviously on the same page. It pretty much summed up what Rothberg and her power trio Wet Paint are all about: they’re peas in the same pod. They were tight beyond belief, just what you’d expect from road warriors who do the occasional small club show in between gigs opening for Blondie or the B-52s. Drummer Mark Greenberg is one of those rare four-on-the-floor rock guys who also swings; Leatherwood hung back with a steady pulse, but on the few occasions where there was a bit of a lull, he’d take a judicious prowl up the scale, bending and circling around before bringing back the groove.

Tantalizingly, Rothberg played a grand total of three solos all night, but she made them count, particularly one series of savagely growling, Mick Ronson-inspired runs in Dish It Out, the double entendre-driven Ramones/Stones hybrid from her 2002 album Candelabra Cadabra. They swung their way through Inside, a 1996 top 40 hit that pays tribute to the joys of staying in for the night, as well as a pensive version of Hurt Me, the nonchalantly scorching Double Standards and the triumphantly swaying kiss-off ballad Perfect Stranger. Throughout the set, there were echoes of Bowie, and Elvis Costello in the occasionally blazing riff or direct, snappy chord change, but all put together with an individual flair. As a singer, Rothberg is feminine but not girly, her coyly, subtly blues-tinged delivery a good match for her clever, sarcastic lyrics. As usual, there were places where she’d break into a little smile, as if in on some inside joke.

The band closed the set with the ominously growling garage rock hit Treat Me Like Dirt (which went to #1 in Europe in 1997). “Back in the 90s they tried to pigeonhole me as an ‘angry young woman,’ when I was really Tongue. In. Cheek,” she gestured broadly. “They didn’t get it. Just so you understand, if somebody treats you like dirt, vaccuum it up. Go far away from it! We can talk about this after the show when everybody’s good and drunk.” They encored with a pretty hilarious new song, sort of a rocking Irish ballad where a woman finally joins the ranks of the sluts. From the lyrics that Rothberg handed out to the crowd so that everybody could sing along, that seems pretty much like an inevitability, in this case where a “mercy fuck” leads to an obsession with a guy who demystifies every conceivable notion of romance. The lyrics are a lot funnier than that, but it would be a spoiler to give them away. This was the first time the band had played it: from the crowd’s reaction, they’ll be doing it again.

Charlene Kaye Rules the Rockwood

Last night Charlene Kaye played a fun, fascinating set of catchy, eclectic powerpop at the Rockwood. She’s got a classic pop sensibility, but with an edge. Playing a beautiful black-and-white Les Paul and backed only by drums, she made her notes count and sang in a cool, thoughtful voice that mirrored the thoughtfulness of her lyrics, occasionally soaring up to unexpected heights. The Les Paul is a new acquisition: she bought it since she’d just joined an all-female Guns & Roses cover band called Guns & Hoses (don’t bother googling unless you’re looking for a Port Authority cop blog or an Indiana cover band made up of cops and firefighters). And don’t hold it against her – her own songs don’t sound the slightest bit corporate.

Kaye plays with effortless intelligence and agility, moving all over the fretboard. She started the set using crunchy distortion. A little later, she switched to an unorthodox tuning for some neatly reverberating, overtone-laden, jangly chords and fills, eventually bringing back the crunch. One of the best songs of the set came early, a stomping boogie with jazzy vocals and a wailing, crescendoing bridge that jumped out of nowhere. The shuffling tune after that sounded like a ballsier version of Heart of Glass. She went back to a torchy vibe for a long, pensive waltz that had the feel of a Patsy Cline classic, and then another gorgeous, jazz-tinged number where she let the lyrics tumble out with a restrained Chrissie Hynde soulfulness before cutting loose when the drums kicked in with her crashing chords. The upbeat, ridiculously catchy pop hit that followed had a fun, wordless singalong that sounded like Men at Work with a Ph. D. Toward the end of the show, she brought out some intriguing new material from a forthcoming album, including the smoldering, unpredictable Animal Love and then its far more gentle follow-up, Animal Love Pt. 2 as an encore. Between songs, the room was silent: if there’s any need for proof that there’s a mass audience for accessible, attractive rock that’s not stupid, Kaye is it.

Deep Noir at the Delancey

A lot of what And the Wiremen play is southwestern gothic, all eerie desert atmospherics and images of death and disillusion, but they put their own spin on the style, sometimes minimalist, sometimes thrashing it a little. They’re sort of a darker, more raw, masculine counterpart to Las Rubias del Norte. Last night’s show at Small Beast at the Delancey was their nocturne set, just bandleader Lynn Wright on guitar and vocals plus upright bass and trumpet. A brooding bolero set the tone for the night with reverb-heavy guitar plus trumpet snaking its way ominously into the mix. Wright took a short solo that was like an attack with a dull knife, guaranteed to make things ugly, and it fit perfectly against the stately angst of the tune.

The next tune had a slinky, creepy bluesy bounce. “I pick myself up slowly so I can fall back down and crawl again,” Wright sang while the trumpet flickered around the edges. He ended it a-cappella: “If I leave, no one else is coming,” like Tom Waits without the cliches. They brought a hypnotic, quietly imploring ambience with the next tune, Wright’s single ringing, noir chord setting off an apprehensive trumpet solo sailing over a simple, repetitive indie rock riff. The rest of the set mixed oldtime blues with minor-key border ballad menace, Telecaster echoing into the chill of the night. One of the reasons why the songs work so well is because of how Wright sings them. He doesn’t Tom Waits them, or Pearl Jam them. He’s just himself, with a midrangey voice that’s unselfconscious and often plaintive, that sometimes reaches toward an anguished wail but doesn’t quite get there. Honest artistry, plain and simple.

The next act, the Reid Paley Trio waited patiently for the house music to come down, and then Paley decided to take charge, turning his guitar amp up all the way until the murky roar drowned it out. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” Paley announced with a cruel grin. Silence. “You’re easily intimidated,” he said coldly, and he was right: much of the audience tiptoed out a couple of songs later. Paley doesn’t suffer fools gladly – for that matter, he doesn’t seem to suffer anything gladly. This is a guy who’s used to playing to much bigger and more responsive crowds – how was he going to handle this shrinking Monday night gathering? Was he going to tune down the intensity? Nope. Baiting and taunting those who remained, he left no question that as long as he was onstage, he was in charge, brutally charismatic and as usual, pretty hilarious. As he lit into the twisted gypsy-rock swing of the first song, Yr Polish Uncle, he was a live wire, twitching and half-spinning as he sang: ““I swear on the back of my forty-third abortion, I see your devil peering round the door.”

The question with Paley is how much of this is shtick – it could be all shtick – and how much is the real thing, something that’s never certain and for that reason it might make sense to keep a safe distance. The crowd tittered nervously as he tried to engage them. At the very end of the sarcastically swaying, ghoulabilly-tinged Everything’s Going Wrong, right before the final, sardonic “but that’s ok” of the last chorus, Paley stopped the song cold. And then looked around. “I like this,” he said, after about twenty seconds of silence – and then stood there. Nobody knew how to react, or really wanted to. “How many people here are not bored?” Paley asked. Again, silence. “OK, I’ll have to send you all a fruit basket,” he snarled. When the pregnant pause had finally grown to the point where the audience’s water was about to burst, he ripped into it and took it out with a sarcastic flourish.

Later on he told a brief anecdote about getting stoned with Sun Ra. “I see the fourth dimension,” he related nonchalantly – and who knows? The rest of the songs reached back to a blackly amusing, blues-infused ambience: a surprisingly gorgeous 6/8 ballad floating along on Paley’s richly sustained chords, a couple of assaultive Tom Waits-ish numbers and the surreal, drunken swing of Stay Awhile, which closed out the set. “Gimme another fucking goddamn drink, stay awhile,” Paley grumbled. As the song wound up, the question was how nuts Paley would go to end it and while he didn’t break his guitar – you don’t break beautiful vintage1950s hollow-body models – he did torture it with a maniacal blast of tremolo-picking. It was the most intense moment in a night full of many. Paley has a new collaboration with Frank Black – who’s covered several of Paley’s songs – due out a little later this fall.